Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony 22 June 2015
Rukmini Rao has been my friend for a very long time. I have been travelling to India on and off for many years. Since 2004 I have worked with Rukmini and Gramya for up to two months each year as a volunteer.
My role mostly has been a minor one, doing backroom research, providing a sounding board and visiting various projects. I also [used to] donate money to Gramya annually. Gramya was registered to receive foreign funding [but is no longer] and can always receive domestic funding. The Indian Government, however, is currently placing pressure on independent NGOs in India and the situation may change. [In 2020 the situation has changed completely (see 2020 update at the end) the government pressure against independent NGOs has increased enormously, including trumped up charges against individuals and freezing of assets of some major organisations.] I’d encourage anyone [within India] to donate to Gramya. It is a small but worthwhile organisation and is doing important work in vulnerable communities.
I am introducing Rukmini and Gramya Resource Centre for Women now, because I will be writing about Rukmini and Gramya from time to time. The issues and Rukmini’s activism are important to me. I have known Rukmini both when she was active in Delhi and in all her activist roles and commitments since she returned to Hyderabad.
Gramya’s aims and work are outlined in the website. Rukmini’s activism is wider and more difficult to explain, especially her strategic and multi-layered approach. She works at international, central, state, regional and local levels at the same time in a very organised way. Her focus is simpler she combats violence against women and is primarily concerned with poor and vulnerable rural women, mainly dalits and tribals at the very bottom of Indian society.
Rukmini Rao was named Indian Woman of the Year in December 2014 by The Week magazine. The Week and India Today are India’s largest English language news magazines.
The Week Cover Story, 21 December 2014
WOMAN OF THE YEAR 2014
By Kallol Bhattacherjee Photos by Sanjay Ahlawat
For the young tribal girls of Nalgonda, she bore the gift of life. Meet V. Rukmini Rao, THE WEEK’s Woman of the Year
Source: The Week | COVER STORY | WOMAN OF THE YEAR 2014
(I have transcribed the articles below because I don’t know how long they will remain on the Net. The Source above previously linked to the magazine)
The Fairy Godmother
The city of Hyderabad is no stranger to acts of revolt. Still, on a fine morning in December 1974, the city woke up in shock to the news that Rukmini, the 24-year-old daughter of Raja Jagpal Rao, the jagirdar of Rajapet principality, and the wife of a prominent landlord in the city, had run off with her lover to Delhi, leaving behind her four-year-old son. Rukmini was teaching literature at St Francis College when she fell in love with a statistician from Karnataka, who swore by maths and Marx. His revolutionary fervour inspired Rukmini to give up her comfortable, yet predictable life, and embark on a journey in search of the unknown.
Those were turbulent times. The Jayaprakash Narayan movement had shaken the foundations of the Indira Gandhi government. A slew of protests and insurrections like railway strikes and the Naxalite movement created a heady combination of personal and political liberation for the Indian youth. Like the rest of India, Hyderabad and its traditional landholding society, too, were not untouched by the rebellious spirit, although the elites went on with their life of leisure and luxury.
Rukmini spent six years of her marriage raising her son Rohit, serving an army of in-laws and teaching literature. But the certainty and security of the life with her landlord in-laws, their extravagant lifestyle, elaborate cooking and sumptuous dining, bored her. Yet, Delhi in that winter posed before her more questions than she had anticipated. The biggest problem was staying away from her son as her husband’s family refused to send him to her.
She could not find a job initially, while her lover, who married her later, got a job at the National Labour Institute. Rukmini, too, joined the institute as a researcher, just before the Emergency was declared. By then, she had fallen in love again, this time with her gender. She felt proud of being a woman and sported a big red bindi on her forehead, just to make a statement.
The reasons behind the feminist turn existed both at home and outside. She drew inspiration from her mother and grandmother, who were strong-willed women. Another issue that attracted Rukmini’s attention was the story of Mathura, a teenaged victim of custodial rape. Mathura was a tribal girl from Chandrapur district in Maharashtra, who was allegedly raped in police custody on March 26, 1972. From her days as a young teacher in Hyderabad, Rukmini had been keeping track of the case and she was disturbed by the way it was being handled in court. The dominant line of argument was that Mathura had invited the rape upon herself as she was sexually active in her mid-teens.
