Jhiri is a village of 150 households located in Manohar Thana block, Jhalawar district in south-east Rajasthan. The majority of the people in the village and around belong to the Lodha caste (OBC) and a smaller percentage to SCs and STs. Traditionally the only means of livelihood for the people in this area has been farming, but diminishing returns from agriculture in the past few decades have led to poverty, heavy indebtedness to local moneylenders and large scale migration. Adding to the problem are superstitions and a lack of awareness about modern medicine that lead to deaths from easily curable ailments and diseases. Being a stronghold of the political right wing, the region has seen a rise in religious fanaticism that has deeply communalised the people.
When Devendra first come to Jhiri these are the ground realities he encountered. Through the Hum Kisan Sanghathan, Manthan school and the Adarsh Handloom Cooperative he and Sudhi have undertaken a multi-pronged approach that integrates social, political, economic and cultural development of the people.
During the early years of his stay in Jhiri, Devendra gathered a small group of concerned individuals who started collectively thinking about and discussing the problems that they were facing. In 1992, they mobilized the farmers and labourers in the region against corrupt practices in the processing of the IRDP (Integrated Rural Development Project) loans. The protests led to the manager of the concerned bank being punished and the irregularities being set right. This was the beginning of the Sangathan called Hum Kisan with volunteers from 10-15 villages.
In Manohar Thana there existed a strong nexus among politicians, businessmen and moneylenders. In 1993-94, Hum Kisan set up the Tendu Patta Cooperative and broke the monopoly of 3-4 families over this business. This helped in raising the minimum wage of labour from Rs.11 to Rs.32, earning an annual profit of Rs. 3 lakhs (Rs.300,000) for 250 families till 2002, and greatly reducing the dependence of the people on the highly exploitative moneylenders.
The sangathan does not have a formal membership but has volunteers from more than 50 villages. In 2006 Hum Kisan played a leading role in the region to spread awareness about NREGA and later in 2008 actively participated in the social audit of NREGA (Hum Kisan and NREGA). The basic ideology of Hum Kisan has been that poverty is not made by God but by human beings, and that it can be overcome. Over the years the sangathan has been primarily involved in struggles for effective governance against corruption and irregularities in government schemes as well as in raising a voice against communalism and regressive cultural practices through the effective use of theatre and folk songs (Youth Theatre Group, Broadening Cultural perspectives: Kabir Programme). The Library Initiative under which small libraries have been set up in 11 villages works in conjunction with these efforts to create a society more aware of thoughts and ideas from all over the world.
Manthan is a community school that started in 2001. It was envisaged as a space for children to get quality education, and at the same time get introduced to a new way of thinking and living. Initially Devendra and Sudhi tried to mobilise the people to try and protest against teacher absenteeism and the other deep rooted problems in the government school in Jhiri. Seeing that the situation was not improving, they decided to do what they could i.e. start an ideal school of their own. This they did with the enthusiastic support of a few volunteers of Hum Kisan who came forward with contributions in the form of 200 bricks, 5 bamboo poles and 5 days of labour each to help build the school. Manthan started with 13 children and in 2010-11 there were 140 students enrolled in classes from nursery to 10. Education for girls is free and residential facilities are available for boys and girls. Leading by example, Devendra, Sudhi and the other staff have tried to create an environment where there is no discrimination on the basis of gender, caste or religion. All the children are equally encouraged to participate in academics, music, theatre, and sports, as well as in cleaning, cooking and other chores.
Children from Manthan who have undertaken Matriculation Exams from the National Open School have shown 100% pass results in comparison to 30% from other government schools. The performances of the girl students have been especially commendable. (Girl Students of Jhiri) Along with academic excellence, Manthan seeks to develop a sense of social consciousness in each child making her/him believe that she/he can make a difference. Many of the past students of the school, who are now young adults are active in the Hum Kisan Sangathan and the Handloom cooperative, and others have taken the perspective they have gained at Manthan into other realms. Thus Manthan instills the values of the sangathan in the new generations and gives them the time and space to interpret and internalize them in their own way.
