The Nirbhoy Gram is a first of its kind of a flagship philanthropic initiative in Malda district of West Bengal in eastern part of India with an aim to empower 3000 villages and 5 million people. The initiative spreads ideals of peace, non-violence and fearless existence. It upholds principles of Gram Swaraj (Realisation of true Independence of villages).
Malda has been declared one among 272 most backward districts by the Planning Commission of India. Nestled in the border of Bangladesh, the district has reported high levels of poverty, illiteracy, crime and communal violence. A large number of youth is affected by drug addiction. Millions of girls are married off prematurely before they attain the age of a major. The sex ratio is skewed, with high levels of violence against girl child. The district is a popular source of child labour and migrant unskilled labour. There is lack of employment opportunities and capacity to combat poverty. There is continuous river erosion and loss of livelihood due to violence and natural calamities. The drinking water is contaminated, with high levels of arsenic poisoning. The newspaper readership is very low. Community radio is yet to reach these villages. The television has covered only one fourth of its population.
Nirbhoy Gram means a fearless village. It primarily focuses on safety and security of women and children. The initiative has been envisioned by India’s leading women’s rights activist, Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury (An iconic figure in Malda district fondly addressed by villagers as Nirbhoy Didi, meaning fearless sister) as a people’s movement for safety, security and justice at the grass-root.
The campaign aims to remove fear from the minds of villagers, teach villagers to stand against crime and corruption, educate them to fight economic insolvency, motivate them to voice out their demands for social justice, safety and security and elect fearless and truthful leaders as their representatives for social, economic and infrastructural transformation of the villages.
The initiative helps people build safe homes, toilets, roads and reliable sources of power and drinking water. The campaign has raised a phenomenal number of Nirbhoy (Fearless) volunteers as messengers of peace and agents of social change. The initiative has focused on villages as nerve centres of growth and economic development. It motivates villagers to reap the benefits of naturopathy and indigenous handicrafts produced by rural community artists and charkha based textiles. The campaign empowers people to rely on natural resources available in the surroundings and build social skills to combat poverty and economic subjugation.
At present, Nirbhoy Didi is campaigning for smart villages, safe homes, sustainable toilets and sanitary napkins for women and young girls.
The insidious and brutal incident of rape of “Nirbhaya” on December 16, 2012 highlights the most atrocious forms of violence against women in India. While addressing the Nation, President Shri Pranab Mukherjee in his speech said – “There is no clarification or justification that can be offered for what happened. Nothing. We are simply ashamed. If a nation cannot respect its mothers, sisters and daughters then that country is not a civilised nation.”
The incident of Nirbhaya led to the complete outburst of anger that was already existing and boiling within the hearts of millions of people in India. It created a “National Emergency” to attend to the escalating incidents of rape and sexual violence of women.
In the light of urgency of the matter and consideration of the safety and security of women, the central government soon constituted a Special Task Force under the Chair of eminent Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury to address the issues of violence against women and alongside constituted a Special Study Expert Committee on Rape, Trafficking and Violence against Women with a 20-point agenda to find solutions.
The urgency of the matter also impelled to lay down modifications in the existing legal system through Justice Verma Committee. The committee recommended that adult literacy programs and police sensitization are necessary for gender empowerment. Also, amendments in the criminal laws were introduced through Justice Verma’s report. In addition to the modifications in the existing criminal laws, Justice Verma Committee also highlighted attitudinal changes in society. The report states “Attitudinal changes to correct the aberration of gender bias have to be brought about in the institutions of governance to improve the work culture, and in civil society to improve the social norms for realizing the constitutional promise of ‘equality’ in all spheres for the womenfolk”.
The Justice Verma report stated, “If true empowerment of women were to mean anything, it is necessary that law, as well as public policy, must be capable of engaging substantially with women’s rights, opportunities, acquisition of skills, the ability to generate self-confidence and insist on total equality in relationships, both with society and the State. It is the inability of women to claim equality in society which has led to a slant against women as a consequence of which there has been a latent bias against women in the prosecution of crimes including its prevention”.
