LOOK,’ says Gangadevi, smiling at Helen, ‘what about coming with me to the villages next week? You would find it interesting.’
‘Well. I was going to Kathmandu.
‘I don’t want to disturb your plans, of course. Perhaps you have already arranged to meet someone in Nepal?’
‘No. I was just travelling by myself…’ she hesitates. ‘You know, that’s really an offer I can’t refuse. Are you travelling far?’
‘No. We will go to a village near Monghyr, about four hours east of Patna by train. There is an organisation working with the landless and marginal farmers there.’
‘What’s it called?’
‘How would you say it in English? The Workers and Farmers Development Forum. That’s it. I think. They are not a well-known organisation, but they are doing good work in about a hundred villages in the district, but at the moment they are facing an internal crisis.’
‘What’s the problem?’
‘It’s about money. There is a debate within the leadership about how to raise money to pay the running costs of the organisation - the workers’ stipends, travel expenses and so on. You see, until now they’ve never accepted outside funds either from the Indian government or local business houses, or from foreign agencies. But now the leader of the organisation wants to approach a British aid organisation for support.
So what’s wrong with that?’ asks Helen, puzzled. ‘The ashram where I work would collapse overnight without all its money from Britain. Australia, Germany - and goodness knows where else!’
Gangadevi gives a wry smile and waggles her head slightly.
‘Ah, I know about your ashram, but that is different. This is a real people’s organisation. They have no proper office building, just a small mud hut with a thatch roof. No jeep, no motorcycle even. And no regular salaries for the workers. They have about ten fulltime workers, all young and extremely committed.’
‘But what do they live on? How do they pay their daily expenses -- food, clothes, travel and so on?’ asks Helen.
‘The local people give them whatever they can afford - wheat, rice, or other foodgrains. Their friends and sympathisers in Monghyr town and Patna give them a little cash. And some of the workers have a little land, so they get a small amount of income from that too. It is a precarious way to run an organisation but they have not done too badly.’
‘Sounds like the martyr syndrome again.’
‘You could say that, yes,’ replies the older woman, frowning slightly. ‘But the question is, can you be a martyr and also provide for your family? The answer seems to be No. You see, several of the young men got married in the last couple of years and now they are facing a financial crisis. If the organisation cannot give them a sufficient income, they will have to leave the area and look for work in big cities like Jamshedpur.
‘But why shouldn’t they accept foreign money?’ asks Helen, incredulous now. ‘Of course,’ she adds, ‘as long as it comes without strings attached.’
‘It’s not quite that simple,’ says Gangadevi slowly. ‘You see, money is a two-edged sword. It can solve problems, but it also creates new ones, no matter where it comes from. If nobody is paid, everyone feels a responsibility to do something. But when someone is paid, even if only a small amount, the others feel they have an excuse to sit back and do nothing. So their participation becomes less, you see?… A gap opens up between the ordinary members and their paid leaders.
‘Yes, I see what you mean, but it’s not inevitable, is it?’
‘You’re right, but to keep this gap as small as possible is a difficult task. And it is more difficult when the funds in question come from outside.’
‘Because no matter how well-intentioned the donor… (there is a squeal of brakes and the carriage rocks as the train pulls into another siding)... ‘some strings are always attached. They might be invisible but they are there all the same. If an organisation depends on the local government or foreign agencies for its survival, its relationship with the people matters less, because it doesn’t have to account to them, does it?’
‘Hmm… perhaps you don’t have such an optimistic view of human nature after all,’ says Helen slowly. Conversation in the compartment lapses. The silence finally is broken by the roar of the southbound train passing in the other direction.
‘You are paid to say that,’ said the old woman, hidden under a torn green sari that seemed almost black in the twilight.
‘Yes I’m being paid,’ said Rambir. ‘But I’d say you should organise a committee whether I was being paid or not.’
His words trailed away into silence like a bird that has lost its way. Behind him the Project motorbike gleamed beneath the dark overhanging branches. He had been so happy during the day, leading the people’s shouts against Benchanlal, the labour contractor. Now he wished he had not brought the motorbike.
‘No need to listen, Rambir,’ said an old man chewing on toothless gums, ‘to that mother of only words.’
The woman shouted hack in the village dialect and the others in the circle laughed, turning to each other in groups like closing flowers.
Rambir stepped forward into the full firelight.
‘Today we have defeated Benchanlal, who has cheated you all these years. Now he pays you a rupee more for collecting the Kendu* leaves. We all went together so he had no choice but there will be other things you should organise, and for that you need a properly functioning committee.’
‘These Kendu leaves will be gone by the next moon,’ croaked the old woman, ‘and next year he will have a new price ...‘
‘It’s true,’ said a young man in a blue turban, an activist of the village. ‘Benchanlal will know what to do, for he has a year to prepare his trap and we will fall into it like squirrels into a net.’
‘We shall face it then,’ said Rambir.
‘But will you be here?’
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘How can your father let you stay here wandering like a pig in the forest? He will call you back and give you a job.’
‘He cannot do that. I have my own money.’
‘From which place?’
‘A British organisation is giving for this year.’
‘And after that?’
‘I do not know. They may give again.’
In the tree above Rambir the crows cackled as they settled down to roost.
‘How do they decide, these British?’
‘I do not know. They talk to Gautam, not to me.
‘Then why do they give?’
‘I suppose they are rich. They have some feeling for the poor in other countries.’
The old man on the ground stirred out of his half-sleep, struggling to find the words:
‘Benchanlal sometimes talks like that at election time and gives us sweets. This shirt is from him. Maybe next year I will not get one. Do you have some shirts from those British people?’
‘No they are not like Benchanlal.’
