Vashishtha from Dehra Dun writes
about Avadhesh Kaushal who has fought for the rights of Van Gujjars.
TIRELESS energy to match the fire in his belly at the ripe age of 68 is the least one would grant him. But there’s lot more to Avadhesh Kaushal. Doon valley’s grand old man is full of contrasts. His suave demeanour belies his steely grit. He is equally enthusiastic about filing a public interest litigation for a cause close to his heart as he is about doing a little jig at a tribal celebration. For long, he has been given to taking up the fight for the rights of marginalised people.
Kaushal raised his voice for change in the valley. In the early 1970s, he began working for the rehabilitation of the bonded labourers in the Jaunsar Bawar tribal belt, Tehri and Uttarkashi. With all the shock that it came across as to the central government, the Mat system, as it was locally called, took years to fade away. The major hitch was convincing the government that the system of bonded labour still existed.
To drive the point home to the government, Kaushal, then a public administration professor at Lal Bahadur Shastri IAS Academy along with the director of the academy sent the probationers to the region and got them to write about their experiences.
This book, published by the Home Ministry, talked about the presence of bonded labourers in the area and was one of the things that led to the 1976 Bonded Labour Abolition Act. As many as 19,000 bonded labourers were officially reported and freed in Dehra Dun, making it the only place where a Bonded Labourers’ Rehabilitation Department was set up.
While working in the tribal region, Kaushal stumbled upon another issue faced by the people there. In the tribal society where polyandry, polygamy and child marriage were common, there were signs of exodus of women for prostitution. It began with the selling of these women by outsiders who took them away on the pretext of marrying them.
With a few other people who came together under a voluntary organisation, called Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), he worked for the rights and education of these women and their children. Kaushal’s brainchild, the NGO came to be formally registered in 1989 and is now funded by the state, the Centre and the United Nations Development Programme.
One morning in 1983, while browsing through the newspapers, Kaushal came across headlines about acute water shortage in Doon that set him thinking. "I kept wondering why with all its round-the-year rainfall the valley had people fighting for water", he says. A little homework on the matter revealed the hills were being wiped of their greens by 141 limestone mines operating in the region.
With the mines belonging to the state and central government besides top captains of industry, he knew it was no easy draw. "But we took the bull by the horns, did all our legal research thoroughly and with a battery of committed lawyers managed to move the Supreme Court into banning quarrying in the valley", he says. This was something the apex court lauded RLEK for after the organisation won the country’s first environment PIL.
He later carried out large-scale afforestation on the hillsides with the help of 30,000 schoolchildren stretching the work to Sahastradhara, which, too, had lost its greens. The work was carried forward by an eco taskforce of ex-Army men.
On his way back from Delhi to Dehra Dun in 1992, Kaushal came across hordes of Van Gujjars blocking the road to protest against the government’s decision to keep them from entering their winter home in the Shivaliks, since the area fell in the proposed Rajaji National Park. What followed led to a turning point in Kaushal’s life.
Taking up the cause of
helping the Van Gujjars fight for their forest access led him to quit
his cushy job to go for it head on.
RLEK later took up the task of taking
school to the community, which remained on the move with 350 volunteers,
who lived with them to educate 21,000 Gujjars. He is now working towards
including the forest dwellers in the management of the forests, since
they are totally dependent and an integral part of the forests,
empowering panchayats and getting them to focus on their initial idea of
dispensing justice at the doorstep with transparency.
ONE cold January night last year, she stood before a huge canvas. It might take a month to complete this landscape if she painted till late every night after coming back from work, she gauged. Then she turned to the window to gaze the moon as she worked brush and colours on the palette. Suddenly the right hand went numb. The palette dropped to the floor and she collapsed on the floor with a thud.
The next day, Monika Sharma woke up in a Delhi hospital where doctors told her she might never hold a paintbrush again. Just 28 years old then, she was too stunned to react to the news that she had been paralysed because of multiple sclerosis. She spent the next few weeks in a Delhi hospital, after which her doting father brought her to Rohtak.
How will I ever survive without painting? I am a trained commercial artist. How will I make two ends meet without my job, she kept asking herself. "As soon as I was able to move a bit on my own, at nightfall I would open the window to look at the moon that always soothed my nerves."
After a few days, she had gathered courage to pick up a brush but the fingers would simply not hold it properly. "I kept experimenting and found I could steadily hold a slim ballpoint pen. I began with my signatures. Initially, I could not recognise my own handwriting, but in a few days I could sign properly. Suddenly, I thought why not try pen sketches. The moon, a flower and a frail girl figure in her work.
Monika set up her studio at Rohtak as she could not live alone in Delhi due to her ailment. Before her ailment, she had worked for leading advertising agencies and corporates.
She was born in a family of timber merchants. "As a child she loved music especially string instruments. But her grandfather Sunder Lal first noticed her talent for painting. She loved to draw on scraps of paper. When she was seven, he gave her crayons and a scrapbook. That marked her emergence as a painter", says Monika’s father, Balkishen Sharma. "By the time I was in eighth I was making greeting cards. the first year. But when I joined the second year classes, I felt restless. I applied for admission to College of Art, Chandigarh and I was accepted. I left Rohtak and graduated from Chandigarh with specialisation in Applied Art (Advertising), she said adding "I wanted my talent to enable me to make a career too".
At Chandigarh, Monika, participated in competitions and won several awards. "I needed lots of money as I loved travelling a lot then. Every other day we would freak out somewhere." Her first full-time took her to Delhi where agencies like J. Walter Thomson, Lowe and McCann Erickson gave her an opportunity to use her talent. "I had severe headaches and pain. I noticed I could not concentrate for long. Many times I would go to sleep and get up only in the middle of the next night. I was trying to figure out what was wrong when I was paralysed," she said.
Monika paints and sells her work on her website and plans campaigns for local companies. Without much stamina, she finds time to run classes for children where she teaches them painting, sketching, calligraphy and rangoli. "It’s art that keeps me going. Besides, I want to give back my hometown something in return for what I received from it." Her parents are growing old too. But Monika is determined to fill colours in life’s canvas.