Friday, April 04, 2008

A movement in action

1st April, 2008

I had visited Richa Singh and other members of Sangtin in Sitapur dt., UP back in 2005. Blog entries from that time can be found here. Back then Richa, Surbala, Reena and others were still exploring various issues affecting the region. They were clear on their approaches and philosophy but not on what exactly they would be doing. Through the rest of 2005, they had intense discussions in villages throughout Mishrikh block. The first issue they took up on a regional level was 'nahar ka mudda' – the canal issue. The main canal in Mishrikh block had plenty of water, but a wall blocked water from reaching a number of villages downstream. Through intense mobilization, pressure was put on local officials to repair the canal downstream and release water into it. Finally, in January 2006, water was released into the canal. This started the next campaign – enduring that wages and foodgrains were provided to the labourers as promised.

Ever since then, Sangtin has taken on a number of issues, mainly livelihood related and has evolved into Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan (SKMS). Sitapur dt. was one of the pilot districts where NREGA was first implemented and SKMS has taken on the fight to get the promised employment for villagers. When employment is not provided for those who seek it, the Law has a provision for an unemployment allowance. But getting this from the State is no easy matter. Unable to make any progress on this issue, SKMS organized a massive dharna in December 2007. For 10 days during the peak winter season, 300-600 people occupied the compound of Vikas Bhavan (the District Headquarters) in Sitapur. They slept and ate there, chanted slogans and listened to speeches, walked the corridors, went on hunger strikes and organized a 'gheraao' of the Chief Development Officer (CDO) who is in charge of NREGA implementation at the district level.

The most amazing part, in my opinion, was the amount of local support they received. Food, tents and blankets were donated and a number of residents of Sitapur donated money to the cause. The protestors had two donation boxes - one was labeled 'Contribute to support our Sangathan' and another was labeled 'Contribute to bribe the CDO'. They collected some money in the latter box as well and this was duly handed over to the CDO!

After 10 days, the District Government finally agreed to set up a committee to investigate whether there are eligible recipients for the unemployment allowance in the blocks of Mishrikh and Pisawa. Six people were appointed to the committee, of which three were from SKMS and its supporters. The report was submitted on March 14th. One component of the report is yet to be completed for which an order from the DM is necessary. This was where the situation stood when we arrived.

We reached Sitapur on the noon of April 1st and were met at the bus stand by Richa and her son Sunny. We had planned on traveling light, but ended up with 5 bags of varying sizes (thankfully, nothing of transatlantic proportions). Luckily for us, Richa had arranged for a room for us with a neighbour – she lives with her son and mother and is constantly hosting family and friends.

We arrived here without much of a plan beyond learning from SKMS's work and contributing in whatever way we can. But if this is not to turn out into a continuation of our long vacation, we need to have something more concrete in place. The first evening, we sat with Richa and Mukesh, an associate from Lucknow, to get some ideas. Mukesh had earlier talked about his motivation for working with SKMS. He is interested in strengthening movements and building their understanding. As he put it, “When Richa, Surbala, Reena and the rest were in the DM's office arguing with him, I was outside with the rest of the protestors, keeping their energy up.”

Richa also talked about what she saw as the needs of the organization and where the current campaign was going. Then we talked about what Dwiji and I could do. There was talk about designing a website and identifying sources for specific funding needs. Of course, we also plan to spend plenty of time traveling to villages and learning how things work at that level.

Another associate of SKMS, Sharmaji, came by in the evening - he is a journalist with Hindustan Times. During the conversation, he shared some news about Mishrikh block which shocked Richa before she realized what the date was! It appears that April Fool's Day is celebrated as well as any other festival in this part of the world...

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