Sunday, October 07, 2007

About the Convenor of PVCHR in the view of Ashoka

Lenin Raghuvanshi, 2001

Contextual Background

In recent times, a quick glance at the headlines and front pages would lead one to believe that whatever third world associations India may have had in the past, it is now on the up and up, poised to take its rightful place amongst the leading nations of the world. The country has become synonymous with numbers like 9% (the country's GDP growth rate), pictures of gleaming IT campuses in Bangalore, and businessmen in well cut suits merging and acquisitioning their way onto Forbes list of billionaires.
Yet for Dr. Lenin Raghuvanshi, the founding director of People's Vigilance Committee for Human Rights (PVCHR), it is difficult to reconcile this rosy picture of India with the plight of the thirty eight million textile workers who comprise the second largest sector in the economy after agriculture. Those who have perhaps suffered most are the five million weavers of India's silk capital and Hindu holy city: Varnasi, Dr. Lenin's home city.
In 2001, India, eager to gain access to international markets in other sectors, lifted quantitative restrictions on silk imports in compliance with agreements with the World Trade Organization. This then opened the gate to a flood of power-loom made, cheap (compared to the handloom made Indian equivalents) silk imports from China. In the years since then, handloom production has declined nearly 7% annually, and more than half of the workers have found other work. Many of the less fortunate have died, emaciated by starvation. Still others in increasing numbers have begun to take their own lives [1].
For Dr. Lenin, a death due to starvation is a violation of a person's fundamental right to life, one guaranteed by the Indian constitution. Yet in 2004 and 2005 alone there were 39 reported cases of hunger deaths in a country where there is surplus food and government schemes to prevent starvation.


Something had clearly gone wrong. When reports of hunger deaths reached him, Dr. Lenin and PVCHR decided the most effective way to stop the deaths would be to pressure the local authorities – managers of the public food distribution system (PDS) which exists to provide free or subsidized food to those in need – who were obligated to prevent the deaths but had failed.
Dr. Lenin's strategy to do this best has been: (1) determine why the local government failed to prevent the deaths by filing right to information (RTI) queries and petitioning the courts; (2) bring transparency to the situation by alerting the media and human rights groups thereby raising public and international outrage; (3) unite the handloom weavers so their combined voice of protest would be loud enough to put direct pressure on the government to act in the future; (4) and, use this united group to learn about other hunger deaths or urgent situations.
PVCHR's efforts to help a weaver named Vishambhar in Shankapur village near Varanasi are representative of this strategy. After 2001 changes in the trade rules, it became harder and harder for Vishambhar to support his family by weaving until by 2005, it had become impossible; there was virtually no work for him.
The local government failed to qualify Vishambhar for food subsidies. It is apparently widely known that PDS officials at all levels are often corrupt individuals who require bribes from the poor to issue ration cards and then the subsequent food subsidies. Those at the lowest level are often forced to seek bribes at the bequest of their supervisors up the chain. The marginalized poor have little recourse other than to pay what they must, and if they are unable as perhaps Vishambhar was, they are left to their own devices. [2]
As a result of being denied food subsidies, Vishambhar and his family began to starve. In April 2005, his wife and sixteen year old daughter died due to severe malnutrition. A second child followed one month later. His three other children were sent to a charity run orphanage.
When PVCHR became aware of Vishambhar, the organization immediately filed petitions to the human rights agencies along with the Supreme Court and state leaders. In response, international organizations such as the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN) issued hunger alerts. Through these efforts, he further brought attention to the problem by informing the media. Major newspapers like the Times of India covered the story. PVCHR also made a short film on Vishambhar's plight which was then shown on BBC News in November 2005 which brought more attention still [3].

Leveraging Efforts for Local, National and Global Impact

All of this work certainly brought pressure on the local government and some relief to Vishambhar who finally received food subsidies and grants for housing, but Dr. Lenin wanted a broader solution for many others in a similar situation. He then created an organization called Boonkar – Dastkar Adhikar Manch comprised of over 25,000 affected weavers, volunteers, and sympathizers, which has become not only a forum to advocate the rights of weavers and craftsmen, but also acts as an information network alerting the PVCHR about particular weavers in distress who are unable or unwilling to seek help directly. Indeed, it was through the precursor of this network that Dr. Lenin learned of Vishambhar's case. The new organization also held a convention to give the weavers a common voice and launched a campaign for the rights of weavers.
Additionally, Dr. Lenin has fostered a reciprocal relationship with the media. By bringing the plight of the weavers to their attention he finds that now they cover such cases automatically. In fact in nearly 20% of the cases, it is the media itself that has uncovered cases of hunger death and brought it to the attention of PVCHR.
Finally Dr. Lenin also wants accountability. He filed petitions with the courts to prosecute those officials who had failed to uphold existing government schemes. Next, he organized the filing of mass RTI queries to demand information about how PDS distributes the food resources it has, how timely, and so on. The mass RTI filings, where many people would file the same RTI request at the same time, were used because he reasoned that it is much harder for the information officials to ignore one hundred requests than to ignore one. These efforts are ongoing.
 While PVCHR's movement has brought relief to many, Dr. Lenin laments that there are still too many who are dying of hunger due to over zealous trade liberalization policies and ineffective government action, corruption and neglect. He urges the easing of liberalization, clean governance, and effective implementation of the numerous government policies already in place to prevent deaths by starvation.
Written by Soham Sen, Ashoka's Law For All Initiative, Asia. April 2007. New Delhi.

[1] Francis, Bijo and Dr. Lenin Raghuvanshi, "Handloom has become like grave for weavers," Asian Human Rights Commission. 2005.
[2] Ibid

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