Thursday, October 21, 2010

View-Cutting Ourselves

The places, three NGOs and about a dozen foreigners, over half of them volunteers. Over the last six weeks I had a chance to interact in substantial measure with three grassroots NGOs in three different towns, all working in different fields. One chose water conservation as its main work; the other had a 360 degree association with orphans – providing them with shelter, food, clothing, high-quality education and tuitions, while the third NGO is skilling girls in the tradition-bound boondocks of casteist north India.

At all the three agencies, I came across volunteers – mostly all foreigners and a large number of them women. Tarun Bharat Sangh, the one working on water, had recently launched a campaign to sensitise people about the River Ganga. As its people, led by Rajendra Singh, travelled along the villages and towns on the banks of the river, they had for company a five-member team of American documentary-makers filming their work. These five - a Sri Lankan-American, British, Swiss and two Americans – landed in Delhi after which they went filming the issues and struggles over water in the districts of Ghaziabad and Bulandshahr. Now their assignment will take them to the interiors of Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal.

I do not even wish to sketch the state – filthy, poverty-ridden, homelessness and non-existent infrastructure, all clearly visible to the naked eye – of our people that this US team is bound to encounter in the villages. They do not even have to get down from their vehicles to understand the absence of the State from people’s lives. It will be evident to them from the back seats of their made-in-India air-conditioned SUVs as they come across half-clad children and animals foraging dumps of garbage for food, or any other substance of value. But then villages are villages - stinky and filthy.

Therefore, as many of us associate more with the English countryside than our own, let me bring you closer to our capital city. Closer home, in my second visit, this time to Greater Noida, I met five German volunteers working with orphan children - many of them little girls who had been discarded just because they were girls. These volunteers had arrived in India just three weeks back and had generated enormous goodwill among the children.

The Germans were happy to be working here with the children and will stay put for another 11 months. The interesting part is that these five were not alone. They were a small part of a 60-strong contingent that landed in India last month and spread out to other Indian NGOs concentrating their energies on different concerns across the length and breadth of the country. By now they would be toiling on the scores of challenges that the Indian people face - environmental degradation, trafficking of children and women, floods in some parts and droughts in others, concerns over maternal and children health, illiteracy, discrimination and impovrishment, farmers suicides, unemployment, crop failures, indebtedness, not to mention corruption which has become the favourite pastime amongst many - in their daily living.

I am sure that no view-cutter, whether made of vinyl, board or plastic, worth the crores spent on it is capable of hiding either the conditions our people live in or the sad reality that our political leaders have not delivered. My point is, India has at least a million NGOs, and foreign volunteers possibly in their thousands tromping across the country taking photos with their little digital cameras, filming documentaries and writing back to their girl and boy friends, and parents, about the rich experience they gained in the development sector in India, will those handful of glossy and expensive vinyl view-cutters put up by the Delhi Government and the Commonwealth Games organisers hide the slums, the debris of their chaotic construction work and the run-down areas of our ‘world-class city’. So, what are we trying to hide behind those glossy sheets, which, with the winter round the corner, would be soon put to better use by the slum dwellers and the homeless as a roof over their heads.

Now we come back to the third NGO, PPES, educating rural girls in Uttar Pradesh. This one had American volunteers and they were putting in their mite at all levels – right from the headquarters in Delhi to strengthening administrative systems at the village and even teaching English to the village girls. Will they not go back to their countries with an astounding clarity about the country which cuts sharply through the India shining, Incredible India and the Indian Growth Story hypes. And also the sad tales of girls whose parents do not send them to a school because they are both - poor and hold a grudge against educating their daughters.

So, is the Government naive enough to think that the foreign tourists who flock to the city have descended onto India in sheer ignorance.

Or is it that behind the veneer of "tourists will see our poverty," our leaders themselves were trying to camouflage what they do not want to see - the hungry, smelly hordes? Out of sight is out of mind and if people with a begging bowl and a litany of demands can be kept out of sight it is a soothing thought.

Or is it that one of our politicians, or his friend, owns that factory which manufactures those pricey view-cutters? Public money is afterall meant for public servants.

So, whose eyes was the government pulling wool over when it ordered those pricey view-cutters – itself, for it does not want to see its own people; the tourists, who are well-acquainted about the country's conditions or the average Delhiite, whose nimble figures are better at keeping track of the stock market than casting a vote on an electronic voting machine.

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