Civil Society Amplifies People's Voices

- Abhishek Pandey   04-04-2014


Releasing manifestos is a usual pre-election ritual of political parties. They lay out their plans for the country and the people at large in manifestos. Civil society groups in India want a slight change in this old tradition. They want to infuse people’s voices in these manifestos instead of an action plan prepared by a group of leaders in closed door meetings.

Around 4,000 civil society groups in association with Wada Na Todo Abhiyan are meeting over five lakh people in 220 parliamentary constituencies of 24 Indian states to know what people really want in the manifestos of political parties, and in long term, from the government. 

Similarly, other non-profit organizations such as Save the Children, Oxfam, Youth Ki Awaaz, CRY, National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, and many others are making manifestos to raise the demands of specific groups before political parties. All these civil society organizations and NGOs are ready with their manifestos now and have decided to come together to advocate for the demands of the marginalized and the poor. They have collated all the major demands raised in different manifesto to make a Civil Society led People’s Manifesto. The representatives of these organizations have met with the bigwigs of political parties to influence the making of the manifesto of political parties and include some of the demands raised in People’s Manifesto. 
They have already met and presented the People’s Manifesto to AK Antony (Defense minister and chairperson of manifesto drafting committee of Congress), AB Bardhan and D Raja of CPI (M), Akhilesh Yadav (Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh), Prashant Bhushan (Aam Aadmi Party), Rajendra Gupta (Bhartiya Janta Party) and many sitting MPs and people contesting elections in general elections 2014. These leaders have promised to endorse these demands within their party and ensure these demands are included in the manifesto of their political parties. 
People’s Manifesto reflects an urgency to address inequalities and calls for a greater commitment to fulfilling the promise of basic services – particularly, health, education, water and sanitation and food security. It highlights that the poorest and most excluded are systematically deprived of the benefits of development and economic progress. Welfare schemes and policy reforms do not seem enough. People have demanded structural adjustments that would overthrow deeply entrenched hegemonies and put an end to discrimination.
Amitabh Behar, convener of Wada Na Todo Abhiyan and Executive Director of National Foundation for India (NFI), says, “The aim of preparing People’s Manifesto is to highlight the demands and needs of the marginalized and the poor and push those demands in political agenda.” 
How are you collecting demands of people? “Our organizations and partners in different states are engaging with people in public meetings at village and block level and also interacting with special groups such as Dalits, Tribals, people with disabilities, slum dwellers, People Living with HIV (PLHIV), sex workers, etc. to recognize their needs and demands. We are including their demands in People’s Manifesto.” WNTA and its partners in the states has already conducted over 5,000 meetings and engaged with over 5 lakh people at ground level. 
At the state and national level, the manifesto is being shared with representatives of all political parties, Lok Sabha candidates, Members of Parliament and members of the manifesto drafting committee as direct inputs from the citizens to shape their political commitments. 
Tahira Hassan, national vice president of All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), is endorsing People’s Manifesto but she is apprehensive of its positive outcome. She says: “It is a nice initiative that civil society groups are meeting people and asking what they want from the government. People’s Manifesto reflects the demands of the marginalized, poor and other sections of society but political parties do not do what they promise in political parties. Civil society has to campaign for holding the government accountable to their pre-poll promises and ensure that the government implements their schemes effectively benefitting all sections of society without any discrimination.
On the other, Risha Syed, state coordinator for People’s Manifesto campaign in UP is quite confident about positive outcomes of the campaign. She led a delegation of women activists and met the chief minister Akhilesh Yadav to advocate for the demands of the people. “Chief Minister appreciated our process and assured us that he would consider including demands of people in his party’s manifesto.” 
She added that the main aim was to make political parties aware about the problems at the ground level and the demands of different sections of society. Civil Society Groups (CSGs) are meeting sitting members of parliament and candidates contesting Lok Sabha elections 2014 to influence their political agenda. 
Inspired by the initiative of Civil Society initiatives, Congress has invited civil society organization in which Prof. Mohan Gopal from the manifesto committee of Congress asked the demands of the civil society to formulate the issues to be raised in their manifestos for general elections 2014. Mohan Gopal says: “Civil society organizations are working with people at different level and they know the real problems of the people.” 
“We received quite a good number of suggestions from different organization for different sections of society. These demands and issues have been useful in making the manifesto of congress party.” 
