Hemlata: Fighter, Nonconformist And Rebel Rolled In One

Hemlata: Fighter, Nonconformist And Rebel Rolled In One

“I realised that the child of a construction worker is bound to become a construction worker,” observes Hemlata Kansotia. This is when Hemlata’s journey of fighting the vicious circle of discrimination determined by her family’s migrant worker status began. Hers is a story of relentless perseverance and is symbolic of the limitlessness of human strength against the brute forces of economic and social discrimination imposed upon the most marginalised and vulnerable.

Hemlata’s grandfather was a labour contractor and her father a migrant worker from Rajasthan. Not only did she grow up listening to migrant workers talking to her grandfather about low wages, exploitation and extortion, and indebtedness, she also faced the crisis first hand. Her family had migrated with hopes of a better future but there came a point when the children had to stop school; they were all staring at a future where the family and the next generation would end up being construction workers. To top it, a bungled ear surgery left her partially disabled.

“It was a new beginning altogether. I was already fighting the discrimination because of my social identity, the surgery left me with a new challenge to cope with,” said Hemlata. “I felt like a burden to my family. They were worried about nothing but my marriage,” she added.

But not the kinds to be bogged down by troubles, Hemlata refused to feel sorry for herself and devoted herself to the cause of migrant workers. She decided to tackle discrimination — one that she faced because of her social and economic background, one she faced because of her disability, and finally gender discrimination.

She became a social worker at the age of 14; she joined the Majdoor Nirman Andolan in 1987 to work for the rights of migrant workers in Delhi. The movement, headed by Nirmala Sundaram and Subhash Bhatnagar, led to the government amend the law and to create the Building and Other Construction Workers Act.

While associated with the movement and undeterred by her physical condition, she went on to participate in the Republic Day parade as a National Cadet Corp, earned a master’s degree in Political Science from University of Delhi and joined Smile Foundation to volunteer as a social worker. Her acquaintance with Nirmala Sundaram led her to teach children of construction site workers.

She recounts how the death of a construction worker’s child shattered her to the core — an incident that made her resolve to work against the conditions that resulted in fragility and uncertainty in the lives of construction workers. “I soon realised that basic survival is a challenge in itself,” she says. Hemlata went to Rajasthan, worked for 3-4 years to educate and empower the construction workers and formed the Construction Workers Sangathan. She founded the Rajasthan Nirman Majdoor Panchayat Sangathan to bring together construction workers and make them aware of their fundamental rights.

She came back to Delhi from Rajasthan in 2007. Her enthusiasm for social work and an understanding of the need for practical solutions is a great mix. “We cannot do charity for long, it is the responsibility of the state to educate children and we have to wake the state to its responsibility” says Hemlata. Education is very close to her heart because she very nearly did not get it. And today she is a known name in the Right To Education circuits!

She set up her own NGO Labour Education Development Society (LEDS). Determined to fight caste discrimination, Hemlata has worked for Dalit right and actively campaigned against employment of people from a particular caste into manual scavenging, and septic sewer cleaning. She is also working with the Valmiki community, which faces societal taboos and restrictions; children of Valmiki community due to lack of education and opportunity end up living by the broom.

43-year-old Hemlata has navigated her life as a single woman, living alone, keeping odd hours and completely dedicated to the cause to end discrimination. She faced taunts for this too, but that has not deterred her.

LEDS is a part of the RTE forum and a member of the Safai Karamchari Andolan. Oxfam India has worked with  Hemlata and her NGO LEDS, as part of the social inclusion project, to end caste discrimination and promote education and equal opportunities for all. Hemlata’s fight against oppressive norms and her dogged will to work despite the pressures of a highly patriarchal society establish her as an unyielding social worker, she is a motivation to many around the globe who wish to challenge injustice and discrimination.

Oxfam India’s campaign #IndiaWithoutDiscrimination aims to create a fair and just society and discrimination warriors like Hemlata are our leading lights. Oxfam India is a movement of people working to end discrimination and create a free and just society.

📢Oxfam India is now on Telegram. Click here to join our Telegram channel and stay tuned to the latest updates and insights on social and development issues.

Photo: Javed Sultan

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