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Yes, we can?

A handful of Indians is acting as catalysts to bring about political and social change

Anoothi Vishal  |  New Delhi 

A handful of Indians is acting as catalysts to bring about political and social change, observes Anoothi Vishal

Nisha Susan, a journalist with Tehelka, is discovering the other side of being in the news. The recipient of insults and even threats (according to colleagues) from “guardians of Indian culture”, she can be excused for being wary of interview and “photo-op” requests for her Pink Chaddi Campaign floated on her blog to protest the attack by Sri Ram Sene activists on women in a Mangalore pub.

Last checked, almost 31,888 people had joined the Consortium of Pubgpoing, Loose and Forward Women that Susan launched under 10 days ago. Many more remained curious (in offices such as ours) about the “collection points” for dropping off little packages of their own: pink (or other coloured) underwear intended for Sene’s Pramod Mutalik, inverting concepts of “morality” or “decent” behaviour by Indian women. Protest with a sense of humour? It’s turned out to be much more.

Women all over the country have been asked to “pub bharo” today in a call reminiscent of Mahatma Gandhi’s “jail bharo” movement. Regardless of how many women actually bharo pubs, what Susan seems to have done is voiced the middle-class woman’s angst at “bully boy tactics” . The campaign is being compared to the bra-burning moment of Western feminism. But does it constitute change — the arrival of political and social consciousness in a certain class of people?

“Not yet,” says sociologist Professor Dipankar Gupta, when I ask him about “movements” such as these that we are beginning to increasingly recognise: candle-light vigils, Facebook groups, young India’s more than apparent desire to bring about social change, especially through use of technology. “These are ways for people to connect beyond the immediate neighbourhood,” says Gupta, “a way for them to gain solace in the larger virtual space and feel they are not alone.” But Facebook numbers, he says, even in thousands, don’t add up to political reef numbers: “For that you would need to come out on to the streets.”

Yet, change through individual effort is possible. I realise this as I sit facing this year’s National Award (for child welfare) winner Dr Sunitha Krishnan in a dingy room in Delhi’s Andhra Bhawan. A counter-trafficking activist, Krishnan, known in Hyderabad for her work in rescuing and rehabilitating child (and adult) victims of sexual trafficking, is in the capital to collect her award from Sonia Gandhi. There is an enthusiastic team of “partners” and volunteers, many of them survivors of abuse, accompanying her. The next day she will be off to “UP”, she tells me, “to train judges”.

About two decades ago, the then 16-year-old Krishnan was gang-raped in a village where she had gone for a neo-literacy campaign. “Overnight, my world changed,” she explains matter-of-factly, “from being someone — a topper in school, an all-rounder good at sports and dramatics — who could do no wrong, I became someone who could do no right,” she says. “I saw people’s reactions change, my family’s, people in the neighbourhood who used to look up to me would tell their children not to associate with me because I was loose and immoral.”

What may have destroyed another had the opposite effect on Krishnan. It became her mission to fight sexual violence and she went about equipping herself systematically, first with a BSc in environmental science (“because that was the closest subject available related to what I wanted to do”), a Masters in medical and psychiatric social work, and then a doctorate in activism. Nobody approved, least of all her parents. “I was ruthless. Just as a corporate person focuses on his career, a businessman on money, I was focused on this. There was no regret, no shame, no guilt.”

Krishnan has been threatened and beaten up so often that she has lost hearing in one ear, and has a disfigured arm; she has even spent two months in jail (“when people talk of marginalisation and isolation, they often don’t know what it really is”), but her resolve has held firm: Today, she has partners in civil society, the corporates and so forth, ready to help economically rehabilitate victims after they are counselled and emotionally healed. Two thousand five hundred girls have been rescued in the last 20 years, 1,800 rehabilitated. The numbers might be small, but look at society around you and you’ll know that it is a change.

An immediate voicing of anger or concern is valid but to sustain it is difficult and requires proper planning. That’s where Sanjay Sondhi, managing director, Honeywell Turbo India, in Pune, till September last year, stands out. Sondhi, with wife Anchal, an environmentalist, and their 15-year-old son, Yash, has relocated to Dehradun to get into natural history and environment protection on a full-time basis. His reason? “Spending our lives in nature conservation and environmental protection is a great way to give something back and make our own little contribution to make the world a better place.”

Among the things Sondhi wants to do is environmental education with children and “creating awareness about the choices they have”. Just a couple of months into his calling, he writes a weekly column for a national daily as part of his outreach activity while a few projects on natural history/environmental protection are taking shape. It wasn’t a spur of the moment decision to walk away from a corporate career, though. “What we did was to draw a line — we decided to make the move when I reached 45 years of age, and then everything else fell into place,” says Sondhi. He did the “necessary financial planning to make the move as painless as possible”, and bought a house in Dehradun (where he has no family roots) because of the quality of life it offered.