The Process
After compiling the constituency level manifesto, civil society groups are conducting a state level consultation to formulate the state-level manifesto that reflects the demands of the people of that particular state. CSGs are also meeting politicians from different political parties and candidates contesting Lok Sabha elections to push people’s agenda and ensure the demands of the people are included in the manifestos of political parties. 
The national level People’s Manifesto will have a compiled list of demands from all the states where people’s manifesto process is being undertaken. Civil society groups are elated and encouraged to see the response from the people. They are coming forward in large numbers to tell what their aspirations and expectations are from the next government. 
Pradeep Baisakh, national co-coordinator of Wada Na Todo Abhiyan says: “the work of WNTA does not get over with the manifesto making. It really begins after People’s Manifesto is made. WNTA and its partners will meet the manifesto committee members of major political parties to push people’s agenda and will ask them to include the demands of the marginalized in the manifesto of their political parties. After the party comes to power, WNTA will ensure they implement what they promise.”
Major Issues
Key emphasis emerging from the people include the need for greater regulation of the private sector particularly in health, land rights and in preservation of forest and natural resources, a strong justice delivery system, protection of rights and entitlements across all sections of marginalized and vulnerable groups including women, children, dalits, muslims, adivasis, persons with disability and the LGBT community. Recommendations on governance, decentralized planning and resource allocation are important inputs that could frame the political and social commitment of the forthcoming government in an effective way. The manifesto prioritises upholding national integrity and simultaneously protecting the rights of the excluded, with emphasis on local and specific development needs. On various urgent matters such as health, education, food rights it has called for time bound commitments and effective grievance redressal mechanism. 
Interactions with people in different parts of the country are throwing up many important issues for discussion at national level. People raised the issue of poor governance ground level particularly in villages and small towns. They told that the system is infested with corruption. People say that there are several good schemes that can benefit the downtrodden and the marginalized but the schemes have not been implemented effectively and efficiently. 
In People’s Manifesto meetings held in states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Uttar Pradesh, a large number of people in villages came forward to tell their plight of not getting benefits of government schemes because their names does not appear in BPL list. There is a huge scam in enlistment of people. People having good relation with Gram Panchayat members can get their names listed and others have to wait indefinitely. Such kind of functioning not only fails the so-called ‘great’ schemes of the government but also push back the development agenda. There is demand from the people of Bihar, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh and UP to introduce a new system for enlisting people in the BPL list. 
People in villages have demanded for timely availability of job and payment under Mahatma Gandhi National rural Employment Generation Scheme (MGNREGA) that is not done because of government laxity and improper allocation of funds for the scheme. Similarly, disable people demanded that there should be separate allocation for budget to know the actual data of disable persons in the 2021 census. It will enable the government agencies to make a strategic plan for them. They also demanded to include more than existing eight categories for effectively benefitting the differently-abled. 
WNTA partners met a group of single women in Bihar who were left by their husbands. They were of the view that government understanding is that single women means widows but single women also consists divorcees, unmarried and women left by their husbands. These women do not get any allowance from the government as there is a provision of compensation only for widows. The group demanded ‘Ekal Nari’ Pension to enlarge the base of beneficiaries. Similarly, women living in slums in West Bengal demanded for security for women living in open as they are more vulnerable to sexual and physical assault. 
Other major demands people made in people’s manifesto meeting in different states were better education and job opportunity for youth, more budgetary allocations for flood prone areas, better health services in villages and assurance for availability of quality medical staff at village level, end of discrimination against people living with HIV (PLHIV), effective implementation of Right to Education (RTE), Right to Food, etc. 
In Uttar Pradesh, Weaver community presented their list of demands in which they asked for separate commission for the welfare of the community and a mechanism, through which they could get raw material easily and market their products country wide and abroad.
Women groups in Bihar, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand demanded that the state government shall ensure 50 per cent participation of women in Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Act (MGNREGA). While in Madhya Pradesh their major demands was to ban trafficking and end discrimination against women at all levels.