Friday, January 15, 2010

Venita Coelho's article in the Herald newspaper in Goa - How to start a protest - Part I

I do a weekly column for the Herald. This is the first in a three part series that passes on the lessons that I have learnt on starting a protest. Posting it because it might come in handy for you.

The Accidental Activist – 4th Jan 2004

How to start a protest – Part I

First you have to be very angry. Indignation won’t do. Any battle worth fighting takes a long time and your anger will have to simmer through months and maybe years. It will have to sustain you when family try to talk you out of it, neighbours quit talking to you and the panchayat sends you notices for trumped up violations. Really hopping mad? Willing to put yourself on the line? Here’s some simple advice on how you can get going.

The next step is to get the facts. You want to stop that mega project in its tracks? The public protests won’t do it, though they are vital for bringing the issue into the public eye. What will do it is some small little overlooked permission, or fact that will turn up when you get all the documents under RTI. Get someone else to file for the documents under RTI. Why set up alerts before necessary? Further, filing legal objections is often a time bound activity, counting from the day you actually got the facts in your hands.

Getting the facts out of various authorities under RTI is a complicated exercise. If there is the slightest ambiguity in the wording of your request, they will promptly send you the wrong papers, deny they have them, or Xerox every paper in the building, except the one that you want, and hand you the bill. But the key to winning the battle is right here. No facts. No case.

Take your facts to the experts. Go straight to the people who are already fighting on the ground, and use legal counsel that has already proved itself as unbuyable. Remember that crores are at stake and in Goa unfortunately, almost everyone and everything is up for sale.

If you are going to fight a long hard battle, you need an army. First mobilize all those who are going to be affected by what you are protesting. Start with your village. A good way is to do a simple flyer ( in English and Konkani). Rope in some youngsters to deliver it doorstep to doorstep – always on a Sunday. Then hold corner meetings at the various vaddos, explaining the facts. Follow up the flyer with an awareness meeting.

You need a name, a working base and a face before you go public – launch an Action Committee. Never ignore the existing clubs/committees/consumer forums etc in your area. Speak personally to every single one and get their support. If you leave them out, you can be garunteed an outbreak of politics the minute the issue hits the headlines. Get a spokesperson who can speak both English and Konkani fluently. Make sure he/she knows the facts backwards. Get two convenors in case one is ever out of town, or compromised. Make sure you have at least four people who will not buckle no matter what the pressure. One of these better be a good organizer, quick with to do lists, and inexorable with follow up. Take a little internal donation so that you have some working capital.

Tackle the Panchayat. Make sure you are clear about the Panchayats role having got all the correspondence from the files. Confront them in writing. Documentation of every step is the key here. When it all ends up in court you will be grateful for every single scrap of paper that you have that traces the process. Get them to commit on paper the permissions they did or did not give. Don’t expect much. Projects worth crores, or violations that make money for people in high places, aren’t ever innocently passed by the panchayat. If you can get a couple of panchayat members on your side that is a bonanza.

At your awareness meeting you can expect your first reprisal. Along with curious villagers, there will be spies in attendance, and, possibly, rowdies paid to disrupt the event. Be ready to have a timely powercut disrupt the proceedings. Make sure you have informed the police in writing of the meeting and the loudspeaker permission is in place. Pulling the plug on you is a simple matter for the authorities if you haven’t already covered every single base.

Pull every favour to ensure that some press is present. This will protect you.
Make sure you have some heavy duty names speaking. Get respected activists who bring their moral authority to the issue that you are tackling. Go and meet each of them personally with the facts be. Don’t be afraid. They have spent years trying to save Goa. They always welcome one more fighter to the fold. Make sure the awareness meeting alerts the villagers on how the issue will affect each of them personally. Will it ruin their water supply? Change the population of the village so they are outnumbered? Dump sewage into their fields? People respond to personal threat.

Next week – taking the battle to the public and the press

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