Today the 27 years old Nandlal Master has built up a strong local movement against a Coca Cola bottling plant in the Mehdiganj area of Varanasi District. This movement has become a problem for the US multinational giant as well as the local administration. Inspired by the Gandhian ideology and based on Jayaprakash Narayan’s concept he has put together a cohesive organization ‘Lok Samiti’ comprising of youth from saree weavers’ families in about ten years time. Nandlal laid the foundation of this organization in 1994 when after having completed his B.Sc. from Varanasi he returned to his village and started evening classes for his two little cousins – one a son of his uncle and another from his neighbour’s family. Most of the children in this area, situated about 20 km from Varanasi city, have to weave sarees on handlooms installed in every household and hence cannot go to school.

Nandlal was also born into a saree waever’s family in a village called Usrapatti. His father used to lend money for this business. The family was financially well off. But his father died when he was a child. The task of raising him and his six siblings suddenly fell on his mother. From a money lender she soon slipped down to being a labourer. Nandlal’s elder sister was already married. When the mother could not manage the family affairs she sent Nandlal to go and stay with his sister in Murgaha-Benipur village for continuing his school. He completed his school from Uday Pratap College and then joined the B.Sc. programme. But the deteriorating financial condition of his family forced him to return to his village. Two elder brothers had separted from the family after getting married. Nandlal upon coming back first decided to learn the skill of saree weaving on the handloom available at his home. At that time his two younger brothers were working on looms at other people’s places. Along with taking up saree weaving work Nandlal also started evening classes for children who were not going to school. Gradually the number of children grew. He had to start centres in other villages. Inspired by Nandlal’s example educated youth in other villages also started similar education centres for children engaged in saree weaving task. Slowly Nandlal built up a team of volunteers. They used to look upto Nandlal for leadership and guidance. Nandlal was a born leader and this opportunity provided him a chance to hone his leadership abilities.

But two incidents took place which shook him up. Nandlal had started a practice of taking out all the children once in a year for outing. In 1996 when the children were on a trip to Mirzapur, the bus carrying them met with an accident. One child died and 36 of them were injured, some of then very seriously. This was a big jolt for Nandlal. He had to face such a big tragedy at the beginning of his journey as a social activist. Nandlal was blaming himself for the tragedy. He gathered courage and started raising resources for the treatement of the injured children. He was able to raise Rs. 36,000, mostly from Heads of some Village Panchayats. This brought back some of his self-confidence.

The children with whom Nandlal was working belonged to the category of child labour. A number of organizations were engaged in the task of abolition of child labour and plenty of foreign funds were also available for this. A number of NGOs and funding agencies tried to bring Nandlal into their fold. Some of them made a blatant offer to him to accept some money from them in return for giving them some credit for his work. But Nandlal decided to preserve his autonomy and continued to work independently. Because of having succeeded in not getting lured by the enticement of these organizations Nandlal emerged as a person of strong character and the confidence of local people and youth in his leadership deepened. But once he was also fooled. Once an organization from Varanasi proposed to organize a cultural programme for the children engaged in saree weaving work. Nandlal did not find anything wrong with it. The NGO from the city organized the programme and invited some government officials to this. Next day there was a raid by the government inspectors and a number of children working on handlooms were caught. Some money lenders and others who were not happy with Nandlal’s growing popularity got a chance to denounce him. He was squarely blamed for this raid by government officials.

Because of these two events Nandlal thought that his role as a social activist was over. He was feeling guilty that he had brought grief to the community because of his deeds. However, miraculously, it was the parents of the children injured in the bus accident who came upto him and requested him to restart the education classes. It was probably because of Nandlal’s integrity and commitment that people had faith in him. So Nandlal got a chance to rebuild his social work. Learning from the good and bad experiences of life he was now a more mature human being. Slowly he gained of the confidence of the entire area.

When raising funds for the children injured in 1996 bus accident he had met Niti bhai in Varanasi city. It was Niti bhai who introduced Nandlal to Gandhian ideology as well as inspired him to lay the foundation of a people’s organization, ‘Lok Samiti’ in his area. Niti bhai also made it possible for Nandlal to visit Gandhiji’s Sewagram Ashram in Wardha. It was after coming here that Nandlal was deeply influenced by Gandhian philosophy. Meditating in Bapu Kuti, participating in the all-religion prayer meeting, and talking to various people and learning about incidents from Gandhiji’s life, a new light began to emerge from within him. This laid the ideological basis for his future work. He understood how his work locally was part of the larger social transformation process. He was enthused by his Wardha visit. Upon returning he deicded to spend some time with Niti bhai who was working in a different area of the Varanasi District called Chirai Gaon by forming an organization ‘Lok Chetna Samiti’. This is did for two reasons. First he wanted to learn the art of organization building and secondly he wanted to satiate his ideological hunger in the company of Niti bhai which had been ignited during his Wardha visit. Nandlal still maintains live contact with Niti bhai and his organization today.

