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Sunday, May 20, 2001

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Working for change


MOST of us who read, or write in, these pages probably cannot know what it means to live on the outer fringes of survival. Imagine being an 11-year-old boy orphaned in the Bhopal gas tragedy and left to somehow earn a living to bring up two younger siblings. Closer to the daily life of metro-dwellers is this scene from Nizamuddin Station in New Delhi.

Once darkness falls, even though trains continue to come and go, the platforms and all the open spaces around the station silently fill up with people who have nowhere else to go. There are street children, beggars, street sex workers, people living with leprosy and mental illness, drug addicts, abandoned old people - a whole, separate world of people without a roof and anyone to take care of them, a microcosm of the invisible underbelly of the city, writes Harsh Mander in Unheard Voices: stories of forgotten lives.

The fact of this reality is not invisible in a literal sense. All of us have, at some point, picked our way through a public space which houses the slumbering homeless.

It is the details of their lives which are invisible to us. Many of us experience an instinctive recoil from the horrific suffering of illness and destitution, unable to even bear full witness to it. You may want to do something to remove this suffering but often do not know where to start.

Then there are the rare few like Harsh Mander who do much more than bear witness. They find flowers of creativity on the desolate plains of sheer, bitter survival. It follows naturally that Harsh himself is conspicuously absent in the various accounts which make up Unheard Voices, a book recently published by Penguin India. For the writer's purpose here is to share, in an utterly unsentimental manner, stories of the inherent courage and perseverance of those who themselves suffer and struggle to overcome.

These stories of forgotten lives are simultaneously hopeful and distressing. They are a tribute to individual courage and the humanist engagement of those who reach out to help. But the same stories are also a window to the alarming failure of the political and economic system to prevent or alleviate entirely avoidable human misery. These stories illustrate the vast varieties of creativity and valour in Indian society. And yet all this positive energy does not seem to prevent a wide variety of systemic failures.

For example, "A Battle Against Forgetting Bhagalpur" describes the trauma of Malika, who is the maimed and orphaned survivor of brutal communal violence in Bhagalpur in 1989. Malika is a victim of the militant campaign to build a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and multiple failures of the government and judicial machinery. The first failure was the gross neglect of the local administration in not taking timely action to stem the mounting communal tension and then in allowing a prolonged and intense bout of violence to persist.

The final and most bitter failure is that it has taken 13 years to convict some of the culprits in the lowest court and the case will now drag through the High Court. Even the few convictions have been possible because Malika has refused to give up and tirelessly given evidence before various judicial bodies, with the support of several helpful people. Yet today Malika has to watch the leaders of the attack go scot-free and we can only attempt to imagine her anguish over this final betrayal.

As an officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Harsh Mander has spent about 20 years working to ferret solutions out of many tangled situations in which the system is stubbornly semi-functional or even defunct. Unheard Voices is an account of the many heroes and heroines Harsh has met and admired over the years.

Thus, in another story, titled "A Home on the Streets", you can enter the world of Anand who ran away from home at the age of eight and has since lived on the streets of Bangalore. There Anand has made a living by scouring through garbage heaps and selling bits and pieces of scrap. He has found friends among other children who have run away from home to escape either brutal violence or hunger or often both. This is a world brightened by perseverance, dogged good cheer and the presence of rare souls like Father George Kollashany, who has become a partner in the daily struggle of many of these boys.

As I shared the life of the children on the street, I have been very much enriched by them. Their sense of freedom, their sense of joy, their very lifestyle, have all made a deep impression on me. They are boys who courageously moved out of their unbearable home environment for a better life. And on the street they make adult decisions regarding their work, shelter, clothes and food. These little men deserve our respect, love and concern says Father George.

Thus when Harsh meets Anand he finds a young man who looks at you straight in the face, with clear sparkling eyes and exudes a quiet, shy confidence. He has his own dreams for the future, and he is determined to achieve them.

Unheard Voices quite deliberately underplays that fact that there have been innumerable situations in which Harsh Mander has, like Father George, become a partner is such struggles and helped to beautifully transform lives.

Harsh's career in the IAS is a stark illustration of how a bureaucrat can be both fiercely creative and yet crushingly constrained. He has insisted on making humanist interpretations to the same old rule book and thus supported the struggles of those otherwise condemned to be unheard and unseen. Naturally, this has made Harsh vastly unpopular with most of the powers that be and won him the distinction of being one of the most frequently transferred officials in India.

However, Harsh is not entirely alone. He is part of a rare and small breed of IAS officers who doggedly struggle to work honestly in favour of those who are virtually powerless. Some of these kindred spirits appear in the list of acknowledgments at the opening of Unheard Voices. It is significant that Harsh Mander is currently on long leave from the IAS and working as the head of Action Aid, a non-governmental organisation.

Some of these transformative officers eventually quit the IAS rather than deal with the constant frustration of trying to bring change from within the bureaucracy. Unheard Voices carries an introductory statement by Aruna Roy, who quit the IAS 25 years ago and last year won the Magsaysay Award for her path-breaking work in the villages of Rajasthan. She has used her knowledge of the inner failings of the system to help mould a grassroots campaign for the Right to Information. This effort is essentially a means of demanding accountability and transparency from the bureaucracy and the elected politicians.

There is perhaps another book hidden, or implicit, in the pages of Unheard Voices. For many of these rare breed of officers have vital clues on key areas in which the political and administrative structure can be effectively challenged and changed so that no voice goes unheard. A collection of reflective accounts by such officers may assist activists and ordinary citizens keen to ensure that no life is forgotten.

RAJNI BAKSHI

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