Friday, February 22, 2008

Betrayal of the rural Poor

Is NREGS promoting contract labor without any social responsibility

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

More than 112 wage workers mostly landless agricultural workers belonging to Dalit community are agitated against what they termed gross violation of labour laws in the NREGS work they did in village Rupchandrapur under Badlpaur block of Jaunpur district in Uttar-Pradesh. Under the scheme, the village Pradhan wanted to dig a local village pond and develop it further. The work was tough as the land was full of concrete. The laborers started their work on the pond from December 17th, 2007 and finished it on December 30th, 2007. While there was no objection from the authorities, till one day when the laborers went to ask for their payments, they were rudely informed that there are lots of discrepancies in their work and that it will have to reevaluated and remeasured. Re-evaluation and reassessment of work is in the hands of the officer who use this as a stick to beat the rural poor and blackmail them. ‘You either keep quiet or face reassessment of your work, which will seal the fate of the workers. Is not it strange that after working for 14 days from morning till evening, full 7-8 hours, the workers are told that their total amount of work comes much below than 7 days?

This is miraculous in the NREGS. How our sarkari babus who are not working on contract and no ministers and no parliamentarian is ever asking how much unit days of work they do, plan out such projects which do not have anything for social security. How can they make a project which does not have social security and equality of rights? While they can claim that every one is protected under the act, one need to ask the basic question to the government why the benefits as insurance cover, medical expenses and education is outside its purview. Can not government register the children of those working in the NREGS in the government school? But who bothers in the government? When the women go to work, they are discouraged saying that you do not do enough work. When the people with physical disability go and ask for work, they are humiliated and when the old goes, they are told to rest and do not take away work of the youngsters. This is purely commercial mindset which is working these days where the older, physically challenged, the women become compulsory burden of any project and therefore need to be discouraged.

Timmal, who is about 60 years of age, can not really raise his hand, but he thought that NREGS would help him gain some work with dignity. He worked for one or two days in entirely adverse circumstances but his hand started paining. He was insulted not to come to work as he is of new use. He is a landless agricultural worker. It is shameful that rather than showing sympathy and providing him work according to his conditions, he was rebuked. In the NREGS act it has been clearly mentioned that people would be given work according to their conditions and there was work meant for even child care as well as providing other assistance to the workers.

But then child care is not in the dictionary of the officials. And for them every worker who asks for work is a beggar and therefore the beggars have no right to complain and ask for anything with dignity. Child care therefore does not come into picture and clearly means that women with children are discouraged. Soni, a young woman in her twenties lost her husband a year ago. Feeding her young child, she portrayed a picture of a woman who is uncertain about her future. Despite a child who she was breast feeding, there was no facility for taking care of her. Who would then take care of her child in the sun? ‘Her other children who themselves are too young to understand things, but she had to work for the fear of being rejected. With no one to take care of her, Soni today show the pain of a woman who work for full 14 days and when she go and ask for her salary, she was told that it comes out to be just 7 days, shocked, she refused to accept the payment. Its over two months and Soni and many others like her who have children do not have anywhere to complain. They went to the BDO, who blamed that there was no money. The Pradhan says when the money would come only then he would pay them. Once the people realized that there was some money, the Pradhan said that the work was reassessed that it was found out that every one of them work much below then the expected lines.

Kumari Devi have two children and both of them have disability. One can not even walk and the other have a psychological disorder. Her husband is a landless labor who worked for 14 days and yet got nothing so far. According to the assessment of the officials, his work comes out to be of 7 days.

Roshan Lal is a young person from the village Rupchandrapur, who came in touch with Bharatiya Jan Sewa Ashram, a local social organizations working with the Dalits and realized that he must involve himself in the work. He applied for the job and got the work for this pond. He says, ‘The Pradhan asks us to go to BDO for the payment as he did not have money. The BDO said that when the money would arrive, he would do the needful.
After some days, the Panchayat Secretary informed them that there number of unit days are ( Manav diwas) is about 7 days and hence the amount due is Rs 700/-. Shocked at this, Roshan Lal decided not to take money. But he says in the village when people do not have money, these power people blackmail them. We are told that we won’t get any work further if we do not clear our old dues. But, how can we forgo our amount we worked for.

Similarly Nand Lal, a father of five children feels disturbed. His children are starving. Most of the time people are eating Gur and drink water. Now, I am not getting any work as they want us to forcefully accept the payment for 7 days.

One question often asks is whether the amount of work being asked to complete in a day is genuine. And in UP it is said that one has to dig 3 cubic meter space to be called one unit day’s work. Unfortunately, the authorities want every one to dig including women and physically challenged people. Secondly, the authorities rarely realize that some land is soft while other is concreted waste land. It would be hugely difficult to dig this much of space in a day if the land is concrete. The pond which was being worked on was on a concrete area and each one of these verified that it was impossible to dig 3 cubic meters
Land in a day.

