Standing on their own legs: The fight against poverty in India

Indian village cook
Indian village cook (© Flickr/Chris)

In the mid-1980s, a non-governmental organisation near the southern Indian city of Bangalore began an experiment to help people in nearly 150 villages to create a better life for themselves. Praxis, as the group is known, was under no illusions. It knew that turning powerless, illiterate villagers into responsible citizens who demand their rights wouldn’t happen overnight. But Praxis has managed to instill in them a sense of confidence and assertiveness which you don’t find among most poor people in India.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: August 12, 1994


He is a homeless child. He’s run away from home at a very young age. I met him at the railway station. He was working as a porter. You know, a person wearing a dirty shirt or a person is poor is not a human being because he has seen that many people don’t even touch or don’t even want to know these kind of people or come near them.

Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “Standing on their own legs – The fight against poverty in India”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Whether they work in the Delhi railway station, the carpet industry in Bihar or as bonded labourers in India’s vast rural areas, most of India’s 450 million poor people don’t have much of a future to look forward to. They often start working before adolescence and will continue to work up to 12 to 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, often in appalling conditions for the rest of their lives. And the prospects for their children and grandchildren are just as bleak. Changing the lives of so many people won’t be easy, but one group has been doing its part. Praxis, a non-governmental organisation, has been active in and around the southern Indian city of Bangalore for a decade now. With the backing of the Dutch development aid group Novib, it’s working with thousands of people in nearly 150 villages. I met a  group of them not far from Bangalore. Like many villages in the area, there were cows and buffalo on the unpaved streets. Power outages are frequent in the few mud houses that have electricity. People have to fetch water from wells, and even though this village is only 20 kilometres from Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, I had  the feeling that life had changed very little here in the past century. The village told me what life was like before Praxis arrived 10 years ago.

Before Praxis started, most of us were bonded labourers under the rich landlords. We were depending for everything on them. We didn’t even have the courage to wear full pants and walk on the streets to meet the landlords. Now our life has completely changed. Now we work in our own fields, and we don’t work for the rich landlords. We have been ridded from the bonded labour, and we have the confidence to stand on our own legs.

Before Praxis started, we were stupid. We had no knowledge or no strength or courage to meet anybody, to speak to anyone. Now, we have the courage, we have the knowledge, and we can go and meet anybody, any government official and discuss with him about our problems.

Turning powerless, illiterate villagers into responsible citizens who demand their rights doesn’t happen overnight. The strategy of Praxis involves three steps: education, organisation and finally mobilisation. The first step is the easiest, says the coordinator of Praxis, Alex Toscano: educating the poor about their poverty and their rights.

By and large, people understand why they are poor. What is preventing them from doing anything further than that or go beyond that is that they have only understood that they are poor, and beyond that they don’t think of. So education should also include not only making them understand the relation between their poverty and the exploitative behaviour of the landlords or the upper caste, but also educate them to understand that the situation can be changed, that there is a wider link between their poverty and the manner within which the Indian society is organised and the way it functions, what kind of political system exists in the country and how that is partly responsible for perpetuating the whole reality of exploitation and poverty.

To make concepts such as exploitation clear to the people, Praxis draws on their own experiences and shows them how they are being used, not only by rich landlords but also by politicians in a country that prides itself on being the biggest democracy in the world.

Village people are used to the fact that the politicians, they come there. They make promises and they take vote, get elected. After that, never see the face of the village. We will ask them to reflect on this: why does this happen? Who are the political representatives whom they elect? What are their duties? Why should they not be doing it? We also try to make them understand, for instance, that the country has a lot of wealth. The government spends a lot of money. Government also spends money in the villages. But why is it that the major portion of it is spent to maximise the benefits of the wealthy? People hear things about what is happening in Bangalore or what kind of city it is, what kind of buildings are built, what kind of water and sanitation. All these types of things are developed in the city side, but in the villages, they don’t even have drinking water. Housing condition is so poor. Even in their very small towns, the kind of bias that is seen in development by the government. Through this kind of thing, we make them understand that development today is decided upon by the politicians, and it is going in the line of what the rich people want. EB: Once they find out that the political system is not responding to their needs, what do they do then? We bring them together and make them into a kind of union, and it is in that context that people begin to feel empowered, that when 30, 40 poor people join hands together, they are in a position to raise their voices against the exploitation. We had a number of experiences, like there was in one village, 44 acres of land was given to the poor people, but that land was taken and controlled by the rich, wealthy people. No amount of requests and representation and petitions had altered the situation. When all the people from the village came together, when they got organised, then they went on a demonstration, came on the streets, and that made the authorities think differently. And within a matter of three weeks, the total 44 acres of land was taken away from the landlords and given back to the poor people. So that is what I call the organisation. Organisation, in our opinion, is not just organisation for the sake of an issue. The organisation we talk about is something  that is perennial, something that is sustaining, which will continue to build itself up till they get justice. Wealth gives power to the rich people. But the organisation of the poor people gives them power, their unity, numerical strength, and their unity is their power. And this unity can create a tremendous amount of force on the system to demand justice from the system.

