Paromita Goswami is uniting the poorest rural farmers with their middle-class neighbors to promote the rights of the rural poor. She is fighting exploitation by breaking through the customary social divisions that inhibit democracy in rural India.
The New Idea
Paromita is building a grassroots movement to help the rural poor secure the fundamental civil and economic rights they are lawfully entitled to. She designed Shamrik Elgar (The Worker's Push) based on her belief that although the labels tribal, non-tribal, Dalit, and Hindu describe real social divisions, people must look beyond these categories, recognize their common predicaments, and work together. Debt-ridden small landowners, renters toiling for their landlords, and landless laborers earning a daily wage face similar abuses and exploitation at the hands of landowners, employers, police, and local government officials. By bringing them together in a united effort, Paromita is replacing social division with solidarity.Paromita pairs Shramik Elgar with a second group that plays an important supporting role. The second group, Elgar Pratisthan (The Push Foundation), is a network of volunteers from the rural middle class who help the disenfranchised secure their rights. Paromita believes that is important to keep the organizations separate and to encourage the volunteers to strengthen the struggle without taking over. This approach offers mutual benefits: volunteers, most of whom are young people, gain experience, travel from village to village, and contribute to society while remaining active in their own communities. At the same time, the poor gain the basic rights promised by law but denied in practice. These include the right to hold land titles, to receive fair pay, to participate in government employment schemes, and to have just relations with institutions like the judiciary. Realizing these facets of citizenship will require a long and complex struggle, Paromita's strategy is to build a broad grassroots movement capable of achieving this long-term mission.
Plagued by poverty, government abuses, and the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, India's Chandrapur District is a microcosm of much of rural India. Spanning the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh, half of the district's 1.8 million people are farmers and about one in five is a "tribal." Agriculture provides employment for only six months of the year, leaving most people there underemployed and poor. Illegal evictions, land grabbing, police beatings, unlawful arrests and detentions, torture, apathy in the courts, and government corruption are persistent problems for these workers. People who live in and around Chandrapur's forests face problems about land use. While the government is trying to conserve the forests, many people rely on them for a living. Agreements between the government and people about sustainable use have yet to be reached. Also complicating relations is the insurgent Naxalite movement. Though not active in the Chandrapur district, the Naxalite rebels rely on neighboring forests for cover and seek to recruit people for their guerilla operations.Because the regulations and programs designed to alleviate their suffering and bring justice are enforced erratically or not at all, Chandrapur's inhabitants are used to being treated as inferior citizens. The government has not implemented promised employment or poverty alleviation programs, and little trust exists between authorities and the people. Further, mechanisms and institutions that would enable people to move from intermittent victories achieved with external help to sustained, homegrown efforts to reduce exploitation and increase legal recourse are absent.
When creating Shramik Elgar, Paromita was careful to avoid establishing an organization based on a single issue. Rather, she opted to build a broad membership organization that addresses numerous issues confronting its members. Shramik Elgar's grassroots nature also ensures it doesn't become estranged from the people it serves. Gender balance is maintained by requiring 50 percent of the members to be women. At first, Paromita is targeting areas where tribal people constitute at least 20 percent of the population, sufficient to ensure their participation. Paromita began by helping people respond to immediate distress. For example, she advocated for the release of a man held without charges and intervened to help a girl in an abusive domestic work situation. At first glance, these tactics appear to be exactly what Paromita is trying to avoid–an activist from outside the region charging around solving problems. And, without the steady growth of Elgar Shramik, her action would amount to a series of crusades. Each campaign, however, strengthens the organization's reputation, and attracts volunteers and members. To create a far-reaching and sustainable movement, Paromita trains volunteers to deal with the wide variety of abuses that affect members as they arise. For example, she has showed volunteers how to hold police accountable for abuse and demand due process, obtain land deeds, and work with citizen organizations to monitor the use of funds earmarked for employment schemes. Developing leaders at the local level also avoids overdependence on a single leader.As the organization grows and its members gain experience, the movement can shift from solely campaigning for rights withheld to also addressing economic exploitation. One of Elgar's first interventions was creating a loan scheme for farmers. The seasonal nature of agriculture leads many farmers to borrow money from local moneylenders. These loans are repaid in the form of paddy during harvest time. The practice of hoarding, however, often forces farmers to buy back their own paddy from the moneylenders at inflated prices. To counter this unfair practice, Elgar established a loan system managed through the village committee. The loans were repaid, and farmers even used the profits to buy weighing scales. This was the first time they were able to weigh their own crops. Paromita now plans to expand this program through an Agriculture Development Fund. Elgar will use part of the fund to give initial loans through village committees. The community will repay the loan after the harvest and will save the profit in a joint account with Shramik Elgar. Paromita's long-term strategies for expanding the movement include training local leaders in other districts to start similar grassroots membership organizations and creating the National Campaign for Human Rights. She envisions this campaign as a national federation of social justice organizations that will lobby the central government and represent its members on a national level. With eight regional members already part of the federation, Paromita hopes to draw in other citizen sector organizations throughout the country. At present, her team includes five full-time organizers and a volunteer pool of journalists, doctors, advocates, businesspeople, students, computer industry professionals, photographers, artists, and teachers.
Paromita has long valued volunteerism and activism. In college, she revived the local chapter of the National Service Scheme, which places volunteers in a wide range of public service positions. Quitting her Masters program in English Literature, Paromita enrolled in the Tata Institute to study social work. After interning at a variety of public service organizations and working full-time with Shramajeevi Sanghatana, Paromita moved to Chandrapur because of her interest in tribal people. She took up a job with a UNICEF school program through which she learned about the problems rural people face.In August 1999, Paromita confronted local authorities about the illegal detention of a villager and persuaded the authorities to release the man within twenty-four hours. News of her success spread and the National Human Rights Commission invited Paromita to conduct a survey on local problems in the criminal justice system. As more people came to her for help, Paromita realized that by limiting her work to "tribals," she was overlooking the untapped potential of the other four-fifths of the population facing many of the same problems.