Last Among Equals

Why I picked this book?

I liked the cover of the book very much; the title – Last Among Equals also drew my attention. On further checking I found the subject of the book interesting, as it talks about the rural Bihar and the sociopolitical structure of the villages. It talks about the development economics and how it works in villages of Bihar. So, to get some more insight I picked this up for reading.

The Book

Last Among Equals – Power Caste and Politics in Bihar’s Village, as the name suggest is about the village politics of Bihar. It talks about the basic structure of government, that is Gram Panchayat and how they are usually run by the village elite and strongmen. How caste system plays a role in village politics. The book captures two narratives one is through the stories of village politics and other through Sanjay Sahni, who hails from Bihar and use to work as a roadside electrician in Delhi.

The author M.R. Sharan, a developmental economist met Sanjay Sahani by chance and there started their association through a common cause. Saran was in Bihar for some research work where he met Sanjay. As we know more about Sanjay and what he does, it opens the social and political structure of Bihar villages and its relationship with the state government and central government.

The story of Sanjay Sahni is fascinating, from being an electrician to a prominent leader of People’s movement. How searching for the MGNREGA muster rolls in a cybercafe in Delhi led him to find out the discrepancies in the payments. From there started his journey of becoming an activist. In the process, he had to confront the village Mukhiya about the wage irregularities. He was threatened and told to stop investigation about the NREGA

He formed an organization Bihar NREGA Watch, to keep a watch on the irregularities and to educate people about their rights, how payment system works, what card is required to get the work spreading an awareness on how thing works. People, especially women from his village and nearby villages associated with Sanjay and fought for their rights for fair and timely wage and stipulated days of work as guaranteed by NREGA. He has helped and still helping many villagers in Bihar.

Simultaneously, the book throughs some light on how the village structure works. The mukhiya is either a village elite or a strongman, who has all the access of Gram Panchayat funds and usually not accountable to villagers. The resistance from the mukhiyas for any change to the status quo. The reluctance of state government to implement the Panchayati Raj which decentralizes the power (of spending money on various projects) from the Mukhiya. The caste factor that comes into picture be it reservations for the post of Mukhiya or development work in the Dalit dominated area.

There are lot of challenges in efficiently and honestly implementing various development projects, due to corruption and other factors. At the same time, it is possible to bring about change, tough it is difficult but not impossible. The stories of success against the odds feel good, but you feel that why someone needs to struggle so much and put so much effort to get what is rightfully theirs.

The book is a portal to look into the village politics of Bihar, struggle and resolution of people like Sanjay to fight for what is their right. It gives you a fair idea of the village’s political structure and how it is still dominated by the elites and upper class. How some people are still working to make it better for the poor and vulnerable people of the society.

About the Author

M.R. Sharan is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, studying questions centred around development economics and political economy. He obtained his PhD from Harvard University in 2020 and was previously at the Delhi School of Economics and Hansraj College. His novel, Blue, was published in 2014. His writings have appeared across various publications, including the Economic and Political Weekly, The Hindu, The Times of India and The Economic Times.

Our Verdict

Last Among Equals important read to understand how development economics works in villages, what are the challenges in implementing it, how the village politics play a role. One will get an understanding about local level of governance and about how MGNREGA works, what are the loopholes and how they are used by the powerful in their favour. Also, it tells you how being informed and aware about the government policies can help you get you your rights.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *