The Hindu, July 26, 2000
Mrs. Bhanu Pragada is a social worker and an activist with the NGO Samata.
Social work? NGO?……….
These were alien words in my home that my family refused to acknowledge; they were soon to discover though that they hardly had a choice. Hailing from a background of a middle class family, these were dreams that were not meant to be dreamt. A cherished hope that I chose to make a reality.
An exposure to community work, visits to homes for the juvenile and jails while still in college through the NSS activities awakened the spirit of the indignant crusader in me.
So strong was my conviction, I decided to play the rebel and an exam later (unaware though my parents were that I had attempted it!), I was at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
Having opted for community and rural development and a study tour of the tribal areas around Mumbai helped me decide my area of focus.Everything about the tribals and their simple and Spartan life style fascinated me.
Their apparent harmony with nature only reinforced my decision. Fortunately for me, I came upon a project introduced by the GCC ltd the Girijan Cooperative Corporation ltd0 which required me to work in the interior villages of AP.
A walk down memory lane brings back fond memories of the vivacious youngster that I was; brimming with enthusiasm to work with a people denied their basic rights.
I began my career by working with the Chenchu tribe. It certainly was an uphill task, for I had to scale a hill to visit the next village! The only mode of transportation was a bumpy bus ride from the town to the nearest non-tribal village. After which it was a healthy marathon all the way to the `work place.’ Though physically exhausting, it was exhilarating to realise my long cherished dream come true.
Marriage further deepened my commitment to the cause. Fate seemed to favour me and I found a husband who shared my aspirations and goals.
SAMATA was instituted by him in 1991 and ever since I have been one of the boys! The aim of the organization is to safe guard the tribal laws and rights of the people as also to educate them regarding the same. With a team of more than eighty people spread out in and around the villages, the organization has reached the stature of a support and advocacy group concentrating on macro issues such as agitating for water supply, protecting tribal land from encroachments, and promoting health. We also deal with micro credit system, mahila mandals and awareness programs.A remote village called Pulabanda, 120 kms from Vishakapatnam was the first to be experimented with. The activities of the organisation have now spread to Vizag and beyond.
Pulabanda also continues to be the place that I treasure the most and derive great satisfaction from. It is a community of people that has accepted me with warmth after the initial teething problems. I find the tribal community most democratic. The women enjoy greater freedom in choosing their spouses, in religion and in parenting. The tribal society is patrilineal though matriarchal in character. Being a woman has enhanced my role significantly. The populace of the village finds me approachable and a bond of enduring trust has been established.
In fact I have had rare insights on motherhood that continue to influence the way I interact with my children having reared my eldest son during his formative years in the village. Disciplining children with punishment is something that is unheard of in their way of life.
Holidays are now a time to participate in the activities of the organisation. This I feel provides my children with a wider spectrum of what life is about and I realize they are fortunate enough to be sensitised to issues rarely dealt with.
Much as I would like to devote more time to the activities of the organisation, the responsibilities of parenthood restrain my sense of participation in the organisation and balancing the two is often a tough act to follow.
Though it was the sheer thrill of adventure and excitement that was my primary impetus, a more mature consideration of the trials and tribulations faced by them inspires me to continue my work assiduously. The happiness is therefore increased ten fold when any developmental reforms take shape and see the light of day such as the schools that I was instrumental in initiating. It proved to be an eye opener for the government and hastened the establishment of thirteen such schools in the villages nearby.
It may sound daring to rough it out in the wilderness thus, but it does require considerable grit and determination to follow through. A trial by fire indeed! Despite running the gauntlet of illnesses such as malarial infections, typhoid and jaundice, I still thrive on the excitement of working for a people I have learnt to respect and admire, who live in a challenging environment.
Life in urban India is now a trying experience, one that I try to balance as much as possible. It is an exercise in forbearance having to find time to fulfill domestic responsibilities, yet it is an effort worth the trouble. The only regret that I constantly experience is the fact that I had to unlearn the lessons learnt during the seventeen years spent in formal education. I wish it had not been so.