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In the early 1980s, fresh out-of-IIT Rahul Banerjee answered an inner calling to work among the less-privileged and went to work in the interiors among the Bhil adivasis. Over the years, he has helped grow empowering initiatives among the Bhil tribals and helped preserve a society’s rights amidst several challenges.
Rahul Banerjee is a self-confessed anarchist who believes in the role decentralisation can play in helping empower indigenous societies like the Bhils.
Born into a middle-class family in West Bengal in 1960, Rahul spent his early years in Tinsukia before moving to Calcutta where he went to study at the elite La Martiniere School for Boys. As a boy, he was influenced by readings of European philosophers; talks on poverty and the plight of the less advantaged impacted him a lot, and he joined the Parish Social Service Center as a volunteer.
Rahul would later go to study at one of India’s top prestigious engineering colleges, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). At IIT, he was a significant part of a Science Education Programme that conducted a survey of the prevalent science education in the neighboring village schools. The findings would leave him stupefied. Soon he and a few of his friends from IIT pooled in money to start a magazine that aimed at spreading awareness about problems and suggested ways to using engineering principles to improve life for the people.
After graduation, he and a few of his friends, with own money, began work on tribal issues in Bhil villages in the jungles of Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh. They went about establishing several pioneering and empowering initiatives among the Bhil tribals like the formation of a trade union; formation of self-help groups, execution of the first joint forest management, wasteland management and watershed development projects and publication of the first primer in Bhili for children. He also participated actively in the work of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
In 1994 Rahul along with his wife, Subhadra, won a MacArthur Fellowship to work on reproductive health and rights of Bhil women. Rahul has been passionate about studying the rich heritage of the Bhils. Over the last few years, he has initiated the publication of booklets in Hindi on the history and culture of Bhils. Rahul’s mission is to establish his philosophy that “it is possible to successfully live in small communities and use the anarchist provisions in the Constitution to build up stiff resistance to the diversity that destroys centralised systems.”
To have led by example by leaping into an unknown interior region at the very beginning of his career and sustained and grown his convictions over the years is not merely a superlative and an extraordinarily selfless feat of Rahul but one that can inspire many others to emulate and take a page out of his life. More such selfless self-starter social entrepreneurs like Rahul who realize their calling have a huge role to play in building a stronger and durable India where indigenous communities are able to sustain themselves.
Rahul, in an interview with 6bridges, expressed his views on career, life and his work.
Interview with 6bridges:
6bridges : Tell us about your family and early life at Tinsukhia, the subsequent period when you came to Calcutta for education at La Martiniere and then when you went on to do your professional degree at IIT (Kharagpur).
Rahul: The Northeast of India is a paradise and it was even more so in my childhood. My sweetest memories are of the picnics that we used to have along the banks of fast rushing streams and rivers in the remote jungles. My parents were great outdoors lovers and naturally their friends circle was the same. I had to come to Kolkata at the early age of five to study but I would look forward to the holiday visits to Assam. Things have changed greatly now with development having despoiled nature. This has happened all over India but the devastation in the Northeast is more striking. Then of course there is the political turmoil also which I suppose was inevitable given the many injustices to the marginalized sections which mostly remained dormant during my childhood in Assam though the Naga movement was quite strong even then.
The Kolkata years are significant because of the influence of my maternal grandparents with whom I stayed. While my grandmother used to take loving care of me my grandfather was an erudite person who had a very well stocked personal library. I remember having read the French philosopher Henri Bergman at the age of fourteen and Albert Camus only a little after that. Towards the end of my school years I began to be bothered by all the poverty that I saw around me in Kolkata. I began doing some social service work under the aegis of the Protestant Parish Social Service Centre. After passing out from school I did not have any clear idea as to what I wanted to do in life. I happened to be a good student and all good students in my school were appearing for the entrance examinations to the elite engineering graduate school - Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). So I too did so and secured a rank that was good enough to get me a place as a student in the civil engineering faculty at IIT Kharagpur.
6bridges: At IIT you started a Science Education Programme that did a survey of the science education practiced in the neighbouring village schools. Was that the trigger that inspired you to start your work or were there some other triggers.
Rahul: I did not start the Science Education Programme I just joined one being run by some other students. Midway through my study in IIT I began to feel that I had chosen the wrong profession. Nevertheless I continued through inertia while involving myself increasingly with science education work among children of indigenous people in the nearby villages. Soon I began to doubt whether the training I was receiving could help solve the deep problems arising from poverty that my tribal students were facing.
