A Constructive Parliament
Challenging Injustice - Fighting Poverty - Empowering Communities
Vidhayak Sansad is a public trust working for the socio-economic empowerment of tribal, dalits, women and other marginalized section of society. Since 1979 trust has mounted campaigns for human rights and education with the active participation of exploited groups in Maharashtra. It has worked closely with these groups to empower them through education, training and economic development program.
When you come to the Usgaon campus 60 kms from Mumbai, the capital city of Maharashtra, it is hard to guess how it all happened. The office of Vidhayak Sansad is situated on the breathy taking Usgaon hill of vasai taluka in the tribal district of Palghar. The Tungareshwar hill is so close. by, you feet the green mountain with its hood lost in clouds will walk in through the window. The calm beauty of the sahyadris peaks belies the struggle in the area. Yes, you too shall eventually hear the story of Vidhayak Sansad and the story of lifes of the tribals, the villagers, the satyagrahas and the various experiments. “Like a river, it should flow, not remain stagnant like a pond.” The story of Vidhayak sansad is like a Swirling River.
Roots of Vidhayak Sansad
The root of Vidhayak Sansad lies in the failure of the mainstream political system. In the early 70s, Vivek and Vidyullata Pandit were active participants in the Rastra Seva Dal. The socialist youth Movement. Inspired by Jayprakash Narayan’s call for total Revolution. Both rebels participated in the oppositions protects against Emergency. But the post emergency fall of the Janta Party left the youth disillusioned. Vivek and Vidyullata Pandit like any others, moved beyond party politics in search of a more meaningful political experience.
Vidhayak Sansad was born in this alternative political space. “The poor of the village have no say, Their voice, their aspirations, their dreams are not reflected in the parliment of Delhi.” It was this understanding of alienations that led to the guest for a Vidhayak Sansad a “Constructive Parliment” Vidhayak Sansad started it’s a work in the slum areas of Mumbai. Rural areas were nola part of the plans. Then a camp for a city youth was arranged at Dahisar, a tiny village in Vasai taluka which was closed out of convenience. It was Vivek’s maternal uncles village. In the camp youth discovered that the drop outs rate of a children in the primary school was very high. The school was closing down some of its classed, because there were no students.
Only then did Vidhayak Sansad start work in Dahisar village. In 1979 it was registered as a charitable society and a public trust.
People welcomed the young couple in the village, who began with completely charitable, welfare oriented activities. They started a medical center in the village, pre-school classed and leprosy camp. Later they reared pigs, and goats as an attempt of economic activities. Today the memory of these days brings a delightful feelings. Vidyut and Vivek were like compounder in the medical center. They did the dressing and the bandaging. Whey they had goats and pigs, they cared for them as if they were their children! And everyone in the village loved them. They had support from everyone, the land-lords and labourers, the upper castes and the tribals. It was like a family, although right from the beginning they had a bias towards scheduled castes and tribal’s and the poor.”
“There is struggle in running pre-school classes also if you do it with conviction.”
During the Janta Party rule a Balwadi scheme was started Dahisar was one of the villages where it was implemented. There was a Balwadi where the children went when the party fell, the scheme was discontinued, the Balwadi at the Dahisar was on the verge of closing down. Vivek and Vidyullata had just entered the village then. with their ideas of a constructive parliment. They requested the Balwadi teacher to continue and assured her, that she would be paid as before. A few days later, it was decided that the teacher should have an assistant and girl was found. This girl was from the scheduled caste. The Brahmin teacher refured to work with the new assistant. But Vidhayak Sansad was firm. They told the teacher that if she wanted to continue work, she, would have to accept this girl and no other. The teacher stayed on.
This is the basic character of the Vidhayak Sansad, which has not changed since the days when the organization was peanut sized, till date when it is a well established voluntary agency.
The Stand is clear, without Compramix
Bonded Labour - The new issue that changed the directions of Vidhayak Sansad
Vidhayak Sansad basically meant Vivek and Vidyullata and a couple of other youths from the village. They had organized a tournament of games and the youth came to practice every evening. Vidyut would take the practice sessions. Soon they realized that some tribal youths who were good in games were irregular in attendance. One day they spoke to the tribal’s.
