Transforming the lives of India's 'broken people'

How the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program helps India's outcastes.


An entourage from the UUA was preparing for a three-week visit to western India in February 2001 to see first-hand how the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program helps the poorest people in India, when a major earthquake struck the heart of the state of Gujarat, their destination. UU World sent Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Zucchino to accompany the tour to uncover the plight of the dalits—and the courageous efforts of those who are helping them. —The editors

Just after nine o'clock on the morning of January 26, in the farming village of Moti Malvan in western India, Indira Jhala felt the earth move. She heard a distant roar and saw the walls of her home begin to tremble and crack. Moments later, after she had gathered up her son, grandson, and daughter-in-law and fled to the safety of the dirt path outside her home, she realized what was happening: An earthquake was toppling her house.

It was a crude but comfortable home, built of stone and timbers and mud, with dirt floors and a thatched roof. Jhala had built it with a loan from a small bank operated by an advocacy group called SEWA—the Self Employed Women's Association. To take the loan, she had defied her husband and the custom of her caste, the durbar, which forbids women to step outside their homes. She had compounded the transgression by joining SEWA and serving as the leader of its savings and credit group in her village. With a sense of triumph, she made the final payment on her house loan earlier this year.

Just days later, the earthquake struck and Jhala's entire world, quite literally, came tumbling down.

Three weeks after the disaster, Jhala stood in the dirt amid the ruins of her home and began to weep at the futility of it all. Everything she owned—cooking utensils, beds, chairs, clothes, tools—was assembled next to crumbling walls. She lived in the open, keeping watch against thieves but afraid to move back in for fear the remaining walls and roof would collapse. She stood there in the hot sun, choking back tears, a tiny, spare figure in a red sari who thought she was about 45 but who had the wrinkled skin and haggard face of a woman of 75.

There to console Jhala was Bina Trivedi, the SEWA coordinator for the area. SEWA not only had provided the cash to build Jhala's home, it also was the first organization to arrive with help after the earthquake. SEWA teams came to Moti Malvan and other remote villages with tarps, tents, blankets, food, and medical help the day after the quake. It would be almost a week before government or private relief agency teams arrived in the villages.

The earthquake cracked a water tank, built by SEWA, that supplied Moti Malvan and three other villages. More than 400,000 liters of clean water spilled out onto the parched earth. A SEWA member climbed up the tank and, despite aftershocks that rocked the structure, repaired the leak and restored water service at a critical time.

What is most remarkable about the group's swift reaction during the disaster is that SEWA is not an emergency relief organization. It began in 1972 as a trade union for home-based women workers. It has since evolved into a grass-roots organization that fights to empower women and overturn traditional power relationships that keep Indian women dependent and exploited. The word SEWA means "service" in the Hindi language.

"Our sisters were in trouble, so we decided right away that we had to rush to their aid," said Savita Patel, a SEWA emergency coordinator, explaining why the group so suddenly and thoroughly plunged into earthquake relief. Of SEWA's 200,000 members in the state of Gujarat, 60,000 had their homes damaged or destroyed. Among the people killed—estimates range from 25,000 to 90,000—were 78 SEWA members.

An alternative to development

The concepts of mass mobilization and collective service are central to SEWA, one of the first groups to receive funding under the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program, a unique donor effort of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The UU Holdeen India Program rejects traditional Third World models of donor agencies that create, control, and dictate limited development projects. Instead, the Holdeen program works hand-in-hand with "partner" groups such as SEWA that mobilize at the grass-roots level to demand justice and empowerment for the poor and oppressed.

The Holdeen program has helped to fund more than 70 groups in India since it was set up in 1984. Holdeen partners fight to enforce land rights for indigenous tribes, set free bonded laborers, educate child laborers, help poor women take charge of their lives, and demand dignity and equality for dalits, the so-called "untouchables" of India's caste system. Adhering to the Unitarian Universalist belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, the partner groups demand that India live up to the noble principles of the country's liberal constitution. With the Holdeen program's help, the partners have dramatically changed the lives of thousands of poor and dispossessed Indians.

