A poor old woman fought for what she believed in

Sunday, 13 January 2008 - 3:36am IST

You don’t need power, just the courage and determination to fight for your beliefs, even if the system is stronger than you.

You don’t need power, just the courage and determination to fight for your beliefs, even if the system is stronger than you

So many of us give up the fight for justice just because we think we are not powerful enough. We find excuses, saying the system is too strong and that one individual cannot make a difference. But we don’t have to be powerful; we just need the courage, guts and determination.

Seven years ago, I met Kinkri Devi, a frail old woman. The 76-year-old’s health was deteriorating — but her eyes were alive. Married when she was 14 to a daily wage labourer, Kinkri Devi’s husband died prematurely of typhoid when she was 22.

She was a poor Dalit and used to work as a sweeper in Sangrah tehsil of Sirmour district in Himachal Pradesh, earning as little as Rs500 a month.

She was illiterate and could not even write her name, but she was smart enough to realise that reckless mining was destroying her beautiful state. With support from a local NGO, she filed a public interest litigation (PIL) against 48 mine owners.

No one took her seriously because she was so impoverished. Not even the miners. So it came as no surprise that her PIL elicited no response.

But Kinkri Devi wouldn’t give up. She went to the capital, Shimla, and staged a 19-day hunger fast. Only after that did the courts order a stay on mining and also imposed a ban on explosives used to blast through hills. The echoes of dynamite going off stopped haunting locals in the state.

Kinkri Devi was threatened and abused, but she said she would keep the fight going. The miners moved the Supreme Court, but lost there, too.

Kinkri Devi got international attention.

She was invited to the International Women’s Conference in Beijing. She inspired an international audience of feminists with her power of protest.

She told them how she was determined to stop mining which had destroyed the ecology of the area, destroyed rich green paddy fields and disturbed the water table.

She knew the power of education and her only regret in life was that she never saw the corridors of a school. She wanted to set up a school, and wanted many schools to mushroom all over so that the poor could study and get empowered.

It is a dream that those inspired by her fight will now have to carry on as she died two weeks ago.

The system may be stronger than you are, and all the forces can be against you. But when you truly believe in something, it doesn’t matter how much power you have. What matters is your determination. 

The award-winning Kinkri Devi, who was feted by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee with the Stree Shakti Award for being such a spirited environmental campaigner, showed how commoners could also put up a fight. And win.

Ramesh Menon is a documentary filmmaker and corporate trainer

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