Community Correspondent Warles Surin recently took on a wealthy contractor who was cheating labourers from payments across the whole of Jaldega block in Jharkhand.Warles narrates the dramatic and harrowing details of what it took to bring justice and fair wages to at least a 100 people.
Lack of awareness is crushing my community. Having been a Community Correspondent for two years now, I've realized that the root of every problem my people are facing is because of a sheer lack of awareness.
A friend of mine, a retired schoolteacher, told me about Swang village, where they were constructing a plain cement concrete (PCC) road with bricks when they are usually made with stone chips. Intrigued, I went there to see this. When I got to the village, I went to the site, expecting to make a story on the material being used to make this road. Instead, I stumbled on a far more complicated situation, where a little bit of awareness would have made a massive difference.
When I was taking up this story, a colleague (name withheld) warned me of the dangers that come with taking on rich people. He'd had too many terrifying experiences. Our Community Correspondent training included warnings to be always courteous and careful when conducting our interviews. It never warned us to be afraid of rich people! Should I be maintaining some list of people I need to be afraid of?!
The Welfare Department of Simdega district had commissioned a contractor to construct several roads across Jaldega Block. The PCC road in my video was one of these commissioned projects. Getting there, I found that this site didn't have a notice board mentioning any details about the project. I knew I would have a story here.
I started chatting with the supervisors & junior contractors around the site. Initially they were a little suspicious of me but when I praised them for undertaking projects that would increase conveniences for my people, they relaxed. I asked them details of the project, including how much they were paying the labourers. They said 120 INR per day. I knew that the correct amount as per the Welfare Department was 148INR. I even asked the junior contractor about this. He simply said that they always paid 120 INR; the labourers had no cause for complaint—I was free to ask them myself. I knew this was my opportunity to interview the labourers and hear the real story.
Unemployment & poverty are two core issues for my people. The women of Swangwere the first to sign up with the contractors when the plan for building the road had been announced. Unaware of the different rates being paid under different schemes, they got conned into accepting 120INR per day. When the men joined up later, they had no choice but to comply.
The labourers were too afraid to give me interviews for the video. I thought of the DVD player I had saved up to buy. I immediately showed them older videos made by me on other issues, or made by others on similar non-payment issues. I then began to systematically show these videos & raw interviews in the nearby villages too. On one occasion I got the office projector too, & did a screening. That was exciting— over 200 people came to watch! Everyone was asking questions, how I work, where I work. You see, too much technology scares them. However, if I use video to explain the way IndiaUnheard works, they're far more accepting of it. In fact, now they seek me out to solve their problems.
I remember it was August. It was very hot & humid. I got all the villagers together, and they unanimously agreed to the same fact— they'd heard vaguely that the minimum wage was far higher than what they were being paid, but were unsure, and so hadn't protested. I told them the correct rate and then asked them if they wanted to be earning the correct amount.
We wrote out an application describing this incorrect payment and all the labourers signed it. We then gave copies the next day to the Block Development Officer (BDO), the District Collector (DC) and the Labour Department. We were particular to bring back signed copies of these letters as proof of submission. I also showed them how to record a statement on CGnetSwara, and taught them to hear the published statement, which was released online the very next day.
The Junior Engineer at the BDO claimed no knowledge of this non-compliance with payment of standard rates. He said he would consider this story a priority and would investigate. He even let me film the interview. The DC's office was different - they didn't let us film at all. At the Labour Department - we couldn't meet the relevant officer, but met someone else who accepted & signed a return copy of our letter.
In the meantime, the junior contractor whom I'd interviewed had gotten wind of this, and called me that evening. He demanded to know what I was doing with this story. I simply told him that the labourers were being cheated and that I was trying to fix that. He said he'd look into this and hung up. He landed up at my home the next evening. It was dark and he came up rather surreptitiously.
He'd heard our report on CGnetSwara and was worried about the consequences I showed him CGnetSwara's website, and ours (Video Volunteers) too. I told him the video I made would be available for an international audience to see. He was silent for a while, and then very hesitantly asked, 'Can you help me fix this?' I assured him that this situation would be solved the instant thelabourerswere paid correct wages. I would make a video &CGnetSwara report stating the same. He left, satisfied that I wasn't trying to destroy him. He promised he'd fix this.
