Spreading Humanism the IHEU Way
Andhra Pradesh is one of India’s larger states – with a population of 90 million, and an area of over 275,000 sq. kms, this South Indian state is 25,000 sq. kms larger than the UK. While literacy levels are at a low 60 percent (female literacy is just 50 percent), Hyderabad, the capital city with its population of eight million, is one of the celebrated Hi-Tech centres of India.
Nalgonda is a neighbouring district of newly prosperous Hyderabad, and most people in the district have very low living standards. A large number are victims of cultural and educational backwardness. Dangerous superstitions about ghosts, black magic and witchcraft are rife – these superstitions lead to many psychological disorders, quarrels between neighbours and even murders. Another major threat to civilisation comes from rampant caste discrimination and the practice of untouchability.
Gottiparthi is a remote village in Nalgonda district and is located in Thungathurthi Mandal (an administrative area). It has two colonies, the old colony and the new colony. The closest town is Suryapet, some 60 kms away from the village.
Disha, a Dalit Humanist organisation which has been working with IHEU in the area of Dalit activism and science popularisation, proposed Gottiparthi as a candidate-village for the IHEU’s Adopt a Dalit Village project.
Disha’s report on the village was truly depressing: untouchability, massive unemployment, child labour, child marriage, superstitions and landlessness plague the village. The villagers are unable to access government welfare schemes as they lack information about them. When I visited the village I saw that there were many old and middle-aged people with bent bodies and discoloured teeth – victims of fluorosis (excessive fluorine in drinking water drawn from the ground) because there was no protected drinking water. Even more horrifying than this were the stories I heard about some men in the village who had no teeth at all – because many years ago their teeth were brutally plucked out by fellow villagers who suspected them of practising witchcraft.
On our first visit to the village we were approached with urgent petitions for electricity connections, complaints about the lack of medical and transport facilities – villagers faced a long trek to even buy the basic necessities of life. Many men that we met were drunk, and all the men and women looked frail. Some youth viewed our visits with suspicion and probably cynicism.
While proposing Gottiparthi as the candidate village, the leaders of Disha declared that their aim was to bring up Gottiparthi village as a model Humanist village. That seemed rather too optimistic but it was definitely worth a try as the situation demanded that something be done.
The Adopt a Dalit Village Project
The Adopt a Dalit Village project was conceived as a Humanist intervention which would help improve the lives of an identified group of 1000 Dalit victims in a village or a cluster of villages. It seeks confirmed annual support of Euros 3000 or USD 4000 for three years from organisations or individuals so that members of the Dalit community could receive modern medical care; Dalit children could be introduced to schooling; Dalit youth could be trained to battle the superstitions in their communities and Dalit women could be offered counselling to improve their lot. Highly trained local volunteers and professionals would be involved in the project, and IHEU’s International Director Babu Gogineni would report on the project implementation and progress to the donors.
But, in view of the massive scale of the problems faced by the Dalit community of this village,
- would 3000 Euros for three years make a difference?
- would 4 USD per year per person make a difference?
- what kind of Humanist intervention would make a difference?
Climbing the Mountain with Entre Aide et Solidarité
As a very small NGO set up in Dalit quarters, Disha was in no position to provide immediate material relief or to provide facilities to the villagers that ought to be provided by the government. In any case, the Humanist approach to development was to address the cultural backwardness and to promote a spirit of solidarity amongst the victims rather than provide physical amenities on a large scale.
Disha’s leaders Anjaneyulu and Veeraswamy worked together to design a plan – and we were gratified that Libre Pensée of France’s Entre Aide et Solidarité immediately declared its support for Gottiparthi’s villagers through its president Roger Lepeix, also IHEU’s treasurer.
On the strength of this trust that the plan could work, we determined that as a first step it would be important to bring members of the community together to defend their interests in a cooperative manner: they had to organise themselves so that they themselves could bring about a change in their lives. What follows is a report on the first year of project implementation.
A Centre for Social Change (Samajika Parivarthana Kendra)
The village needed a focal point for initiating the change that was desired. A Centre for Social Change was set up in Gottiparthi – a small shared room with a small library and a committee to plan activities for the villagers. It was important to involve the villagers and also to help them decide on the priorities and the next steps. Two committees operate in the village now, with a total of 78 young men and women as members. With help and guidance from Disha, they make plans for educating themselves and their families.
