Fellow Since 1992
This description of Gita Ramaswamy's work was prepared when Gita Ramaswamy was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992.
Gita Ramaswamy, working in the deeply troubled south central India state of Andhra Pradesh, is showing systematically how it is possible to help the rural landless poor assert their constitutional and legal rights successfully, without tearing society apart.
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.
It is a rare day when the front page of the Andhra newspapers does not have some report or another of Naxalites kidnaping a government official or of retaliating militarily. (Naxalites are an ideologically communist, often violent, originally China-linked movement that has attracted many disillusioned young people. It now controls significant areas in Andhra State.) Ten years of escalating violence and division have caused ordinary rural Andhra people enormous suffering.Much of the injustice and misery that are their target should in theory have been taken care of under a variety of constitutional rights guaranteed by a series of laws, such as the Minimum Wages Act, the Bonded Labor (Abolition) Civil Rights Act, and the Protection of Civil Rights Act. Most especially, land reforms including landholding ceilings have been the law for some time. Unfortunately, this legislation has produced chiefly slogans for political parties, the occasional committed administrator who wants to effect major change, a strong tendency for volunteer organizations to avoid the major and most difficult issues, and a good many frustrated individual activists who have come face to face with resistant, powerful rural elites.
Gita is developing a model that allows and invites people to use the law and the administrative system to cause difficult but essential change in land tenure and other very tough, core rural issues. Her approach brings together organized villagers with committed officials and volunteering organizations and activists. It brings together a local leadership that is capable of sustaining a struggle if necessary and that understands the technical as well as the political aspects of the struggle it is undertaking. She backs local leaders with strong technical analyses and support, on the one hand, and a broad array of sympathetic contacts from the district collector to the capital city media, on the other.In addition to developing this model, Gita is working to spread it. Maintaining close contacts with government officials not only helps in her immediate work, but helps her spread her idea and provides backup for activists and communities all across the state and ultimately beyond. Some of Gita's specific techniques used to launch and extend her work include acting as a liaison between the courts; organizing support among the media and intelligentsia; encouraging other activist groups to take up this sort of work and learn her approach; writing and speaking at all available forums; and encouraging publications in local languages on these subjects.
Born female in a male-dominated orthodox south Indian Brahman family, Gita turned her disadvantages to advantages from a very early age. She was a top student and, very early, was bothered by the many inequalities in society, and went to work to reduce them and also to attack poverty.She quickly became active in student organizations focused on these issues and ultimately left the university with a master's degree to work for social change full time. She went to work at the grassroots level in association with other young colleagues from the far left. She eventually decided that she did not believe in that path and helped to found and build up the Hyderabad Book Trust, a not-for-profit organization that produces, publishes, and sells serious social literature in Telugu, the language of Andhra.After this "sabbatical," she went back to grassroots organizing and developed her new model. She works through the Vyavasaya Coolie Slangham, opening a practical way for India's poor and, more broadly, India's society to advance to a more just, productive, and united world future.