Chingari Sanghatans at Crossroads

 	  Women were at the forefront of a historic padyatra organised in Banda in February 2006 to press for several development-related demandsIn February 2006 Banda district in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh witnessed an unprecedented event.

Starting from Nahri gram panchayat in Naraini block, around 500 people, including around 80 women, marched over three days to the office of the divisional commissioner in Banda town, nearly 70 km away. The padyatra included many aged people; some fainted along the way. Most of the participants were poor farmers or landless labourers. As the padyatra wound its way through many villages, the number of participants swelled to nearly 1,500 by the time it reached Banda.

Padyatras are a common form of protest in many parts of India. But in Bundelkhand, which has a culture of silence enforced by use of guns, such mass mobilisation is seen only during the time of elections. (See Fear is the Key in Bundelkhand).

However the Banda padyatris were not involved with any political party. Through a memorandum submitted to the divisional commissioner, they raised basic, development-related demands such as:

  • Construction of a pukka road to 12 villages in an area known as Dwaba in Naraini block that is surrounded by river waters on three sides
  • Enquiry into the functioning of a government ayurvedic dispensary in Panchampur which has been running from private premises for 22 years; a homeopathic dispensary in Chandpura that has become a cattle shed; a veterinary dispensary in Kartal that has no doctor (all in Naraini block)
  • Enquiry into 160 bogus admissions made in a government school in Kartal allegedly to pocket scholarships and mid-day meal rations
  • Enquiry into the illegal takeover of around half a dozen ponds in the Kartal area by 'dabangs' (thugs)
  • Enquiry into corruption in the food for work programme, which has failed to provide employment to poor people in several villages, forcing them to migrate.

The padyatris raised 18 such demands. The divisional commissioner was initially not inclined to meet the padyatris. However, the padyatris refused to leave. A mob had gathered. The event had already received wide coverage in the local print and electronic media.

The divisional commissioner finally gave the padyatris a patient hearing and issued orders of preliminary action on most of the points raised. The commissioner also later visited some of the villages from where the complaints were raised. It was the first time a high-ranking government official had visited any of these places.

Village-level Bodies for Demanding Rights

The February 2006 mobilisation in Banda district was handled by a loose network of village-level citizen bodies known as Chingari Sanghatans. Over 25 Chingari Sanghatans participated in the padyatra.

Set up by the Chitrakoot-based Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Seva Sansthan (ABSSS) and its PACS Programme network partners, the sanghatans are village-level bodies that work to secure rights through democratic means.

Though membership to the sanghatans is said to be open to all, it actually works by an informal process of invitation and selection. Explains Bhagwat Prasad, director, ABSSS, "We encourage women members of self help groups to become members. We also target youth and panchayat members. The basic criterion is that the person should be interested in public service. The CSO staff is involved in selection."

Within ABSSS's PACS Programme project area, around 140 Chingari Sanghatans have been formed in this way in seven blocks of five districts. Together they have approximately 1,600 women members and 1,300 male members. The number of members in each sanghatan varies from 15 to 50. (Chingari Sanghatans have also been set up in four blocks of two districts that are outside ABSSS's PACS Programme project area).

Every member has to pay a nominal monthly membership fee of one rupee and at least one meeting is held every month, to discuss pressing issues and plans of action. A record of meetings is maintained in a register. Every sanghatan has a chairperson and a treasurer. In most sanghatans these posts are held by women.

Some of the specific objectives of the Chingari Sanghatans are:

  • Pressurising the government to make policy changes
  • Protesting against specific instances of denial of rights to the poor
  • Monitoring the implementation of government programmes

Abhishesh Mishra, head of an ABSSS partner CSO, Arunoday Sansthan in Mahoba district, gives an example of how Chingari Sanghatans take up an issue - in this case a school that had been closed for months.

"First the matter was discussed in a monthly meeting. In this meeting a field worker from the CSO is present. The CSO helps members in matters such as drafting letters. As in the case of the school, the first step is drafting a letter to the district magistrate (DM) on the letterhead of the chingari sanghatan. Some time is given for the DM to respond. Simultaneously, the issue is highlighted in the local press. If no action is taken an andolan (protest demonstration) is launched. In case of the school, we organised for video shooting of the andolan. The tapes were given to local TV news channels."

Other innovative pressure tactics are also often used. On the 2006 Republic Day (January 26) 2006, Chingari Sanghatans in 18 villages in Naraini block organised flag hoisting with public 'crying' accompanied by shouting of slogans like "Galli galli mein chor hai" (there's a thief in every lane) and "Bapu wapas aao" (Mahatma Gandhi, please come back).

Recalls Dwarka Prasad Dwivedi, former pradhan of Chandpura, one of the villages where this unique flag-hoisting was held: "People from five to six surrounding villages also came for the event. The media people gave it big coverage. The next day the block development officer came to us and asked us about our complaints. After that, more officials came, one after the other."

