Voluntary service

18 Dec

BHASKAR GHOSE IN THE FRONTLINE

Very little is known generally about operational NGOs that work closely with people on a daily basis.

WHILE a good many people in the country know that the Central and State governments have a number of plans and projects to bring about development – not all of them either well-conceived or well administered – they are much less aware of the part played in the overall development process by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). That part includes sensitisation, which usually means advocacy, or “activism” as it is more commonly called, and the actu al carrying out of development projects – providing housing, rural roads, sanitation, schools, health facilities and other services. The World Bank recognises this and divides the NGOs into two categories: those involved in advocacy and those involved in operations.

We are aware of the advocacy groups, the social activists, because at least some of them attract the attention of the media by their actions such as dharnas, rallies, fasts and demonstrations. Their work needs to be recognised as being of considerable importance in two ways. One is by making marginalised and neglected groups such as the tribal people and the poor aware of their rights and entitlements and of the manner in which they are, in far too many cases, exploited by middlemen and minor state functionaries. The other is by bringing instances of injustice and this kind of exploitation to the notice of the authorities using the media.

Legal remedies are now available, chief among them being the public interest litigation (PIL) and the petition that can be filed under the right to information laws (RTI application). Specific legal remedies are also available under a host of laws such as the Minimum Wages Act. More such laws are being enacted with the express purpose of giving legal protection and redress to the deprived and the exploited. Many activist NGOs have come into existence and more come up regularly to assist those who cannot otherwise take recourse to the law.

However, very few know about the second category of NGOs, those that actually deliver services. There is some knowledge about the big ones among them, a number of which are part of international NGOs such as ActionAid, Helpage and the Red Cross. But smaller NGOs, some of which work in just one State, or have small projects in different States, are virtually unknown. I know, for instance, of Urmul and Charkha only because they were founded or mentored by close relatives. The first one is working in Rajasthan and the second in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. I might have known of Urmul because some of its handicrafts are sold at an annual mela in Delhi, but I would not have known of Charkha’s work, which has taken up projects in the States that I have mentioned.

This is not because they do not publicise their work; they regularly bring out information material on their work and send it to the media. It is because the media consider news as something different. Even if they do carry some information on what NGOs are doing, it is about the activist NGOs, not about those in the field of development, the operational NGOs. There are, one has to admit, some stories about the development work some NGOs have done, for example, the work done by NGOs in Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu to rehabilitate victims of the tsunami that hit the area in December 2004. There are some stories on the work done by some NGOs in different fields. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Unfortunately, the situation is not likely to change in the near future. Success stories do not sell, hard-boiled journalists will tell you. In part, it is because a single story about, say, a hospital doing excellent work in a remote rural region will not alter the general perception that medical services are very scarce in villages or non-existent in large tracts of the country. And that has to do with the general perception of the relatively affluent, those who read newspapers and journals, listen to radio news bulletins or watch television news channels.

Simply put, they see poverty, lack of health facilities, illiteracy and scarcity of schools in the abstract and as issues to be addressed by the state. This class does not look at issues as something that affects individuals unless those individuals are personally known – servants, workers who build one’s house or even poor relatives. My handling of a servant wanting a higher wage has nothing to do with my genuine concern about the slow progress being made by the state in its efforts to eliminate or lessen poverty.

The operational NGOs have made the transition that we as a class have not yet made. They do not see poverty in the abstract; they deal with poor individuals with names and identities. People who are ill in rural regions or urban slums are not “the sick and needy”; they are, again, individuals, Bibhuti Sarkar of Bhunia village in Birbhum district suffering from a tumour in the stomach, or Shantiammal in Tindivanam in Tamil Nadu who has cervical cancer, or Anees Khan of Seelampuri in Delhi who needs a cataract operation.

They make it their task to get them the help they need, as Babar Ali, a 10-year-old, has made it his business to teach the younger children in his village after he himself comes out of his classes; he runs a regular school.

It is the operational NGOs that actually get close to particular people and see the problem not so much in a global context as in terms of getting Salim Ali to a doctor as quickly as possible. It is in one sense, we might think, limiting, but in another sense it is the real and substantial action that is needed. Sadly, it is precisely for this reason that the efforts of operational NGOs do not get the kind of media attention that they deserve. One Salim Ali cured because of timely help or one Shantiammal taken to a cancer specialist and successfully operated upon does not make for a story. The agitation for a proper hospital in a specific region, on the other hand, does. We know of the deprivation of the tribal people because of the naxalite violence. Do we know any tribal people; do we know their names, their families? It is with the individuals unknown to most that the operational NGOs work.

That is their story, the story of the Urmuls, Charkhas, Prathams and Pradans. It is a story that needs to be told, and if we value the process of building our country, it needs to be told over and over again, not by the state or by the NGOs themselves but by journalists as committed to the eradication of deprivation and poverty as some are to the environment.

http://www.frontline.in/stories/20100101262610400.htm

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