FROM A SAREE WEAVER TO LEADING AN ANTI-GLOBALIZATION MOVEMENT
Today the 27 years old Nandlal Master has built up a strong local movement
against a Coca Cola bottling plant in the Mehdiganj area of Varanasi District.
This movement has become a problem for the US multinational giant as well
as the local administration. Inspired by the Gandhian ideology and based on
Jayaprakash Narayan's concept he has put together a cohesive organization
'Lok Samiti' comprising of youth from saree weavers' families in about ten
years time. Nandlal laid the foundation of this organization in 1994 when
after having completed his B.Sc. from Varanasi he returned to his village
and started evening classes for his two little cousins one a son of
his uncle and another from his neighbour's family. Most of the children in
this area, situated about 20 km from Varanasi city, have to weave sarees on
handlooms installed in every household and hence cannot go to school.
Nandlal was also born into a saree waever's family in a village called Usrapatti.
His father used to lend money for this business. The family was financially
well off. But his father died when he was a child. The task of raising him
and his six siblings suddenly fell on his mother. From a money lender she
soon slipped down to being a labourer. Nandlal's elder sister was already
married. When the mother could not manage the family affairs she sent Nandlal
to go and stay with his sister in Murgaha-Benipur village for continuing his
school. He completed his school from Uday Pratap College and then joined the
B.Sc. programme. But the deteriorating financial condition of his family forced
him to return to his village. Two elder brothers had separted from the family
after getting married. Nandlal upon coming back first decided to learn the
skill of saree weaving on the handloom available at his home. At that time
his two younger brothers were working on looms at other people's places. Along
with taking up saree weaving work Nandlal also started evening classes for
children who were not going to school. Gradually the number of children grew.
He had to start centres in other villages. Inspired by Nandlal's example educated
youth in other villages also started similar education centres for children
engaged in saree weaving task. Slowly Nandlal built up a team of volunteers.
They used to look upto Nandlal for leadership and guidance. Nandlal was a
born leader and this opportunity provided him a chance to hone his leadership
But two incidents took place which shook him up. Nandlal had started a practice
of taking out all the children once in a year for outing. In 1996 when the
children were on a trip to Mirzapur, the bus carrying them met with an accident.
One child died and 36 of them were injured, some of then very seriously. This
was a big jolt for Nandlal. He had to face such a big tragedy at the beginning
of his journey as a social activist. Nandlal was blaming himself for the tragedy.
He gathered courage and started raising resources for the treatement of the
injured children. He was able to raise Rs. 36,000, mostly from Heads of some
Village Panchayats. This brought back some of his self-confidence.
The children with whom Nandlal was working belonged to the category of child
labour. A number of organizations were engaged in the task of abolition of
child labour and plenty of foreign funds were also available for this. A number
of NGOs and funding agencies tried to bring Nandlal into their fold. Some
of them made a blatant offer to him to accept some money from them in return
for giving them some credit for his work. But Nandlal decided to preserve
his autonomy and continued to work independently. Because of having succeeded
in not getting lured by the enticement of these organizations Nandlal emerged
as a person of strong character and the confidence of local people and youth
in his leadership deepened. But once he was also fooled. Once an organization
from Varanasi proposed to organize a cultural programme for the children engaged
in saree weaving work. Nandlal did not find anything wrong with it. The NGO
from the city organized the programme and invited some government officials
to this. Next day there was a raid by the government inspectors and a number
of children working on handlooms were caught. Some money lenders and others
who were not happy with Nandlal's growing popularity got a chance to denounce
him. He was squarely blamed for this raid by government officials.
