In order to more deeply understand the sense of agency facilitated through a woman’s involvement in entrepreneurship, I traveled to South India for eight months through a Fulbright-Nehru scholarship. I conducted ethnographic action research with Miller Center alum Pollinate Group, a social enterprise that equips women to lead their communities out of poverty. In India, many informal settlement communities lack access to electricity because of their temporary nature. Pollinate Group recruits women from these communities to sell solar products and other sustainable products. Through involvement, the women entrepreneurs create a sense of community and challenge gendered norms that a woman’s place is in the home. The women also tend to develop business skills and to enhance their bargaining power in the household. These are positive cultural changes that Pollinate Group can help to facilitate through their goals of empowering women, reducing poverty, and providing energy access.
My time in India was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, which gave me a plethora of time to write about some fond memories and experiences that challenged me to think critically and be a more gracious human. This story provides a context for certain citizenship policies that were enacted during the time I resided in India, which sparked many protests and civil unrest across the large country for months. I found many of these protests inspiring, in particular the Shaheen Bagh protest, a peaceful demonstration led by women, that spoke out against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC), police brutality, unemployment, and women’s safety. The Shaheen Bagh protests began in early December 2019 and were only disrupted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic in late March.
Through my field visit, I gained an insight into what these policies meant from one of the woman entrepreneurs I was able to spend time with. This story encourages us to consider questions such as, who has the right to be a citizen of a place? And how much do we value human rights and human agency, regardless of religion, class, gender, and race? I believe these questions and this particular story is salient in the times in which we find ourselves, in the midst of a global pandemic, with urgent calls for reparations for the Black community. This story begs for a narrative that equips all humans with a freeing sense of agency. This narrative is second in a series of stories that I have created from my time in India, that weave together insights from my research, socio-political commentaries, and lessons I have learned.
As my translator and I walked along the train tracks, hundreds of temporary shelters littered the dusty landscape. A little girl in a pink ruffled top squatted with her tiny feet aligned along the tracks, openly defecating while humming a sweet tune. A group of five young boys sat on the tracks playing cards in a circle. I could hear their muffled laughs and surprised yelps. Heaps of trash covered the ground like a modern art piece and women gazed curiously out of their doorways as we strolled by.
Vedika, the woman entrepreneur we were visiting, lived all the way at the edge of the train tracks. It seemed like ages before we arrived at her hut. She peeked out from behind the blue tarp and croaked that we enter, motioning her frail hand at us. We were ushered into her home, where we sat on the lower bunk of her bamboo bed structure, craning our necks out so we weren’t completely hunched over. Vedika sat on the ground, her breaths loud, like a rattlesnake sat coiled in her lungs, making music for the six grandchildren who surrounded her.
Vedika began rambling in Bangla in a frenzy. Dancing around her hut, she explained that last year her house had caught on fire, possibly from her wood-burning stove. As she pointed up to the draped blue fabric above our heads, she told us her youngest grandchild was in the house and the burning blue tarp had fallen down on him. “Luckily”, she sighed, “I was able to rescue him from the fire.” She grabbed the boy’s arm and shoved it in our faces, the visible remnants of charred skin taking over our line of sight.
“I lost all of the savings I had in that fire and I also lost all of my identity documents for my family.” She explained that there is a way to reobtain the identity documents, but that it is time-consuming and too expensive. Now, she and her family have no documents to prove that they are Indian citizens. They are technically undocumented now. The family also happen to be practicing Muslims, making their situation even more complicated in the context of recent policies in India.
Vedika faced us, her brow knitted in fear. “I am afraid of being evicted at any moment. I am afraid my children will be hit by the train when they go to fetch water. I am afraid we will be deemed non-citizens of this country in which we have lived our whole lives.” I felt my breath leave me. I could barely even imagine living every day in such fear. But I listened to her words, trying my best to understand.
I considered the context I had of this woman’s story. I had been reading in the news and discussing with friends about the discriminatory nature of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which had just been passed the month before. The act is primarily based on religion, which excludes Muslim immigrants who are seeking Indian citizenship from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. I had also read about the National Register of Citizens that hopes to detect illegal immigrants and send them out of the country. At that time, the NRC had only been implemented in Assam, a state in the Northeast, whereas the CAA would be implemented across all of India. I could only learn so much from news articles and discussions with friends. But here, these anti-people and anti-poor policies came alive in Vedika’s tearful eyes. Vedika embodies the collective fear of Indian citizens who lack identity proof.
As fear of these policies escalated among the urban poor and among middle-class residents in India, evidence of their implementation began to pop up around Indian cities, amongst continued protest. A few weeks after my visit with Vedika, in a similar informal settlement in Bangalore, almost 200 temporary homes were destroyed. In this particular instance, police officers believed the dwellers were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, but they were all migrants from other Indian states, who were evicted and left homeless.
“It’s like we are not valued as citizens because we live along these tracks and because of our faith. Even though we have lived here for generations…” Vedika faltered. “I don’t have any time or money to obtain these identification documents. It would be so expensive for my whole family. And I have to hide all the money I earn from my husband because he spends it all on alcohol and then beats us. What can I do?” she asked, her eyes tired.
As I sat on that brown bamboo bed in the middle of a slum in Kolkata, I stared at Vedika, a woman who will face the brunt of these policies. She, with brown eyes as dark as a 90% cacao bar and a heart the size of the sea, is the one who stands in danger. It is the poor, the slum-dwellers, and hard-working folks in the informal sector (which makes up 93% of India’s economy) who will not be able to replace citizenship documents, who may be forcefully removed from the place they have always called home. I thought of all the women I had met in Bangalore’s informal settlements, whose homes may have been destroyed, who I knew constantly lived in fear. My heart ached for them. Why couldn’t the government acknowledge the humanity of all citizens, regardless of religious preference? I couldn’t understand it. Vedika couldn’t either.
It is times like these, when questions of identity, citizenship, and constitutional rights are in flux all over the world, that we are forced to confront the basic tenets of human rights and human dignity. How will we, as individuals, organizations, and governments choose to treat our neighbors and our people? Will we stand together and uplift each other, recognizing that we belong to each other? At this moment, we must decide, for we are the current writers of history.
I believe we should strive to create a narrative that equips all humans with a flourishing and freeing sense of agency. An agency that goes beyond fear of eviction, deportation, and abuse. An agency that is abounding, transformative, and encompassing for this woman in an informal settlement in Kolkata and for all those who inhabit this earth.