Renu, a social activist working with BJSA Badlapur said that according to act of NREGS, there is every facility and women were happy. ‘We have made them aware that there are so much of facilities for them in the act. Unfortunately, it has turned into a contractual labor where you need ‘strong’ men who could dig more than required. There is no need of women, old aged and disabled persons. They are humiliated by asking how will you do this work. Women are depressed today. Muster role is not filled regularly and manipulated. Regular attendance is not being recorded in the muster role or presence register as it would expose them. You are registered as per unit days, so that nobody could question the amount of work as well as days involved in the work. What is this, if not contract?” Renu further make startling revelations. ‘Medical facilities are not there. Now the labor knows that this is in the act and hence he ask for it. To create more problems for them, the officials, the Panchayat secretary ask them to first get the treatment and then get a bill. It is difficult to get a bill in the villages as well as how long will the labor wait to get it clarified. Why is the medical facility at least the primary health care not available on the site? She says that no help come from the Pradhan or the contractors in the case of any eventuality.

Actually, such things reinforce the rural beliefs that women and disabled are good for nothing. Numerous research have been done that Dalit women never used to live in Purdah but they started following this traditions as a follow up of what the ‘elderly’ and ‘big’ people do in the villages. Therefore in this part of UP, condition of women and particularly of the Dalit women is really a matter of concern. But despite that they do work on the land and earn for their family. Unfortunately, the authorities have discouraged them from working as they assume that women do less work. And in this world where every inch is being calculated and measured as per unit days, women remain unwelcome and unwanted. This is a matter of serious concern and need strong reactions from the government. Even if for argument’s sake, they keep women for work, she will never get the amount of payment equal to her male partner.

The complaints are not received by the authorities. They are asked to give the application and action will be taken but the Sarkari babus never receive anything. If any body forces them to sign, they would make some mark as signature which means nothing.

As I came out of the pond, the village Pradhan was passing through the same area. The villagers surrounded him and started a volley of question which was difficult to answer. On the road, I saw a board for the building of a proposed school. The corner stone mention the date of the inaugural as October 2, 2006. Clear enough the birthdays of our political leaders are useful to grab land and these days the best thing to grab land in UP is to either start a statue or build a muth or temple and if you are ‘social worker’ then start a school for the ‘poor’. This betrayal of people continues despite change of power in Lucknow. These changes remain cosmetic as the local power politics would always side with those who are in power.

Under the NREGS, enough of UP have been worked. One does wonder as why there is no other activity involved in it. One great thing was for the Dalits to get funds for leveling of the land but then not even the so-called civil society is interested in it. The pond which was ‘created’ after the digging, will ultimately go to the ‘school’ which will probably never open unless one day the owner of the school with the help of MLA’s or MPs local area fund manage some money and deny the people their right over land. Nobody is there to question as why the school has not come up and why should it be made on the village land. Nobody question whether the pond which was developed will remain there or not after two years.

Meanwhile, Rupchandrapur people are wondering whether they will be able to get their total amount or not. If for 14 days of work, an individual get Rs 400/- as per calculation of the babus which turn out to be Rs 28.57p per day or for Rs 700/- it comes out to be Rs 50/- per day, it is much below the minimum wages of the state. That the state government increased the minimum wage to Rs 100/- per day immediately after it assumed power in Lucknow, has been made redundant by this miraculous work of the government officials. Now, you are getting much below the minimum wages of the state. This shows how much is the gap between government’s announcement and actual receipt of the people. And mind this story is not just one village, Uttar-Pradesh has become notorious for the failure of NREGS.

NREGS need serious introspection. In the hands of Babus and our jealous political leaders it is becoming another betrayal of the rural poor. You get him or her involved in this, ignore his pleas for livelihood and cheat him with the money for this also. Perhaps more monitoring and more intervention from civil society are needed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

SDF-UPLA Lucknow Convention Report

Report of the three days Convention of Social Development Foundation and Uttar-Pradesh Land Alliance at the Chhedi Lal Dharmshala, Lucknow 21st-23rd January 2008


SDF & UPLA have been organizing their annual conventions every year since 2004. The first meeting to start Uttar-Pradesh Land Alliance was organized in Ghazipur, followed by Shaheed Udham Singh Nagar, Chauri Chaura, and Kushingagar. This was the fifth convention where the organizations working on the issue of land and livelihood came and discussed their issues. For the first time after the inception of the UPLA, the convention was organized in Lucknow to enable people from other states to join the meet and share their experiences with us.

About 300 participants from over 150 organisations, community based organizations, individuals, joined the discussions for the two days. The participation ranged from states like Uttar-Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhatishgarh, Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, and Goa. The Uttar-Pradesh’s participation covered almost all the regions of the state. A rainbow coalition of communities was visible in the meet. It is rare that people from different communities came forward and discussed the issue confronting them. Moreover, the social movements are ultimately witnessing a change, as women as set to take over the change. Its going to be women’s leadership in future leading the social movements.

