By Amit Ashish*
Ashish Ranjan is a social activist working out of the Araria district of Bihar. He works with Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan (JJSS) for the social welfare of rural workers in Northern Bihar. From living a luxurious life in the USA to becoming a social leader in grassroots activism in Bihar, Ashish motivates the privileged to work for the marginalized section of society. Let us look at his extraordinary journey from the USA to the small town of Araria.
Ashish was born in Motipur, a small village on the foothills of Nepal. He did his schooling in Patna before completing electrical engineering from IIT, Kanpur, in 1999. He then worked with Cognizant Technology Solutions in Kolkata for nine months before going to the USA to pursue his master’s degree in computer science engineering from Florida International University in Miami. He worked with GE Healthcare, USA, for almost four years before quitting his job and returning to India in 2006. Ashish used to visit his native village of Motipur during school holidays. He used to see the stark poverty spread in the area. His family members also had a socialist attitude and were involved with social activities in the area. Ashish was also motivated to contribute to the betterment of the poor and underprivileged from an early age. While he was living in the USA, Ashish took part in AntiIraq war protests. He was also an active member of The Association for India’s Development (AID), a charity organization that promotes sustainable, equitable, and just development in India.
After coming back to India in 2006, Ashish finally got a chance to participate in social movements. He spent the next six months visiting different parts of India and participating in various social movements across India. He first went to Rajasthan and worked with Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). He was amazed to see the effectiveness of RTI and social audits in ensuring the proper implementation of social schemes like MNREGA at the grass-root level. He then worked with Medha Patkar for Narmada Bachao Andolan for one month. Shunglu committee, set up by the central government, had submitted a report on rehabilitation and resettlement of people affected by construction of Sardar Sarovar Dam on Narmada River. Ashish surveyed Nimad and compiled a report pointing out the discrepancies in Shunglu Panel’s report. While working with Medha Patkar, he was deeply influenced by her Gandhian philosophy. Ashish came to Bihar and worked with organizations like Bihar Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS) and Pragati Grameen Vikas Samiti (PGVS).
After his first stint of 6 months at social activism, Ashish found out that the life of a social activist is full of physical and mental hardships. His family also wanted him not to pursue social activism. Thus, Ashish again joined GE Healthcare, Bangalore, in August 2006, thinking that he is not suitable for social activism. However, still, there was a flame of social activism burning inside his heart. Ashish finally quit his job at GE after working there for one and a half years. He and his wife, Kamayani Swami, carried out an MNREGA survey in Araria and Kaimur under famous economist Jean Dreze. The survey highlighted the anomalies present in the implementation of the MNREGA scheme. Though the locals liked their work, they wanted Ashish and Kamayani to work for the better implementation of MNREGA. Hence, Kamayani started living in Araria and worked for the poor and the underprivileged at the grass-root level. Ashish began looking for a job that gave him enough free time to pursue social work parallelly with his career. He thus chose the position of an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, BIT, Ranchi, in August 2008. He later took a transfer to Patna center of the college. While a professor, he carried out social activities with college students under National Social Scheme (NSS). He motivated students to work for the welfare of society. On weekends, he used to travel to Araria and support Kamayani in social activism. Ashish started organizing social audits on a large scale to uncover corruption prevalent in MNREGA, Anganwadi, and Government Pension schemes. The social audits became very successful in shedding light on the misappropriation of government funds. On one occasion, a social audit led to the dismissal of around 85 corrupt Anganwadi sevikas.
On 1st May 2011, Ashish and Kamayani, along with other founding members, formed Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan (JJSS) (formerly Jan Jagaran Abhiyaan), a registered trade union of unorganized sector workers. The mission of this group is to ensure social justice for the poorest and the weakest who are denied access to social welfare schemes. The group had initially 1000 workers registered with it. Today, JJSS is working across four districts of Araria, Katihar, Saharsa, and Kishanganj in North Bihar, with more than 15000 workers registered with it. Most of the workers are landless laborers belonging to the Dalit caste. Females comprise 50% of the workers registered. Ashish and JJSS strive to provide marginalized communities with employment under MNREGA, food under PDS, and access to government health facilities. They also have taken part in national-level campaigns like the Anti-NRC movement and the ongoing Farmers’ Movement organized by Sanyukt Kisan Morcha.
Ashish Ranjan has dedicated his life to fight against caste, gender, and class atrocities prevalent in Bihar. This journey of an IITian from the USA to Araria will continue to inspire people to do social work to better the lives of the poor in India. Ashish wants the youth to participate in social activism and follow Gandhiji’s Talisman while always standing with the poor, weak, and marginalized.
*IIM Bangalore, PGP 2020-22