The 1960s and early-'70s were years of strong student movements arising from disillusionment with Nehruvian Socialism and the failure of independent India to bring about any meaningful change in the lives of the majority of the people. A group of students from Madras University, keenly aware of the growing divide between the privileged mainstream and the rural poor, began to think about ways to articulate that disillusionment came together to form the Young Students Movement for Development (YSMD) to initiate development activities for the underprivileged.
Early in 1971, the war for independence led to the influx of a large number of refugees from Bangladesh to India. Led by Joe Madiath, then the President of the YSMD, a group of 400 student volunteers set up relief camps and coordinated efforts to return/ resettle the affected people. x months later on October 30, a full-moon night in 1971, a cyclone stirred up in the Bay of Bengal, causing a huge tidal wave to hit coastal Orissa. Nearly ten thousand people were killed and over a million rendered homeless. The devastation was enormous. Resources with the government were inadequate, the attention still being on the refugee crisis. Over forty volunteers from the original group rushed to Orissa led again by Joe, and began relief work in Kendrapara district. We stayed for over a year, helping the people rebuild roads, desalinate agricultural land and get their lives together again. During this time we became acutely aware of the poverty and underdevelopment of these people. There were no NGOs or other development agencies, except for some missionary and Gandhian groups working mainly in the area of health, in those utterly poor and backward areas. So much needed to be done.
We decided to start by helping the people with their agricultural practices, their main source of livelihood. The rivers had plenty of water, but cultivation was dependent on the monsoons. Lift irrigation seemed to be the answer. We tried to introduce collective farming. The idea was that the community as a whole would work to improve irrigation facilities, and the landed farmers would set aside some land for the landless people to cultivate. Agreements to this effect were made. But when yields improved following irrigation, the agreements were broken. All the hard work only resulted in more land and more income for the landed class.
It was time to rethink strategies to work towards social equity. An opportunity presented itself when the District Collector of Ganjam invited us to initiate a dairy co-operative for the adivasis of the Kerandimal region. The Berhampur Milk Producers Co-Operative offered land in Mohuda to set up camp. We started working from here, in the foothills of Kerandimal in 1976. It did not take long to realise that dairying was neither feasible nor what was needed urgently for the people of the area. There was no infrastructure or any kind of veterinary support. More significantly, we were faced with the tribal people's belief that cow's milk was not meant for human consumption.
We were beginning to understand the people and their needs. We started talking to people, especially women, trying to gain their confidence. The first thing to strike us was the abysmal health conditions in the villages. Malaria was rampant. There was no understanding of safe drinking water, healthy food or hygiene. And of course there were no dispensaries or clinics within accessible distances. We began to set in place a rudimentary health care service in the villages. The initial strategy of using health as the entry point was good in terms of creating goodwill for the group. We realised that forever giving palliatives would not solve the problem. We therefore started an intensive programme for training village health workers. In the early 80s we had one of the best programmes in community health, but our level of inputs was still very high. Soon after, when the emphasis shifted, the health programme began to suffer and never regained the lost ground.
The tribal people had a strong distrust for outsiders. The outsiders they knew were only interested in occupying their land and denying them access to the meagre resources they had. Slowly, the people began to trust us. They began to discuss their problems with us. Most of them had no land. If they did, it was mortgaged to moneylenders. All of them were bonded labourers. Even children were bound to liquor merchants, landlords and moneylenders. They had no way of paying back the money they owed; most of them did not know how much money they owed. The liquor merchants made sure that they spent what little they had on drink, which made them further indebted. The tribal people were aware of the injustice. But they had no way of protesting.
Meanwhile, the Indian government declared a Moratorium on Rural Indebtedness in 1978. This policy provided the legal support to launch a campaign to mobilise the tribal people around the issue of land mortgaging. The Kerandimal Gana Sangathan emerged as a strong organisation of the tribal people. In what came to be known as 'people's courts', the tribal people arbitrated every case of mortgaging in the presence of moneylenders. This was accompanied by social boycott of the exploitative people and organised demonstrations at the district headquarters. By the end of 1979, nearly every case in the Kerandimal region was settled in favour of the tribal people. The tribals had tasted victory for the first time.
By the end of 1978, we began to realise that we had very little in common with the YSMD back in Madras. Living in a remote village, witnessing the perils of relentless poverty and indebtedness had given us a perspective that was essentially different from any theoretical awareness. Support from those who remained with the mainstream was negligible. It was time to set up a new organisation. Gram Vikas was born on January 22, 1979.
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