A woman human rights defender’s satyagraha in India’s coal belt

By Aruna Chandrasekhar 

In an orange sari and turquoise earrings, Savita Rath stands out not just in the marketplace of Raigarh, but against the monochrome backdrop of Raigarh’s coal mines in North Chhattisgarh.  Her stories are anything but conventional: of women displaced by mines digging up their own coal in protest, of public consultations where people are separated from officials by cages.

The oldest daughter in her family, Savita is an activist and a filmmaker who lives in Raigarh. She is a community correspondent with Video Volunteers and works closely with Jan Chetana, an organisation that was set up by Goldman Prize winner Ramesh Agrawal.

Savita has been involved in social work since the age of 17. She was interested in studying further, but was unable to continue her education because of financial reasons and family pressures.

“I am often taunted by people saying you don’t have to become a Medha Patkar when you have your own family and home to take care of.”

Savita’s first initiatives in social work began with the National Literacy Mission, propelled by Harsh Mander, who started the Lok Shakti (People’s Power) movement in Chhattisgarh.

“After the literacy work, I worked on children’s health for 6 years and then worked with Jean Dreze’s programs on NREGA and social auditing. My colleagues asked me to leave and join NGO projects on food security- but even projects for us are founded as movements.

“What was supposed to change as part of the Public Distribution System has already changed, and mid-day meal program has been strengthened- it felt like our work had been done, while issues in mining were increasing.” It was here that she met her current colleagues and joined Jan Chetana, a Raigarh-based organization that looks at issues of land, mining and environmental and human rights violations.

“Now I do the kind of work that has no obvious results. But what can I do? This is the only work that I know and do best. There are so few of us working on these issues and these are issues that will not go away.”

Savita wields her camera with a certain pride; she shows us her videos and asks for feedback, all the while being self-critical.

As a woman human rights defender in rural Chhattisgarh, Savita encounters several challenges in the field. But she has managed to carve out a niche for herself. Today, villagers and district administrators across the area know her She has been threatened with arrest on several occasions for filming public hearings, people’s protests against illegal mining and gram sabhas (village assemblies).

She has also made films on land acquisition and thefailures of government schemes, while travelling from village to village and mobilizing locals faced with these issues.

“As far as land goes, women (whether they were married or single) in Adivasi communities are given equal rights in Chhattisgarh. Women are at the forefront of the protests in their villages, halting illegal mining and even exercising their right to information,” she says. “You might say they’ve joined the movement out of desperation and have been fighting with the police and authorities, at home or in their own communities with very little resources – working on an empty stomach, traveling to dangerous places on foot and facing threats from authorities or company officials.”

In these circumstances, only a few people can do this”.

We’re glad Savita is one of them.

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