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Talented Shabnams need space to be agents of change to make India more humane

By Gagan Sethi* 

We had just begun our voluntary organisation, Janvikas, as an incubator for those social workers who wanted to innovate and work on an alternate life mission. That was the time when some enlightened youth seemed not quite interested in a lucrative course like MBA. Nor were they interested in selling soap, or pursuing an architectural career, or building houses for the rich.
The Indian civil society today has come of age. It now offers careers.
At that time things were different. The young people, who would join civil society, would make a hard choice of an alternative life style. They knew that working for social change was not lucrative but a satisfying life mission.
The salary received by them was anywhere between 4 and 10 times lower than the prevailing market rate. Perhaps, that is the reason why these inspiring pioneers of social change even today resent the name NGO or non-government organisation – a term used by government or industry to identify what’s not.
The year was 1989. We had begun a programme called SMILE, or Students Mobilisation in Learning through Exposure, which offered young students an immersion in this alternate way of living and working. A few students joined SMILE after completing their studies.
One of them was Shabnam Virmani, a visionary young woman. She had just returned from Cornell, after doing her master’s in development communication, in search of meaningful use of her acquired knowledge.
Wanting to make films around women empowerment, she had earlier worked as a reporter with a leading daily in Jaipur. Shabnam had played a crucial role in bringing to light the famous Bhanwari Devi case.
Janvikas at that time was the resource group for initiating Mahila Samakhya, a Government of India programme on women empowerment. It was an effort to give rural women space to collectivise and find voice, demand accountability and learn to read and write, not as a literacy class but as a life skill.
She accompanied me, armed with her camera, to a programme meant to train a group of selected women from the Rajkot district.
During the conversation, women were encouraged to talk about their fears which held them back to take decisions about their life. They talked about issues of violence, about feeling insecure because they owned no assets, and about failing to get the space to do what they wanted to. Some of them also told stories of the misery of being confined to their homes and being excluded from public spaces.
When asked how they could get rid of these shackles, one woman replied, this could be possible only if they put all their fears in a bundle and threw it in the river. We suggested why not enact this.
Readily accepting the suggestion, the women went ahead with this.
It turned out to be a hugely cathartic process. The literate among them jotted down their fears, and literally put the written stuff into a cloth bundle. They danced and sang through the streets of the small village where the training was being held. And finally they dumped the potlu (bundle) in the river. Based on this, Shabnam did her first film “Ek Potlu Beek Nu”. The film is still being used by women empowerment groups to encourage women to initiate the process of reflection and giving voice to their situation.
Shabnam became one of the founders of Drishti, a media collective. Affected deeply by the 2002 Gujarat violence, she is today leading a peace initiative by popularising Kabir among the youth.
Even today there are many talented Shabnams who just need a little space to become agents of change to make India a more humane, compassionate and just society! One is proud that we could provide that hand-holding!
I wonder how social entrepreneurs who risk their careers feel when they are asked to make business plans of their dreams.
If society doesn’t find ways to support these individuals, it will only mass produce project implementers instead of creative visionaries.

*Founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social justice. This article first appeared in DNA

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