September 2, 2012

Practicing Principles

"As the IMF enforced Structural Adjustment, and arm-twisted governments into cutting back on public spending on health, education, childcare, development, the NGOs moved in. The Privatisation of Everything has also meant the NGO-isation of Everything..Of the millions of NGOs, some do remarkable, radical work and it would be a travesty to tar all NGOs with the same brush. However, the corporate or Foundation-endowed NGOs are global finance’s way of buying into resistance movements, literally like shareholders buy shares in companies, and then try to control them from within. They sit like nodes on the central nervous system, the pathways along which global finance flows..Armed with their billions, these NGOs have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation.." Capitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy, March 2012

To zoom in from this very broad picture that is painted in the essay above; the recognition of the existence of corruption in the functioning of NGOs is now word on the street. The anti-corruption movement over the past year and a half, debated the inclusion of NGOs, media and corporate bodies to be brought under the purview of the Lokpal, a new anti-corruption agency. The parliamentary standing committee examining the Lokpal Bill noted in its report tabled on 9th December 2011, "..the proposed Bill on the Lokpal pending before this Committee would, at best, be a partial and incomplete measure since it did not police and regulate in respect of corruption, large segments of society, especially private NGOs, corporate entities and media. It was felt that for the last six decades, the focus had been only on policing and regulating the political classes and, to a lesser extent, the bureaucracy, in respect of issues relating to corruption. It was strongly believed that a substantial slice of society should not be excluded from such regulatory purview and that the entire gamut of ‘private’ corruption (in the sense of corruption not involving the political class or bureaucrats) with all its attendant features and facets, is also required to be dealt with by an effective legal regime." 

While the idea of control, influence and corruption outside just the political and bureaucratic classes has well and truly permeated public discourse; this report and the ensuing nuances of the discussions, points toward simply 
investigating NGOs as stand alone bodies and their financial corruption. It does not allude to the vast invisible web of corruption that exists between the political-bureaucratic-NGO-corporation-media nexus. There is no recognition of the orchestration of each's fundamental role in maintaining the status-quo. 

The report goes on to say, "[given] the exigencies of logistics, operational efficacy and pragmatism..inclusion [of NGOs] is entirely understandable and may be logically more justifiable in principle, but..must await several years of evolution of the Lokpal institution and a corpus of experiential and practical lessons."  So while in principle, the committee recommends comprehensive inclusion, this is not immediately practically possible. The report then suggests formulas on how NGOs can be included, based on whether their public donations, annual income or foreign funding, exceed more than a certain notified amount. India Against Corruption, while remaining steadfastly vague on the funding of its own protests demanded that only government funded NGOs be covered; "..all NGOs are covered under government’s Lokpal, small or big, whether in state or centre. Even unregistered groups of people in remote villages are covered under the ambit of Lokpal..if a group of youngsters detect corruption in panchayat works using RTI, [they] can be hauled up by Lokpal., it would have jurisdiction over all RWAs in Delhi, all small neighborhood groups who raise donations to do Ramlila or Durga Puja, [all] activists from any of the farmers, labour, anti-corruption, land, tribal or any other movements...whether registered or not, are under the jurisdiction of Lokpal. There are 4.3 lakh registered NGOs. But there would be several million unregistered groups across the country. Lokpal would have jurisdiction over all of them.." The National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information noted that the definition of all post holders in peoples movements and NGOs being defined as public authorities is impractical and undesirable. This would also open the door to a lot of harassment. Instead some specific suggestions on regulation and amending the Prevention of Corruption Act to include NGOs have been put forward. 

So we see how the broader idea of including this section, get watered down in the
workability within systems. Therefore, to begin with, investigation of the more easily identifiable financial corruption is an important first step. In the elastic timeframe of ideas being translated into street action and eventually into policy and law, perhaps addressing the larger superstructure of conflict of interest, hand-in-glove operations and revolving-door policies that shape power relations, will be the next step.

