Letter to AID

Letter to AID

Date must be sometime in late 1999 or early 2000.  Posted without date  at  Provisionally I have assigned the date December 1999.

Dear AID Volunteers,

My yet incomplete quest for the proper balance of action and reflection makes it difficult for me to still my mind sufficiently to review with you the past year.

My first few months were largely spent travelling and finding out my own ways of getting from point A to point B

I travelled over more than half of India…. I certainly benefitted from this, but all the time I was asking myself uneasily: “Can the coming of non-violence really be hastened by my travelling about like this?  Is it possible by such methods to bring about the social change that we desire?”  My mind dwelt continually upon such matters as how the railways had been built, and where I had got the money needed for my journeys. It also seemed to me that these speedy means of travel tend to excite the mind rather than to encourage deeper reflection…. Could they ever help me to reach the common people?

– Vinobha Bhave

July – November were months of conceiving and reconceiving approaches to development in settings which themselves evoked and demanded sensitivity and alertness to people and people’s issues, movements, and organisations.  Rural education, Tribal Medicine, Traditional Science, Fishworker’s Rally, NGO Fair, Alternative Development Workshop were some of the occasions to leap into new perspectives.

Not only our perspective, but our identity also evolves in different settings.  How we introduce ourselves, how we are introduced, affects our ability to move and talk with people.  Often it is a challenge to live up to the introductions others give us.

On one weekend we met over 100 NGOs in a fair held in Churchgate and just a few kilometres away sat among thousands of women and men belonging to the National Forum of Fishworkers.  To experience such an instant connection between the NGOs who, for example are protecting the coastal environment and the people who are fighting the factory-trawling MNCs is just one example of the intensive education I availed in the early months.

From December onwards I also began presenting and helping to organize meetings of different people and groups.   In the AID India conference in Chennai, we brought together village level workers, journalists, national level conveners of people’s movements, government workers including a former Union Secretary, and those aspiring to work for village development.  Reading the proceedings of that conference, we can see one message ringing loud and clear from people in all these categories:  local planning and conceiving of development projects is not an add-on to customize a general policy but it is essential and must precede the formation of the policy.

The urgency of this message in the context of India’s New Economic Policy and the OECD’s plots for a Multilateral Agreement on Investments increases day by day.  At the December meeting of the International Committee on Dams, Rivers, & People which preceded the South Asia Public Hearings of the World Commission on Dams, some of us were projecting the effects of the MAI and resistance to MAI on dams and water and energy policies.  Professor Ramaswamy Iyer, Former Secretary for Water Resources, GoI, whom I met in the WCD meeting, was responsible for India’s First National Water Policy.  When he spoke in the AID-India conference, he said that the Policy needed to be revised and reoriented towards participatory planning and management of water resources.  However, in AID-Mumbai’s meeting with Rajinder Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh, we learned that the draft of the Revised Water Policy is very market oriented and makes a mockery of people’s participation in the places where it does mention this.  Such a water policy is clearly a repercussion of globalisation and a precursor to a world under MAI.  Implementation of this policy will only harden and hammer in the practice of water export and, as many have predicted, may result in violence of a large scale.

My experience with nonviolent movements has motivated some of the projects I have pursued in India.  One begins to see the multiple dimensions of standard development categories such as health, forests, water, or education.  Nonviolent demonstrations for ethnic studies and reconceiving the “core curriculum” in Columbia University predisposed me towards the jeevanshalas of the Narmada Valley, in which students are taught not only reading, writing and arithmetic, but also standing up for the truth.  Primary schools students have led their own processions opposing the submergence of their jeevanshala hut and grounds, and have staged plays on issues ranging from alcohol to the history of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.  These students fought and won battles to have their school recognized, even at the cost of 1 or 2 years for pupils of the early batches.  Another unique effort in education was the Global Peace March which took information on a recent national policy and its effects to hundreds of villages.  This opportunity for villagers to have informed discussion on the health effects of radiation and the destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons would not have arisen from the standard educational curriculum or the information given in the popular media.  The March evoked solidarity actions around the world, including the signature collection and rally of AID volunteers in DC and visit to India and Pakistan Embassies.

I came to India with three years volunteer experience in AID US.  While in US we correspond with NGOs all of us are aware that there are many less equipped groups doing intensive work through grassroots action who are for various reasons not inclined to request funds from abroad.  I myself was aware of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, ever since I saw Narmada: A Valley Rises in 1995.  Through events AID organised, such as screening of When Women Unite, lecture by journalist P. Sainath, and talk by Medha Patkar, we came to know of quite a few more community based organisations and people’s movements in India.  I was eager not only to work with such groups myself, but to improve the communication and understanding of such groups among Indians abroad.  Therefore it was not sufficient for me to work individually, but to carry the spirit of AID into this kind of work.  All too often, the prevailing development policy and paradigm results in exploitation and impoverishment of communities which had once been living a self sufficient and sustainable life with their natural resource base.  In the past year many AID volunteers have probed the implications of this.  Fundamental questions regarding development – for whom? at whose cost?  with whose consent? sustainable? equitable? honest?  — are asked with greater clarity and depth by a wide range of AID volunteers and AID has also attracted new volunteers with more experience and ability to evolve this perspective in development.

