If we try to identify the most crucial steps for bringing peace and prosperity to our rural areas, then it’s likely to be the promotion of social harmony based on justice and equality. This will in turn help to improve productivity and eliminate poverty.
This basic understanding has guided the vision and work of Disha, a leading voluntary organisation of North India in the last 35 years. Starting from an almost resourceless existence in a few villages around Sultanpur Chilkana in Saharanpur district, the impact of the work of this organisation and its affiliates now extend to several hundred thousand people in western Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
K.N. Tiwari has been the founder-co-ordinator of this organisation all through its eventful years. He was one of the brightest young politicians of Dehradun district when he took the life-changing decision of shifting from politics to social work. At a very young age he had already won two elections of Dehradun Cantt as ward member. Extremely popular, his decision to settle in a village in a different district as a social worker, was widely resisted by his supporters.
In view of this opposition and the numerous difficulties he faced at the new place, even Tiwari had several doubts about his big decision at that time, but now after 35 years of the efforts of Disha he says, “I do not have any regrets. The affectionate and long term relationships I could establish with so many people, particularly those from weaker sections, are perhaps the biggest reward of my work.”
At a wider organisational level, Disha was involved in several successful struggles for the rights of women farm workers, dalit farmers and rope making artisans. Such efforts led to the formation of another front for workers, small farmers and women, which took up several issues of weaker sections at the village level. There were other prolonged but eventually successful struggles led by women for resisting the spread of liquor vends and injustice to women representatives.
These struggles were combined with many-sided constructive work to improve livelihoods and economic security, most notably in the form of organisation of self-help groups of women and, at a later stage, micro-finance activities based on this experience. Other activities included efforts to improve eco-friendly farming methods in several villages. Disha hosted an international conference on the hazards of GM crops at a time when there was very little awareness on this issue in India.
Disha not only practiced equality based on gender, caste and religion in its own functioning, but in addition, its practices also had a much wider impact in several communities where it worked. Of course, initially, there was a lot of resistance from some people, but eventually more people were attracted to it and contributed to such efforts based on social equality and harmony. For more than three decades, Disha has tried to bring relief to victims of violence and other injustice. In the process, hundreds of women have been helped and infact, many of them say that they received help from Disha at a time when they had almost lost hope.
The early years were the most difficult. Tiwari remembers cycling long distances across muddy paths and living in a dilapidated house. Although some initial help and local contacts were provided by a Delhi based organisation CENDIT which had been making development films here, some local influential people were initially very hostile to the newcomers who were mobilising the poor. However, Tiwari persisted and stayed on. Today, sitting in the small but beautiful campus of Disha located in a mango orchard, Tiwari can afford a smile and say, “We certainly faced big hinderances, but if we had run away from difficulties, then we would not have achieved so much.”