By Chitra Ahanthem
Missing out two Sun day pages of the IFP is no fun at all for when one gets to writing, there is a sudden backlog of thought strands trampling on one another to be written down. Two weeks is a long time and more so the past 14 days, which has seen
the Anna spectacle in New Delhi and the muted after effects of the economic blockade of the highways on life in the state. The two weeks took me to two places: one was a 4 day stay in an NGO site at Mohuda village, Berhampore in Ganjam district of Orissa. The second trip was for an exercise on capacity building process at Bangalore. The two experiences were profound and this column today will try and shift through the multi layers of thought processes that they triggered off.
But first, a brief about the NGO at Mohuda village: started about 30 years ago GRAM VIKAS is everything that NGOs in Manipur are not. They actually work WITH the government in the sense that the NGO has been working to strengthen the implementation of Central and State welfare schemes. Take for instance the scheme under which people are given financial aid to build toilets and latrines. In the meantime, let us not bother with the names of the schemes: they are such boring names anyway! To come back to the said scheme, I am yet to see any decent toilets and latrines that has been constructed and used through it in Manipur. All I have seen are foundations being constructed and then topped up by ramshackle extensions. All I have heard are complaints of how government officials and local body leaders divide the money given under the scheme among themselves and filter down an abysmally small amount to the person it is meant for resulting in the said scenario. It does not help too that people seeking the support of the scheme will only take the money but not construct toilets or latrines citing the fact of the “money trickling down to little more than nothing” on one hand and the high construction costs on the other. But in the villages covered by GRAM VIKAS, there was an interesting synergy at work that ensured their construction. A twin toilet and latrine enclosure for each house would be built in the village in batches at the same time. This way, the families would pool together and then draw the materials needed for the construction, thereby saving time and money. The labour needed for the construction was drawn up from the village itself as a form of collective social work, saving construction costs in the process. The running water needed for the toilets and latrines were supplied round the clock on a non-stop basis with the aid of another central scheme that undertakes to provide rural villages with clean drinking water. Contrast this with urban Imphal where taps are dry in most pockets and people have to buy water brought home in tankers from God knows where!
What strikes one about the work that GRAM VIKAS and other NGOS are doing in many parts of the country and the way it works out in Manipur is the way things get done. Here, it is mainly about venting angst against the government and not about partnering with state mechanisms, which in the long term only erodes the dysfunctional government agencies. In the process, a lot of stereotypes gets enhanced: number one being that Government agencies and officials are corrupt and that it is either the NGO or the other “concerned higher authority” that the deprived must go to seek justice and redressal of their grievances. But let us first tackle the corruption factor since there is no denying it. The way to fight corruption is NOT to support Team Anna at Ramlila Ground in New Delhi or to click on a “like” button on social networking sites with the “fight against corruption” and then hitch the vehicle in a “no parking” area and then argue over paying fines or even park in a parking area and then arguing to be let off without a fee.
One effective way is to file an RTI application when it comes to departmental corrption. Another simple way is to put the spotlight on the demand for the extra bit for “chaaga kwaga” (chai and paan) so the other gets shamed (remember the Gandhigiri scenes from Lage raho Munnabhai?).
This reminds me about an anecdote that needs to be shared. An MLA inaugurated a tailoring center for women living with HIV/AIDS in one district. And since he was there, everyone was there as well: department officers and district heads and his party workers. Some widows were getting a one time Rs. 10, 000/- under some scheme (am very bad with scheme names) and the said sum was being given in brown envelopes with much flourish and being captured by the print and local visual media. But an alarm bell of doubt went off in my grey cells, which turned to be right when the women agreed to open their envelopes before me: they contained 1000/- less! Well, so the cat was out of the bag and the women did not want to make “a big issue out of it” since they had at least got 9000/-each. You could have really heard the pin drop when during a tea break for the media, the MLA and his troupe; I said “Sir, it seems whoever was counting the money before it was put in the envelopes did not know how to count beyond Rs 9000/- .” T
here were lots of angry glances exchanged among the gang around the MLA, who wriggled out of the spot by pulling out his wallet and then giving the missing sum of Rs. 1000/- to each of the women.
To come back now to the NGOs functioning in Manipur. How is it that all one gets to hear from them is about how Government systems are not functioning and then total silence with no effort to make those very systems work? How is it that the same cries are being voiced every year nonstop with no attempt to engage in addressing the said gap? Would that be because if people learnt to stand on their own two feet, the NGOs would not have their “targets” to work for? (hence, no more funds). The Government and its agencies are there to ensure the welfare of the people and when it fails, it is indeed the NGOs that can and should step in to flag off the failings of the system. But there is one critical fact: NGOs cannot and will never be the government itself in terms of mandate, resources and its life-span. NGO support to causes and people depends on project funding and donor demands and when they end up looking at people as “program targets/beneficiaries/clients” there is a grave fundamental mistake somewhere.