The Praful Bidwai Memorial Award 2018

28 August 2018
Article

The Praful Bidwai Memorial Award is intended to honour and highlight courageous and independent voices in journalism. The 2018 Award was conferred on Ulka Mahajan, one of the three founders of Sarvahara Jan Andolan. Praful Bidwai, regarded by many as one of the best investigative journalists South Asia has produced, died tragically in Amsterdam on 23 June 2015. His friends created this award to honour his legacy. Praful was a TNI Fellow and a regular visitor to the institute for 25 years. Read the statement from the Praful Bidwai Memorial Committee on this year's award below.

Ulka Mahajan / Photo credit http://www.sruti.org.in

The Praful Bidwai Memorial Award, instituted in the memory of a courageous journalist, author, passionate social activist and engaged public intellectual, who was committed to radical social transformation, justice for all and gender equality, seeks to recognise the efforts of individuals and institutions that strive for similar ends.

It is in that spirit that we are delighted to recognise the work of Ulka Mahajan, one of the three founders of Sarvahara Jan Andolan (SJA), which has been working to empower extremely impoverished and marginalised communities of Raigad, Maharashtra, through people’s action. For Mahajan, it was a journey that began in 1989 as a student of social work, when she became acquainted with the Katkari adivasis, who traditionally survived on extracting katha from the Acacia catechu trees growing in local forests. Once access to these trees was forcibly denied to them, they were reduced to eking a living as bonded labour -- people without anything, the “sarvahara” -- and SJA was instituted to respond to the crisis they faced.

This demanded a multi-pronged approach -- from exposing rapacious landlords and calling for an end to bonded labour, to demanding at the national level that the community’s traditional rights to forest land be restored. Over time, the SJA came to represent not just the Katkari adivasis, but all those who faced immiserization, including dalits, landless agricultural labour and brick kiln workers. Every action SJA undertook was designed to build the confidence of the “sarvahara” in themselves and their capacity to claim their entitlements.

Ulka Mahajan / Photo credit http://www.sruti.org.in

We deeply appreciate the fact that the SJA, which began in a few hamlets, now has an active presence in nearly 150 villages of Raigad, and is part of national-level networks for social justice. The SJA has been a strong critic of economic liberalisation and has courageously exposed vested interests, which with the support of the state, are appropriating common property resources in the name of “development”. Over the years, the SJA has been able to acquire a keen understanding of the dynamics of such acquisitions, and has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with local communities in strategising a response. Today, SJA is in the forefront of resistance to industrial corridors and special economic zones (SEZs) planned without popular consensus. Success has followed. The historic people’s referendum that resulted in the 10,000-hectare Maha Mumbai SEZ being de-notified, for example, would not have been possible if the SJA had not brought affected villages on to one platform.

Ulka Mahajan / Photo credit http://www.sruti.org.in

We observe with admiration how Ulka Mahajan, as a woman in social activism, has been acutely conscious about bringing women’s rights to the centre of SJA’s interventions. Presently, half the members of its organisational committees are women. Consequently, local adivasi women have emerged as vocal activists. This has also meant that issues like sexual harassment and domestic violence, once enshrouded in silence, are now part of SJA’s living politics.

Many challenges remain, which is why SJA has sought to take part in political processes, sometimes fielding candidates in local elections but with the clear understanding that politics goes beyond elections and is ultimately about stemming the forces undermining democracy. This was reflected in its uncompromising stand against the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.

Through this award, we celebrate the efforts of a very courageous social activist -- Ulka Mahajan -- and the SJA, the organisation she has nurtured over three decades as an instrument to empower the “sarvahara”. According to Mahajan, the SJA is in now in need of new energy to face emerging challenges. This award, we hope, will contribute in a modest way towards that end.

The Praful Bidwai Memorial Committee
August 28, 2018