Micro Politics of Voluntary Action: An Anatomy of Change in Two Villages


The record of development and democracy in the Indian context presents some paradoxes. Rather than empowering the poor over time, these forces have enfeebled the poor relative to other social groups in society. In particular the process of development and poverty alleviation has shifted the balance of power in favor of development functionaries vis-à-vis the poor, while democracy has attenuated the extent of social cohesion amongst the rural poor.

This paper attempts to describe the efforts of an NGO to countervail the debilitating aspects of development and democracy. It also looks at some inner contradictions in voluntary action intended to empower th rural poor.

The context of the work described in this essay is the people living in the hilly tracts of Aravalli range in the Southern part of the State of Rajasthan in the North Western part of India. The area is mostly inhabited by poor tribal peasants, but people of other low and high caste denominations also live in the sparsely populated villages of this region. The Politics of Control and Co-optation

In the past independence period the Indian State took responsibility for enhancing the well-being of rural communities. Over time a large establishment was created to service the health and schooling needs of communities living in rural areas. As a consequence of public pressure, substantial resources were also allocated, to alleviate poverty and bring about rural development. At the political level, the institution of Panchayati Raj or village-level democracy was created to give villagers a say in governance and a forum for self-governance and control over the bureaucracy.

Despite significant allocation of resources and the creation of institutions for self-governance, these interventions have not succeeded in either empowering the poor or enhancing their well-being. If any thing, they have strengthened the ability of more powerful and more affluent segments of society to control and co-opt the poor to serve their interests.

Before independence, this area was ecologically rich and well endowed with forests. While the feudal system was far from just, the rural people benefited from access to a well preserved environment. In the post independence period these resources have been ruthlessly commercialized and over exploited. The development of an organized industrial sector did not benefit the rural poor significantly because they lacked the social and economic means to take advantage of the opportunities that were being created as a result of national economic growth.

Rather than compensate the rural poor for destroying the source of their livelihoods, the State continued with the colonial/feudal policy of a custodial approach to forest and land management. Villagers were denied access and secure entitlements to large tracts of forest lands and revenue lands vested in the State. Instead, land vested in the State was degraded by over-use and illicitly privatized at the instance of State functionaries and with the support of elected public representatives. This pattern of land tenure and management proved acceptable to villagers who benefited, and to the authorities, but it had the perverse consequence of making the rural people obligated to State officials and politicians.

Apart from being obliged, and therefore disempowered, these arrangements also had an adverse effect on land productivity. Moreover, inter-village and intra-village conflicts emerged when the process of privatization happened to override the claims of traditional user groups. Since people gained access to resources through patron-client relations and collusive politics, the poor were unable to claim entitlements to public resources in ways that would benefit them.

The overall development process was to generate similar outcomes because of the selective and arbitrary provision of state subsidies, bank credits, development projects etc. to favored village groups or individuals. This not only gave officials immense power over the poor but made it necessary for the poor to seek powerful patrons at the expense of forging ties of solidarity amongst themselves.

The overall effect, then, was to reduce the ties of horizontal solidarity among rural people and reinforce vertical ties of dependency with powerful patrons and power brokers. Rather than expanding entitlements to public goods, development and democracy were successful in making people dependent on external patrons, whose stake in enhancing the well-being of the poor was anything but positive. The Politics of Cooperation

Seva Mandir is a local NGO based in the city of Udaipur. It was started a little over 25 years ago with the aim of strengthening the poor to help themselves and to provide a forum for citizens to take greater responsibility in redressing injustices in society. From a small beginning Seva Mandir has grown in size. At present it employs 200 full-time members and has an annual budget of one million dollars. Its central thrust is to promote cooperation among village people as a means to empowering them and helping them become self-reliant.

In this section the experience of two villages out of the 400 in the Seva Mandir area of engagement are described. The experience of the two village clusters are exceptional in terms of the degree to which people have been able to cooperate and to gain distinct political authority. The purpose of choosing these villages is to suggest that the principles underlying the transformation of these villages, have similar potentialities for the region as a whole. The Story of Nayakheda Village

Nyakheda is a hamlet (comprising about 30 households) of the revenue village of Usan, some 30 km north of Udaipur. It is part of a multi-caste village consisting mostly of poor peasants and a small minority of landlords.

