It bothers me immensely to watch images broadcast in western media, of Indians living in abject poverty. I thought it excessive that stories about India centered on rampant corruption, mismanagement of projects and finances and the deprivation that stems from it; discrediting and ridiculing us as an emerging super power.
But truth be told, the reportage is neither unfair nor is it embellished to paint a picture any bleaker than reality. We've earned the bad press.
The rural poor remain marginalized and denied of their basic rights, even as the government releases an abundance of funds and schemes to provide access to health, education, nutrition and livelihood. The missing mid-day meals, the ration shops that don’t provide for the poorest of the poor, the ill equipped, under staffed health centers are all a cruel joke.
In 2004, in Nagpur, Rajesh Malviya had a small idea with a big heart, to address this ongoing battle of rights and robbers. He started finding volunteers, or Gramdoots, in a hundred villages who would act as the conduit of information flow between the local authorities, the community and supporting NGOs.
At the first Rashtriya Gramdoot Parishad in New Delhi recently, more than one thousand village volunteers from Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhatisgarh were in attendance.
Malviya says, “People stepped up to the challenge to help their communities without seeking any remuneration or rewards. They were content with merely the opportunity to improve the lives of their community. We still require some money for training, advocacy and for spreading the Gramdoot movement to other parts of India.”
Rajesh Malviya has created that missing opportunity. The fact that funds (and accountability) get attenuated in the slow crawl to the rightful beneficiaries is no secret. The situation seemed abysmal as one was hard pressed to find official measures that check the pilfering. This set the stage for a grassroots intervention that will empower rural communities lead by their Gramdoots.
At the Parishad, I could see scores of bare legs with worn out sandals, braving the Delhi winter. Eagerly exchanging details of success and struggle with their brethren from different states; they had all come to have their voices heard and to be reassured that their lives and stories mattered. For most, this was the first visit to their country's capital.
Malviya believes that “sustainable rural development comes from the stakeholders taking ownership. Our Gramdoots will always remain politically autonomous; they are nominated via consensus in the village and are working on issues such as the proper implementation of NREGS, Forest Rights act and other welfare programmes. They are creating awareness in the villages on gender, right to education and all other government policies that affect them.”
A painfully shy lady who was sitting next to me was summoned to the stage to share her experiences as a Gramdoot. Standing on her toes to reach the microphone, Pushpa Gohe sent a strong message. “Hum Gram Swarajya ka arth jante hai… We now know the meaning of village self governance. We know our rights and we will fight for them together. Me and my sisters in the village are no longer afraid. Hum jagruk ho gaye hai.”
For Rajesh Malviya the next milestone is to ready an army of ten thousand strong Gramdoots in the country. Though I think he might exceed his own expectations.
'Start me with ten, who are stout-hearted men
And I'll soon give you ten thousand more.'
(Works just as well with ten Stout Hearted Women!)