Innovators: Ankur Roy Choudhary and Vartika Poddar

Vocation: Playwright and actors

Location: Kolkata, West Bengal

Sustainable development cannot be discussed unless you discuss the issue of social injustice. India’s social structure is extremely complex; but our talks about environment protection are incomplete unless we understand this complexity. Even 52 Parindey’s efforts of last 10 months are incomplete unless we discuss the issue of social injustices.

At every step of this society, one can witness discrimination and struggle of the underprivileged section. This discrimination can be seen between Brahmins and Dalits, between traders and labourers, and even between men and women. There are several layers to every struggle, and without understanding all these layers or without including all the sections of the society in this campaign for environment protection, our struggle for environment protection is incomplete.

Trying to complete this incomplete struggle are our next parindey from Kolkata, Ankur Roy Choudhary and Vartika Poddar, who are using the medium of theatre to achieve their goal.

“My paternal uncle and brother are professional theatre artistes,” Ankur tells me. “I’ve grown up watching them perform; and that’s how even I developed an interest in the art. I had started participating in plays when I was in school, and I pursued that interest even when I was in college. It was in college that I even joined the Leftist political wing of the university. Though, over the years, I’ve had some differences with this school of thought, whatever I am doing today has a base in the Leftist ideology.”

It is through the Leftist ideology that Ankur has been able to understand the extent of social discrimination and exploitation in our society. When he was actively participating in Leftist politics and was using the medium of theatre to raise awareness about the various injustices happening in our society, Ankur realised that their discussions on the topic were limited to an auditorium. But he wanted to raise these issues in front of those people who were facing these issues.

It was during this phase that Ankur met Vartika. Though she comes from a wealthy family, she could never truly associate herself with that wealth or find satisfaction in that life. She wanted to view the city in a different light. She wanted to find out how city labourers saw the city and how their children could receive better education. She wanted to carve a place in slums for children where they could learn through various art forms. It was through this place that she also wished to understand the lives of these people, experience with them and learn with them. And so she established ‘Swabhav’.

“I joined her, too, and my task was to train children in theatrics. We were a big group initially but slowly a lot of people started going in different directions, owning to their priorities. Eventually, drama became the main activity of Swabhav. Today, we’re known as the Swabhav Natak Dal, which travels across the country to understand from and perform amid groups of labour class, farmers, youth and other underprivileged sections of the society to highlight the social injustices being committed towards them,” adds Ankur.

In the last few years, through the medium of Swabhav Natak Dal, Ankur and Vartika have performed street plays in various parts of the country to raise the issues of displacement of local communities, rural to urban migration, cheap labour and the victimisation of the labour class, among other social injustices.

In 2013, the group wrote a play titled ‘Mr. India’ that was performed at least 30 times across five different states of India. This play dissected the entire process of displacement of communities, and highlighted the plight of the displaced communities. At present, Swabhav Natak Dal is working with Maruti labours who have been struggling under various atrocities in Gurgaon; and with the youth of Jaipur on the issue of urbanisation.

Ankur says, “These days, serious discussions are taking place over the dangers hovering over the environment. People are becoming more aware, and many of them are even taking steps to find solutions. But I want to ask these people, do these solutions include the people who live in the slums or those who sleep on the footpaths? People are raising their voices for the cause of farmers, which should be the case, but we must also think about those people who are living in slums and doing cheap labour to somehow survive each day. These people, too, were once farmers, fishermen, blacksmiths, potters or had other skills. Even those who live in villages, though are amid cleaner surrounding, are often exploited. On the other hand, our government policies, too, are directed towards ensuring better profits for businessmen and traders. It’s nothing new, but it’s been the practice of the government since the time of Independence to find ways to grab their lands, their water and their food. The government first gives permission to big business houses to establish their factories on this land, and then forces its original residents to work as labourers for meagre wages. In such a situation, how can you talk about sustainability with these people?”

“Those who live in slums are eating food that they have to buy in plastic packaging. Tea leaves for Rs. 2, sugar for Rs. 5, oil for Rs. 10 — everything comes sealed in plastic packets. It’s like their own lives are sealed in a plastic pouches. So how can we talk about sustainability without solving their existential problems? All I have to say is this: until we include them in the fight and unless we find solutions for their problems, we will not be able to protect our environment. We can only achieve our goals for the environment when we all truly understand the extent of their problems, which is not limited to poverty but extends to their entire social structure,” he adds.

To take forward their struggle for such communities, Ankur and Vartika now want to start a school for the children of labourers. At this school, drama would be the medium of teaching and learning.

Ankur says, “These are kids who are deprived of even two square meals a day because their parents are unable to afford any. Their parents, who are labouring in tea gardens, are working under such difficult conditions and meagre wages that they are often forced to sell their children. So we want to start a school, for at least 10 children to start with, where they can be educated through the medium of theatre. We hope that when these children grow up, they will use the same medium to raise awareness about the social issues of tea garden workers. And if anybody wants to help us in this endeavour, please feel free to contact us.”

Parts of the footage in the film have been shared by People’s Film Collective. We are thankful to them for their help.

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