Seva Mandir had been working in this area for over two decades. In the 1970s Seva Mandir had done work to promote adult education, and agricultural extension work. Towards the end of the decade it had tried to help villagers form groups to negotiate their entitlements from the State. Alas, the expectations from group formation and awareness-raising work were not realized. The failure of the groups to influence government systems and officials led Seva Mandir in the mid `80s to focus on creating capacity among local people, and also within Seva Mandir to service some of the development needs of the people. The choice of programs to be supported was weighed in favor of cooperative efforts. Despite having created this capacity, no headway on development could be made in Nayakheda due to the nature of local politics. The nexus between the local landlord, officials, and elected village council representatives was so powerful and self - serving that they refused space to the poor to undertake development activities with the help of Seva Mandir.

Not only was the local landlord and his coterie resistant to the idea of people's lands being improved, but with the connivance of the police and revenue officials he had occupied a substantial part of the village pasture lands for mining purposes. Another segment of the village commons was monopolized by other powerful people in the village, thereby leaving no stake for the ordinary villager to benefit from or invest in the improvement of these lands. This stand-off in terms of development was to end with a bizarre incident in 1990; the landlord and his two sons were sent to jail for the suspected murder of eleven people belonging to the family of a political and economic competitor. He remained in jail for three years before being released by the high court. It was during his absence that the people were able to organize themselves and take advantage of the support that was being offered by Seva Mandir. They were familiar with the ideas of working as a group and the advantages of being transparent in their dealings with each other and with Seva Mandir. From a situation of few development successes, much was achieved.

The people were able to recover the unurped common lands, though it meant spending a lot of money in courts to disprove the claim made by the landlord's family that the land was legally theirs. The success of these developments created the social climate for projects addressed to the entire watershed of the area. There was palpable enthusiasm on the part of the villagers for these works because they felt that they were fully involved in the planning, execution, and final benefit sharing of the development programs. Even though the remuneration for land development works supported by Seva Mandir was lower compared to what government was offering through a World Bank funded project, people were drawn to these works because they felt they had control over the process of development and that Seva Mandir was accountable and accessible to them on an on-going basis. This mobilization for comprehensive land development involved the entire multicaste population of seven hamlets consisting of 150 households, including that of Nayakheda. By recovering from the landlord the village commons and by successfully challenging the unfair use of common property resources by other powerful people, a stake had been created among the people to collectively improve productivity of their resource base. Initially, the coming together of people was in relationship to the development works supported by Seva Mandir but subsequently this solidarity developed a life of its own. This became manifest at the time of village council elections and then continuously in their daily struggles against the landlord's desperate efforts to regain control on his return from jail in 1994.

In the early part of 1995, election to the village councils was held under the new constitutional amendment, where affirmative action in favor of women and members of the tribal and other disadvantaged groups was introduced for the first time. In Nayakheda, Shiv Lal, a tribal person associated with Seva Mandir for many years as a forestry extension worker, stood for the office of Sarpanch (village council head). Since he was highly respected and popular with the people because of his work in watershed and land development, offers were made to him by the mainstream parties to stand as their candidate. In response, village group members persuaded Shiv Lal to stand as an independent candidate, unattached to any political party.

For the campaign Shiv Lal had no funds. The task of matching the Congress party/landlord candidate appeared to be daunting. It is alleged that the Congress party candidate spent close to $1000 plying voters with gifts and liquor. Among the Congress party candidate's active campaigners was the local government agricultural supervisor.

Such partisan behavior by officials, while forbidden by the service conduct rules, is not uncommon in practice. The group members assured Shiv Lal that they needed no funds to persuade people about who to vote for. They did spend $60 hiring transport and buying apples to popularize their election symbol. This money came from voluntary contributions. After the polling was over and the votes had been tallied, it was clear that Shiv Lal had won with a large majority. An attempt was made to manipulate the results in favor of the Congress/landlord nominee, but the supporters of Shiv Lal were able to thwart these efforts with a display of public strength at the voting center.

Gaining political office has made life difficult for the leaders of the movement and also for the Seva Mandir field worker in personal terms. They are continuously threatened and harassed. At another level there has been a marked change in the power relations in the area. Some of the close allies of the landlord switched allegiance to Shiv Lal's camp and prevented the landlord from becoming deputy head of the village council. There is also growing support for a people - based approach to development on the part of the neighboring village people. Villagers from distant villages regularly attend the Nayakheda Seva Mandir meetings. Whether the politics of cooperation will survive and grow into a widespread movement is difficult to predict. The odds are stacked against them. What is clear, however, is that by having gained control of a Panchayat, they have entered a new phase in terms of their political standing and power base. The Story of Shyampura Village

The experience of another village called Shyampura (consisting of 100 households), located 70 km southwest of Udaipur city, echoes the Nayakheda experience of the power of people coming together. But it also shows how constraints to development lie not only in dealing with powerful vested interests, but with overcoming constraints internal to the community. These are insecure land tenure, lack of cohesion, and a leadership able to build consensus among people to promote their common interest.

