It's not the international awards she’s won. It’s not the people she works tirelessly with and for. It’s not the government policies she has shaped by her campaigns. What makes Dr Ruth Manorama remarkable is the smile in her eyes and the humanity in her face. It’s in the way she listens carefully and speaks out from a depth of understanding.

Ruth Manorama's voice has carried hope and positive change to the poorest and most oppressed in the country. Her efforts have drawn attention to the urban poor in general and Dalit women in particular. Winner of the Right Livelihood Award 2006, Manorama came to Bangalore in 1977, a freshly qualified social worker from Chennai. More than three decades, many struggles and victories later, she looks at her years in public service, with Charumathi Supraja.

Excerpts from an interview.

You did your B.Sc in Women's Christian College and your Masters in Social work from Stella Maris, Chennai. Yet you chose to settle in Bangalore.

Just after I finished my B.Sc I was unsure about what I wanted to do next. I joined volunteer service in my church. They were offering a 3 month course in Community Organization. It was a good exposure to the slums in Madras. I was exposed to problems of Burmese expatriates in Madras. That's how I got into the work of understanding the urban poor. Who are these urban poor and where have they come from? Then we went to the rural areas. I was appalled by the caste violence and discrimination faced routinely by people there. They earned Rs.2 for a hard day of labour. As students, we knew that was too little even as an allowance. The bus fare to Chennai, in those days, from that point, would have been Rs.10. People lived in such poverty and disease. Chronic diseases like scabies, anemia, etc. I started questioning the State.

Ruth Manorama trains adolescent girls in reproductive rights. (File pic: WFS)

How does the government make policies and not ensure that they reach the people they are meant for? How does the State tolerate atrocities committed against its own people? When my parents asked me to choose a subject for my higher studies and offered me the option of the Administrative Service, I didn't want to be part of the State system. I chose to do Social Work. It was a respectable, professional course in those days. I was offered the post of a lecturer in the same college. But I decided to take up the job I got in Bangalore in a training institute as a specialist for community development.

How was the city you moved into?

Bangalore was a simple city. Beautiful. Very good local people. I got a chance to understand the migrant population that trickled into Bangalore. Why do people migrate? They migrate in search of food and livelihood. They don't have any space to move into in the city. They squat on pavements, in slums, wherever they will not be shooed away from. The government views these people as 'unauthorized occupants', 'squatters,' etc. They claim that these people make the city dirty. I started working with them. My husband and friends were also interested in this work.

I make posters and put them up in the slums and villages. They reflect messages against domestic and caste violence. One of them reads, 'A real man never beats up a woman.'

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We started a group informally. I saw that women are most affected by the problems in the slum. They have to trek long distances in search of water. They have no place to ease themselves. I remember in Byappanahalli, one woman died of a snake bite. One child fell into a deep well when she went to fetch water. I went with all the women of that slum to the slum clearance board and refused to leave until they sanctioned taps for that slum. It was a big issue. The women started mobilizing their own groups, approached the authorities and got their work done.

Tell us more about Women's Voices (WV) – the group you started.

Women's Voices is a Bangalore-based organisation of slum-dwellers, not a charity organization. From one slum, 11 slums, 17 slums, we now have 126 units. Women are fighting for different things. We facilitate. I have 10 women working for them. I know their daily schedule. They keep me informed. These are member based organizations.

What are the problems being tackled now?

Though we have met the basic facilities in most of the slums, all the problems have intensified. In the context of globalisation, in Bangalore, poor don't get anything free. Water is privatised. So is power. Those who have the means have allowed it. WV is fighting that the poor will pay what they can for these facilities. Land is being given only to multi-nationals who will anyway leave after making profits, but will keep the land. Today in Bangalore, people can consume more. Many families have more than one car. All around Bangalore, thousands of acres of land is being given away for a song in the name of business. It is like losing gold. When public wants to buy a house, there is no land or it is priced such that we can’t touch it. This city is not useful to the middle class. The poor were anyway on the edges of society. How then do we protect Bangalore for the citizens of Bangalore?

You questioned the caste undertones within the mainstream women’s movement in the country and carved an exclusive space for Dalit feminism. Why?

The voice of the mainstream women’s movement was dominated by upper caste women though dalit women were part of it. I studied the condition of Dalit women and presented a paper on it. I said that Dalit women are thrice alienated by caste, class and gender. The upper caste women who are victims of gender hierarchy can still come out of it since they have the social and financial means. Not so with Dalit women. I federated them and the National Federation for Dalit Women (NFDW) has got international recognition now.

How do you include men in the discussion on women’s rights?

I have opened up NFDW meetings to men. They bring us cases of violence against women and react strongly to them. I make posters and put them up in the slums and villages. They reflect messages against domestic and caste violence. One of them reads, 'a real man never beats up a woman.'

Young women often dismiss the need for a women’s movement of any kind. As a feminist, can you comment on that?

They do so because they have never felt deprived. Young women need to be part of an organization to understand how a 'collective consciousness' develops and works. Being part of a group enriches your understanding of things. It helps you to see better. I feel that every house should be a woman’s organisation. The children should be made to help around the house, so that they understand their mothers better.

Rural women seem to do better for themselves with a little help and support, whereas urban women, with their education and relatively empowered status, are content to stay within prescribed limits...

Rural women have nothing to lose by speaking out. As Marx said, the poor have nothing to lose but their chains. Rural women speak out once they've found their voice and space. If members from my organisations are teased while traveling in the bus, they bring the roof down.

Urban women are more conditioned, have their bank accounts, education certificates and some 200-300 saris in the cupboard. They can't imagine spending a night on the platform. They often hand over their salary cheques to their mothers-in-law or husband. They have a high tolerance for violence. I am often contacted directly by families of women experiencing domestic violence in Bangalore and asked to intervene.

You personally counsel them and provide support?

There are many stories there. Some are happy, some are sad. Even after we intervene and talk and give help, the women are treated badly, sometimes denied even food. We keep trying.

How do you balance your public life with the personal?

I travel a lot. I sometimes wish I could have given my children more time but I am sure they are learning from my role in public life. I tell them that nothing comes easy. I have worked very hard to get here. My wish is to bring empowerment to any woman who approaches me for help. Not that she will be a separatist kind of person in her house. But I would like to make women comfortable with who they are and to reach out to what they want to be. It's the only thing I can do.

How do you guard against the bitterness and anger that could come from fighting a long battle against injustice?

There has to be reconciliation after the fight. The victims have to forgive their oppressors and purge themselves of hate and anger. We haven’t reached that stage yet in India. When you are fighting for a reasonable cause, a justifiable cause, you don’t feel angry or tired.