Archive for August 2008
If it was a normal year, end of July is the time when the rains are just starting up in Sitapur. This year, the rains had started by late May and a steady downpour had resulted in flooded fields and swamped paths around the district. When we reached Sitapur in the last week of July, people were fairly certain that the worst was yet to come, given that the real monsoon months were coming up. Bracing for worse conditions is a coping mechanism that most of us employ and we felt that this might be the case here.
As days rolled on, we realized that indeed the rains were continuing at a steady pace. By 14th July there were reports of flooding in low lying villages and by the 18th parts of Kunwarapur, and some of the other villages that we had visited frequently during our stay earlier in the year, were under water.
Most houses in this part of the land are built of mud and straw roof. They might have one room with a mud roof on wooden rafters within which they store their grains and other valuables. There are some houses with brick walls, but most of these have mud roof on wooden rafters as well. Only a few houses are built of brick & mortar and have concrete roofs. The straw roofs are quite resilient against rain and as long as the water flows off they hold out pretty well. The mud walls though are a different story. One could see lots of grass and small plants growing on the top of the walls. And one by one, the walls began to melt and collapse under the persistent rains even in villages where there was no standing water. Soon, the reports of houses and villages flooding seemed to be far outpaced by reports of collapsed walls, caved in roofs and lost grains.
The day we arrived in Sitapur, Umesh Pandey, a local Bharatiya Kisan Union leader offered to drop us in Mishrikh. He is a local politician with a good sense of humor and a fairly good vocabulory. While driving along the state highway we had noticed that the fields on either side were flooded and very few fields had any standing crops. When asked if the rains this time around was normal, he said, “Bhaisaab, is baar jo ho raha hein, woh barish nahi, prakrutik aatank hein!” (“Dear sir, what we are seeing this year is not rain but nature’s terror”). After about a month in the region and after seeing the lost crops, collapsed walls, lost grains, widespread ill health, severly affected cattle, and a few lost lives, his words seem so true.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, a group of the Sanghatan’s saathis are planning to go on an exposure tour to the Narmada valley. As part of the logistics for the tour, I was checking on train tickets both online and in the ‘Trains at a Glance’, a passenger guide brought out by the Indian Railways. I found out that farmers travelling to a river valley project can avail a 25% discount. The concession was most probably designed to have people go ga-ga about dams and river projects, and our mission was pretty much the opposite in that we wanted to know how the local communities came together as a Sanghatan and are fighting not just the govt. but an unjust court and a barely perturbed urban population.
In order to get the discount, a certificate from the Block Development Officer (BDO), or the District Magistrate has to be produced before a commercial officer who would then issue an authorization that would allow for concessional tickets to be issued. Most people I talked to said that there was a minimum party size of twenty required for all the discount schemes that farmers could avail. But re-reading the rules in the book and online, I found that that was not the case in this particular category.
Of the eleven saathis in the group travelling to Badwani, seven were from Mishrikh and four from Pisawan. The BDO in the Mishrikh block has changed more than 5 times in the past 3 years. This does not give them sufficient time to realize that they have to work with the Sanghatan rather than oppose or obstruct them. The current BDO was posted in mid June and from what I had heard she was a fairly loud woman who spoke more than she listened. It took me three visits over two days to get this certificate from her office and my experience confirmed what I had heard about her. The BDO in Pisawan is a young man who has been around for more than 4 years now. Over time the Sanghatan has not just become familiar but has also earned his respect and cooperation. So expectedly, getting the necessary certificate from him was just a matter of a few minutes of waiting.
The nearest commercial officer of the railways was located in Lucknow, a good three hours away. The Divisional office of the North East Railways in Lucknow turned out to be a typical govt. office. The concerned person was ‘on leave’, the immediate superior couldn’t care less, the office superintendent told us to wait till the concerned person arrived whenever that would be, and the peons were all united in condemning the babus. After running from one desk to another for a good two hours, we decided to go see the big boss and ask her to get someone to attend to our concession request. Once the big boss ordered that our request be completed before anything else, there were four babus trying to figure out whether there was indeed such a concession and what was needed to be done. The search for the appropriate rule book took almost an hour and to our dismay, it clearly stated that there was a minimum party size of twenty for this category as well. The lesson learnt after a good three days of running around: Passenger guides or websites are not rule books!
Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sanghatan (SKMS) has a presence in some 60 to 70 villages in Mishrikh and Pisawa blocks of Sitapur district. There are village level committees which hold regular meetings to discuss issues of concern and chart a course of action. Once a month, sanghatan ke sakriya saathi (active partners of the Sanghatan) represent their village at a kshetriya baithak (regional meeting) where regional issues are discussed and strategies worked out. At these regional meets there are also people who are just becoming active and / or seeking to know what happens at the regional meetings.
During our 6 week stay earlier in the year (Apr-May) we had attended a few village meetings and two rounds of the regional meets. In June capacity building trainings were conducted for the emerging leadership and after getting to know more about the details of the workshop, Sudha and I were looking forward to see the difference during the regional meetings this time around.
The first regional meeting was in the Aant region. The mobilization in the villages here is still picking up steam and the leadership too reflects its nascent stage. The next meeting in Qutubnagar is almost an exact opposite. The Sanghatan is very strong in many villages here and the local activists are real firebrands. At the Qutubnagar meeting earlier in the week, it was decided that each sakriya saathi who turns up late would get a punishment – to lead the group that had already arrived with slogans and songs. The number of slogans and songs that they would have to lead would be dependent on how late they arrive. (Most of the village activists walk or cycle for a few kilometers to get to the meeting place.)
Sunita from Husseinpur was one of the first late comers. It was decided that she had to lead with five slogans before she could sit down. Hesitatingly she lead with two, Ladenge ! Jeetenge !! (We will fight ! We will win!!) and Kamanewala khayega! Lootnewala jaayega!! Naya zamana aayega !!! (workers will eat; looters will go; a new era is coming). As she tried to sit down, Surbala one of the representatives of the Sanghatan and a regional level mobilizer, stopped her and reminded that she still had three more slogans to go. With just this bit of an extra push was sufficient to melt Sunita’s hesitation and soon she was leading with her full voice and fire. One after the other she lead with not just three but five more slogans ! The effects of the training was right there for all to see.
Our first visit to Sitapur earlier this year was soon after Holi, the festival of colors. At that time of the year, the harvest is completed and a three to four week window opens up when there isn’t much work in the fields. The heat and the hot wind apparently does not deter people from stepping out of the house and travelling. Almost all the members of the sanghatan are farmer-labourers and thanks to this window of time, we were able to meet with a lot of them in different village and regional meetings.
Most women members bring their kids along to the meetings. The venue of the regional meetings are usually equidistant from the villages in that region. In the few kilometers they walk to get to the meeting, the kids fall asleep in the arms of their mothers. As the meeting begins and people start speaking, the kids start waking up and pretty soon they get active with their own games and exploring. As two or more kids start playing together, the noise level goes up and the people at the meeting start asking the mothers to control their kids. Usually this means that one or more of the kids get whacked by their mother(s) and soon one can hear more than one kid wailing away. Once the wailing starts, invariably, almost all the mothers I noticed employ the silencer – dragging the kid into their lap, they stick the kid to their breasts and start feeding! With no fighting or wailing kids, the meeting goes on.
Breast feeding in public is an accepted practice in these parts. Infact, in some cases the women do not even bother covering the kid or their exposed breast under the free end of their saree. Though there is a sad facet, I feel, to this story. Almost as a rule, every woman of child bearing age had a baby in her hands or on her lap, and may be even a kid one or two trailing along. On the other hand, when visiting the villages, I noticed that that most couples had four or fewer kids. So I must confess that the fertility rate is much lower than what I expected seeing all the babies in public places. But yes, it is higher than the global or even the national average.
