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The philosophy of empowerment

JADS, an organisation active in defending its members‘ interests in rural districts of Madhya Pradesh, is facing a series of trumped-up police charges. The UK minister for international development has little to say while DFID’s political and economic agenda is so in tune with the Government of India’s embrace of corporate investment.

Richard Whittell
19 July 2012

When he became the UK's minister for international development in 2010, Andrew Mitchell promised the “philosophy of empowerment” would be central to his approach. The website of his Department for International Development (DFID) pledges to “support 40 million people to have choice and control over their own development and to hold decision-makers to account” by 2015. But recent events in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh suggest the people’s empowerment being advocated is strictly limited by the type of development the DFID is pushing.  

The Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) would seem to be exactly the sort of organisation the DFID is committed to supporting. A 7,000-family strong organisation of tribal people - mostly marginal farmers and wage workers – it is active in rural districts in western Madhya Pradesh, one of the DFID’s four ‘focus states’ in India. The willingness of its members to challenge the state has brought many victories – in November 2006 JADS members won the first-ever payment of unemployment allowance for example - but also the resentment of successive governments for daring to confront them.

This has led to a variety of trumped-up police cases against its members, which have been disputed in increasingly creative ways. In August 2010 for example, after Valsingh Sastia, Bhaisingh Davar and Shera Davar were arrested on charges brought by the Forest Department that later were proved to be false, hundreds of people went into six police stations demanding they too should be arrested and, as they were tired of “continuous false cases” against them, the police should “arrest them all once and for all. The stations were forced to close for days and the three were released.   

The most recent target was the prominent JADS activist Madhuri Krishnaswammy, who was given an ‘externment notice’ in May this year, demanding she “show cause” why she should not be forced to leave the six districts she was working in. Supposedly guilty of “creating an atmosphere of fear among government employees” and obstructing the administration, the Barwani district administration also brought up a number of cases she had been accused of in the past that had previously been dismissed.  

In response, JADS issued its own notices to the government, demanding it show cause why its officials should not be forced to leave:

“We adivasis, as the original owners of Barwani district and as the people who run this district through their labour, ask the administration as to why .. it should not be externed from the district instead of Madhuribai … The Constitution has charged you with the responsibility of protecting our rights and ensuring our development… but you have brought all development activities to a standstill through your corruption and non-performance.”

After asking why there was insufficient electricity, drinking water, doctors or medicines but a surfeit of “illicit liquor” and corruption, the notices concluded:

“You have written that government officials are afraid of us! Feel shame, not fear! Stop your corruption and apathy! Learn to work properly! And if you cannot do this, resign from your posts, we will run the government!”

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JADS members prepare to march to government offices

After more than 4,000 JADS members, mostly women, had served these to government offices around the districts, the administration quietly dropped the case but not before it had been widely condemned across India, including by Jairam Ramesh, the national government’s Minister of Rural Development, who called it an “extreme step” considering Krishnaswammy had “every Constitutional right to do what she has been doing”.

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JADS members on the march to government offices

Absent from this chorus was the DFID. Last week, I asked it for a comment on Krishnaswammy’s case and if it was worried that the number of attacks by the state government on dissenting organisations and people would undermine its work in the state. After noting the case against Krishnaswammy had been dropped, a spokesperson simply told me: “DFID actively supports people to have choice and control over their development and to hold decision-makers to account”.

An official tour

But for people in Madhya Pradesh, the problem is not just that the DFID turns a blind eye to the excesses of their government, it is that projects funded by British aid actively contribute to their exclusion from decisions and policies that affect their lives.

I went with the film-maker Eshwarappa M to visit one of these projects - the Madhya Pradesh Rural Livelihoods Project - for our Dodgy Development series, published in 2010. The project operates in the same districts Krishnaswammy was set to be banned from. It describes itself as “empowering rural households” and “facilitating, inspiring and guiding community-driven collective and individual action to reduce poverty”.

In the Barwani district, the project’s preferred route to empowerment was cultivation of the biodiesel crop jatropha. The idea was people could grow it and then sell it, and thus enjoy some supplementary income. All of this, we were told, had been decided at 'gram sabhas' – local village councils the project staff we met said gave everybody in the community the chance to decide what to do, democratically.

The project staff said they’d take us to meet beneficiaries in those areas where the project was active. We’d already been warned this might be a somewhat stage-managed process, made easier by neither of us speaking the local language. Luckily, before going out to see the project, we met Krishnaswammy and Rool Singh, another JADS activist, who said they’d be happy to come along with us, much to the consternation of the project staff.

The two staffers led the way on their motorbikes while we followed behind in a car. On the way, with the recently planted jatropha omnipresent on the hills around us, we drove past a group of men on the side of the road. We asked the driver to stop the car and jumped out to talk to them. With the staff now too far ahead to intervene, Krishnaswammy and Rool Singh asked about the jatropha. It soon became obvious why these guys hadn’t been included in the official tour, as they poured scorn on the suggestion they had been consulted about any of it:

We then went to meet the beneficiaries we had been meant to meet. On message, the most vocal confirmed the jatropha had been democratically chosen by all members of the gram sabha. But as the conversation went on, he turned out to have more reason to defend the project than we had been led to believe, as his relationship with one of the villages’ most powerful families emerged:

After more unscheduled stops, the experience described by the men on the roadside turned out to be the more common. The local landowners had been convinced of the benefits of the biodiesel and had been ‘empowered’ to plant it on the common land of the village, helped by subsidies from the project. In general, people who did not own land had been excluded completely and the most they expected to get were small payments from the landowners for planting the jatropha.