The programme began with Mr Ram Chandra Prasad and Mr Raj Kapoor Rawat, Coordinators of UPLA as well as Social Development Foundation, made their presentations for the last one-year programmes and activities undertaken by the organizations.

Exposing the miracles

The first session was devoted to ‘Miracle Exposure’. SDF is a secular humanist organization and it understands that superstitions are imposed on the exploited communities in the garb of cultural practices. These outdated practices become source of exploitation and particularly women bear brunt of it. To keep in mind, as most of SDF-UPLA member, member organizations comes from Dalit-tribal background, it was important to educate them on the issue. Apart from this, a very large chunk of our members hail from Muslim community, which has faced the traumas of the fundamentalist threat from outside as well as from with in the community. Hence the issue of ‘ Secularisation of civil society’ was an important agenda item to discuss. A large number of fundamentalist mindset have now started shifting the agenda of the civil society and hence it is important to question this intrusion in the civil society agendas by hate mongers.

Prof Narendra Nayak, President of Federation of Indian Rationalist Association, had kept the participants spell bound with his expose of the miracles. Prof Nayak remain a favorite of the participants since he had his first direct interaction some three months back in Kushingar where a large number of SDF-UPLA partners participated in his training workshops. For nearly three hours, despite his bad throat, Prof Nayak explained the ways of the quacks that exploit the rural people in the name of Gods and miracles. The reason for his instant hit programmes are the socio-cultural environ around us where people particularly rural poor particularly women face the worst of such practice routinely. We cannot really keep away from the incident of terming women as Dayan, whore or under the influence of evil spirit.

Idea of UPLA

Secularisation of Civil Society was an important discussion point initiated by Vidya Bhushan Rawat. He pointed out how the radical right were also participating in civil society actions and silently pushing their agendas. Women and children become their victim. In Uttar-Pradesh and other north Indian states, the condition is grim as old parochial people have started trusts and societies and are using ‘civil liberties’ and NGOs for their own nefarious purposes. In the name of NGOs people are on the land grab. They are acquiring huge track of land for false purposes. This has to stop. UPLA will oppose any such land grab by the so-called civil society organisations. VB Rawat also outlined the aim of UPLA and why we have a stated position on certain issues. UPLA has its constituency from the Dalits who were denied human rights for long in the name of traditions. These cultural values were completely alien to the Dalits and were instrumental in their subjugation and their justification. Therefore UPLA’s official stand is against imposing a culture of value and tradition on unwanted communities. Secondly, UPLA cannot keep quiet on the growing target on its member constituents because of their religion and caste. The current situation is quite depressing as far as the civil society is concern and is a challenge to meet. Some time, the civil society networks glorify the past and communal identities become powerful to lord over the individual identity. Identity works to certain extent but also keep people subjugated to certain thoughts that outlived their utility. When communities like Mushahars, Bansfors, Scavengers work with us, we can not ask them to stick to their traditional occupations. They will have to look for new. That those professions which were unclean became their entrypoint to a hell where they are still trapped in.

Ofcourse, as the modernization and science can not remain unquestioned as one friend Ram Bhuvan question about the mechanized farming and inorganic products. When UPLA support modernization ‘ will it support’ contract farming and mechanized farming he asked. ‘ Yes, the question is very important and delicate. You have to choose between tradition and modernity. Our stand is that not everything is bad in tradition. There is ample knowledge among our communities. That knowledge need to be documented. In fact UPLA will take lead in doing so. Secondly, UPLA is not an organization ingrained in some tainted vision of ideology. It look ahead and learn a lesson from history. It reflect in diversity. Despite not believing in caste, we still try to bring various caste identities. Between the human rights of a peasant or ideology, we will definitely be with the rights side of a community. That is why UPLA is always with the struggling masses and so many people, beyond our expectations here, are a tribute to the work of UPLA activists.

Since, it is still in the nascent stage, that is why this ideological discussions are taking place. These discussions here are meant to upgrade us as well as you about the latest happening in civil society. A civil society is first a civil society and later working on a particular issue. Hence we should adhere to basic ideas of human liberty, rule of law, non violence, respect for the marginalized, physically challenged, women and minorities and provide them space and opportunities in our forum. That is one reason why we have so much of discussion on various issues but all of them ultimately revolve around land and livelihood.

Mission Land Literacy

An important part of the first day’s programme was the book ‘ Bhumi Shaksharata ki aur’ compiled by Vidya Bhushan Rawat. The book contains short narratives regarding land movements in India, its current issues, administrative problems, and practical tools for the grassroots activists to know about the measurement of land etc. It has human rights treaties and issue of SEZ and other challenges that today’s land rights movement have. This apart, the book, had provided information regarding reports writing and institutions for their remedies.

