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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 24, May 30, 2009

Grassroots Issues and Elections

Tuesday 2 June 2009, by Bharat Dogra

At a time when there is widespread concern over the neglect of grassroots issues in the election campaign, efforts of activists to secure the commitment of (generally) reluctant politicians for protection of livelihoods and environment deserve wider appreciation.

Such an effort was made in the ecologically crucial Western Ghats region. This region is spread over five States (Maharashtra, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka) and includes 32 parliamentary constituencies. The ‘Save Western Ghats’ campaign prepared a citizens’ manifesto for the protection of livelihoods and environment. This included issues like checking destructive mining practices, saving forests and rivers, protecting the livelihood of villagers particularly tribals, using rural employment guarantee scheme for regeneration of environment and imposing a ban on GM seeds.

This manifesto was prepared on the basis of consultations with nearly 85 organisations and 8000 people. Activists of ‘Save Western Ghats’ campaign contacted various candidates contesting elections in 32 constituencies to get their support for these demands. It is hoped that this will later help in the task of forming policies which are in keeping with the objective of protecting environment and livelihoods. Activists also requested candidates that if they are elected, they should form a parliamentary forum for protecting Western Ghats.

In the Bundelkhand region a women’s organisation Chingari, which has branches in several districts made efforts to prepare—from the perspective of weaker sections particularly women—charters of demands at the constituency level as well as at the level of some villages and panchayats. These demands were placed before candidates
and an effort was made to obtain assurances of support from them regarding at least some of their demands.

Providing information about another such campaign in Bundelkhand, a senior social activist Pushpendra says: “Water-scarcity has emerged as a very big issue in this region, but massive money is being squandered on dubious projects like the Ken-Betwa links which can actually mess up the situation further.”

In this disturbing situation, several social organisations and activists of this region in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh got together to prepare a list of important questions on drought, water and related issues. ‘Jal prahris’ or water guardians were identified in over 550 villages. These prahris with the help of local villagers approached candidates with the list of their questions and tried to obtain their views and commitments regarding these. This helped people to make a better choice at election time and in addition it will be helpful later to remind successful candidates about the assurance they had given earlier publicly.

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A somewhat different effort was made by several people’s organisations in Delhi in the form of a Jan Manch. These organisations carefully placed a list of reforms which the rural employment guarantee law needs to strengthen it. At the Jan Manch (People’s Forum) leading representatives of various political parties were invited and asked to give their comments about the proposed reforms.

As was expected, in the presence of many people, senior social activists and the media, political parties were only too willing to endorse these reforms. This endorsement will be valuable later when activists take up campaign for improving the law after election.

At this Jan Manch a similar endorsement was obtained from representatives of various political parties to further strengthen the right to information.

In fact when, as a part of the preparation of Jan Manch, a careful documentation was done about the reforms that are needed in employment guarantee scheme and right to information, this documentation also proved helpful for some political parties while preparing their manifestos. Similarly the work done by the right to food campaign was useful for some political parties in preparing their manifesto.

It is hoped that such efforts to take grassroots issues to the forefront of election campaigns will be made with even greater vigour in the years to come, in the elections to come.

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