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HomeIndiaEconomist Jean Dreze is campaigning for this electrician-turned-activist contesting Bihar poll

Economist Jean Dreze is campaigning for this electrician-turned-activist contesting Bihar poll

Activist Sanjay Sahni from Bihar's Ratnauli village has been working towards ensuring employment to MNREGA workers.

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Kurhani, Muzaffarpur/New Delhi: For the last 10 days, noted economist and member of the National Advisory Council (NAC) during the UPA regime, Jean Dreze is in Bihar’s Ratnauli to campaign for Sanjay Sahni – an electrician-turned-MNREGA activist who is contesting the assembly elections from Muzaffarpur district.

Besides Dreze, a team of students and volunteers is also campaigning for Sahni, who is contesting as an Independent.

From electrician to MNREGA activist

Forced to drop out of school in Class 7, Sahni said he taught himself how to become an electrician. He subsequently moved to Delhi to work in order to support his family financially.

During a visit to his village in Bihar in 2011, Sahni learnt about MNREGA from the locals who told him about alleged irregularities in the government’s rural job guarantee scheme.

Upon his return to Delhi, Sahni visited a cyber cafe in the national capital, and searched for details on his village Ratnauli and ‘Bihar MNREGA’.

“I had heard that if you type anything on Google, you would find answers. During a visit to my village, people told me about alleged corruption in MNREGA. So I tried to find more about it on the internet,” Sahni said.

Sahni said he soon returned to his village and became a MNREGA activist, raising the issue of misuse of payment and enrolment in the scheme.

He said he decided to raise his voice against irregularities in MNRGEA after locals asked him why no one from their village has ever challenged candidates of political parties who never come to help them in times of need.

“Like many others, even I was a migrant worker in Delhi. I have studied only till class 7. When I came to my village after learning about MNREGA, I started to assist people in getting work under the scheme. Initially, 200 people got jobs. Now we are working in 400 villages to ensure people get employment under MNREGA,” Sahni said.

“During lockdown, I contacted 36,000 migrant workers who were stranded in Delhi and Punjab, and ensured help reached them. They are still in touch with me. In the last eight years, I have facilitated 1,15,000 women labourers to get employment under MNREGA, of which 36,000 are from my village.”

However, the transition from an electrician to an activist was not easy. “Local politicians got wind of this and landed at my house. They told villagers that Sanjay Sahni is a ‘farzi (fake)’ and began instigating people against me,” said Sahni, adding that 10-15 villagers even filed a complaint against him for “trying to dupe them”.

In 2013, Sahni established his organisation — Samaj Parivartan Shakti Sangathan — in Muzaffarpur’s Kurbani block. The organisation works towards ensuring employment to MNREGA workers.

Though his campaign is led by mostly women labourers who have been closely associated with him during these years, many student volunteers have also come to assist him.

Also read: Migrants who made 1,400 km lockdown journey from Gurgaon to Bihar say their vote is for Modi

‘Sahni has awakened consciousness of people’

Economist and activist Jean Dreze, one of the architects of MNREGA and key contributors to the RTI Act, has been actively campaigning for Sahni since the last 10 days.

Dreze can be seen at Sahni’s election office in Ratnauli village, analysing data and welcoming guests. The economist-activist also accompanies Sahni to his election rallies.

On being asked why he came to Bihar for campaigning, Dreze said he has worked with Sahni on MNREGA and when he heard that the latter is fighting elections, he decided to come here to assist him.

“He (Sahni) is not only a MNREGA activist, but he is raising the issue of corruption, health, women issues, etc. He has no money, but people are contributing to assist him. This is the victory of democracy. Whether he wins or loses, he has awakened the consciousness of people, it’s a big victory. This is the reason I have come here to assist him,” Dreze said.

Independent candidate Sanjay Sahni during an election campaign in Bihar | Praveen Jain | The Print
Independent candidate Sanjay Sahni during an election campaign in Ratnauli village in Bihar | Praveen Jain | The Print

Student volunteers

Dreze is not the only one campaigning for Sahni. Several volunteers and students from other cities and universities are there too.

Ankita Aggrawal, a student at the New York University, has come from Delhi to assist Dreze.

“It’s a people’s movement, they are leading the campaign of Sahni. We are contributing in some way. I wanted to be a part of a movement which is led by women, so I packed bags and came here to make a change,” said Anikta.

Another volunteer, Chirag, a Graduate in Developmental Politics from London, who works in Ranchi, said: “He (Sahni) says when you choose to bring a change in the society, you have to first change yourself. I am working in Jharkhand and Sahniji is working in Bihar. We know his work, so even we thought of working to bring a change at our own place.”

Shailja Tandon, who works at the Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities in Delhi, said: “I want to be part of the transformation which is happening in this Bihar village. It is a crusade against systematic politics. That’s why I came here to be a small part of the movement.”

Every day, Dreze, with students and volunteers like Chirag, Ankita and Shailja, travels to different villages with Sahni and several women labourers.

“He (Sahni) has helped us in getting jobs under MNREGA. This is the time to pay back. Hum log ke pass aur kuch nahi hai, lekin hum saath tho dey sakte hain (We have nothing to offer him, but at least we can stand with him),” said 60-year-old Kunti Devi, who is canvassing for Sahni.

“Unlike other politicians, including sitting MLA Kedar Gupta of the BJP, Sanjay ji has a very good field presence,” Anil Vyom, a Bihar resident pursuing his PhD in Delhi, told ThePrint.

Sahni’s fight, however, is not going to be easy as the caste factor may not work in his favour. In Kurhani assembly segment of Muzzafarpur district, where election is due on 7 November, sitting BJP MLA Kedar Gupta and RJD nominee Anil Sahni, have the support of Muslim voters. Meanwhile, two other candidates who support the BJP in the state, are likely to get votes of the Mallah community.

Also read: Dalit voters will be the X factor in Bihar election — they vote differently than in UP

Sanjay Sahni - Bihar
Sanjay Sahni with his wife during an election campaign in Bihar | Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Cases filed against Sahni

While Sahni’s work made him popular with local residents, there was also blowback in the form of “several fabricated cases… for raising questions over corruption in the implementation of the MGNREGA scheme”.

The cases lodged against him at police stations across Muzaffarpur invoke different charges — from culpable homicide not amounting to murder, to looting — but they have all been questioned. As reported by Scroll in December 2018, in multiple cases of alleged violence, obstructing government officials, and caste atrocities, a fact-finding team ruled that Sahni wasn’t even at the site of the incident.

“I was detained once overnight and was about to be jailed but they couldn’t do so because they didn’t have anything against me,” Sahni told ThePrint.

Sahni said the tactics of “intimidation and harassment” scared those working with him, but he remained undeterred. “I have received bail from the high court in all 12 cases against me,” he added.

‘Will continue to fight for rights of labourers’

If elected, Sahni claimed, he will continue to fight for the rights of labourers.

“If I win, the first thing I will do is install a block office here in Muzaffarpur so people don’t have to travel far and beyond for their problems. I will be very close to them,” Sahni said.

“My parents are very happy with the work I am doing,” Sahni added. “It was very hard in the beginning, especially when I was being threatened with fake cases, but they are proud that I am doing more work than a politician.”

Also read: Angry with Nitish & left helpless by lockdown, this Bihar labourer is giving polls a miss

This story has been updated to add more details on Sahni.

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