At a Lokayat meeting
People's participation is a catch phrase that every donor, NGO and civil society group uses. In fact, we have become so used to the usual NGO way of 'people's participation' that I think the word has lost its true meaning. I wasn't therefore expecting anything different when I went last week to address a conference on education at Pune, organised jointly by Lokayat and the Pune University Teachers Association (PUTA).
Arriving a day earlier, I spent some time speaking at a management school, and then went to talk to the Lokayat members. It is here that I met a group of youngsters, all volunteers, who changed my perception of what constitutes people's participation. I had forgotten if people's participation could ever be without donor's financial support, and outside the reach of a project. I am not talking of people's movements like the continuing struggle against displacements in the Narmada valley and the likes, but when enterprising young people come together to create awareness about the inequalities that are being perpetuated.
They meet every Sunday at 4 pm. They sit through the evening discussing various crucial local, national and international issues, often till 7 or 8 pm. They thrash out the issues, plan strategies, take responsibilities, and plan activities to reach the people in the street. Someone makes posters, someone writes the pamphlets, others get involved with printing. They all walk to a busy street corner one planned day, and stand with the posters. People walk by, some stand and take a look. They get involved in talking, and more often than not, a new member joins in.
This has been happening for the past five years, week after week, year after year. It could be simple street campaigns, poster exhibitions and street plays, and sometimes protests and dharnas.
It could be 'boycott Coke-Pepsi' one week, 'no more Bhopals' the next. "We organise public awareness campaigns on various issues of deep concern to people. We have organised campaigns on issues like rise in petrol and diesel prices, destructive effects of nuclear energy, privatisation of health-education and electricity, decaying public transport system, and harmful impacts of Bt Brinjal," says Neeraj Jain. His wife Alka Joshi, in addition focuses on women issues. Between both of them I think they have the energy to move mountains.
Lokayat team is drawn from all walks of life. I met young lawyers, engineers, software engineers, school teachers, college lecturers, technicians, government employees, film makers and you name it. Believe it or not, each member contributes 10 per cent of their monthly salary, and some even contribute 20 per cent. "Lokayat does not draw any funding from donors. It is entirely built on the members contribution," says Abhijeet. His wife, also a member, tells me that they have been contributing ever since they joined some three years back.
I haven't seen any other similar initiative which is being run only on members own contribution. This is simply amazing, and provides hope in a society which is increasingly becoming self-centred and of course selfish.
They wanted me to explain how the nation-wide movement against Bt brinjal evolved, and asked me several questions. Such was their interest, that the question-answer session seemed never-ending. But when I asked them as to what draws them to the Lokayat tradition, it was so inspiring to listen to most of them who raised their hands. In essence, what I learnt was that they had consciously adopted a lifestyle that takes them away from greed, which in other words means consumerism. They were committed to fight the global issues from a local perspective. "We can't change the world, but we can change ourselves, and ask people to make the difference at their own individual and family level to begin with."
It is after long that I see a ray of hope. I have often felt that when people become sensitive and aware, society begins to change. The change can be local, but gradually it begins to spread far and wide. I am aware that it is a long process, but it always the first step that sets the pace for a long march. Lokayat has taken that first step, and shown that it is possible to involve people to participate on their own for building a just and equitable world. It has to start with a local struggle, and another local struggle, than another, and a revolution is born.
Before we concluded, Lokayat members were keen to end with a song. "Apne liye jiye to kya jiye (What is the use of living for yourself).." they sang in chorus. The Hindi song still reverberates in my mind, but more than that the energy they exhibited still flows in me. I have come back recharged.
Contact: Neeraj Jain at email@example.com