The way women like Mathura were treated in India, be it in courtrooms or bedrooms, made her angry. And, that fire, which was lit in the 1970s, continues to guide Rukmini, better known today as V. Rukmini Rao, who now runs a number of organisations that are spurred by her quest for a gender-just India.
BY THE MID 1970s, a construction boom in Delhi attracted a large number of migrant workers, who chose to settle in Nizamuddin Basti, New Seemapuri and East Delhi across the Yamuna. Women from these settlements, who were suffering from domestic violence, used to approach Rukmini and her women colleagues for help. “Often, the women who would come to us were in a serious condition and we had to take them to hospital. We told them that they should be proud of their bodies and the man of the house had no right to assault them and that their hard work deserved respect. It was difficult to make the women rebellious, but we succeeded in turning them into small-time entrepreneurs,” says Rukmini. “Once they had some money in hand, they started resisting drunken beatings at home. We saw these victims transform into confrontationists in six to seven months, and the experience was so magical that it changed all those who were involved with the process at that time.”
Domestic violence, forced sterilisation, maternal health problems and neglect of women’s economic needs were some of the issues that Rukmini sought to address as she set up Stree Sangharsh Samiti in 1976 along with a few friends. Her work was noticed by leading women activists of the time, Vina Mazumdar and Lotika Sarkar of Delhi University. After seeing Rukmini’s dedication in providing health care facilities to the women of Nizamuddin Basti, Vina motivated her to create her own brand of street-smart feminist strategies. Rukmini and her friends subsequently opened a shelter for abused women in Nizamuddin Basti.
A few years later, Rukmini and her colleagues received a rude shock when the suspects in the Mathura rape case were acquitted by the Supreme Court. The verdict, which came in September 1979, nearly blamed the girl for the rape. Outrage poured out on the streets of Delhi, and Rukmini led from the front along with Lotika and Vina. They also pushed for a reform of the laws about custodial rape.
In 1980, the annual meeting of the Stree Sangharsh Samiti decided to bring together women’s organisations across the country under one umbrella. Thus was born Saheli, which opened with a campaign against the displacement of women workers before the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi. Prime minister Indira Gandhi had given her son Rajiv the task of overseeing preparations for the games. The labourers who toiled at the construction sites were asked to leave the city before the games opened so as to present a picture-perfect Delhi to the world. Rukmini alongside another firebrand activist, Bharati Roychowdhury, organised rallies against the government’s decision. Although the Asian Games went ahead without a hitch, Saheli’s moment of glory came a year later when anti-rape laws were amended and the suspects of the Mathura rape case were found guilty by a different bench of the Supreme Court.
Following her success in Delhi, Rukmini wanted to take Saheli’s message to the smaller towns and cities. But, trouble was brewing at home. Her husband got fed up with her revolutionary feminism and demanded that she should pay more attention to her own home and bear him a child. Rukmini found his demand reasonable, but she was soon caught up with the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The riots left thousands of women and children homeless and vulnerable, and Rukmini devoted much of her time to their relief and rehabilitation. Her personal life became nearly nonexistent and she told her husband that it would not be possible for her to bear him a child. Disappointed, he turned to alcohol, and Rukmini’s life soon featured things that she deeply despised. She needed a refuge and the first place that came to her mind was her beloved Hyderabad. She moved back to her hometown in 1986. But she says she had been toying with the idea of relocating to Hyderabad even before that, as she wanted to spend more time with her teenaged son.
By the time Rukmini returned, Hyderabad had undergone a major political transformation with the Telugu Desam Party in power in Andhra Pradesh and a bunch of bureaucrats keen on bringing about social change. In 1989, she joined the Deccan Development Society (DDS) which was set up by her friends to create awareness, especially among the tribes of the Deccan, about the government’s social welfare schemes. Following the Roop Kanwar case in September 1987, more and more people started flocking to the office of the DDS. Roop, a Rajput wife from Rajasthan, committed sati by jumping into her husband’s funeral pyre. Rukmini’s small office soon became a prominent spot where women with their myriad problems of domestic violence and economic issues would routinely gather.
