Sunday, May 15, 2005

Fighting for justice and dignity: The good doctor

I first met Dr. Subbaramaiah (Dr. S.) about two years ago, when we in Asha received an ambitious proposal from this remarkable group in the Chitoor District of Andhra Pradesh, who were working with scheduled castes as well as landless peasants. Since then, I’ve come to know him better, and have found him to be a person of remarkable strength and indomitable will. This is his story, a story I'’ve tried to put together piece by piece.

He was born to landless peasants in a small village, and knew only poverty and hardship in childhood. Yet, his parents wanted a better life for him, and so he was sent to a village school. And he studied, with a ferocious desire to succeed. His efforts resulted in him securing the first rank in the entire district in his 12th class exams, and an admission into the Tirupati Medical College. This was cause for much joy, but the family did not have the money for the college admission and tuition fee (just a few hundred rupees, this was a government college). A powerful village landlord promised the family this money as a loan. But he was a petty and vindictive man. Never in the history of the village had a child of backward and petty peasants gone to college, leave alone Medical College. How dare this boy dream then? At the very last minute, he reneged on his word, hurled abuse at them and did not give them a penny. S’'s future seemed destined to be tied to the endless cycle of poverty and oppression. But his mother'’s desire was stronger. She gave him her only pair of earrings, and told him to sell it and go to college. He did, and ran to college, only to find that the admissions had closed that very morning. In extreme depression, he met the principal and told him his tale. The principal was a kindly man, and after all, S was a district topper. The principal summoned a peon, and told him to process S’s application immediately. S was now on the way to becoming a doctor.

His early life of hardship had ensured that he would have little tolerance for injustice. Even as a medical student he began to immerse himself in issues of social justice. It started with him exposing the mess warden (who was providing substandard food to the inmates and stealing the remaining funds, and was well connected with the local Mafia). Later, as a junior resident, he locked horns with a head nurse, who in conjunction with a local rowdy, was pilfering medical supplies, and worse, was involved in a racket exploiting the junior nurses. Every one was terrified of the rowdy, and warned Dr. S not to interfere, but he would not listen. One evening, when he was on duty, the rowdy showed up armed and drunk, and threatened Dr. S with his life. Dr. S. pushed him out of the gate, and locked it, and also locked the head nurse in, called the cops and had the thug arrested. By this time Dr. S'’s father had also passed away, and he was a sole breadwinner for his family. It was about now that he got involved with the struggle for the rights of landless laborers.

Not far from Puttur town, there were about 750 acres of fertile but fallow land. The government had declared that this was to be distributed to landless peasant families living in the region. But powerful and wealthy land grabbers decided to occupy this valuable land. Dr. S. could not let this injustice pass by without a fight, and so he took up the cause of the peasant families. He formed his organization, MICDA, and started working for the interests of these peasants. He took the land grabbers to court, and fought them. And he fought, and fought and fought....

About twenty years have gone by since then. The land grabbers, powerful landlords and corrupt local officials have still not given up, and still want that valuable land. Dr. S has been charged with over twenty-five false cases, which he has fought. The local courts as well as the state high court have dismissed every single one of them as baseless, false or malicious. But still, new false charges are constantly levied against him. Some years ago, the landlords sent vicious thugs to threaten Dr. S, who just barely escaped with his life (his brow still bears a nasty scar where he was hit). Still, he will not back off, though the threats continue. His medical career has been sacrificed for this cause. While juniors move up the ranks, Dr. S is away on medical or unpaid leave, fighting for this and other causes. The constant stress has taken its toll, and he now has stress-induced diabetes, and other medical ailments.

Meanwhile, he and his group have worked tirelessly to improve the lives of some 350-400 landless peasant families. They developed, surveyed and leveled the 750 odd acres of land. Every peasant was allotted land (about 1.6 acres, neatly demarcated), in a completely transparent way (by drawing lots). A basic and simple but efficient village was constructed within the land. Roads were built; check dams constructed, and bore wells sunk. Timber poachers who cut sandalwood from the hills around the land were caught and chased out by the peasants. Corrupt forest officials in cahoots with the poachers tried to harass these peasants, but that has been negotiated as well. A fine school has been built (with Asha's support), and hundreds of children come here every day, first generation learners all. The respect with which these peasants greet or talk to him is moving in itself.

The sun sets behind the hills around the land. We sit in the school porch and watch it go down. I see the look of exhaustion on Dr. S’'s face, and yet his eyes gleam with the determination to fight on and take up other struggles for the rights of the deprived and oppressed..


Anonymous said...

what a fine story.... Dr. S must be a remarkable man - it must be tough enough to go on in the face of what seems to be a pointless and thankless task - but to live with threats and false allegations and still continue such work... there are countless such unheard voices in India - is there a way we can put together some of them?

Arun said...

nice way of describing.

Anonymous said...

An inspiring story, well told.

Srikanth said...

Rare are such people of integrity and dedication, who have plunged themselves for the good of their fellow men.

Such a person is all the more valuable in India, where most of us are unconcerned, passive or fatalistic.

Sunil said...

Charu, that's a nice thought. There is a site called goodnews india ( which has some stories. But if you come up with ideas, I'll be quite happy to help in any way possible.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sunil, clearly I visit you here too seldom! Thanks for this. I would love to visit the doc sometime. This is in Chittoor -- maybe I should visit Rishi Valley (where I spent a couple of years) and the doctor on the same visit. The whole business of land reform is getting even less attention today than the half-hearted efforts of the past; I'm glad there are people like Dr S to fiht for it.

Sunil said...

Dilip.....if you do, let me know and I'll put you in touch with Dr. S. There are some amazing stories he has, he's such a simple, shy, humble, modest and unassuming man.

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