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Saturday Interview | ‘Covid exposed India’s inequality’

Since 1990, he has been a full-time MKSS activist and a member of the organisation’s decision-making collective.

Rakesh Kumar | New Delhi |

NIKHIL DEY is one of the founding members of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). Since 1990, he has been a full-time MKSS activist and a member of the organisation’s decision-making collective. A leading social activist, Dey has always been involved in grassroots struggles for land and payment of minimum wages.

He has also been part of the organisation’s involvement in some groundbreaking campaigns such as people’s Right to Information and Right to Work leading to landmark legislations like the RTI Act and the MGNREGA. In an interview with RAKESH KUMAR, Dey spoke on a range of vital issues concerning the people, especially the underprivileged, marginalised, and voiceless sections.


Q. Farmers have been protesting on the roads against the Centre’s three farm laws for months.What is your assessment of this stand-off between farmers and the central government?

A. India cannot afford to increase farmers’ distress any more. The agriculture sector employs a majority of people, and feeds the country with the least return on investment. Reform cannot mean profit for traders at the cost of the producers. When the very people who are supposed to benefit from something condemn the measure, the reform programme should go back to the drawing board.

Months of warning from affected farmers were not heard in Delhi. The laws were bulldozed through Parliament without being discussed in a Select Committee. And public consultation was not even considered. The government has used every tactic to break the spirit of the protesters, including charging them with anti-terror laws. But their unlimited resilience braves new heights with each passing day.

The protests have continued to be disciplined and peaceful. If the government still does not accede, there will be a heavy price to pay for this everwidening chasm between the central government and the farmers of India.

Q. The continuing Covid pandemic has devastated the lives of millions of people — especially the poor, marginalised and vulnerable people and migrant workers — many of whom have been without any employment.What must be done to address their abysmal plight?

A. Covid-19 has been called the “inequality virus” in the Oxfam International Report on Inequality 2020-21. In fact, Covid-19 did not just affect everyone negatively, but exposed and enhanced the depth of inherent institutional inequality that exists in India. A lockdown announced with four hours notice was a clear indication that the rulers do not care about the concerns of the majority of poor workers.

Unorganised workers lost their jobs and accommodation in millions. Most government employees, the Supreme Court, the corporate sector, and all of “middle-class India” “worked from home”, stocked up at home, ate at home, and increased their wealth while the vast majority of others, ate less, slept less, and searched desperately for work back in their villages they had left to seek work.

It was the rights-based laws, most notable amongst them being the MGNREGA and the National Food Security Act that saved millions of people from starvation and death. Tragically, as the pandemic rears its head in its second wave, both laws have faced budgetary cuts as high as 30 per cent. Inequality in India has to be addressed to fight poverty, and Covid, and many other inherent ills.

Q. How effective do you think the central government’s proposed ‘One Nation One Ration Card’would be in tackling hunger and starvation in the country?

A. ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ (ONORC) is a mirage. The ONORC can only succeed if there is a universal PDS where every Indian citizen has an equal entitlement and can assert their right in any state at any time. Today, only 67 per cent of the Indian population has the right to get PDS food grain at subsidised rates.

The quotas for and schemes of different states vary and the selection process is complex, arbitrary and flawed. The only measure the government has used is the mandatory imposition of Aadhaar first for every ration card and now for every individual. In fact, the use of Aadhaar has led to many more exclusions than the potential beneficiaries drawing their rations away from home.

Ration dealers, who receive a fixed quota as per the cards in their area are unwilling to serve others, because food grain would fall short for their own primary clients. Making this work across state boundaries is almost impossible.

Q. What is your take on the current implementation of MGNREGA in the country? Did it adequately address the crisis thrown up by the Covid pandemic and what more needs to be done to improve this vital livelihood guarantee law?

A. MGNREGA has been a lifeline for the rural poor and returning migrant workers. The enhanced allocation of Rs 40,000 crores for MGNREGA in 2020-21 helped ensure that more than 11 crore families accessed work. A record number of new job cards were made, and a record number of both men and women came to work.

Had the MGNREGA law been made truly demand-based with enhanced number of days, and been combined with an urban employment guarantee scheme, India might really have created a foundation for recovery. Instead, we have a cut of 30 per cent in the budget from 1 lakh crore to 70 thousand crore in FY21-22.

Q. The RTI Act completed 15 years of its existence in 2020.How would you assess the transparency situation and the state of the RTI regime in the country now?

A. Transparency and the RTI framework so laboriously built up over the last two decades are being seriously undermined. After many failed attempts by different governments to amend the law, a very powerful executive has finally succeeded in undermining the independence and authority of the highest body protecting and implementing the transparency regime — central and state information commissions.

The amendments pushed through Parliament in 2019 have made the central government the deciding authority on terms and conditions of appointment etc. of both the central and state information commissions, making this independent statutory authority subservient to the executive. But the RTI law is not the only measure of transparency that the government has sought to undermine.

The amendments that enabled electoral bonds with anonymity of the donor and the receiver, has fundamentally compromised the independence of the electoral process, making democracy itself subject to deliberately concealed, corporate and financial influence.

Q. What are the challenges that people’s organisations or the voluntary sector are currently facing in the country?

A. Any voluntary sector organisation or people’s organisations that might be even mildly critical of the government or its decisions, faces a crisis of pressure and persecution. The formal registered organisations, who have performed a range of roles from welfare and relief to awareness building and education, find themselves curbed and harassed by a series of unreasonable restrictions brought about through amendments in the FCRA.

Ironically, political parties’ access to corporate foreign funds has been liberalised without any concern for its political implications. The strong tradition of creative social action, and struggle, which began during the national movement and was nurtured by people like Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan and countless others, has been labelled anti-national, and a series of draconian laws have been used to threaten anyone who is critical of the government.

To create an ‘example’, dedicated and committed activists have been thrown into jail. It is not just the voluntary sector and people’s organisations who are being undermined but Indian democracy, and India stands to lose.