Punjab might have a reputation for being a prosperous state, but the state of sanitation affairs in Jai Kumar’s community left him the lucky survivor of a bout of gastroenteritis, leaving a trail of death and despair in its wake. What it also left behind was ‘Gastroenteritis Plagues Ludhiana’s Poor’, Jai’s IndiaUnheard video that prompted district health official to send…
Community Correspondent from Ludhiana, Punjab speaks to IndiaUnheard about...Community Correspondent Jai Kumar from Ludhiana, Punjab speaks to IndiaUnheard about the invisibles of society, the work and vision of Dr. Ambedkar, the digital revolution and working at the grassroots among the poorest and most marginalized citizens of the city that proclaims itself ‘The City of Mercedeses”.My Community
I don’t see any reason to label myself a dalit. It may be the preferred, politically correct even progressive vocabulary that the community itself is rallying behind but to my ears it still signifies a condition of ‘underprivilage’. Dr. Ambedkar, our great leader, whose vision and words have laid the foundation for contemporary caste struggles in the country, never used that word to describe the community and I see no reason why I should. I am far from underprivileged. I am educated. I am self-employed. I am a fully functioning citizen, a husband and a father. I have every reason to walk around town with my head held high.
I live in Gulbarg Colony, a middle class residential block in one of the richest cities in India – Ludhiana. The World Bank has ranked the city as one of the best business centres in the country. It is a thriving cosmopolis with money to spare. Flashy imported cars ply on smooth modern roads. Malls and high-end restaurants sprawl across the city. When it is lit up at night, it would make you believe that the future has arrived and that it belongs to you. For a cover-up job, I have to remark that it is indeed quite impressive.
I have spent all my life in the city, long enough to know all its secrets. My family was forced to migrate from the village of Littra, 30 kilometers away from the city during the riots of 1984. I was maybe a couple of years old but my father tells me that it was a time when we lost our sense of belonging. At a time when every person who was not a Sikh was a possible target of a mob’s blind fury, he told me that he did not feel safe even within the walls of our ancestral home. We moved to the city like many others who were looking for a bit of peace and anonymity.
My father managed a cow shed and made enough to provide us with three square meals a day and to put me through school. I had an insatiable desire to educate and empower myself. I worked hard all through school. I was interested in the sciences and nursed ambitions to become a doctor. I cleared my entrance exams but when the time came to pay up the admission fees, inspite of my best efforts, I couldn’t come up with the required amount. I ended up with a diploma certifying me as a Lab Technician. Soon after, I got my first job as a news writer for the local cable channel where I got my first taste of caste discrimination.
My Social Awakening
A colleague at the channel came to know that I was from a scheduled caste and he refused to eat lunch with me. Initially, I did not pay the incident much mind. But I began to notice how even the rest of my colleagues were starting to behave strangely around me. It felt awkward but I still kept my silence. I was of the opinion that caste system was for the villages. Certainly not in a progressive city like Ludhiana!
Then one day, without any reason, I was let off. I felt hurt, insulted. Anger and shame. Disillusion. Felt like I was let in on the dirty secrets that Ludhiana hides behind the facade of statistics like ‘the city with the most Mercedes’ in India’.
The upside of this humiliating incident was that it made me a skeptic. I began to question the fundamentals underlying Indian society. I began to question my religion which promised a higher being while promoting the practise of caste and blind superstition. I questioned the notions of development which decreed that every modern high rise begets a teeming ghetto. I questioned the education system where money buys you knowledge and the poor are condemned to illiteracy. Out of this disillusion, I had found my social awakening.
I felt the need to intervene in the issues plaguing the invisible people of Ludhiana – the scheduled castes, the migrant labourers, the daily wage workers. Along with 15 friends and with the support of a local NGO, I started 4 study centres across the city where children from these communities could gather to study. These children attended poorly managed government schools where the quality of education was abysmal. The study centres were a space where the children received personal attention and guidance from the volunteers. It was a unique grassroots endeavour in the city but it did not last long. The ngo who had supported us initially turned unresponsive. We tried to continue on our own but without institutional backing, the centres did not last long. All of us ended up going down our own separate ways.
It was during this period that I attended a lecture conducted by the Buddhist Society of Punjab. It provided me with my first insights on the life and work of DR. B.R. Ambedkar. I read every book I could find on him and by him. His words and teachings left a profound impact on my life. Here was an empowered human being. Here was a man who held his head high, one who met the world on his own terms. He refused to be weak. He was not afraid to go against or into the mainstream. He worked both within the system and from without. He was an intellectual and a showman. He was unafraid of churning India’s boiling pot. At the time when India was seeking its own identity, he was pointing out the cracks in society’s facade. I swore allegiance to him and his ideas. Following his footsteps, I renounced the religion of my fathers, the religion of caste and creed. I embraced Buddhism. I became a man of religion and of peace. I had found myself.
IndiaUnheard, My Voice, My People
I found Video Volunteers and IndiaUnheard on the internet. My initial impressions were that of a digital revolution. It was knowledge and empowerment made digital and accessible being delivered to the common man not via traditional media but via a new and more open media. It was a movement that I wanted to be a part of. It was my chance to represent my community.
When I witness any wrong, I feel the need to redress it irrespective of whether it is my community that is being wronged or if it is my community that is wronging others. This is what drives me to make my videos. I find that I’m increasingly intolerant of unjustness. Ludhiana is an industrial hub. It is the migrant labourers and the daily wage workers that keep the machine oiled and working. They are the heart and soul of its economy. But the city treats them like animals. They are ghettoized, they have no access to the basic amenities of life, education is denied to their children, they live in conditions that try to compete with hell. These are the kind of oppression and injustices that make me want to speak out. I’m tired of the lies and the advertisements. I want to speak of ground realities.
I want to speak of the carnival circus that plays outside of the Ludhiana police stations where if you have the money, you can put an innocent in jail and buy freedom for a criminal. I want to speak of the manual scavengers whose existence is denied by the government but who die every year cleaning the sewage with their bare hands. I want to speak for a woman who was left a widow because of senseless caste violence. I want to speak of my own community believing in superstitions and wasting their money on arcane rituals. I want to speak of the alcoholism that plagues the poor and of the endless corruption that is leaving our country hollow from the inside. Whenever I speak, I speak as IndiaUnheard, Ludhiana.
I think of myself as a facilitator of my people’s voices. The people, themselves, are the heart and the soul. They are the element that will bring empowerment and change and a brighter future. My camera and I are just the mouth piece and the all-seeing eye.
Whenever I begin making a video, my first effort is always to gain the people’s support.
“Who will speak for you, if you do not speak for yourself?” is the question I ask them.
“If we speak, who out there is will to hear us?” they ask me in return.
“The whole wide world,” I reply.