By J Ranjith Kumar*
There is a strong notion that social movements require strong leaders to lead from the front. Leaders are thought of visionaries who help in directing a movement, in negotiating with external stakeholders, and in mobilizing volunteers for the movement. While all of these may seem true from a very superficial perspective, on a second glance, we come to understand that it is the social movements that make strong leaders, and not the contrary. There are an umpteen number of examples to substantiate this hypothesis. Nelson Mandela, who led the Freedom Movement in South Africa, or Lech Walesa, who was a central figure in the of Solidarity movement in Poland, are leaders who came from nowhere. They were highly motivated volunteers who were mobilizing workers at the grassroots of the movement. It is only due to their sheer will and determination, that they became revered amongst the people. Their work at the ground-level made people choose them as leaders for the movement.
“Volunteers at the grassroots are our greatest Assets”, says Dr. Shantha Sinha, a Child Labor and Child Rights Activist in India. In our discussion with her, we came to understand how a similar, Bottom-Up approach was employed to achieve great success. Dr. Shantha who was the founder of the Mamipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF), and a recipient of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award, shares her foundation’s journey in organizing the famous Ranga Reddy movement during 1990s in Andhra Pradesh’s Ranga Reddy district. The movement helped children in around 700+ villages in the district to be freed from the wretches of Child labor and has helped them join schools. Child Labor in India was at its peak during the 1980s and the 1990s. It is estimated that at least 60-115 million children, throughout India, were working at factories, agricultural fields and as domestic servants. At least 15 million of them, were bonded child laborers. These are the children who were forced to work, because of non-repayment of debt owed to wealthy landlords and industrialists, taken by the parents of these children. The debtors’ loan small amounts of money to these destitute people at supernormal interest rates, which often go unpaid. The intent of these debtors is to secure a child for labor, who often works for a much lower wage than adults, and to keep the child with them up until they have fully compensated for the loan. This process takes years of time, and by the time the individual is able to repay the full loan, they would already be in their late teenage. Having missed the opportunity to attend school, they now have no choice other than to continue working as laborers in industries or at agricultural fields. There would come a point in their lives, when they would be poverty struck, and to make their ends meet, would have to again borrow money from the money lenders. The vicious cycle starts all over again. At the time, the government was paying little attention to this issue, and it was in the hands of NGOs to tackle such matters.
The MVF set out with a strong objective of ensuring universal education to all children in the District. The Approach they followed was very different from what was considered traditional. They treated each stakeholder: the villagers, the children, the schoolteachers, the volunteers and the government authorities as a potential ally, rather than seeing them as adversaries. The foundation was operated on the Gandhian beliefs of Non-Violence. They communicated with the Stakeholders in a diplomatic fashion, and in their interaction with them, they made them understand the nobility of their movement. All of the activities, the planning, the designing, the implementation, and the monitoring, were performed by the volunteers themselves. The volunteers were given complete autonomy and freedom to take actions that they saw fit. This was primarily due to the relatively flat organizational structure followed by the foundation. Although there were a few departments, such as finance and administration, the power to shape the movement was entirely in the hands of the volunteers. Dr. Shantha said “We were not directing or streamlining the movement, but on the contrary, it was the movement which was streamlining us”.
At this juncture, it may occur to us that, without a strong leadership at the top, any movement would soon loose its sense of direction, and that whatever ensues, would be nothing short of a pandemonium. But, the MVF had a trick up its sleeve to address this concern. There were regular review meetings happening, either weekly or fortnightly, where the direction and the future plans of the campaign would be debated and discussed, and only when a consensus is achieved amongst both volunteers (horizontals) as well as the top management (verticals), would everyone disperse. The movement was democratic, and it was the volunteers, who were working on the frontlines, that made all the proposals. This was known to be the “Reversion of Organizational Pyramid” by the MVF. All new learnings and innovations that happen at the grassroots were shared with other volunteers, during these review meetings. The volunteers, also, did not shy away from discussing the mistakes and failures which were a result of misjudgments. The volunteers were crucial in recruiting more volunteers to join the movement. Their determination was contagious, and at the peak of the campaign, there were around 80,000 volunteers working for Child rights.
The movement which started out with three villages, soon had a spiraling effect on other villages. Hundreds of villages approached MVF with requests to make their villages Child Labor free. MVF adopted a unique method in dealing with the expansion. It first gave the villagers in these villages, certain tasks, such as surveys, to complete. Through these tasks, the villagers understood the principles of MVF, and the approach that needs to be taken for eliminating Child Labor. The villagers themselves then transformed into volunteers, who would then take charge of the movement. And, as the expansion happened, there were new problems that MVF’s volunteers had to attend to, and in this process, the volunteers inculcated new learnings. Review meetings, and not training programs, were used to transmit knowledge and beliefs.
MVF believed if someone was not willing to join their cause, then it was the duty of MVF to make them understand the issue at hand. In this way, they went on to make everyone their allies, be it the Government officials, or the schoolteachers, or the MNC’s which had children employed in parts of their supply chain. In one specific instance, there were too many children being freed from child labor, and the schools were not ready to take them in, stating the additional burden as the reason. Having realized this, MVF approached the schoolteachers, and asked them to take up the issue to the teacher’s union. The teacher’s union which consisted of 3000 teachers, decided to add more teachers to handle the additional children that were joining the schools. In this way, MVF made teachers their allies in their campaign against Child Labor.
At times, the parents of the village children, strongly believed in caste and religion to be the reason why they wouldn’t let their children to school. Here again, MVF approached the parents, and made them realize that tradition and culture are indeed important, and that they shouldn’t be acting as barriers to education. The parents having realized this fallacy, agreed to send their children to school. Winning the hearts of everyone, was what that led to the success of MVF’s campaign. At the end, MVF believed that the mobilization should finally end in institutional building processes. It wanted standards and procedures to be laid out, so that MVF’s success could be replicated somewhere else.
MVF’s story make us realize why social movements should take a bottom-up approach. Volunteers are the ones who need to be given the baton. This conducive environment gives rise to Strong leaders whose thoughts and ideals resonate with those of the volunteers themselves.
Background of Dr. Shantha Sinha:
She is an Indian Child Rights and Anti-Child Labor activist, born in Andhra Pradesh’s Nellore district in the year 1950. She was the founder of an NGO called Mamipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF), which played a pivotal role in eliminating child labor in 800+ villages of the Ranga Reddy district in Telangana. The foundation mobilized 80,000 volunteers for the movement, and is active even in the present day, with a mission to end child labor and to promote universal education for children. She has been awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award, as well as the Padma Shri Award for her contributions towards Child Rights. Other awards, such as, Hyderabad’s women of the decade, and Albert Shankar International Award, have been bestowed upon her. She also has directed the movie “Inqilab”, as well as written multiple books on Child Labor and Child Rights. During her peak period, in 2006, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) was set up, and she became the first chairperson to lead the organization. She continued to work for NCPCE till 2013, when she resigned and became a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Hyderabad Central university. She has been a central figure in the Ranga Reddy movement, which has freed over 1 Million children from the wretches of indentured child labor and have helped them get enrolled in schools.
*Second year MBA student at IIM Ahmedabad