Over the summer, I went with Jade, my nine year old daughter, to visit India again and catch up with old friends there. I hadn't been back since attending the WRI Triennial in 1986 and confined my trip to North India and Nepal so as not to wear Jade out.
It was an interesting time to be there with an election pending and the date was announced while we were in the country though we had left a fortnight before voting started.
No-one I visited was the slightest bit interested in politics as they saw all politicians as crooks and power-seekers, making the Australian political scene look like a vicar's tea party in comparison. Anyone who wants change, works through the NGO framework, and largely at the local level as they can't afford to work nationally. A lot of groups are working on human rights issues and environmental issues with particular focus on the effects of the opening up of the economy.
Just as in Australia, this has led to a widening gap between rich and poor but few seem to question the consequences of "economic growth" or worry about the impact on the poor. None of the three main political coalitions were offering any real alternative so I wasn't surprised to learn later that the voter turnout was very low.
One of the most noticeable differences from my previous visit was the amount of traffic in the cities so I wasn't surprised that there had been a 300% increase in the number of cars on the road in the last decade. No-one seemed to question the resulting stress of coping with the traffic chaos (Bombay traffic moves at 12 kph in the rush hour - the same as Bangkok) or the pollution; it was progress and progress was a good thing. I came back questioning what right Australians had to own so many cars if we were not to deny the same to Indians, but worried about the impact on the planet of those urban conglomerations (Calcutta 14 million people; Bombay 16 million; Delhi 11 million) having as many cars as we have.
We left India on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi but few bothered to remember it and the old Gandhians were just gathering for another talk fest; Gandhi's ideas are regarded as largely irrelevant by mainstream India.
On the other hand, his approach is still an inspiration to many younger Indians committed to social change although there has been an upsurge in "terrorism" lately with bombings and local unrest in many parts of India. The Naxalites (Communist Party Marxist-Leninist usually referred to as Maoists by the media) are still active and caste violence still surfaces, especially in desperately poor states like Bihar.
Human rights groups are focussing on the position of women, child labour and the sex trade, but above all on empowering local communities against their exploiters. In Gujarat, the Sarvodaya movement is campaigning against the effects of inviting in multinational corporations who are seizing productive land, contaminating water supplies and causing extensive pollution. There is also resistance on the coast to proposals for constructing new ports which would destroy the livelihood of fishing communities. One of these north of Mumbai (Bombay) is being financed by the Australian P&O company. Capital comes through joint ventures with foreign companies and loans from institutions like the Asia Development Bank.
While we were there, another big action was undertaken to try and halt the Narmada Dam scheme, but although the World Bank has pulled out, a few powerful Indian interests are determined to push it through, arguing that they have already spent millions on the scheme so they can't afford to abandon it now. The courts have held up any further construction for the past three years but the authorities refuse to formally abandon the whole scheme.
There is continued opposition to further nuclear power development and large dam construction as well as widespread logging but it is not easy to oppose the vested interests involved, often backed up by goons and thugs.
Many NGOs just work in a limited urban or rural area, seeking to empower the local people. SWADHINA - a WRI affiliate - is a women's group which has worked for over eleven years in West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. They have a strong commitment to nonviolence and work particularly with women and children. Another Calcutta-based organisation, SLARTC (Socio-Legal Aid Research and Training Centre) takes up legal cases as well as expanding into AIDS education and other forms of consciousness raising and action. We visited a hostel they were building for abused children outside Calcutta, the first of its kind in West Bengal.
Many of these NGOs rely partly on overseas funding, often including child sponsorship, which left me a bit uncomfortable, given how I criticise their approach in Australia.
In Mumbai (Bombay), we stayed at the Sarvodaya Friendship Centre - right under the airport flight path - where Daniel and Hansa have hosted overseas visitors to India since 1986, interested in visiting development projects and learning more about the Sarvodaya Movement. While we were there, they were getting ready to focus on the seventeenth anniversary of their satyagraha outside the Bombay abbatoir, but while their cadres are regularly arrested they are never charged, and the slaughter goes on. Recently they published a pamphlet on the issue of cow slaughter so I got an English copy.
Daniel's son, Michael, and his wife Swati - both children of Gandhian workers - have spent the last seven years living with tribal people in Gujarat. Like many young Indians, they had chosen to work for social change rather than pursue a yuppie existence as part of the largest middle class in the world.
The tribals - 7% of the population of India - are at the bottom of the social heap, even below the dalits or what Gandhi once called the harijans (or untouchables). In the village of Mozda, reached after a rough journey by bus and ninety-five kilometres from the railway station, they had built a house big enough for visitors and made almost entirely out of local materials - split bamboo and mud. I helped Michael put tiles on the verandah roof the day we got there. Swati was working with village women in harvesting and bagging pigeon peas (to make dahl) which were then sent to urban areas where they fetched a good price because they were sorted by hand and not by machines. The profit went to the women and last year they used it to go to a woman's gathering in a nearby city, their first such trip.
As in many parts of India, the farmers could not produce enough to feed their families for a year so went off to provide temporary workers in the new factories. They also spent a couple of months in the forest gathering leaves for herbal medicines and flowers to dry and brew for alcohol.
There was a school but most children did not go to it as the teachers often didn't bother to turn up and classes finished at Year Seven. You then had to go elsewhere to high school and at the end there was no job so why bother? This was the attitude in many other places so some NGOs were trialling more relevant forms of education relying on local teachers.
Michael and Swati worked with local people making hand-painted cards which can be sent overseas and sold for A$1 each so if you are interested, let me know. While they get a lot of visitors, no-one else has been willing to come and live with them. They get around on Michael's old motor bike and we had a bumpy ride one morning going to the nearest post office where Michael can make his weekly email connection ! There is electricity in the village - and four television sets - but hardly anyone can afford it. Water comes from a well but most of the washing and laundry is done in the river. The doctor refuses to come there. Like most doctors he prefers to stay in the towns where he can enjoy the comforts of urban life and make more money.
Throughout India and Nepal, child labour was a contentious issue, as boycotts - such as the one on carpets - were quite successful but it didn't mean that the children went to school instead. The family still relied on what they could earn so frequently it meant the children ended up begging and the girls turned to the sex trade. Adults could not take over the jobs that children did so that didn't work either. Many activists argued that the issue was the need to improve the conditions that the children worked in, as well as giving them the chance of education, but it remains a very divisive issue.
I came back still pondering how I could best respond to support the work being undertaken in India and Nepal, knowing there is no short cut and there are no easy answers. I feel further strengthened in my commitment to examine my own standards of material consumption but at an organisational level, apart from continuing to support groups like Community Aid Abroad and International Women's Development Action, I am still feeling very unsure about how to be most effective. While I can work on social equity and justice issues most effectively in my own country, I don't want to lose sight of the global perspective even if I don't meet many people that interested in overseas issues.
Peter D. Jones