Conference, Reflections

AID & Me 2017

This year’s AID & Me asked how the ideas we gain through AID can influence everyday decisions we make.  Can we segregate AID from our lives?  Should we?  Does e-activism make any difference?  Watch the cast toss around these questions and poke good-natured fun at the year in AID.

 

 

 

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Reflections, Report

Studying Society the Sangati Way

What do children study in social studies?   Sangati is a program that encourages children to study society, starting with themselves.  Avehi-Abacus has trained teachers in more than 900 schools of the Bombay Municipal Corporation to implement this program.  I had the opportunity to visit some of the classes during their Sangati session.

The Sangati curriculum is designed with the aim of helping students make sense of their personal experiences at home and in their neighborhoods in a broader social, political and historical context.  The students I met had learned about Savitri bai Phule who worked for the cause of education for women and girls, and read stories raising caste issues such as Premchand’s Thakur ka Kuan (Thakur’s well) and Eklavya.

In the course of the discussion, the teacher asked them questions such as,

“What have been the conventional roles expected of men and women?”
“How has society changed?”
“How does education play a role?”
“Was Dronacharya a great teacher?”  (क्या द्रोणाचार्य महान गुरु थे?).
“If your teacher asked you for such a guru-dakshina what would you do?”

In their discussion we could see that while the material they discussed challenged social conventions and power structures, their ideas of how to challenge these in their own lives were yet forming and would take many more such discussions for them to articulate.
The politics of the classroom and the politics of their present reality layered upon one another, complicating the questions that the teacher asked based on the lesson.   It poignantly revealed how far the students were willing to go in challenging issues of caste and gender which we like to think are settled.
I read some of the textbooks and teacher’s guides, including descriptions of their classroom exercises designed to facilitate introspection on questions of caste and gender.  It would be interesting to try out these exercises ourselves in chapters.  There is so much that we in AID can learn from this program, as travelers along the same journey towards a just society.

Related: 
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Reflections

Sankranti Zindabad!

Gobbemma:  Decorated Gobar Ball placed on Muggu.

Gobbemma: Decorated Gobar Ball placed on Muggu.

We celebrated Sankranti yesterday.  We drew muggulu (rangolis) and topped them with gobbemmalu (decorated gobar balls).  We danced and sang traditional songs, including “Gobbiyello!” that details, verse by verse, every stage of the growth of a seed from the moment it sprouts, bears fruit to fruit till it ripens and we finish off by eating the fruit –  a జామకాయ (guava), as the song goes.  Each stage of growth is a cause for celebration and comment:

అవునాట అక్కలార?
 “Oh, really?  Is it so, sister?” Continue reading
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Reflections

Strengthening our organisational base in the US

Since its founding AID has earned the trust of some of the most dedicated grassroots workers in remote and rural parts of India as well as in the poorer urban areas. Many individuals and organizations working on livelihood, natural resource, and human rights issues follow certain principles in how they raise support from the community. Only when AID has proven itself an understanding, and responsible member of that community, prepared to raise not only funds but also its voice, in solidarity with the people working for change, have these groups been open to accepting contributions from AID. Over the years we have learned to see the people whom we normally term poor and marginalized, as central to the processes of social change. We have also learned to relate to people informally, taking time to hear and understand their own ways of expressing their knowledge, experiences, and analysis of their problems and solutions, and offering our ideas and resources in a spirit of mutual sharing and reciprocity.

If people like Aruna Roy, Arvind Kejriwal, Sandeep Pandey and Medha Patkar are taking AID seriously and taking volunteers into confidence, it is because they trust AID volunteers not only to answer requests for financial help from NGOs, but also to hear and understand people’s movements, to debate and further strengthen the vision as well as the fight for sustainable development, both strategically and ideologically. What kind of energy do we want, what is education, environment for whom, what model for socially responsible science, technology or business, what do we mean by sustainable agriculture, are a handful of the issues on which the elite and the non-elite need to work together and keep on trying to discover better and better approaches.

It is our willingness as AID volunteers to go through the learning curve, to be ready to question and unlearn many of our long-held assumptions about what is good for the world or even what is good for ourselves that has helped AID as an organization become today one of the few of its kind that has been able to relate to the struggles and efforts of the poor, the marginalised and underprivileged communities without compromising on dignity and reciprocity. This means we have the courage to face those who ask, why are you opposing that dam, you should only focus on rehabilitating the affected people. Or, why are you getting into controversial issues when you could simply be educating people to work in the IT boom.

