It was a typical Sunday evening in rural Bolangir in the year 1989, India when a group of people witnessed a horrifying scene – a man being brutally beaten up by a wealthy landowner/zamindar over a small loan. The zamindar was kicking and thrashing him with a stick and abusing him by using filthy language. The man who was getting bitten only fault was he took a 50 rupees loan and was unable to repay on time. The surrounding crowd remained silent, frozen in fear and shock and they were watching the whole incident as silent spectators, but social activist Mr. Banshidhar Behera, who happened to be passing by, sprang into action. He immediately stopped the landowner, consoled the victim, and paid off the debt amount. Then he requested the zamindar to relieve the person so that he can go to his village and live on his own but he denied it. Even the victim refused to leave the zamindars/landowner’s house as his family had been working there for generations as bonded labors.
This incident led Mr. Behera to realize that such problems would never end unless people were empowered to be self-reliant and free from moneylenders’ clutches. Because such scenes of violence and poverty were commonplace during the ’80s and ’90s in western Odisha, where bonded labor, child sale, starvation death, drought, and migration were rampant. He decided to mobilize the local communities and form a collective voice against the injustices and exploitation they faced. He also wanted to create alternative livelihood opportunities and social security for them, so that they could live with dignity and freedom.
This was the genesis of Anchalik Jan Seva Anusthan (AJSA), a people-powered movement founded in February 1989 under Mr. Behera’s visionary leadership. The next year the organisation was later legally registered as a society under Indian Societies Registration Act-1860. As an independent development organization, AJSA embodies the spirit of Gandhi and champions a people-powered movement. It’s not just for the people, but by the people too.”
AJSA – Anchalik Jana Seva Anusthan, was not born as an organization but a coalition of people and communities of Odisha coming together to fight against pressing poverty and its repercussions on them. The ’80s in Odisha saw a long period of economic distress migration due to food scarcity, and exploitation by moneylenders and landowners. AJSA was formed in response – so the poor no longer had to leave home. A shortage of food in the district of Bolangir compelled small farmers, landless labourers, and Scheduled Caste and Tribe groups to work for big landowners, borrow from corrupt moneylenders and get caught up in vulnerable situations with local mafias and liquor merchants just to get by. However, this led to alienation from their land, indebtedness, starvation, illiteracy amongst their children, deteriorating health and overall exploitation and poverty. Unable to bear the daily suffering they were enduring, many community members decided to leave their homes in search of better conditions elsewhere, while others continued to struggle in Bolangir under the stronghold of their small, but powerful oppressors.
AJSA began by setting up grain and seed banks and forming self-help groups to initiate a process of self-reliance. AJSA also raise awareness on government schemes and provisions that they can avail of. Over three decades AJSA has committedly worked with many communities and helped them become self-reliant by building capacity and initiating community driven sustainable projects in areas of education, livelihood, sustainability, women empowerment, healthcare and disaster management, in partnership with government.One of the main government programmes that AJSA promote is Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan for universal access to primary education. They especially encourage girls to be enrolled in school. For adults, the organisation has set up four volunteer-run night schools that provide basic literacy. AJSA also focus on livelihoods training, sustainable agricultural practices, environmental conservation – and they do this with the active participation of community members, especially women.
Since formation, AJSA and the communities they work with have helped set up 5552 self-help groups, created 14 model villages free of moneylenders and liquor, trained over 30,000 rural women, and successfully fought for the protection of 16,224 hectares of forest land led by tribal women leaders. AJSA is a coalition of people and communities coming together to fight against pressing poverty and its repercussions, embodying the spirit of Gandhi’s philosophy: “Not for the people, but by the people too.”
AJSA’s founding story is one of bravery, compassion, and perseverance. It serves as a reminder that change can start with a single individual, and with collective effort, it can grow into a movement that transforms entire communities.