Sudha Bharadwaj fights for labour rights and is against land acquisition
When Sudha Bharadwaj travels in Chhattisgarh, almost everyone recognizes her. She is what the locals would call a “woman of the people". Bharadwaj, 54, is tall, with an unassuming demeanour. She has been living in the state for 29 years now, working as a trade unionist, a civil rights activist against land acquisition, and, more recently, as a lawyer.
“If she visits a village once, almost every villager remembers her forever. And when she visits again, 200-300 people always gather to meet her. She might not be fighting all our cases, but she has been here to give us the support we need," says Rajesh Tripathi, a tribal rights activist based in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh district.
Draped in a simple cotton sari, sporting a maroon bindi, Bharadwaj speaks fluent English but prefers to talk in Hindi. She says that if you belong to the middle class and want to work with workers, “you actually need to subordinate yourself to the workers’ union leadership…you need to integrate yourself with the community and live the life the working class lives".
Till recently, Bharadwaj, or Sudha didi as she is called, lived in a hut in a labour colony in Bhilai. Her daughter, whom she adopted from the Adivasi community, is in class XII, and studies in the same school as the children of the workers. Her friend and public health researcher, Indira Chakravarthi, says simplicity comes naturally to Bharadwaj.
Every day, Bharadwaj meets members of the union of contract workers, striving to overcome divisions in the working class, to listen to the problems faced by these workers and look for a resolution. And every day, without fail, she goes to the courts to fight the cases of the underprivileged—mostly Adivasis, minorities, Dalits and the poor.
State officials look at her in a less kindly light. “She is anti-establishment.... We don’t like or respect the work she does. Anyone who plays with the integrity of the nation, or the internal security, should be dealt with seriously. People like Sudha have become irrelevant because we are trying hard to empower tribals," says S.R. Kalluri, inspector general of police, Chhattisgarh.
“The life I am living is tough sometimes…at some level, material comforts are less but in terms of the quality of people around me, I don’t think it is a sacrifice. As an independent individual working with these people, I achieve a lot of satisfaction," says Bharadwaj.
Bharadwaj, who is the general secretary of the Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), part of the national organization, is the founder of Janhit (a collective of lawyers who work on legal aid to groups) and is also associated with the late Shankar Guha Niyogi’s Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, a labour union in Dalli Rajhara town.
“We are fighting for a new Chhattisgarh…a Chhattisgarh for the toilers of the state. Here is a state rich in resources. It has water, forests and land in abundance, but its people are so poor. The state is witnessing disproportionate growth and there is no equitable distribution of benefits to everyone. If I am fighting for the marginalized communities, I have no choice but to fight against those oppressing them—from corrupt politicians and forest departments to companies not giving proper wages and safety to workers," says Bharadwaj.
In mineral-rich states like Chhattisgarh, companies and governments say they want to develop untapped resources. The Constitution does not allow non-tribal people to directly acquire land in certain parts of the country, so the government must obtain it and sell it to companies. A 35-page working paper on “Land Acquisition And Transfers For Private Industry" in Raigarh, prepared by the Delhi-based Centre for Equity Studies and Jan Chetna, a non-profit working for the rights of the disadvantaged, in December 2013, states: “A fairly common practice revealed during surveys involved selling land to tribal employees of a company or a tribal broker, thus making the actual sale legal. The use of this land by the company, nonetheless, remains illegal and obtaining this land via its employees is a clear violation of these rules. There generally exists a significant asymmetry of power between land losers and companies, resulting in deals being concluded on terms that are unfavourable or unjust to land losers."
“There is a serious global financial crisis. The only two ways out of this for the capitalist system are either to reduce social security and governmental welfare expenditure in the West, or else to intensify the loot of natural resources. The loot is what is happening here," Bharadwaj says.
From an 11-year-old girl who returned from the US not knowing how to speak or write in Hindi, to someone who prefers only to speak in the language, it has been a long journey for Bharadwaj. Senior Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Parikh remembers the first time he met Bharadwaj in 1991. “She had come to file a petition for bail. I was struck by her simplicity, commitment and hard work. When I met her again in 2002, she had not changed a bit, she showed the same commitment to the public cause. I admire the tremendous work she has been doing and the contribution she has made for the poor farmers, tribals, workers."
Bharadwaj’s life could have been very different. Born in Massachusetts, US, where her parents were pursuing their PhD, Bharadwaj was an American citizen. Her parents moved to the UK, and Bharadwaj did her primary schooling there. When she was 11, her mother decided to return to India. Her mother worked in Delhi University for around three years before joining Jawaharlal Nehru University as a professor in 1975. Bhardawaj grew up in the politically charged campus and since her mother was a socialist, she too was inclined towards the left.
At 18, Bharadwaj relinquished her US citizenship, and joined the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, to study mathematics, completing the five-year integrated course in 1984.
This was the time when Kanpur was a bustling industrial city, with a string of mega textile mills, attracting migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. “These workers were grossly underpaid and lived in horrific conditions. This was the first time I was exposed to the living conditions of these workers," says Bharadwaj.
That is when she first learnt about the work of Niyogi’s Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha and decided to join the group, eventually moving to the state in 1986.
Bharadwaj had the advantage of being one of the few English-speaking, educated people in a group consisting mainly of workers, and was asked by the union to study law. In 2000, she got her law degree from a college affiliated to the Pandit Ravishankar Shukla University in Raipur.
The idea was not just to fight legal cases or demand economic rights for workers, but to work for their holistic development by taking care of their health and education needs too.
In a country where labour law isn’t a very attractive field, “Sudha has shown us how law should be practised. Her work is what the legal profession is all about—helping the most vulnerable in society," says Rebecca John, senior advocate, Supreme Court.
Like Bharadwaj, many others joined the workers’ movement in the 1980s. But as a Mumbai-based professor and Bharadwaj’s friend, requesting anonymity, says: “Most of us retreated. You don’t give up certain aspects of your class life. But Sudha has rejected living the normal life of a middle-class person. Not just that, she has continued persistently with no regrets." The friend says that when her students go to intern with Bharadwaj, they want to emulate her.
Ilina Sen, who teaches women’s studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, has known Bharadwaj for more than two decades. “For the kind of work Sudha is doing, it is very easy to lose track. We all are human beings…we break down, get tired. But for some reason, she doesn’t. She is very focused," she says.
For Bharadwaj, this life now comes naturally. Whatever little her family had saved for her, she used for the union. “I was fortunate enough to study in one of the best institutes in the country. But once one learns, what does one do with that education? About 90% of my batchmates went abroad. But I felt I should use my education to give it back to society by the work I do," says Bharadwaj.
Many of the cases that have come to her are from people like Janki Sidar, whose case of alleged land grab in Milupara village, Raigarh, is 14 years old. Bharadwaj is her 10th lawyer. “There is a whole system of checks and balances and those checks and balances have to be kept there. However difficult it gets, some of us have to continue doing that. When I came in 1986 to Chhattisgarh, I came for justice. Maybe then, my concept of justice was narrow—justice for iron-ore workers. Now I want justice for the poor of the state. It’s okay that I will make some difficult enemies in the process. The struggle will go on," says Bharadwaj.
HOW TO GIVE
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha take contributions from members, and Janhit is supported by the Janhit People’s Legal Resource Centre.
Teaching young people about the trade union movement and PUCL.
A DONATION OF ₹ 10,000 CAN
Help Janhit provide legal aid.
VOLUNTEERS CAN HELP
Educate workers’ children or fight the cases labourers face in courts.