Letters from India No 16

´Letters from India´ is a fortnightly brief written by Finnish exchange activists participating in the Lokayan - Kepa co-operation programme. The ´Letters´ are circulated primarily among the staff of the organisations and members of the groups responsible for the joint activities, ie. Lokayan´s Global Responsibility Forum – Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam and Kepa´s India Group.
Susanne Ådahl


DELHI -- On a cold and dark January morning Rajendra Ravi and I left for the railway station in Old Delhi to catch the early morning train to Calcutta. The streets were still deserted, stray dogs running aimlessly in search of breakfast. We had called several times to check if the train was leaving on time - fog in the winter causes delays in departures.

During the trip we spoke for hours about work, politics and future aspirations for the cooperation. Our cabin mates were travelling business men who lamented the fact that there is so much corruption in the business world in Calcutta. We also spoke about the Kumbh Mela that we passed on our way westward. A special issue of the weekly magazine Outlook featured pictures of a nude mud-covered Mexican woman taking a dip in the Ganges. A structural engineer gave his view on why it is inappropriate for westerners to imitate 'sadhuhood' and also provided advice on how he felt the improved model of rickshaw needed to be improved (we had shown him a pamphlet on the Tri Chakra Project).

We spent 4.days in Calcutta before taking a bus to the Benapole border crossing and from there we continued to Dhaka, whizzing past blazing green paddy fields. In the evening of February 3, on the same day as a mass meeting of civil society, we left Dhaka, narrowly escaping a delay in our departure because of the day long hartal (political strike) called by Islamic fundamentalist groups.

Theme: The story of Shawkat Ali, rickshaw puller in Calcutta

On Dilkusha Street, right next to where we were living in Calcutta, is Shawkat Ali's rickshaw stand. Every morning he waits there for customers, seated on his hand pulled rickshaw. In the Park street sector of Calcutta rickshaw plying is still permitted, so Shawkat can still support his family, four daughters and a wife, in Samastipur village, Bihar.

Since 1979 Shawkat has been a seasonal labourer. He spends 2-3 months pulling a rickshaw and returns to his village for 1-2 months to harvest paddy and wheat cultivated on the small plot of land he owns in the village. He is a typical subsistence farmer whose labour input keeps his family in rice and wheat for some months of the year.

Shawkat first tried selling salty snacks outside a school in Calcutta, but was not permitted by the other vendors to enter their territory. He tried for long to get a good job and did, for some time, work in a hotel (local restaurant) for a salary of 2 Rs. a day and food.

Through a village contact he was introduced to a rickshaw owner. Shawkat's friend provided him with a guarantee which made it possible for him start working as a puller. He rents his rickshaw on a 24 hourly basis working from 6 am to 10 pm with a break in the afternoon to eat and rest. For this he pays the owner 20 Rs. per day. His minimum charge is 5 Rs.. About 5 years ago, when the fees were smaller he had more passengers, but due to rising costs in consumer goods, pullers have been forced to increase their rates.

In Calcutta he lives with two other pullers in the stairwell of a house on Dilkusha Street. Sawkat thinks that the owner and the residents are good people because they let them reside there in peace. The provision of free housing makes it possible for the pullers to send more money to their families in the village. They carry all their earnings while pulling and when they have collected a larger sum of money they deposit it for safe keeping with a local shop keeper until it can be sent with a relative or neighbour to the village.

When asked if he would be interested in trying out an improved model of rickshaw, Shawkat says he would not want to switch to the cycle model because it is heavier than the hand pulled one. He did try out an old model of cycle rickshaw in Delhi for ten days, but when he heard that the government was going to ban all cycle rickshaws, that foreign countries were providing the government with money so they would impose the ban, he thought it best to stick to his old job and his old model of rickshaw. In Calcutta he believes the unions will influence the local government not to impose the ban. Shawkat feels that the local government should work to improve working conditions for poor people rather than robbing them of their possibility to earn a living.

