By Sam Osaki
Photo: As the country coordinator of the India portion of our International Honors Program, Sonal, plans site visits for us including our field work in the one featured above – a resettlement colony in Ahmedabad.
My second interview took place over lunch with Sonal Mehta, cofounder and current Director of Eklavya Foundation in Gujurat, India. The focus of her work is on the marginalized, indigenous, nomadic, and internally displaced communities of her area, with a special emphasis on women, the urban and rural poor, and all other victims of displacement by development. Below, she discusses her life and her work – sometimes with humor, and at all times with an earnest fervor that I was lucky enough to discover.
Q: How did you first become involved with your line of political activist work?
A: It mainly started in college. I attended St. Xavier’s in Gujarat in the early 1970s during a very turbulent time in India, and I heavily involved myself with the largest student’s movement going on at that time. Even though I was very interested in the possibility of political change through activism, I decided at that time to finish my post-grad work in Physics. I worked as a space scientist for a year at a defense establishment that tried to force me to give up the activist work I continued conducting on the side, but I couldn’t give up on my beliefs so I quit and became a science teacher at a premier institution. This gave me time to work on lots of different activities and to network with many politically active people. Of course it helped that I had very liberal and progressive parents who allowed me to break out of societal norms. Around this time, I met another activist and dedicated my work to tribal communities – and then I married him!
Q: Can you tell me more about these tribal communities?
A: Scheduled tribes live on the fringes of society – in forests, hills, and other undeveloped places. They are so marginalized that they don’t even exist within the confines of the caste hierarchy; they have a very different, egalitarian social structure altogether and live with a religion that is closer to nature than traditional Hinduism. They are endogamous within their communities and are currently under severe threat of displacement. The majority of displaced people in this country are from indigenous tribes whose land is being encroached upon for mining or by riverfront development that has affected natural irrigation systems and is causing many to lose their livelihoods. The government has guaranteed them certain rights, but these communities are not equipped to exercise them. That’s where Eklavya steps in – to educate them and to fight for social justice and rights for these people.
Q: What has been one of your organization’s greatest accomplishments thus far?
A: We succeeded in setting to motion the Forest Rights Act. The idea was to help the indigenous to reclaim ownership on the land they till, as they had been claimed illegal by the state. It has enabled the land to come under the names of both men and women in these communities so that we were essentially able to turn a right into an implemented, constitutional provision.
Q: Finally, can you talk a little more about the work you conduct with a specific eye to women?
A: Right now, we’ve been thinking a lot about how to build women’s leadership roles. Tribes have reserved seats both in local councils and in Parliament, and 50% of those are reserved seats for women. We work on making the women elected to these positions more aware of the implications of their role so that they can, in turn, implement more gender-sensitive governance. In general, women are more often illiterate and more confined than the men, so we try to make them more aware of their rights – to education, to sanitation, and so forth. Finally, Eklavya works on improving their quality of life by teaching them high-level skills, like building bamboo furniture and developing marketing and design units.
Sonal and I ended our conversation with a brief look forward at the possibility for further social development and freedom from debt that such work entails for tribal communities. She concluded this overview of her work by emphasizing the importance of the continued fight for human, civil, and political rights.
Samantha Osaki is a junior Civic Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Urban Studies and English. She is currently studying abroad in Delhi, India; Dakar, Senegal; and Buenos Aires, Argentina as part of the International Honors Program: Cities in the 21st Century. Strongly devoted to both women’s rights issues and education reform, she is an Assistant on the Programming and Research Committees of Seneca International and the President-elect of Penn Education Society. Apart from being a blogger for Seneca International, Samantha also keeps a student travel blog at http://boundlessandmindful.wordpress.com/