A unique experiment

Published : Dec 05, 2003 00:00 IST

At the Pushkar fair, in November this year. - KAMAL KISHORE/REUTERS

At the Pushkar fair, in November this year. - KAMAL KISHORE/REUTERS

The MKSS in Rajasthan comes up with a novel campaign at the Pushkar fair to increase people's interest in elections and in the functioning of their elected representatives.

LEGEND has it that Brahma performed a sacrifice at a lake in Pushkar (in Rajasthan). The sacrifice required that both Brahma and his consort Sarasvati be present at the ceremony throughout the day. As Sarasvati was late for the ritual, Brahma kidnapped a local Gujjar girl who was grazing cattle, to attend the function in her place. Sarasvati, incensed by the turn of events, cursed the girl that her tribe would be destroyed. When the girl pointed out that it was not her fault, Sarasvati asked her to stay with her and serve her. After many years, Sarasvati, happy with the girl, ordained that whoever came to Puskhar to worship her and bathed in the lake would go to heaven.

Thousands of people from all over India immerse themselves in the lake on Kartik Purnima, the full moon night, to wash away their sins. The annual Pushkar fair, held on the outskirts of the town simultaneously with this ritual, has become a major event, attracting a large number of devotees, artisans and tourists. The cattle and camel fair and the cultural programmes organised by the Rajasthan Tourism Department are all part of Pushkar fair.

The fair has a special section for development-oriented issues. Although most of the stalls this year distributed pamphlets and information brochures, there was one that was different and attracted large crowds. The `Election Watch' camp, organised by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS), near the mela grounds, became a political space within a mostly commercialised fair. The aim of the stall was to raise certain crucial issues ahead of the upcoming Assembly elections in Rajasthan while reaching out to a large cross-section of people, many of whom came from villages all over the State.

Through puppet shows and plays, MKSS activists brought up issues that could be taken up by people at the local level. The crowd listens in rapt attention. People begin to shake their heads in agreement when the activists talk about making their representatives in the legislature accountable. Some of the issues the MKSS brought up included the monitoring of the expenses of candidates during their election campaigns and the checking of misuse of Central and State government resources for campaigns. Surveys conducted by organisations engaged in campaigns for electoral reform, such as the Lok Satta in Andhra Pradesh and the Association for Democratic reform in Ahmedabad (Gujarat), have estimated that incorrect entries in electoral rolls to be as high as between 30 and 40 per cent in urban areas and 15 and 20 per cent in rural areas.

The campaign initiated by the MKSS was later taken up by the National Campaign for People's Right to Information and this culminated in the enactment of the Right to Information Act in Rajasthan in 2000. But there are many practical problems in the implementation of the Act.

Labourers now have a right to examine for themselves panchayat records, muster rolls and project expenditures; this gives them a chance to expose corruption at the village level. One of the proposals made by citizens' groups in Rajasthan has been the use of the services of the ward sabhas and gram sabhas to have electoral rolls read out in public and the entries corrected. In a State like Rajasthan where the literacy rate is low, this procedure is important. There are 100,000 wards across Rajasthan and the idea is to make voter lists and forms available in each of them.

The plays at the fair focussed on one of the main demands of the MKSS - the implementation of the Rajasthan Employment Guarantee Act. The right to work assumes significance in a State like Rajasthan which often faces drought, forcing people to migrate to other States.

The law, if enacted, will entitle any person who does not get work within 15 days of applying for it to receive an unemployment allowance from the government at a rate not lower than one-fourth of the statutory minimum wage. The MKSS, along with members of the Right to Information Campaign, had prepared a draft Employment Guarantee Act for Rajasthan based on a similar law in force in Maharashtra which was enacted in 1977 after a drought in that State.

The stall at Pushkar was the precursor to a larger campaign that the MKSS is conducting in Ajmer, Pali, Bhilwara and Rajsamand districts. The campaign will head from village to village, holding plays and conducting puppet shows, approaching houses individually to spread the message.

Says Nikhil Dey of the MKSS: "All election watch campaigns begin with ensuring the right to vote. They also emphasise that this is only the first step in encouraging the active participation of the citizen in the whole electoral process. The apathy towards the electoral process is one of the biggest threats the democratic process can face. Incorrect electoral rolls will ensure both cynicism and apathy."

Adds De: "While it is the duty of the administrative machinery to carry out such a massive exercise, it is the duty of citizens' groups to ensure a transparent and participatory process. Election watch groups, as well as the Election Commission will have to ensure that this is improved and acted upon, for without the right to vote, other electoral reforms will always seem like window-dressing."

This experiment of a grassroots organisation using a social space like the Pushkar mela to spread a political message at a crucial time before the Assembly elections is unique.

Says Shankar Singh of the MKSS: "People at Pushkar showed a lot of interest and stayed on for the discussions that followed the play. We aim to be back next year as it is an excellent opportunity to reach out to all kinds of people."

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