Interview

Sharada Gopal, one of the founders of Jagruti, is based in Dharwad, Karnataka. A keen political activist, she has worked on issues of women’s rights, health, and employment in rural Karnataka. Competent in several languages, she has translated texts from English to Kannada and has engaged in several policy related fora at both the state and national levels. Sharada Gopal was interviewed for Seminar by A.R. Vasavi.

 

Could you briefly describe your work over the past couple of decades?

I have been part of Jagruti (www.jagruti.org) which was started in 1998 as a registered society in Dharwad, North Karnataka, to empower and enable rural marginalized communities. It started work in 40 villages of Khanapur block of Belagavi district. It was initiated by three village youths who formed Self-Help Groups (SHGs) for women. This was the trend among voluntary organizations in the 1990s. In addition to fostering savings, Jagruti team members would engage women by conducting trainings on how to keep accounts, on leadership, on gender issues etc. Child marriage and girl child trafficking were rampant in and around the area. Girl child trafficking was called ‘Gujjar marriage’ where people would send off their young girls for marriage to some unknown person from Rajasthan. There would be no marriage ceremony. The girl would be taken away in a car after nightfall so not even the neighbourhood knew. Belgaum is among the districts with the lowest girl child sex ratio in Karnataka state. Jagruti started working on these issues on priority. Educating the girl child and making the environment ‘girl-child-friendly’ have been the main issues of concern for Jagruti. Education, campaign, trainings on awareness building along with community meetings helped to bring down the instances of Gujjar marriage to near zero though child marriages continue even today. Jagruti is also campaigning against such practices.

Jagruta Mahila Okkuta (JMO) is a people’s organization that the Jagruti team initiated. Women who were engaged in small savings (SHGs) were organized as Jagruta Mahila Okkuta and unionized to demand jobs in panchayats under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Until MGNREGA, which came into existence in 2007 in Belgavi district, the people had no idea about such a scheme, nor the role of the panchayat in development. Jagruti trained the community on how local government works. Women‘s participation in Gram Sabhas made a huge difference. Gram Sabhas, which was just a show of four elders at village meetings,was turned around to function as a Gram Sabha in the real sense by women’s participation. People would discuss issues concerning children, school, streetlights, MGNREGA work and so on. Social audits were also initiated at Gram Sabhas. Thus, women took an active part in the elections of 2015.

 

Would you say that in contrast to a ‘development approach’ you and the Jagruti team have worked towards a‘rights-based approach’ to equality, justice,and well-being?

Yes, Jagruti always believed in a rights-based approach to realize equality and justice for people’s well-being. Earlier, the entire Jagruti team was experienced in working at the grassroots through voluntary organizations, which took the development road for well-being of oppressed communities. We witnessed the attitude of government officials who would sanction schemes as if handing out freebies. It was as though people were beggars and officials the donors! When the people did not receive their pension, ration, or healthcare, they would just resign themselves to it. Mohammad Sutar, who became totally blind at 40 and was the sole bread earner for the family, received a meager 400 rupees as pension. More often than not the pension would come after three to four months, but he did not complain. Realizing that he was unaware that it was his right, the team started educating people about their rights.

To live with dignity is the constitutional right of every Indian. Once we make people aware of their rights, they are prepared to fight for it. Hence, we started to educate people about their constitutional right to health, food, social security, and also the right to employment.Even the poorest of the poor while buying something would pay tax to government which they are never told of. Jagruti made people aware of tax paid by them and in turn how government is supposed to spend money on infrastructure, food distribution, healthcare, and social security.

People from the villages of Khanapur taluk migrated to Goa and Maharashtra every year. Migration started at an early age of 14-15 years when the boys were still studying in class VIII or IX. After the annual exam the boys would migrate and work on daily wages at construction sites. The little money that they earned in those few months was incentive enough to keep them from going back to school. Money in hand at at that young age with no proper food and an overload of work would lead the young to bad habits. By the time they grew to a marriageable age, they would be the kings of bad habits. This was a common story recounted by every mother at the weekly meetings. Stories of boys who came home for holidays taking a girl from the neighbourhood along were common. In addition, the family would often be deprived of government rations, ICDS food supplied for pregnant and lactating mothers and children. The children would be deprived of the anganwadi, school and education. Not a single child from the village of Valmiki Nagar, comprising only the Scheduled Caste community, would attend school from November onwards as they migrated out to work in the brick kilns until March. Migration was the main issue in every village,and it disrupted village life. At this hour the MGNREGA 2005 came into existence, and the Jagruti team took this opportunity to organize people for their right to work.

