Dashrath Manjhi and more: When one-man army makes the difference
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Dashrath Manjhi and more: When one-man army makes the difference

Manjhi the mountain man was not entirely alone. Across the country, individuals are filling in for government and driving extraordinary change.

india Updated: Aug 30, 2015 12:08 IST
Joanna Lobo
Joanna Lobo
Hindustan Times
Dasrath Manjhi,Real heroes,Unsung heroes
From eight students 12 years ago, the school set up by Babar Ali in Murshidabad (West Bengal) now has 300, and is state-registered up to Class 8. (Photo: Oren Nashshon)

Dashrath Manjhi of Gehlaur village near Gaya in Bihar spent most of his life carving a path through a mountain, armed with just a hammer and chisel. Last week, his story was released as a film, a tribute to the man who challenged a flawed and negligent system.

While Manjhi's is an epic tale, he is not entirely alone. Across the country, individuals have taken on heroic challenges, stepping in when governments fail, to fix gaping holes in education, healthcare, infrastructure and conservation.


A file photo of Dashrath Manjhi, the Mountain Man of Bihar.

"Great constraints make for great stories. Individuals who step in to fill vacuums in governance take governance to a level of heroism. They represent more than an individual effort. They represent a dream, an indefatigable spirit of society." says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan.

So, in Mumbai, an 80-year-old spends his Sunday mornings fixing leaking taps and ends up saving 3 million litres of water. In Hyderabad, a retired civil engineer decides to fix his street's potholes himself and has since filled up 1,100. In West Bengal, a little girl broke boundaries with a football team and a little boy set up a school where the syllabus was whatever he had learned in school that day. In Manipur, a fitness trainer uses workouts, meditation and counselling to keep youngsters off drugs.

"While the work of these one-man armies must be encouraged, we must all also try and make the system more responsive," points out Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment. The next logical step, Visvanathan says, is to institutionalise their work."There must be a continuous process of problem-solving. What we need is to build community efforts and encourage participation. Then only will there be a sustained difference in the long-term."


Playing for keeps
(Report by Pramod Giri)


Bhabani Munda.

Jalpaiguri, West Bengal: Bhabani Munda has been fighting an uphill battle since she was seven and first set up her football team with three friends. "People live like beggars in the backward Dooars tea gardens and hardly get opportunities. We chose football as our mission in the hope that we would one day get jobs and become famous," says Munda.

The youngest of nine children born to an impoverished tea garden labourer, she faced immense opposition from relatives and fellow villagers, who told her it was unacceptable for girls to wear shorts and play games after sundown. That was 19 years ago. Munda's Dooars XI now has 30 players and has seen members selected for teams at the state and national levels.

This is a rare achievement for marginalised tribal women in one of India's most backward districts. Female literacy in Jalpaiguri, for instance, is at 52%, compared with 73% for men. And Unicef estimates that nearly 55% of women in West Bengal are married off before they turn 18, significantly higher than the national average of 43%.

For now, though, the struggle continues. The team's main source of funds is tournament prizes, and the tea stall run by Munda, who has a BA in English with honours. "This is a good initiative for women of the region, but the team faces a losing battle if they do not get regular sponsors," says Rinchen Bhutia, former officer in charge of the local Kalchini police station.

A free school set up by a 9-yr-old (Report by Joanna Lobo)


Babar Ali (Photo: Sanjukta Basu)

Murshidabad, West Bengal: When Babar Ali started his free school, he had no supplies - terracotta tiles became slates, he used bits of broken chalk, and the syllabus was whatever he had learned that day. He was 9, and he was doing the best he could.

Ali is now 21. His school is state-registered up to Class 8, follows the West Bengal state board syllabus and has a matron, a clerk and 10 teachers, including his sister and six former students. Local MLA Firoza Begam is secretary of the management committee and teachers and principals from nearby schools give 'guest lectures'. Ali also gets occasional funding and supplies from the village panchayat and local government officials, who still remember him dropping by as a young boy in his uniform, asking for any books they could spare.

It all started with Ali's walk home from school. "I would see a lot of young children working in the fields and I felt education could change their lives," says the son of a jute trader. "This district has a shortage of government schools - 1 school per 1,500 people compared to the state average of 1 school per 1,000," says Begam.

From an initial student strength of eight, Anand Shiksha Niketan in Bhapta village now has 300 students - most of them children of farm labourers.

It's still in his father's backyard and has a tarpaulin roof and a shortage of benches, but construction has begun on a proper, two-storey school building on a plot nearby. He bought the land with the prize money from a CNN-IBN Real Heroes Award in 2009. Construction happens as and when he gets donations. "Swami Vivekanand is my role model," he says. "He said we should leave a mark on behind in this world and I intend to do this with education."