At the time even the landowners were not altogether sure of who they were going to sell it to, or for what price. Even more worryingly, as this man explained, they had also been encouraged to grow it in their fields instead of food crops: 

An unfortunate aberration?

The concerns expressed at the time by JADS and other community organisations and NGOs (see here) – that selling the jatropha wouldn’t be as easy as promised and, in a food scarce region, would lead to even greater food shortages - have since become reality, as shown by an investigation by the journalist David Rose in the Mail on Sunday last year. People called it “a menace” for polluting their wheat fields and hospitalising children that ate its berries. They laughed when Rose asked them if any had been sold.

The DFID now tries to dismiss the jatropha as an unfortunate aberration, pushed by a state government eager to cash in on the desire of companies for alternatives to more traditional energy sources, and not representative of the project as a whole. Various documents produced by the DFID at the time, such as the incriminatingly titled Vision Document for Biofuels in Madhya Pradesh, somewhat undermine these claims, but a DFID spokesperson also told me last week that its projects had “directly assisted over 800,000 people to escape hunger” across Madhya Pradesh and “185,000 poor tribal men and women to access government schemes.”

I asked for references for these figures but at the time of writing haven’t received any. Top-level statistics like these can obscure more than they reveal. Most frequently used in the recent debate over whether DFID should continue its India programme was:  “British aid has helped 1.2 million Indian children to go to school since 2003” But academics and teachers contest this, saying that while the number of names on school registers may increase, the number of children who actually go to school has not, often because parents do not see the point in sending their children to the low quality, under-resourced schools British aid is funding. Professor Anil Sadgopal, former Dean of Delhi University and now a prominent critical of the standard of education being produced by the Government of India and DFID programmes, told us: “in order to prove you are succeeding you keep counting children on registers, and if you find a number of children on registers, you say, ‘Ah, they are there’”. “[Will you] be happy having a British child just having her name on the school register?” he asked.

Certainly local activists like Krishaswammy say the DFID’s projects aren’t bringing any significant change to people’s lives: “[they] don’t even scratch the surface of poverty” she told me in 2010. “All they do is throw some money about, most of which is grabbed by project staff and local elites which further fuels a deeply entrenched nexus of corruption and violence.

“At the very best, they give a few individuals a little support and send everyone else in the community scrambling and quarrelling for the crumbs. Our members are in constant conflict with the project because there is no transparency or accountability in the implementation. Where there is no conflict, it is because the project is considered irrelevant to people’s lives.”

Political and economic agendas 

People’s experiences across the rest of India, suggest the DFID’s other favourite buzzwords to be as empty as empowerment. “Reform” of the electricity supply in Madhya Pradesh meant people were forced to steal power by tapping into the supply of the nearby office block using threadbare wires, knotted together into a makeshift, dangling line after the new commercial management system had made it too expensive for them to afford. “Pro-poor economic growth” in the north-eastern state of Orissa involved thousands of people being forced to move from their lands by multinational mining companies encouraged into the state by “governance reforms” and industrial policies funded and written by the DFID.   

As these examples suggest, it was not just the ineffectiveness of the DFID’s work that people were critical of, but the political and economic agenda they contributed to; one very much in tune with the Government of India’s embrace of corporate investment, and an acceptance that any improvement in the lives of the poor must take second place to the pursuit of business growth.

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JADS members presenting the notice to the district administration

The projects described above were mostly designed and implemented under New Labour’s tenure. Andrew Mitchell and the coalition appear to be, if anything, making the DFID’s work more pro-market in India, having been even more explicitly supportive of a typically vaguely defined “private sector-led development” and even mooting the idea of turning half of it into an investment.

Should we be surprised by all this? With its welfare and public spending cuts actively increasing the number living hand to mouth, the coalition makes little effort to show any sympathy for people living in poverty in the UK, while its various economic reforms are increasing the power of big business. Why would it empower poor people abroad while it stamps on them at home?

But for the most part, the DFID is able to avoid the scrutiny that is usually instinctively applied to political pronouncements by enveloping its activities with the neutral benevolence that talk of global poverty or development suggests. Note, for example, how little is made of Andrew Mitchell’s past as an investment banker, or his deputy Alan Duncan’s previous work as an oil trader. Put these two in charge of any other government department and there would be an outcry over conflicts of interest. But when they’re talking to poor children or stoically explaining why it’s important to ‘do our bit’ and help those less fortunate, senses usually sharply attuned to any political posturing are often dulled.

This could change with greater awareness of the DFID’s work and better communication across borders. The experience of organisations like JADS actively confronting injustice and oppression, and demanding change on their own terms can be learnt from and built on by people fighting for similar things in the UK.

Andrew Mitchell is right when he says people’s empowerment is “central” to “addressing the barriers that prevent them from accessing services and benefiting from resources which they could use to lift themselves out of poverty”. But, just as in his home country, his government is one of the barriers to be surmounted. 

Photographs courtesy of JADS.

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