The handloom cooperative is an economic activity that gives an alternative means of earning to the many who are unable to make their ends meet with agriculture alone. It was felt that along with the approach of protests and struggles that were being carried out by Hum Kisan, it was equally important to initiate developmental work. The Adarsh Handloom Cooperative was set up in 2004 and now has 20 looms with 30 families being involved in it. It is currently breaking even. The emphasis has been on weaving high quality pure cotton cloth. Equally important has been the participation of all the weavers in the decision making process. Considering that a majority of them are women, this has also been an empowering experience for them in a society entrenched in feudal norms.
Hum Kisan and NREGA
To give people information about NREGA, volunteers from Hum Kisan did a cycle march in 52 villages in Manohar Thana block in 2006. They went to every village and through the medium of songs they announced that the government has come up with this new scheme for rural employment. They did plays with hand puppets to give the details of how to apply for work and how to ensure full payment on time. They explained the intricacies of the scheme, distributed the forms and answered people’s doubts and queries.
In 2008, Hum Kisan volunteers along with poor farmers of over 40 villages sat on a dharna for three days to get the NREGA documents from the programme officer. This was a part of the social audit that was done at a state level in collaboration with many other organizations. Then they went to different villages and publicly read out the documents so that people can point out the discrepancies and irregularities. The presentation of the audit’s findings played a crucial role in exposing financial malpractices and has been successful in greatly bringing down corruption.
In 2007, a resource centre by the name of Jagruk Nagarik Manch was set up in the town of Manohar Thana to help people with grievances like not receiving full wages, inclusion of names in BPL list etc. There is a Hum Kisan representative there who helps them write letters to the concerned authorities, and then follows up the case to ensure that the problem is sorted out.
Youth Theatre Group
Forum theatre has been a major tool that Hum Kisan has used in communicating with people. Different situations that people face everyday have been taken up and presented before them; for example corruption in government offices, atrocities against women, discrimination of dalits, an ailing person dying because of lack of timely medical attention etc. A group comprising 10-15 young men was trained and the plays were improvised in a way that would resonate with the experiences of the people. Changes in mindset and behaviour are perhaps the hardest to achieve and the process has been very slow. However for the participants in the play who are all youngsters from the area, it has been a transformative experience that has made them question age old norms and given them the confidence to break away from them in their own lives.
Broadening Cultural perspectives: Kabir Programme
It is not uncommon for a visitor to a village in this region to be greeted with boards saying Hindu Rashtra ke Hindu gaon mein aapka swaagat hai. ‘Welcome to a Hindu village of a Hindu nation.’ In February 2011, a 2 day programme was organized in which many local mandalis who have been traditionally singing Kabir were invited to perform at Manthan. At the end of it there was a discussion and the groups offered to take back boards with Kabir’s dohas (verses) that spoke of brotherhood and religious tolerance and put them up in each of their villages. Performances by Kabir mandalis have been a regular part of Hum Kisan’s cultural perspective building efforts in the community, but the larger scale and different format of this event made it an innovative way to respond to the increasing symbols of right wing extremism around them.
In 2006, local libraries were set up in 11 villages in and around Jhiri. The libraries have books for adults and children, daily newspapers and also the latest issues of magazines like ‘Outlook’ and ‘India Today’. A person from the village who the people themselves unanimously selected was in charge of housing and taking care of the library. The initial funding came from the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation that included a small sum to be paid to the librarian. After a couple of years when the funding ended, the decision had to be taken whether to continue with the library or not. The people in every village decided that funding or no funding, they wanted the library to stay. While the direct use of the library is of course restricted to those who can read, it has succeeded in more ways than one by encouraging literacy, creating awareness about what is happening in the outside world and generating discussions amongst the people.
Girl Students of Jhiri
Geeta is a young mother who at the age of 18 became the first girl from Jhiri to pass the class 10 examinations in 2007. She was studying in class 8 in the local government school when she got married and was forced to drop out. Due to some marital problems she soon returned to her village and resumed her education from Manthan, clearing the class 10 exams from the open school. A dexterous weaver, she is also a part of the Adarsh Handloom Cooperative and is successfully earning her livelihood through weaving. She is now a confident young woman and is determined to pursue higher studies. In a village where the literacy rate for women is a dismal 28%, Geeta has been an inspiration for many girls. In 2011, two more girls from Manthan have taken the class 10 exams and are currently teaching at the school.