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Dusk…. Any village in India……….Any day of the year……… One enters with the headlights of the jeep on…. droves of women get up from the roadside as the light hits them… they try to hide their face and gather up their clothing at the same time… our arrival was untimely… they are simply performing their bodily functions… they have no option, no privacy whatsoever… the darkness is their friend and our lights steal that away from them….

A middle sized village had elections to the grampanchayat. The winner apparently has incurred expenses of around 2-3 lac rupees. Most of it has been on alcohol and  chicken…. This was reinforced  with muscle power on the voting day… His opponent has done the same… he had shallower pockets…lesser muscle….he lost… where will the ‘winner’ recover his ‘investment’ from?  Only the very naïvé need ask…………

A young dalit woman is raped by a drunk landlord in the village. This happens in broad daylight… he is ‘assisted’ in this by the local school head teacher!  People can hear the woman scream… they are powerless to intervene… ‘her fate’ they say… what is her fault? She was a dalit, a woman at that… of no consequence whatsoever in the power dynamics in the village…. The landlord was drunk with power and alcohol……..she just had the misfortune of being there………..

These are stories that almost anyone who has exposure to rural India is aware of…. The first story… I have seen it myself… all of us have… the second and third were related to me by leaders of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) who had seen / heard these things happen in the villages they were working in….. Mind you, they were not doing so with relish. There was some element of anguish, even anger in their voices…there was also some helplessness…. They were also probably trying to outdo each other in their stories of ‘how difficult it is to work in rural India’ Naturally their stories begged a question…….many questions….. I asked them… shamelessly…. What have you done about it? Why did you not intervene, even if it were only after the event?

The answers were rather simple…….. you see my organization gets funds for working on watershed development said the leader with the rigged grampanchayat elections story…….. I work on child rights said the one with the rape story…….. The bottom line was that their projects did not allow them to intervene…….. so sad… but ‘kya karega?’… we don’t have the mandate ……….

This is not uncommon…. All of you must have seen it… experienced it…….

The discussion was very disturbing, to say the least… Why are all of us in the social development sector so tied down into ‘projects’  ‘areas’ and ‘issues’? Why do we identify ourselves as ‘gender expert’, ‘education expert’ ‘agriculture expert’ etc? Is underdevelopment and disempowerment so compartmentalized? Why do we wear blinkers? Are the poor in need of education of their children alone? Do their wives, sisters and daughter not deserve a life of dignity? A life free from rape? Is it not the duty of every social development actor to do something about this injustice? Are we going to wait for 10 NGOs working in different ‘sectors’ to come into all the poor areas and address ten issues facing people?  If we do that, when are we going to ensure a life with dignity for all the poor and the underprivileged?

I think that it is time for all of us to wake up and face the reality……. Sorry……..I forgot that all of us with any experience in the social development sector have a divine understanding of reality of the poor…….So let us forget the knowing part………….. what we need to do is wake up from our ostrich like situation and DO something about it………

If one puts ones mind to it, it is not difficult at all….All we need to do is to broaden our thinking…… Let us accept the reality that the poor who need help in educating their children also need work, health services, livelihoods, protection of their legal rights…….. let us not look at the issues in a compartmentalized manner.. these divisions are artificial and exist only in our minds…… for the sufferer it is one and the same… let us empower our field workers to look at the issues in the village holistically……. How long are we going to instruct her to ‘mobilize women into self help groups and ask them to save’ and turn a blind eye to the fact that this same woman gets beaten up each day by her husband? It is the same woman who has little to eat………  How long are we going to design and implement watersheds in the name of the poor…. Watersheds that primarily help those with land.. can we afford to ignore the fact that the landlords are the one who oppress the poor…… deny them their basic rights?

Our work is dependent on the aid that we receive….. funding agency priorities are well defined and discreet……. They will not support any activity beyond their mandate…… We want to undertake ‘integrated’ development but the aid agencies to support this do not exist in numbers large enough……. I can almost hear these cries of outrage and protest from members of CSOs who are reading this………

My solution to this is simple…….. let us stop accepting this… why should aid agency priorities, often decided far away from grassroots realities, dictate what we should be doing? Let us lobby individually and collectively with the aid agencies and ask them NOT to tie our hands…….. let us be clear…… aid agency mandates can exist and make a difference only so long as we accept it without demur… it is not the case of NGOs needing aid agencies…….. the aid agencies too need NGOs to channel their funds……. Without one the other cannot exist…… In fact an NGO can continue its work by raising funds from the public or by undertaking some income generating activity…… aid agencies will wither away without NGOs taking money………

This lobbying is a long term solution….. we can do a lot in the short term… Can we not just keep our eyes and the widows to our mind open? Do we always need financial aid to do something? If our field worker is talking to the poor about livelihood options, can (s)he also not talk about violence against women? Can (s)he also not talk about sending children to school? Can (s)he also not talk about people coming together and demanding their right to health services from the government? Can (s)he not talk of the need for better governance? If our field worker is not knowledgeable about these issues, can we not support her? Can we not build her capacities? Can we not unblock her mind?

I am reminded of an incident narrated to me by a senior officer in the government…….. that has stuck in my mind……. Almost like the talisman of Gandhiji… It seems that in his younger days the officer was faced with the need to take harsh action against a local thug…… that would have been dangerous to him personally……. He thought about it long and hard and took action nevertheless…….. his logic was simple…. ‘If I had not done it, it would be tantamount to allowing injustice to prevail…. Once injustice takes up residence and dignity is stripped away nothing else can make a home in that place. All that I attempted to do would be for naught’

Let us face up to the fact that the ultimate aim of all social empowerment processes must be a life of justice… a life of dignity………