THE MAKING OF CHAMPS: IDIA’s PILOT FORAY INTO MARENAHALLI BANDE

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IDIA Scholar, Karthika Annamalai is now in her fourth year at NUJS, Kolkata. Karthika has many accomplishments to her credit, including winning the CNN IBN Zindagi Live Award in 2013 for epitomizing the triumphant of the human will amidst adversity. You can find out more about Karthika here.

Karthika belongs to a community that resides in a tiny village surrounding a stone quarry in Marenahalli Bande, around 3 hours away from central Bangalore, Karnataka. Marenahalli is the name of the village which is part of the Bangalore district, while ‘Bande’ means ‘quarry’.

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It was a visit to Marenahalli Bande that helped kick off IDIA’s pilot CHAMPS project. For a background to the CHAMPS project, see this link here.

The CHAMPS Team:

On May 24, a motley team of twelve (as detailed below) embarked on this new mission of IDIA’s:

  1. Karthika Annamalai, IDIA Scholar (4th year student at NUJS, Kolkata)
  2. Prof. Shamnad Basheer (Founder and Managing Trustee, IDIA)
  3. Advocate Vikram Hegde (Poovayya and Co), legal adviser to the pilot
  4. Amith Surendran (nationally acclaimed videographer)
  5. Vineet Bhalla, Assistant Director, IDIA
  6. Gagana NV, Assistant Director, IDIA
  7. Shiva, IDIA Staff
  8. Santhosh, IDIA Staff
  9. Thangminlal Haokip (IDIA Scholar)
  10. Members of NLSIU’s Legal Aid Cell and IDIA student volunteers from NLSIU and NLU-J: Mathavi Senguttuvan, Anarghya Chander, Spadika Jayaraj and Saahil Dama.

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We reached the quarry workers’ community around 11 a.m. in the morning, where we were welcomed by Karthika and her family (mainly her aunt and mother). Our arrival was greeted by a fair amount of hustle-bustle and curious peers, especially by the little kids. We broke the ice by distributing sweets amongst the kids and community members.

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We divided ourselves into three groups to interview different families in the community, which comprise of not more than 150 families in all. Since the community is divided among Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu speakers, the groups were formed such that each of them had at least one person fluent in one of these languages. The purpose of these interviews was to get a general overview of the lives of the members of these communities. Through an understanding of the fabric of their lives and their struggles/challenges, we hoped to determine the precise means of intervention that we could devise in order to help them. However, we were very clear from the outset that this was not just about a jolly jaunt where we assumed the role of “benefactors” and relegated the community to the position of “beneficiaries”, or that we were the “teachers” and they the “taught”. Rather, our visit, much like our vision for the CHAMPS project, was meant to be one of reciprocity, mutual love and  respect where we remained open to the idea of learning as much from them as they from us. Indeed, in Maslows’ hierarchy of needs, this was as much about our self actualization as theirs.

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Interviews:

The interview responses offered us rare insights into the stone quarry operations (on which their livelihoods depended), the hierarchy and division of labor that exists within the quarry workers, the technical aspects of stone breaking, the job mobility as well as the fear that exists in the minds of most of the community members about the uncertain status of the quarry amidst reports of mass closures of quarry work in other parts of the state.

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Those interviewed by us included stone carriers and loaders, a lorry driver, a lorry owner, a stone breaker, as well as a couple of leaders of the community, one of whom, Mr. Putta, happens to be a former Councilor of the area and was due to stand for elections the very next week (fortunately for us, Mr. Putta ended up winning the election, thereby ensuring that IDIA has the support of the local Councilor).

We were especially impressed by sensitive manner in which the various IDIA student volunteers approached various members of the community, posing cogent questions. Particularly impressive was our own IDIA scholar Thangminlal and his wonderfully sensitive and searching questions. That he spoke Kannada fluently also helped.

Our team even ventured into the quarry to get a first hand-view of how some of the tasks were undertaken, such as burning stones underground in order to make them more susceptible to breakage.