‘How do they become rich? Long back in my father’s time, Lord rest him, a tiger could walk in the jungle from here to Hazaribagh town. Now only a mouse will clamber from rock to rock on the empty slopes, fearing the hungry kites in the air above. The British and their friends who took all the trees, they are rich now...’
‘Sometimes the rich people, even the foreigners, can do good things,’ said Rambir.
‘Sometimes a snake will give you a kiss.’ said the old man.
‘Peace, Dada. Do not speak like that,’ said the activist.
‘Stay with us, Rambir. We will think deeply and discuss what is to be done about this committee.’
‘How can I stay? My wife and child are there in Hazaribagh and I must report to the office. Tomorrow there is a meeting at Deogarh, and night-classes everywhere to be watched.’
‘You have set your own speed, so you have to walk fast.’
‘We have to do all these things. Otherwise what can we tell those who give us money?’
‘Yes, you should do as they wish. When we break stones or collect Kendu leaves, it is not for us but for the contractor who pays us. Otherwise why should we do it?’
Rambir swallowed the hot sweet tea and walked to the motorbike. After he was gone they would pass around a gourd filled with home-brewed liquor and talk through the night for after such excitement as they had felt that day they would not sleep.
The roar of the machine sent the crows scattering into the darkness, as the solitary beam of light turned onto the dirt road.
Gautam was in a foul mood when Rambir arrived back at the office.
‘Accounts for the Home Ministry, accounts for Calcutta, accounts for London… This donor says the year should start in January, so I go to Patna, sit down with the auditor for a few days and now it is finally ready. But the other one now tells me their financial year starts in April, and in any case the night class project has got to be separate! It can’t be done ...‘
Rambir waited patiently while his former college friend worked off the frustrations of struggling with the accounts and reports all day in a hot, poky office. Years earlier it had been very different. Inspired by the ‘Bihar Movement’ led by the veteran Gandhian leader, Jaya Prakash Narayan, they had come to this area to organise the impoverished landless labourers and small farmers. They had intended to live like village people, depending for their food and lodging on whatever the people could provide. But they soon found that the villagers were much too poor to support them and after a while their parents began putting pressure on them to return to a ‘normal’ life.
Rather than give up their work, they reluctantly agreed to take a grant from a foreign aid organisation. This turned out to be rather easier than they had expected. Further grants followed and then, to avoid too much dependence on one donor, they also took grants from others.
‘What was that? Something about Kendu?’ asked Gautam, suddenly noticing Rambir.
‘Yes, Gautam. The demonstration was a success. Benchanlal gave one rupee more.
‘Good, write it down tonight, will you, and I’ll add it to the progress report. Oh, there’s so much to do! Tomorrow the Canadian visitors are coming - another chance for the government to accuse us of being CIA agents or Christian missionaries in disguise ... And I still haven’t been to the bank. You had better go and do it tomorrow.’
‘The bank manager says he won’t lend to those farmers in Deogarh unless we put down a deposit. I asked him "How can we do that? We are not businessmen with loads of money." He looked at me and said "You have all that foreign money. You can lend some to us." I argued of course, but he won’t settle for less than a lakh* of rupees.’
‘But Gautam, the Bank has got to lend without a deposit. It’s under the government’s 20-point Programme, and anyway it’s all guaranteed by the Reserve Bank.’
‘How long have you been here? You think I don’t know that?’
‘But we should not give in to them. We can organise a demonstration.’
‘We are too busy at the moment. Anyway it would just give the Block Development Officer a chance to hammer us - he’s just waiting for the chance to put us all in jail.’
‘What does it matter if we go to jail? I have already been to jail. Two years, in the Bihar movement.’
‘So?’ Gautam leaned forward in his chair, his arms stretched over the loose papers which the churning fan threatened to disperse. ‘No’, he said. ‘We will have to put the money in the Bank. That way we can get on with the village work.’
‘Awareness-building, organising the people, what else?’
‘Organising the people for what? To take loans from a bribed bank manager?’
‘It’s not a bribe. We’ll get the money back.’
‘Maybe, but I still think it’s wrong. Let the people go to the bank and put pressure on the manager. Why should we make a deal with him?’
Gautam groped for the paperweights buried on his table.
‘Look, I’m busy,’ said Gautam. ‘If I don’t get this finished nobody gets paid.’
‘God, how we have changed! We used to be happy just to sit with the people and share their problems and thoughts. Now I go to the village for projects like a paid government official. You keep this motorbike: it’s like a contractor’s. I’ll walk next time.’
‘Walking isn’t efficient. You know that.’
‘Who says so? You do. You control the money. You meet the foreigners and decide to take up this or that project. You write the reports and make the budgets bigger every year; Nothing is finished properly, but always you are looking for something new. Half the time you are away at seminars and when you are here it is all reports and accounts so there is no time to discuss. The rest of us are like paid servants. We have to do what you say, and all because of this foreign money.’
Gautam turned round, letting the papers fly about the room.
‘You think it would be easier to take money from the big industrialists? The contractors who cut the trees? Parasites like Benchanlal? They make you crawl to them and then they want newspaper reports of their philanthropy, buildings with marble plaques. They don’t want to help the poor. They just want to avoid paying taxes by spending their profits on flashy experiments - dung-powered rice huskers, solar-driven tractors and so on.’
‘We could take a grant from the Government, couldn’t we?’
‘And get the Block Development Officer to sign the recommendation! Can you see him doing that? No, the only way would be not to take any outside money at all ... but it’s too late for that now.’
‘Couldn’t we run a farm?’
‘I thought you would say something like that. The Gandhians tried it and look at them now, walled in with their mango trees like the other landlords. They cheat their workers as much as anyone.’
‘There must be some other way.’
‘I wish I knew,’ said Gautam, picking up the accounts from the floor.
* Kendu leaves are used in making local cigarettes.
Tony Vaux is a former OXFAM Field Director in India.