Over 50 years back two engineering graduates Girija and Satish (in photograph) in Jharkhand approached Jaya Prakash Narayan (JP) saying they wanted to devote their life to social causes, particularly to helping the poorest people and resisting injustice. JP not only blessed their effort but even asked Bhoodan functionaries to allot them a piece of land in Behra village (Hazaribagh district) so that they could start an organisation there.

To make this abandoned land cultivable required a lot of effort, and the young engineers had no experience in farming. From one small room a new organisation (Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra (NBJK) started. Its name proclaimed social awakening in the entire country, but the two engineers had no resources at all. They asked two of their colleagues to stay in the village, while they themselves took up jobs in Bokaro Steel Plant. They gave their salaries for their effort of social awakening and came every weekend to Behra to help in the work of NBJK.

Alongside they continued to hold meetings to spread JP’s call for ‘total revolution’. Then the Emergency came and one of them was arrested. Both the young engineers lost their jobs. But when the emergency ended and they were requested to take back their jobs, they refused. Their experience had made them even more determined to devote their life to social awakening. They did not go back to their jobs and decided to take the road less travelled. NBJK is now on the verge of completing 50 years of its eventful journey. This year its President Girija has also received the Asian Philanthropy Award.

In the course of this 50-year-journey, NBJK has reached out to over a million people of Jharkhand and Bihar with various programmes to improve livelihoods, health and education as well as to provide relief to the some of the most needy and marginalised people. Recalling the early days, Satish says that when the emergency ended, they found the conditions much more conducive to take forward their work and ideas. They made full use of the emerging opportunities to take up many-sided constructive activities, while also initiating and supporting struggles of people, particularly women, on several highly relevant issues.

JP had given the call for forming Lok Samitis or People’s Committees to take up the problems of people particularly weaker sections. Lok Samiti emerged as an increasingly important forum in their work area in Bihar for articulating problems of people as well as opposing injustice. At the same time Girija and Satish were also getting involved in wider issues and campaigns taken up by Lok Samiti. Eminent journalists and writers like Kuldip Nayar and Mannu Bhandari were also getting associated with some activities of Lok Samiti and NBJK in their work area in Bihar.

Another welcome development was that women were joining the constructive movements and struggles of NBJK in increasing numbers. Lok Samiti and NBJK took up several issues relating to rights and welfare of women such as opposing the dowry system and domestic violence, the highly unjust branding of some women as ‘dayan’ or witch. Help was extended to women who were being victimised by society for marrying a man of their choice but opposed by family or community. Several livelihood programmes were initiated, with special emphasis on small-scale irrigation and drought-proofing.

Drought and flood relief work was taken up time and again to help people experiencing exceptionally difficult situations. Several struggles against injustice by powerful villagers as well as corrupt local officials were taken up. This combination of struggle and constructive work brought a new hope to people, particularly weaker sections and women. As Girija remembers, “It was a pleasant surprise to see that so many people had started coming to our rallies and mobilisations from remote villages. Most of them were extremely poor and we could not give them their travel expenses. But they used their meagre resources to arrange for travel and food and came despite all the hardships they faced and the risk of police action in rallies.”

Cases of mobilisation against corruption and oppression resulted in a situation where officials became more careful regarding their conduct and hence the problems of people resulting from their oppressive actions were also reduced. This improvement could take place only in a situation of several rural communities becoming assertive and empowered as a result of the impact of the work done by Lok Samiti and NBJK. NBJK has implemented many livelihood promotion initiatives. Self-help groups (SHGs) linked to wider micro-credit efforts have helped thousands of women to start small enterprises or expand their existing livelihoods.

Some SHGs go back to about 25 years or so. There have been huge savings as SHG members did not have to borrow from private moneylenders to meet urgent household expenses at exploitative interest rates. NBJK’s micro-credit efforts have a return rate of around 98 per cent or so. Even when highly disruptive conditions were created by demonetisation and some micro-credit efforts suffered a lot, the success and recovery in the case of NBJK’s micro-credit effort was maintained to a large extent. This strength comes from the strong community ties of NBJK and Lok Samitis.

An important contribution of NBJK has been in the area of mental health. Its efforts along with the efforts of its sister organizations during the last 15 years or so have brought relief to thousands of mental health patients and their family members in parts of Jharkhand and Bihar. These efforts were made by the NBJK and its network of 20 organizations under a decadelong project. However, even after the financial support for the project ended, keeping in view its social usefulness and appreciating its need by people, NBJK continued some aspects of this work.

In the work area of NBJK the number of persons with disabilities (PwDs) is not only high but in addition their problems are more due to higher levels of social apathy and stigma. NBJK and its sister organizations have worked on these issues within a larger framework (apart from providing immediate relief to affected people), of ratification of CPRD, legal support for PwDs and their empowerment. Earlier neglect of problems of PWDs led to denial of basic facilities and rights already existing for them. Access to any benefits with certification is possible only with certification, but even certification for disability or the first requirement, had earlier existed only for 30 per cent of PWDs in the work area of NBJK and its associate organizations in Jharkhand and Bihar.

As a result of their efforts this certification could increase to around 65 per cent. Another effort led to access to pensions for thousands of PwDs (around Rs. 600 per month). Similarly, efforts of NBJK and partner organizations helped nearly 1500 PwDs to access appliances like wheelchairs, tri-cycles and walking sticks. The ability to provide proper care at the appropriate time, at an early age, has helped in the recovery of several disability affected children.

Providing physiotherapy to some children with club foot or speech and oral therapy to deaf children helped them in significant ways. The fact that such help could reach them in their remote villages was significant for these children and their parents. The linking of such efforts to strongly established self-help groups (SHGs) in villages also helped.

When it is time to look back at the 50-year journey of Girija and Satish, one realises that like in the case of many idealist youths it may not have entirely followed the original path but it has remained close to it, in the process bringing much-needed relief and development benefits to several hundred thousand people, the overwhelming majority of whom are from highly vulnerable sections.

(The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements)