Archive for September 2008
For the past 5 months, we have been traveling in India visiting and working with grassroots organizations. We have discovered a lot about these groups and about ourselves. During our trip to Canada and the US in September-October (for personal reasons), we would like to visit AID chapters and reconnect with volunteers.
Proposed topics for discussion(s) (in no particular order)
Our motivation is to discuss issues we have reflected on over the past few months. Some of them have come up during the course of Sudha’s fellowship (Community Health Learning Program) at Community Health Cell, Bangalore. Others have become apparent during visits.
Rather than a brief overview of all these topics, we would prefer to have an in-depth discussion on one or two of them.
Scale and scope of work: What do we mean when we talk about an intervention at the district level? At the block level? At the state level? What is the magnitude of the task being undertaken and how can we gain a realistic understanding of the scale of the interventions we support?
Appropriate technology: While there are many technological solutions that are not just appropriate at the margins but also in the mainstream, why have they not been adopted? Instead, why do we still see resource-hungry solutions such as diesel generators? Societal acceptance is an important component in the ‘appropriate’ aspects of technological solutions – has this not been sufficiently addressed? Are there other parts of the picture that we are missing?
Rural livelihoods: There seem to be very few self-sufficient models of income generation. A lot of schemes seem to be dependent on distant, urban markets. Is it possible to come up with sustainable, local producer-consumer links? How do livelihoods connect to NREGA and other government schemes?
Sustainable agriculture & food security: There are many roads leading to sustainable agriculture – environmental, livelihood-related, spiritual, etc. What are the potentials for scalability for each of these approaches? Is food security for the producers a natural outcome of such programs? What is the role of the consumer? Fair wages for laborers is one of the central tenets of progressive thought, what is the equivalent for the marginal farmer?
Caste and gender dynamics: A lot of the interventions we support are with marginalized communities – women and/or Dalits or Adivasis. When we talk about the discrimination that these groups face, we usually externalize it. But how do the disadvantages these groups face relate to our lives and the visible and invisible privileges we have received? And what, if anything, can we do about it?
‘Insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ and group dynamics: How does the presence of privileged ‘outsiders’ impact the functioning and direction of a grassroots organization? What are the challenges faced when working to create and maintain a non-hierarchical organization? And why is this important?
Sudha: I am also interested in learning about the current state of AID-US, especially the ways in which volunteers are able to sustain their interest and commitment. I found that I was not very effective in motivating other volunteers and would like to see if my skills have improved in that area! Also, the above issues require sustained discussions for building understanding and perspective – I would like to add my voice and perspectives and learn from the ensuing discussions.
Dwiji: AID plays a very crucial role in shaping an individual who wants to volunteer into one who asks uncomfortable questions of themselves and of society at large. Sawaal (question) is the wellspring from which the tenets of Sangharsh, Sewa and Nirman draw their energy. The processes that nuture this environment are not very straight forward and are often buried under other layers of volunteering. I would like to share my experiences and perspectives that might be of interest to AID volunteers and look forward to learning from the discussions that follow.
Sudha: I have been an AID volunteer since 2001 and, until early 2007, have been active at the chapter and inter-chapter level. I also served on the AID Executive Board for a term. The volunteering experience with AID has dramatically changed the direction of my life – I have gained new perspectives and, more importantly, the confidence to join in the struggle for rights, equality and dignity for marginalized communities in India. I also joined the ever-increasing ranks of AID couples after marrying Dwiji in 2003!
Dwiji: I was first exposed to political ideas and social in-equities during the days in college theatre, but I was not perturbed enough I suppose. The riots of 2002, in Gujarat, had me really thinking about my silence in the socio-political sphere. I was in Minneapolis and I started taking part in discussions at the local AID chapter there. I volunteered with various teams within AID-US and actively participated in discussions and debates, on phone, in person and online.
It would be good to get a brief writeup of interests and experiences from volunteers in the hosting chapter. So far we had been exploring visiting chapters that are a bus journey (or two) away from Toronto or Minneapolis & St. Paul, the two places already on our itinerary. If there is interest and some support to cover travel expenses, we would be open to visit other chapters as well.
The Right to Information Act is one of the three very useful progressive laws that the UPA govt. enacted in 2005. Since its enactment almost every govt. department and office has been trying to beat the other in coming up with ways to defeat its purpose and spirit. There are many cases of RTI applications not being received, of applications that have been left unanswered even after a few months, of appelate authorities using discretionary powers that are debatable at best, etc. These are violations of the letter of the law and could possibly be weeded out with better oversight. There are other ways in which the spirit of the law is defeated without violating the letter of the law.
My father Ravindra nath Guru uses RTI extensively in his attempts to get the Bangalore city administration officials to enforce the building code in the city. He was showing me how the legal cell sends copies of communications informing the concerned Assisstant Engineer of developments in a building code violation case to all AEs in the city administration. While one can see the value of horizontal information sharing, it does not add up to anything of value for the organization when each and every communique flows across swamping the limited mind space of the officials. Added to this is the cost of each of these communications being sent by courier. All these expenses get added to the budget header relating to implementing the RTI act.
