Vivek and Vidyullata Pandit have worked tirelessly for over three decades to empower the poor of Mahasrashtra. Their commitment to eradicating injustice and fearlessly combating exploitation has changed the lives of thousands.
They began their careers in the early 1970s as activists of the Rashtra Seva Dal, a youth socialist movement. Later they joined the struggle against Indira Gandhi’s imposition of Emergency in 1975. Vidyullata was jailed for two and a half months for vigorously protesting the state’s draconian suspension of civil rights. After the fall of Indira Gandhi’s government, the couple resolved to work with the youth in Mumbai’s slums.
But during a visit to Dahisar, a small village where Vivek’s maternal uncle lived, they learned that the local school was closing because so many children were dropping out. They decided to move there and take up welfare activities for the poor. The couple started pre-school classes, set up a medical center, and tried to spur economic activity by rearing pigs and goats. Everyone in the village, from the lowest to the highest castes, supported their work. But when they organized sports tournaments for young people in the village they noticed that some of the tribal youth didn’t always come to the practices. When the Pandits asked them why, they discovered that these tribals had lived for years in forced servitude to repay small loans to local landlords. Outraged by what they encountered, the Pandits began speaking against the illegal practice of bonded labor. But the laborers were too scared and suspicious to approach them. Then one night in February 1982, a band of landowners led by Vivek’s uncle beat the couple before the village. The tribals took them in that night and put their faith in them.
Over the following two and a half decades the Pandits have struggled and fought endlessly to eradicate bonded labor from India. With the establishment of the Shramjeevi Sanghatana, the couple also took on the issues of child labor, minimum wages, atrocities against women, and the stealing of tribal land. The Pandits honed their skills as organizers and challenged powerful vested interests through attention-grabbing campaigns. They have faced physical violence and harassment but have never given up in their struggles.
Anti-Slavery International of the United Kingdom awarded the Anti-Slavery Award of 1999 to Vidyullata and Vivek Pandit. The British Parliament passed a special resolution praising the work undertaken by them and the organizations they founded.
In addition to her work as an activist, Vidyullata Pandit has been the administrative force behind Vidhayak Sansad and Shramjeevi Sanghatana. She was the director of the Vidhayak Sansad from its foundation until 2008 and has been president of Shramjeevi Sanghatana since 2002. Vivek Pandit has founded several other institutions, including Samarthan, a state-level advocacy organization in Mumbai, the National Centre for Advocacy Studies in Pune, the Centre for Budget Studies, and the Campaign for Human Rights, a coalition of membership-based organizations. He was awarded the Ashoka Innovators for the Public Fellowship in 1983 and the Eisenhower Fellowship in 2000 to study budgetary processes and police accountability systems in the United States. Vivek has also been a member of several government committees, including the Maharashtra State Task Force on Primary Education.