Journey from being a software engineer to an activist for helping unorganized workers

By Imran Khan*

Mr. Ashish Ranjan Jha was born in Motipur in North Bihar. His upbringing has been in Patna, and since childhood, he has seen his surroundings covered under poverty. Being a sensitive human being, he was triggered by the petrified scenario and always wanted to be a part of the change to help his people and eradicate the atrocities faced by the poor. Upon completing his engineering, he worked as a software engineer for several years, but he was deeply concerned about his people. He felt that skills and social capital earned through education could be more beneficial to work for the most marginalized section of society. Instead of making profits for the corporates, he wanted to work with the suffering people of Bihar and stand with them during difficult times.

The unorganized sector workers

Unorganized sector workers in India make up approximately 93% of the country’s total workforce. The Unorganized sector workers in India are confronted with severe problems and job uncertainty. Over the years, the unorganized industry has gained traction. In all official documents and analyzes, the word ‘unorganized industry’ is widely used in India. Changes in trade and technology, combined with increased links across the world, have posed a threat to worker income and are especially in developing countries as the unorganized sector is rapidly expanding because of poor quality employment and changes in trade and technology.

Compared to the organized sector, this sector has always been deprived of benefits and rights. Many of the workers have become unseen victims. The difficulty begins with the unorganized industry itself being identified or defined. It is not possible to define the sector by one or primary criteria. Although this sector plays a crucial role in the economy in terms of employment, a significant workforce segment is still neglected.

Transformation into an activist

In order to help the unorganized sector workers of Bihar, Ashish started the Union in 2008 as a part-time activist and became a full-time worker by 2014. In the initial days, he and a team conducted a survey on rural areas to design the effective implementation of NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2015) in 6 different Hindi-speaking states. He spent most of his time in Araria, Bihar, and realized the problems faced by workers. It included low awareness about the schemes and rights provided to them. For workers, it was challenging to get entitlement being an unorganized lot of misappropriation of funds.

When the team appeared to the local authority with the survey result, the authority praised their involvement but asked them regarding further steps to encounter the ongoing problems. The team was ready to invest time and energy for the cause, and they started a campaign named Jag Jagaran Abhiyaan. After a couple of years, they felt that it is long-term work and organizing people for their betterment was necessary, so they formed a union in 2011 (Union of unorganized workers).

NREGA is supposed to be a demand-driven system, but the state has never allowed that sort of implementation. It has always been a supply-driven system for the convenience of local implementation authorities. Each application for work and allowance was seen as a challenge by the local authority, and there was a lot of resistance to accepting demand applications. The Union used large sittings at the block office to even get one application received (2008). Sometimes it was difficult to break up local authorities, so they went to higher ups and got support at times. It is difficult to get support from the system for such work, and the bureaucracy is not tuned to provide ‘work as a right.’

For several years the state did not provide the unemployment allowances to the workers, and the Union had to move to the CM with stats and 800 applications to grant the allowances. The then CM looked at the organization as a corruption program, but later on, the Union successfully achieved the pending allowances for the workers. There has been a mixed response from the government to the work of Union in achieving work and allowances for the workers of Bihar.

NREGA, a center-driven program, has not been seen as an effective program by the CM as he was not a part of the then UPA government. Due to this political angle, the budget has been limited, and the scheme is 90% funded by the center. Most of the schemes run in Bihar are poorly implemented when compared to states like Maharashtra and Kerala. The budget has always been way less than what is required for meeting the allowances of workers. Bihar has lacked in industrial development and has near about 86-87% rural area. Therefore, workers migrate to different states for better wages and more work. Workers from Bihar can be found all across India due to the difference in the development of the states. Workers face atrocities from police, locals, and even caste-based discrimination during migration to other states.

Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan

Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan is a union of unorganized sector workers and is active in the North part of Bihar. It is a step to organize the sector and help them avail benefits of schemes and eliminate any atrocity faced by workers. There are 15000 members in the Union, and it is focused on providing rights to the workers. It makes sure that most of the workers receive 100 days of working as per the NAREGA scheme. The Union has a democratic setup, and people are elected to the Organisation’s decision-making posts. Their presence s in several villages and a group of 100 members in a particular village is called a unit which a 5 to 7 member committee further administers. The organization receives funding from membership fees, philanthropists, and also locals as a donation to meet the expenses.

A vast majority of employees in the country are from the unorganized sector, including the agricultural sector and construction. Unorganized workers function without sufficient benefits in extreme conditions. It is important to receive economic and social growth, security, and support for the unorganized sector workers. Government laws to protect these workers should be enforced strictly, and those who misuse them should be harshly punished for real growth. It’s a significant step from the Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan for improving the situation in the rural area of Bihar. The government and the local authority must look forward to work with them for the greater good of the workers.

*PGP 2020-22, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. Based on interaction with Ashish Ranjan Jha

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