Fellow Since 1992
Ibrahimpatnam Vyavasaya Coolie Sangham
This profile was prepared when Gita Ramaswamy was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992.
The New Idea
Gita is successfully articulating and demonstrating an effective middle course. The violent and highly ideological civil war dividing much of the Andhra countryside has led to terrible suffering for the people living there. The status quo that leaves so many people hopelessly poor and without access to land and other critical resources is equally untenable in the long term. She has created a working model for others to follow.By and large, the constitution and laws are very supportive of the interests of the mass of poor people she is helping to organize. There are many officers of the government who would like to implement those laws. Even those benefiting from the current mis-allocation of resources can be handled in ways that lessen the mutual fear and subsequent miscalculation and violence that occur across what should be the negotiating table.Gita also brings a very tough, grassroots organizing dimension to her work. It is the combination of these two aspects that ultimately explains her success.In entering a rural area, she, like any other organizer, must begin by winning the trust of the people living there. Then she goes on to do a careful survey of land ownership, income options practically available to the people living there, and existing organizations in the community (most commonly caste and clan). With this map in hand, she then seeks out those people in the community who have the strength to be able to stand on their own feet for two to three years should there be an ensuing conflict with the powerful elite in the area. She simultaneously seeks government and police allies.Once these elements are identified, she begins the process of training the key activists. What are the laws? What are the land records of this village like? How do the resources in the village appear on a map? This process is designed to make sure that these folk not only understand but know how to use the land records, the laws, etc. As the process proceeds, she and these potential leaders gradually move on to discuss strategy, spelling out all the possible implications of alternative actions.If there is a well-intentioned district collector, very commonly the problems raised by the group can be resolved in a couple of visits. If the district collector is less cooperative, the group has to organize a mass campaign, which typically includes cultivating disputed land and launching broader movements. Before doing so, however, Gita strongly encourages this self-governing group of villagers to sit down and negotiate with those opposing the changes they want. They may also try to talk more broadly to family and friends of these key opponents. "The fact that we can talk now makes it easier to talk later." It is no longer a confrontation, and the villagers in the course of these conversations lose their fear of the person who has occupied most of the village lands illegally and who has, consequently, been enormously powerful. "They see that he [the landholder] is as scared as we are." Behind this front-line work, Gita has organized another important set of resources - volunteer lawyers on the one hand and a network of sympathetic officials on the other. Not only do these people directly help her where she is working, but they are a resource she can use to help others who follow her.