Sunday, January 30, 2005

January 28th

People's communication, across nations and minds

After 2 days of spending time with family and taking it easy, I was ready to hit the road on Friday. First stop – PHM (People's Health Movement) office, located in Koramangala. This is 5-6 km from my in-laws' house and I decided to take public transport. (I haven't learnt to drive in India and don't think I want to, plus can't expect my in-laws to chauffeur me around!) Well, I got into the bus all right, but then foolishly thought the bus conductor would let me know when I had to get down. Inspite of two reminders, the guy coolly said, “Oh, your stop was 3 stops ago” when I asked him a third time! I miss Bombay bus conductors! I got down and encountered the second curse of Bangalore commuting – a one-way! Gave up trying to figure out where I was and took an auto. I reached the office half an hour late.

Prasanna Saligram was at the office – he's a senior AIDer and currently employed by the PHM. We have been talking on the phone a bit lately because AID Bangalore and CHC (Community Health Center), a sister organization of PHM, have been co-ordinating medical teams for the tsunami-affected areas. I am part of the supply team in the US, i.e. the group co-ordinating with people who want to volunteer for tsunami R&R (relief and rehabilitation). We've been having issues with a few volunteers who had high expectations and were aggrieved because their services were not needed as acutely as they assumed – a strange by-product of effective disaster mitigation!

At the PHM office, I met Dr. Ravi Narayan who is the head of the current global secretariat – the center that co-ordinates with health groups and movements worldwide, stores resource materials, articles etc. and maintains a disaster watch website. Every 2 years, timed with the convening of the PHA (People's Health Assembly), this office is supposed to move to a new country. For various reasons, the PHA that was supposed to be held last year was postponed to July 2005 and will be held in Ecuador. In the next few months, a huge amount of time and resources will be dedicated to this operation of compiling materials, converting them into electronic form if possible and moving them to Ecuador. Due to miscommunication between Prasanna and me, Ravi was under the impression that I would be spending two and a half months in Bangalore! In lieu of that, we will have to redefine the way, if any, I can contribute to their work.

Later, I met with Dr. Thelma Narayan at CHC – she has been directly responsible for the medical teams going to Tamilnadu. She has worked in the aftermath of a number of disasters in the past, starting in 1971 during the Bangladesh war. She mentioned a number of times that the overall response of the government in Tamilnadu was excellent. There have been some lapses and oversights, but as a whole, Collectors have been working extremely hard and are open to collaboration with groups. In previous disasters, she has found conflicts between NGOs and governments apathetic to people's viewpoints, and Tamilnadu has been been a welcome change.

In her opinion, there will continue to be a long-term need in the affected communities for psychosocial care, and volunteers who can stay there long-term. In the short term, the benefits of a volunteer's stay accrue mainly to the volunteer (her) himself. It is only in the long-term that a community can begin to feel the benefits of the volunteer's presence. She is highly sceptical of foreign groups that bring along 'trainers' and advises a strong dose of humility for every volunteer. The team she accompanied to Tamilnadu had to rapidly reassess their role and ended up doing very little real medical work.

An elegy to my back, on Bannerghetta road

I first thought of addressing this elegy to Bannerghetta road itself, but that would presuppose the existence of such a road. No one I've talked to can recall a better time. They all tell me to be happy, since the road is so much better than it was before – the thought boggles my imagination. It took a 'Rasta Roko' (road block) by IIM (Indian Institute of Managament) students to get some tar onto Bannerghetta – before that it only had potholes. The road connects a huge IT population to their workplaces, with the result that it is a morass during mornings and evenings. How are Bangaloreans, especially the International ones, tolerating this? Why haven't big IT companies threatened to leave Bangalore? No wait, they have! As if it were that easy... Later, I learn that the GREEN foundation and another organic group are both located on Bannerghetta road – hey, maybe this road is sustainable!!

India together?

The purpose of my trip to the Bangalore exurbs was to meet Ashwin Mahesh, the co-editor of India Together, and his wife Sapna, the breadwinner for their household. Ashwin has had the privilege of observing the functioning of groups like ASHA and AID since their inception. He and Subbu, his co-editor, have chosen a different (but no less important in my opinion) path for intervention. I wanted to discuss Ashwin's latest article about tsunami funding, where he hasn't endorsed any group, but recommends supporting those groups that pay a minimum wage. I ask him what the role of volunteerism is in such a scenario. He replies that volunteers are different from salaried employees – the former have other sources of income. But an NGO that pays its workers 800, 1200 rupees (the minimum wage is ~Rs. 2100) has deliberately chosen a regressive policy and is not morally different from a group that discriminates against Dalits. I ask him – what about those cases where the employee does have other sources of income, such as a farm or cattle. His response was that such income would be part of a living wage assessment and he had no problem with that. His grouse was with the argument that paying higher salaries would lead to discontent in the communities where the NGO works, that an NGO has to work with the money it has etc. I asked how a funding agency, even if it takes a stand on minimum wage, can ensure that a local group is paying minimum wage. His solution was that the local group would have to sign a declaration if it agrees to receive funding, and that it would have to make full disclosure to its employees about this declaration. It all sounds remarkably easy and yet... well, hopefully we can all critique this.

We also talked about monitoring funds collected for tsunami R&R and the difficulty inherent in tracking how money was used and where. Sapna's office, Servelots had a material collection drive. Materials were collected at the office and sent out to the field in trucks. Their first update from the field was that clothes were not required, but medicines were. By the time they responded to this, they had already collected more clothes than they required and no way of returning them to numerous anonymous donors. This and other constraints of a relief operation make collection and dissemination of effective information impossible, in Ashwin's opinion.

Finally, getting home – a city taxi to the rescue!

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