Then one incident in my final year decided my future for me. At that time in 1983 the road from the interior that reached the town of Kharagpur bifurcated the IIT campus in such a way that the offices were on one side and the hostels, playgrounds and residences on the other. The hostel that I used to reside in was the first one on the side of this road. Every Thursday a whole caravan of bullock carts loaded with hay would park for the night on the ground in front of our hostel beside the road and would leave early next morning for the weekly hay auction in Kharagpur.
One night a friend and I decided to go and talk to the cart drivers who were all indigenous people. We learnt on querying them that they were indigenous adivasi landless labourers who used to drive the carts for their masters who would reach the auction by faster modes of transport and got only Rs 2 per day at that time in 1983 as wages. We asked them whether they knew what the buildings in front of which they were camping were for. They answered in the negative. Then we explained to them at length what they were. After this I asked them whether they thought that their children could one day study in this institution. The wry smile on the emaciated face of an adivasi carter as he asked me whether I was joking shook me to the core.
This is what started me thinking seriously about the kind of society that had evolved after nearly forty years of independence at that time where the most downtrodden members could not even dream of raising themselves up from their wretchedness. This led to my deciding to embark on a mission to strive for a better deal for tribals.
6bridges: How did you find your true calling as a social entrepreneur? Was it too difficult a decision to make, at that time?
Rahul: The difficulty was not in choosing to be a social entrepreneur but in deciding what kind of work to do. Whether it was political activism, gandhian social work or development work everything had become uncertain at that time and I did not know where to go. So I spent some time in Shantiniketan studying and doing some desultory social work and then came to know of the Social Work and Research Centre set up by Bunker Roy in Tilonia in Rajasthan from an article in Readers Digest. That is how I landed up in Tilonia first and there I met Khemraj who had by then started organising the Bhil tribals in Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh. So in 1985 I landed up in Alirajpur and since then it has been a continuous process of learning by doing.
6bridges: How did your family and friends react to your decision of working in the interiors, especially after having qualified in one of India’s premier institutions? Given the traditional views on such aspirations in India, how did you prepare yourself for criticisms and hostile reactions, if any?
Rahul: My mother was very supportive though my father was upset. But overall there was not much resistance to my decision because the signs had been there for quite some time from my college days.
6bridges: What were the initial challenges when you started and how did you cope with them? How long did this period of challenges last?
Rahul: Challenges have always been there and will continue to be there given the kind of work I do. But the crucial initial challenges were related to the drastic lifestyle change that I had to make in terms of living conditions, the food, the hilly terrain and the language. These were happily adjusted to within a period of six months mainly because of the determination to stick it out come what may.
6bridges: You started work with the Bhils, envisaging a certain plan and objectives. Over time, that may have evolved and developed. How has the work and the idea evolved in your case?
Rahul: Frankly I had no plan and I began work with the humble attitude of a student. My training as a civil engineer was not of any use at that time. I had little knowledge of law, sociology, tribal culture, forestry and agriculture which were needed to work properly for tribal development. So the plans were slowly drawn up as time progressed and this was a communitarian process in which the tribals and other non-tribal activists along with me have participated and contributed. I learnt a lot from the tribals in those years and they are the best years of my life.
6bridges: You have written about the poverty of Bhil residents and the depletion of forests due to logging and soil erosion during the monsoons. Tell us about your model of work and development that you have pursued with the Bhils, over the years.
Rahul: The basic thrust of our work has been to gain access to natural resources and then conserve and augment them through community collaboration. The effort has been to implement the provisions for decentralised tribal development that are there in the Constitution and build up both the socio-economic and cultural strength of the Bhil tribals so as to enable them to participate equally in the democratic processes in India. When we began work the Bhil tribals still believed that they were ruled by kings and did not really understand what voting and elections meant. Slowly they learnt to fight for their rights and entitlements and collaborate to secure and enhance their natural resource bases.
6bridges: What has been your model in sustaining yourself financially over the years?
Rahul: For a decade upto the early 1990s we would survive on small grants and donations from well wishers as our expenses were minimal. Most of our personal and organisational needs were met by the people through contributions in cash and kind. However, thereafter the expenses of organisational work began to shoot up primarily because the conflict between the decentralised system we were promoting and the centralised system that is dominant began to increase with attendant costs in terms of legal action, lobbying, travel etc. That is when I had to take a major decision to fall back on my training as a civil engineer which I had vowed not to use again after passing out of IIT. Especially I had vowed not to use a computer because of the tremendous environmental waste it generates. But the desperate financial situation that we were in forced me to take up research projects and consultancies where I had to use my analytical skills and crunch data and write reports on computers!
