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Who taught them compassion even amid adversity? I haven’t yet been able to figure it out

By Gagan Sethi* 

One of the early laws on rural livelihood, based on land and labour, was regarding schedule caste cooperatives being given priority over all others in the allocation of government wasteland. Today, a similar status and privilege is accorded to the likes of Adanis and Ambanis. Under the present scheme of things, they “need” land more than the rural landless in the name of ambitious projects.
It was 1978. It took us a year to get 90 acres of saline land on yearly lease off the Gulf of Khambhat. It was jointly given to 60 Dalit Vankar families, who registered themselves as cooperative in a village called Vadgam. Since no food crop would grow there, we saw the possibility of growing prosopis juliflora, better known in Gujarat as gando baval – or mad babool. It was a livelihood generation project, in which the gando baval wood was to be used to make charcoal. It was a challenge to manage it professionally.
It was one hour walk to the site of the project through a marshy zone. The organization I worked for had already attracted agriculture experts for the job. And since I was cooperative secretary, I was supposed to go to the spot of the project every week. My job was to oversee the food for work, about which had I written last time.
Every day, early in the morning the digging jodi (normally husband and wife) would leave to the saline khar land to dig pits at the project site’s 90-acre land. By 11 am, the sun would be up, and even the best of them would get tired. There was no drinking water at the site, so the jodi had to carry water along with digging equipment.
When I went there for the first time on a “supervisory” visit, a young urban-bred social worker, trained to identify community needs and develop plans to organize communities, professionally manage such projects. I walked over the 90 acres land of the project site for an hour. It was already 11 am, and I realized that I was thirsty, but had no water. The mukkaddam, who accompanied me, casually told me that the jodis could work only till they had water, after which they must say a quit.
Realizing that soon I would be in trouble, I mumbled that I had “some work to do so”, so I needed to rush back. As I was returning, I saw the jodi of an old woman and a 13-year-old boy doing the digging work. I was indignant. We had clear-cut rules that no children or old-aged persons would be involved in digging operations. As I approached her, I asked the supervisory staff why they had broken the rules. One of them told me that it was a drought year, and her son and daughter-in-law had migrated in search of jobs, leaving them behind. He said, they had finished all the food stock, so they needed to work.
In a state of dilemma, I greeted the old lady. She looked up to me, smiling, and asked, “Do you need water? Here I have some of it in my batak (the clay water bottle).” I drank a few drops, and quietly proceeded to the village.
That night I wept bitterly for failing to understand why this world was so cruel to people who had such compassion. They would offer you whatever they could without asking for anything in return. The old lady made a mockery of my professionalism and skill to manage projects. Can compassion be taught? I haven’t yet been able to figure it out.

*Founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social Justice. This article first appeared in DNA

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