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NGOs' foreign funding dilemma

Martin Macwan
This happened in 1995. Prof Indira Hirway, then working at the Gandhi Labour Institute, Ahmedabad, as senior faculty, handed over to me over a study she had just prepared on foreign funding of Gujarat NGOs, which I promptly reported in the Times of India without thinking about its repercussions. A highly sensitive issue, many activists were extremely angry with the report, more so because till then I had reported only on those realities of Gujarat which activists tried showing me — poor wages, caste divisions, impact of 'development' on vulnerable sections. They had found in me a "great friend" on whom one could rely upon. However, this report seemed to embarrass them. So much so, that the then Gujarat Institute of Development Research (GIDR) director, late Prof Pravin Visaria, a top demographer, angrily refused entry to me in a seminar on development which he had organised with Gujarat NGO support. "You have already obliged us enough by your piece. "We do not want any more trouble", he told me. GIDR, an Indian Council of Social Science Research-supported body, heavily depended on NGOs for most of its researches.Prof Hirway's report had merely highlighted overt dependence of voluntary organisations on foreign funding without in any way criticising them for the work they were involved in. While reporting it, I had merely stuck to facts, without any comment. While many took stong objection, there were a few activists, with strong sense of realism, who not only did not object, but also told me that foreign funding was an issue, which cannot be overlooked. One of them was Martin Macwan, who headed Navsarjan Trust, an NGO which campaigns for Dalit rights. I was impressed, especially against the backdrop of the fact that he seemed to understand foreign funding as some sort of necessity which NGOs would have to get rid of some day. A few years back, Macwan founded Dalit Shakti Kendra near Sanand town in Ahmedabad district, where he trains mainly young Dalit boys and girls in not just different skills but also on the need to fight for justice both within the community and outside. Instead of depending on any foreign donations, he set up the centre from the huge amount he received as Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2000 for his outstanding contribution in the fight against untouchability.
I found in Macwan an insightful person who understood Gujarat's social fabric better than most others with whom I had interacted with after I made Ahmedabad my home in 1993. I came to know him even better after he took up the cause of manual scavengers in Gujarat. All over the state, Macwan deeply campaigned for overcoming the evil casteist practice of carrying nightsoil on head (mathemelu), something which Mahatma Gandhi had called "a national shame". He told me how in Ahmedabad district, in Ranpur town, the municipality had employed manual scavengers who were officially assigned with the despicable job. Incidentally, Ranpur is the town from where well-known nationalist poet Zhaverchand Meghani hails. The manual scavengers protested again the evil practice, leading to the local elite, especially traders, counter-protesting with a hartal for "failing to keep the town clean."
While I reported about the event, what struck me was the stance taken by Macwan. He said, it is not just upper caste oppression that needed to be fought, but also intra-caste contradictions. He underlined, there is little support to manual scavengers, mostly Valmikis, among the co-called upper sections of Dalits. To him, Dalits are not a homogeneous entity. "Untouchability among the Dalits is a serious issue", he would say. More recently, recuperating from what appeared to be a fatal accident in a village where a cement slab fell on him as he was photographing, even in bed he was busy analysing the intra-caste disparity among Dalits, showing me a graph which suggested how it did not differ from inter-caste disparity. He regretted how such a stance hasn't gone down well with some other Dalit leaders of the country.
In 2011, a study on Dalit women, undertaken by the NGO which he founded, reached the drastic conclusion that they have to suffer doubly — not just because of upper caste atrocity, but also because of oppression from within. The study, "Gender-Violence and Access to Justice for the Dalit Woman", done in collaboration with Minority Rights Group International, London, says, "She is at risk of becoming a victim of violence perpetrated by an outsider, but even more frequently by a member of her own community. She is at risk of becoming a victim of an unnatural death due to family discord." Further, “For Dalit women neither the frequency of non-Dalit on Dalit crime nor Dalit on Dalit crime has changed at all over the five year period of the study, from 2004 to 2009". Of 889 registered cases (185 cases of violence by non-Dalits and 704 cases of violence by Dalits) for which analysis was done, only 6 cases, 0.7% of the total, resulted in a conviction of the accused.