A team of eleven has been short listed by the core team of Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sanghatan (SKMS) for an exposure trip to the Narmada valley. With Sudha and me tagging along, it is a thirteen member team that will be going on this trip. Jagruth Adivasi Dalith Sanghatan and the Narmada Bachao Andolan in the Satpura hills and along the Narmada valley are the main focus of the visit. Due to the long distance from Sitapur and the limited time that the families can go with one less wage earned in the day, I will be visiting the Adivasi Mukti Sanghatan alone.
Not having any training or experience in representing the Sanghatan, I was hesitant to take up the task of contacting these other people’s movements all by myself. Encouragement from the active members, my usual confidence in learning while doing, and time pressure made me go ahead and start making the phone calls and sending out the emails. Needless to say, I made sure I kept the appropriate people in the Sanghatan posted about the discussions and copied them on emails.
The NBA in Khandwa has started ‘Jal Satyagrah’ in different villages along the Naramada. The villages face submergence every rainy season as the water level rises due to the dams being built. The project affected people who have not been rehabilitated or resettled hold out and sit on a satyagrah in the rising waters. While corresponding with the NBA folks in Khandwa, after a lot of thought, I expressed our solidarity with the struggle saying, ‘I am pretty sure that our team will join in the jal satyagrah for the period that we are there.’
After reading the CCed email, I received some much sought after feedback from Richa, one of the representatives of the Sanghatan. While writing the sentence in question I was hesitant to make a statement on behalf of the Sanghatan, and added the ‘pretty’ to the sentence. But Richa had a point about the ‘our team’. The NGO sector, in sustaining its heirarchichal functioning, (ab)uses the phrase to include those working under them, but not those of a higher position than the speaker. And in the eyes of most village and regional level activists it has become a phrase that coopts their work without indentifying or giving due credit to those who worked hard. Further, the objective of SKMS is to build strong individuals and activists in their own right and not to build a team that can be called to action whenever the need arises. Given these two reasons, when talking about someone active in SKMS a phrase like ‘Sanghatan ke saathi’ or ‘partners of the movement’ is more appropriate and conciously employed. And I totally agree with her. Hopefully the wrong impression that the sentence might have created will be corrected during the trip…
A part of the rural landscape is the flour mill. In Sitapur district, like in most other Hindi speaking areas, it is called a chakki and one can find a chakki in almost every village. The demand for its service is sufficient for chakki owners to overcome the challenges of lack of steady electricity and the increasing diesel cost.
When we returned to Sitapur on July 26th, we decided to live a few days in Mishrikh. It is the block headquarters of one of the blocks in which Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sanghatan (SKMS) is active and thereby closer to the villages. Right across the road from where we were staying was a chakki that was running atleast 18 hours a day. As we started getting used to the noisy background I noticed that most of the time they were extracting oil and not milling flour. I remembered that when we were last here, back in April-May, almost all the chakkis were milling wheat flour.
As we travelled in the region, I noticed that in almost all the chakki that I could see in different villages, oil was being extracted, primarily from mustard. Mustard oil is the primary cooking oil used in most families in this region. And most of them grow atleast one crop of mustard to meet their yearly oil need and then some for the market. The zing in the dishes cooked in these parts can be traced to the strong flavour of mustard oil.
Surprised at the near total domination of oil over flour, I started asking different people about it – chakki owners, village leaders, and house wives, among others. I got many theories in answer, and almost all of them were upfront about the fact that they were guessing. So the theories are: it is probably just a coincidence that whenever I noticed a chakki it was being used to extract oil; more oil is being extracted because it is the rainy season, and people prepare more fried dishes now than in summer, and it could also be that the festival season is approaching and oil consumption goes up during festivals too; the rains have continued much longer than usual, and the high humidity is not good for grains, so reducing the pressure on good storage space by extracting oil from the mustard is a wise idea. The answer is probably a mix of all the theories, and like many such mysteries, is better left in the fuzzy semi-solved state …