That is how I have met both my own and the organisation's financial needs. However, the ethic of thrift still continues and so even now the total annual budget of our organisation is less than Rupees fifteen lakhs. This is a very modest amount that we are able to raise quite easily. In fact we end up refusing work because we believe in staying small and beautiful!
6bridges: What should professionals keep in mind before taking the plunge into social entrepreneurship? What is the right kind of experience and qualities needed to work in this area?
Rahul: It all depends on what kind of work one wants to do. It is still possible to just step out and reach a remote area to live among the poor as we did in our youth. In fact it is easier now because there are more organisations of all kinds working in the development sector. And one gets to know about them through such sources as 6bridges. There is a huge skill deficit among the poor and professionals can contribute in many ways.
Some people have a plan before they take the plunge and that also is fine. Only then one has to think of the financial aspects of the plan also which is not necessary for the kind of plunge I took. We would be only too happy to accommodate any young professional who wants to take a similar plunge!
6bridges: How have your experiences and interactions with the Bhil people influence your outlook towards the world?
Rahul: I have been an anarchist since my college days.In the sense that I feel uncomfortable with large centralised systems and like anarchists prefer to live in small communities free of hierarchy and power. But I had been part of such systems all my life till I came to live and work among the Bhils. They know how to live in small communities and they breathed life into my philosophical anarchism. ( At the moment I live in the city of Indore due to some operational reasons, however, my heart remains in the village of Attha where I began work all of twenty five years ago.)
6bridges: Tell us about your experience of living in this area for so many years. What has given you biggest joy and satisfaction in your work?
Rahul: In our work we have been able to prove that even in this highly centralised world of today it is possible to successfully live in small communities and use the anarchist provisions in the Constitution to build up stiff resistance to the diversity destroying centralised systems. Many people come to visit our area of work and they invariably go back feeling uplifted with the sense of pride and exuberance of the Bhil members of our organisation. This is the greatest joy and satisfaction which I frequently express in my blog - anar-kali.blogspot.com
6bridges: Do you want to replicate your model of work for marginalized indigenous groups at other places in the country too? How can somebody who wishes to help the Bhil people make a contribution or help?
Rahul: As I said I believe in staying small. Our model of work is there for all to see. It is eminently replicable and the details are there at this link - http://www.changemakers.com/node/90261
So if someone wants to replicate it then they can easily do so. The major shortage is that of skilled and dedicated workers. Due to the very weak government education systems which are mostly non-functional the Bhils are very much at a disadvantage in today's networked and computerised world. There is a need for youth to volunteer to work in our organisation like I did in my youth. Even if not for a lifetime at least for a year or two if youth were to come and work with us there are many things more that we could do.
6bridges: You have done fabulous work, but personally, have you had any regrets so far, in your career choices and the work you have been doing?
Rahul: No I am a very practical sort of guy and so do not really bother about acheivements and try to give my best always. There is obviously huge scope for improvement and better performance but since I have tried my best and there are limits to my capabilities it is better to reconcile oneself to the fact that even if one reaches for the sky one usually ends up reaching only the treetop!
6bridges: You divide time between Indore and your place of work. Tell us how you address work-life balance.
Rahul: Technology comes in handy. Almost all villages in our area of work have mobile telephone connectivity and Alirajpur has internet connectivity. So it is possible to conduct our anarchist enterprises by using the communication tools of centralised industrial development. In fact we are planning to move to Delhi for a couple of years from next year and will still remain in close touch with Alirajpur.
6bridges: Tell us about your wife Subhadra. How much of an influence has she been in your life and activities?
Rahul: like all men I too am a male chauvinist pig. Subhadra being a firebrand feminist and very conscious of her rights has made me more gender sensitive. Especially in the crucial area of the gender division of labour within the home. I think the biggest change she has brought about in me is making me realise how much women contribute to keeping human society going.
6bridges: You identified and pursued your calling at early age. You have managed to achieve a lot of things, including putting your passion into practice. What is the big dream that you dream of, today?
Rahul: I stopped dreaming in college itself. Unlike the anarchists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century I had the advantage in the 1980s of seeing how difficult it is to stop the juggernaut of centralised development. So right from the beginning my work has been a kind of rear guard action of building up a small anarchist resistance and even today it is so. There are so many people who have dreamt of utopian social arrangements that there is no need for me to add to that list! But I do feel that more people should do this kind of work.
6bridges: You have been diligently working in this area for over 2 decades. What has kept the spirit and engine going?
Rahul: karmanye vadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadachan
ma karmaphalheturbhurma te sangostakarmani
( to work you have the right not to its fruits,
don't be the medium for enjoying the fruits of work and neither be lured into not working)
- Madbhagvad Gita, Chapter 2 verse 47.
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