Initially the men were reluctant to accept the meagre paying jobs through MGNREGA when they could earn better in the cities. But women readily came forward as it guaranteed work in their own village; it would help them keep the family together, send children to anganwadi and school.

It was not easy for the women. Among other things,the panchayats were unwilling to give jobs to women. But women understood it was their right to get jobs under MGNREGA and they refused to budge from their demands. They unionized themselves and fought the bureaucracy in the village panchyat. They stormed panchayats and other government offices from the village to district level. There were protests at state level too. The officials slowly digested the fact that there was no way out but to provide employment to those who had applied for work at MGNREGA.

The MGNREGA scheme gave Jagruti an opportunity to unionize the community. Dalit women were at the forefront of the movement, and their menfolk soon joined. Slowly, over a period of time, landless labourers from other castes began applying for work at MGNREGA. Small and marginal farmers also joined.Men started accompanying their wives once they realized getting a job at their own village was better than uncertain jobs in faraway places. Meetings and trainings would take place at lunch hour when all of them sat together.

 

What are the challenges (structural/systemic, cultural, caste/class, gender,and others) that you have faced while engaging with these issues?

Inequality is the most pressing issue in rural India. There is inequality among different castes, there is inequality among different classes, inequality between male and female. Buddha, Basava, Gandhi and Ambedkar had all fought against caste inequality, and I feel only education can bring change in rural India. But there is no quality education especially in rural government schools. As a result, private schools are cropping up everywhere like mushrooms. We are seeing children spending most of their time at bus stops or in buses and learning nothing but bad habits. A village school staffed with good teachers, lots of books, and teaching aids, with a focus on skill development, is much needed. Unfortunately, our schools lack teachers with commitment. Our schools lack enough teachers. Most teachers are not bothered whether a child is in school attending class, has learnt something or ate the meal provided under the mid-day meal scheme. A survey done by Jagruti showed 10 per cent of the children are not in schools, contrary to what the attendance books show. Both teachers and parents are only cheating themselves. The higher officials are aware of what is happening.

I feel the schools are the first and foremost culprits for whatever bad or good is happening in rural India. If the school is good, teachers are good, if there were enough reading materials in school, no child would think of leaving school halfway. We did an experiment on gender sensitization among children during some camps and one of the main objectives was gender education. As the team did a follow-up with these children, we saw positive behavioural changes. Many child marriages are now being opposed by the children themselves. Caste barriers can also be broken by children. In children’s Gram Sabha, they have demanded that dropouts be taken back to school, and that child labour be stopped.

 

How are landholding, landlessness, caste, gender, household dynamics and life opportunity interrelated?

Ours is a patriarchal society. More than 80 per cent landholding is with men. When the father dies, the land is automatically transferred to the eldest son of the family. Although women legally have land rights, the reality is that they are unable to access such rights. Women’s names are not to be found in the documents by default, while 79.3 per cent of rural women are engaged in farm activities. There is, in fact, no gender disaggregated data maintained by most governments to ascertain and monitor progress with regard to women farmers’ rights. Much of this stems from a lack of women’s participation in the decision-making process. When land is divided it is only among sons of the family. Daughters and daughters-in-law are not even supposed to be present when families discuss matters about dividing ancestral property. Land ownership confers authority. A widow of the landlord has a lower standing than her own son. Gender discrimination has its roots in landholding. Only landowners, especially large ones, can get a bank loan, not the landless. Banks do not recognize women as customers. Landholding plays an important role both in accessing education, higher education, and jobs outside. A landless person working on daily wages will find it difficult to educate her children.

Caste dynamics are equally important. Caste plays a prominent and dominant role in life opportunities. When the Jagruti team entered Valmiki Nagar, we thought it was a village, but we soon realized it was a dalit colony of another village that was located a kilometre away from the main village – and no ‘upper caste’ person entered Valmaki Nagar. The landlord would stand at the entrance of the street and call, and a labourer would come running with his hands folded. A lesser caste person can come to the house but not inside.This practice is alive even today. The dominant caste of the village will decide on all customs and social systems of the village. We can see many opportunities of education, scholarships, job opportunities and schemes for SC/STs snatched away from them by higher caste, higher class persons. The bureaucracy is so caste conscious that even getting a scholarship under the SC/ST quota is next to impossible for a village dalit child. Jagruti organized students from SC/ST categories and made them apply for scholarships. The students had to face many hardships and challenges to get the amount. And in the second year, they did not succeed in getting scholarships.