"You come up with the ideas, and the Holdeen people provide the money to put the ideas on the ground," says M.D. Mistry, a trade union leader whose 80,000-member union is a rising political force and has been a Holdeen partner since 1988.

For all of its 17 years, the UU Holdeen India Program's only director has been Kathy Sreedhar, a tiny, dark-haired woman of boundless energy and enduring faith in her partner groups. Sreedhar, who first came to India as a Peace Corps worker and who later married an Indian, has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the country. She is a counselor and a colleague to the partner groups, forging tight personal bonds over the years. Sreedhar developed the grass-roots partner concept after the UUA hired her in 1983, when the Association was seeking ways to use income that had recently become available from a source called the Holdeen trust.

Jonathan Holdeen, a wealthy New York attorney, had set up a complex series of trusts in the 1940s with the bold plan to eventually eliminate the need for income taxes. He designated a charitable group to receive a small portion of the proceeds for "maternity, child welfare, education, and migration expenses" in India. For reasons that were never fully explained, Holdeen selected the American Unitarian Association. "He designated trusts to be used in India, where he had never been, to be administered by the Unitarian church, of which he was not a member," Sreedhar explains. A court awarded the income from the trusts to the UUA in 1977. Today the Holdeen assets—more than $35 million—are part of the UUA's trusts.

Sreedhar had seen enough traditional development projects in India to know that she wanted to try something different with the Holdeen funds. "Most development has not changed the lives of the very poor at all," she says. "It's project-based. The donors decide what the project is, and it's usually time-bound and focused on just one aspect of peoples' lives—health or education, for instance. But poor people don't have anything, so you have to focus on everything. And the only way to change is for people to organize, because the only power poor people have is in their numbers."

Under Sreedhar, the UU Holdeen India Program has sought to assist grass-roots groups rather than to fund development projects. "Instead of giving money to a project, you give to an organization or a leader who is starting an organization," she says. "You support the group however it wants it. You don't decide what they do. They should decide. And it isn't just money. It's training and information and networking."

The Holdeen endowment provides about $700,000 each year. But the program channels five to ten times that amount every year, Sreedhar says, by persuading wealthy donors such as the Ford Foundation to fund partners that have been nurtured and supported by the Holdeen program.

"The big donors won't start off and take a risk on some unknown group that, say, is going to organize dalits (untouchables)," Sreedhar says. "So we take the risk. Then if the group works out, the big donors have a lot more money than we do, and they pick them up."

The Holdeen program requires that partner groups work collectively. "We believe that what causes change is organized, collective bargaining power, so it doesn't make sense to fund disparate groups," Sreedhar says.

Sreedhar is not a Unitarian Universalist, "but philosophically I am," she says. "And all of our partners are Unitarians—they just don't know it."

In a sense, the Holdeen partners are revolutionaries. They are pushing for fundamental changes in Indian society, threatening and provoking the existing power structure. Members have been murdered, beaten, threatened, arrested, intimidated, and targeted for assassination. Yet the groups have maintained a strictly nonviolent philosophy, relying on peaceful mass demonstrations, political pressure, and legal action.

"Our groups are confrontational—every one of them," Sreedhar says. "They have to be."

Freeing those in servitude

The drab browns and tans of the dry season in the state of Maharashtra give way suddenly to the vibrant greens and reds of farm fields. Near the village of Apati, beside a winding river, the highlands are planted with tomatoes, watermelons, and chili peppers. Surrounded by miles of dirt and dust and withered scrub, the farm is a tranquil, 16-acre oasis.

These are forest lands, owned by the Indian government. They are farmed, defiantly, by indigenous people whose own lands were confiscated generations ago. These "tribals," as they are called, are former bonded laborers who were led to freedom by Vivek Pandit, an upper-caste brahmin who has made it his life's work to free bonded laborers and organize tribals to push for social change. Two advocacy groups founded by Pandit are longtime Holdeen partners.