Why don’t they come? - Because they had to work in the fields of the local landlord.
How much work? - From down to sunset
Why? - Because they or their parents had taken money from the landlord.
How much money? - Some had taken Rs. 200, some Rs. 500, some Rs. 1,000
A little money to pay for marriage or for a festival or during illness resulted lifelong slavery. Slavery of the entire family and then generation of the Slavery. Husband and wife worked in the field and in the homes of the landlord the could born to them was born a little slave to wash the utens, is and clean the cattle shed as soon as he could walk.
Vidhayak Sansad closed down all its welfare activities of what use of medical, centers and pre-school classes, when people are not free. After more than thirty years of independence, and a valuable constitution that declares to procure “all its citizens justice liberly, Equality and Fraternity” tribals still lived a life worse than animals. Social legislations like the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, in 1976 had not change in the situation of the people Vidhayak Sansad decided to work towards the release of bonded labourers.
There was resistance from the bonded labour keepers and from the tribals themselves. Tribals used to run away when they saw vivek and vidyut as they were threatened by their masters and they did not trust vivek - Vidyut. Vivek - Vidyut were depressed. They wated to help them. The bonded labour keepers began to threaten Vivek - Vidyut. And the labourers thought they were the agents of the land lords or keepers.
One evening Vivek and Vidyullata were attacked and beaten up badly by a land lord, Vivek’s own maternal uncle. That night on one from this family came to their rescue. But the tribals came. They took the firebrands home and dressed their wounds and cared for them.
Psychological Freedom - out of “the culture of silence”
“Freedom lies in the heart of the people. When it lies there it needs no law, no constitution and no court to protect it, but when it lies there no law, no constitution and no court can save it.”
We could see the rays of these words said by Abraham linkon falling on the people.
One day four bonded labourers hid from their masters and managed to reach Vivek - Vidyuts home in Mumbai. They came and said they won’t to be free Vivek and Vidyut were in a big fix. What could they do? Where could they take them? They hit upon a plan to dramatize their freedom for them and told them that they would take them to a senior officer who would set them free. They phoned one of their friends who was a retired bureaucrat and told him what to do.
Vivek and Vidyut brought the tribals to the apartment of their friend, which was on the eleventh floor of a high rise building. It was the first time the tribals had even been in on elevator. With a retired bureaucrat friend posing as an officer, they started the ceremony. He listened carefully to their story and then using his power as a government official proclaimed “You are now free. You need not work for the master anymore. And you need not repay the loan.”
The, tribals were overjoyed. From that movement they believed and they knew that they were free. They returned to the village as heroes and they declared they would never work for the masters. The embers of freedom in their hearts had started to glow and nothing could extinguish them now. They were free because they knew that they were free!
The news spred that there us a couple who have risked their lives for tribal bonded labouress. Every day new villages entered into the folds of the organization. Every day tribals came asking to be set free. They came sometimes alone, sometimes in twos and sometimes in a group. Statements of bonded labourers were recorded, affidavits were made, and cases against bonded labour keeper’s or ‘Maliks’ were registered. We vidhayak sansad began to use the law and the courts and also helped them to access the government rehabilitation programmes. But the most important lesson we learned was that it was neither the laws nor the rehabilitation programs that had set them free. They were free because they thought they were free, and created an athmosphere that made them think they were free.”
Struggle to release bonded labourers
Bonded labours system (Abolition) Act, 1976 was passed to release and rehabilitate bonded laborers. The machinery which the state government was supposed to establish for the task had not come into being. However, the release of bonded labourer was included under the 20 point programme for Rural Development declared by Indira Gandhi. The Executive Magistrate was supposed to implement the programme. This prove to be an advantage. 16 bonded labourers were legally released at Dipivali village in a camp in 1983 by the Executive Magistrate of vasai. Mr. R. V. Bhuskute under this 20 point programme.
