A whole new world

  • 14/02/2004

A whole new world KUSUM ARUN SALVE
Mahatma Phule Samajik Shikshan and Sanshodhan Sanstha

Sugar isn't sweet

Persuasive, emotional and strong-willed, Kusum Arun Salve has been fighting for sugarcane workers' rights in Maharashtra's Beed district for over a decade. A labourer herself before joining the Mahatma Phule Samajik Shikshan and Sanshodhan Sanstha, she fights for recognition of the sugercane workers as regular mill workers. "A family with two adults working in sugarcane fields for six months generally gets about Rs 20,000. But the middleman earns in lakhs. He prospers even as the worker toils in the fields year after year,' she says.

From October to March every year, cane cutters migrate to cane plantations where they camp in makeshift tents for six months. A typical cutter's day begins at around 4.00 am and continues till late night. Most of the day is spent in the fields cutting and collecting about two to three tonnes of sugarcane for crushing, and awaiting their turn in front of the mills with loaded bullock carts. It is not uncommon for an entire family or even a village to migrate during the season. Children also join in; there is no school to go to and more hands mean more income.

The Sanstha wants middlemen to be done away with and workers be treated as regular mill employees. "Sugarcane workers have the right to a monthly salary (depending on the quantity of sugarcane they transport to the mill), provident fund, accident insurance and health benefits like any other mill worker,' asserts the determined activist. Since workers migrate every six months, their children cannot enroll in a school. They are demanding a flexible system so that children can attend schools near the mills during those six months. Electricity and proper health facilities are other key demands.

Her constant fight has started showing results: in over 25 places, schools for children and health facilities have been provided, according to Kusum. She feels a platform like the World Social Forum (WSF) will help in promoting the cause of sugarcane workers.

As told to Neelam Singh

Kenya Alliance for Advancement of Children, Nairobi, Kenya

Childish stuff?

When children of a village in Kenya invited government officials for a football match, no one realised that it would manage to herald a change the entire country would take note of. After the officials had gathered, they received a long lecture from the children on the various problems that the village faced. The effect was immediate: in the village, there was no more water scarcity.

This was a big victory for the Kenya Alliance for Advancement of Children, which advocates empowering children. An astute move, for high adult mortality from AIDS has made children the majority in Kenya.

"Empowering children would help in identifying the issues that affect their community. And then give them the right to change the things that affect them directly, improve their world,' says Kenneth O Ambetsa.

The organisation tries to increase the child's sensitivity to environmental, social and development issues that affect them. "It is important to ensure that the children know what to demand,' says Ambetsa. Children are taught to be rational and demand only what is justified. In the process the children also become better citizens, says Ambetsa. Using strategies like inviting government officials to school functions, the organisation is slowly but surely making children Kenya's foremost decision-makers.
Hanoi Medical College, Vietnam

War's toxic trail

For 30 years Phan Thi Phi Phi, a doctor with the Hanoi Medical College, has been fighting relentlessly to clean up the toxic trail left by Agent Orange (AO), used by the US army during the Vietnam War. For 14 years, 49 million litres of AO was sprayed and it has crippled three generations. "More than three million people have been affected. It will be a problem in the near future also because there is new exposure, and the genetic make-up is affected. I have studied not only the war veterans and local people, but also two generations after. I have come across many reproductive abnormalities,' she says.

Like US soldiers, the Vietnamese have not been paid any compensation. But " US soldiers were exposed for hardly one year. But we have been exposed for the last 40. Hence we are suffering from more than the 13 recognised diseases. For instance, I have come across not only cases of spina bifida but also mental retardation, cerebral plasy, abortions, stillbirth, premature delivery, and many forms of cancers.'

She says new exposure areas keep getting identified. Remaining stocks have already leached into groundwater. "There is no detoxification, which needs very expensive technology. Only epidemiological studies are being conducted. We have a national programme for detoxification and are also working in collaboration with US, Canada, Japan and Germany. But all that is not enough.'

As told to Nidhi Jamwal

Non-Timber Forest Products Project, Ratanakiri, Cambodia

New law of the land