I'm back in the country. My 5th day here started with an eight hour drive through potholed highways and dry, uninspiring landscape from Pune to Beed district in Marathwada region in Maharashtra.
Just outside Beed the landscape changed. It was green and there were sturdy crops of maize, sugarcane and cotton everywhere. I was introduced to a lady everyone called Tai. She's been married to the man I'm here to meet since she was five years old. He's had that privilege since he was eight.
Born into a 'Mang' family, Eknath Dagdu Awad has led a life long struggle for Dalit rights. His parents, sister and he were bonded labourers. They spent their days in service to the village — clearing carcasses of dead animals and working in the fields for a handful of grain or stale leftovers. Eknath, or 'Bau' as everyone calls him spent the first decade of his life hungry, abused and a complete non entity. Name callings, beatings and hard physical labour were a staple of his life as a lower caste child.
"I grew up the son of a beggar, and I frequently saw my parents being abused. I didn't even know that protesting was an option. My parents toiled day and night their entire lives, humbly accepting atrocities as their fate." But, when you know better, you do better.
I had an awakening through my education, he says — "Meri padhai se mein jagruk hua". "I knew I had to keep learning, no matter what. I fought every step of the way, for scholarships, for leave of absence and the bigotry that came with being a 'Mang'."
Bau saw success early in his career, while working for local NGOs. In 1985 he established the Rural Development Center to focus on Human Rights, Economic Empowerment of Dalit, Land Encroachment, Social Justice, and participation and partnership in governance.
In the past 25 years, RDC has led massive projects like the Jamin Adhikar Andolan through which 50,000 landless Dalit families were allotted grazing land to farm on. The 'Campaign for Human Rights' initiative has assisted victims and had brought to book hundreds of perpetrators of atrocities like rape, murder and forced labour. The Bal Hakka Abhiyan, started in 1997 works to ensure that Dalit children are not deprived of their rights to education and has pushed child labour into oblivion in the area.
RDC's work has uprooted the archaic social order and this made Bau rather unpopular with money lenders, Zamnidars and politicians. They can no longer charge a monthly interest of 25 rupees per 100 lent, nor get labour for less than minimum wage, and now they wouldn't dare line up the Dalits and force them to cast their votes.
In 2004, half a dozen men, armed with swords and daggers attacked Bau in broad daylight. "Death will come soon. I just hope that I die in my struggle to help the Dalit community," Bau says.
The next day, I visited families whose fortuned had changed in the past decade. Sipping tea with an old timer, Kaka, and listening to his stories. Kaka's seven grandchildren are in school. His wife and three daughter in-laws are members of the Mahila Mandal, where they pool finances to start small businesses. Kaka himself is harvesting three crops a year. His sons no longer have to migrate in search of seasonal farming work. They even bought an Autorikshaw that's both- family transport and a source of income. They own their own cattle, and there's even room for some indulgences like a television and weekly ice cream treats for his grand children. Kaka is a happy man.
Walking back from the village to the RDC, I witness the legacy Bau will leave behind; school going children, prosperous homes and every one walking free and unafraid.
The son of a beggar, Bau has, in his lifetime, helped the Dalit community rise.
To follow Tithiya's journey, log on to www.hindustantimes.com/100heroesproject .