Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan
Government and Voluntary Organisations
In most cases officials fear that their own irregularities and collusion with powerful vested interests may be exposed by voluntary organisations and therefore adopt an aggressive attitude towards them.
IN RECENT years the interaction between the government and voluntary organisations has increased greatly. Various government organisations have been working in collaboration with voluntary organisations in a wide range of activities. However in some places this relationship has come under stress. Ironically, in several cases this has happened in the case of those voluntary organisations and people's movements which have an excellent record of working for people's welfare.
What is more, this admirable performance of these VOs has been confirmed by senior officials themselves in the past. Yet at a later stage relations get very tense and VOs find their work obstructed at various stages by the government machinery.
In the case of Agragamee, a leading VO of western Orissa, the relationship with the State Government became highly strained after the arrival of giant bauxite mining and processing companies in Rayagada district where it works. Before this the government appreciated Agragamee's work and many written records of appreciation and praise of its work are still available with this VO.
Fears of villagers
However a study of planned projects as well as previous examples of such large-scale bauxite mining and processing work convinced social activists that in their present form these projects can play havoc with the environment and the socio-economic life of villagers, particularly tribals. For the tribals themselves, what was more visible closer at home was the impact of other large-scale projects in their neighbourhood which displaced people and did not provide satisfactory rehabilitation. The arrogant attitude adopted by government and project officials as well as local business interests who hoped to get some benefits from these projects enhanced the fears of villagers further regarding how they may be treated in future. The big companies were coming here for a few decades to sweep clear the rich mineral reserves, but villagers feared that in the process their own life may be disrupted forever.
VOs like Agragamee faced a dilemma. As they had come here for the welfare of the poor villagers, particularly tribals, it was clearly their duty to help them in protecting their life and livelihood. But any such help was all to hastily misinterpreted as 'instigating unrest.' The government wanted VOs to keep away from any opposition to projects. Anti-social elements invaded the campus of Agragamee and badly disrupted its work. Constructive work done by Agragamee in neighbouring villages was hindered and attempts were made to implicate its senior activists in false cases. The escalating tension led to a of police firing recently in which several villagers were killed.
All this is very sad because VOs like Agragamee with their previous track record of genuine concern for people's welfare can actually play a very vital role in such difficult situations. It is now widely agreed that whenever large industrial/ mining projects are planned for a rural, particularly tribal area, this should be preceded by a very democratic and transparent process of sharing with people what exactly these projects mean for them — how adverse impact can be reduced and/or made up by other benefits. This democratic process should not exclude the option of the project being withdrawn or substantially modified if there is enough factual evidence to justify this. This is particularly true of scheduled areas like many villages of Rayagada in which gram sabhas have significant rights to exclude those activities which are likely to be harmful for the villagers. In such a democratic process of decision-making, the role of VOs like Agragamee can be very important as it is trusted by poor villagers for its commitment to pro-poor and peaceful path of social change. On the other hand, when the government adopts a repressive policy even towards such a peaceful and democratic organisation, it destroys the faith of people in the path of peaceful change.
Another VO which frequently experiences repression and harassment is ABSSS (Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Seva Sansthan) which works among kol tribals in Patha region of Uttar Pradesh. Big landlords and mining contractors make their millions by cornering all natural resources and want to use the kols only as poorly paid, exploited workers. When a VO like ABSSS tried to get farmland and mining leases for kols, these rich and influential persons collude with corrupt officials to implicate ABSSS social activists in false cases.
Rehabilitation of bonded labour is a priority programme for the government, but Chandan Kol, an activist of ABSSS, who struggled against a powerful feudal was himself sent to jail for this work. Badly victimised kol women who were called by the National Women's Commission to Delhi to relate their woes at a public hearing were subjected to more victimisation on returning to their hamlets.
In Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh the administration recently unleashed a wave of repression on members of the Adivasi Morcha Sangathan (AMS). Four villagers were killed in a police firing. Rahul Banerjee, a leading activist of AMS, was arrested and harassed. He is a gold medallist from IIT Kharagpur and has worked with tribal communities for several years. Subsequent investigations revealed that the local conflict over forest resources could have been easily resolved peacefully but some local officials, probably alarmed by the exposure of irregularities by AMS, preferred to adopt terror tactics.
In most such cases officials fear that their own irregularities and collusion with powerful vested interests may be exposed by VOs and therefore adopt an aggressive attitude towards them. The need, however, is to use the democratic space provided by such VOs to resolve conflicts peacefully, protecting the interests of weaker sections.
Bharat Dogra, The Hindu, April 2, 2002