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ZHRF Campaign for Human Dignity

“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life”. - Nelson Mandela

The Zomi Human Rights Foundation is deeply concerned about the extreme poverty conditions that it sees around today. This disheartening condition is a consequence of severe disregard for human dignity by the powers-that-be. This disregard evidences in, not just absence but deliberate deprivation of any means of a decent livelihood. What is worse is the devastating sense of hopelessness among the marginalized communities living everywhere, and in particular, in and around Churachandpur District of Manipur, the operational area of the ZHRF. One clear example of this neglect is that there abounds scarcity of food and resources in this southern part of the state of Manipur, especially in these post-mautam* times. This appalling situation is not just because of a simple lack of income. It is the shocking denial of access to available resources at the grass-roots/hill village level. It has more to do with what Nelson Mandela says.

The untold story and irony is that it is at the hill village level that great changes can be wrought with minimal input. The rewards of making this minimal input would be almost instantaneous and far-reaching. The depressing thing, however, is that the privileged few who are empowered to effect such change have – for reasons known only to themselves - not really thought it worthwhile to try. A little thought on their part would reveal to them that the minimal necessary input required are only the very basics and low-cost aspects of capacity building through, literally, the ABCs of education that starts with ensuring the teacher is at the school; food security that ends with half a truck-load of rice stocked in every village chapel; ensuring a ‘barefoot doctor’ visits every village once a fortnight to provide health security and, of course, a stand-alone power system managed by the communities themselves. The last, a modern amenity that bridges divides and chasms, best and fastest, may be provided through solar/ wind/ hydel, or hybrid system specific/custom-made for that village, as is being done by MANIREDA today. With these minimal inputs in place, the affected people would be able to change their lives, realize their rights and, thereby, get to live with some dignity. The philosophy being: life and human rights can be enjoyed even if you are poor but have some dignity. If you are poor and also have no dignity, then there is no life worth the living. Dignity does not come only with jobs and money but with facilities enjoyed. Like power, water, sanitation, CGI sheet roof and an all-weather road. With these basic of facilities the government, and people in power, are telling the people that we care for you.

On the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the world anticipates, with great hope and fervour, the universal call, ambition and aspiration of freedom from want and fear. All that sounds good, but sounding good is not enough for millions of people living in poverty without dignity. These people suffer even more because of the hopelessness that rules their lives, all because they are, at the end of the day, the ‘marginalized’. Not unexpectedly, they happen to be the marginalized tribe(s), or caste(s) living on the fringes of a dominant society in their own state or country, leaving them voiceless, unheard and ignored. Such is the lot of the marginalized tribes of the North-East, of which the Zomi group is but one who are denied the knowledge and power to shape their future. The question that arises is: who denies the marginalized this knowledge and power.

Poverty is aggravated by human beings. Long ago, a great poet worried over what man has made of man. It remains the main concern today. In fact it is more so, because of the irony that, in no other time in the life of man and the history of the world has there been ways, means, wealth and know-how of lifting every child, woman and man out of poverty, ill-health, illiteracy and all abuses … than today! And, we do not have to be a poet to know, or ask that.

One significant way of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty and exclusion is by combating the human rights violations that abound in the lives of the marginalized and deprived, wherever they are. And they are everywhere, (except perhaps in Switzerland and some Scandinavan countries). Governments, institutions and our elected representatives - in my country and particularly in my State, and more specifically in my home District of Churachandpur - who hold the power to change people’s lives for the better, need to open their eyes, ears, minds and hearts. If responsiveness, responsibility and accountability were to guide their actions on the human rights of the poor and marginalized people, there would be ‘a’ light at the end of the tunnel. A not inappropriate example of this ‘a’ light, hence, ‘a’ mitigation would be Churachandpur District’s fairly successful implementation of the NREGS, criticisms and shortcomings, notwithstanding. Wherever implementation was fairly successful human dignity, dignity of labour and hope were writ large on faces that had long forgotten to smile.

