Agents of change who lift society
Mar 04 2013
In Ahmedabad, Elaben Bhatt, a trade unionist, organised the women workers, hawkers, rag pickers and such menial task performers. She empowered them by unionising them and introducing the habit of saving and securing their families’ future. Thus, self-employed women’s association (SEWA) was formed; a union of self employed women. Today SEWA works with women living in the slums of Ahmedabad, rag pickers, garbage collectors and sorters, recyclers, hawkers, dairy and fisheries operations, vegetable vendors and artisans within Ahmedabad’s various ghettos. They have programmes in the rural areas of the state too; their shop Hansiba has become a chic destination for conscientious and fashionable buyers. Hilary Clinton is one of their regular patrons.
SEWA runs India’s only profitable bank for and by women, since long before the finance minister thought about it in his current budget. The Sewa Bank started with a capital of a few hundred rupees and has grown, unlike the FM’s grandiose scheme of a bank with a capital of Rs1,000 crore.
50 kilometres from Ajmer is the tiny hamlet Tillonia, in arid Rajasthan. Bunker Roy established Barefoot College, an institution that takes pride in being the sanctuary of the unlettered. The institution is owned by locals and runs according to their collective wisdom. They work in the sector of rural welfare, education and empowerment. The members of the organisation take pride in telling you they are unlettered. Ramsinghji heads their team of puppeteers who make traditional puppets right from finger puppets to giant puppets, which are carried on long bamboos. Ramsinghji and his team decide the subject of their puppet dramas, make the puppets of the characters required in those dramas, write the scripts, dialogues, songs and set it to music themselves. They even become the characters and perform the dramas themselves and take their travelling puppet shows all over the region. They mediate to resolve disputes and conflicts within communities too.
Badi mai, is a dai who provides primary healthcare to rural women, spreads health and hygiene awareness amongst them, educates them about family planning, dispenses condoms and helps deliver their children. Her influence is in a 50-kilometre area around Tillonia. Shanta bai learnt dental procedures from a visiting Italian dentist for six months. Today, she runs the dental clinic at Barefoot College. She provides oral hygiene and care for the village children and adults and treats 40-50 patients in a week. She does dental cleaning, fills cavities and also makes basic dental prosthetics. Jaya learnt acupuncture and runs the acupuncture clinic at Barefoot College. A group of women manufactures sanitary pads, produces the packaging too and sell a branded product to rural women. All these women are unlettered, however, they take pride in telling you that they are uneducated and yet are doing such great work in the community.
Barefoot College runs a programme to train poor rural women to become solar power entrepreneurs. Women receive six months training in assembling and maintaining solar power generation and output units. At the end of the training, women are able to put together a domestic solar power unit from scratch and maintain it. At the end of her training, Barefoot College provides her with seed capital in the form of component kits of solar power units with which she can start her solar power solutions business. Trainees are selected from amongst the most poor and needy families and brought to the college campus at Tillonia. Women also manufacture solar chulhas and big capacity solar water heaters. The college provides this six-month training to women from all over the world including Afghanistan, Africa and Latin America at their campus in Tillonia.
There are many such organisations working with the poorest of the poor and the weakest of the weak, offering them out of the box solutions to their chronic problems. An NGO in the Pratapghar district of Uttar Pradesh works with forest communities. They gather pine needles and are now producing electricity from gasified pine needles along with producing coal briquettes for cooking fuel from the residue.
The government successfully killed off khadi and village industries commission (KVIC), but Fab India has successfully implemented the KVIC model and runs a profitable and ethical business corporate; a business model conceived by the father of the nation, Bapu. There are many more individuals and organisations working silently all over India, amongst its most needy, exploited and neglected.
These are the people and organisation that are the change agents and the reason that India survives, the change agents who give hope to the hopeless that they will one day emerge into the faint glimmer they see at the far end of the tunnel, into the promised land, the land of Bapu’s dream, a land which will truly achieve Purna Swaraj, complete freedom.
(The writer is founder president, Mahatma Gandhi Foundation)
(This is the second article of a two part series)