Of all the victims the project organisers felt most hopeful about the children. If they could be influenced by knowledge, the future of the village would be bright. To bring awareness amongst students, two knowledge clubs were formed with the students studying in middle and high school for the two colonies of Gottiparthi village. These clubs now have 44 pupils as members and learn about health and hygiene, nutrition and the environment.
To develop in them a curiosity about life and an understanding of the physical world, magic shows were arranged by the well known magician and science populariser Mr. I. Chandraiah. He showed how many of the regular claims made by magic men were really sleight of hand tricks or were done with the help of chemicals. He produced ‘blood’ from lime, made the sand catch fire and lit a fire with ‘water’ – much to the surprise and amusement of the villagers! This led to questions and answers about how magic men infest the community and how they demand exhorbitant sums of money to exorcise the village. This kind of knowledge has started making the children immune to deception in the name of ghosts and black magic.
A Women’s Association
The key to development is the involvement of women in social affairs. For this they need control over their lives, better access to health facilities and some financial self-sufficiency. A women’s association was formed by bringing together the women of the village: 22 women joined this association and they have since been conducting meetings and have also started saving little amounts, on a regular basis.
Further, an Income Generation Program was initiated for the women. 27 women of this village were selected for training in tailoring – this training is being set up and a woman has been appointed as in-charge.
Eradication of Superstitions
The village population is terrified by many superstitious beliefs and a major step would be to lead them out of their terrible fears. Again, with the help of Mr. I. Chandraiah, the noted local journalist Mr. Degala Janardan and Dalit activist and Disha leader Mr. Veeraswamy, three programs were taken up in the first six months of this project. Chandraiah performed all the tricks performed by those who claim to have special powers. This programme brought awareness among the men, women and children in a fun way. The doubts the people asked were cleared on the spot. Such four hour programs were attended by 200 Dalits.
Already within the first five months of the project implementation, the task of program coordination was passed on to Ms. Ch. Rajitha from the old colony.
Celebrating World Humanist Day
It is often felt that there should be an identity and label for our philosophy of life and for our understanding of the world. On June 21, 2010 World Humanist Day was celebrated in the village. This program was held at 11am at Gottiparthi village at the Center for Social Change. The program was attended by 26 members of the youth group. The importance of rationalism and Humanism was explained in lucid and simple language to the villagers by the resource persons. The youth who had known of Women’s Day, Gandhi’s birthday, Ambedkar’s birthday etc. were surprised to learn about an international day for Humanism. All the library in- charges of 10 villages (project supported by IHEU) were also present. The organisers of the event were K. Srinivas, P. Parsha Ramulu, Jeedi Veeraswamy, the local sarpanch (village mayor), the elected official (MPTC) and other village leaders. All the participants felt that they were part of a worldwide identity.
Training is essential to deepen the understanding of problems and for empowering volunteers and activists to spread their learning. Five major awareness camps were organised.
25 Jan 2010: Campaign on the “importance of reading“ was held for members of Center for Social Change. Many young people took part in this program and Kakatiya University’s Prof. Sri Sathyanarayana, and Mr. Ch.Venkateswarlu, Director of NGO Bodhi, took part as resource persons for this book reading session. They advised the gathering to follow the spirit of well-known Indian rationalists and human rights activists like Dr. B.R.Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy and others, to uplift themselves socially, and to eradicate superstitions in the villages.
18 April 2010: Ten persons from the village also took part in the rationalist study classes held at Hujurnagar. Mr. Meduri Sathyanarayana explained about the existence of life and changes in the universe. This programme was attended by Mr. I. Chandraiah who demonstrated magic activities for the awareness of the public. The ten young people felt satisfied that they learnt something about rationalism in the study classes.
29 May 2010: Gottiparthi village receives benefits under the government’s NREGS scheme as the government is providing work at a daily wage of Rs.100/- (1.5 Euros) as part of its employment guarantee scheme. The villagers were advised that none of the labourers need to migrate from the village, as they could make use of this scheme. Mr. Pachya Naik, the government’s Mandal Programme Officer, explained about land development etc. This program was attended by the village mayor (Sarpanch), local elected official MPTC, and over 60 labourers from the village.
