PREM- People’s Rural Education Movement
We started our journey on the 24th of June, 2007. I met Shilpa at VT station at 7:15pm and we thus walked to platform no. 7, where the Vidharba Express stood waiting for us! We found Sanjay sitting in the train anxiously looking for us, and there began our long and interesting trip to the beautiful Chikaldhara. We reached Badnera station on the 25th of June, at 6:40am. Ganesh found us on the bridge and seemed extremely happy to see us. He drives the TATA Sumo for PREM. It was a long pleasant 3 hour drive to Chikaldhara from Badnera. And I started clicking away with my camera. The ambience that the rains had created for us was breath-taking. There were a zillion different shades of green all around. It is such a beautiful world we all live in. I kept imagining in my mind that this was how heaven would be!
We finally reached Chikaldhara and crashed into our room at the MTDC resorts and quickly got ready to start on our assignment. I had a bath in ice cold water as there was no electricity!! The weather outside was over whelming. The clouds were floating everywhere around us. It was very, very cold and the breeze would simply not give up! It silently stayed with us all through our visit. When finally, Shilpa , Sanjay and myself had gotten ready, we hoped into the Sumo where Ganesh was patiently waiting for us. Our first stop was at Sanjay Ingle’s home. He is the founder member of PREM. Ingle had met with a bad accident and thus was unable to walk properly. He had metallic rods that were inserted into his leg. But his eyes and the rest of his body depicted so much of energy and enthusiasm. It was amazing to see him, gently play with his little daughter named Titoo. We had hot tasty Upma and yummy Chai there, prepared by Ingle’s wife. Then we were off to the PREM office. It was a neat compact office. It had the entire map of Amravati stuck on the wall and just 2 small posters of CRY. It was noon by now and none of us, Sanjay, Shilpa or myself were hungry for lunch as we had just had our breakfast! But Sanjay was concerned about the rest of the Karyakartas. They had been waiting for us for over 2 hours now. Sanjay started the meeting by telling them who Shilpa and I were and what role we played at CRY. He asked them to tell us how PREM worked and how it started and what odds these Karyakartas faced each day of their life at PREM. Suraj, who is one of the trustees and key members of PREM gave us a complete insight of PREM’s work and focus areas, malnutrition being one of the biggest focal points of their work. He told us how difficult it was for the villagers as there were no lights, no roads and basically no awareness amongst the villagers of their fundamental rights. PREM works hard with the villagers on health and hygiene issues, on immunization for pregnant women, malnutrition problems, getting Ration Cards for the villagers and Ration Shops to perform their job correctly. PREM also works on land issues and demands from the heads of state for proper implementation of the EGS (Employment guarantee scheme). It conducts rallies demanding for the basic rights of the people of the 30 villages that PREM handles. Due to the Wild Life act, many of the villages are getting displaced as the land is being distributed in order to save the Tiger. But the government has promised in this rehabilitation, that the villagers will get to live the same way in another place. Thus PREM ensures that the authorities fulfill their promises to these innocent villagers. The discussions with all the Karyakartas went on for hours. They took a break in between for lunch and almost immediately continued with the meeting. Sanjay asked them plenty of questions related to their work and the difficulties that they may have faced in the last 3 months. This was a review meeting, where Sanjay looks into each and every task that PREM has taken on in the last 3 months. I asked Suraj, and also the rest of the Karyakartas, what their dream was, what they truly hoped for to happen in the future. Suraj thought for a few seconds and gave a short and quick answer…”To let all the people and children around everywhere, live with rights and thus have the pride of living with dignity.”
I was moved.
We went on with our talks, Shilpa and I listened intently to every bit of the discussions that were happening in that room. Discussions on what campaigns they had done in the villages, and how many villagers had benefited from PREM. How many children died due to malnutrition and how many children survived from it. How many new school admits were registered and whether the teacher there was performing is task well. How many people got jobs through the EGS scheme and whether it was helping them sustain themselves. The time was almost 9 pm and everyone was getting tired by now. Sanjay in his own style and sharp humor slowly ended the day -by cracking some funny jokes! It was a heavy day for me. There was just too much of reality getting trashed onto me and I was getting a bit distressed by all that.
The 3 of us headed back to our rooms. It was a silent drive back and we quickly had our dinner and hit our beds.
I wasn’t able to sleep immediately that night. The same questions started haunting me. Questions of what my role is, of where are we all heading, of what is going to happen to children of India and what am I doing about it. I was very restless and disturbed. The work of PREM moved me. This was just but one of the many projects that I was exposed to. I was wondering how it would be elsewhere. Would it all be of the same plight? That there is no governance in the true sense of that word, that there is utter poverty and zero education for the children, that the future is uncertain and that the end is always near for these naïve villagers. I finally dozed of with all these thoughts in my mind.