A group from a Schedule Caste community was given land by the Land Tribunal in 1977 under the special rules of the Land Grant Act. Eleven families from the village of Mangenkoppa (in Khanapur Taluk of Belagavi Distrcit in Karnataka state) got 10 acres of land which was about 20 kms away from their village. But the highly exploitative caste system acted so strategically that the owners of the land are today struggling for survival with BPL cards clutched in their hands.As of today, not a single SC family is tilling the land. The upper caste shopkeepers and landlords, along with politicians from the same caste, have made sure that SC people would never till the land. More than 60 families from Hukkeri were given land but they shifted to Khanapur taluk 70 years ago. An Agriculture Tenancy Farming Society was formed. Today the society has ceased to exist; people continue to till the land, but the land titles are not with them. There are many such cases in Khanapur taluk alone.

Most unfortunately all these progressive land reforms acts have been repealed both by state and central governments allowing only the upper caste, educated landlords and corporates to accumulate more and more land.

 

Has decentralized democracy and the possibilities of a ‘rights-based approach’ enabled the realization of some of the goals of empowering the most marginalized citizens in rural India?

Yes, certainly! We can see the possibility of realization of some of the goals empowering marginalized citizens. Once people are aware of their rights, they unite to make it a reality. Today MGNREGA is a reality in most of these villages where people’s groups are strong and unionized. Students of SC/ST population have started applying for scholarships. But mind you, the bureaucracy dominated by upper castes and upper classes, is too clever to let go. It is so clever that every dream of Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi remains on paper, but whatever Manu wished exists in reality and practice.

 

What specific roles (as participants, motivators, leaders, elected representatives) have women played in fostering new possibilities?

Women have very important and specific roles as motivators and leaders because they are good participants. Conduct any training/workshop and one will find that attendance of women is in full strength. In contrast, training for men is mostly a failure or a half success. Sitting for hours together and listening is a difficult task for men. Women are good listeners and once convinced they will bring the change into practice. Sitting for dharna for the whole day/night-long is not an issue for them though it is often for men. Fasting, satyagraha is easy for women, and they gather in large numbers. Karnataka saw 3,000 women (very few men) walk for 200 kilometres from Chitradurga to Bangalore in 2019 demanding a ban on liquor in the state. Today whatever Jagruti has achieved is all because we started organizing women.

But we cannot say the same thing when it comes to elections as it is totally a man’s domain despite the government’s 50 per cent quota for women in Gram Panchayats. Women candidates are chosen by the elders of the village which is mostly men. Elders or the political leaders would sit and decide whose wife/daughter-in-law (never a daughter) can stand for elections. If a woman decides to stand her husband will be called and warned. We have few women as elected leaders who are genuine representatives of the people. Only once did Jagruta Mahila Okkuta, through a community organization, contest panchyat elections by selecting candidates from the community. But the government‘s delay in selecting the president of the panchayat disrupted the whole process – all those who had contested and won the elections were taken away to unknown places for manipulation. All candidates were taken on tour, fed, and bribed so that they would elect one person as president of the panchayat. The state-level dirty politics has entered every single village. Organizing people for their rights is somewhat easier than getting them together for their duties.

 

How has Covid-19 affected the rural areas where Jagruti is working?

Migrant labourers returned home as soon as the lockdown was imposed. It was not so bad in 2020 as the lockdown itself was something new and the panchayat officers were full of concern for labourers and migrant workers. But in the second wave, even though labourers returned home, looking for jobs, the officials were not so kind. Covid as a disease did not affect the community so much but people’s economy was hit hard.The government supplied rice through the Public Distribution System (PDS) but what about dal, oiland vegetables? Even if farmers sold vegetables on the street, people did not have the money to buy. In the last year they had taken loans to survive, and repayments are pending. And they were hit by another wave. The second lockdown has silenced most voices.

 

What long-term solutions would you suggest addressing the food, health, and education/well-being challenges of rural India?

It is the duty of a welfare state to provide food, health, and education to its people. But it is also unfortunate that this is not a priority of the government today. That puts the entire responsibility on the people. Dr Ambedkar’s words, ‘educate, unite and agitate’ are final. We must continue organizing people for their education, for their rights and for their struggle.