When we take seriously the challenge to see ourselves as affected people, we are forced to evaluate our own role in the processes that empower and disempower people – ourselves and others. Because we recognize not only the right of every hungry person to have food, but also the right of every well-fed person to share the food produced by the economic system in which we take part, we can demand land rights, properly functioning Public Distribution System, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, etc, not simply out of concern for those going hungry, but also as our own right and responsibility as citizens and as humans.

Recognizing these rights and responsibilities, AID has held together the three aspects of development – sangharsh, nirman and seva without letting one dominate the other two, but rather seeing them intertwining. When we do any of these with full commitment, it will inherently open space or even directly involve the other two. Through our presence in India, we have strongly projected AID as an organization that backs its financial support with unflagging personal and moral commitment. We say to our partners, we are with you in spirit, we are there for you in time of need, we will answer when you call, we will share your successes proudly, and we will question authorities and raise our voices against injustice. When we talk to people like Chennaiah garu or Swati Desai, they are most moved by how personally aid volunteers take their commitment, sharing their views with friends and family who may disagree with them, patiently discussing issues with new people whom they meet at tabling functions, changing lifestyles and even livelihoods in order to work more wholeheartedly for the cause.

We have a long way to go to live up to these promises. Today we find volunteers in every chapter, deeply inspired by AID. All of us need to work continuously and passionately to sustain this quality and depth of commitment, and the unity of sangharsh, nirman and seva. In the US, AID is a movement, raising the standards for the Indian community to connect with and be the change.

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Reflections

My year as a vegan

My year as a vegan

27th September 2006

Thanks Divya and Sree for interesting conversations that prompted me to dig out these old notes. And thanks Srihari, I now make fresh soymilk and also use the Okara in just about anything.

Reflections along the journey of responsible living.
Summer 2005

My year as a vegan is drawing to a close. I have thoroughly enjoyed it, for the most part. Though I was not absolutely strict I can honestly say that I’d have logged at least 350 vegan days by the end of the year. There were days I may have eaten a soup or bread or even a berfi where dairy figured somewhere in the list of ingredients. But I never succumbed to the temptation to have a cool cup of yougurt after a sumptuous meal of hot chapatis and spicy chole or settle in for a midnight snack of cereal and milk. In fact, these things didn’t tempt me nearly as much as I thought they would. A month into my veganhood, even pizza didn’t look that appetizing and others in my family also prefer soy kaas to the real thing.

Since I came to India, things like tofu and soy milk aren’t readily available, forget stuff like soy cheese, seitan or other vegan conveniences. Of course, in the villages, many people are involuntarily vegan since they can neither afford to feed Mama cow and Mama hen, nor pay someone else to do so and get rich predigested food in return.
Lest I falter and even think of taking dairy, all I have to see is a cow and the thought perishes. Though I adopted a vegan diet for the sake of my daughter, I think it is my own experience lactating that drives me away from the milk of other mammals. It is interesting that I cannot imagine drinking milk of other humans but have been drinking milk of cows and buffalos for years. Now that I lactate, I am so careful about my own diet that I can’t see drinking the milk of cows fed literally on junk off the streets. Let’s not even get into what factory farmed dairy cows in the US ingest. Sure, Indian cows are selective in what they dumpster-dive, but as for me, no thanks.

Mere rhetoric until my daughter turned one, the age at which the American Pediatrics Association says that it is safe to introduce cow’s milk to children. I, however wanted to wait a little longer. Since she was also old enough to want whatever I was eating, I decided that I too would go dairy-free. And as long as I was giving up my heart’s delight, yougurt, why not go ahead and be vegan. Anyway my egg consumption was limited to what my sister baked with “free-range” eggs, and it was no big deal giving those up and baking with yeast or egg substitute instead. And there I was, ready to ascend the moral high ground of one who has given up eating all animal products, all connection with the dreadful dairy and egg industries, which, let’s face, it aren’t really very kind to animals even in their free-grazing versions. “Is it vegan?” I loved to say it!