Highlighting the importance of education towards empowerment of women, the report further stated that “Education to correct gender bias and to cure the mindset of the prejudices influencing the law enforcement agencies has also to be a part of this exercise. A holistic view of the entire issue has to be taken by addressing the root causes and not merely the symptoms of the malady. Education has to begin at birth in the home, in formal education, personal behaviour, social interaction, and it has to continue life-long. The process may take time for its completion, but it must commence forthwith”.
The symbolic character Nirbhaya inspired Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury to engineer a social campaign called Nirbhoy Gram (Fearless Village). The core idea is to motivate and empower villagers towards eradication of poverty, fear, illiteracy and social maladies from their lives. The Nirbhoy Gram is seeking to achieve rural people’s absolute trust in police, government and the Panchayat system (Local Self Government). The founder of Nirbhoy Gram, Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury, is fondly addressed as Nirbhoy Didi by the local villagers.
Why Malda ?
The first Nirbhoy Gram has been initiated in Malda district of West Bengal, a district which has been identified as one of the 272 poorest of the poor districts of India by the Planning Commission of India. The district faces challenges of safety, security, abject poverty, poor infrastructure and pitiable law. Malnutrition, unemployment and economic insolvency have led male population, village after village, to migrate to cities in search of job. Majority of the households are inhabited by only women and girls. Indian cities are represented by a mass exodus of construction labourers and child labour from Malda. The district is known for a very high number of child marriage, dain (witchcraft) and girl child trafficking. There are poor health facilities and absence of patient transports at the villages. 280 villages are yet to be electrified.
The district of Malda is plagued by numerous social vices and reports high levels of criminal activities. According to the 2011 census, Malda district has a population of 3,997,970 giving it a ranking of 58th in India (out of a total of 640). Malda has a sex ratio of 939 females for every 1000 males, and a literacy rate of 62.71%.
Incidents of child marriage, foeticide and infanticide are rampant in this region of North Bengal. A huge international border with Bangladesh facilitates illegal activities such as manufacturing of fake-currency, illegal cross-border trading, selling of young girls and women etc. Safety, security and protection of the villagers often remain in a questionable state as the crime chart shows a rising phenomenon. Moreover, abject poverty, migration of the male population to the nearby states to earn livelihood and severe unemployment of the youth makes community vulnerable to all sorts of illegal activities. Initiation of “Nirbhoy Gram” as a pilot project in this district thus assumes significant importance.
Need to establish Nirbhoy Gram
In a village, most homes are without doors, windows and toilets. Kachha houses are susceptible to crimes, natural calamities and annual damages. In order to secure the life of villagers, one needs to work for development of a safety network and infrastructure to support the process of a Nirbhoy (Fearless) living. This means, people’s access to financial independence as well as self-reliance with improved income level are absolutely paramount for a Nirbhoy (fearless) life.
Villagers live in perpetual fear because they do not have enough cash in hand to handle emergencies. They fall prey to money lenders and self-styled goons for survival. The element of subjugation begins with financial debt and often leads to exploitation of women and girl child. It is most pertinent to bring about change in income and savings in order to fulfil the needs of a family.
Nirbhoy Gram is envisioned as an accomplishment of rural community’s social health through the achievement of:
- Safety, security and protection of young girls and women against violence and breach of human rights
- Dignified living standards based on food security, employment guarantee, public health awareness and access to higher education.
- Freedom from social vices such as child marriage, infanticide, foeticide, witch-craft, honour-killing, child labour.
- Opportunities for infrastructural development such as roads, power, water, toilets, pucca homes
- Agricultural growth and prosperity of farmers
- Scope of Income generation at the village level for self-reliance as well as to arrest labour migration
Goals, objectives, functions and activities of Nirbhoy Gram
- Transform villages into Nirbhoy Gram
- To establish schools as Nirbhoy schools and Colleges as Nirbhoy Colleges
- To encourage villagers to become Nirbhoy Pratinidhi (Nirbhoy Representative) who shall be the voice of Nirbhoy
- Promote Village Economy
- Fight for Safety and Security of Women and Children
- Support Destitute and Homeless
- Fight Crime and Corruption
- Vote for Nirbhoy (The Fearless)
- Be a Nirbhoy Peace Ambassador