As reported by Geeta Gupta on on 29 March 2008: :: Manjunath’s ‘spirit’ travels all the way to Assam’s forest and farmers

Manjunath’s ‘spirit’ travels all the way to Assam’s forest and farmers

31-year-old Akhil Gogoi gets Manjunath Shanmugam Integrity Award for exposing corruption in govt projects

New Delhi, March 28 : Golaghat district in Assam may be far away from a petrol pump in Uttar Pradesh but the distance between the two disappeared this evening on a stage at IIT Delhi. Akhil Gogoi acknowledged an unusual debt to Manjunath Shanmugam, the IIM graduate and Indian Oil manager who was killed in November 2005 by the petrol mafia for cracking down on adulteration.

Recipient of the second Manjunath Shanmugam Integrity Award today, 31-year-old Gogoi, a farmers activist in Assam, said he didn’t know who Shanmugam was and how he died until he was told by a friend to apply for the award. “It’s only then that I came to know,” he said, that he was a kindred spirit. “So I came to Delhi not so much to receive the award but to pay my respects to his spirit.”

Gogoi, as general secretary of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti of Assam (KMSSA), has been working for the cause of farmers in Assam since 2002, particularly the forest-dwellers in Golaghat bordering Nagaland. According to the citation of the Manjunath Shanmugam Trust — which instituted the award to honour and encourage efforts by individuals and institutions working to uphold values of truth and honesty in public life — Gogoi remained steadfast in his fight against corruption and malpractices inherent in various “development works” of the government.

His work highlighted irregularities in the Panchayat system, Rural Development schemes and the Public Distribution System (PDS).

“It started when over 5 lakh people were evicted from the forests by the department without any provision for rehabilitation. I was a university student then and with two more friends we mobilized the people and took out a rally. It had an effect. That is when my fight started. We keep mobilizing people and that’s the key to our efforts,” he said.

Gogoi, the general secretary of the Cotton College student’s union in 1995-96, left college and took up social service when he was doing his MA in English Literature in 2002. The same year, he married Gitashree Tamuly, who is a college teacher. They have a two-year-old son and the family’s expenses are paid for by the salary his wife gets.

“I was attacked by the local Congress Committee members for my ‘anti-state’ activities, and a case was also filed against me. But I was rescued by the High Court,” says Gogoi. During this period, Gogoi had to go underground, and he was introduced to his son only when he was already six months old.

Gogoi and his KMSSA used the RTI Act to uncover corruption in various schemes like the Indira Awas Yojana and the Sampoorna Gramin Rozgar Yojana. This was reported to the Chief Minister and following media coverage, local officials were arrested for alleged corruption.

The two other finalists for the award were the Urmul Jyoti Sansthan (UJS) and its founder Chetan Ram from Bikaner in Rajasthan for their work in health care, rural development and public advocacy. The UJS also used the RTI Act to expose corruption in various public projects. Working under the banner of the Jagruk Nagrik Manch, UJS activists actually coerced many public officials into returning bribes they took from citizens.

“Though our efforts were initially dismissed, government servants gradually started returning the money they took. We have all the receipts with us, wherein the official writes the amount of bribe he took and then returns it back,” said Ram. “I have been dragged to court in many false cases and have even faced physical assault. But now, resistance has declined.”

The fight against corruption led the third nominee, M N Vijayakumar, an IAS officer from Karnataka, to be transferred seven times in nine months. Not allowed to attend the event, he was represented by Jayashree, his wife and an activist herself. His crime? Blowing the whistle on the misuse of Government land and corrupt practices in various PSUs. Said Jayashree: “Vijayakumar keeps getting notices every time he uncovers corruption in the state. But it’s the zeal for bringing about change that keeps us going despite all the threats.”

The nominations were adjudged on the basis of the gravity of the situation in the area of work; corrective measures taken to fight the situation; and the extent of difficulty and challenges faced. What was common to all the nominations was their commitment towards ensuring transparency in the government’s development works.

“The fight against corruption is an uphill task. You’ll be beaten up and dragged to courts for all your honesty,” said Kiran Bedi, the chief guest at the award function. “Justice and integrity mean nothing unless we talk of police reforms. That department is the most corrupt,” she said.