As recently as 1988, the 16 tribal families who now work the cooperative farm performed backbreaking agricultural labor and menial chores. They were bonded for life, generation after generation, to landlords who claimed their labor—and their very lives—as collateral on loans.

Organizers from Shramajeevi Sanghatana, or "people's organization," a trade union for freed laborers founded by Pandit, encountered the 16 families one day in 1988. The union—a Holdeen partner funded through its affiliated non-governmental organization, Vidhayak Sansad—has a disarmingly simple strategy for releasing laborers from bondage: It simply tells them to stop working, walk away, and declare themselves free. Legally, landlords have no recourse; a 1976 Indian law outlaws bonded labor, though it is widely flouted.

On the same day in 1988, the 16 families declared themselves free. Backed by the union, they illegally took possession of the 16 acres and began planting and harvesting crops. In all, the union has forced the release from bondage of 15,000 laborers. It went to court to gain the first conviction ever of a landlord for violating the 1976 law.

Among those freed was Venubai Meghwali, a thin woman with tattoos on her arms and a ring through her nose. She earned three rupees (about seven cents) a day and a ration of rice for washing dishes, fetching water, and working in the fields. When her husband began attending union meetings at night, the landlord ordered her to have him stop. But her husband took her to the meetings, and soon both declared themselves free. Meghwali became the first president of her village's union committee.

"Now I'm not afraid of anyone—not a landlord, or any police officer or any public official," Meghwali said. "And now I don't want the next generation to live the way I did."

Such stories are repeated by freed laborers who idolize Pandit, a charismatic and irrepressible man of 43 who is blessed with relentless drive and an infectious sense of humor. Born a brahmin, he studied law and drifted into traditional income-generating projects aimed at helping poor villagers—what he now refers to as his "pigs and goats" period.

While working in 1982 in the village of Dahisar, Pandit was shocked to discover tribals working as bonded laborers. While growing up in Bombay, he had never heard of the practice. He soon discovered that among the landlords who "owned" bonded laborers was his own uncle.

Pandit warned the landlords, including his uncle, that he intended to declare the laborers free. On February 9, 1982, Pandit and his followers were attacked and beaten by a band of landowners. Leading the assault was his uncle, who stripped him and beat him in front of the laborers.

That was the beginning of Pandit's campaign against bonded labor. It has since expanded to demands for minimum wages for migrant workers, education for the children of freed bonded labors and migrant workers, political equality for tribals, and fighting against police abuses.

"The whole history of India is the history of oppression," Pandit says. "Our constitution provides protections, but only on paper. The laws aren't enforced. And unless you have collective strength, as we have, the law will remain on paper only."

Tribals make up 15 percent of India's population. They exist outside the formal caste system, but are lumped at roughly the same low level as what the government calls OBCs, or Other Backward Castes.

For generations, landlords have pressed tribals into bondage on the pretext that they are paying interest on loans of a few hundred rupees each, the equivalent of roughly $10. No contract is signed; few ledgers are maintained. The loan is whatever the landlord says it is. No matter how much interest a laborer repays, the landlord insists that more is owed.

A common form of bondage is lagin gadi, or "bondage for marriage." The son of bonded laborers will begin working at age seven or eight to prove that he is worthy of a loan to pay for his wedding day. By the time he is a teenager, the landlord arranges a marriage and pays for it. The laborer—and his new wife—spend the rest of their lives working futilely to pay off the interest.

In other cases, a loan supposedly repays the debts of a laborer's parents. Often, laborers take out loans of 500 to 2,000 rupees ($11 to $44) for living expenses—an amount so large they could never earn enough, at three rupees a day, to repay the principal and usurious interest.

