Reflections on our experiences working with AID, 1998-2004, including
- lessons learned from working with NBA
- Voices & Livelihoods
- diversity of initiatives for development work
Midnight neared as we were nearing Tolapi – unless we’d passed it. Thick fog had all but zeroed our visibility and we were grateful when a vehicle overtook us so that its reflected light assured us that no oncoming vehicle was in the offing. The driver remained optimistic and we kept a light conversation going to maintain alertness and calm. The baby, blissfully unaware of the tension, the cbms, and even the tire change, kept our minds focussed.
But from NH5, construction incomplete yet amply strewn with colour posters of our esteemed Prime Minister, the road to Tolapi is narrow and unlit. It is, however, a “pakka road” and that is how we asked for it after crossing the same bridge several times and missing it. In previous visits, the bus driver found the road and we had always arrived in broad daylight. Now that we came by car, tempted to travel in the evening and halting en route, it was up to us to guide the driver in the dark and fog of night.
Though we had to turn left, it was finally some streetlights in the distance on the right that tipped us off that the road must be (like a misplaced pen) “right here somewhere.” We turned and within moments our headlights shone on familiar tea stalls, panchayat office, etc. Pleasantly surprised to find someone awake in the village, we asked him the way to the house where we would be staying. To our dismay he seemed not to know the family. We described the children, the farm, the toilet … didn’t ring a bell. Were we really in the right place? Finally, perhaps seeing the baby, he agreed to come with us and look for our host. It hardly took a minute – we were just on a parallel lane.
It was the driver who asked the next morning, why the man we met last night didn’t know these people who were so active in the village. Turns out he was holding onto his cards. In his words, “we didn’t know who you were, coming in a car so late at night. So how can I lead you to their house?”
Signals in the Fog
Lights in one direction, road in another, vehicles rushing to the outer limits but throwing us off track once inside …without drawing out the parallels, our journey and arrival bear many correspondences to the search for solutions to problems in the field. Where planes and trains don’t even slow down, where buses don’t ply – there lie the villages where we find not only the gravest injustices and inequities, but also people quietly practicing the solutions to the pressing development problems of the day. Their voices go unheard, and their gifts, unreceived by the next generation, may die with them. Villages where electricity grids, telephone lines, cellular signals don’t reach. Postal routes leave blank. Villages that are not on the map can be reached when we change not only our vehicle but also our mindset.
We were very sure that the truths of this ground needed to be told loudly and clearly as far as our voices could reach. Meeting this challenge has stretched our capacities. Through experience, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, we learn the language required for various situations – talking to urban schoolchildren, business people, government officials, villagers of nearby tehsils or districts. Like us many have spread the word of this movement and the critical issues of environment, human rights, democracy and development.
Narmada movement has served as an inspiration and energy source for myriad movements within India and we have utilized some of the lessons learned for our work in Andhra. Some of these are:
· Expect results: With the Narmada Movement we learned never to consider anything to be “hopeless.” We talked with government officials as if we firmly believed that they were as committed as we were to a just and humane solution, and that they would only too well appreciate our help in ensuring that they performed their duties honestly and in a timely manner. And so if a Collector says that he will be back with an answer to a question such as “where is the land which you have declared in this notice to be available for this set of villages to be displaced in the coming monsoon?” we simply waited in his office till he came with the answer. We have spent days and nights outside collector’s offices waiting for answers in this way. Villagers come prepared with dry rotis as well as dry grains and large vessels to cook in any open area where we may have to camp, for they have experience waiting for such answers. Such offices are never within an easy commute of the affected villages and hence there is no option of going home and coming back tomorrow.
o So when the fire affected people of Santakavita Mandal prepared once again to meet the Mandal Revenue Officer (MRO) to demand the already sanctioned amounts for relief and housing assistance, we advised them that we must be prepared to sit and wait until the transaction was complete, and planned in advance how support would come from neighbouring villages and tehsils and on to the national level if required. All this turned out not to be necessary because when the villagers went to the MRO the next day, they were given the concrete and other provisions as promised. One cannot discount the effect of the added confidence that would have exuded from the people’s faces in achieving this result, which had eluded them for the past 11 months.
· Always be positive. Even in a land slated for submergence villagers offer warm welcomes and hospitality, certainly more than one receives in the cities. The lesson we carry with us is never to think that what we bring to the table is zero, but to value the knowledge and resources we have. This has served in starting self-help groups that survive, as well as getting results in meetings with the government. When hundreds of Nimadi farmers compelled the officer of the NVDA to meet them, Medha Patkar eased the built up tension by saying, “we know that if his land were being submerged, he too would be on this side of the gate.”
