On the last day of my stay in Sitapur, I met the remaining 2 members of Sangtin – Sasibala and Ramsheela. In all this flurry, we set out at 9 am. After picking up Vibha and Surbala, I realized I had forgotten the carpets!! Well, there's always the postal service!
It took longer than expected to reach the ashram – half of the route was on a single track road. Sandeep had told us that he wouldn't be able to make it to the ashram – the peace march was just 4 days away. There were others to greet us there. A young girl who volunteers at the tuition center told us she had gone to Assam to learn weaving and plans to set up an enterprise in the ashram or nearby. The tuition center operates in the evenings – earlier, it was a day-long school. A school was opened in Lalpur, the neighboring village and so this was made an evening school. The Sangtin women asked whether the school should be continued with a different set of people – dropouts, adults etc. The reply was that these are all wage earners who would not prefer to study during the day. Efforts to include them in the evening classes haven't been in earnest – so far, only children are attending. A weekly clinic is also run with a homeopathic doctor in attendance. A dispensary gives out medicines throughout the week as well.
By this time, Guddu and Neelkamal, two ASHA full-timers had arrived. They started talking about their efforts in Right-to-Information and Right-to-Food. Using RTI, village records were opened in a few villages to examine them for validity. This led to the suspension of the Pradhan in Bharawa village due to misappropriation of a few lakhs. The DM of Sitapur dt. Is very supportive of the ASHA work and has placed all public records and grievance redressals on the Sitapur dt. official website (Note: A Hindi font such as Krutidev is required, which is available on the site). ASHA has been working to ensure the payment of minimum wage (which is Rs. 58 for both men and women in these parts, we were informed) in all government projects.
Under their Right-to-Food efforts, they have been working with villagers to get BPL (Below Poverty Line) cards to the right families. Also, a percentage of ration shop licenses are reserved for poor people, but are typically run by richer folks – one effort has been to ensure that shops are run by the people they were allocated to. This came into a lot of questioning - as Surbala put it, “A deposit of Rs. 60,000 is required and most people can't afford it.” The response was that if the community was mobilized, the money collected could be the group's.
Guddu and Neelkamal then began to talk about a cause close to their hearts – their efforts in the nearby village of Natpurwa. This village was once full of sex workers and its economy ran on this 'business'. Guddu and Neelkamal are themselves from Natpurwa – their lives took a different direction after they went to Lucknow for their studies and met Sandeep. Early on, they had decided they would combat this situation and so they came back to the village and started work. In the 2 years and lots of work since, they have gained the women's sympathies. Women's groups have been formed and alternative lifestyles encouraged. The result is that gangs no longer operate in the area – once upon a time, 'girls' from the village were regularly taken to clients in Hardoi and Lucknow.
More importantly, there are now choices for the young girls in the village. Every time the ASHA staff or village women hear of a situation where a girl is of marriageable age, but her family is poor and is under pressure to 'sell' her off, they hold meetings and collect money to ensure the girl's marriage.
During all the discussions so far, a few things were said that reflected some gender misconceptions – statements like 'Oh, how can women walk so far?' and 'You must all be good cooks - forgive our poor efforts'. As these were nothing serious, they were let lie. But then someone made a statement that the ASHA staff could 'teach' Sangtin how to work on certain issues in Sitapur dt. This spurred Richa to speak and speak she did! In a very polite, yet firm manner, she stressed the experiences that the Sangtin team had and the work they have already initiated with minimal external support. Some statements had been made about how ASHA volunteers worked without salary – Vibha countered with a list of work she already did for free! I cut in with a mention of how they've supported the schools so far with their own money. In short, Sangtin made its case! The discussion then reached a different level, with everyone critiquing working styles, acknowledging hierarchies within organizations and agreeing that any collaboration would have to be two-way.
At this point, we thought of visiting a field area. But Surbala had to get back that night, which would not be possible if she came to Lucknow. Further, since there was not much transportation from the ashram, we had to backtrack and drop her off at the nearest big town well connected to Mishrikh. So we said our goodbyes. Richa said they would plan another outing to the ashram and visit field areas, especially Natpurwa. We parted with good wishes to Guddu and Neelkamal for the peace march - they would participate in turns.
After dropping Surbala off, we continued to Lucknow on a road that degenerated to a dusty path under construction for about 30 km. This tired us out, and inspite of some good kulfi and later lassi, it was a wilted me that boarded the train to Mumbai. But hey – there'd be 24 hours to recover! I said my goodbyes to Richa and Vibha, amid promises to visit again with Dwiji in tow.
Another long journey, this time in a part of the train without any female passengers. Something to be said for the XX factor (chromosomes, I mean!). I got down at Kalyan with the plan of taking a local train to Kanjurmarg (near IIT) and an auto to the Pandes' house, where I would be staying. The train was crowded, even though it was Sunday night – welcome to Bombay!