However, it is known that not all human rights are legally enforceable, and that loopholes capitalised is at the heart of poverty. Also, not too ironically, those responsible for perpetration of poverty - often the powers-that-be – cannot even be brought to be held accountable! Whereas, those affected, the sufferers, are of no account at all. In fact, the poor and marginalized, here the Zomi, are expendable.

Global development programmes have worked and not worked and have reached, and not reached. They have not really reached us in this corner of Manipur State on a scale that would be large enough to make changes. Without meaning to be harsh, the ‘reach’and ‘gauge’ of global efforts do not take full account of the rights of those living under poverty. In spite of a few and really exemplary efforts, viz. those of the INGO: MEDICINS SANS FRONTIERES that does its best – reigned in by its small size - to address and mitigate a very wide range of issues that hurt and bleed society; SHALOM and its Hospice pitting itself against the onslaught of HIV/AIDS, and ZEPADA (trying to usher in a rural revolution), to name three shining examples in the District, they overall have not been able to promote universal human rights to its fullest extent. People living in poverty continue to remain voiceless and excluded from the decision-making – and, therefore, could not shape nor change - their daily lives. Development is still often something that happens without any consultation with the people. ZHRF Working Groups on Mautaam Famine spot surveyAnti Crops:Rodent destroying standing crops.

The impact of development on the human rights of people living in poverty, thus, remains rarely measured and have not really been able to come under their own – for that matter, under anyone’s - serious consideration!

Every once in a while, some NGOs and Rights movements like CENTRE FOR PEACE EdUCATION, MANIPUR and ZOMI HUMAN RIGHTS FOUNDATION have tried to lobby with their counterparts for response to the pitiable condition of the marginalized and un-reached. Their efforts in the form of rights awareness is seen as activism in support of global responsibilities for the eradication of poverty. Based on such efforts, the ZHRF has renewed its campaigns for awareness and responses which emphasize the obligations and duties of those in power to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of everyone, in particular, the rights of the most marginalized indigenous people of the region and whom they represent.

The efforts of the Zomi Human Rights Foundation (ZHRF) is to focus on-

(i) the promotion of Human Rights awareness amongst Indigenous peoples and those who are marginalized and living in an endless cycle of poverty … so that they learn of their ABSOLUTE and FUNDAMENTAL rights; so that when they ask for something from the powers-that-be it is within their rights and they should know they are not begging, as they are made to feel today;

(ii) how to instill confidence in the people in general so as to enable them to consult and be consulted in their development plans and schemes;

(iii) how to infuse, and enthuse, serious concerns about Human Rights Dignity and Human amongst the powers-that-be, especially those elected to represent the Indigenous peoples, the marginalized and those living in the endless cycle of poverty right in their constituencies;

(iv) how the ZHRF can become the facilitators to ensure that something is actually done by the now sensitized elected representatives;

(v) how to maintain a transparent, sustained, acceptable yet discreet pressure on the officials of the government regarding their obligation/duty to the less privileged they are duty-and-morally bound to serve;

(vi) change, refinement or addition, if necessary, of existing laws, policies and practices so that people living in poverty, and those who have been working with them, can hold those in power to be accountable for violation of Human Rights.

(a) People living in India and below poverty line also have the right to look after those responsible for human rights violations that risk their life. All human rights instruments should be enforceable, including economic, social and cultural and UNDRIP and ILO convention(169). Companies, Governments, as well as Banks, should be legally accountable for them positive impact of their activities on human rights fields.

(b) Government Institutions should also promote the equality amongst it own peoples and ensure anti-racism, non-discrimination and aparthieht in their programme of poverty allevation/eradication programme. Government development project has to be secure greater protection for the Indigenous Peoples and living Below Poverty Line. In which, it should be includes redressing programe and policy such as services including land, housing and health care.

(c) People(s) living Below Poverty line were also people, it has to recognized and considered and empowered them as a key agents of the fight for the life with dignity – for example, how to defend themselves from HIV/AIDS or the likely of resources extraction from their land; to genuine participation in deciding how they will be affected by development and investment, and to be able to speak out and protect their rights with fear or hindrance.

Information and Publicity Department,
Zomi Human Rights Foundatiojn (ZHRF),
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