Shawkat used to be a union member, but his union has been dismantled. A main issue of concern to pullers in Calcutta is the issuing of licenses. The local government has issued 6 500 licenses, but rickshaw owners are flooding the streets with illegal rickshaws. When the decision to ban all rickshaws in Calcutta was presented the union demanded that the local government should either give pullers the status of government servants or provide the union with money to rehabilitate the pullers. The government conceded to neither of the demands, but it has proceeded to remove illegal rickshaws from traffic. Pullers bear the brunt of this compromise between the local government and the unions. The government previously had facilities to renew licenses, but now they stick to the rules very strictly. When pullers do not arrive on the stipulated day to renew their license it is cancelled.

Rickshaws are an essential element in the traffic system because they can provide transport to people in emergency situations. Many doctors have pleaded that rickshaws not be banned because they provide transportation to people who do not have access to cars. During the monsoon season, when many streets are flooded in Calcutta, rickshaws are the only means of transport.

Shawkat's dream for the future is to have a job that provides him with a regular income. On a philosophical note he adds that "a man can have several dreams, but only God decides what happens in life."

Theme: Making poverty a business - development and foreign funding in Bangladesh

Bangladeshi society is in a state of flux, charging ahead in the mad race to catch up with modernity. One visible sign of it is the state of the roads in the city. Dhanmondi, a middle class residential area in Dhaka, has in the course of four years turned into a mad house of traffic jams and rampant construction. Private English medium schools are found on every street corner catering to the small, but steadily growing elite classes who have invested millions in appartments in housing complexes namned Grand View, Paradise, Utopia or Delight Residence. Shopping centres and air-conditioned luxury corner shops line the streets.

Gaps between those making mega bucks and those left to eek out a deprived existence at the bottom of the societal pyramid are widening. Criminality is on the increase. The label of modernity consists of all the most destructive symbols of the western lifestyle - fancy cars, high rise buildings, fast food and trips abroad. Those who have made it in the fast lane are exporting themselves to the UK, US and Canada. Belief in life being better in the large liberal economies of the world is the driving force for most who can afford to leave. But, maybe more importantly, it is a lack of belief in a future in Bangladesh that makes people submit their immigration papers. The city swells uncontrolled and the competition for scarce resources, on all levels, hardens.

It is in this environment that we find the world's largest NGOs and an economy largely dependent on foreign aid. According to the Director of the Coalition for the Urban Poor (CUP), 60-70% of the national budget consists of foreign funding. Seventy percent of this money is spent on development initiatives implemented bi-laterally with the remaining 30% going to the NGO sector. Money has always been available in development and, thus, it has been seen as a source of income. The impression we got from general discussions with NGO representatives is that in the context of Bangladesh NGO work is equated with social work, not voluntarism in the ideological sense.

During my brief stay in Bangladesh there were repeated comments about the power of NGOs in Bangladesh. Services provided by the some 20 000 NGOs, employing around 100-120 000 cover a small percentage of the total population of 150 million inhabitants, but, nonetheless, they have political clout and are viewed as political actors by the establishment. CPI leader Manzurul Ahsan Khan finds that NGOs represent another face of the free market forces, who, under the guise of political neutrality take an increasingly more political role in Bangladesh. Hopes to enter more firmly into the political limelight have been fulfilled especially under the Awami League leadership. NGO workers supported the Awami League in the last elections, many maybe remembering, or hoping the party was still truly representing the secular, democratic and multi-cultural values that were Sheik Mujibur Rahman's trademark in his mobilisation of the Bangladeshi people against the Pakistani rule. Now the NGO sectors are gradually turning their backs on Sheik Hasina. At present, leaders of the mega NGOs are becoming business moguls and 'wanna-be-politicians'. There are even rumors that a major NGO leader is aiming for an MP's position.