Within a month, a sore throat made me realise I wasn’t vegan. I found a source for honey harvested the old fashioned way, and learned about the process from a beekeeper in Toronto. The bees seemed pretty unconfined and unharmed to me. So while I avoid honey made from smoked-out bees, I consider honey harvested from the forest on par with maple syrup tapped from the trees. And ecologically and politically superior to sugar, which I was dismayed to find figured prominently in a lot of “vegan” recipes. Having leafed through Sidney Mintz’ “Sweetness and Power,” I consider sugar unless specified otherwise to be cruel to people and planet. It may not directly harm animals, though of course they depend on the planet too, but it certainly harms people and therefore is ruled out by my food principles. It harms the people whose countries are held hostage to it, the people who work for pittance growing it, the people who struggle to access water because it is all being drained by the sugar cane plantations, and in the way 99% of it is consumed, it hurts those who eat it.

Now that we have proved that indeed life goes on without yougurt-n-rice, which I used to eat at least twice a day, why go back? I was careful from the beginning not to declare myself vegan, simply because I wasn’t sure how long I would last. My only target was to avoid introducing other animal’s milk to my daughter for as long as mother’s milk was a significant part of her diet. I do not wish to use a cow as a wet-nurse. Since the WHO mentions 2 years as the minimum recommended duration for breastfeeding, I figured we’d think about it again when she turned 2. Till then, we learn to prepare interesting meals and snacks out of grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. It forces me to be creative. I owe several new staple foods to the recipes on packages, which use common household ingredients. I learned how easy it is to make hummus, millet cereal, as well as other interesting preparations with grains and legumes. With our handy solar cooker even slow-cooking beans like garbanzos or kidney beans are a cinch, and certainly much tastier, without using any fuel or heating up the house. Not to mention it leaves me with an extra stovetop to take care of the vegetables. Yes, it is more work, which I would surely escape if I could just go for yougurt, or cheese sandwiches, or milk over cold cereal.

As a result our diet is much more varied and my daughter simply loves to observe and of late, take over, every stage of food preparation. She can identify all the ingredients, from individual spices to legumes to vegetables. She loves to shell peas, grate carrots, wash urad dal, add salt, and will often bring me a clove of garlic and ask, “shall we throw in some garlic?”

What I am hoping is that now that we’ve gotten over the hard part – introducing a wide variety of foods to our growing baby– when we do bring yougurt back into the picture (and when we can find cows living somewhat freely and with a healthy diet), it won’t dominate our diet as it once did. I think yougurt is a pretty healthy food, though I treat other dairy products as once-a-month items, on par with convenience food. Hey, it’s hard work, chewing all those greens and grains. Why not just pay and make the cows do it? I suppose cows, given a choice, might not actually want their milk to be pumped out for human consumption, so I’ll have to live with that on my conscience.

Ideally I’d wait till my daughter is old enough to ‘decide’ that she wants dairy products but in fact I think I will start letting her have yougurt sometime next year, and then I will have it too. Incidentally, she has seen calves drinking mother’s milk and she has also seen people milking the cows and carrying the milk in a pot. When I told her, “that is cow’s milk,” she replied, “that is calf’s milk.” [I said it was “Avu pAlu” and she said that it was “dUDa pAlu”]

Though I have kept dairy substitutes like soymilk to a minimum, if I had to go vegan indefinitely I think they would creep back into the picture. And from a planetary perspective, I am not sure the tetra-pack is less harmful than the dairy industry. Of course if I made it at home then I’d be okay. So my point is, that I am less interested in being 100% vegan than in achieving a way of feeding myself with as little damage to the environment, humanity and animals, as possible. Just because it is vegan I can’t ignore the damage done by Tropicana Orange Juice or a kiwi imported from New Zealand or even a banana imported from Honduras. I need to look at biodiversity, the impact of global trade, the fuel consumption, the land and water use, the working conditions, and of course the health implications of eating nonlocal, nonseasonal foods. Our parents and grandparents didn’t have to study rules of food combining or macriobiotic principles since they mostly got local seasonal foods and such combinations were limited by nature.