"They're naive," Pandit says. "They're illiterate, so they don't even know they have rights. They don't know it's illegal. They don't believe the owner would take advantage of them. They believe whatever the owner tells them."

Like the American slave owners of the old South, these landlords are often paternalistic and patronizing. "When I first started questioning them, they said I didn't understand the relationship," Pandit says. "They told me they take care of them, feed them, house them, clothe them—treat them like their own children. So I asked them: 'If they're your children, why don't you leave your house and all your money to them?' Well, in fact, they pass their laborers to their children, like slaves."

Claiming land and freedom

The landlords have fought back. In 1985, Pandit was attacked and beaten by a mob of upper-caste landowners. In 1996, while he and his followers blocked tanker trucks that were illegally drawing water from tribal land, Pandit was charged with conspiring to murder a man whose body was found in a nearby river. It was a trumped-up charge, but Pandit has spent the past five years defending himself in court.

The 15,000 tribals who have joined the union are no longer the submissive and deferential illiterates first encountered by Pandit. Through union meetings and many leadership training courses, they learn to demand their rights. They are taught labor laws, police procedures, government structures, organizing tactics, and minimum wage law—another law routinely ignored by landlords and many government officials.

One of the first laborers freed by Pandit was Keshav Nankar, a moon-faced man with thick black hair and an impish smile. Nankar was bonded at age eight, herding cattle to prove to his landlord that he might one day be worthy of marriage credit. He earned three rupees a day, a rice ration, a new set of underwear twice a year, and tea with milk at the annual village fair. At 17, he received a loan of 624 rupees ($14) to pay for an arranged marriage. To repay the loan, he sold his goat herd, only to be told that it wasn't enough.

Pandit encountered Nankar among 200 bonded laborers identified by union canvassers. Asked at a union meeting whether they wanted to be freed, each one answered yes. On July 18, 1983—everyone still remembers the date—Nankar and the others were declared free.

Nankar, 38, is now president of the union. When Pandit was awarded the 1999 Anti-Slavery Award by Anti-Slavery International U.K., he insisted that Nankar travel with him to London to accept the award. At the award ceremony, Nankar delivered a moving testimonial in his native Marathi language. Sreedhar gave him a tour of London, where he rode his first escalator, saw his first movie, and marveled at the vast selection at Harrod's food market, pointing at each vegetable and declaring, "I could grow that!"

Because tribals are both farmers and migrant agricultural workers, Pandit has focused on land and agriculture. After a standoff with landlords armed with guns and slingshots in 1986, the union took possession of a 17-acre plot that had been illegally confiscated in 1962, when a landlord removed the names of tribals from the deed to the land. Ten tribal families are now living on the plot and farming it.

With the union's help, other tribals went to court to reclaim a 14-acre plot that had been illegally confiscated from the parents of Rambhau Warna, the union's former general secretary. A landlord claimed the property in 1963 as collateral for a loan to Warna's father. When Warna's father died, the landlord coerced Warna's mother to renounce her claim to the land. Warna and the union filed a court challenge and won. Last year, the union began an experimental farm on the plot, testing various crops to help develop a system for selling vegetables and flowers at a profit.

In the 600 villages organized by the union, Pandit says, the landlords no longer dare to keep bonded laborers. Pandit has even unionized a local Hindu temple, from the priests to the women who clean the latrines. "Through the union, the power relationship is shifting from the owners to the laborers," Pandit says.

Pandit walks a fine line between confrontation and accommodation. He has led rallies and sit-ins; he once paraded tribal children carrying "begging bowls" filled with rupees they had collected into legislative chambers to shame the government after it said it had no money for schools. But he also has worked with government officials, court officers, and politicians. He persuaded a landlord to donate land where he has built a union compound in Usgaon, near Bombay. As an Eisenhower Fellow last year, Pandit rode with Philadelphia police to study arrest procedures and accompanied legislators in Jackson, Mississippi, to learn about state politics.

