Community Organizing in Kolkata and Mumbai

Community Organizing International Labor Organizing

Kolkata: I had met Rabial Mallick earlier this year in the Philippines and knew that he had been involved in building community organizations throughout India from his home base in Kolkata, so high on my “wish” list for this visit was to find him and get a better grasp of the work.  I had been virtually stalking him for months in hopes of getting a better handle on this important development here.

 In Mumbai, I had spent an information hour or two late early one evening meeting with several leaders and organizers from several of the organizations inspired by Mallick and his associates work in the country.  They worked and lead two different organizations in large slums of Mumbai called POWER and PROUD, which were both “peoples’ organizations” focused on the need for decent housing for slum dwellers.  POWER had recently marked its 25th anniversary and its accomplishments since its founding.  The slum was one of the largest in India with 400000 or more residents, and after decades POWER had finally won commitments to develop new housing units and relocate some of the families while they were built and house them once finished.  PROUD was based in a nearby slum and was facing similar issues.  The organizers were part of a small team of five (5) organizers dealing with not only these two larger and older organizations in Mumbai, but another dozen as well.  They made it the best they could.

 I met Rabial Mallick late one night after arriving in Kolkata from Chennai.  His office was in the downtown area not far from my hotel, so in the few hours we spent together the scale and challenges of the work became even clearer.  Fortunately he lived only twenty minutes across the river in Howrath, so I did not feel as badly keeping him out in the evening against the constant and horrendous traffic of the city.   Mallick has been in the work for more than 30 years, having moved to the opportunity from activism in the student movement and tutelage of left professors active in the local labor movement and left government.  He was the “surviving” trainee of Herb White, a US based Alinskyite minister with the United Church of Christ, who had spent several years in the 70’s in Kolkata.   Mallick’s work had created a network of a hundred (100) different organizers in several Indian cities in addition to Mumbai and Kolkata with about 50 to 75 organizers. 

 I was curious how they were resourced and it was an interesting story.  Mallick was paid by CISRS — a Christian based Institute for Social Reconciliation — that arose from recognition in the 70’s that Christian churches were not playing a role in the social development of the poor in India despite a not insignificant membership in the country in some areas.  When India banned foreign donations and investments, the financial support from the World Council of Churches, Bread for the World, and a German church group were barred.  After several years the organization won a case at the High Court level proving that they were a “public interest” organization based in India, rather than anything else.  Having survived this scare, the church donors did the rare and unusual and essentially endowed the organization with a significant one time grant, whose interest and income had sustained the organizing now for almost 25 years.  Unfortunately, the support no longer is sufficient so Mallick and his organizations have been in a financial crises for the last several years while trying to exist on a budget of 5 M rupees, rather than 12-13 M rupees, which translates into US Dollars as the different between making it on m ore than $300,000 per year and now making due on a little more than $100,000. 

 The network has frayed.  There have been no meetings of all of the organizers for the last 2 1/2 years, so coordination has largely ceased.  The POWER anniversary celebration in Mumbai had led to invitations to all of the associated organizations, but attendance had indicated that some may be imperiled.  Each is nonetheless on its own.  Encouraging initiatives in Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), Pakistan, and elsewhere may or may not have had follow-up as resources dried up.  The external support, which had been so unique and substantial, had not been duplicated locally and international resources and priorities had changed with the fashion of the times and the constant challenges faced elsewhere.

 Meanwhile the organizing continues as always and as best it can.  In Kolkata, Rabial shared stories of interesting drives that mirrored ACORN’s own work around not only housing but also living wages fights and efforts to organize workers in the informal economy.  Rabial and his team in Kolkata had been involved in an interesting project to organize “hawkers” — street sellers — into an association where they could protect income and markets. 

 The work is important and we need to find a way to create partnerships that keep these initiatives vital and growing.

Meeting with Rabial Mallick, the great Indian community organizer.