In every village we visit, people come crowding out of their houses the moment they hear that 'tai (elder sister)' - activist Paromita Goswami - has arrived. They greet her with enthusiastic cries of 'Zindabad Tai' ('Long Live Our Elder Sister') and even shout slogans with the innocent enthusiasm of school children. Women, all smiles, come to hug her or shake hands with her, and plead with her to eat a meal with them. It is difficult to believe that this kind of love for a leader still exists in a country so thoroughly disillusioned with corruption.
But in the interior regions of the tribal-dominated Chandrapur and Gadchiroli districts of Maharashtra, Paromita, 38, has acquired the status of a heroine, whom the locals, especially the tribals and other marginalized people, revere. She is perceived as the genuine well-wisher - one who can be trusted to take up their causes effectively.
Through her organization, Shramik Elgar, an unorganized sector labor union, Paromita and her team of dedicated local activists have solved a host of issues related to the local people in the last eight years. Some of the problems that Paromita has tackled include those related to land rights; implementation of government welfare schemes; wage negotiations for unorganized sector agricultural and forest workers; and policing and security issues (including the thorny issue of fake encounters in the name of tackling Naxalism).
In addition, Elgar (which means 'an army on the move' in the Arabic-Persian group of languages) has branched out into Elgar Pratishthan, which Paromita says has a 'proper NGO set up'; and the Elgar Mahila Gramin Bigarsheti Patasanshta, a credit cooperative exclusively for and of women, through which welfare, training and other constructive social endeavors have been carried out. During last year's panchayat (village council) elections, Elgar also launched its mainstream political front, the Jan Vikas Aghadi, through which 88 representatives were elected to various panchayats in Chandrapur and Gadchiroli.
It is this flexible structure that makes Elgar versatile as an organization, enabling it to address multiple issues instead of being confined to some kind of 'specialization'. Explains Paromita, "The organization is the means, and not the end. At Elgar, we are experimenting with all kinds of organizational structures and trying to use them for the welfare of people."
Paromita started her career as a social activist with Samarthan, a Thane-based organization. After some years of work, she realized the need to find her own feet. "I talked to some colleagues who suggested that I start work in the Chandrapur district where exploitation of tribal and marginalized people was high," she says.
So eight years ago, Paromita moved to Mul in Chandrapur, determined, though without any definite plans. She set up house in a small rented room. "The room was small, damp and had very little sunlight... I stayed there for nearly six years, and every now and then it would make me sick," she recalls.
With initial help from friends, she set up an office and began to meet people. "My aim was to help the people in whatever way they felt they wanted to be helped - not impose my own ideas of what was good for them," Paromita explains
In Mul, she met a teacher, Vijay Siddhawar, who soon became her closest and most trusted aide. In the initial days, Paromita and Vijay dealt with whatever issues people brought to them. "It could be an old woman's held-up claim for pension, a property dispute between a widow and her father-in-law, a hand-pump in a village - just about anything." The only thing that had to be ensured, says she, was that the issue be resolved quickly and effectively.
Soon, people began to bring a complex and varied array of problems to Elgar. From village Satata Tukum, Chandrapur district, came the problem of wages of bamboo felling for the Ballarshah Paper Mill. A strike was organized and wages were hiked in the entire district. After an intense struggle by the women of village Umri Potdar, a liquor shop was relocated. The East Bengali settlers from Chamorshi 'tehsil' of the Gadchiroli district raised the issue of the non-availability of Bengali medium textbooks. Elgar not only solved the problem, but also helped the community take up their forest encroachment regularization issue more effectively.
In Jiwati 'tehsil', Chandrapur, Elgar activists found non-tribal people had grabbed tribal lands in 82 villages. In the four years since the issue has been taken up, land has been restored in 300 out of 501 cases filed in court by Elgar. In the Rajura 'tehsil' of the same district, an agitation by villagers under guidance from Elgar has held up the work of the Bhendala Irrigation Project since two years over the issue of rehabilitation. (Also known as a 'taluka', a 'tehsil' is an administrative division of a district and is further subdivided into blocks.)
Further more, the two famous cases of the killings of Chinna Mattami and Mangroo Pallo, taken up by Elgar, have gone a long way in stopping the police's one-sided activities against tribals in the Naxal-ridden Gadchiroli district.
As problems were solved, membership of Shramik Elgar began to swell. Today, the organization has an effective presence in eight 'tehsils' in the Chandrapur and Gadchiroli districts. It has won the trust of both the common people and the administration. Says D S Harkande, Sub Divisional Officer, Rajura Block, "Instead of attacking the administration, they (Elgar officials) took a cooperative stance and helped us. Most of the complicated work of the rights restoration was sorted out without any law and order problems." The organization also has the extraordinary distinction of having the charge of Naxalism against it cleared by the very state that had first made the charge.
Talking about why Elgar has been so effective in solving such a wide array of problems, Paromita says, "We have never fought an issue in isolation, but tried to use it to bring wider change. For instance, in the case of Umri Potdar village, one of the demands raised by Elgar was that the excise commissioner should be available in Nagpur for a minimum of one week, every month, so that people didn't have to travel to Mumbai to register complaints. The wage agitation in Satara Tukum led to a wider agitation against the non-payment of EGS (employment guarantee scheme) grain in 23 villages. (As per the EGS, wages are in the form of grain to be collected against a coupon given to workers. However, the grain is often disbursed late and is of substandard quality.) In the Chinna Mattami and Mangroo Pallo cases, we not only demanded justice in one case but also stopped atrocities in general. In the Bhendala dam case, we questioned the entire land acquisition legislation."
How does it feel to be working in an area that is at once so sensitive and so full of possibilities? "The experience is complex," replies Paromita. "Especially when it comes to the Naxal problem, you never know who is who. But our policy is that we are on the side of the weaker, whatever the nature of the conflict. With this guiding principle we have managed to get this far."