Because of these two events Nandlal thought that his role as a social activist
was over. He was feeling guilty that he had brought grief to the community
because of his deeds. However, miraculously, it was the parents of the children
injured in the bus accident who came upto him and requested him to restart
the education classes. It was probably because of Nandlal's integrity and
commitment that people had faith in him. So Nandlal got a chance to rebuild
his social work. Learning from the good and bad experiences of life he was
now a more mature human being. Slowly he gained of the confidence of the entire
When raising funds for the children injured in 1996 bus accident he had
met Niti bhai in Varanasi city. It was Niti bhai who introduced Nandlal to
Gandhian ideology as well as inspired him to lay the foundation of a people's
organization, 'Lok Samiti' in his area. Niti bhai also made it possible for
Nandlal to visit Gandhiji's Sewagram Ashram in Wardha. It was after coming
here that Nandlal was deeply influenced by Gandhian philosophy. Meditating
in Bapu Kuti, participating in the all-religion prayer meeting, and talking
to various people and learning about incidents from Gandhiji's life, a new
light began to emerge from within him. This laid the ideological basis for
his future work. He understood how his work locally was part of the larger
social transformation process. He was enthused by his Wardha visit. Upon returning
he deicded to spend some time with Niti bhai who was working in a different
area of the Varanasi District called Chirai Gaon by forming an organization
'Lok Chetna Samiti'. This is did for two reasons. First he wanted to learn
the art of organization building and secondly he wanted to satiate his ideological
hunger in the company of Niti bhai which had been ignited during his Wardha
visit. Nandlal still maintains live contact with Niti bhai and his organization
Nandlal emerged so strong from his association with Niti bhai that he decided
to wind up his registered organization 'Nav Jyoti Swawlamban Sewa Sanstha'
and put its papers in a box. He decided to remain free of bureaucratic shackles
and wanted to build a people's organization. In other words he decided not
to work in the prevalent NGO mode accepting money from funding agencies. For
a 22 year youth coming from a simple lower middle class rural family a decision
reflecting such ideological maturity was a rare achievement. He got a chance
to participate in an ideological workshop on a recent development in philosophical
thought 'Sah Astitwawad' popularly known as 'Jeevan Vidya' of A. Nagraj of
Amarkantak. This helped his further his ideological development. It became
very clear to him that an individual does whatever he/she does for his/her
own satisfaction rather than for somebody else. This ended the possibility
of any arrogance growing within him for the service to the society that he
was doing. Thesense of independence that developed within Nandlal was because
of the days spent at his sister's place as a young boy. He considers this
period as that of bondage. There was financial security but no freedom to
express his views. He always desired to free himself from this constraint
and live according to his ideas. This strong urge to not compromise on his
freedom has prevented Nandlal to either apply for any job anywhere or for
funding to support his work. This is Nandlal a soft spoken, kind hearted
but very independent and a personality with strong character. He is as strong
in taking stands as he is soft in his demeanor.
Since Nandlal used a mature ideology and personal relationships to build
an organization he developed a concrete mass base. People in his organization
have complete confidence in him. On Niti bhai's suggestion he has developed
a very strong people's organization in his area Lok Samiti. He has also developed
a cultural team called 'Kala Manch' to rasise awareness on social issues through
street theatre and beautiful songs. In 2001 he became the State Convenor from
U.P. of the National Alliance of People's Movements, which gave him an opportunity
to build contact with other people's movements going on throughout the country.
In 2003 when the NAPM decided to organize a nation wide protest against
Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola as part of their campaigning against the new economic
policy, Nandlal decided to organize a protest at the gate of the Coca Cola
bottling plant in Mehdiganj which was situated in his area. This plant has
been emptying the earth of lakhs of litres of water every day. The company
had distributed the sludge coming out of the plant as 'manure' to the farmers
in the neighbourhood only to detroy their crops and fields. The farmers were
up in arms against the Coca Cola bottling plant. The company was also encroaching
upon a piece of land belonging to the Gram Sabha and had illegally built a
portion of the plant on that. In 1999 when the company bought the plant from
Thums Up they cheated the government on revenue to the tune of Rs. 1,75,00,000.
No local person has been able to get regular employment in the plant till
date. It is quite clear that Coca Cola in working against the interest of
the local people. When after repeated complaints the administration was not
taking any action against the company, 500 local people decided to assemble
at the gate of the plant and demanded its closure. The police using lathis
and private security guards of Coca Cola using iron rods beat up the protestors.
14 people were injured and 70 people put in jail for two days. Since then
a number of action programmes have been taken agains the twin soft drink giants
and slowly the movement at Mehdiganj is getting integrated into the international
movement against Coca Cola. Two marches were organized in the eastern U.P.
region to create awareness among a larger population about adverse impacts
of operations of Coke and Pepsi. The first one was from 28th October to 4th
Novermber, 2003, beginning from the Coca Cola plant at Mehdiganj to the Pepsi
Cola plant in Sathariya, Jaunpur. The second was from 15th November to 24th
November, 2004, beginning from the Coca Cola plant at Sinhachawar, Ballia
to Mehdiganj. The day this march ended a direct action was announced at the
plant. About 1500 people marched towards the plant and were prevented by the
police from reaching there. When the people insisted on moving ahead there
was a brutal lathi charge by police over a peaceful and non-violent gathering.
166 people were put into jail. 163 of them were released four days later but
Nandlal and two others were detained for 14 days on more serious charges.
A case is still pending against Nandlal and three others in the court.
Nandlal was invited to speak at the World Social Forum at Porte Allegre,
Brazil in January, 2005, thereby raising the issue of Mehdiganj at an international
forum for the first time. Recently, on May 6, 2005, the Village Panchayat
of Mehdiganj decided to pass a resolution recommending cancellation of licence
to Coca Cola. On 10th of May, 2005, the District Magistrate of Varanasi took
an action against the Panchayat Head by revoking his financial and administrative
powers charging him of illegally transferring land belonging to the Panchayat
to Coca Cola. This is the first victory for people of Mehdiganj in their,
what is going to be a, long drawn out battle with this multinational giant.
By Sandeep Pandey, A-893, Indira Nagar, Lucknow-226016, U.P.