To find out how all this theory is translated into practice, I went with a team about an hour out of Bangalore to visit one of the villages which Praxis has adopted. There was about to be a meeting of what’s known as the sanga, a meeting of toiling masses in Praxis terminology, basically a large group of farm labourers who pool together their resources and their voices to strike back at the wealthy landowners who have been taking advantage of them for generations.

This village is called Saba Kalahandi (sp?). There are 136 members on the sanga. There are more women than men. Here people come and meet once a week on Wednesday evenings and spend about two hours in the meeting. They discuss about their problems in the village and improvements to be brought in the village. These people are having the sanga for about the last 12 years. Most of these people are very active, and they contribute a lot towards the improvement of their lives in the sanga. EB: Is there somebody here to guide the discussion or does it just go by itself? There are cadres from Praxis. They guide the discussion once a week. EB: What types of problems do they discuss? Mostly about their basic needs, sanitation. There are some land problems to be settled. Some of their lands are occupied by the rich landlords and they have to get it back through civil and judicial proceedings. There is a supplementary education for the school children. There is a school up to 7th standard. The children attend the school, but there are few teachers. So guidance is not given. There are many dropouts in the past. Now they have appointed a teacher, and he guides the students and gives some extra coaching. The dropout has very much reduced. EB: This is on top of the normal school provided by the government. Yes, it’s on top of the normal school. This is only evening classes. About 45 children come to the school in the evening and spend about 2 hours. A master is there to guide them in their studies. EB: And this is because the government school isn’t good enough. Yeah, there are few teachers and so the concentration on the children’s education is very much low.

EB: So, we’ve moved into the building, which is actually a multi-purpose building for the village. There are classes that are given here. This is also where the sanga meets, and other activities take place here. There are around 50 kids or so and 2 or 3 dozen adults. In front of me, I have two people, one of them is the school teacher and the other person is the sanga leader. EB: Can you tell me how life has changed as a result of Praxis’s arrival here in the village. Before Praxis started, we were possessed with the idea that we were poor. So we had not courage or strength to go to any government office to meet any government official. Now, after our sanga started, we have gained knowledge and experience and confidence to meet any government officials and discuss with him about our problems and follow up until we get our basic needs fulfilled. Because of Praxis, we have got a lot of benefits, especially for our children. This supplementary education they have started. Once a year, they give uniforms to the children. They conduct classes every evening. So the children have benefited very much, and they are also taken for picnics, so their cultural and entertainment purposes is also fulfilled. EB: For somebody from outside, it’s very difficult to understand how that change actually took place, to go from being an illiterate, bonded labourer to somebody who is actually willing to make demands and say the government must do this and we are going to demand our rights. What is it that actually took place? What was the process? Was it simply discussions? Before Praxis started, all our lands were occupied by the rich landlords. We had no strength to go and meet the lawyers and take legal proceedings against them. We had no money. We were poor, and we had no strength. Now afterwards, we gained this strength, as well as we had the legal guidance and the help from Praxis, and slowly we had got back the land and we started cultivating our own lands. So that is a process which took some years, and now we are confident and we are back to our lives. EB: How many years? About 10 years. EB: So now we have the woman sanga leader in front of me. Can you tell me how the position of women has changed as a result of Praxis’s work here? Before Praxis arrived, we couldn’t go out of the house. Now, we have the courage to come and sit with the men at the sanga and discuss with them. We also used to have a lot of health problems here, but through the sanga, we are telling people how to treat diarrhoea for example, and other diseases which used to kill many babies. And girls also find out about puberty and what happens to their bodies. Girls only used to find out about this after their first menstrual cycle. As a result of the sanga, the health of everyone in this village has improved, and people are living longer. EB: Where do you think the village and the sanga should go from here? There are a lot of government programmes to uplift the poor but which don’t reach us. So now we have the confidence that we can go and agitate and get the programmes and the benefits for us. Also the local body elections are going to come now. There are 136 members in this sanga, which gives us the confidence that we also can stand in the election. And we can become the members of the local body and fight for our progress. EB: So a lot has been achieved in the past decade. Has it been nothing but success or have there also been failures? I think these 10 years is not a long period. We need some more time also. We have so many programmes and so many aims which can be fulfilled in some more years. So we want to achieve that definitely. For example, the government lands which were lying here in waste, we have been cultivating it. It was all taken by the big landlords. They are not willing to return it. We don’t have force to go and fight against them. They are really powerful. But through our strength which we have created, we have the strength to fight against them. It has to be dealt legally also. So we are going and getting the legal guidance and doing that. These are government lands actually. We want to achieve that land because the government has the programme to give that particular land to us only.