The book was released by five girls from Mohammdabad, Ghazipur where SDF is successfully running a women’s development programme including change in mindset and providing alternative module to the scavenger girls. Deep Mala, who is now volunteering with SDF, apart from her education said that the book would definitely be a milestone for activists as they would learn from it about their right and fight more competently for the land rights?

Afterwards, other activists shared their opinion about the book. Munni Begum said that it is a great work, which will help women like her to learn their rights so that they can fight with more confidence and get the justice. Suman Singh also praised the work. Mr Ram Chandra Prasad mentioned that the book could be good tool to spread land literacy movement all over the state.

Ms Sujatha from Hyderabad said that the book land literacy will be a milestone for every activist at the grassroot. She expressed her desire to develop a similar manual in Telugu, for the Andhra Pradesh activists.

After the release the girls from Mohammadabad danced and sang a humanist song penned by SDF’s coordinator Raj Kapoor Rawat.

Hunger and Starvation:

The issue of hunger and starvation has rocked Uttar-Pradesh. The authorities and the government might not agree that there are hunger deaths but if living conditions and the governance is any criteria then we seem to have failed. In fact, recently Commissioners to the Supreme Court of India have given report on the existing farm crisis in Bundelkhand region. In fact, most of the persons dying and starving of hunger are those who have lost access to their livelihood. Whether it is fishermen or Mushahars, Bansfors ( bamboo workers) or scavengers ( who clean shit), all of them are facing worst crisis of their lives. Forest communities in Uttar-Pradesh have rarely been recognized. The Tharus in the Tarai and Kols in Bundelkhand have virtually no access to forest produce and are victimized by the forest department officials. Mushahars used to depend on forest but if they venture today, they are caught and arrested.

The so-called anti poverty programmes are miserably failed. The condition of NREGA is worthy of mentioning here. It would be asking for too much if individuals got employment for even 30 days under this scheme. Wrong entries, card held up with the Sarpanches, women being denied equal wages and work with machines are some of the ‘hallmark’ of the NREGA programme in Uttar-Pradesh.

When such conditions are prevalent in Uttar-Pradesh, MCK Food for Hungary Foundation joined hand with SDF and UPLA and adopted a village in Malwabar Mushahar Bastee and is supporting the mid day meal programme for the school children. Though, the school if still informal and it need an overhauling of the society particularly in the village to bring the habit of study among the students as well as their parents. It also shows that mere talk of rights will not work. Rights have to be preceded with charity so that rural poor is not fed with an artificial dose of ideologies to sidetrack his issues.

MCK Food for Hungary Foundation is developing a ‘Zero Hunger Act’ proposal on behalf of the civil society. UPLA-SDF team has been supporting them in this initiative. Two of their representatives, Ms Baby Rani and Gufran, made two separate presentations related to this. A wide discussion was held on the issue. Both the participants from MCKS Food for Hungary Foundation informed the members and participants of UPLA that further consultation need on this important issue. It was decided that national regional consultation would be organized to understand the entire issue and find out new ideas before submitting it to the government, as it would be difficult for participants to give input to an issue that they have not thought so far.

Environmental Challenges & the livelihood of marginalised

As mentioned a number of time that the local distilleries as well as sugar mills have played havoc with the livelihood of both the farmers and fishermen. Mr Ramashraya Nishad, General Secretary of Uttar-Pradesh Machchua Mallah Sangh, said that his community if worst affected from the river pollution. The chemical affluent being flown into various rivers of Poorvanchal (eastern UP) has virtually decimated river, lake and Taals and therefore jeopardizing livelihood of thousands of fishermen. Nishad has launched a war against the polluting companies under UPLA and his organization in the region. There was a time, when the fishermen would get a handsome catch over night but now not only they do not get anything, but also face severe health problems. The water they drink is completely polluted.
Fishermen are migrating to big cities in search of job. Being untrained labour they work as non-skilled labour at the very low rate. The families of fishermen are facing severe hardship. Pollution Control Board has done very little for the cause of the fishermen as Ramashray has time and again written to many in the Ministry, but of no avail.

Rajendra Sahni, from Tal Ratoy Machchua Mallah Samiti, Maryadpur, Mau narrated his experiences. Several years back, with the support of SDF under International Land Coalition’s CEF programme, the fishermen of the area worked hard and developed a Taal, which had virtually become defunct. It was one of the biggest initiatives of our time in independent India as hundreds of fishermen worked on redeveloping the lake. The farmers also joined hand and the result was that over 500 acres of land which was inundated in water for years, was recovered. Today, many of those who had no access to their land for the past fifty years, are tilling the land. This was a great mobilization. Not only the farmers got benefited from it but also the fishermen. But since, it is not just issue of development. The powerful forces in the village, which create differences between different communities, were active again. While farmers and fishermen joined hand, the feudal forces used all tricks to destabilize this unity. Politics is the backbone of the village. Politicization is good but over politicization for narrow personal gains is dangerous aspect of the Indian village system, which is divided on caste line, and every caste is a village and nation.

