Illiterate Dalit women in AP wield the camera to tell their tales

Illiterate Dalit women in AP wield the camera to tell their tales

The Media Trust camera persons in action. dh photos

They are the women of Pastapur and neighboring villages in the semi arid, barren Zaheerabad mandal of Medak district in Andhra Pradesh.

The women camera operators of the Community Media Trust, probably the only such media house in the country can handle, shoot, edit and produce short films without any outside help.

The Deccan Development Society (DDS) based at Pastapur encouraged them to cultivate millets for self sufficiency. The initial toil and success of the women was then presented to the outside world through the photos and then videos produced by the same women.

Then came the launch of DDS Community Media Trust (CMT) that has been winning several laurels for its amazing media work over the last decade.The CMT runs a Women’s Video Collective and the first ever community radio of India called Sangham Radio. While the Women’s Video Collective has been functioning since 1996, the Sangham Radio took up narrowcasting since 1998 and has been on the air since October 2008, broadcasting two hours every day. Both these outfits are managed entirely by women from farming communities.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society (IFRC)’s World Disaster Report, 2011, focusing on hunger and malnutrition, recognized the communities of the Deccan Development Society.

First, it recognized their Food Sovereignty programme, the Disaster Report makes a special mention of the DDS communities in a two-page box ‘Saving Seeds and Speaking Out’: The Women of Medak District, Andhra Pradesh. The second important recognition is the commissioning of a film to the CMT by IFRC called Community Conquers Hunger. At a special ceremony in September this year, the IFRC screened the film in front of an elite audience in Delhi that included top diplomats, politicians, academics and eminent citizens.

The film ‘Community Conquers Hunger’ narrates the inspiring story of the women’s communities and their struggle to become food sovereign over the last two decades. Not in the distant past, their daily confrontation was with starvation and deprivation. Most of their days and nights were spent hungry.

A plateful of food was a dream they could never fulfill. This was the reality of thousands of women in the Medak District of Andhra Pradesh, before they organized themselves as Sanghams (voluntary associations). Once they had come together as Sanghams, they never looked back and wrote their present and future with a remarkable self assurance.

The short film is the remarkable story of these women from the margins of society, who with a quiet confidence went about banishing hunger from their midst in a span of two decades.

From a community of the hungry, they became a community of the plenty.  From being food receivers they went on to become food providers. Community Conquers Hunger is a chronicle of this fascinating transformation.

Chinna Narsamma, Humnapur, Laxmamma, Dandu Swaroopamma, Dandu Sooamma, Punyamma and Thammali Manjula, all members of the DDS Community Media Trust explained their work in chronicling the unique achievements of their women’s sanghams of the poor who pre-dated the current SHGs by over a decade.

Chinna Narsamma, herself a small farmer and a community filmmaker, who made the film Community Conquers Hunger, said that the sanghams were the first group in India to have started 100 days of employment for the poor, which preceded MGNREGA by 20 years.

Through this employment programme which they called Summer Employment, they brought over 5,000 acres of near fallow lands under cultivation, produced more than a million days of employment in 30 villages over a period of ten years and started producing over 20 million kgs of food every year. This was the first step in abandoning hunger in their sanghams.

Collective farming

Zaheerabad Punyamma added that the sanghams were also the first groups in AP that started leasing in lands and became the first women’s groups to start collective farming groups on these leased lands and produce additional food for their families.

In two decades, the sangham women have leased in more than 1000 acres of land and have produced over half a million kilograms of food for their groups year after year.

Dandu Swaroopamma, a community filmmaker and a member of the DDS Food Sovereignty trust said that the sanghams have brought over 4,500 acres of cultivable fallows under cultivation and produce nearly a million kg or more food every year. They have done poverty mapping of their villages and identified over 10,000 families as recipients of their jowar-based millet rations.

Each family has received a ration card through which they can draw between 10-25 kg of jowar every month depending on their poverty status. The jowar is sold at 25% of the market price to the identified poor.

Begari Laxmamma, a community filmmaker and a community seed keeper, pointed out that all these villages have their own community seed banks from which any farmer can borrow nearly 50-80 seed varieties.

Thousands of women in these villages have their own household seed banks and never depend upon outside seeds. Thus these villages have become seed sovereign.

Thammali Manjula, filmmaker and a coordinator of the Community Food Sovereignty programme, says “The film has nothing dramatic, but depicts our lives and it’s about how we conquered hunger.”

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