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Together we stand

However Long is Forever Michael Isaac and Viren Kanitkar 17 mins vhs pal Telugu with English subtitles Presented by the Dialogue Group

By Keya Acharya
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

 Nothing can hamper their meet

in april, 1995, 30 representatives of people's organisations ( sanghas ) from different parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka of whom 18 were women -- met to discuss the current and future role of non-governmental organisations (ngos) in the villages. The cross-section of views expressed by the participants brought out interesting and subtle slants on the role of ngos in their lives. This film, which documents their meeting held at Bangalore, neatly presents the various aspects of the ngo-sangha relationship and raises the question of how long the ngos should or need to exist.

Isaac begins by grouping together all the views on the advantages that the ngo association has brought to the people. The views of the various sanghas show a dependency on the ngos which have been in the field for more than two decades. One person stated that ngos have managed to reach out to those poor and backward areas that have been left untouched by government programmes.

Tribal representatives said that ngos had spread literacy and empowered them so that they could speak up with dignity and confidence and not "bow in submission" to the rich. Also, they no longer paid dowry for their daughters' marriages (who are now literate and skilled, thanks to ngo training). On the contrary, it was the groom's side which offered to bear the wedding expenses. A tinge of rustic humour was added to the meeting as one particular representative of a sangha likened the ngo to the married daughter's parents' home whereupon the moderator called it the "mother-in-law's house".

The women said that they too have been given equal status with respect to men. In earlier days, their husbands would lock them up if ngo jeeps were seen approaching their homes. But now they were allowed to participate and attend meetings of the sangha . They even wash and cook if the women are absent because they know that "they will go hungry if they wait for their wives to return and cook". An elderly tribal woman pointed out that she no longer felt uneasy to cast her rightful vote in the elections. The tribal community that she represented was now participating in panchayat elections.

The views on the future of ngos, however, had several subtleties which Isaac's sensitive direction has brought out. The sangha s did not seem ready to 'let go'. They said that there were still very poor upper castes that had not been reached and that they did not have sufficient funds to meet emergencies. According to them, their children needed to be educated enough to be inducted into professional fields.

What has emerged is significant and there seems an abstract sense in which the villagers are talking for the benefit of the camera and the ngo sponsor. There is this 'do-not-look-a-gift-horse-in-the-mouth' attitude. Clearly, they know a good thing when they see it. But another interesting aspect of it all is the underlying dependency of the ngos on the people for their survival. That ngos would have no place else to go if they were to disband and leave, shows that it is after all a matter of inter-dependence.

The film ends with one woman stating conclusively that they had not asked the ngos for help in the first instance, but that they had come anyway and brought about useful changes. Whether they should stay or leave is a question left to all those who are concerned to ponder over. And there seem to be no clear-cut answers to the question. Peter Lanzet, a consultant with a German ngo which has sponsored around 200 projects, mostly in southern India reluctantly admits that ngos do sometimes have vested interests in their projects. But his 15-year-old overview of ngo work in India has convinced him that they have effected certain improvements in the villages, especially with respect to the spread of literacy, in the field of agriculture and in promoting self-reliance amongst women.

He also thinks that ngos in India have done and continue to do more substantive developmental work than their counterparts in Latin America (where they lean more on socio-political issues), or in Africa where results are even more difficult to achieve. Amitava Mukherjee, director of Action Aid, India, feels that most ngos are doing good work but the entire movement does not get recognised by the media due to their lack of coordination. He cited the example of varying ideologies hampering the ngo movement at the Copenhagen summit on poverty in 1994. As chairperson of the ngo federation, he said he had spent half his time and money from the funds granted, to try and get the various ngos to agree and termed the entire event an "unfortunate experience".

On the whole, the film with its clear subtitles, is well-presented, informative and thought-provoking.

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