Y.J. Rajendra educates and empowers slum dwellers in South India about how they can improve their living conditions, by developing skills in communication, organization, and use of media. He facilitates their struggle to join forces and lobby for change.
The New Idea
Y.J. Rajendra believes that despite limited education, people in slums have the resources and talent necessary to understand their problems, analyze possible solutions, and plan a course of action to advocate for their interests. He has developed a multipronged strategy to mobilize this talent, add professional communications guidance, and help slum dwellers build public grievance forums.In India, slum dwellers have typically been a mute population, living on the margins of society at the mercy of thugs, corrupt police officers, dishonest officials, and politicians. Rajendra recognizes that access to more information and a keen understanding of how to use it would give them an important tool for change. He has created an organization in the city of Bangalore that both empowers people to demand information and teaches them how they can use it to improve their lives. Armed with information, residents who have typically experienced lifetimes of exploitation can organize and use the media to publicize their problems. Rajendra reasons that far-reaching, long-term change will only happen if people who will be affected by it are the ones who demand it - this is the only constituency that truly understands which issues are most sensitive and how to solve them.
Bangalore, known as India's silicon valley, is the fifth largest and fastest-growing city in India. Despite the city's great wealth, 23 percent of the city's population lives in slums, according to government statistics. Slum-dwellers are typically members of the most marginalized groups in Indian society: scheduled castes, tribals or dalits (formerly known as untouchables). They live in squalid conditions and lack the most basic of human services, including clean drinking water, adequate sewage systems, decent garbage disposal services, and basic education and health facilities. Their lives are filled with violence and exploitation by money lenders, and many are unable to get titles on their land. They also have inadequate and corrupt public distribution systems for essential supplies. Furthermore, as India has opened up its economy in recent years, the increased consumer culture has made its way into slums, where residents feel the bite of not being able to possess as much as the burgeoning middle class. Many organizations and associations try to help slum-dwellers. However, some of these groups have interests in political advancement or personal gains; and others, such as Rotary Clubs, lack a basic understanding of slum issues and are insensitive to the most burning issues of the slum-dwellers. Nongovernmental organizations working in slums typically spend money on one-time services, such as immunization camps, which fail to involve residents in creating solutions for long-term change. Furthermore, among the nongovernmental organizations and mass organizations that try to resolve slum problems, there is a wide information gap and lack of effective networks between them and slum-dwellers.
Rajendra has created an organization called Jana Sahyog that follows the old adage, "knowledge is power." The organization sponsors media projects that raise awareness of slum problems among residents and officials with the authority to bring about change. In the process of launching and disseminating media projects, slum-dwellers learn skills in communications, organization, and media. They also learn how the system that controls the slums works and in what ways it is corrupt. Most importantly, they learn how to access such information on their own. Jana Sahyog and slum-dwellers produce posters,newspapers, audio cassettes, and information booklets. Most successful has been the monthly Slum Suddi, a community newspaper/wall magazine that focuses on slum issues. It includes reports on slum conditions, success stories of slum improvement, legal advice from lawyers, stories of exploitation of slum-dwellers, information on government-sponsored development schemes, and creative work of slum-dwellers. As of 1998, the wall magazine has covered over 380 slums in addition to the 43 that work directly with Jana Sahyog. Even the illiterate residents of slums learn what the newspaper says, from their literate friends and neighbors. The newspaper counts as its subscribers over 100 councilors, plus government officials, members of the legislative council, members of Parliament, and ministers. "Media activists" appointed by the slum and Rajendra's organization are responsible for contributing reports, articles, and interviews for the newspaper. Professional journalists and editors volunteer their time for the final production of each issue. In each of the 43 slums, several people (of whom at least one is a woman) are identified and motivated to become media activists. Each of them attends workshops on the use of information as a development tool, taught by volunteers including professional journalists, lawyers, activists, and urban planners. The sessions discuss: slum issues in their historical perspective; magnitude of slum problems throughout India; the press's role in resolving slum problems; existing media skills in slums; ways and means of channeling such skills for the production of Slum Suddi; developing skills in writing reports and stories, conducting interviews and various methods of presentation. The newspaper creates opportunities for slum-dwellers to come together, analyze their problems, and work out strategies to influence authorities on slum issues. Effects of Slum Suddi can already be seen: after one particular article gathered interest and pressure, slum residents successfully lobbied the Bangalore City Corporation to release funds for construction of toilets. In two other slums, residents were able to initiate a land registration process. Rajendra recounts personal successes as well: a girl with a Xth class education was doing manual work in a garment factory before receiving training from Jana Sahyog and writing three newspaper articles. The contacts, confidence, and skills that she developed led her to a commercial magazine, which paid her to write an article. The social recognition that comes from authoring an article creates tremendous empowerment for members of the slum community. Eventually all the slums in the state of Karnataka will have access to Slum Suddi, not merely as the newspaper and wall magazine but also as the tool for information access, fully managed and controlled by the slum-dwellers. Jana Sahyog will continue to act as a resource center providing information on slum laws, development schemes, mass/dalit organizations, and the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Some of this information resides in Jana Sahyog's database of court rulings on slum-related trials throughout India. The database also contains names of people and organizations that can resolve specific problems. These contacts can open doors for slum-dwellers, who otherwise have no chance to approach government officials.In addition to the newspaper, Jana Sahyog has sponsored another media project. To educate the illiterate masses about their rights as voters, Rajendra's organization has created an audio cassette that uses traditional folk songs and stories to relay its message. As Rajendra explains, "We wanted to expose the dirty tricks of politicians and give slum-dwellers information about various legal provisions which prohibit poll malpractice such as bribery, extortion, threats, and paying for votes - all of which commonly occur in slums because of their marginalized position." Thousands of cassettes have already been purchased and sales of the tape will ensure that the project can sustain itself.
Rajendra developed Jana Sahyog's participatory information process based on his earlier experience with disadvantaged children, including his own memories of childhood. As a boy from a poor family, he left his village to study; the very bad experience as a child laborer gave him the motivation to educate himself. Taking advantage of the government's inexpensive education, Rajendra got his master's degree in social work and joined a nongovernmental organization in Bangalore, where he began a recycling project. Recognized by the government for this work, he was given a coveted government post at the National Institute for Public Cooperation and Child Welfare in 1984. However, discontented, he quit five years later at age 35, walking away from a job most people of his background would never dream of leaving.Rajendra became the secretary of Raichur District's literacy program, where he became known for his innovative work on appropriate models in the area of literacy. Still compelled to work for the causes of the underprivileged, Rajendra joined the Bangalore Urban Poverty Alleviation Program (BUPP), which is where he formed his ideas about the potential of media as a development tool. Upon leaving BUPP, Rajendra began Jana Sahyog in 1995. Acknowledged for his capacities to evolve and conduct training programs, administer and manage large-scale programs, Rajendra has a natural flair for working with various groups of people and organizations.