The Man Who Launched a Thousand Feminists

I scraped through my high school examination in 1986 in third division. So I couldn’t get a government job like others from a poor socio-economic background like I, who had done better. There was family pressure to follow tradition in rural Chhattisgarh and get married. I did not want to become the chattel of a drunkard and get regularly beaten up as was the fate of most other women including my elder sister. So I stubbornly continued to subsist by rolling bidis or handmade tendu leaf cigarettes. This was drudgery as rolling a thousand bidis in one day would bring only Rs 7 at that time. So I also looked around for other opportunities and enrolled for a training programme for rural youth being conducted by the NGO Prayog. As luck would have it I was selected after the training programme to run a creche for children of bonded labourers who had been freed from bondage by legal action undertaken by Prayog in the Supreme Court of India. I was to be paid Rs 300 a month all found which was princely compensation compared to what I was earning breaking my back rolling bidis. I joined Prayog for a job without any consciousness about the social, economic and political factors responsible for the disempowerment of the poor and especially women in rural India. However, after joining Prayog and attending many training programmes my eyes were opened in this respect. These trainings instilled a resolve in all of us to fight injustice and oppression. Prayog was started by Mr P. V. Rajgopal a Gandhian activist from Kerala who came to central India to inspire youth to work for societal rejuvenation. The great achievement of Rajaji, as he is popularly known, was in mobilising young women from indigent socio-economic backgrounds to work as rural activists in large numbers. He would personally conduct the trainings and listen to the problems being faced by these women in their work. Over the years over a thousand women like I have become feminist activists in this way. Many of us later struck out on our own and are now fighting for women’s rights independently. Rajaji has always been supportive of our efforts to work on our own and so it can verily be said that he has held our hands and launched a thousand feminists to fight the deadening patriarchy that stifles Indian society.

Right to Information

There are many hurdles to getting education for dalit women. Some are of a peculiar nature indeed. I had passed my Master of Social Work Examination in May 2008 from Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya Indore (DAVV) and then deposited the requisite fees for getting a hard copy of the degree. I was told that the degree would be mailed to my home address. However, when even after one year the degree did not arrive I went to the examination section of DAVV to enquire and found that in the register in which they had recorded my request applicants before and after me had been sent their degrees but I had been omitted. When I asked about this the clerk made some vague excuses and said that I too would soon get the degree. Then I became busy with my MPhil studies and did not bother about this for another year. But in May this year I thought that enough was enough and went again to the examination section and all the way upto the Registrar and created a big ruckus about not being sent the degree. I was assured that the degree would be sent to me within a week. Some of my fellow students were sceptical however as they said that the clerks had to be paid two hundred rupees over and above the regulation fees for getting the degrees. Predictably the degree did not arrive. So finally I had to take recourse to the Right to Information Act 2006 (RTI). This Act empowers the citizens to ask for information from the Government and the concerned authorities have to give the answer within thirty days or face a penalty of Rs 20000. I filed an application with the Public Information Officer of the DAVV on 15th June 2010 enquiring as to why the degree had not been sent and who were the officers responsible for this negligence and what action had been taken against those so responsible. Today 25th June 2010 I have received the degree by Express Courier. Such is the level of corruption in the universities in India that even in such a small matter as the dispatching of a degree students have to pay bribes. Luckily due to the RTI now determined citizens can get the system to work. However, in serious matters where powerful vested interests are threatened they hit back at RTI activists by going to the extent of murdering them as so tragically happened in the case of Satish Shetty of Pune. One can read about this at the following link – http://punekar.in/site/2010/01/14/rti-activist-satish-shettys-murder-rocks-the-city/

Violence as Stimulus

Universally it has come to be accepted that Gender Based Violence is a major hurdle to women’s self realisation. The greatest tragedy is that most of this violence takes place within the home and goes unreported. In the public sphere even today a shameful aspect of most armed conflicts is the extra harm that it does to women non-combatants than men. In all such conflict areas invariably women non-combatants are systematically raped and killed. In India this happens regularly in Kashmir, the North East and now in Central India where the State Paramilitary forces are out in strength to quell a Maoist armed movement. Recently there was a huge public outcry when pictures were published of the bodies of dead women in civil dress, who were allegedly Maoist guerrillas killed by security forces in a battle, being slung on poles like cattle by the armed men while being brought back for post mortem. A gruesome video of this reprehensible and inhuman action of the security forces can be seen here – http://ishare.rediff.com/video/Entertainment/Operation-in-W-Midnapore:-S…

