‘When you take funds someone else becomes the master’
T.S. Sudhir, Chennai
Three years ago A. Narayanan founded Change India to fight for issues close to his heart. When he is not a social activist, which is rare, he wears the hat of a businessman handling manufacturing operations of scientific instruments for research. A native of Tirunelveli, Narayanan has been in Chennai since 1978. Over the past many years, he has been in the frontlines of campaigns against manual scavenging, liquor consumption, political corruption and juvenile care. He is a permanent fixture in Chennai’s courts ensuring justice is delivered to those deprived of basic rights.
T.S. Sudhir spoke to Narayanan about the many facets of his work.
You are a person with a background in science, but involved in social issues. How does that work?
I am a scientifically tempered person. I am in the business of science which helps me look at issues in an analytical manner. But I keep my business small so that I am able to devote more time to my NGO which takes up most of my time and energy.
You spend a lot of time inside law courts…
Yes, but I don’t always take the public interest litigation route. I do a lot of advocacy and activism work outside the court, but court issues get more attention.
One of the issues you have been passionately fighting for is a ban on manual scavenging. Would you say the situation today is far better than what it was when you started talking about it?
Yes. Bezwada Wilson (of Safai Karmachari Union) focused on the rural areas while I, being in an urban centre, focused on towns and cities. We managed to bring about a change in mindsets and get the act (Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013) passed in Parliament.
And that has been a huge step forward …
Yes, sometime in 2006-07, I was witness to the manner in which recruitment for manual scavengers was taking place inside the Chennai Metro Works, the department in charge of water supply and sewerage in the city. These unclean operations were outsourced to contractors and they would employ youth but the principal employer was the state government of Tamil Nadu.
What I witnessed in the presence of government officials was shocking. The candidates came attired in their underwear or loincloth. After consuming liquor they tied a rope to their waist and descended into the raw sewage. You needed to be drunk to be able to withstand that stink. The official had a timer and the candidate had to be under the sewage for a fixed period. It was criminal.
But even today this is pretty much what happens in many cities of India. Not many municipal corporations have invested in machines.
It has been reduced to a large extent in Tamil Nadu. A lot of machines have been procured and a special committee was also formed by the court to monitor implementation.
Another area where you have done commendable work is in the field of juvenile justice.
That is an ongoing process. For instance, a CBI probe is underway into a case we busted two years back in Usilimpatti, an area notorious for female foeticide. In another case, new born females were being smuggled away by a Christian group. One hundred and twenty-five newborn babies had been taken away and we managed to stop 89 of them. The pastor escaped to Germany. The nurse had been bribed with Rs 500 per infant. It was a traumatising experience for me because when children are involved, you feel an emotional connect.
And when you take on powerful groups, they also accuse you of bias.
Oh yes, it happens. In one case I was accused of having a Hindutva agenda. But when I exposed tribal children being brought from the northeast by right-wing Hindu groups to Hosur, I was accused of working for Christian groups and being anti-Hindu. Again when I took on the Christian child care institutions in Kanyakumari, which despite being the second smallest district in Tamil Nadu has a large number of these institutions, I was accused of having a Hindutva agenda.
So you get it from both sides.
Even from the judiciary. When I was fighting a case in 2006 in the Madras High Court against the concept of pay wards at the general hospital, instead of allocating resources for poor patients, the judge accused me of having vested interests since I am also into the business of scientific instruments.
Tamil Nadu has been in the midst of a debate over prohibition. The government shut down 1,000 TASMAC liquor shops in the last year while opposition parties want total prohibition. What’s your take on this?
The Supreme Court has now banned liquor consumption on highways. But if you go on the East Coast Road out of Chennai, you will find an underground mafia making money. Unscrupulous cops are making money because the tourism industry there needs it. If you ban, only anti-social elements make money. We need more de-addiction centres, a focus on road safety, an integrated policy and a scientific approach to problems of alcoholism.
You dabbled in the world of journalism and publishing as well. Was it a worthwhile experience?
Yes, I had a publication called Paadam. I was the editor and publisher. It was a development journal in Tamil on the lines of Economic and Political Weekly (EPW).
I ran it from 2008 to 2014. It was a hit initially with magazines like Ananda Vikatan borrowing stories from us to flesh them out further. But with the reading habit on the wane, I had to shut it down three years ago.
Most NGOs get into a spot of bother over the source of their funds. How does ‘Change India’ manage this?
We do not take any money from anywhere. Our Trust funds us internally. But I take a lot of help from friends. For instance, many of my lawyer friends fight our cases pro bono. But we have to pay lawyers at the Supreme Court. I fight many cases myself and enlist the help of interns from law colleges for documentation. When you take funds, you usually start well but then someone else becomes the master.