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Story of Change

Keshav Nankar 
Shramjeevi Sanghatana

In 1983 Keshav Nankar was a bonded laborer in a village eight kilometers from Vidhayak Sansad’s headquarters in Usgaon, Maharashtra. Since he was 8-years old he had worked from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day without pay to cover a debt his father owed a landowner. At age 17 he borrowed Rs. 624 from the landowner for his marriage. He and his new wife continued working for three more years to pay off the marriage debt, but their work was never enough. The landowner applied so much interest to the debt that it would have been impossible to ever pay off. He and his family were slaves.

In 1983 he came to know about Shramjeevi Sanghatana’s actions against bonded labor. “I went to a meeting and from that day I joined the movement. I started looking for other bonded laborers to tell them to set themselves free too…350 laborers from the area set up a camp in the jungle and declared themselves free. But the landowners told everyone to boycott us. No one would give us work or sell to us in the stores or let us take water from wells. So we went to the forests and collected roots and other wild plants to eat. We put ash on the roots and boiled them to take away some of the bitterness. We ate crawfish, grass, whatever we could find. For many days we lived like this.”

Then he joined a Vidhayak Sansad program to jointly work the land that some tribals possessed and share the harvests. Over time the program expanded to also develop fishing, poultry, and dairy co-operatives, as well as a bank. These programs became the key to survival when none of the major landowners would hire them.

Keshav, now in his mid-40s, has never had a formal education, but now he leads an organization with a membership nearing 30,000. He is also consulted throughout the district for his agricultural knowledge.Today Keshav’s village has gone from being completely with public services to having roads, electricity, and water for all its residents. The head of the village Panchayat is a member of the Sanghatana.

When Vivek and Vidyullata Pandits won the Anti-Slavery Award of 1999, conferred annually by Anti-Slavery International in the United Kingdom, they insisted that Keshav accompany them for the ceremony. In his speech in London, Keshav said in Marathi.

Today, I am here in front of you, speaking to you, after traveling thousands of miles. This is unbelievable considering who I was in 1983. Today, I have the capacity and the confidence to address thousands of brothers and sisters. I am proud that today I can deal with government officials at various levels. And, if they do not pay attention to my community’s genuine demands, we will protest and demand our rights. Furthermore, I have become actively involved in the political process. I contested the elections for the State Assembly. I teach my fellow farmers the latest, modern techniques of farming practices. Looking back at my past I cannot believe my present today. It seems unreal but it’s not a dream, it is a reality born out of a lot of pain, a lot of struggle and a lot of dreams put together.

Gurunath Jadhav
Bal Sanghatana Leader

Gurunath Jadhav is a young man whose face lights up when you ask him about the impact of education on his life. Gurunath comes from the Katkari tribe, one of the most deprived and exploited tribes in India. The literacy rate is extremely low among Katkaris; for women it is only 1%. Unemployment, malnutrition, and alcoholism disturb the lives of almost every member of this community. Gurunath’s life was no different. He passed classes 1 and 2 at a government-run residential school for tribals in the Shahpur block of Thane District. But the neglectful attitude of the teachers and poor facilities at the school dimmed his enthusiasm for education. He also felt compelled to contribute to the finances of his family. So he left school and moved to his aunt’s house in Bhiwandi where at only seven years of age he became the caretaker for the children of a brick kiln owner. 

At the brick kiln Gurunath encountered a Bhonga School, a special school run by Vidhayak Sansad for children who have migrated with their parents to work on brick kilns. He joined the school in the 3rd standard and also joined the Bal Sanghatana, another Vidhayak Sansad program for children. The Bal Sanghatanas, or Children’s Organizations, exist at the village level to run evening study centers, which lower drop-out rates, and interactive games that improve leadership qualities and develop students’ talents.

The Bhonga School instructors’ caring and attentive approach to teaching sparked Gurunath’s interest in learning. He wanted to continue his education after the 8th class, so with the help of the Bhonga School instructors he enrolled at Taharpur High School. Since the 6th standard he had been the leader of the Bal Sanghatana center in Nevara. The two VS programs had not only sparked his enthusiasm for education, but also developed his confidence and leadership qualities through activities in drama, sports, and the social activism of the Bal Sanghatana. 

Gurunath is now studying in the 12th standard at Shahpur’s Khade Junior College. He remains active as an inspirational leader in the Bal Sanghatana and other VS programs. When you ask him about the role of VS in his life he responds with a combination of deep gratitude and pride about his own role in the organization; VS didn’t only help him, he worked through VS to shape his own future. Now his aim is to become a teacher so he can also change the lives of children from his community. VS will do everything it can to be with Gurunath every step of the way.

There are still far too many children like Gurunath once was, deprived of quality education and waiting for someone to inspire them. Even in the regions surrounding Mumbai, India’s center of finance, education fails to reach the tribal and other communities who need it most. 

VS will continue running its programs to bring education to these communities and campaigning for the government to fulfill its duties to our nation’s youth. Gurunath is an inspiring example of what our young people are capable of when we bring quality education into their lives.

Sunanda Jadhav
A Leader of the Bal Sanghatana Who Became a Village Sarpanch (Elected Chief)

Sunanda Jadhav is a girl from the Worli tribe residing in Bhaveghar village of Wada block. Her parents are agricultural laborers who never went to school, but they have been active in their community as members of the Shramjeevi Sanghatana. 

Sunanda became a part of the Bal Sanghatana when she was in the 4th standard. With the help of the evening study centers, she progressed quickly in her education. 