Today, the Uttar-Pradesh government is trying to divide the community and eyeing on this lake to develop it for ‘tourism’ purposes. SDF had predicted this thing long back that if the fishermen and farmers do not unite, the government wills sale the wonderful water of Ghaghra. Rajinder Sahni is a worried man but he is determined. All the organization with active support of SDF and UPLA plan to launch a Cycle March in the area to mobilize people against this so-called water tourism. The campaign for environmental sustainability has already been raised in the area.

Mr Suresh Yadav, leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union and a solid supporter of UPLA and SDF in the Mau region lambasted on the policies of the government which were anti farmer. Yadav said that the sugar mills have destroyed the farmers in the region. They do not pay the farmers due rates. Farmers have lost their crops to sugarcane, as sugarcane growers cannot really shift to another crop easily. The farmer is over burdened particularly when he feel that the government would provide him money from the sugar mills. While to send the cane to the mills the farmers have to procure everything in cash from the market but the sugar mills never pay him back the cash. Their own money is given to them years after and for that too, the farmers have wage a fierce battle. The sugar mills are enjoying the fruits of the work of the farmers. On the one side, they get huge credit from the farmers and on the other side; their rich chemical affluent is destroying our environment, our land and water. It is the biggest threat.

Mr Yadav also talked about the failed land reform in Uttar-Pradesh. The so-called Gandhian methods failed the people. Vinoba’s Bhoodan was a clever ploy to stop people from capturing land. Where is Bhoodan lad now? Those who ‘donated’ their land have ‘got’ it back through various acts of omissions and commissions. The family of many donors approached the court and got the stay. So, Bhudan was one of the biggest lies of our time.

It was generally suggested that Poorvanchal provide an important entry point for the civil society to intervene on the issue of livelihood and sustainable development. It is a rare opportunity, that the issue of environmental degradation has been directly challenged by the victimized communities and they understand its implications. In fact, Mr. Suresh Yadav, Ramashray Sahni and Rajinder Sahni are planning a anti-environmental campaign with protest marches, sittings at the block headquarters in their respective districts of Mau and Deoria in the coming days. This massive mobilization of fishermen and farmers will ultimately pave way for their coming together and joining hand on various related issues and is a very positive sign. Both SDF and UPLA have pledged their support for the farmers and fishermen’s struggle for sustainable environment and clean water.

Challenges before the Dalit Bahujan Women

This was one of the most fascinating sessions chaired by Ms Surepally Sujatha and the voices of women that came to be heard during this period grabbed the attention of every one. This also showed the great organizational and ideological clarity among women. That they are ready to take on any fundamentalist onslaught. Those sharing the dais with Sujatha were women from the very field, the scavenger women, who had never had the opportunity to speak on a microphone. There were others who are developing as new leaders of the UPLA movement. There was Suman Singh from Kanpur, Deep Mala, from Ghazipur, Urmila from Chitrakoot. Apart from this, many others spoke like Munni Begum, from Pratapgarh, Prem Lata Maurya from Mau.

Beginning her inaugural statement, Sujatha Surepally who has been actively involved in the Dalit Women’s movement in Andhra Pradesh and fought for the rights of tribal women too, said that women’s struggle against patriarchy is a must before we start any other process. She said that women had inherent power in her to face the challenges and her work is not recognized. Women should not just succumb to pulls and pressures but also question and challenge. She has a right to enjoy her life in her own way.

Two scavenger women from Mohammadabad, Ghazipur spoke of their anguish and wished to leave the work they have been forced into. ‘ WE are not interested in doing this dirty work but we do not have any alternative. We have no economic resources to stand on our feet, no land, and no other social security in a village, which is totally dominated by the caste Hindus.

Deep Mala, who is a student of 11th standard and has been associated with the youth wing of SDF, spoke highly of the community initiative taken by SDF in Mohammdabad. ‘ I would not have been here and speak in front of you had SDF not supported me for the past 5 years. I owe it to the organization for taking care of my education and giving me opportunity to excel and speak in front of people like you. I know how difficult it is for the person hailing from a community whose tradition has been scavenging but then she wonder why we do not take a strong stand against it. In her own case, her father, who was jobless, rejected his parents demand to allow his wife to do the ‘cleaning job’. He was so determined that he left his parents house after the marriage and shifted to his mother in laws place and told them that his wife would not in any way be involved in scavenging work. Today, Lal Bahadur’s daughter Deep Mala is growing in front of all of us and giving a new direction and sense of achievement to our work among the community. Deepmala the younger face of the community want more emphasis in education and economic development. She felt that cultural changes are also important for us so that this baggage of the past is eliminated.