Where did these mega NGO sagas begin? The first Bangladeshi NGOs were established as a result of relief work initiated after the liberation war in the early 70's. The Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Reconstruction Service (RDRS), one of the oldest NGOs in the country, was involved in relief work. Proshika, ranking second in size after BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), now employing around 30 000, was established by a Canadian CUSO worker. Also Zafrullah Chowdhary, director of Gono Shastho Kendra (GK) started out in relief work. The focus on rehabilitation and re-construction work remained at the fore throughout the 70's.

A former Proshika worker tells me that many of these founding fathers of 'NGOism' were freedom fighters wanting a counter-revolution. Their revolutionary zeal was based on the ideals of Mujibur Rahman and they believed in the power of mobilisation. Several NGOs were initially born out of movements, but what started out with voluntarism today bears the label of professionalism, institutionalisation and a steady move into the corporate sector.

NGOs are being co-opted into the world of the liberal market forces under the guise of financial sustainability. They are now into sectors as diverse as telecommunications, real estate, transportation, and cold storage. NGOs are turning into foundations, trusts and pvt. limited organisations, clearly underscoring a corporate profile. So called poverty alleviation is a good sales trick. Also foreign donors have failed to push for a political dialogue on how market liberalisation is destroying income generating sectors supported by donor money throughout the 90's. The truth of the matters remains that neither donors nor the government can put up a stand against the market forces. One concrete example can be found in the fisheries sector. Massive amounts of money have been spent on developing small scale fisheries, but with the removal of import restrictions the market is being flooded with cheap, imported, frozen fish. Eventually, small scale entrepreneurs, originally supported by development initiatives, will be wiped out.

Can NGOs influence government policy? Nadira Malik, Programme Coordinator of the South-Asia Partnership-Bangladesh, outlines that in the 80's and 90's development work was carried out in isolation from social and political developments in the society. Today, NGOs are building more active links to various sectors of society, including business and government sectors. They are becoming aware of the need to work on empowerment for various rights - something which cannot be carried out in isolation from the policy decisions of the government. The degree of influence NGOs have can only be evidenced if the government makes a political commitment to support truly pro-poor policies. If government does not respond, the only alternative is mobilising people to actively protest.

In light of a recent corruption scandal in the NGO world of Bangladesh, one can question the credibility of NGOs, and, by extension, their ability to mobilise the masses. One of the largest NGOs of the country has been under investigation by the NGO Affairs Bureau accused of financial fraud. Despite the sustained struggle of the 6 000 strong staff body, the organisation was closed down. Through some creative organisational maneuvers, the director managed to retain the most profitable sectors of the organisation under the control of a trust run by himself and the former executive board of the organisation. We can ask ourselves how it was possible to hide the creative accounting from the donors or did they just turn a blind eye? Maybe one answer is that 'good' NGOs are hard to come by. Donors choose to see what is comfortable rather than face the writing on the wall.

What can the example of Bangladesh tell us about the present state of development cooperation? That money alone is not the solution to poverty alleviation. If development is not rooted in local philanthropy it will remain a world apart, playing according to its own rules. Both donors and top level NGO management live worlds apart from the reality on the ground. What we are witnessing is a slow, but massive co-option into the drama of 'working for the grassroots' where the people, whose suffering projects are to alleviate, remain faceless masses. How often do we really hear their stories? How often does development by the people become a concrete reality?

There are no equal partnerships in a system based on institutions giving money and receivers channeling it down along long routes to a peasant or slum dweller in Bangladesh. Money corrupts and development without an ideological commitment becomes an empty venture. It was with a sense of strong disillusionment that I left the promised land of NGOs and an ever stronger conviction that all the locals who claim that Bangladesh would be better off without donor money are right.

So, how should we proceed from here? There are no easy answers, but I would claim that honest dialogues are a good start. There are many committed, crtically minded individuals who have a long history in the devlopment sector who are presently being integrated into the dialogue process of Vasumbhaiva Kutumbakan.

