The media and common men were kept at a distance from the place where the interaction, with an attendance of a couple of hundreds of rickshawpullers and autorickshaw drivers, took place.
Today’s programme marked the conclusion of the ‘Sadbhavna Yatra’ that began February 22 from Sarnath. It was supposed to conclude at Mirzapur but the programme was changed due to heavy rain. The Mirzapur rally has been tentatively rescheduled for March 7.
From one of the major nerve centres of Varanasi, the Cantonment Railway station, Rahul said he was there to listen to the poor and would go on to draft his party’s programme accordingly.
“Baaqi neta aate hain, bhashan dete hain, chale jaate hain. Main aapse baat karne aaya hoon (Other leaders come, deliver lecture and leave, I have come to talk to you),” said Rahul.
“Earlier, five or six people at the top would decide the manifesto. But I told them I have to meet people from different areas and put their wishes in the party programme,” he said.
Rahul told the audience that he would like to understand the difficulties of rickshawpullers by pulling a rickshaw himself for one day. “Even if I do try it for a day, I would not be able to understand your pain,” he said.
The interaction, which began around 1 p.m. and continued for over an hour, saw rickshawpullers raising questions about the corruption around the licence permit raj, the harassment at the hands of the policemen, the problems regarding parking and lack of educational facilities for their children and the absence of benefit programmes for them.
When an autorickshaw driver said primary schools in the state were not good enough, Rahul was quick interject. “This problem is only in UP; Bihar,” said Rahul, adding this was not the case in states like Kerala, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.
“Here the politics does not centre around people’s issues. Sadak sirf thekedaaron aur netaon ke paise ke liya bantee hai (the road here is constructed only for the money of politicians and the contractor),” Rahul said.
To a demand that the government should provide free autorickshaws, Rahul quickly rejected the idea. “Let me tell you, I can’t give you free rickshaws, but there are so many things that can be done for you all,” he said.
A rickshawpuller asked: “Who have jobs have got 100 per cent (dearness) allowance. What have you given for those who don’t have?.”Rahul then recalled the theme of his government, empowering the poor through programmes like MGNREGA, food guarantee and the Right to Information.
He said: “Humari koshish hai ki garib ke paanv ke neeche ek farsh ho, taaki wo daldal mein dhansta na chala jaaye (It is our endeavour that the poor find a floor beneath his feet, so that he does not keep sinking in the swamp of poverty).”
When Labour Minister Oscar Fernandes made a late entry to the programme, Rahul told him about a major complaint from the rickshawpullers that the Centre’s programmes do not reach them. Fernandes waxed eloquent on the health insurance programme of his ministry and assured he would take up the issue with the state government, if need be.
Rahul also spoke on the work done regarding the unroganised sector workers and underlined the discovery of a new social strata. “It is a new class that is above the BPL but lower than middle class. A lot is to be done for them,” he said.
Those who participated did not appear to mind losing out on the day’s income. “I have to pay him only half the rent, Rs 20. I have faith that he (Rahul) will pay heed to our woes,” said Sunil Sahni, a class 8 dropout from Ram Nagar, who read out a poem, asking why he was so poor, while the country was so rich.
Following the interaction, Rahul for the first time visited Kashi Vishwanath Temple, where he stayed for around 20 minutes and offered prayers.