( By Editor : Carol Huss )

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The Role of Voluntary Agencies In Bringing Social Change

Non Government Organization (NGO) Categories

Broadly speaking, most voluntary groups--in all, they must run into thousands--especially those working in rural areas, can be divided into four major groups : (`1) charity and relief groups, (2) evelopment groups, (3) action groups--some more openly political thn others--and (4) support groups--lawyers’ collectives, alternative professional associations, groups publishing journals, documenation centres, theatre groups. Charity and relief organisations have been forced to ask themselves whether charity can deal with social problems, and this internal questioning is pushing them towards long-term development activity, like Oxfam on a global sclae and the Ramakrishna Mission on the national level.

Development groups, in turn, are being pushed towards action-oriented work. They often begin by taking up programmes to help the poor increase their social status, incomes and self -reliance in basic needs like energy food, shelter, clothing and health services. In many cases, these groups supplement official efforts for developmnt. Often they consist of middle class professionals who have opted of lucrative careers to undertake rural development wok.

But no matter how committed or innovative they may be, they face serious limitations. Most of them are small and operate in restricted areas. While this facilititates flexibility and a deeper knowledge of the locl area and people, it also limits the range and type of activity. Moreover, local big-wigs, bureaucrats and politicians often frustrate attempts at honest work. Local vested interest become hostile as they sense that the organisation will no longer " toe the line". The more politicised of the group members see their activity as futile and become cynical and disheartened or leave for a more explicitly political group, or continue ineffectually where they are. The ‘technicists’ too, loose out in the process, and very often return to more conventional jobs. This loss of cadre finihes off most organisations. Some make fervent attempts to replace the external middle class professionals, with local cadres. But such cadres fail to attract funds from external sources to continue the programme, and programmes of this sort, with salaried personnel can rarelybe funded out of local resources.

Action groups are part of a wider movement in search of new forms of social and political action through which the masses of the people would move from the periphery to the centre of development and politivcal processes. An awakening to the reality of massive pauperisation and systamatic violation of human rights, in the midst of growing affluence of a minority, has taken hold of a sizeable section of the educational elite.

Belonging to different age-groups, they refuse to be part of and supportivce of exploitative structures, institutions, and social systems. It is significant that social scientists have increasingly felt that need to associate themselves with action groups. There are widespread initiatives on the part of scientists to make scientific knowledge accessible to the masses. The concern for legal education and legal support in favour of the most exploited sections of soceity is spreading, and is found even in the top judicial insitutions. These and many other attempts point to a need of linkages with youth involved among the poor, enabling them to gain organisational strength and political weight.

Voluntary Action

The number of voluntary groups in India actively interested or involved in environmental issues today is larger than in any other Third World Country and probably matches the numbers found in Western Countries, where the enviornmental movement had its beginnings. Except for certain conservation-oriented groups and groups interested in protecting the urban environment, it would probably be accurate to say that most groups in India cannot strictly be called environmental groups in the Western sense. This is particularly true of grassroots voluntary groups in rural areas, whose existence and number lends a distinct character to the voluntary movement. Most rural grassroots groups have begun to take up environmenal issues in addition to their long standing concerns for rural and urban poverty,social justice, inequality, civil liberties, rural development, appropriate technology and health. Their perspective embraces not merely an understanding of the human impact on nature, but sees this impact as arising out of the complex web of social and political relationships between human beings : what human beings : what humans do to nature is essentially born out of what humans do to each other.

Harsh Sethi says in an article published in Economic and Political Weekly that this increase in interest in micro-organisations has grown out of the failure of the established micro-organisations political parties, kisan sabhas, trade unions and the government to do anything about growing proverty, inequality, landlessness, unemployment and centralisation of power, and to bring about positive development and participative trends within society. On the other hand, the voluntary agencies often concentrate on these problems; they are where the action is, from remote villages to urban slums, dealing with local problems, with local populations. These organisations are definitely non-political in the sense that they do not participate in electral processes. But most such groups do have a political perspective of the society and its growth, which is sometimes clearly articulated, but more often not.

Catalysts of a People’s Movement

Social action groups have by now become a widespread phenomenon that can no longer be taken for granted let alone overlooked. They have over the past one and a half decades taken deep roots in the social structure of rural India. That they have made some impact even on the political structure is clear from the controversies raised about them in the leftist party circles. Because of this impact, even the government has directed that voluntary agencies be involved in the implementation of anti-poverty and minimum needs programmes. Fundamentally, the primary function of action groups is to activate a people’s movement not in any way dissimilar to the one that Mahatma Gnadhi was instrumentalin mobilizing. Their role primarily is to be catalysts in this movement. What is important is that the action groups have a revolutionary impact in the sense that they are more likely to bring about the necessary structural changes in the present socio-political system and bring about significant changes in the attitudes, values and life-style of the larger society. Short of this wider perspective, these changes cannot have repercussions of a revolutionary nature. This can be done only by mobilising the masses to a much greater extent than has hitherto been done. As most writers in this work say, the emergence and the ongoing activity of action groups presuppose the following: (1) a disbelief in the larger as well as the local political structures (not because they are instrinsically incapacitating and inefficient but rather because they are existentially inoperative and empirically dysfunctional); (2) a belief in micro-level action and (3) a belief in people’s power.


To enable the achievement of this prime objective of a peole’s movement, a three-pronged approach in strategy is called for comprising three levels of achievement of powever, viz. political, economic and social. These three areas form a composite whole of the entire fabric of social equality. People posses political power when the decision-making power is vested in their hands. Similarly, economic power accrues from economic indepemndence-- a state that the small farmer and the daily wage labourers achieve when they no longer rely on the landlords as such for their daily substenance but are able to earn their daily bread from the produce of the land, livestock and wage labour.