As this sanga has grown in size over the years, the people too have grown and become more assertive. They have now reached the point where they are fairly independent of Praxis, and that, says Alex Toscano, Praxis’s coordinator, is one of his two main aims.

One is that we are fighting against injustice or demanding justice. And on the other, we also see that through this union or sangas, they work for their development. They are not expecting everything to fall from the sky. We have in that sense built up a force which can be reckoned with by the landlords in this block. Earlier, dalits used to be beaten up. At every occasion, a small provocation was enough to get them beaten up and dragged into the street. But today that will not happen. And in fact if there is any incidence of injustice or atrocities on the poor, immediately they say you go to this sanga. They have the power to bring people to book. In that sense, we have developed  some element of strength in the poor people.

As the people’s political power increased, they began to realise that one of the main reasons for their subservience to the big landowners was that they were constantly having to loan money from them. The landowners happily gave these loans, knowing that they villagers would never be able to repay them. The peasants, in a sense, became slaves, unless of course they sold their children, a common practice in rural India. So Praxis decided to break this vicious circle by introducing a credit and savings programme for the villagers.

The poor people by and large have an income lasting for six months because we are in an area which does not receive much rain. And the majority of the 60% of landowners who are marginal farmers depend on the rain for cultivation. So by and large they will have to depend on wage labour, and these people get wage labour for only six months in a year. The remaining part, they have to either borrow or migrate. When they borrow from the money lenders or the landlords, then they have to leave their son as a bonded labourer. They don’t get the wages that would be the market wage available for them. They will get much less because they have taken out a loan. The banks have not been in a position to help the credit needs of such people. When people have to go back to the landlords for credit, they can never demand justice from them. So we said we must try to reduce or abolish the dependence of the poor on the landlords for credit. So we admonished the people to start saving, like 5 rupees a week. That programme has built itself up. People have shown tremendous enthusiasm in it because they have achieved quite a lot through that. They save regularly and whenever they have reached certain amount, they have taken loan from that programme. With this, they have seen that they don’t need to go to the landlords. Many of them have taken loans and released the bonded children of theirs from the landlords. For instance, a majority of the loan is gone for agricultural operation in the cases where people have half an acre to an acre of land. Many other consumption needs have been taken care of by the savings and credit programme. Now this has given them power. They have been repaying the loan. In fact, the most happy situation about this programme is that this entire programme of credit is supported by the savings of the people themselves. If they do not repay the loans, the programme will collapse. The fact that the programme is continuing is a fact that they not only save but they repay the loan. The most happy thing that people discover is that earlier when they were taking 300 rupees from the landlord till their lifetime, they were not able to repay because the interest used to go up. They used to get very low wages. Now what happens is people have taken loans to the tune of 5000 rupees. They have repaid the loans, and they have taken more loans. And that is a big change.

As I told you, because of their poverty, most of the children used to be bonded labourers for the credit need or they were going to graze the cattle and earn little more for the family. Now in this situation, the future of the children would be no different from their parents. They would be illiterate. They would be uneducated, and the darkness of knowledge would be one of their biggest disadvantages. Through the savings and credit programme, we have prevented them from getting into the bonded labour. Alternatively, we have sort of persuaded the parents to see that they go to school. So that is one thing that we managed to do. There is not a single member of our union whose children at the age of going to school are still at home. Everybody joins the school. The housing available for the poor people is such that they cannot study at home. Today’s education system is such that this demands a hell of a lot of work on the students at home. Thereby what happens is that the children of the poor people are not able to cope up with the demands of the school. For this reason, we have started what is called supplementary education or a tuition programme. This has helped children not only to continue in the school but also complete the schooling in a successful manner. Now, what happens after that is a question because when the children are literate, they’ve finished their high school studies, they expect some jobs and there are no jobs. But through this programme, we try to make them understand that it is not just to get the government job that you should study. But the study knowledge has something to do with the transformation of your life and the life of your fellow poor people in the villages. So that sort of value added education we have taken up, and that makes a difference. And we have a very simple example in our existing field-level workers, the community organisers or cadres. Now these were the boys and girls who were studying in our supplementary education. Later on, they came up as teachers in the supplementary education. Today they are the organisers of the people. The entire project definitely depends on their doing. Here the best example, I think, is the people of the soil have developed themselves into a stature where they can say “we are giving lead to the organisation of poor people, that we are the ones who are spreading this light of awareness, organisation, and that is, I think, quite an achievement.