Seva Mandir started working in Shyampura in 1982 with a program to promote adult literacy among the poor peasants. Later on, Seva Mandir encouraged villagers to form groups as a means to lobby for entitlements from the state. A component of the group building program was to encourage people to take more responsibility for trying to solve their internal problems. In the mid 1980s, Seva Mandir expanded its role to help villagers service their individual and collective development needs.

The lack of adequate response from the State, despite repeated efforts by the groups to claim their attention, made Seva Mandir realize that people would lose faith in themselves and the value of coming together if they did not experience some positive outcomes. With this thinking, Seva Mandir developed a major program to enable villagers to afforest their degraded private and common lands, and also developed capacity to build dams to store water, which was very scarce in the area. In 1987-88, Seva Mandir built a substantial water reservoir in Shyampura village. The village people had been promised this structure by the district magistrate in 1985 but nothing had happened. The successful completion of the dam created good will for and confidence in Seva Mandir among the people. It also greatly enhanced the prestige and power of the village group of Shyampura and their leaders who had lobbied for this project for a long time.

The watershed of this reservoir was highly degraded on one flank. Because it belonged to the forest department, it was not possible for the people to treat the land even though they realized the need to do so to prevent the siltation of the reservoir. The Forest Act proscribed such public actions. While officially the land could not be developed by people, individual farmers were able to use the lands for their private benefit with the informal consent of forestry officials. The most active and influential members of the Shyampura village group were precisely those responsible for encroaching on the reservoir's watershed. This fact effectively undermined the ability of the group to collectively put pressure on the forest department to treat the lands since their leaders stood to lose their access. These kinds of internal contradictions are symptomatic of the social context and thwart public action for entitlements of sustained benefit to a broad range of people. Instead, factions based on lineage, caste, and hamlet affiliations consume the social energies of the people.

In 1991 there was a change in forest policy by the state. For the first time in 100 years of forest policy, local communities were given the right to protect forest land and in return also to share in the benefits generated from the land. This Joint Forest Management policy gave the Shyampura community a chance to develop the watershed with the permission of the forest department. After elaborate preparations, the contract to improve 50 ha. of the watershed was signed between the forest department and an elected committee representing the community. The leaders of the group who stood to lose access to their encroached lands in the watershed were persuaded to agree to this venture with the promise that Seva Mandir would build them a lift irrigation system downstream to compensate them for the loss of their access to forest lands. The decision to convert forest land into a joint property of the village was initially not appreciated by all the villagers; for some it meant that the option to privatize the land was foreclosed. In fact people from the neighboring village of Amila immediately started to make their own encroachments when they heard about the JFM contract being signed. Through protracted efforts on the part of Seva Mandir and the Shyampura group to resolve conflicts and doubts amongst the potential stake holders, the project made headway. The prestige gained by Seva Mandir and the local group in building the dam played an important role in getting the people to agree to this project.

These developments set the stage for a political transformation in the area, similar in some respects to that in Nayakheda. Prior to the village council election of 1995, the BJP, an important political party at the state and national level, approached Nathu Lal, one of the leaders of the Shyampura group to become their nominee for the post of the village council head. Nathu had stood twice for the post of village head in the past and had lost. Knowing that Nathu had good standing in the area on account of all the work that he had helped catalyze there, BJP saw him as a winning candidate. Nathu agreed to be their nominee. While being confident of getting votes from rural people, he was not confident of getting the votes of the urban people in the constituency. It was because of this that he also needed the BJP.

Nathu won the election by defeating for the first time in five decades the Congress candidate of the area. From all accounts, the victory of Nathu is connected to his being perceived by the people as being capable of engendering broad based cooperation as a means to bringing about development in the area. Now that Nathu holds elected office and commands authority, his rural supporters will expect him to facilitate the development of common property resources, things that they have experienced positively. They would also expect him to continue to be honest and transparent, and use his authority to direct government functionaries to be more accountable to the people.

As part of the power structure and as part of the BJP, there will be pressures on him to conform to expectations of people in authority. What will be interesting to see is whether the politics of cooperation are re-inforced as a result of Nathu having gained public office, or whether he will be marginalized or co-opted by the power structure.