Social Peculiarities of Development

I would like to dwell today on a very odd but devastating social peculiarity of development in the rural areas of my home state Chhattisgarh. In the nineteen seventies and early nineteen eighties the number of male educated Chhattisgarhis from rural areas getting government jobs increased to its peak before tapering off thereafter. By this time the modern urban culture had also penetrated into rural areas of Chhattisgarh and so there was an appreciation that the traditional rural culture was shabby and old fashioned. Consequently these young rural males who had got government jobs sought urban women as wives. Thus the arranged marriage system that prevailed in rural areas was bypassed and urban caste networks were tapped. The urban girls too had no objection to marrying rural youth who were employed in government because of the better and more secure lifestyle that this promised. However, these urban girls then segregated their husbands from their rural families and began living in the urban areas. Simultaneously this created another serious problem that rural girls now found it difficult to find husbands because there was obviously no reciprocity of urban youth marrying rural girls. The give and take of relationships in rural areas was thus broken and this led to many rural girls remaining unmarried or marrying very late. I happen to be one of the few who have been able to marry an urban man. However, since I married out of my caste we had to face ostracisation after our marriage. Finally we had to give a feast to the whole of the village and my family had to pay a small monetary fine to the caste panchayat for us to be accepted again. This was more than fifteen years ago. These days inter caste marriages have become more common but the fines have risen steeply into thousands of rupees. Thus a traditional society which is basically patriarchal invariably gives rise to further problems for women in the interface with modern development.

Woman of loose morals

After having finished my MPhil degree and got some freedom from rigorous studying I decided to bend my attention to doing some voluntary work to improve the bad lighting and sanitation situation prevailing in our residential colony. Our colony here in Indore is in a bad shape because the earlier elected President has defalcated funds and been sacked. He did not do any work. Now till a new board and President is elected all the community work is in limbo. So street lights were not working, men from outside were drinking at night in the colony and the septic tanks having filled up the drains were overflowing with sewage. There was no money for carrying out remedial action as the bank account is sealed for the time being. So I got the people of my colony together and we collected money from the residents and improved the lighting and sanitation and went in a delegation to the Police Station and got the drunkards from outside ejected. Now the colony is a more liveable place. However, instead of getting kudos for these efforts there is feedback that a woman should not be so active. This feedback is coming more from women in the colony than the men! One woman even told my husband jokingly that if he did not watch out then he would lose me to other men! Thus, the social stigma attached to women becoming socially active is so great that it is indeed difficult for the general run of women to do anything socially constructive.

Women's Unpaid Work

This International Women’s Day the burning issue is Women’s Unpaid Work. For thousands of years women have been taking care of the household but this important contribution to the perpetuation of the human race has not been adequately recognised by men. It all starts off with pregnancy. Then comes the crucial first year of post natal care of the child. The adult human brain now has increased in size so much that the proportional size of the brain of a new born baby would be so big that its head would not be able to come out of the womb. That is why the baby’s head is small and the skull has a soft portion in the middle. Over the first year the brain grows fast to get to a size that is proportional to its requirements and only then does the skull bone form totally. Thus the human baby grows nine months in the womb of the mother and then again later nine more months in the womb of society cared for by the mother. Now this care is priceless and it cannot be quantified economically. Yet women are not given adequate recognition for this service. This is only the beginning. Later on throughout life most women sacrifice their own intellectual and economic development so as to ensure that the children are brought up well and the old are taken care of and the house is a home and not a hotel. All this goes unpaid and women have to beg for money from their husbands.