But the unresponsive State Government of Maharashtra declared with impunity that the system of bonded labour did not exist in the state.
The struggle to release bonded labourers was a long one. Finally a letter written to the Supreme Court of India was treated as a writ petition by Honourable Mr. Justice P. N. Bhagwati and an enquiry commission was ordered by the Supreme Court of India. Dr. Satyaranjan Sathe and Dr. Vasudha Dhagamvas were appointed as commissioners. They took two weeks to meet and talk to the tribals and activists. The report submitted by the commission was completely in favour of tribals. The powers of identification, release and rehabilitation of bonded labourers was given to the District Magistrate. A District Vigilance Committee was formed under the Chairpersonship of the District Collector for the above task, and Vivek Pandit was appointed on the committee by the Supreme Court. He remained on the committee for ten years. More than 2000 bonded labourers were released, and 465 cases were registered.
The first bonded labour keeper to be convicted in the country was amongst these cases registered by Vidhayak Sansad
Birth of Shramajeevi Sanghatana
The release of bonded labourers led to the formation of the Shramajeevi Sanghatana. The organization of tribals, bonded labourers and other rural poor. The need for a body was felt. Which could represent the interests of the bonded labourers in the courts of law, an organization not manged by trustees but by the people themselves, which would stand on the strength of the masses and inspire, confidence in the people. Thus, in October 1982, the Shramajeevi Sanghatana was registered as a trade union. The Sanghatana tried out various forms of non-violen struggle morchas, dharnas, and long march.
Relation Between Both Sister Organisation
Poor people, tribals, bonded labourers., women, children all these sections with generations of suffering cannot overcome their destiny in a day, or in lifetime. They need time and they need continous unfailing support in terms of training information, resources, programmes, Vidhayak Sansad has played this role.
Vidhayak Sansad and Shramajeevi Sanghatana have their distinct characteristics and advantages of which the members can access. The Sanghatana teaches the strength of mass mobilisation, while the Vidhayak Sansad implements developments programmes for the people, and encourages the members to take responsibility for their own economic well-being and share in the profits.
None of these are water tight compartments when these organizations try to change the existing structures of power distribution, they are faced with resistance and repression. Only the unity of the victims, and the strength of the sanghatana can overcome these. But the importance of Vidhayak Sansad lie in the opportunity they give people of participat in their own development as a community. There is blurring of boundaries because the members of the sanghatana and of the societies are the beneficiaries of the developmental activities of Vidhayak Sansad.
Activity of Vidhayak Sansad in last 3 decades.
Rehabilitation of bonded laboures
1) First co-operative Truck Society of released bonded labourers in India.
A first Co-operative Truck Society of released bonded labourers had been registered at Ambode village of Vasai taluka. The Society has a membership of 24, with 12 women and 12 men. This is another interesting story.
After the release of the bonded labourers the question of rehabilitation had come up. At Ambode the bonded labourers refused to accept the “Gadi-Jodi” (bullock cart) which the Tehsildar was offering. They demanded a truck. The magistrate was angry. “Have tribals ever driven a truck? Tomorrow you will say we want an aeroplane.” The people were angry and took up the challenge. On ‘Makar Sankranti’ (a traditional festival) the tribals went to felicitate the Tehsildar on his sensitivity to people and his efficiency as an officer! The officer was touched with the gesture when the tribals offered him ‘tilgul’ (Jaggery sweet offered during the festival as mark of goodwill.). After the officer had made his small vote of thanks, Vivek Pandit handed him a letter to be forwarded through proper channels. The letter was addressed to the Prime Minister of India, requesting him to offer the President's award to the officer and begged him most humbly not to send such Tehsildars to the village. That very day the Co-operative Truck Society was registered.
Registration of these societies and many other co-operative attempts were made with the help of Vidhayak Sansad, but the going was not easy. The Vidhayak Sansad had to struggle to register the societies, and thereafter to teach the members of the Societies to run them, to keep a track of profit and losses, and compete in the open market . There have been many problems. There are as many stories of failed experiments. A co-operative brick kiln started at the historic Dipivili village had to be closed down. Similarly, the dairy co-operative could not function for long. The agricultural co-operatives has had mixed fortunes.
