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Development Activism

The Importance of Being Voluntary

Bunker Roy

Development, because it concerns people, has to be slow — it cannot be artificially forced in any direction. The process of making people aware of their surroundings, their own strength and finally their own skills to be able to make choices is what development is all about. The dilemma is how to facilitate this process.

In the ultimate analysis it is a question of trust. How much are we willing to trust the people to take their own decisions without influence, without intimidation and without passing judgements on their competence. History has shown we have not trusted enough the people. This is one lesson we shall never learn. In ‘we’ is included the dominant minority — the literate, the affluent and the powerful who have their interests to protect, and in their grand scheme of things the rural and urban poor have no place.

In other words the first and most formidable obstacle to development today is the Literate Man. The educational system has conditioned him/her to look down on poor rural and urban communities. An illiterate man cannot be intelligent or have any skill to teach. The ways of poor communities in cities and villages have to be primitive and backward and to trust them totally means to treat them as equals which is an impossible expectation today.

The system has made us look down on our own culture, on our own indigenous solutions and institutions and influenced us to mistrust all knowledge and information that originates from those we persist in calling the poor as the backward and the primitive. We must accept there is a fundamental difference between Literacy and Education. Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, once said, "Never let school interfere with your Education".

Another major dilemma is the lack of space for individual growth. In this great desire to help the so-called poor (in material goods but not in spirit) and in the name of development we have encroached on individual space, violated privacy, forced people to think in a certain way and penalized those who have rejected government assistance for good reason. A plethora of schemes from various departments, some duplicating one another, have plagued poorer communities. Generous grants are being handed out and it is nowhere more unseemly than when it comes to procuring family planning cases.

Gifts, bribes, inducements and favours, all being offered by government servants at the village level for family planning cases have reduced this idea to a farce. What is actually being suggested is birth control. The final choice must rest with the women and not with the government as is the case today. It takes time for information to be absorbed. Critical decisions are not influenced by financial year targets nor can the pace be forced.

By far the most serious crisis we face is our lack of self-respect. We should take pride in the way our indigenous institutions and ideas have survived. We should value innovations and make every effort to see that it is replicated because it is low cost, community based and has grown from below. This country has all the answers. The solutions to every problem are well within reach in the boundaries of our own country. Are we prepared to implement them even if the world outside does not understand?

All these are major deficiencies that are not being taken seriously enough. These flaws in the development process are linked to flaws in the human beings implementing the programmes on the field. Till these deficiencies are recognized, funds will continue to be wasted, results will continue to be poor and the poor will remain poor.

Having said this, what can we do as individuals? We can set an example. Action requires a certain belief and faith that one day what you do will bring change. May be it is not what you first wanted to happen. May be its not what others wanted but with every process there is an invisible reaction that manifests itself later. Often we do not have the tools to be able to understand it but, it is noticeable, that it differs all the time.

Tilonia was started with no fixed or long-term plan of action. It grew out of an urgency that had everything to do with my own need and impatience to want to contribute something tangible. I was confident that it should be possible to show compassion and concern directly without intermediaries or levels. It should be possible, I felt, to facilitate action that improved the physical living conditions of people. I had seen far too many people telling others what to do, too many people making promises that were broken, too many individuals who did not believe in the importance of action. This was as important for one’s own personal growth and understanding as doing pointless degrees or research in universities.

The fact that many people outside the urban areas were still struggling to live a life of dignity and free from hunger and fear was a matter of great shame to me. I noticed I was taking too many things for granted — basic human needs like drinking water and good schools, inexpensive health services and access to fuel and fodder.

The education I had received was elitist enough to give me blinkers. The mental and physical security I enjoyed made me arrogant. I began to demand for my rights first without considering my duties as a citizen. I was obliged to return, in whatever form or manner, to society what I had received from being born privileged. It was only right and just. The point was how to make the blind see and the deaf listen?

It had to be done by identifying the problems and the human flaws in the development process and doing something about it on the ground. If there is trust, the people will show what is possible and the incredible responsibilities they are prepared to take once they are involved and taken into confidence. If there is no space, then create one. The role of groups like Tilonia is to protect groups from destroying themselves by becoming dependent on government or vested interests.

Give them the space to develop their confidence, create the space to upgrade their skills so that eventually they depend on each other and carve out another space so that they have enough time to try out new ideas, innovate, make mistakes and try again. It is important to stress self-reliance which can be done by reviving old and tested local, self-government institutions, and preserving time-tested cultural traditions that have kept communities together and given them an identity. The use of native skills and local know-how to tackle rural problems should be encouraged instead of bringing in alien ideas, strange people from outside to solve problems.

In the last 17 years of its existence Tilonia has tested many ideas on the ground, explored many myths that people even today are not prepared to accept and proved many points as a result. Strangely enough our problems are somewhat different. Our problems have to do with success. With every simple idea implemented and replicated on the ground we have met envy, jealousy and bitterness. We find no one wants change. Very few want a simple idea that reduces costs to be implemented on the ground.

So long as the solutions are discussed on paper everyone is for it, but as soon as it is put into effect there is resentment and counter-arguments. For instance, the solar electrification for lighting in Ladakh. We have solar-electrified five complete villages in this area, reduced costs, decentralized the power system to the household level and trained illiterate youth to plan, install and maintain the system. It has been working for the last three years. The community of users think it is a miracle. But virtually everyone else is unhappy because it has worked.

Only later we realized that over Pound Sterling one million was being spent every year by the government to reach 200,000 litres of diesel and 200,000 litres of kerosene by road transport. Imagine how many contractors would suffer if the whole region was solar electrified! Generator sets would not be bought, transmission wires would no longer be purchased and wooden poles would not have to be transported by road.

Engineers would be out of jobs, plans for large hydel projects will no longer be considered and the community would no longer be dependent on their patronage. Obviously the files for more villages to be solar electrified are no longer moving and I have been declared public enemy number one. Making a complicated problem look simple and generates its own set of problems.

In real life we face these dilemmas everyday in our personal and professional lives. Who decides what is good or what is bad for the poor? Is it worth fighting on so many fronts? Doubts and fears, ups and downs are all a part of the decision-making process. We may disagree to the roads to take but we must never fear to walk: To standstill is to lose faith.

Traveller there is no path

Paths are made by walking.



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