With rising crimes and scams, human rights are being violated frequently. Violence against women, in particular, is increasing at an alarming rate. Many of the victims struggle for years with only some human rights activists to help them. Manoj Jena is one such activist who has brought about a positive change in the lives of many people through his relentless efforts. Sunday POST talked to Manoj, who is also a core member of the National Human Rights Commission, to learn more about his work.
Born and brought up in a socially backward family in Jajpur district, Manoj was averse to the caste system from the beginning. Even during his school days, he had a passion for social service. He joined Junior Red Cross Society when he was in Class VI. He used to call upon his friends to clean village ponds, repair village mud roads and plant fruit bearing trees. He joined Bharat Scouts & Guides to take his social service efforts a step further. Inspired by Swami Vivekananda, he formed the Vivekananda Seva Sangh in his village during his schooldays. Apart from plantation drives in nearby villages, the Sangh members started a library in the village, organised talent hunt competitions among school students and sent relief materials for Latur earthquake victims in 1991. While in college, he was associated with the National Service Scheme (NSS) and attended different camps in remote villages.
“Despite being abolished in 1950, the practice of untouchability remains a part of rural India,” points out Manoj. “There are villages where Dalits are not allowed to use the same wells, visit the same temples, or drink from the same tea stalls as upper caste people. Dalit children are frequently made to sit at the back of classrooms. In what has been called ‘India’s hidden apartheid,’ entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste. I feel really hurt when I hear about such caste discrimination.”
When Manoj expressed his desire to take up social service, his family members did not support him. They wanted him to join the family business after completion of graduation. His elder brother even mocked him, saying, “Your monthly income would not be sufficient for my snack expenses.” However, Manoj was determined to carve a niche in the field of social work and so he left home.
“Drawn by the life and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi through Pravina Desai, a close associate of Vinoba Bhave, I left for Nivedita Nilayam Youth Centre in Wardha, Maharashtra. My stay at Wardha strengthened my commitment towards public service. I joined Goraksha Satyagraha at Deonar, Mumbai and was arrested several times. Vinoba Bhave gave the call for the satyagraha against cow slaughter. After spending a year at Wardha, I decided to come back to my state and work for the marginalised sections. I joined Lutheran World Service, an international organisation working for the development of rural and tribal people. I successfully dealt with many issues and engaged in relief and rehabilitation work during the super cyclone which struck Odisha in the year 1999 and the earthquake which hit Gujarat in 2001. The memory of the devastating cyclone is still intact in my mind. I did not have the bus fare to visit Erasama; at the same time, I had to raise funds for the cause. I distributed the blankets donated by people among the cyclone victims while I preferred to sleep in the open air though I did not have winter clothes.”
Manoj formed the Vinoba Seva Pratisthan(VSP) in 2002 with like-minded Gandhians. The organisation has been working in remote tribal areas in the fields of health, education, livelihood, governance, peace building and land rights. Under his dynamic leadership, the organisation has also been involved in various advocacy programmes related to farmers’ suicides, resettlement and rehabilitation policies for displaced people and communal harmony.
Since 2006, Manoj has been actively working on human rights issues. From 2006 to 2008, he worked in the European Union aided project “National Project on Preventing Torture in India.” He brought to light many cases of atrocities and intervened in more than 5,000 cases in different human rights and legal aid forums and institutions. He also organised a series of people’s tribunals.
In the year 2009, he formed the Human Rights Front (HRF). The organisation is involved in several programmes for different stakeholders in association with the National Human Rights Commission, State Human Rights Commission, National Women’s Commission, State Women’s Commission and other human rights bodies at the national and international level.
Manoj has been associated with organisations such as Odisha Nagarika Samaj, Odisha Shanti o Sadbhavana Abhiyan, Odisha Sarvodaya Samaj and India against Corruption and has worked with eminent personalities like Prof Radhamohan, former information commissioner of Odisha, Dr Bhagbanprakash, presently advisor to the Election Commission of India, and Ratan Das, a renowned Bhoodan worker. Being a key member of many organisations, he has taken up many state and national issues like farmers’ suicides, scams, time bound delivery of services, climate change action plan, larger youth participation in voting, Polavaram project, forceful displacement of people and infrastructure development.
In 2012, as many as 35 students of Kendu Sevashram at Nayagarh fell ill after consuming the mid-day meal. One of the students named Mini Majhi died while undergoing treatment at the Nayagarh district headquarters hospital. Following Manoj’s intervention in the matter, NHRC ordered Rs 5 lakh as compensation to Mini’s family and Rs 25,000 each to the students who were hospitalised. “Though such incidents were not new in the state, the government did not seem interested in coming up with measures to avoid such incidents in future,” Manoj says. “I was taken aback when the victims’ parents who had come to receive the commission’s order informed me that they had stopped sending their wards to school following the incident. They, however, agreed to send their children back to school after my request.”
Thanks to Manoj Jena, the next of kin of custodial death victim Kuldeep Mohapatra got justice. Mohapatra, who had criminal antecedents, posed as a special branch inspector and extorted money from a businessman near the regional transport office in Bhubaneswar. He was caught by the Sahid Nagar police. Kuldeep’s family held the then inspector Alok Jena responsible for his torture and custodial death. Jena, on the other hand, described it as trumped-up charges and attributed Mohapatra’s death to mob justice. After Manoj filed a petition with NHRC seeking justice for the victim’s family, the commission ordered Jena to provide Rs 5 lakh from his salary as compensation to the victim’s family.
In another incident, a woman from Digapahandi of Ganjam district, who was the sole breadwinner of her family, died during a botched family planning operation done by an eye doctor. Manoj filed a petition with NHRC following which the commission ordered a compensation of Rs 5 lakh to the kin of the deceased. “When I asked the victim’s husband what he would do with the money, he said, ‘I will solemnise my daughter’s marriage with the money. We would not have got justice without your help’.” He kept crying while thanking me again and again.”
Manoj Jena has successfully intervened in several cases:
∙ First CBI enquiry ordered into custodial death case of Kuldeep Mohapatra following his intervention
∙ NHRC sought action taken report on elderly and disabled friendly railway stations from Secretary of Railways
∙ Rs 5 lakh interim compensation was awarded by NHRC to next of kin in the Itishree Pradhan murder case.
∙ Rs 5 lakh compensation awarded by NHRC to five minor girls molested by the Deputy Director of Mass Education
∙ Rs 2.5 lakh compensation by NHRC to the family of a botched tubectomy victim of Ganjam district
∙ Rs 5.5 lakh compensation awarded by OHRC to the victims of Nuapada fake encounter case
∙ Rs 3 lakh compensation awarded by OHRC to the kin of Chamakhandi, Ganjam custodial death case
∙ Adivasi lady Mani Hanhaga who was ostracised for tilling the paddy field after her husband’s death got justice
∙ Dalit Anganwadi worker of Jajpur who was attacked and debarred from cooking midday meal for higher caste school children got justice and compensation after his intervention.
Feathers in his cap
o Received the Best Social Worker award from AKASH
o Honoured as Best Social Activist for women’s causes by World Vision India
o Awarded as “Young Sarvodya Worker” by Orissa Sarvodaya Parishad
o Honoured with “Nyaya Jyoti Samman” by Committee for Legal Aid to Poor (CLAP)
o Honoured as Human Rights Activist of the Year by Times of India, Odisha
o Received the National Human Rights Award 2014 from NHRRDA, Nagpur
o Received the National Harmony Award 2015 from Indian Solidarity Council
o Received the Lok Nayak Samman 2015 from LJPN International Study Centre
RASHMI REKHA DAS, OP