Shyamala, Lakshmi and Sonika got the conference to a bright and melodious start with a welcome followed by “A Chal Ke Tujhe,” a musical gem from the sixties, beckoning us towards a future of peace, hope and love.
Amidst all the hustle and bustle of getting ready for the conference, we received word that our long time saathi Trupti Shah had passed away after a difficult battle with cancer. Founder of Sahiyar Stree Sanghatan and lifelong activist for human rights and environmental causes in Gujarat, Earlier this month we had learned of the tragic motorcycle accident that took the life of Sagar Kabra, a young doctor working with Jan Swasthya Sahyog in Chhattisgarh. We all stood for a moment of silence in their memory, followed by a further silence thinking of the farmers whose suicides continue every day.
Presenting a reflective look on the first 25 years of AID, the challenges the organization has faced, the strategies used to overcome them and the accomplishments that have come out of our partnerships with so many grassroots organizations, Ravi shared a vision for the future of AID, on which some volunteers have brainstormed under the name 10xAID.
Imagine an AID that was 10 times what it is today – what could AID do then? The 10x factor could apply to the number of volunteers, or people reached in India, or it could be more complex – for example, we could increase our reach to the poorest districts or most marginalized communities. There are various ways to understand what it means for AID to grow and to intensify its work. Kiran talked about how such an intensified growth of AID would directly impact its ability to make a critical difference in sustainable agriculture and farmers’ livelihoods. Sonali shared her perspective as a volunteer and what such a vision of growth would mean at a chapter level. She also handed out cards and invited people to share their ideas about AID and the ideas for growth, which she collected during lunch, organized into categories, and presented in the afternoon.
I had the privilege of introducing Obalesh Bheemappa. I had met him in Bangalore and he also participated in the Peace Justice and Youth Conference yesterday. What a long way he had come from a life where he experienced untouchability as a child in school and the highest aspiration his parents could imagine for him was to get him a job as a safai karmachari in Bangalore, a job he quit after two days, never to return.
Since then he has worked in hospitals, brought Dalit issues to the attention of the right to health movement, formed a union of sanitation workers, as well as an umbrella organization of sanitation workers unions, and brought the community’s concerns to the attention of district and state level officials in Karnataka. He serves as a resource person for other organizations fighting caste discrimination and is part of several state and district level panels on health rights, Dalit rights, and workers rights.
Obalesh garu talked about his work, and the persistence of caste discrimination that is inseparable from the struggle of sanitation workers for health, safety and dignity. He also showed this video about the work of Thamate, the organization of sanitation workers that he founded for the purpose of asserting people’s rights and eradicating the practice of manual scavenging.
Thamate- Towards an Awakening
After lunch there was a small skit called “Court … What If?” related to the question of justice for manual scavengers working in hazardous conditions. In a pivotal scene, the head of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (Asti Bhatt) testifies about her failure to provide safety equipment for those employed as sanitation workers.
After seeing the skit, Obalesh commented, “That was very realistic. If you bring any of the government officials for questioning, that is exactly how they will talk.”
The eagerly anticipated Workshop on Caste Issues began, with Thenmozhi Soundararajan explaining the ways in which caste persisted among Indian diasporic communities, and campaigns to fight it such as the recent California textbook campaign. She illustrated the ways in which upper-caste hindu ideologies prevailed in various educational, cultural and religious institutions and the network of organizations involved in upholding this ideology.
She then asked volunteers to form small groups to discuss a set of questions regarding the presence of caste bias or caste exclusion in our own lives and in particular within AID chapters. The discussions were quite interesting and at times disturbing — in a productive way — and many volunteers wanted to continue these at the chapter level. In my own group, while I don’t remember specific conclusions we drew, if any, I do remember saying at more than one point in the conversation, that sometimes things have to get messy before they can get sorted out, and the semblance of order may be concealing the very injustice we seek to redress. We all know it is there – but we think there is somewhere there … the need of the hour is to recognize it here.
Though I would not be one to ask anyone’s caste, I also know that if we did we would find a majority of people came from upper caste or savarna backgrounds and that the customs associated with those backgrounds were considered standard Indian customs. How to break this homogeneity? Certainly step one is to recognize it, but when do we get to step two …?
– to be continued –
Coda – 22 June 2016
In a conversation with Kamayani, who spent time with AID chapters after the conference, I wistfully mentioned that every year or so, we take a step towards questioning injustice in our own lives. She said that was not slow at all. On the contrary, thinking back to her own time as an AID volunteer a decade ago, she felt quite encouraged to see the discussion on caste issues and earlier discussions on gender issues.