Community Livelihood Action Against Climate Change

The livelihoods of the Bhil tribal people of Alirajpur district in Madhya Pradesh state of India were in a very precarious state by the early 1980s. However, this had not been always so. The average annual rainfall in this hilly area is 900 mm occurring in the monsoon period from mid June to mid October. Traditionally the Bhil tribals had adapted to this eco-system by doing some organic agriculture in the valleys and supplementing it with produce collected from the forests which were of a very rich dry deciduous kind and an abundance of grasses, shrubs, creepers and herbs. Despite the hard rock undeneath, the dense forests used to ensure that there was enough natural recharge of the rain through the fractures in the rock and so there used to be water in the streams throughout the year. After independence from British rule in 1947 the Forest Department was handed over the administration of the area which was converted into reserved forests and immediately the commercial exploitation for timber production began. This upset the fragile hilly eco-system of the region and soon with the forests gone the thin soils too were washed away and natural recharge of the rain was greatly reduced leading to the drying up of the streams. The Bhils’ livelihoods were the most affected as the fertility of their lands as well as the supply of forest produce went down. Simultaneously the provisions of the Indian Forest Act made them criminals in their own backyard and they were forced to pay bribes to the Forest Department staff for access to the forests. Then in 1983 the Bhil tribals of the area began organising to demand their rights and especially the right to protect the forests which were their main lifeline. They formed an organisation called Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) and began protecting the forests which had become denuded in about fifty villages in Sondwa Block. Later in 1993 I became associated with this organisation to help in this work. The uniqueness of this forest conservation effort is its reliance on the traditional labour pooling customs of the Bhils. These customs had begun to decay due to the inroads of the monetary economy and the destruction of the natural resource base of the Bhils. The women of KMCS formed groups of five or six and began patrolling the forests to ensure that they were not grazed and the root stock was allowed to regenerate. Thereafter they made sure that the new trees were not cut. The grass would be cut only after the monsoons and distributed equally among the protecting families to be used as fodder for cattle. The women, emboldened by their success, then began another conservation activity. The small teams that had been formed began working in groups on the farms of their members to plug the gullies in between their hilly farms with stones so as to catch the soil and some of the water that was being washed off their farms by rain. Over a period of a decade and a half since the mid nineteen nineties hundreds of such gully plugs have been constructed leading to the creation of many small plots of land with deep soil adding to the productivity of the area. The streams which had begun to go dry in summer due to the heavy deforestation have become perennial once again. Growing forests, greater availability of flowing water leading to reduced demand for artificial energy and greater agricultural productivity achieved through organic practices all contribute significantly to mitigation of climate change. When this is done through communitarian collective action and especially by women, then the gains in terms of social justice achieved are an added benefit. Thus the women of KMCS have been mitigating climate change from much before it became a current buzzword and have in the process improved their livelihood situation tremendously. In addition to this work I have also participated along with my colleagues in actions against liquor contractors and at present am also involved in reproductive health and rights work for women in the slums of Indore city.

A Wire to the Pulse of Global Womanhood

Pulsewire has emerged as a powerful voice of global womanhood and it is indeed fitting that there are to be celebratory events to mark this much needed development. I for one have benefited immensely from the short time that I have been associated with this global feminist movement. 1) What does World Pulse/ PulseWire mean to me? Pulsewire is a forum where I can voice my opinions regarding the oppression of women and my struggles against it freely and get appreciative support for this. I had been looking around for such a feminist forum for quite some time and so once I became connected I have let my emotions, feelings and thoughts flow. It is as if a dam has burst for me. Earlier I did not get much appreciation for the work I am doing because society in India is highly patriarchal. The media here do not highlight the really core issues affecting women. 2) What brought me to World Pulse? And what has been my experience on PulseWire? I received a chance email calling for contributions regarding women’s struggles over land. Since I had myself fought with my brothers for my share of our ancestral land I joined Pulsewire and posted my story. The immediate welcoming response from Pulsewire members overwhelmed me. Going through the website I found it is a radical global movement of feminist women where I could voice my opinions freely. Even though I have always worked according to my own choices regardless of criticism from patriarchal power centres it helps when one gets appreciation also. Pulsewire makes me feel as if I am part of a massive feminine force that will overcome global patriarchy sooner than later.

