Kamala Bai’s (name changed) story is one of poignant transformation – where she changed from a desperate woman begging for a solution, into an empowered speaker for her community.
Kamala Bai was one of the 9 million faceless migrants to the big city, where she worked as a domestic help to earn money for her family in rural Chhattisgarh.
Until the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
In the chaos of the sudden and prolonged lockdowns, Kamala Bai was out of work, out of money, and was driven home to her village when she could no longer afford to live in Delhi. But even in her village, Kamala Bai had no home – a circumstance that weighed heavily on her mind.
In July 2021, Kamala Bai was chosen to be a juror on a panel of 15 migrants in ‘Janta Ka Faisla’ (Citizen’s Jury), a platform for deliberative democracy organised by Socratus in partnership with the National Foundation of India and Chaupal. The event was held in Raipur from 11th to 14th July 2021. During this event, the jury heard from a rage of ‘expert witnesses’ or ‘advocates’ on topics such as employment conditions at destinations (wage rates, payment times, worker health and safety), local livelihood options (agriculture, non-agricultural industries, forestry and fisheries, etc.), migrants’ entitlements, and food security. Each day, the advocates (who were government and industry representatives, lawyers, academics, journalists, etc.) spoke about how government schemes were addressing migrants’ issues for about an hour to the jury. Following this, the jury would retire to conduct deliberations, in private, to debate the effectiveness of these measures.
Kshetra’s role in this effort was to get the jury to work as a unit to come out with a verdict on the efforts described by the advocates – this verdict was slated to become a policy document or a white paper recommendation to the government about its migrant relief measures.
On the first day of the event, after a government representative spoke, and a Q & A session began, Kamala Bai stood up and said, “Babu, humraa ghar nahin hai…Sir, we don’t have a house, we are 8 people, and we don’t have a house.”
Over the next two days, every time Kamala Bai had a chance to speak, she would parrot the same plea over and over again. Her mind was so focused on her needs and requirements that she forgot her own position of power as a panellist on the jury. And so Kshetra worked with Kamala Bai to help her see the bigger picture.
During a session with her, one of the Kshetra team members held up a book between themselves, and asked Kamala Bai, “can you see my face when the book is close to my face?” Kamala Bai said she could not. Now Kamala Bai was asked to move away while holding the book up until the person on the other side was visible despite the book – an exercise in zooming out to see the bigger picture.
This exercise was explained to Kamala Bai as “you, Kamala Bai, are one out of an entire community of people. But your problem is included in the bigger problem that your community faces, and if your focus moves away from just yourself, you can see that a bigger picture emerges. Can you zoom out? Can you articulate the bigger problem which also includes your specific problem?”
And then, the switch flipped. Kamala Bai went from thinking about “I don’t have a roof over my head, so somebody give it to me” to “my need is not just my need. It’s our need. It’s the need of all of my people.” That’s when she harnessed the power of one, and used it to ask a very important question – “The Pradhanmantri Awaas Vikas Yojana says that I can get a house if I own my own land; but I don’t have my own land, so how can I build my own house?”
That was a path breaking moment for her, a very emotional experience, when she realised that for two whole days, she’d been focused only on herself, and hadn’t gotten an answer or assurance to her plea. But this time, armed with the knowledge that she was not the only one suffering, Kamala Bai’s approach changed. Rather than airing a hopeless petition, she wanted to demand an answer. On the third day, Kamala Bai did not doze off during the afternoon jury deliberations like she’d done on the first two days. Instead, she began to speak to people to understand the breadth and depth of the housing problem.
In the end, Kamala Bai’s transformation was but one story amongst many others that made the Janta Ka Faisla such an important event. The entire exercise forced people out of their individual little silos of problems to consider the larger problems in communities. The event brought out the perspectives of those most affected by the pandemic – the invisible, underprivileged workforce, who sometimes couldn’t even access the system of support that the government had set up for them. Issues with documentation were highlighted and suggestions for the creation of unified documentation procedures – such as a migrant workers’ card – were put forward by the jury. Under this suggestion, migrant workers could have their migrant status recorded either in an ID card or in their Aadhar cards to ensure that they could avail government benefits wherever they are. When people used dialogue to engage with each other and design policies that affected their own lived realities, they made seasoned policy officers go “wow, I wish I’d thought of that”.