The Real Work Begins

Two weeks in Auroville, and two weeks to go. We’ve all decided on multimedia projects and are most of us are already ensconced in our respective organizations, designing websites, logos, brochures and videos. Since I’m a carpetbagger from the MPPA program and am virtually incompetent with Adobe design programs and video cameras (or regular cameras, for that matter), I’ve decided to assemble fifty “press kits” and write a profile for online publication on my selected 10-to-5 home for the next two weeks: ADECOM Network, based in Pondicherry.

We visited ADECOM (which stands for Animation, Development, Employment and Communication) as a group during our first week, and the organization impressed me immediately: Founded in 1992, it trains and supports community-based organizations and civil-society institutions to advocate for the rights of the historically marginalized Dalit people (also known as the Untouchables), particularly women and children, in Tamil Nadu. Dalit people exist outside the four-tiered Hindu caste system (they are, literally, “outcasts”) and constitute 25 percent of the Indian population (compared with 3.5 percent Brahman, the priestly—and highest—caste; 5.5 percent Kshatriya, the warrior caste; 6 percent Vaishya, the traders; and 52 percent Shudra, the “service” caste). Caste-based discrimination was outlawed in India in 1954, but needless to say, the system is still de facto intact—according to ADECOM, most Dalit people live below the poverty line, earning approximately 60 rupees (one Euro) per day on average; most are agricultural workers but don’t own land; and political repression is widespread.

The Indian government has, of course, instituted affirmative-action programs to improve the social mobility of the Dalit people and ensure their political representation and access to higher education—the problem is, most of the measures only apply to practicing Hindus. ADECOM is working specifically to pressure state and federal governments to include Dalit Buddhists in political-representation requirements; reduce political interference in local elections, the first of which were held in Pondicherry Union Territory in 2006; and increase the political voice of Dalit women, many of whom are still at the mercy of the extant patriarchal system. Dominant (read: male) caste-based political forces do not tolerate female political participation and women are threatened with physical abuse and even death to exclude them from the process.

Obviously, ADECOM’s aims are commendable ones, and I’m thrilled to be working here. My fellow volunteer, Jenn, and I have had to adjust to a very steep learning curve, however. They’re turning in a grant application to the UN Democracy Fund on the 31st, and I’ve been putting it together for them, to the extent that I haven’t even had time to commence my “actual project” yet. I’m interviewing the managing trustee, Lalidamballe Perumal, on Tuesday, though, and we’ve already got lots of great photos, so I think we’re fairly “on track.” The days are long, but we’re busy, and the food is delicious—yesterday’s menu included chapattis and the best vegetable korma I’ve ever tasted. And, of course, I’m learning a lot, which is, of course, the most important thing :-).

P.S. If I have time, I’ll be editing ADECOM’s weblog. Check it out.

— Claire

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