2) Bonded Fishermen - and then their co-operatives.
Apart from ‘Lagingadi’ (bondage due to marriage debt), the Sanghatana also detected bonded labour among the tribal fishermen of Shahapur. When a dam was built on the Bhatsa river of Shahapur to solve the water crisis in Mumbai, tribal settlements and fields went underwater. Later the landless tribals started fishing in the Bhatsa lake to eke out a meagre living. This did not last long. The government handed over the lake to the Maharashtra State Fisheries Corporation. The Corporation levied a royalty on fishermen, and also joined hands with the local contractors who bought off the fish from the tribals and acted as middlemen. The tribals were too poor to pay the royalty. They borrowed the money for the royalty from the contractors, and eventually became bonded to them. The contractors also bought fishing nets for the tribals who could not afford these, and in return bought the fish at throwaway prices. The contractors paid Rs.3-5 for fish that fetched a market price of Rs. 25 - 35. The tribals were not shown the accounts and in return for a net worth Rs.300 to 1000 they were made to work for 5-7 years at abysmally low wages.
The Vidhayak Sansad and Shramjeevi Sanghatana took up the issue. Activists of the Sanghatana posed as contractors and middle-men, in order to effectively detect incidence and extent of bonded labour among the fishermen of Shahapur. On 19.12. 1988 cases were registered against the contractors with the Executive Magistrate of Shahapur with the active guidance of Collector & District Magistrate Mr. G. B. Pingulkar, and with the Superintendent of Police(Thane Rural). The contractors and money-lenders were arrested along with an officer of the Corporation.
The struggle continued from 1988 to 1990, and in 1991 the District Magistrate ordered the registration of a Fishing Society for the released 387 fishermen. However, till August 1993 nothing came about. On 8th August, 1993 there was a demonstration at the office of the Executive Magistrate, Shahapur. This pushed the bureaucratic machinery into some action. Finally, on 3.12.1993, the released bonded labourers of Shahapur could register their own Fishing Societies.
1. Kothera Zindabad Matsyavyavsayik Bahu-uddeshiya Sahakari Society, Kothera.
2. Dhengalmal Zindabad Matsyavyavsayik Bahu-uddeshiya Sahakari Society, Dhenganmal.
3. Bhatsa Zindabad Matsyavyavsayik Bahu-uddeshiya Sahakari Society, Bhatsa.
4. Kashti Zindabad Matsyavyavsayik Bahu-uddeshiya Sahakari Society, Kashti.
It is victory of these co-operatives that in 1995 the contract for exclusive fishing rights in the Bhatsa lake was granted by the Corporation to them.
Another similar Fishing Society had been registered on 16.8.1992 at Hattipada in Vasai block. The plight of the tribals was the same, because of the ‘bunds’ made on the Tansa river by the Minor Irrigation Department. However, the struggle had been far less.
Below are the few more cooperative societies by Vidhayak Sansad
3) Brick Kiln co-operative society in Dipivali
4) Dairy co-operative of released women bonded labourers in Vasai, Wada & Bhiwandi block.
5) Agricultural co-operative Societies.
Over a period of 35 years a model of partnership and supportive functioning has evolved, between various forms of rural organisations - a trade union, a public trust, and people’s co-operative societies.
Each of these have their distinct characteristics and advantages of which the members can access. The Sanghatana teaches the strength of mass mobilisation, while the Vidhayak Sansad implements developmental programmes for the people, and the Co-operative Societies encourage the members to take responsibility for their own economic well-being and share in the profits.
The importance of Vidhayak Sansad and the Co-operative Societies lie in the opportunity they give people to participate in their own development as a community, whether in a Krishi Panchayat\ Agricultural Cooperative or in watershed management.