It was at this time that Rukmini first heard about girl children being discarded at hospitals and other social welfare centres. She found that most parents who killed or sold their girls were the Lambadis and the Koyas, the two main tribal groups of Andhra Pradesh.
The Lambadis are nomads, who were once known for their sturdiness and healthy food habits. But, the pressure of urbanisation and dwindling land holdings played havoc with them, and by the late 1980s, they started abandoning the girl child as a solution for their economic travails. After a large number of female infanticides were reported from Nalgonda, Rukmini intensified her work in the district.
In the summer of 1993 came the infamous rat-poison incident, when an anonymous caller informed Rukmini that a ritual female infanticide had begun in a Lambadi village in Nalgonda. It involved killing a girl child with a pellet of rat poison. The caller hung up after asking Rukmini to save the child. Scared and short of options, she called the authorities, but was told that the child would be dead by the time the law enforcement authorities reached the village. One particular official, whom Rukmini would not name now, asked her to save the baby and promised her police backup. “The official was frank enough to admit that non-government workers and activists were needed to resolve such emergency issues,” she says. Rukmini reached the village just in time and saved not just the child, but also her twin sister. The incident opened her eyes to a whole lot of issues among the tribals, such as child trafficking, violence against women and deprivation of their right to forest land.
Rukmini realised that there was a strong economic reason for the Lambadis to either sell their baby daughters to adoption rackets or just kill them. Out of that realisation was born Gramya, the fourth organisation that she set up to safeguard baby girls belonging to marginalised communities and to fight for women’s rights. Rukmini built a rudimentary shelter-cum-bridge-school in Nalgonda district for local tribal women and abandoned babies. It was called bridge-school as it was designed to bring up Lambadi kids till they could be sent to government-run hostels for free education. Young tribal couples initially mistook it for an orphanage.
Rukmini had a tough job. She had to save the young girls from certain death in the hands of their parents and then ensure them a secure future. “Initially, when the tribals heard of the bridge-school, some parents came with requests to keep their newborn daughters with me, but we had to convince them that the child would not survive without her mother’s milk. We had to motivate the families continuously citing government schemes that promoted education and health of the girls and told them that their children would grow up to be a support for them,” she says.
For Rukmini and her team, preventing imminent infanticides was one part of the struggle, but an equally challenging and long-drawn-out struggle was to ensure that the girls, who survived the rat poison, were not subsequently killed by malnutrition and negligence. In this endeavour, Rukmini says Gramya benefited from the sympathetic administrative class in Hyderabad, and even the Naxalites who never hurt Rukmini’s staff and the tribals who sought her help. The opposition came from Hyderabad-based rackets, which had made a fortune by selling the Lambadi babies abroad. Faced with the prospect of their source of babies drying up, they tried to intimidate Rukmini. She says she survived with the support of the government and the people.
To make Gramya successful, Rukmini and her colleagues Jamuna and Ratnamala had to innovate. In the Naxalite-dominated areas, they recruited primary school teachers as their local intelligence providers, who could go around, keeping a close watch on baby girls. “In many cases, we had to adopt a carrot-and-stick policy to save the children and tell the parents that the government would take stern action if their children went missing,” she says.
At the bridge-school, the children are divided into three groups. The first group of pre-schoolers who were saved from certain death are looked after by an all-female staff till they turn five. Kids from ages five to nine form the second group and they join government schools at class five. The third group consists of children who are ready to move out to social welfare hostels run by the government and join class six in government schools. Rukmini says the day a particular group moves out is emotionally draining for her and her colleagues.
The current infrastructure of Gramya came up after nearly 20 years of struggle by Rukmini and her colleagues. The bridge-school, by now, has become such a success that even Lambadi mothers can be seen coming once in a while to study along with their tiny girls whom they once wanted to give away.
