Adult Literacy was an entry point for us to gain a place in a new village and kick off Coolie Sangha building work. Literacy was seen as a vital component without which Coolies could not organise themselves and gain a lasting power. Specially designed material was prepared and songs composed using the Paulo Freire conscientisation method to make the poor reflect on their societal position.
In the Coolie Sangha Formation phase, ADATS initiated ALP classes for all who were interested and wished to learn. Petromax lanterns, blackboards, primers, note books and pens were supplied. Specially designed bi-lingual ALP material like text books, song books and audio cassettes provided the poor with an opportunity to unite and critically analyse various facets of their lives. Meeting every evening introduced a structure and discipline in a hitherto unorganised and apathetic poor.
2nd round of ALP classes soon followed for those who wished to pursue literacy further, and yet another 3rd round was conducted exclusively for Coolie women.
Coolies approached ADATS with various problems which had no direct bearing to conventional NGO activities. ADATS village Staff liaised with government offices and Banks to try and solve these problems. They avoided taking on a leadership role and instead facilitated Coolie Sangh functionaries to increase capacities.
Later, on seeing their effectiveness, Coolies approach ADATS with issues of Ryot (middle peasant) cheating, petty corruption of village officials, exploitation by contractors, etc. These problems could not be solved with mere liaison or representation work. They demanded collective discussions and joint action. ADATS encouraged Coolies to struggle and promised to stand by them in all just and legal struggles, irrespective of localised consequences arising from alienating the powers that be.
Senior ADATS Staff openly encouraged the Coolies to make critical appraisals of the injustice, humiliation and lack of dignity in which they lived. They provoked them to discuss and act on situations which they had hitherto tolerated in a fatalistic and apathetic manner.
ADATS believes that struggle has to remain at the centre of any true education effort since struggle in the greatest teacher. It is only through struggle that the village level forums of the Coolies become more than mere beneficiary organisations begging participation to implement pre-conceived packages, and instead be tempered to become the basic units of a Coolie mass organisation.
During the 1st 3-year Coolie Sangha Formation phase, all issues and struggles were thoroughly discussed and recorded in fortnightly Staff Meetings. This was not only so that everyone could benefit from each other's experiences and draw moral and material support from one another. The recording of issues and struggles also helped get a deeper micro insight and make an applicable statement on the political economy of the region.
The form and extent of discretionary assistance like Legal Aid and Aid Distress to support Coolies in their various struggles were decided in these Staff Meetings. Later, these decisions were taken by the Coolies themselves in their CSU and Mahila Meetings, and expenses met from out of their respective Sangha Funds. In the Formalisation and Consolidated phases, ADATS only gave legal assistance for wider struggles.
Legal awareness was imparted and procedural skills taught to develop a responsible citizenry in Member Coolie families. They were encouraged to participate, as voters as well as candidates, in local bodies like the School Betterment Committees, Temple Committees, Farmer Co-operative Societies, Milk Collection Societies, Gram Panchayats, etc.
ADATS mission was to empower the poor and alter the power balance in village society in favour of small and poor peasants. Therefore, ADATS itself maintained an extremely strict non-party political position. No resources of ADATS were directly or indirectly used for electioneering. Moreover, ADATS Staff were strictly prohibited from standing as candidates in any local body or state elections.
Though it performs a trade union like function vis-à-vis the Ryots, the Coolie Sangha was not only concerned with the external enemy. Alcoholism, domestic violence, fiscal indiscipline, opportunism, negative leadership traits, et al were recognised as equally dis-empowering elements as low wages, cheating and coercion.
Internal rectification was as important an agenda as fighting economic exploitation and resisting extra-economic oppression. So much so that the neutral population in the villages came to consider the Coolie Sangha as a strong upholder of principles of democracy, gender justice and communal harmony.
Strict procedures within the Coolie Sangha, including social boycott, were the main cause for membership fluctuation in village CSUs. A majority of cancelled and suspended Members were from functioning CSUs. To this day, we termed such fluctuation as a healthy indicator of day to day functioning.
ADATS believes that the building of civil society will remain incomplete without self- finance. Member Coolie families were encouraged to think of their posterity from day one of our involvement. The instruments to achieve this objective are Sangha Funds.
Each and every family was encouraged to contribute 10% of her income, from whatever source, to her CSU's Sangha Fund. These collections are spent on various aspects of Coolie Sangha running like the paying of rents and electricity for their community halls, paying bus fares and travel costs for their elected Representatives, etc.
After ADATS' withdrawal, on completion of our 9 year intervention, Sangha Funds are used to finance the decentralised health and children's programmes.
As per the Trust Deed (legal constitution) of the Coolie Sangha, no payment can be made unless it is supported by the minutes of the meeting of that village CSU, where a quorum of two-third have approved. This changed over the years to give exclusive control over Sangha Funds to the respective Mahila Meetings. No amount can ever be transferred to any other CSU or to the Cluster account or to the central Taluk account. All payments are made by cheque and there are no cash transactions in the Coolie Sangha.
The balance unspent amounts at the end of each financial year is placed in Fixed Deposits (FDs) in the names of the respective village Coolie Sangha Unit. These FDs form the decentralised village level corpus of the Coolie Sangha. As per the Trust Deed of the Coolie Sangha, even in the event of a village CSU temporarily dropping out, it's FDs stay untouched. As on 4 October 2023, this corpus stands at ₹ 9,17,70,882 for 1,257 village CSUs.
Interest from each village FD is accrued as Sangha Fund earnings for the respective village CSU, to be used for running the Coolie Sangha Unit.
The practice of contributing Sangha Funds has, over the years, been formalised into a system of declaring annual incomes and paying Sangha Tax once a year.