Joe Madiath of Kanjirappally swears by social development. K. Pradeep learns how he was instrumental in changing the lives of countless poor tribals and villagers in faraway Orissa, which he calls ‘home’

Joe Madiath was hardly 12 years old when he organised youngsters in his native Kanjirappally to fight for better working conditions. Nothing very new, you might say, in Kerala. But what's notable is that he did that with workers in his own family farms! He was promptly packed off by his father to a boarding school in Kolkata. That was perhaps the beginning of Joe's long fight for the downtrodden and underprivileged that culminated in the establishment of the NGO, Gram Vikas in Ganjam district, Orissa, in 1979. Today, this is one of the largest NGOs in the country reaching out to countless poor families in over 800 rural habitations in the State that Joe now calls ‘his home.' Joe was in the city for a lecture on development at SCMS, Kalamassery.

Maiden effort

“That attempt to unite the workers employed by my father was, looking back, an exaggerated perception. I was definitely influenced by the Communist Movement. That was the time when the EMS Ministry was voted to power and there was this call for social equality. Of course, I was witness to this very obvious social ostracism, especially in my mother's place, Kuttanad,” remembers Joe.

After two years in Kolkata, Joe returned to complete his schooling at Infant Jesus Anglo-Indian Higher Secondary School, Thangassery. That fire of protest against injustice and inequality was doused for a while. But it flared up once again during his Madras University days. He was president of the students union at Loyola College, Chennai, and formed the Young Students' Movement for Development (YSMD). It was during this period that Joe went on a solo cycle trip across the country, right up to Sikkim. This trip opened his eyes to poverty, social inequality, realising that ‘poverty knew no language or caste.'

The turning point in Joe's life was when in 1971 he led a group of volunteers from YSMD to manage relief camps in cyclone ravaged West Bengal. “We found that while international aid was pouring into Bengal, the destruction wrought by the cyclone in Orissa was not on anyone's radar. So we shifted base to Kendrapara, in Cuttack district with 40 volunteers.”

Irrigation facilities

After things settled down the group decided to provide irrigation facilities as the best option to put the hapless victims back on their feet. They established a lift-irrigation cooperative of the villagers. But soon they realised that the benefits were reaped by the big landlords, who went back on their promise of providing extra land for common benefit. The group handed over the irrigation facilities to the locals and left. But Joe stayed on.

“I don't know what made me do it. But I decided then that this was my calling. Some of my colleagues stayed back with me. We had seen so much misery that we decided to work for their development. We moved to the tribal district of Ganjam on an invitation from the government.

“Here, the village of Mohuda, became my home for the rest of my life, till now.”

Joe and his colleagues established Gram Vikas. Some of the pioneering efforts of this organisation have been in biogas promotion, community forestry, hygiene, health, drinking water, sanitation, education, adult literacy programmes and most importantly organising people to fight for their rights.

People groups were formed. The poor tribals began to realise their power as a group. Gram Vikas spearheaded a movement to help them shake off their burden of debt and bonded labour. “Not only the small plot of land even their children were mortgaged to the landlords. These landlords, much more benign that the ruthless ones in other states like Uttar Pradesh, lent them money, gave them liquor making them slaves forever. We fought against this, succeeded in reclaiming land, ousting the moneylenders, liquor merchants and even to some extent wean the menfolk from this terrible habit.”

For all this Joe and his group did face flak. “Yes, I did face the wrath of the landlords and others. These scars on my body are reminders of those tough days. But the people stood by us,” Joe says with that infectious laugh.

Joe has formally ‘retired' from Gram Vikas though he will still be around at least till they find his ‘successor.' After three eventful decades as its driving force what does he consider its biggest achievement?

Lower mortality rates

“Maybe bringing down mortality rates in these areas, most of which was related to water and hygiene. Our scheme of providing clean, continuous running water for each home through taps in the toilet, bathroom and kitchen was one. We also provided skill training for men and women in masonry, stone dressing, wire bending, plumbing and house painting. This supported the construction work of Gram Vikas programmes and also enhanced their livelihood options. I know of so many of these villagers who are now working in Kerala. Then, of course, it is education. There was a time when Oriya was a foreign language for the tribals. The schools we started in different villages, adult literacy programmes changed all this. Today, there are some brilliant students in these schools. Most of the athletics champions of Orissa, including the women's National weightlifting champion are from these schools.”

Apathetic bureaucracy

“This state is so rich in natural resources and in every other respect. But it still lags far behind. The reason is an apathetic bureaucracy. Politicians change every five years. In Orissa, I have felt, there is no political rule. The bureaucracy holds the reins. They, surprisingly, seem to resist any kind of change.”

And what does he think of Kerala? “I come quite often. I'm stunned to see that there is no consolidated effort for waste management. I find plastic and rubbish all over the place, even in the villages. I thought that Kerala would lead, especially with the success of some of its programmes like literacy, eradication of diseases, health and education. But I'm a bit disappointed that Kerala has not really surged ahead.”

Joe now plans to take Gram Vikas beyond Orissa. “We have just begun work in four African countries. We also want to move to other states like Tamil Nadu. I hope to spend more time with these new projects. But I'll still schedule things to spend at least one-third of my time at home, in Orissa.”

Joe Madiath and his successful Mohuda experiment is certainly an inspiration, a beacon of hope for the marginalised, to stand up and face life with dignity.

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