It is difficult to explain what prompted the Lambadis and Koyas, who have always been proud of their womenfolk, to write off their baby daughters. Rukmini feels that some communities believe they can come up with solutions to deal with the challenges to their lives probably by killing the weakest among them. “Historically the Lambadis and Koyas respected their sturdy women. But what prompted the baby slaughter of the 1980s and the 1990s in their community is not yet known. But thankfully there is greater awareness that they will become extinct if female infanticide continues,” says Sumalatha, one of the many Lambadi volunteers who work as the eyes and ears of Gramya in the villages of Nalgonda. Rukmini says the Lambadi girls are a lot like her grandmother, a feisty Telugu matriarch, who had asked her children to have at least one girl child to keep the “house under control”.
With the success of Gramya, Rukmini has become a legend among her peers and her diverse work includes international consultancy and even solving a fight or two among young colleagues in Hyderabad and Delhi. Even at 64, she has not mellowed, but physical problems have started bothering her. Her knees hurt while climbing stairs and she needs to watch her diet. But age does not bother her, nor does it make her seek the support of her son Rohit, who lives in the US with his wife and two sons.
Some years ago, Rukmini’s mentor, Lotika, ran into a property dispute involving her relatives. She was in her 80s when it started and it went on till she died in 2010. Lotika’s condition and the issue of safety of elderly single women prompted Rukmini to launch the Hyderabad chapter of Ekal Mahila Sangathan, an all-India network of single women in need of financial and health security. Today, there are more than 400 single women of varying ages who are members of the Hyderabad chapter of the organisation.
From the big cities of Hyderabad and Delhi to the remote villages of Nalgonda, Rukmini’s stamp is visible on a range of issues, organisations and support systems. It has not been easy and has required enormous personal sacrifice. But, she says the support and love of her son, who understood her spirit, has helped her a lot. “Many women suffer in silence. I suggest that we break our silence and help others in breaking theirs. This helps because many men have come forward to support the right cause,” she says.
The biggest acknowledgement of Rukmini’s work comes from the Lambadi fathers who walk up to her and say they have named their daughters after her. Yet, she does not get moist-eyed. Instead, she asks, “It’s time for a celebratory drink, right?
The argumentative Indian
By Kallol Bhattacherjee
There is not a moment of boredom while you are with Rukmini. She has an opinion on everything. From sex-selection tests, abortion and gay and lesbian rights to rather harmless ones like which restaurants are doing justice to the name and glory of the Hyderabadi biryani and the Andhra platter, Rukmini is ready with sharp arguments.
She says she has sharpened her skills of argument from her university days and honed them to perfection during her street-fighting days in Delhi.
Her love for arguments also stems from her deep desire that society, which takes academics and armchair pundits seriously, should give importance to the opinions of the activists as well. “In the early 1970s, people used to think we were a misguided bunch, who always rushed to government offices to argue the cases of vulnerable women and children. We became branded as activists. While activists in Delhi, Mumbai and other metros like Aruna Roy, Medha Patkar and some of us at Saheli were taken seriously, most others were not, as they were not from the big cities. So my fight has also been to make the activists’ voice count in policy-making,” she says.
While she is a legend among the feminists, Rukmini does not mind that she is not a celebrity even at a time when Arvind Kejriwal and his ilk have turned nearly every available activist into vote-catching machines. She refuses to blame Kejriwal for diluting the agenda of the civil society movements by absorbing their leading lights into his Aam Aadmi Party. “It was impossible not to be roused by the corruption of the UPA regime,” she says, but quickly adds that she is not at all happy with some of the BJP leaders hinting at a squeeze on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. “Before drying up funds for right to employment, these new leaders of our country should make an effort to live in the villages,” she says. Governments must understand, says Rukmini, that they have a mandate of five years, but an activist has a commitment of a lifetime to issues close to her heart.
By Kallol Bhattacherjee
United colours: Rukmini with a group of single Lambadi women, who are facing problems after their tribe adopted urban practices like the dowry system.
The Lambadi women are known for their silver anklets, heavy mirror-embossed scarves and conch bangles. The silver anklets are believed to drive away snakes. A woman has to be really sturdy to wear so many ornaments while working in the fields. But somewhere in the middle of the last century, the respect accorded to the women started fading with the Lambadis adopting urban practices like the dowry system.
