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January 06, 2006

Fighting Poverty in India

While I've been travelling in India on my honeymoon, it's mostly been to the touristy areas of the Taj Mahal and Rajasthan but the last two days were a more intense political visit in the capital city of the state of Gujurat where we met with a couple of key social justice organizations in India and made a pilgrimage to the ashram where Gandhi launched much of the non-violent resistance to British colonialism.

Gujurat is a key font for social justice organizing, both because of its legacy as Gandhi's home base, its ties to the rest of the world (40% of Indians living in New York came from Gujurat), and its more recent trials as the focus of Hindu-Muslim mob violence.

The reality of increasing wealth for some Indians is clear across the country but so is the continual grinding poverty for the vast majority of the population -- where the chance to give a 50 cent autorickshaw ride to a couple of tourists is a privileged job and most men and women sweat out jobs in rural villages for a dollar or two a day.

What is starkest in many ways is how unequal the society is -- with such abyssmal poverty coexisting nearby with an elite living lives approaching or surpassing Western standards.

A few groups are challenging the social structures of caste and class and religion that beat down poor families and challenge government structures that frustrate justice at every turn.  

One we met with was the Self Employed Women Association (SEWA), a union for the most oppressed workers in India-- women working largely in the informal sector of self-employment or home-based contract work. Started in 1972, it now has almost 700,000 members in India, a third of them outside Gujurat.  Because these workers often have no formal employer or an employer who can easily disappear, much of their organizing is based on self-help-- organizing cooperatives, creating benefits funds for health and other forms of social insurance, and seeking to enforce legal rights against contractors defrauding workers.  Part of the goal is to give these women workers the economic means to escape both oppression from poverty itself and from the often violence-based oppression women suffer within the gender inequality of their family life.  

The other group we visited was Janvikas, a more legal oriented group dedicated to helping the poor cut through the nightmare of delays and frustrations that make it nearly impossible for people to hold employers or abusive husbands or perpetuators of religious violence responsible.   The organization provides local lawyers and traings local people as paralegals to provide day-to-day legal advice and support to villages across Gujurat and the country-- a crucial tool to get even the most basic justice.  

A dollar goes pretty far in India, so if you can spare some cash for a donation to either of these organizations, you will be making a giant difference in empowering people to take control of their own lives in fighting poverty.   For Janvikas, you can give here.  SEWA doesn't have a simple online contribution form, but you can contact them at mail@sewa.org to find out the easiest way for you to get them a donation.

Posted by Nathan at January 6, 2006 11:28 PM