Many PACS Programme CSOs and community based organisations initiated under the programme have successfully battled corruption at different levels. One of the most challenging campaigns relates to corruption in a handloom cloth production centre at Jaitpur in Mahoba district of UP.

Known locally as Gandhi Ashram, the handloom production centre was set up in 1978 and provided a regular livelihood to over 5000 families of weavers living in eight surrounding villages. Says Abhishesh Mishra of ABSSS network partner Arunoday Sansthan that works in this area, “The Jaitpur handloom cloth was known for its quality and commanded a premium.”

The premium attracted the attention of a UP state minister. He took over the affairs of the Gandhi Ashram in 1994 and allegedly began to purchase cheaper handloom cloth from Punjab and sell it as ‘Jaitpur handloom’. Local production gradually came to a halt and the weaver-families who did not possess land started to migrate.

After the start of the PACS Programme Arunoday Sansthan took up the matter in 2004 and complained to the Gandhi Ashram’s Allahabad office. However, no action was taken. The minister obviously commanded a lot of clout. In September 2004 he even paid a visit to the ABSSS head office in Chitrakoot and told them to stay away from the matter.

“One of the basic problems in this issue was that the affected people were terribly afraid to speak up,” says Abhishesh. Arunoday Sansthan started to build their confidence by forming self help groups. “The women were keen and six SHGs were formed,” he says.

To build up the tempo, the noted freelance journalist Bharat Dogra was roped in to write an article on the Gandhi Ashram and a meeting was also organised with the local media. But much headway could not be made as the president of the local press club was a relative of the powerful minister.

Eventually, after much effort, a ‘Bunkar Sangharsh Samiti’ (organisation for weavers struggle) was formed in June 2005 with 70 member-families. Four members of this samiti petitioned the district magistrate and threatened to launch a struggle if no action was taken. The minister allegedly responded by sending armed thugs in two cars to threaten the protestors.

The protestors then left for Banda on June 28, 2005 in a vehicle organised by Arunoday – at the crack of dawn, so that they wouldn’t be stopped by the minister’s thugs – to meet the divisional commissioner, Vijay Shankar Pandey. The media was alerted and present when 45 weavers met Pandey.

Pandey convened a meeting of the minister with three representatives of the weavers the next day. However at this meeting, the weavers couldn’t speak up. Reveals Abhishesh, “When they started to speak, the minister shouted at them and they shut up in fear.”

Fortunately, Pandey was one of those senior officials who don’t stand browbeating. He asked the minister to leave his office. He also asked the minister to quit the managing board of the Gandhi Ashram.

The minister didn’t give up. He allegedly continued to threaten some weaver families. He is also alleged to have offered the protestors Rs 50,000, to buy their silence.

Meanwhile, Arunoday Sansthan and ABSSS continued their investigations into the matter. Records of the non-functioning Gandhi Ashram showed that some of the minister’s relatives and associates were drawing salaries as ’employees’.

Another attempt was made to move the Gandhi Ashram’s higher office at Allahabad. This time the Allahabad office woke up; it formed a 15-member enquiry committee.

The protesting weavers kept up the pressure. They publicly threatened to commit suicide if they did not get justice within a month. When the minister’s brother visited some of the families and tried to negotiate with them, the women hounded him out.

Finally, in October 2005 the minister was officially removed from the managing committee of the Gandhi Ashram. If he had friends in high places, they weren’t willing to involve themselves in this matter that had become ‘hot’.

Production of the Gandhi Ashram restarted after a gap of nearly 10 years. Till March 2006 around 500 weaver families that had migrated had returned to Jaitpur and their original livelihood.