To take this further, lets look at non-funded peoples movements. The Pension Parishad has been campaigning for a universal old age pension, primarily for the poor and unorganised sector. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), based in Devdungri Rajasthan, and a part of the Pension Parishad, has been mobilising people and organising public meetings. While they walk from village to village, discussing the campaign and its demands, people are not only ready to take part in this campaign but are keen to play a more active role. For people to come for public meetings in the state and national capitals, the main expenditures are travel and food. The cost of coming to and from Jaipur from the villages near Devdungri is Rs 300. The MKSS while mobilising, worked out the following system; each person from a particular Gram Panchayat who was willing to come for the meeting and be part of the campaign would pay a hundred rupees for their own fare. The remaining Rs. 200 would be borne by ten other people from that gram panchayat who would each contribute Rs 20. Every person recorded their contribution on cloth banners, writing their Naam, Sahyog and Hastakshar (Name, Donation and Signature). This way, not only is there a record of contributions, but large numbers people are represented at the campaign who aren't physically present. More importantly, this campaign is then owned by the actual petitioners, some the poorest, albeit most political people in the country

From Esharmand Gaon, Rajsamand Dstrict: Naam/Sahyog/Hastakshar

From Mandal and Pali, Rajasthan

Coming back to earlier essay, it notes that "In the NGO universe, which has evolved a strange anodyne language of its own, everything has become a “subject”, a separate, professionalised, special-interest issue. Community development, leadership development, human rights, health, education, reproductive rights, AIDS, orphans with AIDS—have all been hermetically sealed into their own silos with their own elaborate and precise funding brief. Funding has fragmented solidarity in ways that repression never could." A campaign like the Pension Parishad indicates that despite all the pressures of global finance and its strategic buy-in into resistance or agitation movements, there will continue to be imaginative ways to circumvent this fragmentation and find ways out of this control. Ideas like sharing the travel fare can never be devised in a funding brief. It can only be thought of by people who refuse the division of being  poor/elderly/rural/marginalised/women, but continue to insist that they are All of The Above. This is because All of The Above is what shapes their daily life, what frames their needs and their collective organisation to demand these needs.  At the dharna itself, there was also a donation box which was passed around, and people contributed as much as they could. 
This ownership of the campaign by people, these mechanics of funding and this refusal to be slotted, is why peoples movements continue to lay the agenda.

Aruna Roy at Pension Parishad public meeting, telling everyone gathered about the Daan Peti (Donation Box)
People at the Public Meeting contribute to the expenses


The sleeping arrangements for the recently concluded two day dharna at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, due to heavy rain, were made at the nearby gurudwaras - Bangla Sahib and Rakabganj. Gurdwaras have four doors - the door of grace, the door of livelihood, the door of learning and the door of peace; indicating that the place is open to all. Further, food and shelter is provided to all those in need. In the implementation of this however, there are many distortions; shelter is regularly denied to the homeless, separate langars are arranged for the destitute etc. Nonetheless, because of the principle of the place being open to all, the Pension Parishad managed to acquire permission for fifteen hundred people to sleep there. Everyone remarked on this 
superb universal foundation of this faith; "wakai yeh ek aisa dharam hai, jab koi bhi daan paisai aye, toh pehla maksad hai logo ko khana khilana, aur phir vyavastha baithana". 

The line for food at Rakabganj Gurdwara, which stayed this long for two hours

People sleeping together

The power of a dharna is in the fact that everyone gathered together, with significant effort and difficulty, has done so for one reason. As people from different parts, who have never met each other before, eat and sleep together, a natural and infectious sense of camaraderie develops. After people have eaten and start to go to sleep, Nikhil Dey and Jean Dreze, both part of the campaign, sit down for an informal meeting with a group of a hundred and fifty people landless, NREGA workers who have come from Muzzafarpur, Bihar. This is the first time they are involved in any public or political action and are keen to understand and engage with the process. Sanjay Sahni, who has been organising them over the past year, to demand work and full wages under the NREGA, has coordinated their coming this time. Nikhil Dey explains that the others have equally important roles to play; "... people will understand, that there is just this one person [Sanjay Sahni] working, they'll finish him off. He will be protected only when its clear that if they finish one person off, there are a thousand more who will stand up. That you won't stop." Thus reflected are the fundamentals of collective organisation, as an on going process. 

For every one of these politically aware and socially active people to be a part of this campaign, reflects some faith in a larger system, some hope in imagining an alternative future for themselves. If the basic economic problem is determining allocation of limited resources between unlimited human wants, the task of an economist will always be to balance budgets, to allot by prioritizing. The rationale of a politician will always be to leverage public perception to remain in office. Everyone who is a part of pension parishad is aware that finances are just a matter of  priority (as reiterated by several economists at the dharna -Jayati Ghosh, Jean Dreze, Prabhat Patnaik, Bina Aggarwal) and are therefore directly engaging with politicians (pension doh toh vote loh) to stress their priority. While economics and politics are just a part of what will determine their destiny, they are all here to insist on having a say in shaping it.

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