Today’s story is by Amar who writes from Bundelkhand.
“The best part of my work is the remarkable people I get to meet. Living in a city, it gets easy to limit one’s perspective and see the world through narrow channels. I feel privileged to step out of the metros, switch into the interiors, and to see the talent, creativity, and determination at play. Here follows a travel log.
I met Avadesh in Banda, a small town on the border of UP and MP in district Bundelkhand. Literacy and awareness in this region is poor. Incomes are low, farmer suicides high. Social ills were once rampant. The toughest of these circumstances are borne by Dalit and Muslim women. In the midst of this space is this institution called Vanangana that has been championing the cause of these women for the last 25 years. Avadesh has been there ever since. She was born poor, and was the third wife of a man who was, by her account, a cruel husband. She left him, fought for custody of her two children, and became one of the founding members of this institution. She must have been about 20, no more.
Her youth has made space for a gentle, motherly kindness, and her smiling eyes radiate wisdom. She sits straight and as she narrates her story in fluid Hindi. I learn that she did not have much schooling as she grew up. She blossomed at Vanangana, where she now nurtures the oppressed. She is self-taught and self-made. The force of her energy is a constant current in the room, and her deep pool of devotion to her cause appears unshakeable.
Back in 1993, Madhavi Kuckreja – who by every account I have heard till now is a real hero – had the idea that she could help deliver power and voice to the women of this region. But how do you break in to a society that is stern and stubborn about its rigid standards?
Water. That was the way. This region is parched. Ponds, wells, and hand pumps all run dry during the summer months. This was a grave concern, but also an opportunity to make a difference. Madhavi, Avadesh and Pushpa had an outrageous idea. They decided to train a few women in the community on constructing hand pumps with 200-ft deep pipes. Rural UP women with their sarees and ghoongats laying the plumbing, engineering the mechanism, and fitting fixtures back in ’93 – this was unimaginable! The men laughed and sneered, and in that time the first batch of seven women got trained as hand-pump mechanics. The next batch had 15, then 25. The local bureaucracy and water board provided training support, and Madhavi and her team were determined.
Suddenly there were 45 ‘uneducated’ women in the community who knew how to construct a pump and lay Mark 3 pipes. Only if they could implement their knowledge, they would bring forth the miracle of water to a thirsty land. Would it be a surprise, really?
But there were stiff challenges, and not just from the narrow vision of a male dominated community. All the instructions and names of parts were in English. There was no way to refer to them in Hindi. To memorize, these women gave their teachers names of parts. Madhavi became ‘pipe’, Avadesh (slim in those days) earned the prestige of ‘connecting rod’.
Every time they went for an installation, men would crowd around with their taunts and jeers, waiting to spurt out ‘I told you so.’ Every time there was water. Battling social demons, the hand-pump women delivered the gift of water everywhere in Chitrakoot district. They became the talking point. Their empowerment brought them fame, and the inevitable flip-side — trouble. There were husbands and families. Here were women constructing pumps, challenging social norm in a rigid community, and daring the male ego.
Confusion followed. Beatings from stunned husbands; lock downs by in-laws. This is what Vanangana had anticipated, and they stepped in. I can only imagine the hard times. Avadesh did not construct this part of the story. She believed that our varied experiences with Indian society would allow us to fill in the gaps.
Incredibly, none of the hand pump engineers quit their work. They kept going, and gradually earned their respect. They won public acclaim too, and over time, they delivered further training to similarly driven women all across North India. Vanagana, in the meanwhile, spearheaded by Madhavi, delved deeper into skill development, education, and violence against women.
Madhavi ultimately handed the reigns to Pushpa, Avadesh and the community. She didn’t want Vanangana to become one of those efforts that lives and dies with its founder’s priorities and lifetime. There seems to be a lot still to do, but Avadesh happily told us that they have almost eradicated untouchability from their community. (Vanangana has fought a 25-yr battle against untouchability, specifically). They conduct workshops and educational initiatives for women, find them employment, and take up cases of rape, molestation, and domestic violence. They also partner with other educational institutions and NGOs, bringing women awareness of their rights, especially in the context of consent and sexual violence. The 2012 Nirbhaya rape in Delhi had a serious impact even here. There is less tolerance towards rape and domestic violence and women are more confident to report.
They are well known in the community now, and they work with the police and human rights groups to bring women justice. Several hundred women have been trained, educated or rehabilitated.
Vanagana is facing a financial crisis, and even as it teeters on the brink, Avadesh is hopeful that they will find a way to survive and continue the good work.
Perhaps I was once one of those who took the lottery of birth for granted and had the naive arrogance so typical of the privileged, city-educated, English-speaking class of Indians who believe that they are naturally the best of India. I am glad I managed to grow up a bit.”