Suman Singh spoke about the problems of the women farmers and how they have to face problems. She said it is the women who are working on the field and do not get legitimate acknowledgement for the same. Women are not given priority in the NREGA, Indira Awas Yojana and all other scheme, which are totally dominated by men. It is important that we focus on the work of women and organize them.

Prem Lata Maurya was equally vociferous on the issue of male chauvinism with in the organsiations. Women find it difficult as there is virtually no encouragement and solidarity by the male colleagues. It is important that women be encouraged and given task and support by the male friends.

The session’s most thought provoking statement came from Urmila, from Chitrakoot. Narrating her own struggle and growing patriarchical values even among the ‘civil society’, she hit them hard. The loud voice with emotion actually rattled the audiences and all those who witness her speak realize that women’s day has finally arrived in Uttar-Pradesh. Gone are the days when you would find submissive women working in civil society and adhering the patriarchical values. Now, the things are changing fast and women’s are deciding about their choices and preferences. She was very unhappy with some of the male members attitude’s towards women. ‘Even the social sector men have not got rid of the tainted vision and attitude that they have towards women’, she lambasted. The challenges before the Dalit women are double as she has to fight not only the caste forces outside her community but also the patriarchy with in the community. The identity politics does not allow the issues of women to be highlighted for the fear of changing power equations. Urmila said that a fight for women’s right can not happen unless we take a strong stand the patriacarchical forces, demand women’s right over property and land. Women’s struggle has to be inclusive and not in isolation as many of us might feel. It is not just economic battle but battle of mind, culture and society, she said.

As Urmila finished her remarkable speech, she got a standing ovation from all the women particularly the girl students from Hyderabad. It was thought provoking and equally inspiring presentation.

Issue of Muslims

Uttar-Pradesh has a substantial Muslim populace. Uttar-Pradesh had in past some of the most influential Muslim leaders of the country. It has some of the oldest Muslim lineages, sufi shrines, Mosques, Imambaras which reflect the rich cultural heritage that Islam has brought to India. During the freedom struggle the Muslim fought with Hindus in liberating India and the combined cultural heritage and mutual understanding of the traditions of each other had been the hallmark of Muslim rule in India.

After the independence, Uttar-Pradesh was dogged in a number of communal disturbances. A large number of Muslim dominated towns like Meerut, Moradabad, Aligarh, Kanpur, Lucknow were the target of the communal agenda.

Uttar-Pradesh became hotbed for communal and caste politics and at the end of the day Muslims became further isolated in the entire scheme of things. Their marginalisastion was systematic and nobody was interested in saying that they too had a problem. Once you raise the issue of backwardness of Muslims, it is easier for the communal and sectarian forces to term you as ‘appeasing’ the Muslims. The condition of the poor and women remain a matter of grave concern among the Muslim community. The drop out rate is high and the civil society organizations have rarely reached them. Unfortunately, there have been little efforts to develop civil society organizations in the community. Most of the civil society work is the religious-charitable and therefore on contenscious issues like education, health and empowerment, not much have been achieved. We do not find women’s Self Help Groups among Muslims. A very limited number of people or activists understand the predicament of Muslims. Without understanding the socio-cultural environment of the community, we try to become judgmental on each issue they face. The activists do not go there with a feeling of working with them but more with a loud mouth to preach them. It is here that a number of young Muslim minds joined hand and decided to start a network named as ‘Rehnuma’, which means leader.

Starting with her strong viewpoint, Mohammad Nasim Ansari, from Tarun Chetna Sansthan, Pratapgarh said that time has come to focus on the poverty and educational issues of the Muslim community. The community is legging behind and the developmental programmes are not reaching the community. No attempt is being made to involve the community in the social sector and it is a matter of grave concern, said Ansari. He cited Sachar Commission’s report to point out the growing isolation of Muslims. Time has come when the community and Community Based Organisations should take charge of it and do something. Nasim bhai said the Mirco finance is a must to provide support to Muslim organizations in the rural sector.

Naqvi Bhai of the Sadbhavana mission was more categorical about the community’s issue. Today, being Muslim is a crime. Your identity is the baggage you have to carry all the time. You do not get houses on rent, nor even at the hotels once the owner comes to know that you are a Muslim. He said that the community must focus on women’s development, health and education. Land Right campaign for Muslim women is essential if we want to mainstream our work, he said. He blamed the Muslim political leadership for betraying the aspirations of the community. He also said that nothing specific has been done as a civil society among the Muslims. He wanted that even SHGs among the Muslim women are very rare and his organization is now trying to venture into the micro finance. Unfortunately, things move very slowly for the Muslims and support does not come from the donor agencies. In many areas, the condition of Muslims remain a matter of concern and they are legging far behind from other marginalized communities like the Dalits and OBCs.

Munni Begum wanted that the first and foremost priority should be to provide education to the Muslims. She further emphasized that girls education was a must for the Muslims. ‘ How can we gain from reservation, if there are not enough people’, she opined. She also spoke against those men who keep their women inside their houses. Today, she said, if I am here, it is because of our own grit and determination.

