Changing lives of the people

Interior decorator-cum-fashion-designer Shabnam Ramaswamy left her secure livelihood in Delhi and came back to a remote village in Murshidabad district in West Bengal with her husband with a dream to do something for the people of her native place.

Ever since her return in 1998, she has not only changed the socio-economic conditions of people but also evolved a unique method to bring back the criminals into the mainstream of society by providing them employment in her projects.

“I was born in Katna village in Murshidabad district and wanted to do something good for the people particularly the students of my village. In 1998, leaving my successful career in fashion designing, I and my husband Jugnu Ramaswamy--a journalist and a documentary filmmaker--came here and started a Bangla-medium school Jagriti” Ramaswamy told Deccan Herald over phone from Katna.

“As I always dreamt of having an English-medium school in this village so that the students do not lag behind their city counterparts, we converted our Bengali medium school into an English medium institution--Jagriti Public School-- that welcomes learners from different backgrounds and localities throughout the subdivision,” Ramaswamy said.

Shabnam Ramaswamy was into social service even when she was in Delhi. She not only worked with Meera Nair, the famous filmmaker, in her “Salam Bombay Trust” but also with an NGO working for the street children. In 1990, she and her husband started a small self funded NGO called--Street Survivors India.

“The vision was to create equal learning opportunities for working kids on Delhi’s streets. It involved creating a slum-based school called Jagriti which also served as a kitchen and night shelter. 

Sadly, nearly 10 years into its existence, the school (along with the slum within which it was situated) was demolished by government bull-dozers as part of a clean-up drive,” she lamented.

“Jagriti literally had a rebirth in Katna and today I am satisfied that I have been able to help so many people,”  Shabnam said.  When asked what transformed her from a mere school teacher to a social crusader, she said: “Actually an incident changed the course of life. It was sometime in 1999 when I had just opened my Bengali-medium school. One day while we were returning home some people attacked us with firearms and bombs. We didn’t die but were heavily injured.

“Later when I came to know that one political party hired them to kill us, I spoke to them. To my surprise, I found that they were given Rs 15,000 each to kill us. They didn’t even know us but as money was important to them they were ready to kill unknown people.

“I offered them jobs and they readily accepted. Today, all the four people who had picked up arms to eliminate us now work in my organisation. Their children study in my school and they are living a normal social life.” 

“I believe nobody is a born criminal. Family compulsions and social system make a person criminal. If a criminal is given a job and is allowed to enjoy a healthy social life, he will definitely change.

Ignoring the social stigma I have given jobs to many criminals in my school and projects and they as reliable as anybody,” Shabnam,  a student of La Martiniere for Girls, Kolkata, said.

When asked why the political parties hired these goons to kill them, Rama swamy said:

“This is the main problem because there are some people in society who want this poverty to persist, these criminal activities to continue because that serves their vested interests. They don’t want any good things to happen because that might reduce their control over the area.”

“Before we employed them as gardeners, cooks or drivers in our projects they were criminals, but now they are just like you and me,” she added.

At present more than 100 reformed criminals work in three different projects run by Street Survivors India, including Jagriti Gramin Libraries--a program that extends the philosophy of Jagriti into a broader area, Streeshakti--a community-based arbitration programme seeks to provide women victims of crime with access to justice and Swayamshakti, a project that harnesses women’s craft skills to generate economic and social empowerment.

“Streeshakti, a community-based arbitration programme seeks to provide women victims of crime with access to justice. This hugely popular forum now conducts hearings three times a week, issues summons that are almost universally respected, and has handled over 500 cases since 2003,” she said.

“We also run a Katna embroidery cooperative society with more than 1,400 women of the area. The profit is channelled into the development of the school,” Shabnam said.

“Apart from that we do counselling, provide reproductive and adolescent training and take remedial classes. We are also trying to link our programmes to the National Rural Health Scheme so that we can reach out to more people,” she added.

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