As Rukmini Rao first began investigating the reasons for the irrational female infanticides among the tribes of the Deccan, she stumbled upon the fact that they were under pressure from the engine of development in modern Andhra’s big cities. Agriculture, which was their main source of livelihood, became less profitable with the loss of forest land and the dwindling number of animals on their farms, making the Lambadis debt-ridden, depressed and suicidal. They were deeply patriarchal, and the threat of dislocation, the absence of stable income and the practice of dowry made matters worse, and the community began treating its girl children as evil that should be eliminated.
Years later, Rukmini sees a similar threat to the Koya community from the Polavaram dam, which is being built on the edge of Khammam and East Godavari districts. She says the dam will submerge the agricultural area used by the Koya tribes and, being politically weak, they have little chance of getting a fair rehabilitation package. It could create a second Narmada valley syndrome, forcing hundreds of thousands of vulnerable tribal people to move to nearby cities of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
“I am not against development,” says Rukmini. “I am trying to bring the welfare measures of the state to the target groups like the Lambadis and Koyas. But I am not going to support actions by the state that will ultimately undo the welfare measures of the state itself.
The Indian Express Newspaper followed up The Week article with:
Indian Express 23 December 2014
Rescuing Infants to Empowering Women
By Rajitha S
HYDERABAD: It was almost 40 years ago, that Dr Rukmini Rao and her friend Jamuna heard of female infanticide only 100 kilometres away from the city of Hyderabad. “The first thing that hit me was, they are helpless children. What can they do to defend themselves? The next thing – the incident took place so close to our city and not in a remote area. There was anger and it pushed me to do something. It continues to keep me going, even today,” shares Dr Rukmini Rao, founder of Gramya Resource Centre for Women.
She has been adjudged as the ‘Woman of the Year – 2014’ by a leading English magazine.
Founding this resource centre is only one of the many activities that Rukmini has been carrying out as part of her “small” movement to better the lives of women in rural spaces.
“When I go around in these villages and talk to people, I see they not even come from the poorest of the poor backgrounds, but always have something to offer to people around them. I have the capacity to give so much more and I am trying to do just that,” says the activist, who believes that education is the most effective tool for an individual to move forward.
The same she stresses on when she is communicating with the many women, out in the villages of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh and the transformation she has witnessed is clear.
“When I first met these women, they didn’t comb their hair. Not that combing hair defines anything, but I’m trying to tell you that they never considered an image for themselves. They had no idea of self image. They were a nobody. But today, they walk miles, collectively to claim their rights,” she explains.
Sharing one instance related to the current ongoing issue in Telangana – farmer suicides.
“Only recently we had a public hearing where widows of farmers and women farmers came together and talked about their situation,” she says and elaborates, “They have not been offered compensation and their ration cards are not valid anymore. So these women went to the local revenue divisional officer, with a set of demands. And they also know how to handle them if immediate action does not take place,” she beams hinting that they know how to get their work done.
Rukmini has played a major role in changing the aspirations of these women from merely being married to demanding their rights. “Their victim mentality is gone, completely,” she informs.
Rukmini’s work also involves teaching women alternate farming methods that is post-modern agriculture, opposed to the green revolution methods, offering support to government schools, pushing for quality education. The latter she does in association with Aide Et Action, South Asia. “We work with close to 50 government schools that have 4,000 children where we ensure that the schools have all necessary amenities. We also assess children independent of government’s assessing methods because we want to identify children with special needs and work with them,” she explains.
Having spent so many years in these areas, Rukmini gives us a first-hand picture of everything. For instance, ask her about the Sulabh Sauchalay scheme that aims for a toilet in every home for every woman and she responds quickly, “That idea needs some planning. There are toilets in villages, but there is no water and that defeats the purpose. There are no pipelines. Then, there is no money to maintain toilets. They could opt for organic toilets instead of all this,” she suggests.
Rukmini has also been fundamental in bringing down the number of female infanticide cases. She feels strongly that our development model is what marginalises women in this country. Men have to start respecting women she says.
In the wake of rising number of rape cases, she opines, “I am completely against capital punishment. What we need is quick justice and solutions to change the mindset of boys and men. Young people should start seeing each other as people,” she stresses and says it begins with putting a stop to sex selection.