Ms Azma Aziz mentioned that need of the hour is to look inward also. She said that as a Muslims, we face many problems which are related to terrorism and extremism but not all Muslims are like that. The danger of stereotyping has made the community more conservative. ‘ We need to come out at our own. Our parents must support us. She thanked her father for her bringing that despite from a Nawab family, she was still not wearing a Burqa.

Ms Sehroj Fatima, from Chitrakoot opined that Muslim women have to come out from the purdah system. We can not allow our women to sit at home and remain uneducated. Education was the key. The organizations must support Muslim women in their endeavour to progress.

Mr Aftab Alam, Behraich, talked about Muslims problems in general and wanted all the organizations to join hand. He also spoke about the Islamic banking.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sehroj : Spirit of freedom and responsiblity

A Muslim woman’s struggle for social change

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

She looked bubbly when I first saw her working with a local NGO in Karvy town of Chitrakoot district. She would eagerly listen to our instructions and talks but the environment with in the organization was not suitable for her. The male gaze and contempt for her could be easily found once you talk to them. Character was the easiest virtue that they would talk. Later, when I went on a Padyatra i.e. footmarch from Shivpur Baithakva, in Koraon block of Allahabad district, she was there for the entire fortnight in May 2002. She had some problem in her toe and yet I could feel the pressure of the organization to join her padyatra. I could understand her predicament being a woman and that too being a Muslim woman in an other-wise feudal NGO where people mean your community and family. Yes, I am talking of a woman named Sehroj Fatima, who worked hard with determination to make a mark for her and her community women in Chitrakoot.

Many years later, she came to Delhi to participate in Indian Social Forum, in November 2006, where I met her and inquired as what she was doing. To my surprise she informed me that she has completed her B.A. and wanted to appear in the M.A. examination. I promised to help her but because of certain delay, she missed that opportunity but she is raring to do that too.

Sehroj was born in a very poor family on October 8th, 1980. Her father was a Munshi with a local lawyer but got involved in gambling. He forgot that to fulfill his fantasies he was putting his family in immense difficulties and problems. He sold off everything that his family needed.

They had about 3 bighas of irrigated agricultural land and about three houses. Unfortunately, this habit of betting and gambling completely destroyed the family. The family was starving and her father was auctioning his land and house. The two houses and land slipped from the family. And the family was not small. They were five sisters and three brothers. There was no food to eat. Sehroj and her mother used to go out and virtually beg from the villagers. They would sleep on the thatched hut on the dry leaves and the empty rice bags. ‘ I was fond of reading’, says Sehroj and always thought of moving ahead despite facing such difficulties. When she was in the fifth standard, her mother decided to withdrew her from the school saying, ‘ daughter should not study too much, hence you will not go to school further.’ “ I felt dark in front of my eyes, but some how my father send me back to school. It is surprising that my father did not create hurdle in my studying,’ says Sehroj. Since Sehroj was going out for work and extrovert, most of the neighborhood felt that she was too ‘liberal’. But she was determined to live a dignified life of her own and her family. She passed her high school. But education afterwards became difficult. Her father had been suffering from various ailments. He was bedridden and poor Sehroj and her mother would go and beg in the village to run the family. Being a beautiful child was a problem. Whenever she went out to beg, the male gaze was always at her. It is awkward but those who have seen the North Indian feudal environment would vouch how offensive it looks when the people just ‘watch’ the women, the young girls.. They stare at them shamelessly as if women are some object. It is shocking that the girls, women have to live in such dangerous environment. It become doubly difficult for the girls who want to live a dignified live and yet need societies help for survival.

When Sehroj was in the intermediate (i.e. 12th standard), her father was bed ridden and the family had not eaten for nearly a week. Sehroj showed some courage and went out to work as labour in the neighboring houses, which were being constructed. She got Rs 40/- for that days work. Now the family realized their ‘potential’. So her three sisters along with her started working with other construction labour. By evening shift she would go to write her exams and passed out. In the meanwhile, her father passed away. There was no ‘male’ at home and the five sisters along with her mother needed caring. She had to go out and the locals would laugh at her, charge her with amorous character as well as humiliate her whenever they got an opportunity. Yet she continued. She started teaching at a school as well as some home tuition. Conflict at home was a routine affair. Now those who used to term her as ‘characterless’ talk of her bravery.

Finally, she got a job with a local ‘ NGO’ or self-styled, community based organization where she was told that she would get Rs 5000/- per month for her work. She used to sign on Rs 4,000/- but actually used to get just Rs 1000/-. But compulsion forced her to work with the organization for nearly five years. One can understand how women are treated in the organizations and how the NGOs have ruined the local self respect movements and using everything to maintain the status quo.