The major problem faced by Gottiparthi village Dalits is ill-health. So they rely upon magic to ‘get rid of ’ various health problems. To introduce them to modern medical help, six health camps were held with local / regional Doctors, where some medicines and some spectacles were distributed free of cost. Four old people were operated upon following these health camps for their eye problems. 480 Dalits benefitted from these health camps: besides seasonal and common diseases, various ailments (major) were identified and the patients were led to major hospitals in the town. A panel of doctors has been instituted to help the patients in the village, from time to time. The three highly qualified doctors (MBBS MS or MBBS MD) who visited detected malaria, filaria, chikun gunya, diabetes etc. as major issues.
The local youth and women expressed their happiness over these health camps: the government had not shown such interest in their health till then, nor did the Church leaders who visited the village before the Humanists did so!
Is It Working?
It is just over a year since the project took off, but the results are already most gratifying. As we reported proudly to Entre Aide et Solidarité, the villagers are better organised, they talk about their future, they discuss what their plans are for their children, and some women are able to participate in some saving schemes.
The villagers suddenly feel recognised and cared for, and they now believe that they have some degree of control over their lives. The children are enthusiastic about the things they are learning at the training programs and the orientation courses.
New leaders are emerging in the community and they are able to articulate the needs of the community. A new life has begun for the village – and the change is palpable enough for the Backward Castes (non-Dalits) of the village to request Disha to help them as well.
We were amazed that the village’s youth feel engaged with social issues – a huge number of Gottiparthi village’s youth joined the volunteer force of Humanists which helped us organise a 7000-strong anti superstition meeting aiming to fight witchcraft and black magic. It is true that some of the volunteers came to the grand event wearing their talismans, but we have nearly two more years to help them get rid of them and other impediments that are holding them back from leading fulfilled lives as equal members of society.
Meanwhile, we know it is working, not just in Gottiparthi but also in Malwabar in North India, which is the second village adopted. That is, the lives of 2000 victims have been touched by the liberating power of Humanism. The survey of a third Dalit village Keshavapuram has also been completed and we invite those who can afford it (can we afford not to?) to help another 1000 Dalits by committing to support the Adopt a Dalit Village Project. More villages are asking for help.
Help them, in the spirit of human solidarity, and on the basis of demonstrated results.
Author: Babu Gogineni, past-International Director, IHEU
Published in International Humanist News, May 2011: pp 20–2
Appeal for Help
Dalits are the people formerly known as untouchables. The largest population of Dalits is in India, where Hinduism and the caste system are traditionally associated with the evil practice of untouchability. Historically, Dalits have been excluded from human society. Discrimination affects every aspect of their life: health, housing, education, work, marriage and social interaction. Tens of millions of Dalits are trapped in debt bondage. Their access to modern medical care is almost non-existent. They are exploited as vote banks with little hope of improvement, and they are targets for religious conversion. Rampant superstition, the practice of internal untouchability and desperate poverty are the hallmark of most Dalit communities.
Join hands with IHEU and Adopt a Dalit Village!
It will cost just €3000 or $4000 a year to make a positive difference to the lives of nearly a thousand Dalit men, women and children. That is just $4 a year per person and you have to commit to contribute for 3 years.
IHEU will monitor and report regularly to the donors. You can find out more about how Humanism provides alternatives for scavengers in India.
Two villages have already been adopted: Gottiparthi village in South India by the French Entraide et Solidarité and Malwabar village in North India by the Dutch Humanists. Keshavapuram village in South India will soon join them. Five other villages have been identified. Dozens more want to benefit from Humanist action. Tens of thousands are waiting for their lives to be changed through Humanism’s liberating power.
This program has already made a difference to the lives of nearly 2000 persons. Members of Dalit communities are exposed to modern medical care; Dalit children are introduced to schooling; Dalit youth are trained to battle the superstitions in their communities; Dalit women are offered counselling to improve their lot. Highly trained local volunteers have joined hands to extend help. Above all, many Dalit individuals are beginning to be hopeful.
Act in the name of human solidarity.
NOTE: This appeal has now closed. [3 October 2010]