India Study Tour, 2012: Reflections - Day Two


India Study Tour, 2012: Reflections - Day Two

Posted on February 13, 2012 by Kathleen Levin

Jet lag has begun to claim several of us. In spite of lack of sleep, we gathered for breakfast and briefing with anticipation for what today would hold.  Shumona Goel, our in country staff person, started our day by framing the work of AJWS in India.

In order to situate our minds to India, she began by telling us that India is a complex country where the problems and the solutions are equally complex. India has struggled with social issues since gaining independence in 1947, some of the most pressing problems include poverty, wealth distribution, access to education and health care, sexual rights and freedom, religious discrimination and gender and sexual violence.

AJWS has refined and deepened  it's work in India and, as a result, is well respected by other NGOs here and looked to for guidance in grant making. Our programmatic work here is primarily in the area of sexual rights and health and natural resource rights.

In spite of the apparently insurmountable problems facing India with the rampant graft and corruption that many of us felt after hearing her speak, Shumona assured us that was not so. "The hope for India is through the social justice movement. Principled and moral resistance will guide us.  We are lit from within."

Elyse Frishman, our lovely Rabbi in residence for India, led us in a beautiful learning about what we will be experiencing on our journey. Hatikva, hope, she said, has its root in "kav" which means connection.  Hope comes any time there is a connection. 

Today we begin our connection with India. We drove a harrowing two hours to visit our grantee outside Kolkata.  I say harrowing because it took us well over an hour to negotiate the drive to the outskirts of the city. 

For those of us close to the front of the bus, we could see busses and cars heading straight for us at 40 kilometers an hour, only to avoid us (or we them) at what seemed to be the last minute!  Once we left the density of Kolkata the environment changed dramatically. The buildings were two and three stories high instead of ten or twelve. The clothing of the women changed as well. Suddenly we were treated to the beautiful and intense colors of the saris that was a treat for our eyes.

We arrived at a spacious and well kept compound of our grantee, Jana Sanghati Kendra (SKG). We were met by twenty or so women and men who greeted us with song, the words of which I loosely translate now. "We are working people and we demand work.  You give us work and we will sweat and labor and we don't get paid for our work."   SKG is an West Bengali NGO (non government organization) started in 1984 with the intent of helping other small organizations organize around the issues of poverty and general rights of all.  Their first fight was for the minimum wage for agricultural workers. Through this effort, Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS) the Association of West Bengal Agricultural Farm Workers, was formed. It quickly morphed into a trade union and now claims 67,000 members, almost half of whomever are women. From that effort grew a new organization organized around protecting the rights of women in the union. Together these three organizations fight for the right to work and food, to gender equality and freedom from gender based violence.  

As we sat in small groups and listened to the stories of these men and women and how they overcame their difficulties and found their voices with the help of SKG, one of our grantees, we were gratified but also sobered.  We listened to the young woman who found the courage to leave her home at 18 after her family beat her when she asked permission to join the union.  Her courage resulted in her own self realization and now her parents and siblings are all members and supporters of the union. That takes guts that most of us visiting do not have.  We finished our visit by sharing a meal together, prepared by the community. We sat together on the floor, eating with our hands, off plates lined with banana leaves. It was truly a shared experience. They led us all in a spirited chorus of We Shall Overcome and we said goodbye and parted ways.  

After a short rest, we met for a learning session where we all had an opportunity to share our thoughts, experiences and internal conflicts of coming to the developing world as privileged upper class Americans.

Another full day of seeing, listening and learning.