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VASUDHA VASANTI DHAGAMWAR

India,

This profile below was prepared when Vasudha Vasanti Dhagamwar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1982.

Fellow Sketch

Vasudha Dhagamwar has empowered displaced communities and women by providing information that helps them understand their civil rights so they can suitably use it. She has been translating laws and policies to simple, readable, audio-video materials that the general public can understand. 

Vasudha who was elected for her work with dam displaced communities in the early 80s, expanded her focus to industrial and linear displaced communities on one hand and working class women on the other hand. Vasudha got 7 villages re-integrated into the list of villages displaced for compensation as part of her work with Narmada Valley displacement. Her work in Korba industrial Area, Chhattisgarh, with the displaced communities included investigation, writing, and providing information that people wanted to know allowing communities to take actions befitting their needs. This information included what their land was going to be used for, and how they could be included in the process of land development, etc.

When asked about her interest in women from displaced communities, she argued that “Nobody asked about women and what would happen to them in case of displacement”. This triggered MARG’s work with the Department of Women and Child Development, Human Resource Development Ministry, in developing a series of booklets around the four aspects of laws affecting working class women. Developed during the late 80s these included labour, criminal, family and miscellaneous laws. MARG pioneered in getting this information out to the larger public. This constantly updated booklet series has been used as far as in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. 

Vasudha’s work with women was not just about providing information to empower them but, helping them use the knowledge in their own ways to solve issues, sometimes in the quickest, most efficient ways. Vasudha partnered with local NGOs which stepped in to help as per the needs of the women be it in the process of negotiations or conversations. MARG developed a series of short video films called “Bol Basanto” which talked about the social and legal problems in daily life. These were released nationwide through DD1 and other private channels in the early 90s and aired by other local channels. Radio films were another successful form of spreading awareness on issues like how women cannot be arrested by police at night. MARG publications have been disseminated through workshops across the country.

Vasudha also focussed on women and their roles and responsibilities in Panchayats. As a part of this, she looked at all aspects such as the importance of signing the register at every meeting as a “sarpanch” to how mahila mandals should work. This information was shared through knowledge booklets.  MARG came out with a book “They call me Member Saab” in 2000, which shared stories of women sarpanch highlighting the issues they faced to help other Women Sarpanchs’ across India learn from these experiences.

Vasudha, a lawyer by profession, wrote constantly about laws around women, child labour, and child marriage. She retired in 2005 after which she took up her passion to write full-time. Recently, she finished writing a biography on her mom Geeta Same, a socio-political novelist. 

Note: This was updated in November, 2013, read on for the ELECTION profile.

INTRODUCTION




THE NEW IDEA

Vasudha Dhagamwar is working toward a national policy for resettlement of project displaced people, especially tribals. Her goal is to secure proper rehabilitation and compensation for displaced people. She is attacking the problem from several angles at once. She seeks to gain legal grounds for her goal through the national judiciary system while also inspiring local resistance to complacency.




THE PROBLEM

Vasudha explains that there is a belief on the part of the tribals that the government would never displace them and if it did displace them it would take good care of them. By law, government must work with people in affected areas (from dam projects) to let them know what is about to happen and also to train them in new skills so they can relocate easily. Vasudha finds that in a majority of the affected tribal villages she and her co-workers have visited that the government has yet to even visit the villages much less begin rehabilitation.




THE STRATEGY

Dhagamwar has set up a national legal aid center which brings important public interest test cases before the courts. Her goal is to obtain precedent-setting judgments, especially those from India's Supreme Court, on behalf of the poor and unrepresented, then to provide follow-up services through local voluntary organizations. Her chief focus for these public interest cases is in land-use law. Consequently, her follow-up plans are of crucial importance, both to insure that the judgments obtained are enforced and that the beneficiaries are protected from direct and indirect retaliation for having the temerity to bring such cases.

Dhagamwar herself, however, stresses the need to de-emphasize the courts, as they are too backed up. In addition, the hefty expense of putting a case through the courts exaggerates the problem of getting the decisions enforced. She argues that the people have real power if they know how to use it, but they must learn to stand up for their rights directly

Vasudha has created a national Public Interest Litigation office that brings precedent-setting cases of policy significance. For example, she focused on a series of cases that she hopes will require that the compensation/rehabilitation costs of dealing with people hurt by development projects (e.g., villages flooded by dams) as a necessary component in calculating such projects' cost-benefit ratio. She is working with local lawyers to help bring such cases and with local voluntary organizations to provide follow-up services. Vasudha is also collaborating on a film that describes what happened to tribal people who were displaced by the Topi dam in India. 50,000 of these people are now landless laborers.

Vasudha and her organization are printing manuals for tribals emphasizing the relevant laws in their case and also explaining to the tribals their rights. These manuals are also meant to help tribal people organize effectively to lobby their political leaders for help. The Ford Foundation is funding the production of these manuals. Bread For The World, a German Organization, is the primary funder of Vasudha's organization. During the summer 1984, she helped Fellow Vivek Pandit's struggle to force the government to provide help for bonded laborers he helped release. She also helped in Kirtee Shah's efforts on behalf of Bangalore slumdwellers facing bulldozer evictions.




THE PERSON

Vasudha has worked for over a decade in the legal field, both in teaching and in grass-roots legal aid and public interest work. She hopes for the evolution of a national policy for resettlement of project displaced persons. She has been invited to be a lecturer to IAS students (Indian Administrative Services, the top echelon of the civil services).




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