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Everyday heroes

Civil Society magazine’s Hall of Fame award winners have made a difference to the lives of others without expectations of rewards or publicity. KumKum Dasgupta brings us their extraordinary stories. Behind the scenes

india Updated: Nov 27, 2011 02:44 IST

Fatima Mynsong (39), Acquiline Songthiang (37) and Matilda Suting (38)
Claim to fame
Fighting to end NREGS corruption in their village at Meghalaya
Believe it or not, activist Anna Hazare and minister of rural development Jairam Ramesh could now actually have common mascots in Matilda Suting, Acquiline Songthiang and Fatima Mynsong. The three have been fighting corruption in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) for the last three years in Meghalaya.

“I hate corruption and there is so much of it around us,” says Mynsong, a primary school teacher from Jongksha, a village of 600 households, 32 kilometres from Shillong. When the NREGS, which entitled each household to up to 100 days work, began in the village in 2008, there was much anticipation since stable work options are rare in that area. Songthiang, who is a school teacher, and her colleague Mynsong got involved in the implementation process. As soon as the project began, Mynsong found to her horror that someone had fraudulently withdrawn money for the purchase of materials and wages by forging her signature. Angry, she went up to the village executive committee and challenged them. Instead of launching a probe, the secretary just told her to mind her own business. Songthiang also had a similar experience.

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“We were very angry and wanted to file a Right to Information case but did know how to go about it,” recounts Mynsong. Luckily, a cousin knew and helped frame the letter. An old friend and neighbour Matilda Suting, a housewife, also joined their fight. When the news of misappropriation spread, some of the villagers came out in support, while many others stayed away. This divided the village into two camps. “We called a meeting of the NREGS workers and told them what was happening. It was a giant leap for us but we believed that we must not accept corruption,” Mynsong reminisces. Their rations were stopped and the three were even physically assaulted. However, all these did not dampen their spirits. Slowly, the wheels of justice moved and a chargesheet was filed against the erring officers. “Our people are often taken for a ride. This has to stop,” says Mynsong confidently.

Govind Desai (32)
Claim to fame
Set up Urja Ghar, a platform where communities can inter-mingle

You could view it as the secular brigade’s counter attack against the saffron march in Gujarat. But the Urja Ghar project in Lambadiya, a village around 175 km north of Ahmedabad, is not an initiative to counter communalism only, even though it was rolled out two years after the 2002 riots. Urja Ghar was — and still continues to be — a shared space for the people of Lambadiya and the villages around it to identify, understand, analyse and overcome the challenges and issues they face daily: be it communalism or gender stereotyping.

“We chose Lambadiya because, first, it is near to the Rajasthan border and we had a similar project there. So we could contextualise it: while Gujarat is the right-wing’s socio-political lab, Rajasthan has often been a soft target,” explains Govind Desai, one of the three who started the project. “Second, Lambadiya has a history of communal tension but there was no immediate memory because the last one happened in 2000. In 2002, it was peaceful.”

In the first two years, no touchy subjects were discussed. Instead, Urja Ghar became a playpen for the children of different communities. After two years, as more people from different age groups and communities joined in, discussions on politics and social processes started but they were done innovatively — through cinema, theatre, story-telling sessions and photography. Very soon, it became a platform where one could speak one’s mind and debate any issue fearlessly. In fact, when a couple belonging to two communities eloped, Urja Ghar was blamed for helping people to think for themselves. But, there was no bloodshed and the issue was solved amicably.

A decade on, Desai hopes, that Urja Ghar has taught the people of Lambadiya to think independently and internalise the fact that there is nothing called absolute truth.

Bashir Mir (46)
Claim to fame
A pacifist in violence-torn Kashmir

In 1993, Kabir Mir, a civil contractor and a political worker, was gunned down by militants in his village of Vizer-Wagoora in Kashmir’s Baramulla district. The killing led to a cycle of violence and his son, Bashir, was injured in one such incident. Bashir could have resorted to revenge but he chose to forgive his attackers and established the Human Aid Society in 1999, which is committed to faith-based reconciliation. Bashir has even sponsored the education of some of the children of the militants who died after they destroyed his life.

Bashir realised that there were many people in Kashmir who, like him, were living a life of pain and he wanted to help them. To raise money for the society, he sold his apple orchard and began to reach out to victims of violence in Kashmir. The NGO sponsors the education of needy children and helps provide assistance to widows and the destitute. It has undertaken rehabilitation work for those hit by the 2005 earthquake. The NGO has helped 1,107 victims of violence.

Kaitally Raman Jayan (46)
Claim to fame
Popularised jackfruit cultivation in his village

After spending 11 years in Dubai, Jayan came back to India because the jackfruit trees in his village Velukkara in Kerala’s Thrissur district were calling him back. And now he has a mission: Jayan wants to convert his village into a jackfruit paradise. Today, the village has more than 1,000 houses and about half have a jackfruit tree thanks to him. The source of his inspiration was his difficult days as a child: his family was poor and their food security came from an old jackfruit tree. Those childhood memories made Jayan very attached to the jackfruit. Today, he travels in a tempo selling soaps and candles and alongside he plants jackfruit trees if he finds a suitable spot. On his subsequent visits, he cares for the plants. Institutions, clubs and groups have requested Jayan to supply them jackfruit plants. They have been organising meetings to sensitise people about the importance of the jackfruit for local food security. Even the Irinjalkuda police station has a herbal garden with a few jackfruit plants.

Chintakindi Mallesham (39)
Claim to fame
Revolutionised the way Pochampalli silk sari is made in Nalgonda, Andhra Pradesh

When Chintakindi Mallesham was young, he saw his mother, Laxmi, spend a whole day processing thread for Pochampalli silk saris by hand using a device called Asu. The 42-pin device, still used by many, involves the right hand going back and forth as many as 9,000 times for one sari. Repeated use results in irreversible damage to the shoulder and women often lose their sight because the right eye has to track the rapid movements of the arm and the fine thread looping on to the pins. After using the Asu for 30 years, Laxmi can’t see with her right eye and has a damaged shoulder. Mallesham was moved by his mother’s condition and decided to mechanise Asu: he replaced the woman’s arm with a mechanical one which winds the silk thread on the pins and offers a choice of settings. The result is that the thread needed for three or four saris is now processed in the time that used to be taken for one. And he has named the machine, Laxmi Asu, as a tribute to his mother.

Gyarsi Bai (48)
Claim to fame
Fought to free poor and exploited communities from bonded labour

Gyarsi Bai was born into a poor Sahariya family, a primitive tribal community. She never went to school and was married off to a family that was poorer than hers. Along with her husband, a landless labourer, she had to shoulder the responsibility of running the family.

But things changed when two activists arrived in Gyarsi’s village. Talking to them, she realised that her community had remained poor because they were denied rights. The activists found Gyarsi’s ability to communicate useful and asked her to mobilise her people. Soon, she became a campaigner for Right to Information and the employment guarantee scheme. Her work to free bonded labourers is most noteworthy as she had to fend off local landlords and even the government. But thanks to her work, the community came out to talk about their exploitation. The state administration had no option but to to acknowledge the presence of bonded labour in several villages and take action. A rehabilitation package is now being implemented.