Lastly, social power flows from breaking down social barriers that result from such social institutions as the caste system, bonded labour, sex discrimination, etc. All these three "powers" are essential for building up a just society. The one without the other is meaningless. Nor can they be chronologically subordinated, one to the other. Strugle for the three powers should go hand in hand. Although distinct, they are interrelatd and inseparable.

As catalysts of a people’s movement social activities have an important leadership role to play. It is essentially a role of compassionate service. A social activist is neither a philanthropist nor a spiritualist or economist or capitalist, but an activist whose actions will revolutionise the minds of society to establish new social values and order to lead a harmonious, peaceful, active life of joy and happines for the masses, the common people at large. He is to act as a strong medium to make the common people aware of their own rights and duties and to prepare them for a joyful disciplined living full of light and lustre. He is to act as a check on the social and administrative evils and socio-economic exploitationof the common masses either by the vested interests or by the administration.

Development Work

Voluntary agencies have made significant contributions in working with neglected sections of the population and neglected issues, in responding to problems faced by local populations in local situations, and in developing new and democratic methods of operation. The latter contribution is probably the most important. These groups have shown the way towards experimentation with alternate ways of doing things like organising cheap and people-oriented health services. The successes of groups working in the field of health care, appropriate technology, water management and afforestation have forced professionals in these fields to debate their own approaches and solutions. The Medico Friends Circle, a coalition of highly innovative groups, working in the field of health care, has tried to generate a major debate within the medical profession. In the fieldof environment, the afforestation work of the Chipko movement is today noted at all levels of government.

But even though the innovative work of voluntary agencies gets widelynoticed, the ensuing debate has not usually led to any major change in the ways of the government or of the majority of the professionals. The WHO, for instance picked up the concept of primary health care from the work of some excellent grass-roots health groups, but its programmes modelled on the concept of primary health care, remain riddled with inefficiency, contraditions, and inadequacies.

In interviewing a student of a social work college after her return from a camp in Ahmednagar District, she had the following report regarding NGO’s and government work in the villages. Through the Centre For Studies in Rural Devcelopment (CSRD), the students visited different activities. A slide show of the rehabilitation of nomadic tribes seemed to be a success. However, when the students visited the area, they found a very different situation. The headman had a very good house, the others had houses but only for namesake. The place was so interior that no one could live there, there was no water supply (although taps were installed). The land is barren and rocky so nothing can be cultivated. They were given animals such as buffaloes and goats under government scheme,but lack of grazing land made it a failure. The government has forbidden them to make charcoal--their old employment, and now people are forced to travel long distances for daily wage work. This entire project has worsened the conditions of the nomads, many of whom have migrated elsewhere in search of work.

In village Daula Vadgaon, the students did a survey on the impact of TV (given by government) on the villagers. The people said their need was for food, shelter, water and work. One village lady took the hand of the student and said : "This kind of hand (soft and unscarred) is for viewing TV in places like Bombay. See my hand (dried, wrinkled, cracked from work)---we need food not TV. We do not want gifts. Give us a loan so we can start some business."

In Chamba Nimgaon they surveyed the impact of bank facilities on the villagers’ life. The students found that those who benefitted were in the upper echelons of society--the poor were not benefitted. In one joint family, four members availed of loans for land, a well, pumpset, and sugar cane cultivation. So while the purpose of the bank loans is to help the poor, only the higher levels of society are benefitting.

The highlight of their camp was a visit to RalegaonShinde. Here they saw the benefit of people’s participation in meeting their real needs. This project was started twelve years ago by an ex-army man whom everyone calls Baba. He is a modern Gandhi. A picture of Gandhi is given a place of honour in a prominent place. He made this model village as an example for the country. He sees it as the beginning of his work, not the end.

What struck the students was the collective leadership and people’s participation. Baba said that fifteen years ago the area was supporting 40 liquor shops. Today there is not one. What he spokes to the students, they found in reality. This village has utilized government facilities, but by their own planning. For example they have solar water heaters, solar lighting, gobar and biogas plants for cooking, windmills to pump water, common wells for every fifteen families, solar TV, and smokeless chulas. These facilities are for all , not just a privileged few. The village has solved the dowry problem by having common marriage ceremonies. The temple where the marriages take place was built by Baba’s own money. When he retired, he got Rs.20,000 and invested it all in building this temple. The temple welcomes all people irrespective of caste. The people themselves wishing to share their wealth with others have put up a hostel to benefit students from neighbouring villages. Baba said the government programmes are like milestones showing the way, but they never reach their destiny.

The students also saw the church efforts at development--mainly geared to handouts,food-for-work, grants and all the resulting problems of this approach.

At the end of the campthey visited Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth, Rahuri. They have 800 acres of land in a research project. The impact of this agricultural college on the villagesaround has been studied by CSRD and found to be deterimental because of the following :

  • High cost techonology makes it out of the reach of the ordinary farmers.
  • Use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers is causing an imbalance in nature.
  • Use of hybrid seeds require pesticides and chemical fertilizers (spraying by helicopters) which are too costly and wipes out locally productrive varities of seeds.

In conclusion, the students saw clearly the need of government to meet people’s needs, not imposing their own programmes.

Having established that there is much to do if we are to bring peace and jusice to our world, and also seeing the role voluntary agencies can play, let us move on to the way in which this can be done. We can see throughout history, and especially today that violence breeds more violence, so we turn to nonviolent action (NVA) as the only means to achieve our goal--of Utopia. It is in NVA that the deepest roots of Spirituality give birth, to hope that we can and will experience a world where people live in love. Again it is a returning to our roots, to relearn the message of the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, who taught the world a lesson--that today NVA does work.

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