Letters from India No 6

´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.
Marko Ulvila Piia Saari


DELHI -- Theme of this issue of the 'Letter' is the meeting on voluntarism that was held in Nepal 4-5 April. As part of the joint project of CSDS and Kepa on Democratising the North-South Partnership the project convener Vijay Pratap, Marko Ulvila and Gopal Siwakoti Chintan organised the dialogue in Kathmandu with the title -Voluntarism: Experiences and Reflections'. The event draw together some 30 activists and scholars from Nepal and five from India.

"Highlights" describe the discussions in a seminar on "Empowerment of women in their households", arranged by Lokayan's Women Panchayat in Delhi on 18-19 March. The traditional Indian wedding will be attended at the "Reflections".

Marko Ulvila's activist visit to India ended on 14 April and he returned to Finland. There he will resume his work as a research fellow at the University of Tampere. He will continue to be an active member of the India Group of Kepa and other organisations and movements. A report on the experiences in India will come in due time, possible titled as ‘A Letter from Finland'.

Theme: Seminar on voluntarism in Nepal (by Marko)

The meeting -Voluntarism: Experiences and Reflections' took place in Kathmandu 4-5 April and discussed the work of NGOs, people's organisations and popular movements in Nepal. Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi and Coalition for Environment and Development, Finland were the joint organisers of the event. Local seminar convener was Mr. Gopal Siwakoti 'Chintan', one of the most dynamic and reputed Nepali activist in the fields of human rights, environment and development. The meeting was held at the hall of National Concerns Society, which is well known for its weekly 'Sunday Forums' that draw attention to topical issues of Nepal.

The dialogue was divided in two parts. On the first day the general picture of the voluntary/NGO sector of Nepal was drawn. There were one overall presentation and specific papers on ethnicity, education, forests and water. On the second day the impacts of foreign funding and democratising North-South partnerships were discussed. At the end of the day a follow-up plan was made.

The participants came from variety of backgrounds including researchers, NGO practitioners, activists and government officials. Besides the speakers mentioned below from Nepal presentations were made by Tika Bhattarai, Rishi Shah, Ajit Dixit, Tika Pokharel, Dr. Ontha and Vikash Panday. From India there were Prof. D.L.Sheth, Prof. V.B.Singh, Dr. Vasanti Raman, Dr. Rajendra Ravi and Rita Nahata.

Main presentations Dr. Diwakar Chand gave an overview of voluntary action in Nepal. He is a former member- secretary of the governmental body coordinating and regulating the work of NGOs during the Panchayat regime (SSNCC) and currently president of a coalition of some 20 NGOs (ADAN). Dr. Chand presented some traditional voluntary formations and moved on to the modern institutionalised ones which date back to some 50 years. Currently there are some 25.000 NGOs with up to 1 million volunteers, of which half are associated with the Red Cross society. He highlighted the high dependence of the Nepali NGOs on foreign funding (around 85 %) as a problem and the need for local resource mobilisation.

Dr. Krishna Bhattachan presented a paper on Ethnicity and voluntarism. He is a lecturer of sociology at the Tribhuvan University and a prolific writer. Dr. Bhattachan's presentation focused on the ‘South of the South' - the marginalised nationalities of Nepal. According to him, the modern NGOs are killing the traditional voluntary activities, and they are part of the dominating structures of the upper casts (Bahun&Chetri) over the indigenous nationalities. According to the studies of voluntary actions, it seems that the traditional organisations have much more of the characteristics attributed to success than the modern NGOs. One indicator to the failure of the state and NGOs is the Maoist People's War which has started in the areas of indigenous peoples and driven away also the international and local NGOs. There could be a positive role for NGOs in promoting advocacy, self-determination and autonomy for the nationalities.

Dr. Kaji Shrestha spoke on the community forestry movement in Nepal. The presentation discussed the struggle over the control of the forests from the beginning of the Shah dynasty to present and highlighted that forests have always been an important resource for the dominating rulers. However, local communities have been protecting the forests that provide them an important means for survival. Finally, in the mid 1980s a paradigm shift developed in the Government, which recognised this and an provision for handing over forests and degraded lands to Community Forestry User Groups was created. So far some 5,5 million hectares are under 8000 user groups of which one third are organised into the Federation of Community Forest User Groups in Nepal (FECOFUN). This is perhaps the largest membership-based organisations in the country.

Summarising and commenting the discussions of the first day Prof. D.L.Sheth noted that NGOs have to be situated in the today's World where sovereignty of many nations has diminished while the power of the big economic and military governments has increased. The international agenda of rights does not match with the local realities, and therefore many NGOs speak a different language than the people. Foreign funding has turned the attention from struggle movements to advocacy where the issues has shifted from protest to awareness and education. Furthermore he noted that in the development aid there is an element of morality but it is tied with the power structures of dominance.

Mr. Keshav P. Acharya presented a paper on the development aid to Nepal in general. He is a senior economist at the Nepal Rasthra Bank. He highlighted the problem of Nepal's dependency on foreign aid and increasing debt burden. As a remedy he suggested taping domestic resources and reallocating spending to priority areas. He also called for a time-bound plan for ending receiving foreign and a debate on cancellation of the Panchayat era debts.

Dipak Gyawali gave an example of a heavy donor influence over an NGO. He is a member of the Royal Academy of Science and Technology and former chairman of an NGO Rural Self-Reliance Development Centre. It started already in 1985 with an aim to promote income generating group formation among the poorest. The saving and credit groups have in many places become very successful. The organisation was split in 1995 when the main donor German GTZ wanted the group become also a major service delivery agent in their project areas. When the founding members declined to follow the demand, the GTZ eventually facilitated a birth of an new organisation that hired many of the RSDC's employees.