· Faith in the democratic process: When we demand that a government official tell the truth or follow the law we are not “against” the government. Rather we are in favour of government functioning correctly. Those in the seat sometimes require our persuasion and public pressure which can intensify when violations of the law become flagrant. Most of the time we are working only for the rights already provided by law, but even in the cases when we are demanding a change in policy we do so legally according to constitution. This process is the heart and soul of democracy and what keeps our country alive. We have never worked with any violent group other than the state, whose violence weighs upon the conscience of all of us as citizens. We have never sought to fight violence with violence.
· Sing out loud: To communicate complex issues through touching images, to disseminate people’s own views in their own language, to involve people from all segments of society, to show the world that we aren’t going away, to keep spirits up and blood pressure down, to finish on a high note and in unison, songs are the proven winners. … and the role of AID
As AID-India forges collaborations with village organisations and indeed directly with villagers, we often encounter exciting new work and challenges to address in ways that may be new to our thinking. AID India has always played a role in bringing these unique, at times unfamiliar, often cutting-edge techniques of addressing village development problems to the attention and comprehension of the volunteer community of Indians in the U.S. On each new and different path AID India takes, AID US is a fellow traveler.
Along the journey, many opinions vie. Eventually someone will raise the question, “but is this the purpose of AID?” It may be “to assist the needy or to fight corruption cases?” “Are we working for rehabilitation or to stop the dam?” “Is it the purpose of AID to support talented people or to monitor every aspect of a project?” Whenever we find ourselves counterposing such an a & b, what we usually need to ask is what are the factors forcing us to set a against b, what has brought us face to face with these factors today and how would we propose to deal with them? In fact, this may be the purpose of AID, and thus the more projects that raise issues forcing us to face such moments of serious reflection, the more soberly we can work towards this purpose.
Receiving the signals
Why do we reach out to the poorest? Not because they are most needy and vulnerable but primarily because they hold the key to change. We reach out not merely with our hands but with our whole selves we identify with them and try to see ourselves, and the “problem” that has brought us in touch with them, the way they see it. Thus we begin to educate our minds to receive the signals.
We have found over the years that development work in India may come from a diverse range of initiatives:
- Government. Strength: has power
May work on projects that are:
a. centrally planned — typically is without people’s consent, input, or even information, often depends on external inputs and results in exploitation of natural and human resources
b. locally planned — movement towards people’s planning and participation, utilizing local resources and skills, and generating livelihoods locally, supported through legislation such as Tribal Self Rule Act, Panchayati Raj Institutions, and being implemented and studied in several districts, e.g. Kerala.
- People’s Movements. Strength: people
Use a dual strategy:
a. to empower people to demand the right to development planning as given on paper
i) to find out what are the laws and provisions in a particular place, dig up all the papers & follow up
ii) to educate people to understand these rights, relate them to their current social, economic, environmental and political circumstances, and articulate their analysis of the situation
iii) teaching government officials to listen to people, and to tell the truth to people — involves getting those in power to hear people in their own place — the village, not the city, in a hut not a conference hall, and in the local language
b. to plan and implement local development activities, availing of the govt facilities (right to resources, budget, employment, etc) gained through the sangharsh
Also, people have to stop destruction. Much energy gets expended in stopping destructive projects that come about because government has no need to and no experience in listening to the people while planning the project. Often plans are made without required consultation and consent of people. Movements point out and halt such illegal activities.
- Non governmental organizations. Strength: Can attract specialists
a. city based, depending on external funds, infrastructure, reporting, service / charity attitude
b. village based, volunteer based, may get external funds but will not collapse without them, working “with” and not working “for,” ready to challenge the power-elite, govt, to get the government services and facilities which on paper, etc.
a. Gram sabha – village passes resolution at quarterly meeting and works (usually requires struggle) to secure resources to implement. These resources may already be allocated to the gram sabha through various “schemes” such as food-for-work, etc. Struggle may nevertheless be required to process the paperwork and deliver the benefits.
b. Lobbying – citizens mobilize support for a demand to be placed before an elected representative. Could be related to schools, transportation, health & safety, environment, or larger issues of peace, justice, labour etc.
c. Voluntary Action – citizens take action on matters under their own control. Neighborhood peace-keeping, trash management are typical starting points. Can grow into movements to protect neighbourhood from outside forces e.g. polluting industries, communal forces, big finance
- Private sector — enterprising company identifies a need and meets it at the market price
strengths: spurs creativity, industry
weaknesses: not bound by social values of equity, depends heavily on subsidies
There are several ways of finishing this sentence and as one gains experience, and with it humility, one realises that what one seeks are roots not of the problems but of our approach to the problem. One who is trained in a given field will look at something one way and someone whose mindset emphasises the importance of say, environment, will be predisposed to see all problems as stemming from environment.
This prompted me to write a song to the tune of “three blind mice:”
See how it runs. See how it runs.
