Thursday, July 17, 2008

Potnal ooralli (in the village of Potnal)

June 25th, 2008

We reached the JMS (Jagruta Mahila Sangathana) premises in Potnal, Raichur dt. on Tuesday night and woke up to the sound of children busy at their morning tasks. A child labour school is run in JMS and the room we were sleeping in was usually used by the boys who had slept in the hall instead.

After our breakfast, we were introducted to the JMS staff. The organization was formed by 8 people in 1999 – 4 from within the area and 4 from outside. Today the locals run the organization with a little help from the outsiders, including Premdas who is now with CHC. There are 6 Sanchalakis – convenors of the village sanghas, plus 3 teachers in charge of the school and a cook with 2 assistants. JMS started its work in 4 villages and now operates in 20 villages with 40 sanghas and a membership of about 800.

The challenges of working with Dalit women in Raichur dt., one of the most underdeveloped areas of Karnataka, was elaborated on through numbers and anecdotes. The literacy rate is about 1% among these women, most are landless or have less than 2 acres of unirrigated land and they face discrimination and even violence from upper castes. Further, being women, they face violence at home and get less than half the daily wage that men receive. A 3-year drought in recent history led to large-scale migration from the area. However, since forming Sanghas, the women have been able to unite and mobilize against injustice. In one incident, a woman was paraded naked in her village as a 'punishment'. The JMS women protested for action against the offenders and even managed to shut down Potnal, a big-sized village with plenty of shops, for a day. Legal action was taken and the woman received compensation. Another time, JMS organized a habba (festival) that was attended by the local MLA. The women demanded that he sanction funds for a road and he agreed. Their menfolk were unhappy with their actions and refused to cooperate, so the women began digging the road themselves. Their most notable achievement, in my opinion, was their action against harvesters - these machines were taking away the livelihoods of families already under distress. Their mobilization led to harvesters being banned throughout Raichur dt., a first in the country.

Later in the day, we met with John, a post-doctoral fellow from the University of London. He has been visiting Karnataka for the last 3-4 years, studying the impact of post-Washington consensus on PRIs and government programs at the village level. In brief, his conclusions are that the withdrawal of the state, which has been cloaked in 'governance at the village level', manifests itself through the poor technical support given to projects, understaffing, systemic corruption and the transformation of NGOs into contractors. He talked about how civil society is being depoliticized and neoliberalized. He also analysed the performance of NREGA and NRHM. I felt that the work and analysis he was doing needed to be shared in wider platforms than just academia and he replied that he was doing that to a certain extent and looking to disseminate his findings more widely.

Afterwards, Premdas led a session on Hyderabad Karnataka. The districts of Bidar, Gulbarga, Raichur, Koppal and Bellary were all under the Hyderabad Nizam's rule. In fact, they received independence on September 17th, 1948, more than a year after the rest of India. The Nizam retained the feudal system and the effects of this can still be seen today in terms of the huge inequities in land holdings. For example, a sitting MP, Rajarajeshwari, owned more than 10,000 acres. After 4 years of protest, she distributed just 100 acres of her land, that too of poor quality. In contrast, in coastal Karnataka, tillers in the lands of absentee landlords wrested control of the land after the Land Reforms Act was passed by the Indira Gandhi government. In Raichur, after the TB dam was built, land values further increased and there was even more encroachment by the landlords. In the earlier session, one Sanchalaki had talked about some rudimentary toilets the women had built, more to give themselves privacy than for hygiene purposes. This is directly attributable to the overuse of land.

We also spent some time going over statistics on health, education etc. in various districts in Karnataka. The districts of Hyderabad Karnataka were almost always at the bottom of the list. A lot of money has been pumped into these districts but has had little impact in the light of the strong structural inequities in place. However, the work done by JMS and other organizations in the district have shown that even in such situations, some change can be brought about through collective action.

As the day drew to an end, the shouts and laughter from the children drew us outside into the yard. As is common throughout India wherever there is a little place to be had, a cricket game was in progress. Jeyapaul, Sabyasachi and Lakshmi jumped into the game almost instantly with full enthusiasm. I stood around watching for a while until I noticed that only boys were playing and a group of girls were watching them. This wouldn't do! I went up to them and suggested they also play, at which they turned around and asked me to teach them a game! I was stumped for a minute, then remembered wishing I could play 'lagori' recently. Varsha joined in as did one of the schoolteachers, Sakeena. The game was played furiously – Varsha is as competitive as an eight year old – and I had an amazing time.

Later that night, when the children were saying their nightly prayers, Jeyapaul taught them a song that goes:

'Every single cell in my body is happy

Every single cell in my body is well
I thank you God, I feel so good
Every single cell in my body feels well'
complete with action and repetition at different speeds. What a fun little prayer it was!

No comments: