tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Monday, November 22, 2010

So You've Decided to Start a Newsletter, eh?

The NGO I volunteer with—PREM—decided it wanted to start a newsletter because, well, NGOs have newsletters, but this one did not.

I was put in charge of the newsletter, or more accurately I was given the task of coordinating and guiding an Editing Team in the planning, design and execution of a monthly—er, better make that bi-monthly—newsletter, called PREM E-News.

An editing team of three, myself included, was formed. It became clear early on that one member, the self-professed IT Advisor to the Editing Team, wanted his role to be limited to technical things, and so put himself in charge of converting the .doc version of the newsletter into a .pdf approximately every 60 days.

Thus the Editing Team became two, me and the person who—rare among the staff here—has little work to do because she has no seniority. In the newsletter, hopefully she'll find her organizational domain.
We started with a planning meeting examining several existing newsletters out there in the NGO, for ideas of style and structure. Then we held an editorial meeting about what content we needed for the inaugural issue; basically, what did PREM do in the last two months?

Then we commenced a sort of journalistic training workshop—yep, still just the two of us on the Editing Team—to obtain the content for the newsletter. A lot of people at PREM don’t really know exactly what a lot of other people at PREM do on a daily basis, for reasons that are not terribly relevant right now.

But suffice to say, the E-News Editing Team made the rounds to each program manager, project coordinator and senior staff in the head office to find out what they’ve been doing lately, what activities have been implemented in their milieu, what reports they’ve written for what funding agencies, who did what, when, where, why and definitely how; not to mention show me the photos.

Slowly the newsletter took shape. On the first issue I did just about everything. But as we’ve now rolled out three issues, my partner on the Editing Team gradually has become the reporter, photographer, layout designer, photo editor, and quote-of-the-month go-getter. Whereas I hold only the roles of copy editor, deadline maker (and re-maker), and ghostwriter of the President’s Message.

The newsletter is actually a pretty big success around the office, even if our mailing list is currently only a handful of names long: staff members, funding partners, former volunteers, and my mom (thanks mom!).

For the first time in its 26-year history, PREM has a systematic, textual form of organizational memory. And all it took was a committed team, a journalistic approach, and a guy who makes a .pdf every two months.

Now you can read what all the fuss is about:

(See me on page four)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What PREM Does: Fighting Corruption

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the development work of People's Rural Education Movement (PREM) Orissa, India.

Opportunity Knocks
A Block Development Official (BDO) sits a table in his office in town. On his desk is a handwritten roster of about 1700 names of people in the 250 or so villages in his block who have applied for job cards. Some of the names are fictitious. Others are friends and relatives of the BDO. And still others are real, but they are of people who've no idea what their job card entitles them to, or of people who don't even know they've applied. He writes a receipt for a tent--meant to provide shade for road-construction workers--which he never actually bought. He finishes a report that says 12km of road were completed last month; in fact it was only 2km.*

To his district-level supervisor (whose friends and family are also on the job-card roster) the BDO submits all these documents as records of public works in his jurisdiction, and finally he withdraws the corresponding funds from the government coffers. All in a day's work.

Elsewhere, an Adivasi man is still waiting for his first day of work. But on his job card, which he doesn't yet hold, there is already a fake entry showing 126 days' work. On the report submitted to the state auditor, a figure of INR 5950 (CAD $135) is listed as the wages already paid this man. He has no idea.

National Rural Corruption Guarantee?
All of this is provided for by India's National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) of 2005, a law that provides federally funded employment in local development for all willing workers for a minimum of 100 days per year at a minimum wage of 60 Indian Rupees (INR; equivalent to $1.25 Canadian Dollars (CAD)) per day.

It stipulates employment for all adults in poor districts through job cards which should be granted within 15 days of application; employment within 5km of one's home village; equal wages for men for women, with a minimum of 33% of job cards in any given village reserved for women; benefits such as unemployment insurance and water.**

Even in a country known for socialist rural economic policies over the first few decades of its independence, few stimulus plans ever developed by the government of India have been as progressive as NREGA. And few schemes ever dreamed up by the government of India have made corruption this easy.

There is overwhelming evidence of systematic corruption of NREGA in every state of India, but nowhere is this corruption more rampant and--due to its infamous mantle as India's poorest state--more devastating than in Orissa.

Village leaders and middlemen take advantage of illiteracy and desperation among lower-caste and tribal villagers, cooking the books and forging job cards. Workers complete a day of labour building a check dam or a gravel road, and the attendance sheet will say they worked 33 days; 32 days' worth of their wages will go somewhere else. A government auditor doesn't feel like visiting a handful of remote villages; for a bribe he'll accept a BDO's story that all job cards have been properly distributed.

