Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Real life and reel life in Sitapur and Lucknow

March 10th and 11th:

I reached Sitapur, UP at 4.30 am and was met by Richa Singh of Sangtin and her son Sunny. We reached her house in 15 minutes. Richa was set to attend a Mahila Samakhya meeting to commemorate Women's Day later in the day – though she has resigned and left the group, she was in charge of the district program for 8 years and her connections with the village and block-level staff are still strong. I declined to accompany her due to exhaustion and slept most of the morning away!

Amma, Richa's mother, lives with her and manages the house. I spent the afternoon talking with her and watching the ongoing cricket match. Richa returned in the evening, red not from exertion but from Holi colors! Since the women would not meet in such large numbers before Holi, they celebrated in advance. We sat and talked about this and other Women's Day celebrations – different groups had planned events through the month. As Richa put it, “It's no longer on March 8th - celebrations are planned on the convenience of the chief guests, usually from Delhi, Lucknow and other big cities!”

We also talked a bit about the program for the next few days – initially, we were to visit MKSS in Rajasthan during this time, but the latter had declined as they were very busy in March. So now the plan was to spend this time in Sitapur dt. itself. The full group was to meet on the weekend. Some of its members are still employed in Mahila Samakhya, so this was the only time they'd be free. 5 women are associated full-time with Sangtin. More might be if there were a source of income or funding – right now this is a prime concern of the group. They don't want to take funds to implement programs based on external requirements – plenty of funding agencies are ready to provide funds for HIV/AIDS programs or those wholly on violence against women. But Sangtin is resisting being thus restricted, so far at least.

I spent the rest of the day and Friday at Richa's home, checking e-mail, doing a bit of writing, watching bits of the Test match and eating great food!

March 12th and 13th:

On Saturday, we headed out to Mishrikh, headquarters of Mishrikh block, where the meeting was to be held. At Mishrikh, we first went to Anupam, a Sangtin member's house. Her husband has been suffering from cancer for the past few years and at this time, was in a slightly better condition than before. The problem, of course, has been expenses. The cost of his treatment is gradually sinking the family into debt and Anupam's salary is at present the family's main, perhaps only income. This family's situation is sadly replicated across India, where medical bills have the potential to financially ruin a household.

The meeting was to be in Mishrikh's dharamshala, which provides the group a discounted rate. This time, they had refused to oblige, so we congregated in a backup place, someone's vacant house. Some of the other women – Surbala, Vibha, Reshma, Reena and Kshama turned up and we started chatting. In the meantime, the house owner, who has an NGO of his own, turned up. Realizing I was a visitor from the States, he started talking to me in English, despite the fact that I was replying in Hindi and all the others present were not conversant in English! The travails of being a foreign-return! Of course, the situation couldn't continue – all the women got actively involved in the discussion of whether sex-selective abortions in rural areas (an issue he is working on) are as big a problem as those in urban areas – rural communities often lack access to abortion centers, and more often the money to pay for abortions even when necessary, was their consensus.

Within a while, Surbala negotiated the use of the dharamshala room and we moved there. This was the place where most of the discussions that led to the book 'Sangtin yatra' and following it had taken place, and they all seem to have an emotional attachment to it. Without further ado (and some chai), we got talking. The meeting was to be for 24 hours, from noon to noon. They talked about the problems of attending morning meetings which are still quite common in organizations. Most women have plenty of chores in the morning and then it takes them atleast an hour or two to reach the town from their villages, making them late. “We are just village-level workers – so what do we know about punctuality?” remarked one. There was a lot of anger over how they were treated in the aftermath of the book, especially when compared to how 'city' folk's books are received. “They can write a book about the rape of a village woman or the abuse of another without taking permission and they are praised for their bold work, but let us tell the world how things are in NGOs and they talk about our arrogance,” was said by more than one person.

There was also a lot of talk and laughter about the increase in 'value' of a person if she speaks English. “Paani ko water kahe to...” joked Vibha. The differential treatment of 'ismart' people and the village folk received caustic commentaries. “A smart person, wearing a good sari and speaking English, will find a place everywhere. She can sit on a chair, get whatever she asks for... As for the village women, the mat is their place,” commented Reena. The discussion moved to different forms of discrimination that exist already in villages – who gets to sit on the 'chatai' (mat) and who doesn't. “But how can this kind of discrimination exist in a group that is fighting for social justice?” asked Richa. Yet another topic that received attention was the amount of money spent on planning meetings. Richa had recently participated in NCERT discussions on curriculum. The meetings were organized in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata and all attendees were provided accomodation and air fare. If the money spent on these meetings was actually spent at the village level... In village schools, the number of teachers and quality of education was dropping. “Once, there were schools every 10 km or so,” said Anupam. “And then there were reasonable levels of teachers. But now there are schools 2 km apart, but with very few positions filled.” Richa recounted an incident during one meeting, where a young teacher from Madhya Pradesh said that the school fees many of the people in the room were paying for their children equals the salary of a shiksha mitr (teacher's aide). And these salaries are often given a year late. So how can village children even expect a reasonable education? She was told that her question is not appropriate – people have the freedom to pay as much as they want for their children's education and such comparisons should not be made.

A long, intense discussion ensued about corruption and abuses in government and non-governmental agencies. Accounts of practices of jeep drivers who ferry passengers around in Sitapur dt. to a scheme which collected huge amounts of money through application fees and was then cancelled were shared. The women explored the increasing dependance on mass-marketed products, at the cost of home-based and local products and the implications for local economies. They asked me whether corruption exists in the United States and I tried to answer the question as best I could!