The next day we awoke a little early than usual as Manisha and Maggie, 2 of the Karyakartas from PREM, offered to show us around Chikaldhara. This place is a hill station and has very few inhabitants. There are few travelers that come for sight seeing. The valleys are green and deep. I clicked plenty of photographs, my best attempt of grasping in as much as I could to show off to all my people back home! This is my land, this is my green heaven, these are my people, my children, and there is extreme happiness in galore here. I was so thrilled the whole time! My mind was lost in a dreamy trance like dance with Mother Nature. I silently promised her that things would get better and that she will be taken care of and that nothing would happen to her dear friends, the tribal villagers that have been with her for eons. I trudged along back to the office for a final review with Sanjay, after which we were to visit Adhaw the village of the Korku and Gawli tribes. In this short morning update with the PREM members, Sanjay emphatically told them that PREM must not be the need of the villagers, PREM must be the medium to enable the villagers to be independent of any form of domination by anyone or any authority. The villagers thus should be mobilized completely to handle their lives individually with confidence and courage. There is a traditional Tribal law called the Tribal Self Rule (TSR). This is an innovative law that was started by the people in Jharkhand. As the name goes, this is a law purely made by the tribal and for the tribal. Through this the tribal folk have their own fixed norms. This law holds its own principles which are completely independent of the Police and other such similar authorities. The Karyakartas task now is to understand this TSR law very well and thus put into their own use for the cause that they working so hard for.
There was a small music session we had with the PREM team! The Karyakartas sang some very powerful meaning songs for us. I saw the penchant and passion with which they all sang together. I felt so elated and driven while hearing the songs, like I almost wanted to do something then and there! We got talking to them about various issues. Shilpa put forth the question on the CSS (Common School Systems) type of schools and asked them what their feeling to that was. All of them loved the idea of CSS. Whatever their background, their education and economic status, they all wanted their children to have the best of facilities and opportunities. I also told them that it is not the end of the world to simply become and engineer or a doctor and that there many other things that are of equal value and relevance. I sought examples from my own experience through my engineering days and told them short true stories of my friends who were from the not so privileged sections of society and how they fought it hard to study in a language that they were never so familiar with- English, and how each of them today is well set to face any odds that may come forth. That it matters on an individual level to fight, to be focused and hence sustain one’s self. One of the Karyakartas told us about an officer who was deployed to Chikaldhara. Apparently he never really worked and only showed up from one National event to another i.e. from Republic day to Independence Day. So he coined a new slogan…” Jhanda (Flag in Hindi) to Jhanda is his agenda!!” I broke into peels of laughter! Soon after these rather heavy talks all of them requested Shilpa to sing them a song. Shilpa was gracious enough to oblige!! She sang a fantastic track by the Indian Ocean band called ‘Dharam Bhav ke’. This is where we left the discussions and went for lunch. We had yummy Kadi and Rice with onions and pickle. I relished my lunch! We quickly hopped into the Sumo and speeded off to our first field visit, to a village named Adhaw.
We reached the Adhaw at around 6pm. We were a little bit early to meet the villagers as they had not yet returned from their offices…meaning their farms. So Sanjay the driver Ganesh and I started strolling around the village. I was as usual mumbling some random things to them when all of a sudden I came to a jolting halt! I was rooted to the ground caught unaware by the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. It was the work of an artist, those fields. They captured my full attention. The different shades of brown and green and red, it was like a painting, a picturesque, like a multi-colored carpet. It looked too good to be true! Optimal perfection it was. My heart, mind and soul were in a rhythmic dance of their own! I felt so much of peace. I simply could not utter a word! I was bewildered and ballistic with happiness. It looked to me like a scene from Mary Poppins when she is flying up in the sky above the green, green meadows!
It was now 7 pm and the villagers were slowly gathering at the centre of the Village. It was a small village, with a population of less than 100 people! Manisha (one of the PREM workers), Shilpa and I got talking with all village women. There were 2 tribes there- Korku and Gawli. They distinctly looked different! The Gawli women wore colorful cotton sarees with big Tikka’s on their forehead while the Korku women wore synthetic cottons, and small Tikka’s! The Gawli tribe does cattle grazing while the Korkus work in the farms. I asked them for how long had they been living there and all of them had the same answer, “We do not remember now!” Generations have lived and died there. They had not the slightest clue that the Government was to take off the land that truly belonged to them, away from them. It took us half an hour to explain to them the danger they faced not from Tigers or Cheetahs or anything else, but from their own human race! Sanjay and the other Karyakartas spoke to all the men. It had become pitch dark now and that little so called electricity that the Government supplied to this village kept fluctuating! The voltage levels decreased and increased like a sine wave! And from the look of the villagers it seemed to me that they were not at all bothered by that fluctuation, they had become used to it. They have become used to everything I guess…
We eventually got back to our rooms after a lavish dinner that was cooked by one of the PREM team member’s wife. The next day we packed our bags, said a sad adieus to all the lovely Karyakartas and were off to the station to catch our train. We sat in the cozy AC of our compartment and I looked on thinking of all that I had realized, that I had discovered that I would probably never be able to express to anyone, but that I now will be able to be wiser than before and beseech anyone around me to also be so.
No matter how much money we raise, no matter how much we talk, no matter how much noise we create and educate the educated here on the real issues that shake this world, its all not enough until we get up and choose to be the change first, rather than asking for change to happen.
It’s an irony, we learn day in and day out to be good, to do good, and speak good, but no one told us when to do all of this! So most of us left it to some time later and thus eventually forgot about it! We are here to do business, business of bartering the lands, the women, and men and eventually the children. That piece of paper with different numbers on it has transfixed the minds of some super intelligent people. Feelings of love, of care, of affection and brotherhood have gone amiss and the ones that truly need attention are going unnoticed. The Tigers, the Korku and Gawli tribes are slowing becoming extinct together…!
I choose to end my little anthem here. Thank you for reading.