The view from below

For down and out tribal women, global developmental extravagnzas mean nothing but rhetoric

By Rahul
Published: Monday 15 May 1995

TO DAHELI and her husband Lalia, a conference of the order of the World Social Summit for Development has little significance. Daheli is a plump, middle-aged tribal peasant woman, belonging to the Mankar subtribe of the Bhils, residing in a village called Attha in the Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh. Most of Daheli's adult life has been spent in struggles with the authorities to retain her tenuous hold on the land she cultivated. Today, she and her family are without any legal title to the land because it belongs to the forest department.

Recently, she was told about the World Social Summit for Women to held in Beijing, in October this year. She was at once interested because she leads the women of the area in solving various problems that they specifically face in their day to day life.

Because of her previous bitter experience of pitched battles with the forest department staff and the police, and her innumerable arguments with the government officials, she is cynical about the big conferences where high officials rule the roost. She is convinced that the sarkar, instead of being the Mai-Baap of the poor, is, instead, their nemesis. Any programme organised by these non-tribal bajariyas is met with her deep suspicion.

But Daheli has attended the huge rallies, travelling all over Madhya Pradesh, sometimes packed in trucks, sometimes on trains -- sans ticket. She is much taken by them. So, she was very curious about this meeting which would have only women in it from all over the world. Surely, such a massive "rally" would put pressure on the sarkar to improve the living standards and socioeconomic status of women.

When she was told that there would be no rally and that the meeting would mostly be attended by sarkarias, as poor women like her could not afford the lakhs of rupees required to attend the meeting, her face fell. Then slowly she got angry and asked, what good could come of a meeting of sarkarias when they could not get even an extra handpump installed in her village. She fumed at the colossal waste of money for such a meeting, when the women's group in her village was having a tough time trying to get a grant of a paltry sum of Rs 12,000, sanctioned under the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas scheme.

The debate heated up when Daheli was informed that such meetings come dime-a-dozens these days. She was also told of the recently concluded social summit in Copenhagen, and that the developed nations had refused to give up even a bit of the huge booty they took away from the poorer countries for their own development. She was appalled at the enormity of the hypocrisy and brazen wastefulness of such meets. "Its an insult to us, who can't even put on decent clothes, to spend so much money on discussing how to clothe us and then to say that it is not possible to do so".

Daheli's veritably exploded when she was told that some of the people who worked with the poor, too went to these meetings to present their viewpoints. "When all those sarkarias do not listen to what we are saying then what is the point in wasting so much money and going there and babbling uselessly?"

Every village, every hamlet has our Dahelis and Lalias. Some are fighting in an organised way against the forces of impoverishment; but most others are just lumping it as best they can. What ever little security Daheli has gained in her contingent existence, has come as a result of the long years of struggle, and not from attending international summits, which are now being organised at the frequency of 1 every 6 months. Yet, it is in these sarkaria conferences where the rhetoric on social development has reached a crescendo.

---Rahul is an activist working with tribals in Madhya Pradesh.

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