There is evidence of growing interest in cooperation on the part of people and a disenchantment with the patronage mode of seeking individual benefits. This trend seems to also invite a reciprocal interest on the part of leaders like Nathu to reinforce cohesion and community based approaches to development. In April of 1995, after the Panchayat elections, people of four villages in this area came together to declare as sacred about 700 ha. of forest land. They did this to protect these lands from being encroached and from being over-exploited.

The commitment of the more powerful in the community promoting solidarity was made tangible after the elections when Nathu and some 27 members of his clan agreed to make an annual contribution to the village fund. The donation would come from the additional earnings they were going to get from the operationalizing of the lift irrigation scheme downstream of the water reservoir. The commitment to build a lift irrigation scheme had caused resentment among people of a neighboring hamlet because they had felt left out. This gesture to contribute to the fund is a gesture to make amends and to cement ties of solidarity. These events at a micro level, while small in scale of operation, suggest that it is possible to challenge the politics of control and that ingredients of doing so can be identified. The Politics of NGO Sector Interventions

The ability of people to develop a stake in cooperation has been critically dependent on the interventions of Seva Mandir. Mainstream structures of development are not yet geared to provide people a stake in coming together and to help them service their own development needs. For an NGO the size of Seva Mandir, there are strong internal contradictions in respect to the agenda of empowering the poor. The experience of Seva Mandir over two decades shows a tendency for staff members to form small groups to serve their narrow interest at the expense of the poor people they are supposed to serve, and counter to institutional norms.

The fact that people working at "the grassroots", with modest levels of remuneration, lost heart in the difficult enterprise of people's empowerment is to be expected. Before they can share power and authority with the poor, they need to be made to feel worthwhile themselves. This is something that larger society does not prepare people for. They are undermined in their self-confidence when they can't get jobs commensurate with their expectations and social needs. Most people who work in the field are people of this background. It is only slowly that they discover value of their own skills and ideas and develop self-esteem in doing development work. The psychological and cultural need for them to exercise power and patronage is as strong as it is with people of similar backgrounds in government.

Changing this orientation takes time, meanwhile it becomes important to ensure that there are strong systems of power sharing with and accountability to the poor.

In the case of Seva Mandir, one experiment that has shown some promise is establishing a cadre of village-based professionals, trained to serve the needs of the community. These people are remunerated and provided a long-term stake in serving the community. They are also supposed to be accountable to the village group, though in practice this happens only once the group becomes strong and experiences the value of coming together and exercising control over their representatives. The village paraworkers, as they are called, grow into leadership roles and develop the confidence to hold the institution to some extent accountable. Not to have secure and well informed people among the poor is to centralize leadership roles outside the community of the poor. The newly elected public representatives in Nayakheda and Shyampura are both paraworkers - Shiv Lal in forestry and Nathu in literacy. 700 such trained villagers exist in Seva Mandir's area of operation. One of the most critical factors in the process of change is that of leadership. The fact of having provided some exposure and financial security to village people has allowed some of them with leadership skills to remain closely associated with development works that serve the interests of the poor.

At the level of Seva Mandir as an organization, there is effort to disperse authority and create multiple centers of initiative. All the operational units of Seva Mandir such as forestry, women's work, health, and literacy are required to develop direct links with the rural people and create an organizational structure at the village level for villagers to service their own development needs. This system, besides making villages self-reliant in skills, also encourages multiple points of contact between the village people and the organization, thereby fostering greater flow of information both ways.

The need for transparency in relations between the NGO and villagers, and within the NGO is critical, but extremely difficult to achieve. The fact that we have elaborate financial procedures, hierarchy in management levels and multiple centers of initiative make it easier to have an alibi for something not being done. Taking issues like openness and transparency seriously, and encouraging initiative at all levels does incrementally encourage staff to internalize these values and react when these values are violated.

The experiences of Nayakheda and Shyampura suggest that NGOs have a role to play in empowering people. NGOs doing development as a means of engendering social cohesion can go a long way in enabling people to gain political authority. While development and democracy on their own in India have not served the interests of the poor, they do provide space where power can be contested and these very forces turned to the advantage of the poor. Institutions of civil society like Seva Mandir have a role to play in changing the circumstances of the poor, specially looking to the fact that the poor themselves can, with a little bit of support, become the custodians of their own interests. The challenge before NGOs is to overcome their internal contradictions and keep pace with people at the grassroots who are able to show the way to empowerment, provided others in society are willing to contribute. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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