And they all ran after the farmer’s wife
Sowing seeds of destruction, starvation and strife
Did you ever see such a sight in your life
As global capital
See how much they run. See how much they run
Making deals with dictators at point of a knife
Did you notice what happens to people who trifle
With global trade agreements?
Chico Mendez. Chico Mendez.
And so many who paid for truth with dear life
Stood tall in face of the corporate rifle
For people not profits, earth, human rights
And Global Justice! Global Justice!
Global Justice! Global Justice!
India: The Worlds Within
Though generally India is called a “third world country” it was at a meeting with the Collector of Nandurbar District that I saw through this lie. Nearly a thousand representatives from 33 tribal villages affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project in Maharashtra were present to examine the truth of the affidavit filed by the State of Maharashtra claiming that land was ready for the rehabilitation of all families affected by the dam up to 110 metres height. Of the thousand, only a handful spoke with the collector and I noticed that throughout the 7 hour meeting the women, so vocal in all public meetings and rallies, did not speak at all. Why? “We don’t understand the language” they explained to me. Their own district collector could not speak in their language nor had he bothered to hire a translator. The district level government was a foreign power to them, for though they were adivasis (original inhabitants) they belonged to the fourth world – the indigenous peoples’ world. The state, working in the state language of Marathi, was the third world with which India is so fondly identified. Yet the project that displaced them was a national one and till they could communicate in Hindi, they could not question the authority or access the resources of the second world, that of the nation and all the environmentalists, lawyers, social workers, journalists and students who have taken interest in the movement.. Even that is not enough since the Supreme Court operates in English which not even one of the tribal people understands. And all those of us who are fluent in the first world’s first language access the resources and facilities of that world, whether we live in the global north or south or, if we search, even in the town of Nandurbar where we can feel pleased to sip the local beverage “Master Key” while connecting our laptops at the STD booth.
Considering the monumentally messy situation we find in almost any aspect of development, poverty & exploitation, we can ill afford ideal solutions. The problems are too mind-boggling and too heart-wrenching to be addressed step-by-step. More like plunge, plod, desilt, plod some more, capsize, start over, and if you are lucky, swim with the tide now and then. Some approaches that have seemed effective are
· gram sabha: in Maharashtra there are several successful models of well-functioning gram sabhas where development activities are planned and implemented with full participation of the village. Inspired by such self-reliant villages as Mehnda Lekha and Ralegaon Siddhi, the people of Surodi village in Ahmednagar District have also transformed their gram sabha from a perfunctory gathering of a few village elders to a meeting of the entire village which recently completed a watershed project through village shram dan.
· Mobilise Expertise: a group of people specialising in a certain field may link with village organistions to make their area of expertise useful for the people’s aspirations and struggles. For example, CEHAT is a group of medical professionals who work only with people’s organisations. These are organisations which are often not even registered, whose very existence depends on people’s participation and people’s contributions. Such a selection policy guarantees that CEHAT works in the areas most needed and through a system of people’s participation already familiar, not requiring any training on part of CEHAT. Through large networks, NGOs and movements can access the expertise of socially committed researchers working in policy issues such as PRAYAS (Pune) in energy or Community Health Cell (Bangalore) in people’s health.
· Commit to a place: When a group of like minded people commit to a particular location, understand local dynamics, and gain the confidence of the local people, especially of the poorest and most oppressed communities, they can channel their skills and resources to address the problems that most concern the people. Examples of this approach are Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti in Gujarat and Vimukti in Karnataka.
· Commit to a field: Group of people commit to a certain field in a region of unmet need. Often specialists aren’t available in such places so non-specialists must enter the field. For example in Lodhar a group of people from the nearby IIT campus, though not education specialists, have over the years worked with resource people both locally and in the wider education community and built Lodhar school and sattelite schools, creating materials for use in wider geographic range.
Typically AID volunteers have the opportunity to join the people who are central to the process of change through an NGO. How effective is an NGO? We can roughly consider four types of NGOs:
Four types of NGOsI. Scam: An NGO that functions only on paper, appropriates huge sums of money in the name of work which it does not in fact do. All documentation is at best misleading and at worst total fabrication. [Or as P. Sainath calls it, Indian Fiction – applies to government projects as well]
II. Corporate NGO: The NGO is “honest” in that its documents and accounts will be correct and in order. Whatever it says it does, it does. If it says it bought a jeep, it bought a jeep. If it says it held a training workshop which 100 women attended, you can be sure that happened. However, what purpose these served is more related to sustaining the NGO than in meeting any of the needs of the people / villages in whose name the NGO functions. The NGO’s main business is keeping itself in business. It will choose programs according to where funds are most readily available. If this year is the year of breastfeeding, then the NGO will be into breastfeeding, publishing manuals, holding workshops, inaugurating centres, etc. If we are lucky the NGO may actually look into issues of maternal nutrition, lactation support, consumer awareness regarding baby foods, and linking with overall women’s health. However if next year is the year of the neem tree, then say goodbye to all the breeastfeeding programs, this NGO is going to be into neem tree, neem toothpaste, hair oil, body soap, you name it, it’s neem! In fact, as neem oil can be used in weaning, maybe that will be their recommendation to any nursing mother who approaches them that year!