She began to enjoy going to school. Her confidence grew through Bal Sanghatana’s sports competitions and interactive games. 

She passed her 10th standard exams, move on to a college and passed her 12th standard exams as well, a major accomplishment for a young woman in her village. She became the head of her village’s Bal Sanghatana center and an active volunteer in the Shramjeevi Sanghatana’s campaigns for justice. Her popularity in the village and reputation for being a strong leader grew. In 2008 the election for Village Council (Gram Panchayat) was held in Bhaveghar. 

The Shramjeevi Sanghatana encouraged Sunanda to contest for a seat in these elections. Local Bal Sanghatana and Shramjeevi Sanghatana activists campaigned for her. In the end she was not only elected to the Village Panchayat, but the other elected members voted to make her the chief of the Panchayat—and she was only 18 years old! Now she will take decisions for the welfare and development of the entire village. 

The Bal Sanghatanas are developing the qualities and skills young people need to become the leaders of their communities.

Dama Mangalya Desak
An Artist Born as a Slave

Dama was born into bondage. His father Mangalya Desak had taken a debt from a landlord to get married and for years and years after that he had to work for nothing to pay it off. He and his family lived in Lagingadi, bondage for a marriage debt. The landlord took possession of Mangalya’s sixteen acres of land and his home.

From childhood Dama had to share the work forced on his father. He washed the master’s utensils, cleaned the cattle shed and looked after the animals, all without payment. Sometimes the master’s sons would punch and kick Dama and his parents. They suffered these brutalities without protest because resistance would have meant more severe beatings or death.

In 1982 Dama was married. The landlord gave Dama a baniyan and lungi and his new wife received three sarees. For these small items he sank further into bondage.

In 1987 life took a new turn for Dama and his family. He was involved in the campaign against bonded labor of Shramjeevi Sanghatana and not only secured his release from bondage, but also won back his father’s land and home. Vidhayak Sansad then discovered that though Dama had lived for years in slavery, he had developed impressive skills as a Worli art painter. He became an important part of the Worli Art Project, an effort of Vidhayak Sansad to economically rehabilitate released bonded laborers and conserve traditional tribal culture. Since that time Dama has been a Worli Art painter at Vidhayak Sansad’s painting studio in Usgaon. Many young tribals have been trained in traditional painting under his guidance. Students of textile design and art schools from around India have visited Dama at the Vidhayak Sansad art studio.

Dama has three children and all of them are well educated. His son Vishwanath is enrolled in a Diploma course from a reputed institute in Karjat. His daughter Jyotsana was married after completing her education and his younger daughter Kavita is studying in the 10th standard. Dama owns a house on the same plot where for many years in the past he worked as a bonded labor.

Anita Dhangada
One Woman’s Courage to Fight

In March 2003 Anita Dhangada won a clear majority in her bid for a seat on the Thane District Council. This was no ordinary victory. She fought in the elections against Vanita Jadhav, the candidate backed by local don and former TADA detainee Hitendra Thakur. A group of activists toiled tirelessly with Anita to help her win the election. Her eventual victory was a triumph for the power of the ballot over bullet and proof that grassroots struggle and faith in democracy do pay off. Anita stood amid the District Council members and government development officers as a powerful voice for the poor and oppressed.

Anita’s long journey to victory has been a remarkable one. For three generations, twenty-two members of the Dhangada family were bonded laborers of Bhagwan Desai, a landlord of Madavi Village. A loan of merely Rs. 500 that Ramu Dhangadas’s father had borrowed for his marriage, kept Dhangada and his family in bondage for almost their entire lives. Desai gave them nothing but a couple of rupees and 22 kilos of rice every year. The poverty and total lack of freedom they lived with is unthinkable. Anita was born into these desperate circumstances.

In 1989 Anita’s family finally succeeded in releasing themselves from bonded labor through Shramjeevi Sanghatna’s struggle. They had no money, no food, and no job, but they were free. Then tragedy struck Anita’s life again when she lost both her father and her husband. The responsibility of looking after her family’s welfare rested on her shoulders. But with the help of Shramjeevi Sanghatana she never gave up the struggle to survive.

“From my childhood it was imprinted in my mind that unless we fought, we’d not get our rights. I think this struggle has been the crucial factor for my success in the elections as here I had to fight against muscle and money power” Anita says. The first time she contested elections under the banner of the Shramjeevi Sanghatana she lost to a candidate from Hitendra Thakur’s group, Vasai Vikas Samiti. Vivek and Vidyullata Pandit encouraged her to fight the elections again, however, despite the threats to her life she faced. She and other members of the Sanghatana began at the village level by challenging the Thakur’s coercive election tactics. “All the villagers and activists joined hands to keep an all-night vigil in every village of the constituency,” Anita says. “We saw to it that our activists prevented the opposition from distributing alcohol and money for votes, which had happed in the last elections. This helped the villagers to overcome any sort of fear or terror that was put in them previously.”

Activists of the Sanghatana did catch four presiding election officers drinking alcohol with members of Vasai Vikas Samiti three days prior to the elections—and that too inside the election booth! A case is pending against the officers. In the end Anita emerged victorious in the election.

Anita’s new struggle is just beginning. She has since left the District Council, but as head of the Shramjeevi Sanghatana’s women’s wing she is still working tirelessly to improve lives in her community. Her children, a son and daughter, are studying in high school. Though Anita still does not have a regular income, she is still determined to fight for the welfare of others. Anita’s speaks firmly when she says, “I understand the issues of my people as I too am poor. All that I want is for us to be treated as proper citizens like others.”