In the year 2000 her brother fixed a marriage for Sehroj. Actually her cousins called her to Mumbai. They fixed a match for her. She did not know about it. Her husband was from Moradabad. When she saw her husband on the Nikah day, she was shocked. She was not interested in the marriage but she was forced, and beaten to accept it. When she went to her husband’s home, she found him four time in age than that of her. ‘He already had 8 children from his previous three marriages, says Sehroj and add that it was a bigger humiliation and embarrassment to see that some his children were more in age than Sehroj. The elder sons were unable to accept her in the family and would beat her. ‘There was no possibility of my working with her. He did not care for me. For him it was another domestic servant to take care of him and his children. He would work for one day and rest for next three days. His children’s were of my age and hence it was more difficult for me to adjust. I returned to my mother’s place which was on the verge of hunger and starvation. It was a difficult choice, says Sehroj. Her husband came to her home and asked her to return. Her mother thought that it was better for Sehroj to go back to her ‘home’. Again she was forced to go to her ‘home’ but this time she took her younger sister along with. Unfortunately, she could not match the expectations of her husband and finally returned with in a fortnight.

My mother and younger sisters needed me’, says Sehroj with a moist eyes. I had seen the poverty and hunger and I was determined that I would not allow my family to live in the same circumstances which I faced in my childhood’, she said.

Sehroj took care of her family. She started looking for job again. It is very difficult to get a job in India’s rural structure. It is more difficult for women and that too from the Muslim community as the rural biases and prejudices are already prevailing in our system.

After some search she got a job in Vanangana, a women’s right organization. It gave a new dynamism to Sehroj’s personality. She understood the oppression of women. Her perception change and she started looking it in greater perspective. The work gave her much needed stability as she started uniting her family. Her younger brother had left the family for good with his own family in Mumbai. Two other younger brothers are too young to understand things. She has got her one sister married and says with pride that I want to educate the others and get them ‘settled’.

Still, she had not divorced. Her husband would come and create problem for her. Finally, on the advise of her colleagues and friends, she filed for a divorce and was given it ex-party as her husband never appeared for the case.

It was difficult once again for her. People would make silly remark about her character. She damned everything and continued her education. She completed her BA privately during this period. Unfortunately, she again came into a wedlock with a person who wanted her to stay inside. ‘ Muslim woman should not go outside the house. They are the ‘ijjat’, honor of the family’, her husband would ask her. Sehroj by now had become a woman committed to the cause. She decided against her husband’s dictate and started living separately near his house. He is still ready to accept her provided she leave the job and remain as an ‘honor’ of the family inside the four walls of the house.

Though Sehroj is working with a women’s organization, she want to do specific work for her village. In the spare time she find, she is educating the Dalit girls and want to give them technical skills and educate them about their rights. She says that women too have a right feel happy and enjoy apart from looking after family and children.

Bundelkhand was immortalized by the poetry of Subhudra Kumari Chauhan on Rani Laxmi Bai. But today’s facts reveal the dirty side of Bundelkhand. Despite farmer’s distress, despite water crisis, in one area, Bundelkhand dominate, and that is violence against women. A walk in the street of Karvi town and you would rarely find women going alone with her head high. Even the women’s organizations that worked and changed perception of a number of women’s in the region find it difficult to work in such a hostile terrain. The civil society organizations, which claim to work for the people, do not allow their women to come out. So it is liberation of others not from with in the families. Identities are used to serve purpose of a particular community and person. Bundelkhand has huge organizations. It is easier for them to get vast track of land in their name while the communities are starving. You have trust from big corporations, from local political bigwigs, from the Goons. You have land, thousands of acres in the name of Mutths, colleges, Gaushalas, trusts and temples, but unfortunately there is nothing for the poor. And among the poor, nobody counts women. It is ironical that we are exposing in India’s heartland of Uttar-Pradesh where land for poor is a luxury but land for all other things is available provided you have political clout, power to pay bribed and bureaucratic connections.

Sehroj has a dream. A dream for women of her community to live better lives. To understand their rights and ask for it. Though, she has been serving her mother from the bottom of her heart, she knows well that her mother would never want her share in the property. She says, it is your duty to serve your husband and if you are divorced or destitute, you should serve the brothers.’ ‘ Sewa main he mewa hai, says her mother. Sehroj feel anguished why women are denied right despite of the fact that Shariat has given so much of rights to women. She is going to educate the women of her community that her religion has given them enough right and that they should ask for it. Whenever, she get time, she teach her sisters and village people. Just about 2 kilometer from karvi town is village Taraunha where Sehroj is trying to live an honorable life. A life, which is still uncertain with so much, pulls and pressure from the society, which does not give individual a choice to live with dignity and freedom. She has faced a lot in her life and is determined to make things better. One only hopes that the personal struggle of Sehroj will not go in vain. Her struggle continues, it need acknowledgement and support from the community as well as all those who believe in triumph of human spirit.

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