To understand how and why Gram Chetna Kendra came about, it is important to understand the conditions and issues of the Sambhar Lake area, which is where the organisation’s work is based.
Sambhar, which literally means salt, refers to India’s largest saline lake. With a record salt production that goes back 1,500 years, it is responsible for making Rajasthan the third largest salt producer in the country. Sambhar Lake’s catchment area spreads across the districts of Nagaur, Jaipur, Ajmer and Sikar.
Most families in the area are poor; moreover, they belong to the most deprived sections of society, such as scheduled castes, tribes and other backwards castes. Their annual per capita income ranges between Rs. 6,000-16,000 per annum and is mostly derived from saltpan work, marginal farming, agricultural labour and animal husbandry. Wages fluctuate seasonally, as does the demand for wage labour and they are precariously dependent on weather conditions. Since the area is characterized by scanty and irregular rainfall, drought is frequent, causing large fluctuations in agriculture and livestock productions. Over the last decade, the main sources of water (i.e. wells, ponds and tanks) have dried up, thus, crop production has been considerably reduced; acute shortage of drinking water is also a problem now, as it reduces households’ overall water security. As a result of these conditions, the majority of households have a fragile survival base and are constantly exposed to uncertainties, risks and stress.
Furthermore, since the scarce manufacturing and service sectors fail to provide employment, migration is common. Even salt labour, which remains one of the major hopes of earning a livelihood for the habitants in the area nearby, hides a cruel reality. Here, salt harms as it sustains, giving employment as well as disease and ultimately death as the final payment to those who work in the salt fields. Saltpan workers live at the mercy of an exploitative regime; badly and inconsistently paid, with no employment benefits or legal protection. They earn around Rs. 80-150 a day, but can be without payment for weeks. Women are invariably the ones who get the lowest wage, despite working in the same hard conditions as men. Unorganized labourers lack the coordination and skills to present their views/concerns unanimously and raise their voices against this type of exploitation.
In addition to economic insecurity, labourers face severe health issues. Saltpan workers suffer from skin diseases, joint pain in their hands and especially their legs, bony deformities due to the high fluoride content in the water, TB and blindness, brought on by the harsh sun. Laborers work barefoot in the salt mines for 9-10 hours a day without any protective gear, causing their faces to wrinkle and become desiccated and their feet to develop thick rashes. They rarely look their age and their life expectancy is a terrible 45 years.
This harsh and deprived lifestyle is not limited to the saltpan workers in the area. Due to the declining water table, which forces wells to be dug deep into the mineral rich bedrock, almost 100 villages of Sambhar, Nagaur, Jaipur, and Kuchaman are affected by contaminated water. Water is saline from its proximity to the lake and has high concentrations of fluoride; inadequate sanitation and hygiene practices further exacerbate the situation. With people forced to drink this unhealthy water, a whole community suffers from its effect.
Mortality and morbidity due to waterborne and infectious diseases are quite frequent. Lack of access to health facilities due to insufficient governmental structures and their distance from the small villages makes the situation even more difficult. This turns treatable diseases into deadly illnesses, diarrhoea, pneumonia, malaria, cholera, tuberculosis and various worms become serious issues. Given the constraints of limited water resources, recurrent droughts and lowering of the groundwater table every year, the possibility of bringing more land under cultivation is limited. Furthermore, rainwater, which passes through salt plant/factories, goes into fields and slowly turns productive fields into barren land, resulting in even lower crop production. The result, hunger is a reality and the high level of malnourished children requires urgent action. Against this background, it’s no surprise then that education is not a priority.
It was in one such village, Khedi Milak, which comprises of 1,600 families, that a certain Om Prakash Sharma was born. The son of a farmer, Om Prakash Sharma was an intelligent child. He distinctly recalls though that he used to ask his dad lots of questions; many of these revolved around the backward classes and the kind of lives that they lead.
As an energetic youth, he spent many hours discussing social issues with close friends and they often pondered about how they could make life a tad better for the backward classes. One day, during the course of one of these discussions, he hit upon an idea. Given that most people in the area were dependant on agriculture and cattle breeding, how about increasing productivity from the two?
In 1976, along with a few youth from his village, he opened a milk production unit in his village. With an affiliation to the main Jaipur unit, he ran it professionally and well. Many families started contributing to and availing milk from it, and it thus brought the village together. This collaborative project, with Om Prakash Sharma unanimously being selected to run it, became a stepping stone for things to come. Moreover, Om Prakash Sharma became somebody they could turn to when in need.
With more and more people coming to him to share their problems, Om Prakash Sharma became aware of a host of problems, which he wasn’t aware of earlier – parents not being able to educate their children, women looking for an additional source of employment, widows’ not receiving pension that was due to them, ownership discrepancies with regards to property/land. He recalls how he was very surprised to learn about many of these issues. This lack of knowledge made him realize that he wanted to spend more time with the people – understanding them, their lifestyles and their hardships better. Only then could he truly be able to help them out. He thus started travelling with a bhajan (hymn) singing group, which used to move from village to village.
This activity turned out to be quite an eye-opener. And he kept at it for a good two years. Because then, people started asking about his plan of action. What was he planning to do next? Did he have a solution for any of the issues? Realising that he would not be able to solve many of the people’s issues, he thought of another way to approach them; which was to get local government bodies involved as they would have the means to provide for most of the solutions.
So as a first and small step, along with some of the village youth, he organized a day-long meeting in the villages of Kheerva and LaxmiPura. Held with a participatory/democratic format, the meeting was attended by senior administrators – the collector as well as the tehsildar of the Sambhar Lake area. While they heard out all the villagers’ who wished to speak, it was collectively decided to solve the issue of elderly’s pension and ownership issues around property/land as these were most pressing. As people had brought along necessary documents to the meeting, forms were filled up and signed/approved, and 10 cases related to property/land ownership and 9 cases related to widow’s pensions were resolved right away.
With this kind of immediate success, Om Prakash Sharma and his group of young friends had made their mark. The collector thanked them for organizing this meeting; in fact, he encouraged them to take their social work forward so that they could help more people. He suggested that they convert their “efforts” into an organization and officially register it too.
And this is how Gram Chetna Kendra took shape. A few discussions ensued; one of which was possible names for the organisation. It’s interesting to note that people’s suggestions were taken when naming the organization too. The named Gram Chetna Kendra was settled upon after taking the majority’s view into consideration. On 11th April, 1989, Gram Chetna Kendra received official recognition.
One of the first activities the organization undertook was official registration of the milk production unit. With time, other issues like child marriage, female infanticide, girl child education etc. were taken up.
Till date, just as its founding stones were laid, the organization operates in a democratic manner.