Does India now need an NGO to defend NGOs?

Source :SIFY
Last Updated: Mon, Feb 23rd, 2015, 22:14:29hrs
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Does India now need an NGO to defend NGOs?
Right in the first month of his tenure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed he meant ‘business’ when in one of the first things his government did was blacklist many Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). This included globally reputed ones like Greenpeace and Amnesty. Corporates cheered because they knew this had nothing to do with NGOs and all with ‘business’.

According to the moneyed class, the biggest impediment to the kind of ‘development’ the PM espouses are NGOs. Filthy, anti-national NGOs who raise their voice against pointless things like human rights abuse, killing, displacement of people and destruction of nature. For according to the great aspiring middle class of India, these are acceptable collateral damage, nay offerings, at the altar of development. 

Where there is a need, there is an NGO. Abused women have many and so do abandoned children and disabled people. The old have theirs and those forcibly displaced too. There are NGOs who offer legal aid, healthcare, counseling etc. to those who cannot afford these. In India, even stray dogs and cats have their own NGOs. After the PM’s move, perhaps there should be an NGO to defend NGOs.

These rainbow spectrum of NGO’s take on different roles, perform diverse functions. Yet, one thing is common – almost all of them provide services which is the bounden duty of the governments to provide.

There is a reason why there’s a reference to ‘government’ in the term NGO – Non-Governmental Organisation. They do what governments should but either for lack of intent, attention or both, they do not. NGOs thus fill an important void, preventing the balloon of the idea of India from prematurely puncturing. They also provide an outlet to individuals who neither want to be part of the corporate rat-race or the corruption and ineptitude endemic of governments.

Governments and NGOs have always had a love-hate relationship. Governments depend on NGOs to provide essential services. Often they provide NGOs with funds and resources to carry out their work, becoming partners in a ‘development’ that helps people.

There have also been times when governments have taken the ideas of NGOs and expanded it. Consider what the NGO Rupantar did in rural Chhattisgarh. Started by paediatrician Dr. Binayak Sen and sociologist Dr. Ilina Sen, the NGO had perfected the art of providing basic healthcare in places cut off from civilization.

Their work first began in Madhya Pradesh and when Chhattisgarh was formed from it, the new state utilised the couple’s expertise and experience to roll out the Mitanin program for the entire state. This became the precursor to the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) one of the largest ever healthcare scheme of its kind in the world. Perhaps THE largest.

Like Rupantar, there are many NGOs whose exemplary work has become models for national rollout of projects. This makes perfect sense. The ‘non-governmental’ is institutionalised to become ‘governmental’, by utilising the invaluable grassroots understanding of professionals who have perfected their knowledge via decades of work (read Dr. Ilina Sen’s insightful book ‘Inside Chhattisgarh’ and see this video to know more).

Despite all this, the two have often found themselves at odds with each other. Usually, this has followed some extreme steps taken by governments that have forced the NGOs and the people who run them to go beyond the call of duty.

In the case of Rupantar and its founders, it began in 2005 after the government of Chhattisgarh signed MOUs worth thousands of crores of rupees with many national and international corporates. They unleashed a reign of terror in their haste to clear land to aid mining. There was a good way of going about it which involved negotiation, compensation and rehabilitation. But the government didn’t have time for its people.

Official figures state that 644 villages were burnt. There is no count of the number of people killed, as it happened in those interiors areas that have no sign of administration or ‘civilization’ for someone to keep track.

In the absence of any way to reach out for justice, the victims sought ways to retaliate and the ranks of Maoists who had existed for decades amidst them, suddenly swelled. The result is sporadic but bloody battles that have seen heavy casualties on both sides.

Being one of the only outposts in the hinterland, Binayak and Ilina could see what was going on. When they tried to expose the state, the state accused Binayak of being a Maoist courier and incarcerated him for two years without providing any evidence against him. His exemplary work was swept below the carpet.

The media was brought to bear on them by the state and people with vested interests and they were deemed guilty even as the courts demanded evidence from the state. Unlike courts that are expected to consider someone innocent till proven guilty, the media’s rule is guilty till proven innocent.

The family was hounded. Ilina’s friends maintain it was the stress that caused her cancer. Perhaps we can discount this theory and individual damage. How do we ignore the damage done to their decades of work? Rupantar lay in shambles. Their health outposts, literally in the dead centre of the nation, far away from civilization, broke apart without coordination.

There can be no accurate estimation, but hundreds, if not thousands of the oldest inhabitants must have died in the after effects of what was done to this one couple. This was murder without a murder weapon or even a visible assassin. 

This was not the only case in Chhattisgarh. Another NGO – Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, run by Gandhian Himanshu Kumar in Dantewada, was targeted. Like Rupantar, VCA does not exist anymore (though its name exists in the NGOs blacklisted by the Government) as Himanshu had to literally flee from Chhattisgarh to escape becoming another Binayak Sen.

It is in the context of these examples, that the PMs blacklisting of NGOs in the first month of his coming to power, becomes important (there are many bad, corrupt, money-siphoning NGOs, but they never made the list). He knows the power of NGOs and civil liberties organisation in fermenting unrest against injustice. Even the most people friendly, benevolent regimes do not like opposition. The government run by the PM Narendra Modi is far from being either.

The targeting of NGOs, its workers and activists will only increase (last week the Union government said that Greenpeace’s Priya Pillai can travel abroad only if she does not ‘embarrass India’) as the PM attempts to ‘guide’ the nation onto an express highway of development which will obviously see GDP rise, but is unlikely to ever benefit those who need the benefits of a rising GDP. Like seen often, it will only make the rich richer and the poor desperate.

Few will ever ask if it is not embarrassing that despite enough growth, despite housing the richest people living in the costliest houses in the planet, despite having so much resource, India has more poverty than many of the poorest nations combined.

Things will get worse for human rights workers. But this ancient landmass we call by the modern name of India is made of sterner stuff. Resistance has coursed through its veins since eternity, resistance that have pushed to expand the pockets of justice.

India is a great country not because its aspiring class demands more shiny malls and highways, but because its poorest demand justice, because they have made million movements possible to see that the nations development is inclusive, just and equitable.

And therein lies hope for India.

(Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.)

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