Gopal Siwakoti Chintan presented a strong critique of the NGOs in Nepal. He is the director of an human rights group Inhured International and general-secretary of National Concerns Society. He pointed out the important role of the local authorities (Village Development Committees) and how their improved capacity should receive maximum attention. The foreign funding has paralysed the popular movements that contributed to the 1990 democratisation and created NGOs without basis and often very close links to political parties.

Follow-up activities At the end of the seminar a follow up plan was made. A group of people from both India and Nepal will conduct civil society dialogues on the themes that came out of the seminar. They include expectations of NGOs, expectations of development, NGOs and power structures and NGOs and funding.

The people who made presentations or notable comments were requested to write down an article for the book process of CSDS and Kepa. All in all some 10 contributions are expected by the end of April. The seminar secretariat lead by Gopal Siwakoti 'Chintan' will also produce a seminar report by the same time.

Some more meetings will be held in Kathmandu on the seminar theme. The next one will most likely by at the venue of Martin Chautari, a weekly forum covering important issues. In that event the language will be Nepali and Hindi and more of the local activists and critical voices will be sought after. Ms. Usha Tiwari will coordinate the process in Kathmandu.

A highlight from the fortnight

18th to 19th March Lokayan arranged a seminar at Rajendra Bhavan in Delhi about "The empowerment of women in household space". Mrs. Uma Nandy and Deepti Priya had invited many working women to attend the seminar and discuss the complex issues of how to find space and time in the home where traditionally women have to adjust to the needs of the men and the children.

The seminar had many presentations, but the 20-30 women participating the seminar at both days also socialised in a way women traditionally do in Indian culture: by singing songs and having informal discussion. The notes have been made according to an interview with Mrs. Uma Nandy at Lokayayn, as neither of us had a chance to take part in the seminar because of the journeys.

Madhulika Banerjee, a lecturer on Political Science stressed that women should have the courage to take their own time at home to develop their interests and carrier; this is something that has not been thought as a right of the women in India. Renu Kishor, a lecturer of Psychology in Delhi University, mentioned that among all classes in society women have difficulties to express themselves at home. The traditional concept of women's work and responsibility at home causes a lot of pressure to working women, because there is a confusion of what is supposed to be the women's work in the new situation. Earlier everybody knew their responsibilities, so in a way the things were easier.

Sanskrit teacher Surabhi Sheth expressed her fear that women will lose their peace and enjoyment at household work, when they take work outside the home. Women will not be able to fulfill the both responsibilities. Their husbands' work outside home is often stressing, too, and the men may be eager to take women's place at home. This may cause a whole new situation, which the women are not prepared to face. However, Karen Kothari, stressed that men should also make effort in the household responsibilities, and women should demand that from them and not to think that it will be a danger to women.

Gauri Chaudhury from an NGO called The Action India, says that for some women the space and time needed for themselves will come from participating in some NGO activities, outside the house. She encourages women to take responsibilities outside home, because it will give women courage to meet the society and other women.

Mrs. Uma Nandy told about her experiences of the traditional customs she has been taught at home. When she had got married, she sometimes used to go to her parents' home after finishing her housework, but her mother could not understand that. "You could have made one more sobji, a vegetable dish, to your husband instead of coming here" she commented. The concept of free time was non-existent at that time, and all the women's time was expected to be spent for making her husband happy. At the moment the customs are changing and the women are demanding more time for themselves, but it still does not mean that their husbands would not be happy. "Having my own time is very important to me, and it will reflect my work at home. I will do it happily", Uma Nandy tells and laughs: "One sobji should be enough!"

It was concluded that women should find different ways of empowering themselves. The seminar was like a therapy for the women as they had a chance to speak about their common problems and search for the solutions to them. All felt that there is a huge demand for this kind of open discussion in the society.


INDIAN WEDDING (by Marko and Piia)
During the past months the main street leading to our residence was almost a constant wedding venue. Night after night large decorated areas came up at the lawns of the apartments, brass bands played energetically almost in tune, processions lead by horses brought the key persons to the settings and people in big numbers walked through the gates to celebrate and to eat well. Sometimes firecrackers could be heard until late in the evening. We were curious to know what was going inside, but remained in ignorance.

Finally in April an opportunity to attend a wedding became real as the sister of Vijay Pratap got married and we were invited the occasion. The first ceremony was on the 11 April at the lawn of the bride's home where rings were exchanged and the family of the bridegroom entertained with good food and music.

The actual wedding took place on 13 April on the last day of the Vikram Samvat year - an auspicious occasion to get married. The preparations had been going on for months and the last few weeks had been very hectic for the families involved. Many friends from Lokayan and CSDC had also helped with the preparations.

The big hall was beautifully decorated with thousands of flowers giving the place a pleasant scent. More than 500 people attended the celebration and followed the lively dance of the bridegroom's party while approaching the gate and enjoyed the great varieties of food served. The jaymala, the moment when the bride and the groom met and gave the flower garlands to each others' necks was memorable and will certainly remain one because of the presence of so many photographers. The most intimate ceremony, puja and saptapadi, the seven rounds around the fire happened early in the morning, when only the closest relatives remained present. That time we had already left, Marko ready for his morning flight to Finland and Piia a bit tired from wearing a sari for the first time in her life. The occasion will certainly remain in our minds as one of the peak moments in India, and we wish all the best to the newly married!