This NGO survives because that is what is best at doing – writing the kinds of proposals that will get funds to keep the operation running, much like a consulting firm performing jobs for development agencies. You will hear such NGOs talk of projects being “given” to them by large funding agencies. In fact the staff will refer to the project by the name of the donor agency. Trained staff will write top dollar proposals, with up-to-date terms and references, and produce nicely formatted feedback, brochures, reports that satisfy funding agencies that their money is well utilised. The funding agency in turn uses these documents to raise funds from its own donor base. Meanwhile the real people whose stories and photos are used to generate all this revenue trickling through the system remain at the bottom and more than likely get nothing of lasting value from it other than perhaps a cynical attitude towards efforts by voluntary organisations. This kind of NGO is also susceptible to being used for political gain by ruling parties, who can “give projects” designed to pave the way for their own aims. The professional NGO will be more in touch with its “peers” – other professional NGOs and its “partners” – donor agencies throughout the country and world than with its local (“target”) population.
The major achievement of AID India is in a) earning the trust of people’s movements (category IV) and also changing the way that the NGOs of category III relate both to their own work and to a supporting organisation such as AID. By seeking to correspond with them on their own terms, often in the local language and in public transport, we relieve them of some of the artificial reporting burdens they have come to associate with funding agencies. Thus AID volunteers are able to join in these movements and initiatives and in turn the people central to the processes of change are able to avail the support AID can offer. Our role is to ask these folks to kick off, as it were, their high-heels and relax in some havai chappals so that we can walk the greater distance together. In this way organisations of Type III have greater opportunities to work with and work more like people’s movements without losing the benefits of having their institutional set-up.
If asked for my choice as to the “key” to change the development scenario to one that positively involved villagers (and cityfolk too) to imagine and implement programs for the collective good, I would not hesitate in answering, “people’s voices.” Currently the situation one encounters day in and day out is that no consultative process draws people with the confidence that their voice counts. Too often they are not far off the mark. After repeated submergence and satyagraha in the Narmada Valley followed by a two week long dharana and fast by senior activists including Medha Patkar, the government of Maharashtra appointed a Task force to assess accurately the extent of displacement due to Sardar Sarovar. However though the document was passed from one committee to another, before any recommendations were implemented the government of Maharashtra changed and the new Chief Minister has simply ignored this report. Dam construction was allowed to go from 90 to 100 metres even though the Daud Committee reported that people affected even at the 80 metre level had not been rehabilitated and more than 1000 families remained to be rehabilitated at the 90 m level.
Understanding livelihoods through the ecoshop
Many basic problems such as health, education, and civic empowerment would have a jump start towards lasting solutions if only people’s livelihoods were secure. After witnessing the processes which strip away people’s sources of livelihood, such as disposession or destruction of land, water and forest resources, or economic policies favouring rich, powerful and often foreign interests over the majority of rural and urban poor, we sought not only to fight these forces but at the same time work to protect livelihoods and livelihood-supporting resources. What are the livelihood generating activities that do not destroy the natural resource base? What role do urban folk have in sustaining these?
With no less aspiration than this we gathered products from the tailors of Tolapi, the weavers of Rapaka and Amalapuram, the bamboo artisans of Orissa, vegetable dye artisans of Machlipatnam, tribal and marginal farmers of Raigad, and arranged it as attractively as we could in a small shop space adjacent to the Gandhi Book Center, aka Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal in Nana Chowk. We added greeting cards, books and magazines on development issues from small presses, T shirts with progressive messages. The shop attracted people from the Gandhian background, Narmada supporters, health nuts, students, as well as passersby in the busy Grant Road station area.
In the case of products sourced from producers we knew personally in Srikakulam District we could assess all the costs incurred in bringing a product to the market. For example, women of Rapaka village were weaving jute mats and bags. For a jute bag requiring 50 metres of braided jute, the cost might break down to
cost of raw jute – includes costs such as agricultural labour, water, electricity which the farmer incurred and in case chemical inputs were used, cost to the earth and all other life it supports. 5
cost of dye .50
LABOUR COST (at Rs. 5/hour)
from village to trucking office: .50
by truck to bombay 3
from godown in bombay to the shop 5
 The way, for example, large corporations may dole out goodies to children while paying adults sub-minimum wages and advertise this as charity, or even as “social responsibility.” Similarly a report of a GoMP task force called for “vocational training” programs for people displaced from the Narmada Valley, while sidestepping the issue of providing adequate agricultural land as is required by law.