By Jebamalai Stanislaus SJ
Access to quality education, health and other basic services continues to be a problem in both rural and urban areas in India. In spite of numerous legislative bills that have been passed by the government to address these issues, Dalits, Adivasis (Indigenous people), women and other people living in poverty continue to be denied their rights. The government’s lack of political will to implement these laws effectively and a pervasive culture of corruption and discrimination have meant that the people who were supposed to benefit from these laws continue to be inadequately served by the education, health and legal systems of the country.
Lok Manch (peoples’ forum) was born in 2015 to address these issues. This national platform, in which Jesuit Provinces from 13 states in India are involved, has the following goals: 1) to develop a rights-based approach in addressing economic, social and cultural issues; and 2) to provide communities and their leaders with a rights-based perspective, knowledge and skills to bring about social change. Lok Manch also serves as a vehicle for these leaders, civil society organizations (CSOs), non-government organizations (NGOs) and grassroots groups to come together, realize the power of collective action and celebrate their achievements as a community.
“Together, we make a difference” has been the rallying cry of Lok Manch. In the four years since its inception, the movement has brought hope and inspired confidence in marginalized communities by engaging over 100 CSOs, NGOs, grassroots groups and leaders from various cultures, castes, tribes, regions and religions. It is through these collaborations that Lok Manch has been able to address community concerns regarding food security, health, land displacement, human trafficking, housing, livelihood and other social justice issues.
Relationship-building and partnerships also extend to local officials and elected representatives. These relationships, together with visibility in the media and the public eye, have enabled us to successfully advocate and lobby state governments to effectively implement the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and other laws that recognize and uphold the rights of poor and marginalized communities.
Although we have had much success in the past, the volatility of current events in India continues to present challenges. Recently, there has been an increase in violence against Dalits, Adivasis and minorities, and the rise of insular politics and populism has created an environment of fear, distrust and insecurity among marginalized people. Recent government policies have also added to the uncertainty; the price of essential commodities and services has been increased through a flat tax that does not exempt poor people, while an amendment to another policy has the potential to displace more Indigenous people.
There are also long-term obstacles that Lok Manch needs to face. These include the increased frequency of natural disasters; the persistence of the caste system; religious fundamentalism; the denial of basic rights to poor communities; and the continued discrimination, human rights violations and injustices against marginalized people.
We intend to meet these challenges by continuing to empower leaders and communities. We will provide them access to their legal rights and information on key issues that affect them. The strategy of Lok Manch will remain the same: make local and state governments accountable for the recognition of the inalienable rights of people; and support leaders that will guide these communities to an improved quality of life.
As we reflect on the past and look towards the future, we recognize and appreciate the solidarity shown by our partners from the Global North like CJI. It is through their support, as well as systems and mechanisms put into place by organizations like the United Nations, that we are able to walk with marginalized people, defend human rights and create space for social change.
“Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves.’”
– Lao Tzu