EB: We’ve come to a village approximately 15 kilometres from the last one we visited. We’re basically in a cowshed. The heavy breathing in the background are the two cows. There are around 40 people here, ranging from a kid who’s around 4 or 5 years old to some mothers who are in their 30s and even an old woman in her 60s or 70s. There are some people crowded at the door trying to get in to hear what’s going on. This is a meeting of the sanga, and they are discussing some of the problems that are occurring in this village. I’ve been asking them about the problems they raised in this particular meeting. Two points they have discussed: one is the drinking water problem. Another one is land problems. These two problems are discussed here and what measures they will take. So we will go to the discussion.

She’s bringing one more issue actually. So the woman has talked about so many problems about housing, where the sanga meeting is held. They have cattle tied up. We don’t have a place to have a common sanga building. So how are we going to have? That they are going to discuss in the next sanga meeting. Someone has brought up that they were not given the ration card. The ration card is a family card, where they get the ration for a cheaper price. In the particular village, the ration shop, these people are not given much: two litres and then even two kgs, they were not given. So they want to fight against it. That’s what they are planning: how to fight against it. And some of the people have not got a ration card, and even to get a new ration card, we have to pay 1 rupee. That’s the government rule. But these people are collecting 10 rupees, it seems. So there are some problems going on with the ration shop. So they want to deal with this and they are discussing it also. For example, tomorrow they are going to give a memorandum to a government officer. They don’t have water facility. So these people are going there to get the water. The other caste people, they are not allowing these people to go there and get the water. So those people get the water first and only these people are allowed to go and get the water. Moreover, they have to walk quite some distance to get the water also. So to solve this, they want to have a bore of their own in the village itself. So tomorrow, they are going to give the petition. Actually, it’s not taken, this issue will be taken to the model committee. All the 22 villages are joined together, and then the model committee will be talking about it. Even if the model committee is not able to solve the issue as a big mass, it will be talked in a ?? committee, which is the huge mass. So if that problem is not solved, the huge mass will go and make some processions and agitation against a particular office to quicken the process. So that’s how each problem will be solved one by one. Most of the problems will be solved by the sanga members themselves. If it is going beyond their capacity, other villages will get involved in their problems also. EB: It’s 10 to 9. We’ve taken up a lot of their time. Why don’t we go ahead and go on.

The struggles of these villagers are not over. But Praxis has instilled in them a sense of confidence and assertiveness which you don’t find amongst most poor people  in India. The untouchables and the other have-nots in Indian society have come a long way since the country achieved independence from Britain nearly half a century ago. But India’s industrialisation has primarily benefited the wealthy. The middle class too has grown tremendously, but half the Indian population still remains under the poverty line. Economists and the government hope that the liberalisation of the Indian economy, launched in 1991, will trickle down to the poor. But Praxis coordinator Alex Toscano is sceptical about the validity of the trickle-down theory.

Our economy has by and large worked on this theory. We have concentrated on the growth and expected that it would have a trickle-down effect on the poor. But it hasn’t happened. The best period of economic development that we have seen, there have been more than 40% of the people below the poverty line. So I don’t believe in the trickle-down theory at all. India has a massive population which is reeling under massive poverty. This is a contradiction. And this contradiction will be perpetrated when our industry is going to be compatible with the world market.

Other non-governmental organisations share similar concerns. They too fear that the type of market-oriented economy which India is moving towards will only benefit the halves. Shabnam Ramaswamy who runs a centre for street children in Delhi, known as Street Survivors, also feels the present economic liberalisation will not redress the inequalities that permeate Indian society. The reason is simple, she says. The decisions are being taken from above without any consideration for the poor.

Is making multi-storey buildings development? We’ve just had five channels on TV and we’ll have 30. We need more hospitals, according to me. I need schools for the poor. So there can be no development if the mass is not educated. If the mass is not uplifted, why Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola? What will I do with the first world’s factories coming here? Is that development? Ask the common man. Maybe he doesn’t need it. So development is decided by a group of people in a country, people who drink the Pepsi Cola, people who want India to go and open out its market. So that’s not development for me.

Until organisations like Praxis and hundreds of others across India are able to make the 450 million poor people translate their numbers into political power, it’s unlikely that the country’s economic development will actually benefit them. Small steps are being made. It’s not much, admit non-governmental organisations, but they say they have to start somewhere. As a result of economic liberalisation, says Dr. Ajay Shah, of the Centre for the Monitoring of the Indian Economy, the poor in certain rural areas are seeing improvements in their lives. But he too agrees that they are and will remain a minority.

It is going to be an extremely stressful thing. There are individuals that are going to be able to take the lead. They are going to benefit tremendously. There are plenty of people that are going to be uncomfortable with this, and in the market economy, there is not too much room for the state to support such people and they are going to suffer correspondingly. And there are plenty of people that are going to be left out.

“Standing on their own Legs” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Alex van Hoorn. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.