The idea of Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK) came from a small town Ranpur in Ahmedabad district, where manual scavengers protested against the despicable practice called “mathemelu” – of manually cleaning human excreta – in 1996. Even as supporting their cause, the DSK’s founder Martin Macwan remained in direct touch with the local safai karamcharis. In 1999, he – in association with Gagan Sethi, chairman, Janvikas, held a four-and-half hour meeting with them scavengers in Ranpur to convince them to engage into alternative economic activity. A young woman suggested the idea of employment that was not scavenging.
Following the meeting, there was some churning of thought on how to set up a vocational training centre. The concept was worked out by prominent architect Manisha Shodhan, who was involved in designing the space which represented the ideas of the founders. It was not a simple task and the exercise saw many changes. To give the architectural concept an idea was a tough task. After all, the centre should enhance the Dalit movement. Various consultations with community members, activists and experts, therefore, took place.
Finally, when it was agreed to have DSK at its present location, the populist ceremony of laying the foundation stone by a prominent personality was replaced with the stone being laid by four community members, Kashiben, Sakiben, Valima and Jesangbhai. All the four had fought for justice against all odds, an example that would continue to motivate Navsarjan. The centre began with residential facilities for students living in second-hand military tents. They would brush their teeth and shaved in the irrigation water chamber of the neighboring farmer.
Activists’ training programmes would take place under the tree as the building slowly started coming up. The first building was designed and constructed by students with their own labor. The hostel was up with 240 bed facility followed by workshop area. Community training centre came up to facilitate human rights training programmes. The buildings had to have designs that could educate students of the purpose for setting up the centre and hence murals.
The DSK grew as new ideas began pouring in. Students visited nearby villages in the evening displaying their products and a theatre performance to motivate new students to join the DSK. Prayer as a programme of personal growth began in 2003. The first batch of 33 women arrived on the campus on June 20, 2003. Soon Nisha came from Delhi to start a new course (July 1, 2003) on textile designs. Other ideas, such as elocution, essay writing, and sports followed.
The centre was earlier named as Vocational Training Centre (VTC). In 2003 it was renamed as Dalit Shakti Kendra with heated debates in the campus. Some felt the name Dalit attached to graduation certificates would attract prejudices of the employers. The phrase Dalit Shakti was first time coined during the protest programme against caste violence held at village Sarasvani of Padra taluka of Gujarat on September 24, 2000.
The DSK began several technical courses on the campus, including car driving and servicing, auto mechanic, basic computer, fabrication, furniture-fabrication, handicraft and decoration, tailoring, industrial tailoring, motor rewinding, police and security services, beautician, electric wiring-repairing, photography and videograpy, teachers’ training, mobile repairing, screen printing, secretarial retail job, advance course in dress making and blouse making, construction, embroidery, spoken English, cooking and so on. But the need was felt to go beyond technical education.
Beyond technical education
Prayer: There was the need to go beyond technical education. The prayer was designed as a programme of personal growth. The first prayer chose to read the paragraph from the speech of Dr BR Ambedkar while presenting the Indian Constitution in Parliament. The song, ‘Humko Manki Shakti Dena’ was sung by Indu Rohit.
Sex education: Most students never had an opportunity to learn about their own bodies, especially the reproduction systems. DSK is grateful to both Dr Lata Shah and Ashok Bhargav for conducting workshops for each batch of students. They also trained DSK staff to enable them to conduct such programmes.
Book reading: In order to promote reading habit among students, the DSK introduced book reading competition where students have to appear before the jury to answer not the number of books they had read while in the campus but about what they learnt from reading the books.
Public speaking: To encourage students to think on public issues and to articulate their thoughts, DSK designed elocution competitions. The subjects for elocution are decided keeping in mind the relevant issue of the Dalit movement. Many students had the first experience ever to come on the stage and express their thoughts in public. DSK also organized training in small groups for students who were hesitant to participate.
Toy making: As an activity to promote creativity, the DSK organized ‘toy making competition’. Students and faculty alike often joined by children of staff participated the activity.
Eating competition: Food has always been a point of discussion in the community. Discussion on food was perhaps rooted in the realities of starvation and apprehension of deprivation. In the popular literature eating ladoo was always associated with the Brahmins. The DSK began organizing ladoo eating competition among students, which attracted more passion than any other competition.
Sports: Sports, especially for the women, has been historically a subject of social prohibition. Most young women were reluctant to participate. DSK had to do a great deal of motivation to ensure women participation in the competition.
Cultural activities: The DSK helped students perform theatre and other programmes on the social justice issues. It began holding Bhim Drama Competition, in which Dalit children from different villages enact the plays they prepare once a year.
Ecological sanitation: Keeping in mind the issue of finding alternative ways that could eliminate practices of manual scavenging, the DSK undertook many activities to turn the campus into an Eco-San campus. Range of such activities include, biogas based toilets, manure producing urinal systems, washing utensils in a way that would reduce water utilization and bad impact on the soil and gardens to treat bath and laundry water. The gardens were named after Johannees Heeb-Kalubhai and Martin waffler -Jayanti to recognize their contribution. Every batch of students was exposed to the benefits of ecological sanitation.