On a parting note, ask her how much value is ‘Woman of the Year’ award going to add to her work, she laughs and says, “I don’t know, but such recognition reconfirms our work,” and shares a recent incident. “I was invited to a college for a talk after this where I had the opportunity to talk to young people. This I wouldn’t have got otherwise,” she smiles.
Rukmini says that some of the information above is not quite accurate. Certainly The Week’s: Fairy Godmother article is slightly sensationalist at the start; and the Indian Express article is a touch incoherent. There were major problems with Rukmini’s first marriage before she fell in love with Vijay, which propelled her away from it, despite her son. The fleeing to Delhi was even more melodramatic and at the time there was a possibility that she and her lover might be killed. Rukmini says she never believed this, but Vijay’s friends were warning him that it might happen. Hyderabad in the 1970s was still feudal in outlook.
Rukmini’s work in the NLI (National Labour Institute) and later PECCE (Public Enterprises Centre for Continuing Education) was important to her development, as was her helping to found SAHELI and the feminist magazine Manushi. When she returned to Hyderabad she joined the Deccan Development Society (DDS) and was crucial to the changes it underwent. She set up the participative women’s groups or sangams in more than 30 villages in the area (and strengthened the approach in 40 villages that DDS had already partly organised). She was also involved in micro-financing schemes well before they became popular. She still maintains contact with DDS and supports the women’s sangams from time to time.
She and Jamuna set-up Gramya and chose the Devarakonda and Chandampet Mandals in Nalgonda District in 1997 to work with Lambadi migrant agricultural labourers (not 40 years ago). This was a conscious choice to work with one of the most difficult and vulnerable people in Telangana. She and Jamuna stumbled upon the infanticide and baby-selling racket early on and developed a marvellous campaign to try to end the practices. The bridge-school was set-up as a resource for Lambadi and backward caste girls to begin to plug them into the Government education system and as a base for extension work for women in the villages and hamlets. The school also offered an alternative to seasonal migrant labour, that is, the girls were provided with safe accommodation and food while the parents migrated.
Rukmini after she left DDS was the CEO of CWS (Centre for World Solidarity) from 2003 to 2006 a successful umbrella group for funding large numbers of NGOs and other organisations in the agricultural and rural sector. From early 2000 she became involved in setting up women’s sangams in tribal groups in Khammam District in an area on the Godavari River threatened with flooding by the Polavaram Dam Project. She supported and worked closely with a local organisation ASDS (the Agricultural and Social Development Society) set up by Gandhi Babu.
After nearly twenty years in Devarakonda and Chandampet Mandals in Nalgonda District the situation has changed dramatically, the area has expanded economically and much money has flowed into the districts. Some of this expansion has been inspired by Gramya both directly and indirectly. The government has taken more responsibility for schooling and the bridge-school may eventually no longer be required. Although the facility will still be needed for extension activities and perhaps as a refuge.
Rukmini is and has been on the Boards of numerous organisations in India and internationally. Rukmini has also been involved in women’s networks internationally and with numerous organisations and activist endeavours across India.
Rukmini says that she has enjoyed an increased profile since the Woman of the Year award by The Week. Although she already had a high profile in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana through her endeavours and regular television appearances as a commentator. She is also well-known in activist circles across India.
Key words: Key words: Rukmini Rao, bridge-school, Devarakonda, Telangana, The Week magazine, Woman of the Year 2014, India, Hyderabad, Delhi, Gramya Resource Centre for Women, Deccan Development Society,Centre for World Solidarity, Lambadi, dalit, backward caste, tribal, baby selling racket, female infanticide, Khammam, Polavaram Dam
Rukmini has continued to continue working on the general theme of violence against women and has greatly extended the range of her associations with poor rural women across India. In the last seven years she has continued to be busy, strategic and effective. Gramya is still running effectively. Gramya and other organisations that Rukmini is deeply involved with have continued to garner awards over the years. Gramya is no longer registered as a foreign donor organisation but this is more a result of bureaucratic meddling and incompetence at middle level, rather than any concerted campaign.
Nevertheless the Modi government has continued to act assertively and frequently illegally against the NGO sector in general. Hence the milieu for action by the independent NGO sector has changed for the worse.