By Raju Kendre:
Education was a luxury for me. I hail from a small family of farmers from Vidarbha and I’ve been a first-hand witness to the problems of farmers in the region. The condition of my life and Vidarbha were somewhat similar, we both saw trying times.
Back in the day, what I found unusual, was that University graduates and government officials were frequent in the region. They used to work on some drought mitigation programmes and used to try and pinpoint the causes of the drought.
I cannot say much about their impact on drought mitigation, although, in my experience, I think their measures didn’t really do much but here’s the remarkable bit – everyone wanted their children to become like these babus with a stable source of income and a comfortable life. When they came to the village, it hardly mattered as to what they did but what attracted the most attention was the set up they arrived with – the police, their advisers, motor vehicles and drivers. I always thought, if I had this setup, I could bring about a real change in people’s lives. After meeting a few IAS officers, it was then that I decided to become one as well.
Right after completing high school, I shifted base to Pune. I thought Civil Services was going to be just like any another entrance exam. But turned out, that it was not my cup of tea. I was not able to manage a regular graduation, let alone, IAS preparation. I had to resort to correspondence courses. But one thing I was determined about, was that I wanted to be an agent of change.
During my stay in Pune, I met a few activists and organisations who were working on tribal issues in Maharashtra. One such organisation was ‘Melghat Mitra‘, which was working on child malnutrition. I stayed here for a year and half. In this period, I had the chance to work on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme, Right to Information (RTI), malnutrition, gramsabha and advocacy for all these issues with the Korku tribes. With them, I learnt the value of patience, hard work and a commitment towards society. And I believe that, that has given shape to my career and future as well. I am indebted to the contribution of the Korku society in my overall development as a human being.
While working in the ‘Dhadak Mohim Campaign’ that works towards addressing child malnutrition in Melghat, I realised the role of politics in the development of any region. Most of us tend to ignore politics as something beyond our scope, but we fail to realise that we all are a part of it. All the programme funds and schemes boil down to the political will of the village. Venal political leaders survive on our ignorance and fear. The idea of being a part of village politics had started taking shape. But the path was not easy. I began with the mobilisation of the village youth.
March 2015, marked our presence in my village. The gramsabha of my village demanded two watershed projects through the MGNREGA to conserve water. But the gram panchayat didn’t seem interested. We began to inquire the reason behind the reluctance and exposed several discrepancies in the use of MGNREGA funds. We were just students who had not even graduated and we faced threats from influential politicians. Eventually, our efforts yielded results. We were able to get the sanction for the watershed project. Apart from that, we also managed to set up a hand pump to address the lack of clean water.
But it was an amazing experience: the sense of victory and the recognition in the village was beyond our expectations. So in August 2015, I ,along with my team, decided to contest elections for the gram panchayat to oppose the growing muscle and money power.
By this time, I was enrolled in a reputed institution for social sciences in Maharashtra. The course was about Rural Development. Although I had lots of good experiences to share, the lack of theoretical knowledge and inadequate English, limited my expression. It was the first time that I was attending a regular college. When I shared my vision with them, everyone was quite amazed. Away from high-flying theories, I was preparing myself for direct action.
Incidentally, the dates for the third semester examinations and the gram panchayat elections were clashing. I was standing on the crossroads. If I contested the election, I would lose a year of my education. After much contemplation, I chose to contest. What was the point of education if I was not a part of survival struggles at the grassroots level?
We wanted to have unopposed elections so that we do not hurt the existing political structures and that youngsters like us get an opportunity too. We tried to convince existing political leaders, however, our negotiations with them failed and we were not left with any other option than contesting elections.
Right from day one, we decided to break all conventional rules of politics. I declared my candidature from an SC ward. We prepared our manifesto with public consultations and gave our manifesto on stamp paper. We were sure that we were contesting for the people and requested them to contribute money. We managed to raise Rs. 20000 for election expenses.
I had not a single penny in my pocket but my willpower to serve my village and people was enough to encourage me to contest this election. But we were fighting against those who spent lakhs for the elections, against us. They used all muscle and money power and won the elections. But in spite of all hurdles, we managed to get 33% of votes and the trust of people.
I am indebted to those youngsters who, now, are living in different cities but came to the village and extended support to us during the elections. Most of them worked with us during election campaigns.
This power of the youth is driven for change and I am sure, in the near future, it will emerge as a youth movement against the existing corrupt political structures. Today, I may not have attempted the UPSC exams but I have contested an election and I look forward to participating in more. We are planning to contest the next zila parishad elections next year and hope to mobilise youth from over 20 villages.
Even if we don’t win, we will continue to work towards developing our village. We aim to start a ‘Gramin Yuva Prerana Kendra’ that would work as a resource center for villages and also encourage residents of the villages to be more involved in various developmental activities. As the famous quote from Karl Marx goes, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”