Apparently, it is this sense of realism which has lately prompted Macwan to conceptualise what he has called Shobha yatra. Begun in January this year with the aim of debunking the myth that Dr BR Ambedkar was just a Dalit icon, the yatra is currently going round different parts of Gujarat, and its main is to take the message of equality to a new level. In a mail he sent me about the yatra, he writes, "The poison of prejudices between castes has further deepened between various sub-castes within the caste." A note being distributed to the mainly Dalit participants of the yatra by his NGO and others supporting it regrets, "There have been efforts to give unnecessary importance to counter-pose Dr Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi. While fighting casteism in name, those who are seeking to create this divide are actually promoting casteism". The campaign seeks to bring together all those who have epitomised social equality, including Dr Ambedkar, Lord Buddha, Gandhiji, Jyotiba and Savitri Phule, Perriar, Narayan Guru, Acchutanand, and Gadage Maharaj.
The question may be asked as to who is funding the campaign, which includes rallies, exhibitions, plays and other programmes in Gujarat's towns and villages. For the first time I found that a conscious effort is being made to get out of the foreign funding dilemma, which has its limitations of coming to terms with Indian realities. A note in circulation requesting donations specifically says that "no foreign donations will be accepted." For an advocacy group to say this appeared to me pretty bold, though this also raises several questions on sustainability of such a stance.
The issue is complicated, indeed. As Lallubhai Desai, whose NGO Manav Kalyan Trust has been working among the Sabarkantha tribals, put it to me, "Narendra Modi's propaganda on Gujarat being No 1 has made an impact on international funding agencies. They have mostly withdrawn and are concentrating on other states." These agencies have simply failed to understand that "the high Gujarat growth rate has failed to make a positive impact on the livelihood of the common people", he added. Senior activists from Gujarat such as Hanif Lakdawala, who works on health issues of among poor Muslims and Dalits of Ahmedabad, or Sukhdev Patel, who has been campaigning on child rights, have frankly admitted to me how funds crunch from foreign sources has become a reality for them.
I have always wondered: Why do NGOs have to depend so heavily on foreign funds, especially on foreign chairty, and why is there virtually no rapport between them and Indian charity? A foreign charity organisation wouldn't understand ground realities as well as the home grown ones. In Gujarat, charity used to be part of what is called Mahajani culture. Mahatma Gandhi termed his trade union among textile mills as Majur Mahajan. The textile millowners were "mahajans" or guardians of workers, in Gandhian scheme of things. The trade union is virtually dead, and the ideology by which it stood by has long been forgotten. A senior consultant, Sunil Parikh, tells me that Indian corporates' contribution to charity is fraction of what is contributed by their western counterparts in their countries. Has the corporate sector become insensitive towards charity and corporate social responsibilty? The NGOs would have to find a solution at a time when the era of heavy dependence on foreign funding is surely coming to an end and when the Indian political class, as also the well off sections of Indian society, look at them with suspicion, especially their so-called foreign connections.
There is also reason to ask: Why can't India have its own Oxfam-type special funding agencies? Oxfam operates through its shops all over the world, selling many fair-trade and donated items. Then, there are over half a million people in UK alone regularly contributing to it. It also receives funds in the form of gifts left to the organisation in people's wills. Further, it organises different types of events to raise funds in Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, UK and Japan. In UK, from where it operates, it asks people to get together and fundraise by hosting events with friends and colleagues on special occasions like International Women's Day, March 8. Parikh tells me there are entrepretuers who are willing to take up charity in a big way. But will NGOs, riddled with their anti-corporate stance, be willing? The issue needs examination in the light of depleting role of international funding agencies.


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