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Intervention?

While this was merely an introductory exploratory session to understand the community better, we did try and think through some of the ways in which we could generate alternative employment avenues and/or help them help themselves. This included building on their existing skills of making beautiful hand-made beads from granite dust. We learnt that some of the women in the community had acquired this expertise through their engagement with the 40K Foundation, an international organization based in Australia working towards empowering Indian villagers through volunteer-driven social enterprise and innovation. The foundation taught them how to make these beads, and provided them with casts for the same purpose. It would then buy these beads from these women on a contractual basis, for sale in commercial market. However, owing to various constraints, the Foundation had withdrawn from this a few years ago.

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We also thought through ways in which secure employment for individuals with higher education degrees who are forced to work in the quarry due to paucity of jobs elsewhere. One aspect also included envisaging the quarry as something of a commercial tourist attraction.

We were told that one of the key issues plaguing the community was that of alcoholism, and consequent domestic violence against the women and children in the household. Could we perhaps devise a way in which the mean could be weaned away from the excesses of alcohol through a program that relied on incentives, spiritual programmes, sports and games in the evening that could fill up their lives and keep them away from the bottle?

Lessons Learnt:

Throughout the day, we were served with refreshments including a wonderfully delicious lunch. We were really touched by the simplicity of their lives and their wonderful hospitality. Much to learn from this, particularly the fact that in this resource constrained community, the biggest assets were their hearts, and that amidst such adversity, they still welcomed strangers and gave them the best they could.

It shocked us to see the tiny space of a hut that each of them squeezed themselves into all these years (they had to even take their cooking outside, since they had absolutely no space inside!), yet the contentedness and joie de vivre of this largely illiterate quarrying community was remarkable.

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Secondly, almost all the families valued education as an instrument with the potential to transform the lives of their children. Indeed, all of them speak with resolve that theirs will be the last generation involved in quarrying work. Another noteworthy aspect here is that unlike what is wont in our country, there was no bias towards educating the male children and keeping the female children off education either. Perhaps the success of Karthika has something to do with that. Also, especially in light of the communally charged up ties we live in, it was very heartening to observe how the community, by and large, embrace all kinds of initiatives aimed at educating their children, including the work of Christian missionary workers who held evening classes for the small kids in the aanganwadi here, and use provide modern tablets for use as a supplement to these classes.

Paradoxically enough, our definition of “merit” hinges around how well they do in our “privileged” ecosystem. But never around how well one of us would do in theirs!

The First Step on a long, beautiful road

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Our work here has not finished though; in fact, it has just started. There are several more visits in the pipeline to Marenahalli Bande by the IDIA team to build our engagement with them and gain their trust which would help us resolve some of their grievances, while at the same time providing our students with real-time clinical legal and social training. There are several more things to be planned and done: legal research to be done on the status of quarries in Karnataka, partnering with third party non-profit organisations who could help us here, future trips to be organized, a video on this project to be made by Mr. Amith, and several other things. We intend the engagement with Marenahalli Bande as part of the CHAMPS project to continue for a long time to come.

Our Sincere Thanks:

We have to thank the following generous souls for their help and support, without which this initial pilot would not have been possible:

Madhurima Mukherjee for financing this initial IDIA pilot project.

Aditya Bhat for hosting us for dinner that evening.

Vikram Hegde, then of Povvayya and Associates

Sajjan Poovayya for loaning us one of his best lawyer.

Shiva and Santhosh, who lead our accounts team at IDIA and helped organize the entire trip.

Monica Datta and Ameet Datta for financing the video documentation of the visit.

Last and perhaps most importantly, we have to thank Karthika and her wonderful family and friends at Marenahalli Bande for giving us one of the most memorable days ever.

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(PS: all the data meticulously recorded during this trip by all our IDIA volunteers is being collated to be organised into a comprehensive report which lays out the issues raised here in a detailed, systematic manner)

  1. Awesome lady with so much promise. I wish I could say that directly to her one day – but I am an old man in another part of the world.

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