The Agricultural Programme has enabled many ex-bonded labourers to invest collectively in hired or borrowed land for seasonal cultivation of vegetables, grains, and watermelon. Maharashtra has only two agricultural seasons; monsoon (May - October) and dry (November - April). The poorest farmers are often restricted to the less fertile land in the village, furthest away from water sources, which limits them to growing one crop per year, during the monsoon season. Many grow only rice during the monsoon season and migrate to brick kilns to sell their labour during the dry season.
The Agriculture Department is facilitating second-crop production during the dry season by providing credit, watershed development, and collective efforts on hired land. Working with approximately 43 villages in Thane District, farmers form groups of 2 - 7 farmers, depending on the amount of available land, and cultivate the land together and together share the costs and profit.
Through the revolving credit fund groups can obtain assistance which have to be repaid. In 1993, 450 farming families obtained small loans for growing watermelon during the dry season. Unfortunately, the 1994 riots in Bombay shook the entire economy, leaving many farmers unable to provide for their families, let alone repay their loans that year. Bearing the loss, Vidhayak Sansad could only offer loans to 100 families in 1994, but the repayment rate increased to 80 percent. For the 1995 monsoon season, 550 farming families obtained small loans; the current rate of repayment is strong. The poorest farmers can repay in cash, from crop sales, or in kind in the form of hay from the harvested rice straw which can be sold in bulk in the local market by Vidhayak Sansad.
Since 1987 a grain bank has been developing to provide farmers with rice during monsoon season, when market prices are highest. There was a time that the poorest farmers, tenant farmers who do not own land, had no other option but to approach the local landlord for some paddy. The return rates were as high as thrice the amount taken. Apart from this, the paddy given by the Patil was of a low quality whereas the tribals were expected to return grain of a good quality. The tribal was also expected to work on the Patil’s fields first during the sowing season. The tribals were too poor to access government schemes because they could not show proof of land ownership.
The grain bank was started with a view to stop this exploitation. The farmers who take grain from the grain bank to survive lean periods are required to return the same amount of grain to the bank without any interest. Through the Agricultural Programme the small and marginal farmers are now receiving credit for fertilizer, seeds, and insecticides, as well as technical advice from the Programme Head.
As an experiment, Vidhayak Sansad is now beginning to buy fertilizer at wholesale and sell it at retail to local farmers from the five blocks at a fair price. This allows the farmers to save on transportation into town and from crooked middlemen.
Watershed Development and Pisciculture - new ventures
Vidhayak Sansad is also beginning small-scale Watershed Development and Land Terracing in three villages, totaling 75 families. The objective is to increase access to water during the dry season, increase crop yield, and prevent families from having to sell their labour for six months of the year at less than minimum wages. Land terracing is done along with small bund-building in streams, for diverting water flow into fields, ponds. This also prevents monsoon water from running downhill, taking precious top soil with it. Vidhayak Sansad’s engineer works with farmers in planning and implementing such projects.
From November ‘94 - May ‘95 the beneficiaries worked to develop their land and watershed, using voluntary and paid labour. In the three villages, farmers experienced an increase in crop yield from 50% - 100% during the 1995 monsoon season. The production of a second-crop during the dry season, mostly rice and vegetables, is being developed, and farming families from other villages will soon come to visit the three pilot projects to expand the project.
Vidhayak Sansad is also planning a pisciculture centre at Hattipada for supply of fishes to the five fishing co-operatives. The ground work for the fish breeding centre is over, and by next season the first batch of fishes are expected to be supplied.
Training for Poultry Production
The Poultry Training Programme is providing training in production and marketing of broiler chickens. Broiler chickens are more feasible for rural production and marketing than egg-bearing hens. By the end of 1995, 11 trainees, 9 women and 2 men completed the intensive training programme. While in training the beneficiaries receive daily wages and share the profit made from each batch of chickens. They learn ‘hands-on’, from purchasing the chicks, materials, feed and medicines to final marketing in town. In order to be profitable a poultry production unit needs a minimum of 500 birds, which requires large structures and quantities of feed and materials.
Due to the capital-intensive requirements of poultry production, it is unfeasible for a small collective group to maintain a production unit in a village. Vidhayak Sansad is planning to gather enough resources for sustaining a permanent structure at a central location which can be leased out to the collective society.