From the world to the home front – the events of last June when the book 'Sangtin yatra' was released and the reaction of Mahila Samakhya were recounted at great length. The organization had asked the women to apologize and issue a public statement retracting the points they had made in the book about it's operation. They had refused, and this led to Richa being transferred to Saharanpur and ultimately her resignation. Other Sangtin members continue to work in Mahila Samakhya – they talked about some projects that they have had to work on, even though these were incidental to their perceived role, that of empowerment of women and Dalits. They all agree that Mahila Samakhya played a huge role in their lives – bringing them out of their houses, giving them an income and opening up their world. They have now reached a point where they can see the limitations and failures of this top-down approach and yearn for something that is grassroots in nature and does not limit the issues it tackles. “How can you just work on violence against women and not look at education, income, injustice...? These are all connected.”

“How will Sangtin be funded?” I asked. This was not an easy question to answer for the group. Ideally they would not like to be dependant on anybody for money, but they know it is not possible at this point. Some of them are breadwinners for their families and none have assets that they can live off solely. Reena maintains a women's dairy in her village, which generates a little income. She is hoping that, if and when the volume of milk increases, Sangtin can run a dairy of its own (right now the milk is supplied to Parag dairy for processing, packaging etc.). But that is a distant plan. Another ongoing effort is in 'chikan' (embroidery) work being done by girls in Qutubnagar. One model of income generation through chikan is SEWA, Lucknow, which has its own inhouse designer, shop and so on. Something at that scale requires a lot of capital and is fraught with risks. Something simpler, such as sending finished goods to a few dealers, also requires at least Rs. 50,000/- But they are doing what they can on a small scale right now.

Where funding is concerned, Sangtin has approached Oxfam and it looks likely that a fellowship will be provided. Sangtin has applied in Surbala's name, which is creating problems since she does not have the necessary 'qualifications'. They are more willing to support Richa, even though she is already receiving support from AID! However the money comes, it will be used to support the 4 other Sangtin full-timers – Surbala, Reena, Kshama and Geeta. Sangtin could receive more funding if it agrees to work dictated by funding agencies. It has done that at certain times in the past, and has not had good experiences, and is resisting doing that in the future.

One bit of sad news – the group is closing 2 schools that were operating in Mishrikh block. They had applied to ASHA for funding, but the process is taking so long that they have spent more than Rs. 50,000/- in the meantime. Finally, they decided in their last meeting that, since the funding decision is also uncertain, they could not afford to operate these schools any more – already their cutbacks were beginning to affect the school performance. It was a painful step, but inevitable, in Richa's opinion. I kept thinking about the times we have delayed in project approval. Most of the time, local groups can afford to wait. But once in a while, a group has to cut back and a great program is lost.

The conversation went on, back and forth, as the evening turned to night and chai was followed by dinner. A number of questions were directed to me about the US, the war in Iraq, my personal life and motivations. One of the questions I had posed to the group earlier was, “What is the line between genuine information exchange and exploitation?” Some cases they had told me about were horrific, one being that of a young woman whose nose was cut off, literally, by her father-in-law and his cronies – she had dared to refuse his sexual advances. This woman's case had been taken to the national level in a public tribunal, and yet, to date, she hasn't received any of the support promised to her. The contention of the Sangtin members was that publicity of such cases help advance some women's careers (those who 'bring' them to the national stage), but do not lead to any solution. Therefore, such cases should not be used in such an exhibitionist manner. While agreeing with them about the problems in procedure, I argued that the publication and analysis of such cases was what brought Mahila Samakhya to UP, as well as other groups including AID. Further, it is hard to bring about changes after one public tribunal a number of such efforts are required to bring about long-term changes. The women responded that information had to go out of the villages, but it should go out in good faith. Further, information should also come into villages – there has to be a two-way exchange. In this context, I felt the questions were helping establish AID's and our chapter's credibility in their eyes and cementing this two-way exchange!

On Sunday morning, we continued the discussion with action items – planning my visits for the next few days. I wanted to visit the dairy and this first produced some hesitation. “None of the houses in Reena's village have toilets,” explained Richa. The rest started arguing among themselves on whether it was advisable or not to let me go. “She will shit in the fields – so what?” asked Vibha. A lot of ribbing at my expense followed! Finally, the trip was agreed upon. Further, we decided that Richa and I would go to Khairabad where a carpet industry flourishes. Reshma's brother and family are weavers and the group is seriously contemplating working with this community – in what fashion they still don't know.

We left the marathon meeting at noon – I was to head to Lucknow later that day. We parted with promises to meet again before I left and headed back to the junction in Mishrikh where jeeps were waiting.

I was heading to Lucknow to stay with Madhavi Kuckreja, an ex-AID Saathi. She had invited me to spend time with her, meet some folks in Lucknow and also watch a play on Sunday evening – a play based on a Premchand story performed by IPTA (Indian People's Theater Association). I reached Lucknow 20 minutes before the play was scheduled to start. Madhavi came to receive me in a battered red truck (well, truck as defined in America, not the Indian style, thankfully!) It was a 40th birthday gift from a friend in Orissa, she told me. In the car were Armaan, her son, his friends and last, but not the least, the driver. At the theater, we met visitors from Karvi – Vanangana staff had come to Lucknow to discuss some group work with Madhavi and also to talk about female handpump mechanics in Armaan's school. Huma Khan, another Vanangana associate currently studying in London was also present.

The play, 'Brahm ka swang' was nothing to write home about – it was about 45 minutes long, but since this was the 500th performance, it was preceded by extremely verbose speakers from the IPTA board. This included the chief guest A.K. Hangal, who spent more time talking about Sholay than Premchand, whose writings he admitted he hadn't read! Couldn't he atleast have read one story in preparation, or had one read to him if reading is too much of a strain? But hey, he's a film star!

The crowning glory of the day, at least culinarily, was a visit to Shukla chaat house. I have to say that Lucknow knows its chaat!

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