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Why can't welfare NGOs think beyond doles, learn to empower vulnerable sections?

By Rajiv Shah
This is what happened near Ahmedabad the other day. I am deliberately not revealing the name of the person or the spot where the incident took place. This gentleman, a seasoned trader having unassuming aura, also runs a “welfare” NGO. Driving a large-sized car with two of his team members sitting next to him, he was stopped by traffic cops, who saw his license, and wanted to know what exactly he was carrying in the car.
This gentleman explained that he had collected old, used clothes, blankets, toys, shoes etc. from those who were associated with the NGO and was on his way to distribute them in a slum area. Unconvinced, the cops demanded a few thousand as fine.
Revealing his identity as head of the NGO, this gentleman said, there was no question of giving the fine, as he was carrying used clothes for welfare activity, and if the cops wanted they could accompany them during their distribution among the slum-dwellers. Still the cops remained adamant and sought the fine. Finally, the gentleman suggested a way out: “Why don’t you keep some clothes, you can distribute them at your will.” The cops agreed, “took” a few clothes, returned the license, and let this gentleman go.
I don’t know how to characterize the cops accepting used clothes which were to be distributed among the slum-dwellers. As bribe, or for distribution somewhere among the poor? The gentleman, whom I remotely know, would know it better – though he has been going around telling his supporters that he was “sure” the cops would distribute the clothes among the poor, which was, he said, a good cause. Why think negatively? After all, charity, especially “helping the poor”, was a good cause, and, surely, they wouldn’t want to displease the Gods.
It is anybody’s guess whether cops, who took away a few the clothes, did it as part of their corrupt practice, which they are so often found to be indulging in. But this type of welfarism also raises a fundamental question which this businessman, or persons of his ilk who run such NGOs, would perhaps need to answer: Would distributing clothes or goodies to slum-dwellers or other sections of the poor go in any way to alleviate poverty?
Surely, those belonging to the upper and middle classes would want to dispose of their used clothes after they had had “enough” of them, and they would always want to find some NGO which does this type of activity. Some of them, for instance, go to spots like the Blind Men’s Association to drop the used clothes, even furnitures, which they do not want to use anymore. But I have wondered whether this would in any way help change the status quo of the poor. Does this not require to be debated, talked about? I have always tried to argue with myself: Such welfarism make the poorer sections dependent on doles, hence one should avoid it as far as possible.
Yet, the fact is, such welfare NGOs keep doing this type of work. A few years ago, I remember talking over to a top representative of an important business house which had proposed to set up a cargo port on Gujarat coast. The proposal never materialised, but this business executive, who also ran an NGO, claimed, talking to me, his NGO had as welfare activity during the Gujarat riots. And what was that? I asked him. “We distributed blankets among the victims”, he said, admitting this was the only work they had done during the riots, in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed, and tens of thousands were rendered homeless.
At the Dalit Shakti Kendra
I also know another gentleman, who heads a welfare trust run by members of an “upper” Hindu sub-caste. Every year this gentleman, a happy-to-go-round person, accompanied by his group of about half-a-dozen, collects used clothes and other goodies, takes them in a truck to certain identified villages, where all of it is distributed. He even posts photographs of this distribution job of Facebook, and shares them on a WhatApp group of his sub-caste so as to tell one and all that the job he was doing was indeed welfarist.
While such activity may perhaps give momentary satisfaction to the vulnerable sections, the issue that needs to be addressed is: Does it in any way go to empower them, tell them how to stand on their own feet, fight for their right to life and livelihood, for justice wherever and whenever it is denied to them, or even train them in getting a job in the labour market? Surely, all this seemingly is an arduous job. It would involve educating and training the vulnerable sections, standing by them when their rights are sought be eroded by powerful sections.
One can understand distributing doles during crisis situations. Those rendered homeless, especially the more vulnerable sections of society, do get doles both from government and NGOs. Not just clothing but food and temporary shelter are provided during floods, cyclones and earthquakes, or those affected by riots. There have also been valiant efforts to seek justice to those affected by atrocities, seeking lasting solutions.
Indeed, there are NGOs such which do it. One of them is Navsarjan Trust, whose founder Marin Macwan has set up Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK), where he educates mainly Dalit and Adivasi teenager boys and girls into different types of trades, even as telling them how not to tolerate any form of discrimination, especially untouchability.
My visit to DSK several times over has suggested how those who get admitted here are initially totally docile, but slowly learn to be articulate, acquiring a strong ability to face the world, both materially and ideologically. I only hope, these welfare NGOs have a look at how this empowerment – in which DSK is not an exception, there are numerous other as well – is taking shape. But how? That’s a million question...

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