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Crusader J. Stanny brings tribals salvation through legal awareness
There are distinct rumbles in Gujarat's Surat district. Not a portent of destruction but the bearer of tidings of a new social awakening sweeping through the seven adivasi-dominated talukas of the region. And the man behind it all is Jesuit J. Stanny, or Sannybhai as he is affectionately known in Surat district's tribal areas.
To Stanny goes the credit of organising displaced tribals and helping them work towards a life of dignity and self-reliance. His Legal Aid and Human Rights Centre (lharc) has set up POs or People's Organisations in every village and hamlet of the seven talukas of Nizar, Ucchal, Songadh, Vyara, Mandvi, Mangrol and Umarpara; helped train paralegal workers; and produced the first-ever team of 24 tribal lawyers practising in the district courts, handling their community's cases.
The 49-year-old Stanny first came to Gujarat from Tamil Nadu in 1969. Even while working towards the completion of his religious instruction and undergraduate degree, his leanings were more towards social issues. "In 1982, I was posted in the Bhilora-Sabarkantha district and was struck by the poverty of the tribals. Deforestation had rendered them homeless and penniless as had the illegal landgrabbing by non-tribals."
Also, with most large-scale irrigation projects in Gujarat's hilly tribal tracts, traditional self-help and life-support systems are seeing an erosion. "There are about 300 minor dams coming up, the largest commissioned one being the Ukai dam," points out Stanny; they have affected about 170 villages in four talukas. Harassment at the hands of the police, forest department officials and unscrupulous builders compounds their woes. Says Jagrutiben Patel, Principal, Law College, Surat and a witness to the growth of Stanny's movement: "Justice was something beyond their reach." Caught up in internal conflicts and court cases, most of the unlettered tribals ended up selling the last of their assets: a strip of land, or a buffalo, just to fight a case.
Armed with a law degree, Stanny began work in 1988 by reviving a languishing legal aid centre run by the Navsarjan Trust operating out of Surat, which agreed to help him with initial financing. His first goal was to awaken tribals to the evils of not knowing the law. He began by imparting paralegal training to tribals. A six-month course which included personality development, communications skills and confidence-building workshops, the numbers in his class soon swelled from an initial 20 to hundreds, who in turn helped Stanny run legal awareness programmes.
In 1998, Stanny was joined in his mission by Amrutbhai Patel, a former employee of the Behavioural Sciences Centre in Surat. Together they launched the next phase of their self-help programme: the setting up of POs comprising tribals in seven adopted talukas. Says Patel: "Our idea was an organisation by the people whereby the actual work would be done by members themselves." Thus was born a purely democratic institution where membership demanded participation by an equal number of women and whose constitution was thrashed out by the members themselves.
Today, three years later, there are seven centres with seven POs and four coordinators to each centre reaching out to 20,000 members in 366 villages. These centres are getting roads built, bringing electricity and tubewells to their areas apart from reviving balwadis, dysfunctional schools and primary health centres. Says Hemantbhai Desai, eminent Surat lawyer and a panelist with lahrc: "Though Stanny and his group are the backbone of this movement, nothing can be better than adivasis themselves taking on the mantle of leadership: it's the best solution to ensure their place in mainstream civic life."
Today the POs are self-reliant, raising all the finances and support for their activities. On August 9 this year, about 6,000 adivasis showed up at a massive rally in Surat to mark the International Day of the World's Indigenous People, with their fists raised high in adivasi salute and the slogan Jai Adivasi on their lips.
In recognition of Stanny's efforts, the Washington-based Ashoka Innovators for the Public, a social venture capital organisation, has conferred upon him the honour of a Fellow. However, as Stanny says, it's not him but the adivasis who need the recognition and the help. Stanny has so far covered an area spanning a radius of only 200 km. Like all crusaders, he thinks he has miles to go before he can stop for a rest. To contact Stanny, write to Legal Aid and Human Rights Centre, Near rto, Ring Road, Surat 395 001; e-mail to email@example.com; or call (0261) 475 683.