Nandlal emerged so strong from his association with Niti bhai that he decided to wind up his registered organization ‘Nav Jyoti Swawlamban Sewa Sanstha’ and put its papers in a box. He decided to remain free of bureaucratic shackles and wanted to build a people’s organization. In other words he decided not to work in the prevalent NGO mode accepting money from funding agencies. For a 22 year youth coming from a simple lower middle class rural family a decision reflecting such ideological maturity was a rare achievement. He got a chance to participate in an ideological workshop on a recent development in philosophical thought ‘Sah Astitwawad’ popularly known as ‘Jeevan Vidya’ of A. Nagraj of Amarkantak. This helped his further his ideological development. It became very clear to him that an individual does whatever he/she does for his/her own satisfaction rather than for somebody else. This ended the possibility of any arrogance growing within him for the service to the society that he was doing. Thesense of independence that developed within Nandlal was because of the days spent at his sister’s place as a young boy. He considers this period as that of bondage. There was financial security but no freedom to express his views. He always desired to free himself from this constraint and live according to his ideas. This strong urge to not compromise on his freedom has prevented Nandlal to either apply for any job anywhere or for funding to support his work. This is Nandlal – a soft spoken, kind hearted but very independent and a personality with strong character. He is as strong in taking stands as he is soft in his demeanor.

Since Nandlal used a mature ideology and personal relationships to build an organization he developed a concrete mass base. People in his organization have complete confidence in him. On Niti bhai’s suggestion he has developed a very strong people’s organization in his area Lok Samiti. He has also developed a cultural team called ‘Kala Manch’ to rasise awareness on social issues through street theatre and beautiful songs. In 2001 he became the State Convenor from U.P. of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, which gave him an opportunity to build contact with other people’s movements going on throughout the country.

In 2003 when the NAPM decided to organize a nation wide protest against Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola as part of their campaigning against the new economic policy, Nandlal decided to organize a protest at the gate of the Coca Cola bottling plant in Mehdiganj which was situated in his area. This plant has been emptying the earth of lakhs of litres of water every day. The company had distributed the sludge coming out of the plant as ‘manure’ to the farmers in the neighbourhood only to detroy their crops and fields. The farmers were up in arms against the Coca Cola bottling plant. The company was also encroaching upon a piece of land belonging to the Gram Sabha and had illegally built a portion of the plant on that. In 1999 when the company bought the plant from Thums Up they cheated the government on revenue to the tune of Rs. 1,75,00,000. No local person has been able to get regular employment in the plant till date. It is quite clear that Coca Cola in working against the interest of the local people. When after repeated complaints the administration was not taking any action against the company, 500 local people decided to assemble at the gate of the plant and demanded its closure. The police using lathis and private security guards of Coca Cola using iron rods beat up the protestors. 14 people were injured and 70 people put in jail for two days. Since then a number of action programmes have been taken agains the twin soft drink giants and slowly the movement at Mehdiganj is getting integrated into the international movement against Coca Cola. Two marches were organized in the eastern U.P. region to create awareness among a larger population about adverse impacts of operations of Coke and Pepsi. The first one was from 28th October to 4th Novermber, 2003, beginning from the Coca Cola plant at Mehdiganj to the Pepsi Cola plant in Sathariya, Jaunpur. The second was from 15th November to 24th November, 2004, beginning from the Coca Cola plant at Sinhachawar, Ballia to Mehdiganj. The day this march ended a direct action was announced at the plant. About 1500 people marched towards the plant and were prevented by the police from reaching there. When the people insisted on moving ahead there was a brutal lathi charge by police over a peaceful and non-violent gathering. 166 people were put into jail. 163 of them were released four days later but Nandlal and two others were detained for 14 days on more serious charges. A case is still pending against Nandlal and three others in the court.
Nandlal was invited to speak at the World Social Forum at Porte Allegre, Brazil in January, 2005, thereby raising the issue of Mehdiganj at an international forum for the first time. Recently, on May 6, 2005, the Village Panchayat of Mehdiganj decided to pass a resolution recommending cancellation of licence to Coca Cola. On 10th of May, 2005, the District Magistrate of Varanasi took an action against the Panchayat Head by revoking his financial and administrative powers charging him of illegally transferring land belonging to the Panchayat to Coca Cola. This is the first victory for people of Mehdiganj in their, what is going to be a, long drawn out battle with this multinational giant.

By Sandeep