Learning to find ourselves
Working to increase the quality of education in rural areas, specifically for children of 6 - 16 years, the Education Programme grew rapidly this year in almost 50 villages. The programme not only increased the number of activities but also increased administrative quality, with new planning and monitoring techniques.
Mobile libraries are being developed in each of these five villages, each library is based in the home of a Sanghatana member who is responsible for maintenance.
Study classes were initiated in 40 villages, for over 550 students. These classes meet every day after school to supplement the formal education. Vidhayak Sansad selected and trained 23 ‘teachers’ to lead these classes; each teacher is a Sanghatana member from the local village. Through these supplementary classes the programme distributed notebooks and textbooks to over 100 students, and held extra-curricular activities for the students.
Extra-curricular activities include competitions for poetry reading, grammar, spelling, essays, and sports. Ninety students participated in four essay competitions, the ‘winners’ gain recognition from their peers while all participants gain motivation and interest in their studies. The most popular competition, of course, is the sport competition, since June there have been five sport competitions among 27 villages, with over 350 participants.
The Programme Head and three assistants are also active in monitoring teachers, coursework and school quality. If they notice any discrepancies or inadequacies they communicate not only with local school supervisors, but also with local governmental agencies.
Primary School Teachers - Beginning of a Relationship
Primary teachers in villages are generally a neglected section. Although the government has declared primary education as a priority area, very little resources reach the rural areas. School teachers are expected to do other odd jobs as well- from election duties, to identification of beneficiaries for government schemes. Their own professional development is hampered.
This year Vidhayak Sansad arranged for a two-days training camp for Zilla Parishad primary school teachers, with the co-operation of the District Education Department. 30 teachers from Vasai taluka attended this camp. There was discussion on the problems faced by the primary teachers in the school and outside. In the feedback session the teachers have expressed maximum appreciation for this. Many have said, this is the first time anyone ever asked what their problems were. Sessions on innovative teaching methodology, and making and use of teaching aids also drew a lot of response.
Vidhayak Sansad now plans to organise similar camps for teachers in Bhiwandi, Wada and Shahapur talukas.
School for Migrant Child Workers - A Unique Experiment
Vidhayak Sansad and Shramjeevi Sanghatana have been demanding special schemes for the migrant families on brick kilns and specially for their children. Last year the Labour Secretary showed some inclination to collaborate with Vidhayak Sansad on a model project for the primary education of migrant tribal children who work on the brick kilns. A rough estimate shows that there are about 25,000 such child labourers on the brick kilns of Thane district alone.
Vidhayak Sansad started schools on the site of five brick kilns, three in Vasai taluka and two in Bhiwandi taluka, for about 500 children. The government did not fulfill any of its promises - either in terms of funding or in terms of resources. No official except for the Tehsildar of Bhiwandi even bothered to visit the schools, which ran successfully from November to April.
Correspondence piled up but the bureaucratic machinery had jammed. Funds lay unused in banks. The last straw came when the Collector made a statement in the press that the children in brick kilns are not child labourers as they are not working.
Vidhayak Sansad made a video film of the plight of child labourers and submitted it to the National Human Rights Commission. The film was admitted by the Commission as the first audio-visual petition, and the government has been asked to file their say.
At the local level, the Sanghatana took out a morcha against the Collector on 8th March, 1996 i.e. on International Women’s Day. Thereafter the Collector has ordered a survey of the incidence of child labour on brick kilns. The Sanghatana and Vidhayak Sansad also had a meeting with the Chief Executive Officer of the Zilla Parishad. As an outcome of the meeting the District Education Officer was ordered to conduct examinations at the Bhonga Shalas and give certificates to the students who passed so that they could continue their studies in their own villages. Also the teachers at the Zilla Parishad schools were ordered to enroll the children who were not enrolled. This was a major achievement of the Vidhayak Sansad and the Shramjeevi Sanghatana. This year Vidhayak Sansad has planned for ten such schools for 1,000 students.