We already hear ‘should officials be doing their work or answering RTI applications?’. Soon we will have ‘evidence’ being presented on how RTI has made governance more expensive and the amount that could be ‘saved’ by watering down the act. As far as I can see, the only way one can counter it is by auditing the accounts to identify justified expenses and the wasteful ones. I really hope someone is doing something like this somewhere in the country. I have not heard of one, do send me pointers / contacts if you know of someone.
Training one or more community members to meet the basic health care needs of the community forms one of the central pillars of community health programs. They also serve as resource people who can guide individuals through the public health care system – from the primary health clinic (PHC) to community health centers in the nearest town. The National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), launched in 2005, has led to focus efforts from the govt. to improve access to health care in rural communities across the country.
Community Health Cell (CHC) has been training community health workers (CHWs)in different parts of Karnataka for the past many years. NRHM has allowed CHC to plug into the govt. health care system much more effectively than was possible a few years ago. Jan Arogya Andolana (JAA, People’s Health Movement, Karnataka) has transitioned from a pre-NRHM to a post-NRHM mode of working. In a few places community health workers trained by CHC have been active and practicing in their communities for almost a decade now while in a few others it has been under a year. A two day program was organized in Bangalore by CHC for CHWs from about 8 districts of Karnataka. The program was designed for discussing experiences, challenges and concerns of inidividual health workers and to exchange ideas and tricks they have learnt on the job. Being the spouse of a CHC Fellow, I attended the morning’s proceedings on the first day.
There were resource people from CHC, FRLHT (an organization working on local health traditions), and community health doctors from a couple of different institutions and backgrounds. Almost all the CHW who came to the meeting were women, two men from Northern Karnataka were the exception amongst some 35 or so women. The most impressive in the gathering though, were the CHWs. Many of these women are single, divorced, separated, or widowed. Some of them have some form of disability. They shared their (often turbulent) history quite dispassionately; when they started talking about their work, they were totally transformed. The passion shone through and the energy was really infectious.
The fun part of the discussion I sat through was when they discussed their favorite remedy. Given my inclinations towards ‘kesh seva’ (hair care), I was all excited to note down receipes to some concoctions to improve hair quality and stimulate hair growth. Ground (soaked) methi seeds, egg white, fresh squeezed lime, and coconut oil heated with neem leaves were known ones that came up. Leaves of neem and pomogranate ground with soaked methi and moong seeds was a new one. (Other instructions: work it in to soak the scalp; sit in the sun for about 10 minutes after application; and wash it off with plain warm water.) Apparently it is a treatment for head lice, but even without any un-invited guests, I tried it a couple of times. I can confidently say that my hair felt much better than it did after any other wash I have had since I started growing my hair long. 🙂
It is not very difficult to spot a person with disabilities (PWD). Yes, it is much easier to spot one with physical disabilities, and with a little observation one can spot those with psychological disabilites. Many around us have an inability – they are unable to recognize the rights of PWDs. And almost all of us have an inability to identify our own actions that tread on the rights of PWDs.
The CHC fellows were visiting Community Based Rehabilitation Forum. Thanx to my status as the spouse of a fellow, I joined the group for the day-long program. Mahesh, one of the community mobilizers led most of the discussions and was helped by Nicholas the director of CBR Forum. After many years of working with PWD, ensuring the individual and community rights of PWDs is the direction that CBR Forum is headed in, similar to many other organizations working with other minorities. They work with community based organizations towards increased awareness of the rights of PWDs currently coded in the Indian constitution. They help mobilize and organize capacity building workshops to develop local leadership within these organizations and communities. They work with progressive movements across the country to correct / improve the effect that new laws and rules framed by the Govt. have on PWDs. I found this to be the most impressive part of their work.
An example of this is the text of the National Rural Employment Guarentee Act (NREGA), 2005. Initial drafts of the law considered all able-bodied people in rural districts of the country to be eligible for employment under the act. If one talks about an employment guarentee to revive rural livelihoods and economies, then why should it be restricted to able bodied persons? In fact if one looks at the demographics, the development and health indicies of PWDs are typically worse than that of the community they live in. Lobbying from this perspective, CBR Forum along with other organizations working with PWDs were able to have the drafted appropriately amended.
The inclusivity of a people’s movement or a community based organization when it comes to PWDs in the local community is an indicator of its politics. Though one should be vary of treating it as a litmus test, it is a useful filter to understand the organization. This is especially true when the movement or the CBO claims to work with/for the most marginalized sections of society. Thinking back to our interactions with Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sanghatan in Sitapur, I could see the significance of the variety in its leadership. Women play an active and significant role in decision making within the group, and many of them are from dalit families. Tama and Kamlesh are a couple of PWDs that I can identify as those who have stepped up to take up leadership roles within the organization. Equally encouraging is the fact that the group keeps interests and needs of PWDs in focus during its decision making process.
Seeking to correct the condition of PWDs should naturally include working with the community at large, i.e. ‘those with inabilities’ and not just ‘training the disabled’. Even before this is the need for us to identify our own ‘inabilities’. The first step in this direction would be to include PWDs in decision-making processes and encourage them to take up leadership roles.