Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Bridge between Two Approaches

Yesterday the 15th of January marked a day of the meeting of opposites. Whereas some social activists like I insist that the present centralised system cannot deliver justice to the poor and disempowered people like the Bhil tribals, others believe that it is possible to do this. Most NGOs work on the latter premise. However, among these NGOs there are some which try to marry the benefits of centralisation and decentralisation in an innovative way by fostering the innate communitarian urges of the deprived people and increasing their sense of dignity and purpose and help them to stand up for their rights. One such organisation is Goonj. This organisation first collects used clothes in huge quantities from the privileged sections in urban areas across the country (amounting to a daily collection of 70 tonnes) and then distributes them to the poor.
However, this is done in an innovative way. The clothes are sorted and packed into sacks to accord with the preferences of the users in different parts of the country. The discarded material is then used to make bags, folders, mobile holders and most importantly cheap cloth sanitary napkins which are all sold to raise resources (Goonj now intends to form a separate company to sell its products and so attempt to provide a sustainable financial basis for its activities). For the first time in this country the serious problem of the lack of menstrual hygiene has been brought to the forefront of discussion by Goonj through its Not Just a Cloth programme. Due to the huge culture of silence surrounding the menstrual discharges and the necessary secrecy with which most women have to deal with the cloth that they use for this purpose they suffer many gynaecological problems. Goonj, is trying to use its cloth supply to find answers to this vexing problem. A usage of two lakh sanitary napkins a month is quite an achievement.
What is really enthusing is the Cloth for Work programme. The better clothes are distributed through partner NGOs to communities which are encouraged to do some community development work in return. Thus the Korku tribals in Khandwa district have dug wells and bunded their fields to improve both water availability and agricultural production. The Musahars of Bihar who are still today living on less than Rs 10 a day and so are forced to catch and eat mice have been freed of the clutches of moneylenders who used to make them bonded labourers for not being able to pay for the clothes they bought. They have contributed labour to build roads and a bamboo bridge shown below over a river which has withstood floods for three years.

This bridge in the village of Sukhasan in Madhepura district of Bihar is about 2 metres wide and about 75 metres long and is so strong that it can withstand a very heavy load  as shown in the picture below. The whole bridge was built through labour and bamboos contributed by the villagers in lieu of old clothes and only Rs 2000 in cash had to be spent to buy wires. It is a marvel of local engineering and community mobilisation to say the least.

The building of the roads and the bridge has brought their village into the limelight and now the administration is building both pucca roads and a ferro-concrete bridge there. Thus, the work of Goonj is like a bridge between two approaches. Something that was stressed by Seema of the NGO Spandan from Khandwa which had organised the Korkus to dig wells and bund their land. She said that earlier she used to only organise people for their rights and entitlements and this created divisions and also an antagonistic environment with the local politicians and the administration. However, with the distribution of clothes for work the whole community had come together and were involved in rebuilding their villages in various ways. These revelations were made in a meeting organised by Goonj yesterday to enlist more support for its activities in Indore where other NGOs which had used the clothes sent by Goonj to initiate community mobilisation were also present. The Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath too has distributed clothes sent by Goonj though not for any specific work. The clothes have been distributed to the really needy like the orphans of those who had died due to being affected by silicosis after working in quartz crusher factories and to the village leaders who are the main mobilisers of the organisation's rights based work.
As mentioned in earlier posts it is not possible to sustain rights based work without external support and so this support from Goonj which eventually depends on the philanthropy of the rich is a novel way of promoting community mobilisation, even for rights issues. In fact Goonj has gone one step further and declared that the rich by donating their old clothes are not doing a favour to the poor but it is the latter who are doing the rich a favour by extending the life of their discarded clothes and thus contributing to ecological conservation. In a space of a little over a decade Goonj led by its leaders Anshu Gupta and his wife Meenakshi have transformed the old practice of donation of old clothes and other waste material into a movement for communitarian revival. Not surprisingly this effort has become a cause celebre and a case for study by management schools in India and abroad.
After coming back from the meeting I got into some pending work of mine. This was the finalisation of a report on a survey that we had done of the seasonal migrant tribal workers in Surat and Navsari district of Gujarat. That brought the actual sordid reality of modern day centralised development back into focus. Huge investments are being made in industrial and construction activity in Gujarat while the nearby areas where tribals are in a majority are deprived of even the most basic of amenities. So these tribals are forced to migrate to make ends meet. Even the best natural resource management work done by the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath cannot provide sustainable livelihoods as we have seen earlier. The working and living conditions are extremely poor in the destination areas and the Governments of Gujarat and the source states are not implementing any of the laws and schemes that are there for the benefit of the workers. The women and children suffer the most. Nevertheless On an average the study  reveals that a family of a husband and wife returns with a net income of Rs 3000 after a month's work which is like a lifeline to them. A quick conservative calculation on the basis of the numbers migrating which are in lakhs shows that the tribals together bring in around Rupees 35 crores into Alirajpur district alone annually. This brings into perspective the miniscule impact of the work of NGOs and even mass organisations like the KMCS in comparison to the working of the centralised economy. As long as surplus extraction is afoot on such a large scale the donation based attempts to ameliorate its ill effects on the marginalised poor, even if they are done in such an innovative manner as being done by Goonj, are not really going to help matters much. In fact one lady raised this issue in the meeting yesterday of such NGOism absolving the state of its responsibilities of ensuring just development. Even if we assume that Goonj will manage to get community involvement going in more and more villages across the country, if it takes on a mass upsurge character then problems will arise and the centralised state will hit back as will the corporates. Sweet one off stories are good for everyone but not large scale movements of change that threaten the very basics of centralised accumulation.


anish said...

Thank you for sharing Rahul. This larger perspective has the potential to shift paradigms of worldviews and choice of work. Very inspiring!

Rahul Banerjee said...

Yes there is a lot of social innovation going on at present in India. the churning has already produced a lot of poison let us see if it will now produce the nectar of immortality