In Indian state election, former migrant worker pledges jobs for the poorest

Labour activist Sanjay Sahni at a rally ahead of assembly elections in Bihar, India. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sanjay Sahni Election Campaign Team

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In an Indian state election that has drawn huge rallies and promises from major parties including free COVID-19 vaccines, one former migrant worker is going door-to-door seeking votes from villagers by championing job creation and higher wages.

Standing as an independent candidate in eastern Bihar state, Sanjay Sahni has won support from economists, social activists, and migrant labourers who returned home in droves from cities this year when India’s coronavirus lockdown shut industries.

Nearly 90% of India’s workforce is in the informal sector – including an estimated 100 million migrant workers who have been hard hit by the pandemic as they struggle to access government aid and find new jobs, campaigners and researchers have said.

Sahni is appealing to such voters in Bihar – India’s third most populous state and one of its poorest – by pointing to his years of campaigning for labour rights and promising to create jobs in smaller industries while boosting pay for rural workers.

“This was my own struggle … I know how (migrant workers) are harassed,” said Sahni, who was an electrician on building sites in Delhi for about a decade before turning to activism.

He said people were frustrated by years of hollow promises about jobs – a key polling issue in a state with an unemployment rate of about 40%. The national average was 23% as of April.

About a fifth of at least 5 million people across Bihar who applied for jobs under a government rural job scheme since the pandemic were turned down, according to an estimate by the People’s Action for Employment Guarantee, a civil society group.

“We have been voting for politicians thinking they would work for us, but they didn’t,” Sahni told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Ratnauli in Muzaffarpur district.

“We have struggled for too long,” the 39-year-old added. “It will be easier to take our work forward as a legislator.”

“DEMOCRACY IN ACTION”

Voting in Bihar started on Wednesday in three phases with results expected on Nov. 10. [L1N2HJ09F]

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – which promised free doses of any future COVID-19 vaccine to residents if it wins and has brought Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the state to campaign – rules Bihar with an ally but is facing a united opposition.

While candidates from major parties including the BJP have thrown huge rallies, Sahni’s campaign team – which consists of university students, migrant labourers and female farm workers – has handed out pamphlets and held small debates in villages.

“This is a model of democracy in action,” said economist and social activist Jean Dreze, who has co-authored books on hunger with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, and is currently in Sahni’s village to support his campaign.

“(Sahni) is going from village to village, walking, cycling or on motorbikes, and listening to people. Big leaders come in cars,” Dreze added. “His is a completely different approach.”

Sahni said his activism in recent years included monitoring the effectiveness of the rural job scheme – which guarantees applicants at least 100 days of work – and spearheading a drive to help tens of thousands of stranded migrants return to Bihar.

“I am not alone,” he said. “These workers are contesting the elections.”

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