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A ray of hope amidst generations of despair

Bharat Dogra visits a forgotten settlement in Uttar Pradesh and outlines the efforts of the Vidyadham Samiti, a voluntary organisation working to ease the lives of the poorest and most marginalised in the region

Rajaram Ka Purva is a neglected hamlet inhabited by people of the poor Kuchbandia Community in    Mahuwa Panchayat (Banda district) of Uttar Pradesh. As we go around the village, we see mud houses badly in need of repairs, walls covered with polythene sheets, offering hardly any protection from the weather. The ambience is one of families in the process of setting up a proper home, but the people tell us this has been their condition for three or four generations. They are held back from progress because of illiteracy, and forced to live at the mercy of a few big landowners. Even now, hardly any child from the hamlet goes to school, and most welfare programmes don’t reach them. The authorities don’t remember them, except at election times. They neither own nor lease land, despite the Government promise that all rural families would be given land to build homes.

The Kuchbandias are traditionally itinerant people, going from village to village, repairing kitchen tools. Of course, this cannot yield a livelihood anymore, but they have been mostly unsuccessful in getting reasonably paid work, including farm work or employment under NRGEA or the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (a recent short spell of work was an exception, but they were yet to get paid for it, at the time of our visit).

The only means of earning open to them is to travel to the closest city, Banda, and gather at a designated spot with others seeking daily wage work. If they’re lucky enough to be picked up by an employer, they are able to make around Rs 400 after a hard day of labour. If not, they return home, poorer by the Rs 50 they spent on travel. Lack of work means lack of food too. They live from day to day, with nothing to fall back on. During the recent pandemic, when even the uncertain earning options were disrupted, these people were on the verge of starving to death, till suddenly, help came from an unexpected source.

The Vidyadham Samiti (VS) is a voluntary organisation which has been working on many aspects of justice in Banda district. As COVID-related distress increased in several villages under its purview, the Samithi started mobilising grain and other food from various sources to help the distressed communities. VS volunteers heard about the acute distress in Rajaram Ka Purva and went there to check. The founder-coordinator of VS, Raja Bhaiya, says, “What we saw was alarming and we decided to give the people here priority attention.” It turned out to be a life-saving decision.

VS has, for the last seven months, been working on a project named Fund for Global Human Rights for the welfare of this neglected hamlet, and even within this short period, so much has happened that has given new hope to the people living here. Apart from the dismal conditions of the houses, the villagers did not have job cards or ration cards, and their names were not recorded for housing schemes or other welfare measures, the VS volunteers found. This posed a fundamental difficulty in accessing the benefits of government schemes or even ensuring security of the hamlet.

A mobilisation process was set in motion, culminating in a 5-day protest, including a fast which was well-covered by the local media. This brought officials to the hamlet for the first time. Job cards were prepared to enable people to seek work under NREGA. The process of preparing ration cards and income certification was started. Names were sent for approval under the housing scheme on a priority basis, given the precarious condition of the homes.

A new village path has been constructed to provide better access to the village and help end its isolation. Till children can start going to a proper government school, a temporary school has been set up in the hamlet, with Rajaram Ka Purva’s only high school student, Sagar, teaching the other children in the evenings. During our visit, the children are delighted at the prospect of the Independence Day celebration to be held the next day, complete with distribution of sweets, and press us to come back to take part in the festivities. Suddenly, the community is hopeful about the future.

The situation in about 20 other villages where the VS has started implementing the short-term FGHR project is similar. Apart from handling issues specific to each hamlet, common initiatives include setting up community education centres that provide an opportunity for children to get help with ongoing lessons and improve their performance, and also help dropouts to rejoin the mainstream. Mobina, an activist of VS, says efforts are on to make education more interesting as well as simple. A community education committee works to see that village schools function well, including the mid-day meal facility.

Adolescent girl groups called kishori samooh help foster female education and also prevent child marriages and early marriages, thus giving girls a better chance at gaining education, health and general wellbeing. Women’s groups use put up a united front against domestic and sexual violence. Women who have been victims of molestation have been helped to stay safe from further harassment and to get justice, including punishment for culprits and compensation which may even exceed Rs 100,000 for a single instance.  

VS activists also take steps to secure justice for members of the poorest sections of society who are subjected to harassment. A public hearing, known as Chingari Chaupal, is organised on the 30th of every month at the VS office to hear cases of injustice and discuss remedial action. And a companion women’s organisation called Chingari has been working alongside VS, contributing to the success of projects taken up particularly in Mahuwa and Bisanda blocs, turning the atmosphere of despair into one of hope.

(The writer is a senior freelance journalist and author who has been associated with several social movements and initiatives. He lives in New Delhi.)