Voice of the underdog

Ace Delhi activist Madhu Purnima Kishwar says she has never tried to cash in on others' poverty

Updated - April 16, 2010 05:47 pm IST

Published - April 16, 2010 05:00 pm IST

Social activist Madhu Kishwar in New Delhi. Photo: Sushil kumar Verma

Social activist Madhu Kishwar in New Delhi. Photo: Sushil kumar Verma

To get a fair idea of who Madhu Purnima Kishwar is, a passing look at her office bookshelves is a good start. “Manu's Code of Law”, “Wives, Mistresses and Matriarchy”, “The Extended Family”, “Great Women of India”, “The Quran”, “Bhagwad Gita”, “Ramayana”…these are just a selection from her bookcases heaving with tomes side-by-side her own — authored with acidic opinions on subjects ranging from democracy to economic reforms, gender justice to religion, to women Bhakta poets. A creditable academic, a firebrand activist, senior fellow at the Centre for Social and Development Studies, founder-editor of “Manushi”, president of the NGO Manushi Sangathan… Madhu is all in one.

But much before reaching the heights where she is today, Madhu made her mark in the thinking circles of Delhi with “Manushi”, an insightful magazine she has been bringing out with an admirable fervour for over three decades now. Though gender justice was at the core of Manushi's foundation, today it pores over subjects that deal with our society as a whole, justice or the lack of it its moot point. Ruminating on her life, Madhu, on a relaxed afternoon at her office at CSDS on Rajpur Road, comes up with a succinct remark, “I have had an India obsession.”

Changing lives

Apart from the many campaigns Manushi is running at present, it is the need to reform the archaic policies for the cycle rickshaw pullers of the city that I bring on to the discussion table first. Taking a second to pull her thoughts together, she looks straight into my eyes, saying, “Without you or me realising it, criminal mafia dominates our streets, and our poor lot has been paying them off in order to make a living.” She threads it to the core issue. “Someone who decides to pull a cycle rickshaw is not doing it because he loves that job; it is because he has no choice. But it is so difficult for a poor man to own a rickshaw in this city.”

According to the civic body rulebook, a cycle rickshaw puller must also be its owner. Madhu points out that the reality is way different. The owners hire migrant labourers to ride their fleet of rickshaws. “So in a way, a rickshaw puller can't move 10 metres in the city without being caught by the cops. But instead of this putting a stop to this illegal act, a whole new chain of activity has taken firm roots. The cops are bribed, the civic body officials are bribed and the local mafia continue to do what suits them, making it impossible for an honest man to buy a rickshaw of his own to earn a living.” She poses a pertinent question, “If such a thing is allowed to continue, how can common people have a belief in law and order?”

Madhu has been fighting for the rights of poor rickshaw pullers for many years now. It stemmed from her campaign for the rights of Delhi street vendors. She recalls how the idea swelled into a full-scale battle turning into a court case. “In 1996, I made a film on the plight of our rickshaw pullers for Doordarshan. After it was aired, I was flooded with requests from people to do something. Many victims told me of worse forms of violence they have known or suffered than I had shown in the film.” This led her to act on the issue, the high point of it being a Delhi High Court ruling sometime ago calling for a comprehensive and non-discriminatory transport policy to provide due space to eco-friendly vehicles. To pressure the authorities to implement the court ruling, she recently organised a rickshaw pullers' rally, claimed to be the largest in the city.

“Rickshaws are such an eco-friendly and cheap mode of transport. They are particularly convenient for short distances. But increasingly it is becoming difficult to cross from one side of the colony to the other because a rickshaw can't ply on the main road where there is fast traffic. I wonder, why can't our authorities think of making lanes for rickshaws instead of taking them off the roads? Look at what happened to Chandni Chowk. Rickshaws were such a convenient mode of transport on narrow Old Delhi lanes, but the authorities wanted to wipe off something that made up the character of the place,” she points out.

Madhu is also fighting the “the Delhi bazaar mafia,” to establish a street vendors' market in Sewa Nagar, as asked by Municipal Corporation of Delhi. She says, “There have been attempts on my life twice. It (the street vendors' market) is there but the mafia won't let it function. This has happened despite the Prime Minister (A.B. Vajpayee then ) showing an interest in formulating a street vendors' policy.” She then quotes some startling figures:“The street vendors of the city pay about Rs.500 crore annually in terms of pay-offs to the mafia and the rickshaw owners pay about Rs.360 crore annually in terms of bribes, repairing their vehicles after the police break them and loss of vehicles due to police seizes.”

A high-risk job that it becomes at times, Madhu says by choosing activism she hasn't done anyone a favour. “It is my labour of love. I have never tried to encash on anyone's poverty. Also, I have not been successful in every campaign.” Giving her family the full credit for “celebrating anything and everything that I did,” she adds quite gleefully, “In spite of my good academic record, I chose to lead a phatichar life while many of my batch-mates went on to achieve higher professional and academic positions.”

Madhu's present list of things-to-do also includes “taking “Manushi” to the next level.” She elaborates, “I have been particular about not accepting any funding for ‘Manushi'. Now, I have realised that we need to do something, at least to hire some professionals to run it without compromising on our core values.”

In between, she rues about “not getting enough sleep.” “If I attend a good concert or watch a nice movie, I feel very relaxed. But what I don't get usually is enough sleep.” Well, doesn't this also translate to taking away the sleep of many a bad element in the city?

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