Thursday, January 22, 2009

The road to Sitapur

6th - 7th Jan 2009

We returned to Sitapur on New Years Eve after an absence of 4 months. Most of this period was spent in traveling – in the US and Canada, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, MP, Karnataka, Tamilnadu... Dwiji even spent a few weeks in Kerala while I was busy at CHC. So I was ready for a change to mere local journeys – after all, travel within Mishrikh and Pisawa blocks in Sitapur dt. feels comparable to commutes within Bangalore city, maybe better. Though the distances are greater, one is not stuck in traffic jams, breathing in diesel fumes!

The first few days of our return were mainly occupied in acclimatizing to the cold and setting up supplies in the kitchen and one room of the new SKMS premises – we are staying here until we can find a place of our own. I did accompany Reena, Surbala and others to a couple of villages near Mishrikh. The year-and-a-half long campaign for unemployment allowance that SKMS has been involved in is stuck in what should be its penultimate phase. The DM-appointed committee, set up after the December 2007 dharna, came out with its final report on Oct 10th establishing the eligibility of 800+ families for roughly Rs. 15 lakh worth of dues. But, since then, the district administration has been pursuing the usual beaurocratic delaying tactics. Therefore, SKMS is planning an indefinite dharna to demand action on this matter, viz the release of funds to the families as laid out in the report. The current round of village meetings was to drum up support for this dharna in villages in the two blocks.

A committee of 3-5 people from each village were also invited for a 2-day meeting to coordinate and plan for the dharna. The meeting was held at the Mishrikh dharamsala. It was to run from the noon of 6th January to noon of the next day, with as little time spent sleeping as possible! Usually about 60-80 people have turned up at such meetings – this time there were almost 150 people! This did create a few problems with logistics, such as sleeping arrangements, and seating when we had to move inside from the terrace. Also, the even mix of newbies and older hands made it harder to organize the meeting and the agenda. But overall, it was an entertaining mix of songs and slogans (with a lot of people being trained for the same), coordination for the dharna, discussions of other issues and problems and even some scoldings and exhortations. During the past dharna in December 2007, a lot of help and support was requested and given by people in Sitapur. This time, there were more efforts to raise donations in cash and kind (wheat flour, potatoes) from the villages itself. Enough foodstock was pledged to provide food for the protestors for 15 days – hopefully, that will suffice!

While I have spent a reasonable amount of time with the members of SKMS, this workshop provided a lot of new perspectives. Some were quite simple, and given my previous experiences here, logical. After initial problems with people dirtying the toilets, it was quite easy to find an empty and clean one, though there were just 3 available. Villagers here are used to answering nature's call in the open, and they seem to answer it less frequently than us city-bred folks!

A tougher issue, and one that will very likely be a problem during the dharna, is getting folks to cooperate while distributing food, blankets etc. The sad truth is that the members of SKMS are deprived in many ways. When food is being distributed, they think about the children or other family members back home and try to squirrel away some for later. This sometimes results in other people not getting a serving at all, as during the workshop with samosas. At night, the distribution of quilts was similarly problematic. Maybe people just have to develop confidence in the sangathan and in each other. Or perhaps that will always be a challenge.

Anyway, I was sadly reminded of how much food is wasted in marriages, parties and all the other events hosted by the better-off among us. In contrast, during the dharna, due to logistical and economic issues, a simple meal of rotis and 'alu ki sabzi' will be prepared in the evening and just chai in the morning. Some people mentioned how tough it would be to not have anything to eat in the morning and it was suggested that they keep aside some rotis from the evening before. Thankfully, it is winter, with less chances of food spoiling.

The dharna has been finalized for January 16th. My primary responsibility at the time will be with the 'khabar' or news team. We are planning to come out with a daily 'akhbaar' – here's hoping we'll be able to come together as an effective news team!

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