TINSEI KI RANI
What follows is a brief narrative of the efforts and achievements of Mercy Mathew, a legal and social activist, in the field of legal and promoting social change.
A Search for Meaning
Recently, an article about her appeared in women’s magazine, with the caption, ‘Tinsei Ki Rami’. Her name is Mercy Mathew and she is originally from Kerala. Tall, slim, energetic, and with lively eyes, she is as rustic as any tribal woman. She did her MSW and the LLB, but but according to her, she has two more important degrees - LWP and LFP, i.e. Living With People and Learning From People.
Ever since her childhood she had a deep longing and urge to help poor. She dreamed of becoming a nun and living a life of austerity, service and sacrifice, but later, finding the restrictions of convent life too confining for her spirit of adventure and seeking challenge, she left to strike a path of herown.....
Choosing a Base
Around 1979, she spent three to four months looking around to choose a place in which to live and work. Call it fate or what you like, during her search, she happened to help a tribal woman called Chandra in town in Madhya Pradesh. Chandra was proceeding to her parents’ village, Tinsei, and in return for Mercy’s kindness to her, she invited to her to Tinsei- a small tribal village in the heart of M.P., in Chindwara district. After an in initial visit as the guest of Chandra, Mercy choose Tinsei as her base. She has lived there now for eight years and is known to everyone there as Daya Bai. Her reasons for choosing Tinsei were :
Life and Work
She puts her whole life there in three phases :
Phase 1 : Immersion
The first few weeks, Mercy spent immersing herself in the lifestyle of the people. She tried to forget her cultural and educational background and becamea novice. She endeavoured to be one of them...live like them, dress like them, and even think like them.
She started out by living on somebody’s verandah. She learned that the tribals were mostly Gonds, and considered themselves to be a superior tribe. In the beginning she was almost treated like an untouchable. They were friendly, but she was not allowed to touchtheir pots, go inside their kitchen, or go near their pooja place. They drank a porridge called ‘page’ and they loved to sing and dance.
Due to their poverty and ignorance of the outside world, however, they had a very low self-esteem, and considered all outsiders, especiallythe educated ones, as better than them, and looked upon themselves as ‘jungle ke bunder’ (Monkeys of the forest). Gradually however, they began to open up with Mercy, and be more natural with her.
Phase 2: Activity
During this period, she came to know that most of them worked inthe forest department. They had been always been receiving daily wages, and recently by a government order it had been switched to piece wage/cu. meter. Initially they had been very apprehensive about the change, because they were afraid that they would be cheated, and also did not understand what cubic meter meant. But when they found out that they were receiving more in this way, they were very happy. However, after just one week, the forest officials probably realising that piece wage was unprofitable to them, reverted to paying daily wages. Naturally the people were unhappy and confused.
Mercy decided to investigate. She too started going to work with them. After ten days, on payment day, she duly waited with the others to give her thumb impression, before taking her wage. When her turn came, she quickly noticed that on the paper, there were only two colcolumns which were filled--name and signature. The rest were blank. This was proof that thy were indeed cheating the people. She was jubilant about her finding, and on the way home, she casually related it to the villagers. However, they were reluctant to demand their proper wage, due to fear of losing their job. So Mercy left it that.
Around this time, she met some IAS officers who were visiting the village, as part of their training to help them, to do a socio economic survey. She was assigned to help them. She told them about the lack of facilitities. Regarding electricity, she explained that though the transformer was there, it did not reach the house of the people, because although harijans and tribals were eligible to get a connection for Rs.1.65 paise only, officials refused to give it, without a bribe. Thus, electricity was in the air, but not where it should be- i.e. in the houses of the people.
Similarly, on page there was a school, but since ten years, nobody had seen the face of a teacher. The money allotted for it was going into private pockets. Through the IAS officers, she got an opportunity to meet the collector and various officials of the Government departments. Using these contacts, with the cooperation of the Collector, she managed to get a school started. The villagers were thrilled, and as a token of their gratitude , offered her a small room to live in, attached to one of the families.
After a while, since the old children also wanted to study, she started a nonformal education class for them, which the adults would also attend. The first word she taught them, was ‘Hak’ (Right). She taught them in a simple way, the Constitutional provisions, their fundamental rights, and in fact, even composed a song on it. As a result of all this, after about six months, the villagers were ready to fight for their wage. Despite many odds, and after a lot of struggle, some of them, the bolder ones, succeeded in getting their rightful salary, inspite of the machinations and threats of the forest guard and his henchmen.
On one occasion, the women in the village approached Mercy for help with regard to cutting firewood for cooking. The forest officials had threatened them with all kinds of things and prevented them from gathering wood from the forest, which was their only source of fuel, which they used mainly for cooking.
Mercy explained to them that they had a right to gather wood, twings and leaves fallen on the ground, to use the same for the purpose of cooking, and accompanied them to the forest, to demonstrate that she wasn’t afraid of the forest authorities, who on the one had prevented poor village folk from gathering a little wood, on the other , were selling it to rich timber merchants, in order to make some money.
Naturally, in the course of her struggle with the people, she made a lot of enemies... her life was in danger, and on one occasion she was even indirectly threatened by a visiting Minister. But although she was scared, she continued , with courage of her convictions.
Phase 3 : Multiplication of Self
Meanwhile her fame spread to other villages, and villagers from surrounding places started coming to visit her and seek her advice on legal matters and problems. She accompanied them to the mobile courts, but seeing the misuse of the mobile court, by some people, she was motivated to write a critical article on the functioning of the mobile court, with suggestions for improvement. This article got published in a Government legal aid newsletter, and justice Bhagwati happened to read it. He invited her for a para legal training course. Mercy went to Delhi for it, and although she did not learn anything new, it helped her to get permission to start a class on legal awareness in a high school in a neighbouring village, which was attended by children from several surrounding villages. On Republic Day, this was officially inaugurated in the presence of the Principal of the school, staff, students and villagers. For two years, she helped the students to conduct socio-legal surveys and in this way, came in contact with many people.
After this period, she realised that her work was expanding beyond her control, and so she began to think in terms of multiplying herself. She thought of setting up committees at the village level, to help people with their legal problems. She went around telling the people the story of the old man who tells his sons that in unity lies strength, through the bundle of sticks.
A highlight was, when one fine day, around 230 people representing 36 villages came to Tinsei, to discuss ways to improve their lives and villages. In that meeting, everyone narrated what was happening, how they were being exploited etc. and some of them even acted out the ways they were being harassed. As a result of this meeting, committees were set up and from time to time, Mercy visited the villages, consulting and planning , and looking for ways to make them self reliant.
Mercy is still in Tinsei, successfully continuing to assist the villagers, and supporting the mass movement that has been taking place. She continues with raising awareness, problem-solving, and legal aid, and now she is taking interest in organic gardening, and helping the villagers to develop their land (which is rocky). She now owns a small plot of land, where she has been successful in growing about 20 varieties of flowers and vegetables on land previously thought of as barren and rocky. She is also doing research on tribal culture and looking for ways in which it can be conserved.