Inspiration Information — Jeevika

by aaron on December 9, 2010

“I dream for a world and people living in total equality, freedom and fellowship.” –Kiran Kamal Prasad

A few weeks ago I attended to the Freedom Awards — an event thrown by freetheslaves.net to honor those present day abolitionists who have dedicated their lives to fighting modern slavery.  I promised then that I would dedicate an inspiration post to each of the four award winners from that tonight.  Today’s post focuses on the Harriet Tubman Freedom Award winner: JEEVIKA.

JEEVIKA of India – Harriet Tubman Award winner – 2010 Freedom Awards.

When talking about slavery, nowhere in the world suffers more humans in forced bondage than India.  It is a problem not only of vast population, limited resources and rampant poverty, but also of a deeply ingrained socio-cultural caste system.  There over 1 billion in India today.  More than a quarter of them are dalits — untouchables.  For centuries, this lowest caste has been subjected to extreme poverty and humiliation.  Simply being born into a dalit family insure a life of hardship and oppression.  Not all dalits are slaves, but a significant majority spend their entire lives trapped in debt bondage, perhaps from a small amount borrowed from wealthy farm owners to pay for a family emergency. They’ve been cheated when exploitative landlords claim the debts have never been repaid.  Often these debts are passed down by generation, with sons and daughters inheriting the bondage from their fathers fathers.  It is a form of illegal and unquestionable slavery without many outlets for recourse.

And that’s where Kiran Kamal Prasad comes in.  A former Jesuit priest, Kiran first discovered that the practice of bonded labor was officially outlawed in India over 30 years ago.  Ever since, he has worked tirelessly to speak directly with current slaves and powerful land owners to grant their workers’ freedom.

He founded the organization “JEEVIKA” — which is short for Jeeta Vimukti Karnataka,  loosely translates as “life free from bondage.”  Kiran personally visits the farms where these slaves live and brings them all the knowledge and legal documents they need to claim their freedom.  To date he has filed court papers for nearly 20,000 bonded labor slaves in the state of Karnataka (Jeevika estimates that there are over 500,000 people in debt labor in this state alone).   On top of that, he has created an action plan for the government to encourage and implement widespread political changes to free more slaves faster.

The goal, says Kiran, is”inculcating in them a sense of freedom and purpose in their lives, and making them resolve to come out of bondage. We motivate them. We encourage them to come out of slavery and be independent, to support their families in a dignified way.

One of these former slaves is a powerfully humble man named Shivanna Puttaiah.  Yanked from school at age 12 to work off the family debt as a farm hand, he spent his whole life as a slave.  “When I was a bonded laborer, I was treated like an animal. When I see bonded laborers, I have fire in my heart,” Shivanna says.

After learning from JEEVIKA that bonded labor was outlawed in India more that 30 years ago, Shivanna escaped from his farm and filed court papers to win his freedom.  Now, he’s become one of the main leaders in JEEVIKA, working to free other slaves just like himself.

“My parents gave me birth,” Shivanna says, “but it is JEEVIKA which gave me a way to lead an independent life. He still works on farms, but now he gets to keep whatever he reaps.  And he is happy.  A man full of pride.

In their acceptance speech at the awards, Shivanna had no words to thank everyone for the recognition of Jeevika’s work.  So instead, he shared his emotions through song…
http://vimeo.com/17653080
Roughly translated lyrics to his song:

In the cradle of bonded slavery, on the mattress of thorns, why are you still sleeping? Arise and get up!  Enough of your sleep!  To the people who are arrogant, never bend your head.  Arise and get up, wipe out bonded slavery!”

It is easy to read something like this and pause for a moment with a smile on your face.  And perhaps think, ‘there are people out in the world doing wonderful things.”  And then just as quickly click away and return to your christmas shopping, your work, your endless unchecked and ever expanding to-do list.  But pause for a moment.  Think about your day.  Your hardships.  The weights and pressures that are dragging you down.  Think about that vacation you wish you could take.  The money you don’t have and all those necessities you could buy if you did.  Think about the strained expectations of your parents, or your spouse, your boss and kids.  This life that you had is not easy or smooth.  It is pitted, full of potholes and ice slicks. Roadblocks and swerving ambulances.

Life is difficult.  Yours in particular is undeniably tough.  And yet… if you are reading this post, you have the luxury of internet.  More than likely you own a computer.  It’s probably safe to say you have a cozy bed to sleep in.  A wide selection of cuisine available 3 times a day.  You are in school, or have a job.  You earn a salary, own a car, perhaps indulge occasionally (if not daily) in a $3 cup of coffee.  Even if sometimes relationships get strained, you are surrounded by people who love and support you.  In short, your life is tough… but it is also undeniably blessed.  For in each moment, you are free to chose who you want to be, what you want to do and how you choose to live your life.

80% of the world’s population lives on under $10/day.  Over half live on less that $2.  And among those are the millions of slaves, who earn no money.  People who the very idea of a $3 cup of coffee is a luxury beyond comprehension.  I’m not saying don’t buy that coffee, I’m encouraging you to drink that cup as the incredibly fortunate gift it is.  Savor every sip, appreciate it as though you can’t drop into any starbucks and get one on whim… for all those billions of people out there who quite simply can’t.

The best things in life are nearest:  Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you.  Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life’s plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life. ~Robert Louis Stevenson

It’s a matter of perspective.  No major adjustments required, just a refocusing of the lens.  When you look at the world from the eyes of a dalit, a slave, a person whose life and freedom do not belong to them…  suddenly what little we each have seems like an astounding trove of blessings.  All to be cherished, to be grateful for, and finally to be shared.

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