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Empowering communities


By Samir Joseph Nazareth
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- most Non-governmental organisations ( ngo s) are born out of a sense of dissatisfaction and idealism. This dissatisfaction arises due to the inadequate working of official bodies, dissatisfaction with the means and the end. It goes without saying that ngo s catalyse social equity and mass empowerment. This is because, unlike government officials, ngo s work with the people. They do not work from a pedestal or across a desk. However, the most important reason for their success is that they do not force development down peoples' throat.

Control of natural resources in rural communities is caste-based. The land for crops, fodder and firewood and water sources belong to the upper caste people. This social problem has an effect on the environment the low caste people have to scavenge the surrounding areas for firewood and fodder thus decreasing tree cover. This results in soil erosion, decreasing water tables and decrease in rainfall. Thus, a social problem balloons into an environmental problem affecting all people. ngo s working in these areas are faced with a multitude of problems. Since most villages are caste ridden, villagers who are mostly illiterate view outsiders with suspicion, especially those who wish to help. What makes matters worse is apathy of the villagers where development is not a major issue. Documenting such efforts is a vital task, as the course to positive change is an experience in itself. It also becomes a fountainhead for others involved in the issues as it catalogues the problems and their solutions. From Indifference to Active Participation is an effort in this direction. The authors, Frances and Sanjay Sinha share the experiences of ngo s working on natural resource development.

The ngo s involved in this study are Ubeshwar Vikas Mandal, Aga Khan Rural Support Foundation, Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti, Society for Hill Resource Management School and Myrada. The issues which are analysed are irriga-tion, reforestation and rehabilitation.

The success rate of ngo -run schemes is much higher when compared with corresponding official schemes. This is because the ngo s insist on high levels of community participation both in work and in sharing of costs. Thus, the ngo s empower a community to share responsibility as they have a stake. This stance is clearly seen in the working of the ngo s selected. These ngo s act as catalysts in bringing the community together.

Besides improving lives of the people, the ngo s inadvertently educate people on how government institutions work. The government officials do not trust villagers because of their illiteracy and their backwardness.

Villagers use unique methods to get electricity connection for irrigation pumps or a loan for a community project. For example, Sanga Ram who is one of the local organisers in the Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti would put his turban in his bag when he visits government officials so that they would listen to him. The authors suggest that the turban indicated that he was a villager and therefore illiterate, backward and naive.

Community participation, as worked on by these ngo s, also breaks down traditional walls between sexes and castes. People from within the village joined these schemes because they saw a positive outcome in their participation. Thus, councils governing these schemes, would consist of villagers from different castes and economic sections. ngo s also initiated women's participation in these meetings. However, success was marginal because these ngo s were not involved in women issues. Nevertheless, in most cases, "mahila mandals" have been formed to promote better health and alternative occupation.

One of the interesting case studied in the book is the rehabilitation of landless villagers. These people belonged to different backward castes and were allotted land in a barren area. Together with Myrada, the people converted a dry landscape into a lush green area. The work involved not only motivating villagers but also to train them in dryland agriculture and micro-watershed development. During land allotment, farmers were advised to make compost pits. What is interesting is that the ngo introduced chemical fertilisers and also explained the negative effects of its use. Education has made them wiser. They have decided to shift to organic farming in a year or two.

Such a kind of work also brings about social restructuring. Elders and upper castes who had a natural say in important village issues are gradually being replaced with young people and with villagers who know more about the problem. With the enhancement of these natural resources and its sharing, incomes have increased and villagers now enjoy the "luxury" of sending children, both male and female, to school. It also has improved the nutrition value of their food intake because of dietary supplements. It would be interesting to conduct a study to see the effects of such community participation on social structures.

From Indifference to Active Participation provides an inside view of the work and the outcomes of the ngo s and their work. The ngo s should be commended because they have shared a great deal of their data which is not always privy to the general public. Such books contain documentation efforts for those interested to make the ngo s accountable. This book provides useful information on how to carry out work with communities. It also has information on social structures. This is an important book for all ngo s and for those interested in the functioning of ngo s.

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