"Vivek is one of the most brilliant strategists I've ever known," Sreedhar says. In a foreword to a book Pandit wrote about his life of social action, Sreedhar wrote, "If we had a thousand Viveks, we could remake India and all the world."

Pandit says his relationship with the UU Holdeen India Program has been nothing like his encounters with traditional donors. "Holdeen has the same commitment to social change we do," he says. "Other agencies talk about social change, but the Holdeen people live it."

One path to social change is through the law. Pandit demands that the government take responsibility for ensuring justice by upholding the constitution—what Pandit calls "the terror of the law."

To build solidarity, Pandit has taught the tribals to greet one another with a raised fist and two greetings: Zindabad! ("Long live the struggle!") and Manusai! ("We are humans!").

Organizing the outcastes

In January 1986, in the state of Gujarat, Martin Macwan encountered a horror that changed his life. He was a young lawyer working with the poor when a land dispute erupted between a group of dalits, or "untouchables," and members of a higher caste. Early one morning, dalit homes were burned and four of his activist colleagues were murdered.

It was nothing new. Thousands of dalits have been tortured, murdered, and raped over the years; in most cases, charges are never brought. Macwan decided that this was one case in which justice would prevail.

For the next year and a half, he pursued the prosecution of members of the upper-caste mob responsible for the killings. He set up a mock courtroom in his office, training dalits who had witnessed the murders to testify in court. Eventually, 14 upper-caste members were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

From that tragedy came Navsarjan, created by Macwan as the first dalit organization in Gujarat to openly challenge the country's 3,000-year-old caste system using legal methods and civil-rights training.

"This was a new beginning," Macwan says now. "Dalits realized they could fight back. I wanted to take this powerful experience and turn misery into hope."

Since Navsarjan was formed in 1989, the year it received its first grant from the UU Holdeen India Program, the organization has organized dalits in 2,000 villages. It has worked to tear down India's Hindu caste system and to demand equality and justice for dalits. It has helped dalits reclaim land, forced employers to pay them the legal minimum wage and, most importantly, taught dalits to cast off their feudal roles as unworthy, contemptible, and powerless.

Macwan urges dalits to stop calling upper-caste Indians papu (master) and to refuse to address them by caste names such as singh (lion). He compels them to demand their rights under India's constitution of 1950, which outlawed "untouchability." He shows them how to pierce the myth of upper-caste invincibility through moral superiority. For his work among the dalits, Macwan received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award last year.

Dalit means "oppressed"—sometimes translated as "broken people"—in Hindi. It is the word used today by those people who, until 1950, were called untouchables or outcastes—those outside the Hindu caste system. Mahatma Ghandi called them harijans, or "children of God." (That phrase is not used today, since harijans also means the offspring of maidservants to the gods, who were sold to the temple priests for sex—in other words, the children of whores.) Despite a constitution that gives legal equality to all Indians, the status of dalits has not changed.

"Whatever word is used, they are still outcastes," Macwan says. "To us, dalit is a moral belief in the equality of all human beings. I was born dalit, or untouchable, but my life mission is to be a free person."

Dalits, who make up 14 percent of India's population of one billion, are forced to live apart from upper castes. There are segregated tea stalls for dalits. Upper-caste Indians refuse to accept food or water from dalits, yet allow them to care for their children. Macwan remembers beggars who belonged to a higher caste coming to his home when he was a child, accepting money but refusing food or drink.

Among dalits, the lowest of the low are bhangis, or scavengers, most of whom are women. Their assigned caste duty is to collect and remove human waste. They earn 50 rupees ($1.10) a month to scrape up excreta with their bare hands and haul it away in a wicker basket carried on their backs. Bhangis are also required to dispose of dead animals, clean out sewer pipes, handle corpses, collect stool and urine samples in hospitals, empty bed pans, and scrape up human waste dumped onto railroad tracks from passing trains.