Theme: Pollution in Dhaka - lead and feeble protests

Bangladeshis themselves refer to Dhaka as a gas chamber. The city of 9 million inhabitants has been ranked as the most polluted in Asia. Exhausts from nearly 175 000 motor vehicles, including 40 000 auto rickshaws, saturate the air with 50 tonnes of lead annually. Chronic respiratory diseases are on the rise and doctors are prescribing inhalators assembly line style. An estimated 15 000 premature deaths and several million cases of sickness are thought to be caused by exposure to air pollution.

According to a report, edited by Dr. Naila Kabir of the Child Development Centre of the Childrens' hospital in Dhaka, lead concentration in the air in Dhaka is the highest in the world. It far surpasses the safe blood lead level recommended by WHO. Lead pollution causes brain damage in children manifesting itself in extremely difficult behaviourial problems and learning difficulties. Treatment of lead toxicity is both very expensive and hazardous. The most visible effects are seen in poor children whose living environment puts them at risk. They do not receive an adequate diet which cushions the effect of lead in the blood.

Although Bangladesh imports unleaded petrol, lead is added to the petrol as a means of refining it. The only existing oil refinery of the country has a lead separator which is out of order and new equipment has not been installed.

The government, in the name of free market forces, continues to provide import tax reductions on cars, simultaneously welcoming a World Bank project that, in passing, mentions that pollution is a problem that needs to be dealt with. Of greater concern seems to be reducing traffic jams by banning what is considered un-necessary forms of traffic, e.g. rickshaws. Dhaka inhabitants complain about rickshaws and want them to be controlled or removed. This is coming from people in a city known to be the rickshaw capital of the world.

Everyone from the car owners to policy makers are looking for quick fix solutions. Nowhere, in neither public, government, nor NGO discourse is a connection being made between excessive traffic, traffic jams, pollution and an integrated restriction and control of all forms of transport.

Kursi Kabir, director of Nijera Kori, has been actively involved in formulating a position paper for policy makers on the traffic situation in Dhaka. It advocates banning policies on scooters and trucks, but in the case of private cars the stance is less stringent - the position paper proposes the introduction of pollution reducing mechanisms like the use of catalysers and un-leaded petrol. As far as we were told, no pressure groups are suggesting a restriction of cars entering the road network or an improvement of the public transport system.

Finding organisations actively working with pollution issues and working in support of the use of cycle rickshaws was a difficult task. The simple truth is that no organisations are working on this issue. It is surprising that organisations have not focused their work on a group of urban poor believed to total 250-500 000 individuals. One reason may be that NGO work in Bangladesh is very sector-based and is extremely sensitive to international development trends. Veena Khaleque, Director of the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), says that the government is not encouraging NGOs to work with slum dwellers because they believe it will increase rural to urban migration. ITDG is not yet involved in transport sector work in the urban areas, but were interested in cooperation on the rickshaw issue.

Unless pollution and traffic planning become a priority issue on the global development agenda, few changes will take place on a local level in Bangladesh. The harsh reality is that children will continue to suffer the damages of lethally high levels of lead in the air.

Highlights from the fortnight

During our stay in Dhaka we visited two unions representing transport workers. The first one was located in Demra, a part of Dhaka where a number of rickshaw workshops are located. Finding a union that truly represents the interests of rickshaw pullers required us to carry out some detective work.. We got the address of the union off the membership plate nailed onto the back of a rickshaw in the Agargaon slum area in Dhaka. A puller tells us that the Bangladesh Rickshaw and Van Sramik Oikyo Parishad represents the interests of pullers and has a wide membership base. The union is a federation representing both pullers and owners with a total of 70 000 members. The union's president, Fazlul Rahman, tells us that union is politically neutral, in contrast to the other four unions representing rickshaw pullers. They are all linked to either Awami League or BNP and are used to get votes, rather than to work for the welfare of pullers. They receive no government support, running their activities on income derived from membership fees of 1 Tk. per month. They provide training, and legal support to pullers as well as organising strikes.