Among the most successful examples of making change happen is afforded by the young team of the “Jaago Re” movement. Jasmine Shah, an IIT Chennai alumnus, left a lucrative career with ITC to anchor a programme with Janaagraha, a Bangalore-based NGO. While working there, he had the Jaago Re idea, says R Suman, national coordinator, a former journalist and himself one of its founders. “We discovered how difficult it is to vote in India.” Suman had tasted early success in activism when as a student he organised a successful protest gathering and forced the university to take action. “It gave me the confidence early on that change was possible,” he says.

The website today not only allows you to download the correct form to apply for your voter i-card but also uses technology to tell you exactly where to submit it, get your card, and lately, when and where to vote. (The route from one’s house to the polling booth is provided and voters alerted on SMS.)

The programme is spread across 36 cities and Tata Tea is backing it with corporate-enabled visibility. Yet, it is just 14 people, all in the age group of 21 to 32, who run the show behind the screen. “I do field weird calls,” laughs Suman, “people call up to say ‘Aap kaun si party chala rahe ho, mere pas 50,000 log hain’. (Which political party are you running, I have 50,000 people!)” Suman gets more than 20 applications a day from volunteers. Clearly, the call of “Be the change you want to see” is finding many more champions.

If an idea can change you, Revathy Roy, managing director, FOR-SHE, a Mumbai taxi service for women by women, would know about it. In January 2007, with just two cars and no idea about how to run a taxi, forget a taxi service, Roy started FOR-SHE “because I loved to drive”, when her personal life was at an all-time low.

A distributor for polymer windows, she took out an ad inviting lady drivers. “The response was huge. There were 180 applicants, some had replied only out of curiosity and I didn’t even have a car to test drive,” Roy says. Initially, Roy drove herself, in a rickety, borrowed Indica. The banks were not willing to finance her because she had no collateral to pledge, but today she has 21 cars. Clients like the Taj hotels use her service to provide drops for female employees and there are tie-ups with NGOs to train and employ underprivileged women as drivers. She plans to expand to Delhi (in March) and to other metros. The goal: 200 cabs this year.

But shouldn’t an all-women crew be scared in unsafe India, especially at night with women-only passengers? “We train our girls in martial arts, plus there is technology. Our call centre can take calls and send aid. Besides, someone has to make a beginning,” says Roy. Investment is no longer an issue with a tie-up with Orix Auto Infrastructure Services Ltd, the cops have “always been helpful”, and fellow motorists have stopped and given the “chauffeur-entrepreneurs” the thumbs up. “I always say this is a movement,” adds Roy.

Increasingly, technology is being seen as a harbinger of change, or at least the facilitator of activism. In 2003, as a student at Shrishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, Jasmeet Patheja had started a community art project to deal with street sexual violence. “It was a response to my awareness about the issue, that I was vulnerable, and because there was no real support group available,” she says.

Three months before graduation, she asked 60 students to come up with their concepts of public spaces. “I discovered that most associations were negative… words like fear, anonymity.” The project looked into issues of how a woman is told to sit, talk, behave in a public space, and how she relates to her body. Patheja spent the next year walking the streets, photographing subjects before deciding to start an online blog. The Blank Noise project was born.

Patheja found overwhelming support and the project is still evolving “in bursts of energy”, though she is now working towards an organisational structure. Its offline activities include members taking to the streets — doing nothing. “That in itself can be seen as challenging.” Other street action has been dispersing letters with testimonials to the public on the streets. Check out the blog and you will find innovative ideas like holding picnics to collect garments in which a woman was “eve teased” to form a public museum.

In another universe, far from the choked arteries of the metros, Moji Riba, a young man from Arunachal Pradesh, is changing things by, well, documenting change. A winner of this year’s Rolex Awards, Riba, a former student at Jamia Millia Islamia, is engaged in archiving the oral traditions, lores, songs, chants and so forth of the region’s 26-30 major and other smaller tribes. This includes asking local volunteers to shoot footage. An outreach programme is in place to educate students under the CBSE curriculum, proficient in Hindi and English and Bollywood, but not in their own languages. Even Riba can’t speak his, he says.

As a student in Pune, and then Delhi, Riba talks about the discrimination he faced. “There is not enough knowledge about the region. People in Delhi associate us with Danny, who played a villain in films.” He asks, “Why is it that a film like Rang De Basanti revolving around college life didn’t have even one face from the north-east when you have so many of us in all the campuses?” His sense of rootlessness led Riba to use his skills at film-making. An audio-visual centre has been set up in Itanagar, archives built and dissemination is underway so that more people understand “what is change and how do you negotiate it”.

That’s what we are asking as well.

First Published: Sat, February 14 2009. 00:06 IST