And it’s not only food. More people are examining the impact to people, animals and the planet of almost everything we do – the clothes we buy, the computers we use, and the conferences we attend. People are getting tired of travelling long distances and staying in big hotels to talk about the environment or world hunger. There has got to be a better way for people sincerely working on these issues to connect, morally support one another, share strategies and generate public opinion for policies without joining the jet set. It’s not merely the plane ride or the five star banquet. It is the entire set of rules that operates. These venues are selected so that those who ‘make policies’ will attend. If we had the meeting in a slum or rural village then we’d just be “preaching to the converted.” SO we have to meet “them” on their “turf” that is Bombay, Delhi, or Geneve or Minneapolis. We have to bring our facts to their attention. But …. I think from the Seattle protests till now, we are still searching for a satisfactory approach and are still trailing off after the but…

* * * *
Today more than a month after I officially quit being a near-vegan, I find myself unattracted to dairy products. I even bought a carton of yougurt – my favourite food of yore, and could not even bring myself to open it until a long drive on one particularly hot day when it happened to be the only food I had in the car so I ate it. It was delicious. But the next time I helped myself to some, I couldn’t even finish the two spoons on my plate. I think I’d really rather chew on the beans and grains myself. 

 

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Reflections

Sharpening our Focus and Improving our Collaborations

Presented at West Coast meeting of AID held in the Bay Area in July 2005 and at  East Coast meeting of AID held in Mohegan Lake, New York, August 2005. 

All of us agree that we need to work to improve the quality of our projects. By the term projects we loosely refer to our collaborations with individuals and groups in India but specifically mean our formal, financial support to registered organisations.

To get beyond the us-them relationship: One way is to acknowledge and make it as reciprocal as possible. In the matter of improving our project collaborations, there are two sides to the coin. On the one hand we perceive that we must work with ‘better groups’ and have devised various criteria on which to evaluate the quality of an NGO, whether by degree of volunteerism, extent of mass base, gender balance, etc. We must also focus on improving ourselves. Remember that the leading groups that we have sought to work with over the years are also trying to improve their relationships with the supporting community. How would they evaluate AID’s role in providing support? Are we an organisation worthy of collaborating with these leading groups?

We need a touch of humility, keeping in mind that AID support is not necessarily helpful to everyone. There are people who are used to dealing in much larger dimensions of funding, as well as people working at the micro-end of the funding spectrum, collecting Rs. 1 / month per family or perhaps 1 kilo of grains. There are people who patiently go door to door in the cities explaining their village work and taking donations from those who are interested. We have even met people who depend on making and selling greeting cards to earn their livelhood and then take no institutional support for their own community work, though they
work full time.

It is important to respect this kind of committment and not seek to wipe it out with the magic wand of AID support. While we have earned the trust of some of these people and persuaded them to involve AID, we should not presume that this form of support is inherently or automatically superior to the more cumbersome processes. If there are reasons that the more grasroots approach to fundraising was not as successful as hoped, these reasons do not necessarily lie with any fault in that method.

Why, for example, is it more difficult to go door to door and hold corner meetings to involve the public in community work? One simple reason is
that this is seen as ‘taking a lot of time.’ There are no standard forms, spreadsheets or development lingo, but one must broach the topics afresh each time. People are by default in a rush, and have longer hours at work, longer commutes and less time at home. Many people who contribute to AID are in a sense delegating to AID volunteers the responsibility of attending meetings, studying issues, and forging strong collaborations with those who are working for social change. This itself is part of the problem. A society in which people can not spare the time to meet and discuss issues is more vulnerable to inequality, exploitation, restrictions on civil liberties, and and other problems that result when time and space to question is so limited that authority is strengthened and the questioners themselves are easily labeled and marginalised. So we do need to fight for this time and space and find creative ways to keep on involving the community in supporting causes and forming opinions on issues. This is as important if not more important than the funding of programs through institutional mechanisms such as AID.

* * *
Much of our communication with NGOs occurs only during the pre-approval phase where we have the upper hand. However we should perhaps be even more interested in finding out about what is actually going on and what people are thinking while the project is underway. We can grade the quality of our collaborations by asking ourselves some questions. In what projects have we had at least as much if not 5-10 times as more correspondence and communication with coordinators in the field after approval than we had prior to approval? Could we describe them as vividly as our ex-roommate’s love affairs? With which groups are we
regularly responding to appeals, petitions, action alerts, and visiting eagerly just as we visit other places and people of our own interest? In which projects do we disappear until we are called upon for the next installment, like a deadbeat dad being sued for child support?

Whenever we think about improving our projects, we should think in terms of improving our collaborations, and ask tough questions of ourselves as well as our partners. AID, that is, all of us, have to change the quality of our project support if we expect to improve the quality of projects we support. It is not enough to say, here we are, let the best projects to come to us. We also have to change ourselves.

