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Archive for the 'Bharathi Trust' Category

Irulas

My time with the Bharathi Trust has come to an end and once again I have been involved with an inspirational programme. In particular Siddamma who founded the organisation is an incredible woman, what she has achieved with the Irula tribespeople is nothing short of phenomenal. The government know her and the police know her and not surprisingly they all want her on side.

Up until the tsunami the prime objective of the Bharathi Trust was to promote and build up the Irula tribal communities as a collective forum. To do this, Sarpam, a people’s organisation was formed primarily for taking up and dealing with tribal land, human rights related issues and implementing government schemes and programmes and to coordinate the various efforts undertaken by the community. Sarpam has now grown into an organisation with a membership of more than 20,000 Irulas, they have elected members of the local gram panchayat as well as gram panchayat presidents which is itself an astonishing achievement.

Since the tsunami they have been involved in a relief and livelihood restoration programme and have suffered at the hands of as well as been helped by various INGO’s. Thankfully, the Irula strength is a deep rooted sense of togetherness as a community and this has manifested itself through Sarpam. They know what they need to survive and they don’t need to be told what is best for them from an office in London.

By the end of this month 300 Irula families will have permanent houses in 6 villages along the coast. It has been a painful process but only because Siddamma has insisted that the community is involved throughout and has been consulted on all decision making matters. This is what I have learnt most from my stay with the local NGO’s. Community participation is a much vaunted phrase in NGO circles but I have often suspected it to be nothing more than a sound bite with all the real decisions being made by the so called educated professionals. Sadly all too often this has proven to be true, from fibre glass boats unsuitable for the purpose that people don’t even know how to use to houses built that have no respect for peoples day to day functioning and needs. People need help to rebuild their lives post-disaster not to be told how they should be living them.

I have learnt from both programmes it is about community ownership of a project not just participation that brings about success, because with ownership comes responsibility. When a community is made aware that their children have rights and they are given the tools to take responsibility for those rights then children’s education is undoubtedly improved. Or when a community understands that it is their involvement and decisions that will ensure how their houses are built then there is a real commitment from the community to fulfill their needs as only they know how.

I have three reports to write on related matters but for now, Power to Sarpam!

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I slept with Shilpa!

That’s not mean’t to be racist, it’s true. In fact it would be more accurate to say I slept ON Shilpa since that is the make of the straw mat I have been sleeping on for the last week. I’ve been staying on a farm in the middle of nowhere not far from the back of beyond right next to total isolation in the mountains on the Andra Pradesh/Tamil Nadu border and it has been magnificent.

Bharathi Trust are in the process of building a resource centre there with the aim of assisting the poor and marginalised farmers to re-introduce traditional organic farming methods and crops. Traditional skills and knowledge are in real danger of being lost forever in India as she steamrollers her way towards a ‘developed’ nation to the point where if another generation continues to develop a monoculture crop system then there will be no going back. This obviously needs to be addressed and Madame Siddamma feels passionate enough to do something about it, hence the resource centre.

Unfortunately due to ActionAid bureaucracy before I left my time in India is seriously running out. Siddamma has offered to write me a letter pleading for a visa extension which would allow me to not only write a report about the Irulas housing and the importance of community participation throughout a projects lifecycle but also to stay at the resource centre for a few months and write/rant about my favourite subject - multinationals. I have a real interest in the importance of maintaining traditional knowledge and the fact that knowledge, skills and methods are being eroded in the name of progress, growth and development - whose development? This is all clearly linked to multinationals, GM crops, Indian government policy, consumption and ultimately the increasing number of farmers suicides. Bharathi Trust think they have a solution and I tend to agree so I would dearly like stay, research and explore the alternatives.

The ingenuity and resourcefulness of the people I have met has never ceased to amaze me and on the farm it was even more astonishing. I had to earn my food which meant I had to do my bit on the farm as well as the building but it’s undeniable a bit of hard physical work is good for the soul - not sure if my soul is ready for a backbreaking 80 rupees a day every day just yet though! Dreaming in the mountains amongst the boulders, butterflies, snakes and lemongrass was more my thing!

With Indian bureaucracy being worse than even ActionAid’s the likelihood of gaining a visa extension however, are about slim to none so it looks as though I will be returning to the UK filled with new knowledge and experience but still somewhat unfulfilled in terms of achievement.

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Accountants

I’ve never been a money person, in fact I think people who make a living counting it are a bit weird, so I have a suggestion. Every person involved in finance in ActionAid, make that all NGO’s, in fact make that anybody who makes a living out of money should be forced to spend a night, make that a week in an Irula hut during the coming monsoon season.

I have been at the Bharathi Trust for a couple of weeks now, based outside Chidambaram which even makes it into Lonely Planet. However, the project involving the seriously marginalised Irula tribespeople doesn’t. Perhaps it should, theirs is a plight which has caused me to witness my most distressing scenes which have this week made me feel ashamed to be human. At the same time it has been both heartening and inspirational to be with Madame Siddamma who founded the Bharathti Trust and has been working to improve the lives of the Irulas for 16 years now. She has helped me maintain my belief that we can be a force for good and so long as there are people like her there is still hope. The fact that people are still living on the margins in tiny temporary palm huts 2 1/2 years after the tsunami is a disgrace. The Indian government who refused to recognise the plight of the Irula in the tsunami aftermath should be ashamed. The fisherfolk who had been living alongside the Irula prior to the tsunami but who threw them out of the area post-tsunami because they did not want to include the Irula in the rehabilitation process should be ashamed. The Indian people in general who have kept the Irula on the margins of society, holding them as slaves in bonded labour, denying them their rights as a scheduled tribe and cheating them out of land that is rightly theirs should be ashamed.

After a long struggle Madame Siddamma has secured the construction of over 300 houses for the Irulas with the aid of ActionAid and Malteser. Unfortunately, as I have witnessed these last couple of weeks, the behemoth that is ActionAid as one of the presiding International Non-Governmental Organisation’s (INGO’s) has demonstrated the inflexibility of such a large organisation and as such the whole project has been close to collapse because funds haven’t been released by the money counters in Delhi.

It’s difficult to be critical of ActionAid but lack of flexibility due to procedural constraints is central to the INGO problem and at the same time it is the poor and marginalised who they are championing that continue to suffer. In their defence though the Great British public as an example have demanded transparency in allocation of funds, especially post-tsunami and ActionAid have wholeheartedly supported this kind of transparency and rightly so. However, when a building site on the Tamil Nadu coast needs bricks, sand and cement to continue and complete construction before the arrival of the monsoons and the Irula are washed away once more, but the money to buy the materials isn’t forthcoming because release of funds needs to go through various bureaucratic procedures including head office in Delhi then you just want to strangle an accountant! These are people lives we are dealing with, not simple figures, numbers and statistics.

See how quick they might release the necessary funds if they’d spent a week in an Irula hut during monsoon…

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Did You Know? Grapes explode when you put them in the microwave.