The constitution outlaws scavenging. Yet the law is widely ignored, and local panchayats, or village authorities, openly pay bhangis from public funds. Some get around the law by listing bhangis as "sweepers." Navsarjan's efforts include pushing the government to enforce the law.

In organizing bhangis in pursuit of better pay and working conditions, Macwan has drawn the ire of some dalits, who consider bhangis inferior and unworthy. Even among dalits, there is a rigid caste system.

"These are 3,000-year-old problems," Macwan says. "The dalit movement has always said, 'We are oppressed, we have such huge problems,' but that's it. That has to change. And if it doesn't change, we have an even bigger problem."

Navsarjan helps focus attention on the plight of dalits by compiling detailed reports of thousands of cases of atrocities against them, village by village and district by district. Navsarjan organizers file charges themselves against those who torture or murder dalits, or pressure authorities to press charges. They provide security for witnesses and for victims' families, and gather testimony and forensic evidence.

The bookcases in Macwan's office in Ahmedabad are filled with thick case reports, complete with horrific photos of dalits who have been stabbed, beaten, or tortured to death. In one case, police beat a dalit to death for unwittingly buying a bicycle that later proved to be stolen. In another, a mob stabbed and beat a dalit man to death after he was accused of committing adultery with an upper-caste woman. The case reports are frequently cited in Indian newspaper exposés.

Publicity about Navsarjan's work has prompted some members of India's upper castes to express an interest in the organization. Any non-dalit who wishes to join must first pass a simple test—accepting a glass of water from a dalit.

Economic independence for women

In the week following the earthquake in Gujarat, the SEWA teams that had rushed into villages noticed a curious thing: Many private relief agencies simply dumped supplies at the edge of a village and then moved on. The SEWA women also saw that upper-caste and upper-class people seemed to be monopolizing relief supplies. Worse, some of them told the women that poor and lower-caste people were in no need of relief aid—which the SEWA teams knew to be a lie.

Such abuses disturbed the SEWA women, for they violated the organization's core principles. The SEWA teams are trained to distribute relief evenly, without regard to caste or class. And unlike government or private relief teams, they had organized the villages house by house over the years. They knew the names of the village women and their children.

Disaster relief was nothing new for SEWA. There has been a disaster a year for the past eight years in Gujarat—two floods, two cyclones, a malaria epidemic, and several seasons of devastating drought. During each crisis, the women from SEWA have been in the villages, helping, comforting, and organizing new members.

The union works from the bottom up, starting with women from the lowest rungs of society. SEWA's bank, for instance, began as an effort to free women street vendors from money lenders. Because the women needed cash each morning to buy vegetables to resell, they were dependent on money lenders who charged 5 to 10 percent interest a day. Now the SEWA bank provides low-interest loans, as well as savings accounts that help women keep their earnings safe from demanding husbands.

"It's a bank run entirely by women for women," says Ela Bhatt, SEWA's founder, who keeps a glass of water on her living room table to warn of earthquake tremors. "Economic power is as important as political power. To manage your own affairs, your own finances—that's a real sense of power."

Because of government resistance, it took more than five years to get the bank up and running. Many SEWA members are illiterate, so they opened their accounts with their thumbprints and a signed "X."

After the earthquake, the bank braced for a rush of withdrawals. Instead, the rate of deposits actually doubled—a sign that SEWA members trusted the bank in a time of crisis.

Now SEWA is developing ways to rebuild the livelihoods of members who lost their homes to the earthquake. It will be daunting. The average savings account is 2,000 rupees. The cost to rebuild a typical house is almost 50,000 rupees.

Bhatt believes SEWA's principles of grass-roots organizing and self-reliance will help its members persevere. As they rebuild their lives, she says, they will continue to demand social and economic justice. Bhatt points out that one of the first things new members are taught is to shout out their name and occupation.

"There is tremendous awareness now among these women," Bhatt says. "They know how to open their mouths and speak up for themselves."

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