The next day, the main contractor (who owns the Block level license) called me to rebuke me for not connecting with him prior to documenting this incident. I told him I had no choice. I told him how his sub-contractors had refused to give me his number or his whereabouts. He clearly stated that this work was his life, it was all he had to call his own. If his license were cancelled, he would be destroyed. And he would destroy me.
I've learnt that keeping calm is often the easiest way out of a sticky situation. I told him not to worry about his license, he only had to do the right thing, and everything would be well again. I did clarify however, that only once the labourers assured me of full payment of wages, would I make an 'Impact Video' stating the same.
In the meantime, the pressure had reached tipping point. The Labour Inspector had personally informed the DC's office of the details of this case.The DC issued an order to halt all work & money commissioned to this contractor across the whole block of Jaldega. The sub-contractors were all immediately instructed to release full payment to all labourers across Jaldega. The villagers & I then wrote another letter stating that complete wages were being paid. I was going totake it to the DC.
It was a bright, sunny Saturday. There had been no electricity in my village all morning. I was extremely nervous andunsuccessfully tried to connect with Anand (Jharkhand State Coordinator) or Shanti (a Community Correspondent who I work closely with), hoping for some help. I knew I had to return home & leave immediately for the DC's office soon because it would be open only half the day.
The local contractor had called me in the meantime, asking about the status of the letter. He had been refusing to give me an interview for my Impact video, and so, I told him that I would submit the letter in return for an interview.
I was interviewing the sub-contractor when Shanti suddenly landed up. It was surreal; she somehow knew my state of mind, how nervous I was. I quickly finished filming the interview in my open courtyard and left for the DC's office with Shanti & my mother. The sub-contractor & his assistant accompanied us on their motorbike. On the way to the office, I saw a goat, which had just been sacrificed. That really didn't help my nervous tension. I kept visualizing myself as the sacrificial goat for some reason!
When we reached the DC's office, it was shut. The other bike was nowhere around. When I called the contractor to ask where he had reached, he told me to go to the DC's house. Reaching there, we found the DC waiting for us, with the main contractor. I submitted the letter & quietly left. Shanti filmed our entry & exit.
Once I got home, I went into my room. I was shaking. I don't know what it was, but there was something really bothering me. When I realized what had been bothering me, I stayed in my room for the next three days, terrified.
The man on the bike outside the DC's home was the main contractor's man. He had been watching us. As were the men who had been casually loafing around my home when I was interviewing the sub-contractor. I kept thinking of the goat sacrifice. Would I live to film my closing piece to camera? Finally, after three days, I mustered the courage to call Anand. I cried like a baby, terrified for my life, my family, my people.
You know why Anand is so highly respected by all of us? He is calm. Once I was done, he simply said, 'Don't be afraid, I'm here.' He reminded me of our training, suggested I make a video diary. He said, the same way the world deserves to know the truth about our lives, it shouldknow the price we pay for documenting.
Recording a video diary really helped me. It calmed me down. I realized how powerful I truly am— with my people trusting me, my family standing by me, Shanti's intuitive appearance at my home that Saturday... All of that was incredible, in comparison to the contractor's world built up on his moneymaking abilities.
It took me less than a week to achieve an Impact with this story. It was one of the most enriching, entertaining weeks. Yes, I was terrified, but that happened mostly later in the week. I had to think really fast on my feet. I made friends with the sub-contractor right in the beginning on a whim.
Like I said before, this lack of awareness, lack of accountability are accepted by everyone, so much so that when they see honest efforts or somebody fulfilling commitments, they're surprised. We have no system of expressing gratitude! The villagers thought I was crazy for wanting interviews even after the Impact was achieved. In fact, they thought that the sub-contractor was a 'good' man because he paid the men & women equal wages. None of them ever thought that they were all being equally cheated!
Prior to becoming a Community Correspondent, I had been employed as warehouse-in-charge for 7 years. I soon began to notice small strange things like the fact that all the courier delivery boys in our office were Adivasiand were thoroughly mistreated by the other staff. That's when I began to realize that I am completely disconnected from my community. I don't even know our language. It was around this time that Video Volunteers first came to Jharkhand. I applied, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I now am able to live with my family, amongst my people. I am slowly learning my own language, creating change in my community. The Labour Inspector & DC now know of me, and my work. They're very impressed & welcome my efforts in the community. My people seek me out to solve their problems. And I now know, 'Darr ke aage, sirf jeet hai.' (Beyond fear, there is only victory)
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