For example, in a letter of 13 Aug 99, Aniruddha of State College writes,

Considering the close relationship between development, redistribution of  power  and  resources  and conflict, we  should  perhaps  interpret “apolitical  organization” to mean that we are not  interested in participation  in government or in political parties etc.  but that  we  do not   necessarily  rule out cooperation, persuasion  or  opposition to specific governmental  or societal policies or actions which affect this relationship.

Such a perspective also calls for a new role from AID volunteers, namely to build more direct links with the common people and the issues, movements and organisations of the poor or those facing impending poverty.  What is common about the people?  It is their reliance on common resources, common sense, and their common cause with others who respect these commons.  This implies rejection of patenting of natural items, privatisation of public spaces and people’s knowledge, and selling of community spaces and community interests under the force of globalisation.  The eminent farmer Bhaskar Save has written in a letter to the Planning Commission in 1993:

Exporting Water:
The water used to irrigate one acre of sugarcane can provide the needs of at least 25 acres of jowar, bajra or maize. One kg of basmati rice requires 300 to 400  litres of water, and large quantities of such rice are exported. One kg of corn requires only 15 to 17 litres of water and this crop is imported.  In effect, we are exporting our water resources.

The Government is also promoting the export of sugar. Each such kg of processed sugar requires at least 2 to 3 tonnes of water, which could have been used to grow, by the traditional organic way, about 150 to 200 kg of jowar or bajra to feed our own people.  Moreover, the monocultures of sugarcane cause the worst problems of salinisation. While we may be able to import food, fuel, fertiliser, etc., land is something that can never be imported. We must be careful that we do not create in India, another Ethiopia or Somalia. God may forgive our mistakes, rooted in short-sighted greed, but the future generations will never forgive us.
Now you will not find many in AID who dispute a statement such as the one Soma Nag made recently, “merely funding projects without understanding the deeper issues, is unlikely to make a difference.”

These deeper issues are everywhere – around us, within us.  Connecting with people’s movements requires us to internalize the holistic development that we support.

New skills

? Talking to women in villages.  Why is this a skill?  Because more often it is the men who will come out and talk to a newcomer in a village.  Often we find that women occupy the “fourth world” unfamiliar even with the ways and media of the third world.  Nothing in my experience in AID US could have prepared me to overcome this communication gap.

? Starting women’s self help groups.  Thanks to the wonderful guide United We Sit prepared by Balaji and Sandeep from the basic text of Franco (TNSF) I found that I could speak with confidence to a group of women and convince them that whether they had income or not they could save, they could travel to the bank, they could keep their own accounts, and yes, they could even lend among themselves.   Along with Varalakshmi of GRASS I spoke to women in Manthina and Buradapeta villages of Srikakulam District about the social as well as economic benefits of the savings group, which has now spread under the leadership of Varalakshmi and Suryanarayana to 8 villages of the district.

? Language activities with children:  With no supplies of my own I can engage children in writing and speaking about the day-to-day activities of their village and also in asking questions about social issues and imagining solutions to local problems.

? Talking to police:  I remember at my first AID meeting (a GBM) people were discussing the perennial question “how do we know if an NGO is honest?”  I think one answer is that the honest ones are not afraid to challenge the authorities when it is necessary. Honesty is not merely lack of dishonesty, but it is courage to speak the truth.  Moving with such courageous and committed people has taught me to speak to the police.  In the prevailing development policy context, which poses a threat to the well being of many villages, it is absolutely necessary for the village worker to be able to speak the truth to the police.  As I have learned in the Narmada Valley, sarkar hmasao DrtI hO, paolIsa kao Aagao krtI hO  “A cowardly government resorts to police repression.”  As long as we do not communicate the truth to the police, that cowardliness reflects upon us.

? Decentralizing waste:   Simple techniques of trash separation and awareness of bioindicators  make composting much more effective and smart.
Issues I am dealing with currently

Delegating some of my AID US responsibilities:  Deeptha Thattai has taken over the internships program.  A slow and steady process has begun for training others to produce the monthly newsletter.

Promotional Producing the AID canvas bag using unbleached cotton and fair labour has helped us to reach out to over 100 people with the simple message “Say No To Plastic Bags” and the deeper truth “If the People Lead, Eventually the Leaders will Follow.”  With inspiration from AID MD we also produced a T shirt that highlights the injustice in the Narmada Valley.  These products are made fairly, have a social message, and are sold to raise funds for AID India or for the groups AID India wants to support.

Magazines  As we discover good magazines we try to support them by encouraging more people to support them.

Communicating with AID US:  As I said in Cincinnati, AID India should not become just another NGO for AID, but it must help to bridge the gap between AID and the context in which the movements and NGOs in India are working and the range of issues with which they are dealing.  If AID India simply falls on the other side of the communication gap AID’s objectives in linking with the most effective and dedicated people and organisations will be considerably set back.

Integrating the insight gained in India in the activities and publications of AID US.  All of the AID India volunteers do wish to contribute something back to help address the problems faced by volunteers in the US.

I thank all of you for your interest in my work.