By Antra Verma*
Born in Motipur town in Bihar and raised in Patna, Ashish was successfully pursuing his career as a software engineer abroad. His inner call and inspiration from his father drove him towards strengthening the community’s social capital. While working on his official project, he captured the plight of unorganized sector workers and how there is a tremendous gap between the welfare schemes being enacted and their ground-level implementations. Touched by the prevailing poverty, Ashish founded Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan in Bihar. What started as a part-time campaign in 2008 turned into a full-time dedication by 2014.
Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan – JJSS (formerly known as Jan Jagaran Abhiyaan) is a registered trade union of unorganized workers functioning in Northern Bihar. This society mobilizes the unorganized workers and helps them demand better services and entitlements as rolled out by the legislation. Earlier it was supporting the poor to get full 100 days of work under MGNREGA. Later, Ashish extended his work for women empowerment, handling domestic violence, caste-based atrocities in society, and workers’ demand in both organized and unorganized sectors.
NREGA, by principles, was supposed to be a demand-driven system, but in Bihar, it has been implemented as a supply-driven process. Bihar government opens vacancies not as per demand from the workers, instead as per the convenience of the local legislation. There has been resistance to accept the demand applications. Ashish, with his team, started conducting large seating to get these applications accepted. When asked about the support from the government, he shared how support from the government varied at different levels. There were instances when the team got help from the Chief Minister, but there were hard times to convince the local bodies. It was sad to see that the government failed to provide the promised 100 days of work to the poor. Not only that, but the poor did also not get the unemployment allowances which they were entitled for. The Central government majorly funds the NREGA scheme; it is just because of the poor implementation by the State government, the marginalized segment is not getting benefitted to the full extent.
Being a landlocked state and absence of industries, Bihar is inherently disadvantaged in accommodating work for the poor. This is one of the reasons we have Bihari workers across India. These reasons put additional responsibility on the government to push hard for the welfare of its workers. Demanding the entitlements laid out by the government is often seemed a radical approach. Talking about the challenges, Ashish had faced many situations when his organization was accused of being a leftist organization. But amidst these challenges, the organization has got support from the people they are working for.
To answer the plea of this ignored segment, Ashish has been leading this change with a team of 1500 members, most of whom work as a volunteer. Local fundraising, money raised through committee membership fees (Rs 50 per volunteer), and individual donations have helped sustain the cause and support the workers.
Expressing about a heart-touching moment, Ashish shared an instance from the 2010 survey, when Mohammad Ayu complained about the limitations of their social audit. Later, when he became a part of the committee, he stayed with the organization for ten years and is leading the committee today. The same is true for many local women like Radha Devi, who got associated at the young age of 16 seeking assistance and today they are leading the change and helping other women of the society. This community transformation and continuous support from his family motivate Ashish to work harder for the cause.
COVID pandemic has starkly exposed the ever-ignored segment of unorganized workers. There were horrifying stories, how millions of workers lost their jobs and lives during the pandemic. Asish along with his team had played a significant role in helping these stranded workers by providing them rations and other essential amenities. We hope the government has learnt from the pandemic experience, and we see many other Ashishs stand for these voiceless people.
*IIM Bangalore, PGP 2020-22