A Mumbai based activist Krishnaraj Rao writes an open letter to Team Anna and other ‘civil society’ members to expand their vision and become more inclusive to incorporate lakhs of government employees and their families in the movement against corruption.
Fellow Members of Civil Society,
Come, let us put aside our virtuous outrage for a moment, and step into the shoes of one of those ordinary men and women running our public transport, water supply and other civic services. For instance, let us see life through the eyes of Mrs Smita Pratap Pednekar.
Mrs Pednekar sells tickets at a railway counter; you and your family members may have bought a ticket from her. She lives in the Railway Employees’ Colony at Dahisar, a distant suburb of Mumbai. She and her husband Pratap work for Indian Railways.
Every day after work, Mrs Pednekar commutes by train, buys vegetables and fish and gets home to her children and elderly mother-in-law. Then she cooks dinner before her husband returns home.
Mrs Pednekar does not get envelopes of cash under the table. Her conscience is clear, but she is afraid. What she fears most is office politics. She is worried about the prospect of being posted at a distant office. Both she and her husband have insecurities about loss of seniority, loss of increments etc, as some of their corrupt colleagues enjoy undue influence.
Mrs Pednekar avoids taking sides in any controversy. She pretends not to know anything. But in January, her husband was required to give evidence against a colleague at a departmental enquiry. Since then, some people at her office have been giving her dirty looks and stopped sharing their lunch with her. She is constantly afraid that they are looking for opportunities to victimize her.
With the whole of India shouting patriotic slogans like ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ in one voice, Mrs Smita Pednekar has lost her voice.
Nowadays, silence dominates the Pednekar household. There is none of the usual light conversation when the family sits down on the floor with stainless-steel thalis, and Mrs Pednekar serves fish curry and rice. She tells the children to eat in silence. She scolds her mother-in-law for switching on TV news channels, and makes her switch off the television.
Mrs Pednekar used to discuss current topics and politics within the family, but now she keeps her thoughts to herself. She changes the topic when the children ask why Anna Hazare fasted at Ramlila Maidan, and what is the Jan Lokpal Bill all about. One day, they came home from school wearing Gandhi topis painted with the words, ‘I am Anna Hazare’. She has had a sinking feeling in her stomach since that day.
On Raksha Bandhan, Mrs Pednekar visited her brother’s house on the 20th floor of Oberoi Woods, Goregaon. Her brother and sister-in-law are rich; they have private sector jobs. While they were having lunch together, a news channels was loudly discussing Anna Hazare’s insistence on including the junior staff of government under the Jan Lokpal Bill. This triggered a conversation about how the whole nation was up in arms against junior staff and their corruption. Her husband Pratap took a stand against the Jan Lokpal Bill, and loudly argued with her brother and sister-in-law, and everybody else who was working in the private sector. Alarmed by the rising voices, Smita gently pinched her husband, called him inside and pleaded with him. “What will people think? They will say that you are supporting corruption! We are government employees; remember that and keep quiet!” she whispered. The couple made some excuses and hurriedly left as the others loudly continued the discussion in their absence.
Mrs Pednekar is in awe of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal, and other great people fasting in all over the country and debating corruption on television. Surely they know all about corruption, otherwise why would they be talking so loudly, she reasons. She thinks that a “strong Lokpal Bill” is generally a good thing if it makes the country cleaner and less corrupt. But the point of the Bill should not be to threaten people like her with enquiries, penalties and imprisonment, she feels.
She feels greatly confused by Annaji’s demand for such harsh provisions against her; the fact that a good man like him says that he will go on indefinite fast for this demand makes her very uncomfortable. Is Annaji with me or against me, she wonders. “Annaji is a good and simple man. So why is he fasting for punishing good and simple people like me and my husband?” she wonders.
Mrs Pednekar’s experiences have given her reason to fear legal processes. She believes that proceedings generally go against those who are less able to defend themselves, rather than those who are truly guilty. So she fears that Jan Lokpal Bill will punish people like herself, who are voiceless. She is afraid that more resourceful colleagues will connive together to use such a law to target her and her husband.
But she is in no position to say all this, because she and her husband are government servants, and therefore excluded from “civil society”. Everybody is listening only to civil society nowadays; they think government servants are all corrupt, and therefore their views don’t count.
Respected Annaji & Arvind, the deafening roar of “civil society” has isolated and silenced Mrs Smita Pednekar’s voice. Will you please give her back her voice? Will you please hold consultations at Railway Employees Colony and other colonies where government employees live? Will you go to various employees associations?
Will you go there and explain to them why there is a need for a Jan Lokpal Bill that punishes Group B, C And D employees? And will you please hear and understand what such employees have to say in this matter?
( Krishnaraj Rao is a Mumbai based RTI Activist. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BH’s editorial policy. Rao can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)