Starting with a drop, to save millions of litres (Report by Joanna Lobo)


For eight years, Aabid Surti has spent Sunday mornings going door to door, fixing leaking taps for free with the help of a plumber and a pocket full of washers. (Photo: Pratham Gokhale/HT)

Mumbai: Aabid Surti, 80, grew up in a Mumbai slum, in a room so crowded that the men and children would sleep on the pavement outside. In the mornings, he remembers watching his mother set out at 4 am every day to fill the family's one bucket at a public tap. "The value of water is only known to those who have been deprived of it," says the artist and National Award-winning author (short-story collection Teesri Aankh; 1993).

For the past eight years, armed with a plumber and a pocket filled with washers, Surti has been visiting homes across the fringe suburb of Mira Road where he lives, fixing leaking taps for free. "I got the idea after seeing a leaking tap at a friend's home. He didn't think it mattered, and couldn't find a plumber willing to come over for such a small job," says Surti, a graduate from the JJ School of Art.

Of Mumbai's 3.70 million litres per day (MLD) available, 700 to 720 MLD is lost to wastage and theft. The Mira Road-Bhayandar area faces a shortage of 36 MLD. So, Surti decided to act. He now fixes about 400 taps a year, and by local municipal estimates, has saved about 3 million litres of water. "It's not hard. I pick a housing society, request permission and then go door to door for three hours every Sunday, asking if I can check the taps," Surti says.

He pays his plumber Rs 500 for each three-hour stint. He also pays a woman volunteer Rs 500 a month to accompany him because he found that people were reluctant to open their doors to two strange men. He spends another Rs 15 a month on washers, buying them wholesale. "I never accept money from the houses I visit. The day I start taking money, my work changes," he says.

Since Surti earns barely enough to support himself, his water-conservation work depends heavily on donations from well-wishers and the occasional local award. "What Surti is doing is very noble; it is samaaj seva [service to society]. The water shortage in Mira Road is so severe, we have stopped issuing new water connections," says Suresh B, executive engineer of the municipal water supply department.

Fixing the roads, one pothole at a time (Report by Joanna Lobo)


Gangadhara Katnam fills potholes.

Hyderabad: In certain parts of Hyderabad, when residents spot a pothole, they call Gangadhara Katnam rather than the municipal corporation. For five years, 65-year-old Katnam and his 'pothole ambulance' - a grey mid-sized car - have roamed the streets for six hours a week, filling up craters using a spade, crowbar and gravel tar mix.

In 2012, he met municipal commissioner M Krishna Babu and since then his ready mix has come from the corporation. The traffic police recognise him now and often set up a cordon to keep traffic away.

So far, Katnam has filled over 1,100 potholes - about 18 every month. His mission, he says, is to prevent pothole-related accidents. "I saw two accidents near my home five years ago, that occurred because of potholes - one man was severely injured and another died," he says. In the beginning, Katnam says he tried talking to PWD engineers, local MLAs, traffic police commissioners and even a state minister, to no avail. "Systems set up to track and fix potholes don't seem to work, so I decided to do what I could myself," he says.

Having worked as a section engineer with the railways and then as a design engineer, Katnam felt he had some domain knowledge. He started with the 70 potholes near his house and then moved on to other accident-prone areas. "I learnt by watching the municipal workers," he says.

A well-known figure in the neighbourhood now, Katnam has regular volunteers who offer him funds and accompany him on his rounds. Like local businesswoman Suman Sayani contacted Katnam two years ago to ask if he would fix a pothole near her house and ever since has helped organise volunteers to help him on his repair trips. "It is good that Katnam has come forward but we've done the same work on a larger scale," says Somesh Kumar, a chief municipal engineer. "We have filled about 1 lakh potholes in the last five years."

Beating drugs with a workout (Report by Sobhapati Samom)


RK Viswajit (in white Tshirt). (Photo: Sobhapati Samom)

Imphal, Manipur: In 2003, fitness trainer RK Viswajit from Imphal took up a unique initiative in the battle against drug abuse - a bodybuilding gymnasium christened Animal Gym.

The former Mr Manipur (second runner-up; 1998) says he picked the name because men are called social animals. "If we can shed the animal part we'll become social beings," says the 40-year-old. So far, more than 1,000 former drug and alcohol users have followed his special course that combines workouts, meditation and sensitisation about drug abuse and HIV/AIDS. Counselling session are also held once a month.

It's an innovative approach to a pervasive problem. Manipur, with hardly 0.2% of India's population, contributes nearly 8% of the country's HIV cases, according to Manipur State AIDS Control Society report. Though there is no latest official data on drug use in the state, the Manipur Voluntary Health Association and Voluntary Health Association of India put the number at 40,000, including about 20,000 intravenous drug users.

"I took up the initiative after three of my friends, all in their 20s, died as a result of sustained drug use," says Viswajit. "I picked bodybuilding because it can be a source of recreation to distract youngsters and keep them from using drugs, while also teaching them a healthy lifestyle." In addition to producing 20 fitness trainers, Viswajit's gymnasium has donated equipment to two schools for the visually challenged and to a jail near Imphal, for use by inmates. One of six siblings born to a retired government employee, he raises the money for all this by manufacturing equipment commercially too.

Read: Dashrath Manjhi, the mountain man of Bihar

First Published: Aug 30, 2015 11:14 IST