Because in fact the best grasroots development work is being done by folks with no funding at all, no organisation at all. Organisations play their role best when they sustain and build their links with the most grasroots, unorganised and unfunded development workers, those maintaining home and family, sustaining natural resources and keeping traditional livelihoods alive for the next generation. The farmers, forest dwellers, coastal communities, artisans, weavers, spinners, craftspeople are practicing the solutions for sustainable development and living lightly on the earth with least ecological footprint. When their communities, social fabric and natural resource base are intact, they are able to utilise the democratic structures such as gram sabha to plan and implement their own development projects, as well as tools like Right to Information to check and balance accounts and nip corruption in the bud. No central government or NGO program can come close to restoring livelihoods once they are lost and the most sustainable livelihood is land on which the majority directly depend for livelihood and all of us depend for life’s essentials.

Putting our development work in perspective …. the kinds of activities we have normally counted among our projects and which the average chapter project coordinator eagerly leaps to adopt, such as a little vocational training here and schools, libraries, and clinics there are not going to make a significnat dent in the larger development issues, even if these are scaled up. Natural resources and livelihoods are the fundamental stakes and the people’s own voice in the development process is the key way to protect these. While doing so if they are able to access the resources and expertise of organisations such as AID in implementing any of the above programs then they have a much higher chance of being appropriately adapted and making impact immediately as well as in the long term.

All this to say that we need a touch of humility. Let us not imagine that we can identify and support the ‘best’ projects out there. Let us remember the invaluable role palyed by our own support as individuals, the importance of plugging into what is happening, listening, being there in time of need rather than surveying people’s needs at the time of our own leisure. Let us not settle into a habit of expecting answers but not answering others, but cultivate the art of listening and making connections. This means actually reading the newsletters and reports issues by organisations such as South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP Update), Kalpavriksh (Protected Areas Update), Intiative (The People’s Movement) and keeping up with events and issues of public interest through media like India Together, Frontline and other mass media. We need to fight for the space that the media gives to these issues by writing letters to the editor and also by ourselves becoming a media and passing along these articles, magaziens, and reports to our friends and through CSH, AID table etc. Though we have detailed spreadsheets to answer the question, “what does the dollar I donate to AID do?” we sometimes still get stuck with questions like, ‘what will my signature on this petition do?’ or ‘what use is it for me to read these reports?’
We must not give up on these questions … nor can we delegate them to anyone else. Each of us must answer to and for ourselves.

In my presentation last year in Austin called “Pace of the People” I highlighted the importance of keeping pace with the work going on in India. From a distance it may seem that in some area ‘nothing is happening’ or ‘the more things change the more they stay the same,’ and then suddenly one day a headline will make you scratch your head, ‘when did all that happen? or ‘ what is the real cause of this?’ Through AID we have the opportunity to get close and personally in touch with what is going on at the district, tehsil and even village level where the pampered media fears to tread (a STAR TV reporter actually turned back from reporting on the submergence in Narmada because the roads were flooded. AID has footage of that time because we were ready to walk long routes through the hills when the roads were flooded.)

Recommendations

— identify key knowledge areas pertaining to a given project or campaign and identify ways volunteers can access, discuss, debate and build on this knowledge

proactively and interactively. For example, if the project concerns education among families affected by bonded labour, how can we learn more about labor laws

and working conditions, educational practices, etc? If the project involves land rights, what are the categories and land concerning land, application processes and

how has the movement worked, what challenges has it faced theoretically and practically. A tutorial conducted along the same lines as the Narmada Tutorial,

available to volunteers from all chapters, would serve as an important mechanism to raise these and many more questions, and motivate the search for answers. We

should steadily meet and raise this standard of support that we expect ourselves to provide in our collaborations.

— get project info in local langauges and use this to forge closer and more informal ties with the community that is invovled with the work of our partner NGO.
— create a culture where people plan project visits before reaching india. Project Coordinator should work with chapters so that any interested volunteer visiting India gets advised on which projects s/he may be able to visit. S/he may then contact the project coordinator, the folks in India, fix dates and even book train tickets all in advance, thus saving valuable time in India which always seems to run out when people begin the ‘which project should i visit?’ process only after landing.
— generate a habit of collecting reports and publications of the groups with whom we are working and actually reading and discussing them, putting them online if need be
— seek opportunities to support local livelihoods by buying village products esp when they are being produced or marketed by our NGO partners or other outlets.
— systematically catalogue the various writeups, photos and videos that come out of project visits.

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