Women fight Forest Smugglers to Protect Forests

A noted Feminist Political Scientist in India Bidyut Mohanty has sent this news report on how women in Orissa state of India are fighting forest smugglers and corrupt forest department staff to protect their forests – On 17th March, 2010 some of the women from Minarbali Village in Koraput district of Orissa observed the illegal cutting of trees nearby and sent a message to all the women federation members of the eight villages of Doraguda Gram Panchayat to alert them and organize a response. On the next day a large group of federation members gathered on the road to stop the transportation of the timber. Around 7 PM a full truckload of timber came and they blocked the truck and sent word to the Forest Range Office of Boipariguda. Nobody came on that evening so they guarded the truck and driver throughout the night. On the next day, 19 March, District Forest Officer, Additional Conservator of Forests of Jeypore and a Range Officer along with a Police Officer came at 11 am to the village. The women were confident that action would be taken against the smugglers and the officers took the truck to the range office as well as transported another of the six or seven loads of cut timber remaining by forest department vehicle. Villagers rejoiced that they were able to protect their forest and looked forward to severe consequences for the thieves. They were sorely disappointed. On the next day, the forest guard along with the smugglers and some thugs came to the village and threatened the women that if they persisted in pressing the issue against the thieves that they would see them on market day at Boipariguda. The rest of the village joined in a heated protest and the visitors withdrew but on the following day some petty politicians came to the village and offered Rs 50,000 to the women to keep them quiet. But, heroines that they are, the women refused to take the bribe and demanded action against the smugglers and the forest officials involved. On the 22nd a group of women traveled to the district headquarter to raise the issue with the Collector and the Forest Conservator. The Conservator was absent on that day but they submitted an application in the office and also informed the Collector of their application. On the 26th there was a jana sampark health camp in the Boipariguda area and again the women submitted a memorandum to the District Collector present there. Still, there is neither action against the smugglers nor against the forest officials involved. Instead, the sarpanch, other officials and thugs are threatening the women that they will file complaints against them if they enter the forest, there are still many truck loads of timber in the forest and the truck parked in the forest range office still there. Nevertheless, the tribal women have not buckled to the pressure and continue to press for justice. The sad truth is that often tribals are blamed for destruction of the forest when they cut modest amounts of wood for agricultural purposes or housing materials, and are arrested, jailed, or harassed by the Forest Department. But when the Forest Department protects the interests of illegal loggers who are helping themselves to truckloads of timber, they appear to be immune to prosecution and instead take part in intimidation and coercion. In this age of global warming there are many schemes that have been put forth under the guise of reforestation through plantations of commercial timber. The government of Orissa has taken out a huge loan from Japan Bank for this purpose and in Koraput, the Forest Department has spent crores of rupees for plantations under different programmes and schemes with the objective to increase forest cover in the state. But increased forest cover, though badly needed to control erosion, reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses and provide non-timber forest products will not be achieved if Forest Department Officials are not held accountable to serve as protectors rather than exploiters. When the protector of the forest turns to greed and destruction, there is no hope for the forest or the people who enjoy the benefits of a cool and green world.

Difficult Academics and Inspiring Performance

I am returning to my journal after a gap of three weeks. In between I was busy with my final examination and thesis defence for my MPhil Social Work degree. One of the most difficult things for a grassroots activist who has come back to formal studying after a long hiatus is to put in long hours of academic work. It has been a constant struggle for me. However, since working in the field alone has no vallue these days unless one is able to back it up with academic skills I have been forced to devote myself to studying. Anyway I am now through with formal class going and in my Phd work that is to follow I will have more freedom to do what I want. I would like to note with pleasure that in the interim the Green Party has won a seat for the first time in the British House of Commons and its winning candidate is a woman – Caroline Lucas. This is an inspiring achievement. Caroline is currently also a Member of the European Parliament and her website (http://www.carolinelucasmep.org.uk/biography/) has this to say about her achievements in that role – * As member of the Trade and Energy Committee from 1999-2004, Caroline forced the European Commission to undertake legal investigations into the British nuclear industry and promoted green energy as the alternative; * As a member of the Environment Committee, Caroline has amended legislation to strengthen the case against GM crops; * As the Parliament’s Rapporteur (draftsperson) on a far-reaching Commission Communciation on the impact of air transport on the environment, Caroline persuaded the European Parliament to support the introduction of new environmental charges and noise restrictions on airlines; * As Vice-President of the Parliament’s Committee of Inquiry into Foot and Mouth, Caroline was instrumental in ensuring that the Parliament’s Report advocated vaccination, rather than mass slaughter, as the tool of first resort in any future outbreak; * As Vice-President and now President of the cross-party Animal Welfare group, Caroline has played a key role in keeping animal protection issues high on the agenda, and campaigned vigorously to maintain the future marketing ban on cosmetics tested on animals; * Caroline has used her position to commission EU research that demonstrates existing safety guidelines regarding mobile phone masts are completely inadequate. Caroline has also submitted a Written Declaration (similar to an Early Day Motion) on the risks of exposure to electromagnetic field from radio frequency antennae and mobile telephones, and has called for more research to take account of new technologies such as TETRA; * Caroline has been a high-profile campaigner against the war in Iraq. In the parliament, Caroline has demanded a complete ban on the production and use of Depleted Uranium Weapons, put questions to relevant UK officials and NGO officials, and co-hosted a meeting of MEPs in Strasbourg.

Let us hope that more courageous women like Caroline will make this world a better place to live in than it is at present.