How it began at Shramik Bharti

A 25+ year old organisation is bound to have a rich history and in Shramik Bharti’s case, this has been pieced together after my chat with 2 of its 7 founders – Ganesh Pandey and Usha Varkey. The other founders are X. As I learnt, it was their association with trade unions and working for labourers that brought all of them together. This was in the early 1980s – at a time when Kanpur was a hub of mills (Swadeshi, Lal Imli etc.). Known as the “Manchester of the East,” 10-12 of the city’s famous mills employed close to a lac workers at that time.

In 1986, recession forced many of these mills to scale down or shut down operations completely. Losing their jobs overnight hit the workers badly. They weren’t educated enough to find an alternative source of living overnight; and they had mouths to feed at home. This resulted in the inevitable – suicides.

This scenario prompted Mr. Pandey, who was working as a scientist at the Ministry of Defence, to get involved with the Mazdoor Andolan. Having actively participated in college unions (during his BSC and LLB days at Kanpur University), he knew his heart lied with working for trade unions. In fact, this passion spurned him to take premature, voluntary retirement after two decades of work at the Ministry; to work fulltime for the Andolan.

At this time, Mrs. Varkey was involved with a children’s theatre group called Ishlay. A teacher by profession, she used to work at a renowned school in Nainital before married life brought her to Kanpur. Through the theatre group, she came in contact with Mr. Pandey and the other founders of Shramik Bharti (INSERT NAMES HERE OF ALL INVOLVED WITH THE MAZDOOR ANDOLAN); who, as part of awareness and advocacy activities with the Andolan, were preparing a play on the topic of rights of workers for the unions. Little did they realise at this time, that their coming together for the play was just the beginning of a longer partnership to come. Soon after, Mrs. Varkey, quit her job as a teacher (even though she was offered the job of a principal) to work fulltime for the Andolan too.

Working against the background of the textile worker’s suicides, their first efforts were dedicated at learning the labourer class’ needs and identifying other gaps in society. In order to do this, they spent hours in Rajawari, Kanpur’s largest slum, speaking to and interacting with the people there. She recalls, “I was living in Kanpur for 20 years and didn’t realise that such a big slum existed!” She added, “No matter what the weather – intense heat, severe cold or keechar-filled roads because of the rains – we made our way there every day.” Further, “The slum dwellers thought I wanted their votes and were extremely distrusting of me. It took me a good two years to earn their trust.”

So how was this trust earned? By deeds, not words. As soon as they realised that sanitation was a big area of concern for the people, they began work on it. (As odd as this may sound), this came in the form of construction of toilets. “This was the first slum to get a community toilet. It’s still there,” she says very proudly.

Just as interesting is how they learnt about the sanitation issue. The founders were sitting in a circle one night with the villagers discussing the way forward, what help they could give them etc. All of a sudden, from the group (of villagers around them), someone screamed “Tatti”. She recalls, “We were quite offended. We were there in all sincerity and seriousness but the villagers were making a mockery of our help.” It turns out that it was no joke – the villagers were in fact trying to tell them that completing daily ablutions was a problem for them; that they wanted toilets and better sanitation!

Learning from the community itself on what changes they wanted, is the strategy that was thus adopted. Both Mr. Ganesh and Mrs. Varkey echo the same words, “In hindsight, we realised that having our own agenda does not help. We needed to translate the agenda of the people into wants of the people. This could only be done over time by developing their trust.”

The people’s inputs led to the setting up of a men’s Self-Help Group (SHG) in the form of a library (which eventually became a women’s SHG as wives became a part of it and started running it without the men). Then came the micro-financing programme called Boond Bachat Sanghtan (BBS), when they learned that people wanted to pull themselves away from the clutches of the moneylenders.

With time, the Boond Bachat Sanghtan transformed into so much more. The women in BBS SHGsgot involved in solving bigger problems. Like helping spread important social messages, especially during festivals (eg: domestic violence, early marriage among adolescent girls, school dropouts). They also played a role in family planning (from distributing condoms) and in saving lives (encouraging women to give birth at a hospital, not at home). Says Mr. Pandey, “They don’t know how not to conceive. So it was important to educate them on the same.” He added that in order to maintain privacy, members of the SHG used to visit each married woman’s home and hand over the condoms to her!

Later, efforts to improve farming output came up; when people shared with them that they did not want to migrate to the city (which they needed to do for money).

All along both Mr. Pandey and Mrs. Varkey never believed they were working for “the underprivileged.” They use the word “underprivileged” very cautiously; preferring to refer to the people as “a segment who have enough but do not realise their potential yet.” Says Mrs. Varkey, “The poor children I used to each shaped my thinking about the underprivileged. They did not realise they were poor nor had access to opportunities, hence thought no end to their potential.”

It must have taken a hell of a lot of courage for both Mr. Pandey and Mrs. Varkey to quit their jobs to pursue their dreams of helping the poor? After all, their children were still young then. In Mr. Pandey’s case, the pension helped him support his family. He says, “Our lifestyles were quite basic then. During vacations, we travelled sleeper class, spread a sheet at the station itself if he had time between trains, and stay at friends/family’s houses when on work or holiday. With such a lifestyle, a small salary would do. Besides, when one is young, himmat bahut hoti thi. (one is willing to take risks).”  He’s quick to add that “without the support of my friends, it would have been very difficult.”

It was the same with Mrs. Varkey. Her children were still young too; but as she says, “We were comfortable. My husband was working. Roti-kapdaa-makaan to milta tha.”Moreover, she says, “I’ve  always had an innate desire to help others. I guess that was one of the reasons I became a teacher.” She also shared with me that in her youth days, she had spent time with Tibetan refugees, in Mysore; helping them to settle down in their camps there. So when the Shramik Bharti opportunity came along, she took it.

More than supporting the family, dealing with society was a bigger worry/challenge. How could they overcome, as Mr. Pandey termed it, “samaj ki insensivity.” He recalls one particular case where a mother-in-law was more keen to save the life of her dying cow, over sick daughter-in-law, because a cow is more expensive to replace! Logistics (with the villages being located at quite a distance from Kanpur) and inability to pay staff high salaries (for the first three years, they operated without a single grant) were a challenge too.

Despite the challenges, Shramik Bharti has, just as its name means, “brought light/hope to the working class.” And the stories of Siadulari and Ram Avtar, Subedar, Mitilesh and Ajay, Maya and Haroon, Anjulata, and Poonam are testimony to these. Many children of slum dwellers (of the Rajawari slum) are in college today. Also, many women who used to be in purdah are now head of pradhans today.

Mobilising the community towards change, that too with the active participation of women, is the right way to remove poverty. Everything else falls into place accordingly. And Shramik Bharti is showing us how this happens!

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