A 2006-07 independent study by the Centre for Environment and Food Security (CEFS) found that of the INR 7.33 billion (CAD $165 million) invested by the federal government in the NREGA scheme in the 6 poorest districts of the state of Orissa, more than INR 5 billion (CAD $112m, or nearly 70% of all funds) were siphoned off in misappropriations and outright peculation by government officials and middlemen.***

 "Activists and NGOs spreading awareness about NREGA among rural poor of the state," noted the CEFS study, "are threatened with dire consequences and many have been terrorised into silence by BDOs and other executing officials. Some local activists who accompanied the CEFS research team during survey in Tentulikhunti block in last week of May are being threatened by the government officials and contractors who have misappropriated NREGA funds."

Putting on a Corruption Clinic
PREM is among the NGOs working to combat corruption, principally by training activists and educating the rural and marginalized public to take action against this scourge.

It's not easy, not in an environment where police, government officials and other elites are hand in glove (and glove in pocket). But recently some extra help arrived.

India has a Right to Information (RTI) Act, coincidentally also passed into law in 2005. The RTI Act guarantees access to any public document within 15 days of request. Muster rolls, job cards, payment schedules and BDO reports, to name just a few related to NREGA, are all public documents accessible under RTI.****

One thing PREM has done is establish a number of regional RTI Clinics, such as the one pictured above in Rayagada district. These essentially are training centres where PREM conducts workshops on how to utilize RTI: how to file a request; how to follow up and gain the documents; where to seek legal and other aid if necessary; how to take collective action against corruption. Clinic facilitators utilize methods like group discussion, role play, lawyer visits and testimonials from victims to help instruct community members.

Even beyond the workshops, these RTI clinics are open all the time as walk-in information booths, staffed by community activits who are trained to help victims of corruption take the necessary action for justice.

To read a case study about how PREM's RTI clinics helped one tribal community bring a huge land scam to the public eye (and put the culprits behind bars), check out the July-August 2010 issue of PREM's E-News.

The photos in this post are from an NREGA-funded road-building project in Gajapati district, Orissa.

* Excerpted from a press release of an NGO in Bihar. A Block is a constituted jurisdiction of governance in India which is comprised of anywhere between 100-250 villages and at least one major town.
** Full text of NREGA 2005 [PDF]
*** The six poorest districts of Orissa are Bolangir, Nuapada, Kalahandi, Koraput, Nabarangpur and Rayagada. Read more on this study and the impact of NREGA corruption in Orissa.
**** Full text of RTI Act 2005 [PDF]

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Quote-Unquote: The Primal Land [Adibhumi] by Pratibha Ray

"Life in the city had taught Somra Sisa a great deal. He had seen leaders arriving to address crowds, their motorcars raising clouds of dust; he had seen the strings of red and blue electric lights, heard the croaking of loudspeakers reciting litanies of false praise, caught the whiff of meat being cooked for celebratory feasts.

"Dhangras and dhangris [young men and women] of the Lower Bonda, Kandha and Paraja tribes were conscripted to dance and sing for the entertainment of the babus [government officials]. Endless discourses on the glories of tribal culture were staged and the ranting of speakers was drowned in the thunder of applause.

"When the meetings ended the adivasi [aboriginal] youths were sent back to their villages with empty bellies. The adivasi was only an item in the list of the disadvantaged: a slogan that could be screeched to bring political glory to the leader."

--From Adibhumi [The Primal Land*], by Oriya novelist, poet, literary critic and social activist, Pratibha Ray. Ms. Ray is an unshakable voice for the rights of Adivasi ('indigenous') peoples of Orissa.

The Primal Land is a novelized ethnography of the Bonda people, a primitive tribe living deep in the forested plateau of remote Malkangiri district on Orissa's southwestern tip, where Ms. Ray did research as an anthropology student in the 1970s.

The story of the Bonda in The Primal Land is told parallel to the sundry government attempts at development and "civilizing" the tribals, which has had both comic and very tragic results. Today, the Bonda number fewer than 5000 and face possible extinction.

[Buy The Primal Land at Amazon]

* The Primal Land, by Pratibha Ray
Translated by Bikram K. Das
Hyderabad: Orient Longman Ltd, 2001
Excerpt from pp. 254-255

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Virgin Mary's Getaway Motorcycle

Now that I have your attention, here are some other sites of Gangtok, hillside capital of the Indian state of Sikkim, our next stop on our holiday up north.