She gave up comforts to work for the poor
Posted August 16, 2009on:
Badwani, a predominantly tribal district in southern Madhya Pradesh — one of the poorest and ranking second from the bottom in literacy — was the first in the country where unemployment allowance under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) was paid. That, though, was after months of the ruthless efforts by the administration and the local politicians to deny it.
Those seeking jobs under the Scheme had started knocking on the doors of the district officials as soon as the Act had come into operation and had virtually to guide them about its provisions because even the Collector had till then no time – or no inclination – to read the Notification he had received about the implementation of the Act. This should not be surprising because the poor people of Badwani, under the aegis of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS), had become active from the time the Government of India had made clear its intention to enact such a law. When the draft Bill was circulated to elicit public opinion, the JADS had submitted extensive suggestions, some of which were incorporated in the Bill when it was passed by Parliament.
The IAS-led bureaucracy, anti-poor by nature as it is, refused job cards to those who were eligible under the Act but obliged the protégés of local politicians, belonging to both the BJP and the Congress, even though they were not entitled. By May 2006, about 3000 JADS activists, having been denied the jobs, had applied for unemployment allowance as provided for in the Act. Finding the administration unresponsive, they started dharnas.
With that began a reign of terror and repression. They were thrashed by the police and criminal cases were registered against them. In a rare show of unity, the BJP and Congress activists held a rally to demand externment of several JADS activists from the district within 15 days and brand them as naxalites. In June 2006, the Collector invited the JADS activists for “Jan Sunwai” (public hearing) but they were attacked when they reached there.
The struggle was taken to the highest levels by sending to (then) Union minister of rural development Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and CPI (M) MP Brinda Karat, among others, the detailed accounts of how the Badwani district administration was treating, in cahoots with local politicians, those demanding jobs or unemployment allowance under the provisions of the Act. The struggle bore fruit and in December – over six months after the applications were made – the administration agreed to pay the unemployment allowance.
The guiding spirit behind the JADS struggle is an unassuming woman in her mid-forties, Madhuri Krishnaswamy. Born in an upper class family (her father retired as a top Indian Air Force official), Madhuri graduated from St. Stephen’s (Delhi). But she chose for herself a field altogether different than the one her parents would have like her to pursue.
The disparity between the rich and the poor is much too stark in metropolitan centres like Delhi, with slums juxtaposed against multi-storey mansions, Madhuri reminisces. Even while she was studying for her M.Phil, she had started wondering about the utility of all that knowledge to the society. She then decided, instead, to do something to improve the quality of life for those living on the lowest fringe of the society.
During her brief stint with an organisation working for creating awareness among women, Madhuri encountered a poorly clad construction worker who pointed to her a high-rise building and said that he had contributed with his own hands to the construction of this building but now he did not get even glass of drinking water from those living in this building. Madhuri then worked for some time with the Nirman Mazdoor Sangh (the NGO working for the construction workers).
Having decided to work full time for those living at the subsistence level, Madhuri joined, in the early 90s, Ekata Parishad, then active mostly in the Chhattisgarh region of Madhya Pradesh. A few years later she shifted to Khargone district where she became active in the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan, along with Vijoybhai, a highly educated and motivated person like her.
She, and others in the Sangathan, would educate the tribals and dalits about their rights as human beings and ask them to stand up to the civil, police and forest personnel making illegal demands. They also told them to insist upon full payment of minimum wages prescribed by the government for work they were given. This frequently brought her (and others) into conflict with the bureaucracy and the political leadership. Over two dozen criminal cases have so far been slapped against Madhuri. Sometimes the police would treat her like a major security threat. In September 1997, she came to Bhopal to inform the media about the atrocities being committed on the tribals in the Sendhva area of Khargone district. Soon after she had finished her press conference, she was picked up by the police and taken to Khargone to face charges under Sections 386 and 387 IPC (extortion by putting a person in fear of death or grievous hurt). The police atrocities on the tribals under the direct supervision of then Khargone SP Pawan Jain and Collector (now deceased) at that time will remain a permanent slur on the political careers of then chief minister Digvijay Singh and deputy chief minister Subhash Yadav (who belongs to Khargone.
Madhuri later moved to the Badwani area (which was still a part of Khargone district) and started organising the poor tribals and dalits under the aegis of JADS. She had stood by them and kept up their morale during one of the worst droughts in Badwani in 2002 when the poor had no work and hardly anything called food to eat. With the guidance from some other NGOs like Samaj Pragati Sahayog of Dewas and Tarun Bharat Sangh of Rajasthan, Madhuri motivated the poor people of Badwani to build on their own some structures which would help them later on — and as many as 18 check dams were built by them during that period. This reinforced the poor people’s confidence in Madhuri which they showed by rallying round her during the NREGS struggle.
When I first met Madhuri in the early 90s, she was reluctant to talk about her family or her early life. Now she has started not only (occasionally) using her family surname but also opening up, though not much. She spent her early years in Delhi, first staying with her family and then in a hostel when his father, after retirement, shifted to Bangalore to settle there. She occasionally visits her parents. She has no brothers but only an elder sister who, after majoring in “molecular biology or something” joined a multinational. She is also settled in Bangalore, along with her husband (also in a multinational). Whenever Madhuri goes to Bangalore, she also visits her elder sister. But through a tacit agreement, Madhuri and her sister do not discuss each other’s work. Madhuri, however, finds her mother, a retired teacher, sympathetic to her cause.