Tuesday 26th Sep 2017
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NGOs and Tribal Development in India: Issues and concerns

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From time immemorial India has a natural propensity for voluntary works by virtue of which “Moksha” was said to be attained. The trend persists obstinately. However the nature and mode of volunteerism has changed. In the pre-independence India, conventional volunteerism was aimed primarily at charitable works, ushering in social reforms, providing relief and rehabilitation for the people who became the victims of natural calamities like drought, flood, cyclones, etc.
However, in post-independence India modern volunteerism has become an issue-based approach, an ideology which aimed at income generating programmes, welfare services (like providing education and health service for the underprivileged), protecting human rights (advocacy for women empowerment and the marginalised), creating awareness about environmental protection, AIDS, launching crusade against child labour, assisting the displaced who are the products of development-induced programmes, etc.
Apart from Voluntary Sector alternative terms like Non-governmental organisations, Independent Sector, Civil Society, Grassroots Organisation, Self Help Groups and Non-State Actors are used as well. The NGOs that are often known as the “harbingers of change” can boast of playing multifarious roles like that of advocates, educators, catalysts, lobbyists, conscientisers, protectors of human rights and mass mobilisers who work incessantly for development. They have come forward with a human face to serve a human cause. This sector which has emerged as the universal “Third Force” strives for empowerment as well as social transformation.
The activities of the NGOs can be broadly summed up as:
To supplement the effort of the Government in such fields where the government is unable to reach the outreached;
To launch a crusade against the policies and actions of the Government which result in injustice and exploitation;
In the age of Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation where the state is withdrawing its authority from many of the development sectors and market is not much willing to share the burden of development, this sector has appeared on the scene as a liberator to protect the society from the onslaught and challenges of consumerism coupled with an urge for an equitable distribution of the fruits of development. The NGOs are known for their virtues of human touch, dedication, great initiatives, flexibility, positive orientation, bonding with the society to reach the masses in a very effective manner. They are often regarded as the partners of development. They make an honest endeavour to empower the marginalised people in such a way so that they can stand on their own feet with self reliance and depend less on charity and concessions provided by others.
At the other end of the spectrum is the issue of tribal development. The concern for the indigenous people had received high attention on the international agenda. The concern for “Vanavasi” or “Anushchit Janajati” as the tribals are called in India finds its echo in the UN Charter as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the post-independence India, welfare of the tribal communities has been the national goal and special responsibility of the Centre and the various State Governments. The Government took commendable initiative for the upliftment of the tribals as they are required to take part in the nation-building process along with the general populace of the country and participate in the decision-making process. The development of the tribals has been the constitutional obligation of the Government. Coupled with the provisions spelt out in the Indian Constitution and intervention packages, the Government had instituted numerous Commissions and Committees from time to time to assess the tribal situation in the country. But it was very unfortunate that in spite of these efforts and initiatives, the Government could not bring any radical change in the socio-economic development of these marginalised sections and subsequently they were pushed to the periphery. It was soon realised that all the activities and programmes relating to the tribal development can not be done single-handedly by the Government. The failure of the Government gives a fertile ground to the NGOs to work upon and extend a helping hand to their tribal breathren. What is required in the context of Indian tribal situation is the conscientisation of the tribals about their latent capacities and to motivate them for acquiring a better life. Repeated assistance in the form of spoon-feeding would not help them in the long run. Attempts should be made to help them in helping themselves.
NGOs can contribute in a positive note to the development of tribal health and in the protection of their indigenous knowledge base which is either ignored or exploited. We all know that the tribals have the keys to the biologically diverse areas. They have a profound knowledge of the flora and fauna, the appropriate plant species with medical importance, their location, the parts to be used, time of collection, preparation and administration of the same. Their knowledge of the ethno-medicine is very important for their existence. Moreover, there is a growing inclination all over the world for herbal drugs, nature based products instead of synthetic ones. But, there are certain threats to this indigenous asset of the tribals. Deforestation, environmental degradation, and lack of initiative of the younger generation to learn and adopt the medical practices of the tribal medicine men, lack of proper dissemination and transmission of the knowledge, piracy of the knowledge are some of them. The healing traditions and techniques are transmitted orally from generation to generation in the tribal areas because of the poor level of literacy in those areas. Hence, most of the time they are found in an undocumented form, which means slowly and steadily some part of it may be forgotten for good.
Against this backdrop, the NGOs have a very important role to play. The NGOs may create awareness among the tribals by demonstrating the conservation and preservation of the medical plants. They may use the audio-visual aids for creating a lasting impression and campaign for ensuring the promotion of herbal plants in kitchen-garden and nurseries. Sharing of knowledge in workshops is also recommended where both NGO professionals and tribal counterparts would participate. The NGOs should encourage tribal youths to take up the tradition of practitioners of tribal medicine as livelihood option and encourage in research and development of their practice. There is a global dimension of this problem as well. International agencies and multinationals often pirate the age old knowledge of the tribals for preparing drugs. Documentation of tribal knowledge becomes an urgent necessity in this case. The NGOs coupled with the Gram Panchayat can play a significant role in it. They can prepare a community register where such knowledge can be documented in the local language. They must be legally made aware of their traditional rights and move in the direction of preserving their knowledge under the auspices of Intellectual Property Right. However, there are certain grey areas in the functioning of the NGOs which must be analysed as well.
1. It is an astonishing fact that sometimes there are no linkage and coordination among the different NGOs that are working in the same geographical area and for a nearly identical purpose.
2. There should be more transparency in the function of the NGOs so that they may garner the support and faith of the ordinary people.
3. There is a need for closer interactions and exchange of ideas between the beneficiaries and volunteers of the project. They should explain their programmes to the beneficiaries and involve them in the decision-making process. The NGOs should try to apply indigenous knowledge base.
4. The work should be of a sustainable nature.
5. Fragmentation, powerlessness, corruption, nepotism, and internal weaknesses are some of the negative traits of the NGOs.
6. The NGOs hardly disclose their funding source and expenditure pattern. They refuse to reveal the names of their funding partners and reasons for tying up with them.
7. The NGOs are often alleged of using foreign money to undermine the state’s authority. In a free market economy, the donor agencies are often found scouting around the philanthropic houses. A proliferation of easy money often alters the operation style, the cost calculus, basic ethos, motivations, idealism and ideological underpinning of the sector.
8. NGOs are in a need of a regularised code of ethics and conduct. Flamboyant attitude of the NGO professionals are definitely not encouraging.
9. With the easy availability of foreign aids, working for an NGO has become a very good career option. Many retired bureaucrats take interest nowadays in opening up an NGO both as a pastime and a financially viable alternative. Therefore, the idealism with which the NGOs appeared in the social panorama is declining now.
10. There are allegations against the NGOs for large scale bungling, cheating and forgery.
11. Lack of accountability and commitment to the welfare of the masses are often witnessed.
12. They bring temporary solution to the problem and often fail to address the root cause of it and eradicate it.
13. The NGOs fail to scale or successfully transplant their lessons and experiences into large organisations and programmes for they fail to take into account the socio-cultural and area specific realities.
14. The NGOs are themselves entrenched between the welfare state on one hand and economy driven by globalisation on the other.
However, all these bottle-necks cannot be the reason for overlooking or marginalising the contribution of an organisation. In spite of these criticisms and drawbacks, it is an undeniable fact that the NGOs have emerged universally as a “Universal Third Force.”

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