He may be just 25 years old, but Arvindbhai—who goes by Arvind—transformed his community’s future when he single-handedly exposed ten years of corruption in his village in Sabarkantha District in Gujarat State.
At age 23, Arvind joined nagrik shala, a “democracy school” run by DISHA (Developing Initiatives in Social and Human Action), a Fund-supported group that works in Gujarat to promote the economic, social, and cultural rights of marginalized communities. The school for democracy is a year-long training program that equips young people in rural communities to understand the principles of the Indian constitution, laws, governance structures, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens.
There, he learned about state and national level welfare programs for underserved communities to assert their rights and strengthen their economic security. He brought this knowledge back to his village, where he’d observed that local construction projects—such as building or repairing roads and schools—never seemed to get off the ground. He decided to take a deeper look.
From the very start, Arvind faced an uphill battle. He began by attending a local village meeting and—emboldened by his training with DISHA—stood up to request a copy of their annual budget. “Before I joined nagrik shala I was afraid of speaking in public,” Arvind says. His request was met with verbal abuse by both the village elder and the elder’s wife.
Bolstered by his newly gained knowledge of India’s Right to Information Act, Arvind persevered. Some local officials told him that if he continued, he would be hard to employ in the future; one attempted to bribe him to stop.
While some in the community supported Arvind’s inquiry, his family initially felt otherwise. They wondered what he was trying to achieve with this time-consuming project. But they changed their mind when Arvind began to get closer to the truth—and started to receive death threats.
“I told my wife and my parents that I have kept a logbook of my every day in and out and written everything, and if something happens to me then give that to police,” Arvind says. As the threats poured in, they realized that he must have unearthed something big.
When Arvind finally got his hands on the village’s financials, he saw what the government officials and local contractors had been trying to hide: for a decade, approximately 20.5 million rupees (more than $332,000) intended for roads, wells, schools, and families living in poverty had been taken by the village head with the help of government officers. And even as the village suffered without this crucial infrastructure, official records stated all the projects had been completed.
As a result of Arvind’s work, the state launched an investigation. The village head was suspended from his role. A private construction agency involved in the scheme has been blacklisted from further contracts. And almost immediately, work began on some much-needed wells in Arvind’s village.
The Fund has proudly supported DISHA for 14 years as part of our strategy to support mass-membership groups of informal workers and marginalized communities. By working together and leveraging their base of nearly 47,000 people, DISHA and similar Fund-backed groups can better advocate for the rights they’re entitled to under hard-won existing protections and laws. This includes galvanizing young people to challenge abusers of power: Arvind is one of 100 young people who have taken part in nagrik shala who are now equipped to demand accountability and lead community-driven change, thanks to DISHA and the Fund’s support.
Since his explosive discovery, Arvind has been hailed as a role model for other young people in his village. And he continues to push for justice and the rights of his community.
“I always say to the people of the village ‘Jo Dar Gaya So Mar Gaya’—we have not come with anything at birth and will not be taking anything back, so why fear?” he says. “I thank nagrik shala for giving me hope, courage, confidence to fight for justice.”
Photos courtesy of DISHA.