In this manner, Bundelkhand's Chingari Sanghatans have taken up numerous issues. Here are some of the notable success stories:

  • Through sustained pressure, the Chingari Sanghatan in Naraini block of Banda ensured that work worth Rs 1 crore was completed on a bridge across the river Pungri, connecting UP to MP. Lying incomplete since 1992, the bridge was inaugurated in December 2005. (Click here to read an earlier story on this issue).
  • In Jaitpur block of Mahoba district, the Chingari Sanghatan ensured that action was taken against two policemen who beat to death a poor Dalit youth of Tikaria village, Hargobind Rajput, in January 2006. The policemen had come to make some enquiries with him at his home, and when Hargobind locked himself in a room, they broke the door and assaulted him brutally. Then they tried to pass off his death as a case of suicide by hanging his body from a tree with a flimsy rope. The Chingari Sanghatan heard the statements of all family members and complained to several authorities including the National Human Rights Commission. Hargobind's family was sanctioned Rs 1 lakh as compensation.
  • In Narsignpur, Naraini block, the Chingari Sanghatan investigated the case of Kisan Credit cards issued in 2004 in the name of seven Dalit families, without their knowledge. Their lands were also mortgaged without their knowledge and loans amounting to Rs 2 lakh were taken on their name. Following the sanghatan's intervention, and local media coverage, the bank manager was suspended and an FIR was lodged.

In contrast to these and several other success stories, there are also numerous instances where the Chingari Sanghatans have been able to extract only assurances; no action has followed. Despite this, enthusiasm of members in different villages remains high.

The big question now is: Can this enthusiasm be sustained, especially as it is unrealistic to expect quick and efficient disposal of all the issues raised by the Chingari Sanghatans?

Interviews with many Chingari Sanghatan members reveal that the February 2006 padyatra to the Banda divisional commissioner's office was a high point in their efforts. How can such an activity, which is in the nature of a movement, be turned into an organisation with strength and vision for a long-term struggle?

ABSSS is keenly aware of this challenge. Bhagwat Prasad reveals that one of the options being considered is using the Chingari Sanghatans as a base to launch a Bundelkhand-wide registered trade union of agriculture workers and other labourers.

There is no such union in ABSSS's geographical sphere of work, and its need is obvious if one studies the situation in just one village, Kazipur of Mahua block, Banda. For nearly four-fifths of the population of the village, the main source of livelihood is daily labour. During the agriculture season people work in the fields of big landlords nearby, earning Rs 40 to Rs 50 per day. At other times, they cut wood from jungle areas around the village and sell it at the rate of Rs 10-Rs 15 per bundle. Another important source of income is labour at government construction sites. It is here that they encounter blatant denial of dues.

Members of the Chingari Sanghatan in the village reveal that it is a standard practice for labour contractors on road construction sites to pocket Rs 8 out of the Rs 58 that is due to each worker every day.

Dabangs, or thugs, have a major role in these contracts. For instance, in Kazipur one dabang stopped work on the construction of a 1.5 km road in December 2005, probably due to a 'profit-sharing' dispute with the contractor who had got the job. There were nearly 100 labourers on the site who lost a source of income.

The village panchayat is also in the control of dabangs. When people protested to a senior official on a visit to the village about mid-day meals not being served in the school for two months, the village pradhan's brother is said to have beaten up the protestors in front of the official.

A trade union with a broad agenda could have the legal and other clout necessary to combat such terror.

It would however take a lot of time and effort to build such a union that can stand on its own feet. The CSOs that have initiated the Chingari Sanghatans would have to play a supportive role beyond the PACS Programme project period. Dwarka Prasad Dwivedi (quoted earlier) frankly acknowledges the role played by Rajabhaiyaa, head of the Paragilal Vidhyadham Samiti, the ABSSS partner in Naraini block that was instrumental in organising the February 2006 padyatra. "We will lose strength if Rajabhaiyaa goes away," Dwarka Prasad Dwivedi says.

ABSSS will also have to think of a useful role for key chingari sanghatan members who do not fall in the category of daily labourers. One such person is 66-year-old Jageshwarji of Kartal.

He worked as a school teacher for 33 years and commands enormous respect. Panchayat members of his village, Rehunchi, near Kartal, come to him often for advice. All the 12 members of the panchayat are women and with Jageshwarji's support they have stopped gambling and consumption of liquor in the village.

Jageshwarji has direct contact with seven villages in the area and NGOs frequently use him to further their programmes. He was one of the participants in the February 2006 padyatra. "When people raised their voice for a just cause, I am ready to support them," he says. As he adds, his participation was crucial. "When news spread that I was in the padyatra, many other people joined it."

How can the proposed trade union use the good offices of people like Jageshwarji?

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