A few days later we visit the Road Transport Workers Union, whose official advisor is Manzurul Ahsan Khan, Leader of the Communist Party of Bangladesh. He is present at the meeting to provide us with background information on the union established in 1956. The position of rickshaw pullers is not strong within the union. It mainly represent truck and bus drivers. The reason why little work is being done with rickshaw pullers is that organising rickshaw pullers requires arduous work because they are a floating population and they live in slum areas controlled by rickshaw owners and the mafia. He feels a proper solution to the traffic problem in Dhaka would be to improve public mass transport and to accept rickshaws as an important and necessary mode of transport.

The Association of Development NGOs in Bangladesh (ADAB) was one of the main organisers of a mass meeting of civil society held in Dhaka on February 3rd. The overall theme was 'good governance' and its slogan was 'be a patriot, be a Bangladeshi, support democracy'. The objective was to send a message to all political parties on the fact that the country is not running smoothly and also to educate the next generation on the role and responsibility of the liberation war in the lives of Bangladeshis. The coalition of NGOs organising the meeting aimed to convene 700 000 people at the Dhaka parade ground. The actual number of participants never became clear - some said 100 000, others 300 000 and above.

On the day preceeding the meeting a radical Muslim coalition, Islami Oikyo Jote staged a protest march and called for a day-long hartal (political strike) on February 3. They were protesting a court ruling to ban fatwas that could subject women to torture for alleged adultery and to prevent them from working with men outside their family. Thousands of supporters of the court ruling joined the civil society meeting. Jote members demanded a repealing of the court ruling and "punishment by death" for anyone supporting it. They denounced the mass meeting, calling NGO activities "anti-islamic".

Reflections: Images of the Liberation War - who will carry the legacy of social responsibility?

Exactly 30 years have passed since the Liberation War. In commemoration of the event, The DRIK Picture Library had organised an exhibition of press photographs titled 'The War we Forgot". The material had been collected from a number of Asian, European and American press photographers whose pictures had never previously been shown to the public.

Shahidul Alam, Managing Director of DRIK, wanted the younger generation of Bangladeshis to understand who the forgotten heroes of the liberation struggle were. Through the photographs he wanted to show that these heroes were more than simply names in history books, that they had faces and families, dreams and hopes for a Shonar Bangla (Golden Bengal).

Entering into the modern gallery on the second floor of the DRIK building in Dhanmondi, Dhaka I could have been in any gallery in the world, but the pictures that met me gripped my heart, unsettled me in a way that only photographs can do. It was not only the fact that they showed the hate, blood and grief of war, but somehow, gradually I was struck by the uneasy realisation that this was suffering objectified. The material lacked any reference to the social responsibility of those who record atrocious events. We were given pictures and texts presented in a factual manner. Only one picture series of freedom fighters executing captured Razakars (supporters of Pakistan) had a text questioning the responsibility of the photographers. It asked if their presence had brought about the executions. To me the issue of social responsibility runs much deeper than that. The material produced by the DRIK Picture Library is of superb, professional quality, but it is totally beyond the reach of people on the street. Although there is no entrance fee, no rickshaw puller or domestic servant returning home from work will decide to drop in and be reminded of the forgotten war. Why hadn't the exhibition been set up in the street where it would truly reach the people of Dhaka?

DRIK produces wall calendars, postcards and provides photographic material to glossy development agency reports. Do the poor village and urban women gazing at us from the DRIK materials receive any of the profits made? Considering that the going rate for individual photographs is US$ 100 it would seem more than justified that some of it should go back to those whose faces and bodies have been exploited. Perhaps this is a too radical view or then my suspicion is correct - also the DRIK Picture Library has been co-opted into the corporate model of development work in Bangladesh.