THE buzzword these days is ‘empowerment’ and there is a lot of talk about empowering the people. The most vocal are political leaders who use the term randomly as a strategy to empower themselves politically.
True empowerment, however, envisages equipping people with tools they can use to achieve a decent life for themselves and their families which can be got through education, employment, healthcare, a roof above their heads and the sense of dignity they acquire when they do not have to be permanently dependent on others to sustain themselves. An example of how people are empowered pertains to the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust which was set up by Mr Mangi’s granddaughter Naween to draw out the innate capacity of the 3,500-strong community of Khairo Dero to uplift itself.
The main tools that have been identified by the trust for empowerment are education, literacy, healthcare, microcredit for income generation and building homes and getting water supply and sanitation on a self-help basis. The fact is that until the basic needs of a people are met and a sense of security provided to them, they cannot strive for higher goals. AHMMT works, as its vision statement says, with the aim of building a “model village that can be replicated”.
True emancipation lies in honing the tools of survival.
The essential principle at the core of this mission, which amounts to empowerment in the true sense of the word, is to develop the confidence and understanding in people of what is good for them and how they can strategise to protect their interests. They also learn to make a distinction between a sensible approach and a destructive strategy. Armed with this knowledge they refuse to be exploited by self-seekers.
The people of Khairo Dero have in the last six years since the trust was founded come a long way. They can now distinguish between what is in their interest and what can hurt them. More importantly, they can resist what they do not like. This was convincingly demonstrated recently.
An untoward incident in the village a few weeks ago led to what the trust’s newsletter described euphemistically as a “show of strength”. Naween Mangi, who visits her village frequently to oversee the work of the trust, is not very clear about what happened, why and who were the perpetrators. What is certain, as reported by her, was that she heard shots outside her two-room dwelling in the village, followed by loud banging on her door.
The village chowkidar who patrols the area every night claimed to have seen some intruders. But nothing could be definitively established about the hard facts of this out-of-the-ordinary happening. It is said to be the first act of violence of its kind in a place where cattle thefts are the most commonly reported crime.
Hence speculation abounded with people saying that some influential people had staged the incident to scare away AHMMT and its sponsor from the village because they did not want people to be empowered. Not unlikely, considering that the trust’s focus is on education, having already facilitated five schools in this little hamlet. I have been told that even today in the age of populism there are waderas in Sindh who openly resist the establishment of schools in the area they consider their jurisdiction.
What was remarkable was the public response. The people decided collectively that they could not allow this incident to go unchallenged. They had to protest to demonstrate their political will not to tolerate any violence. After years of feudal suppression, an awakening is taking place and the people now want to protect the gains they have made. They have learnt how to stand up for their rights.
But the idea was simply to send this message across and not to disrupt people’s lives. About 350 men, women and children wearing black armbands staged a peaceful rally to mobilise the people. It gave them a sense of ownership over the commons which people now recognise as their own. It was a warning to vested interests.
There was consensus that the rally was a demonstration of the people’s resolution to pre-empt any encroachment of their rights. It also became an exercise in public mobilisation for the first time in Khairo Dero. Above all, as Mumtaz Mirbahar, a mason who participated in the rally, observed, “This was essential to teach people to unite against the anti-social forces who are out to destroy our interests. If we unite with one voice, we can even break through a mountain.”
This should also alert the media. They are forever ready to rush to give coverage to events like dharnas and public rallies which amounts to giving publicity to power-hungry leaders who bring about no real change in people’s lives. In the process the actual winds of change go undetected.
Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2014