Jan Chetna Manch, Bokaro was set up by a group of students and villagers in the mid 80’s after a local village committee, along with a handful of teachers, established a college for the higher education of poor village youths. The first batch of students was highly motivated to change the ills of the society they were a part of. In the mid and late 80’s they organised campaigns and meetings on wide ranging issues such as the problems of dowry, lack of education and health care, the evils of branding women as witches and environmental degradation.
By the early 90’s the group stepped up their activities: from changing people’s thinking they ventured into more ‘concrete’ activities. Since they were concerned about the degradation of the land, caused by the severe erosion of the topsoil and deforestation – coupled with a desire to make the reclamation economically viable – a plan for planting denuded uplands with trees and vegetables was hatched. Each year a plant nursery was established, and the saplings were planted on barren uplands, along with quick growing monsoon-fed vegetables.
A plant nursery was established since the government nursery did not have enough plants to offer the group. In the first year young men worked in the nursery, by the second year they withdrew and it was taken over by a group of women. The painstaking job of raising saplings was considered more suitable for women! In order to make it economically viable other ‘buyers’ were sought – and both the coal mining industry (Bharat Coking Coal Limited) and the Bokaro Steel Plant – placed orders for saplings. In order to receive a donation for the planting of saplings, a ‘registered’ society was needed, hence ‘Jan Chetna Manch, Bokaro’ (‘Bokaro’ was added at the time of registration when it was found another ‘Jan Chetna Manch’ existed!) was registered as a society under the Societies Registration Act, in 1994.
By the mid 90’s the group of women who were working in the saplings nursery began to raise questions and make demands. They felt they were ‘frogs in a well’ and never saw much of the outside world; they needed loans for various things that could not wait until the payment for their work came in and the local money lenders took 120% interest each year; their minor illnesses were pushing them further into debt with the local (non-qualified) ‘doctors’.