THE EARTH TIMES
APRIL 13 1994
NGO FROM INDIA
Grassroots reality in India
By Ashali Varma
Mirai Chatterjee, 34 has been working with women at the grassroots in India for the last nine years for the Self Employment Women’s Association (SEWA). A magma cum laude graduate of Harvard, Chatterjee obtained her master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University.
Why has India been so unsuccessful in population stabilization even thought it was one of the first countries to realize the need?
The development model India chose, I think, was the main reason for this. The government left out a vital sector –the women, particularly incentives for development for poor rural women. Our experience in SEWA, which started 22 years ago, has been that when women are given a means of earning an income, basic security, health and child care, they begin to feel a sense of power, collectively and individually. They have different hopes and aspirations. They want smaller families and want to educate their children. So one of the main reasons family planning was not successful was because the government did not take into account the realities at the grassroots level.
How much does the government of India rely on NGOS to help implement grassroots projects?
There is an increasing involvement of NGOs, but one major area for disagreement is the approach and strategy—NGOs focus on women and children at the grassroots level and build up from there. The government on the other hand, makes a national policy and works downward, without really knowing what is needed at the grassroots level.
At PrepCom3 has the Indian position taken into account the NGO position?
There are 20 Indian NGOs here representing different organizations, which have a common concern for women. I think the official Indian Government position has been progressively pro-NGO but that has not been reflected by the delegation here. They have tried to reduce the role of NGOs, particularly when it comes to NGOs, collaborating on policy. We are consulted but not as partners. With regard to Chapter 15 of the draft document, India took the lead in reducing NGO participation supported by China, Iran, Colombia, and Sri Lanka and some of the French speaking West African nations.
Why did they do this? What is their concern regarding NGOs?
The Indian delegation says that it is the business of the government and the elected representatives of the people to run programs and make policies. NGOs are not in a position to do it, as they do not represent the people. They objected to the US proposal that NGOs are “people-centered” and should have more of a role.
What can you and SEWA achieve by being present here?
The reason I’m here is, that in SEWA, we believe organizing poor women and creating a strong grassroots base is important for development. We also believe that the experiences and successes of NGOs should be put to use in formulating a regional and national policy. The real needs of women should be reflected in the document. Otherwise the policy makers will repeat the same mistakes.
Why should the Indian Delegation not agree to this, after all success stories make government policies look good?
The Indian Delegation has brought up a number of points which are supported and suggested by NGOs. In chapter 7 they-brought up the issue of the need for reproductive health care, including safe abortion services and the early detection of cancers for women. So they are positive about these issues. But the main point of difference is on the role of NGOs and collaborating with them. In Chapter 13.4, India was the only country that asked that the reference to collaboration with NGOs and the international community be deleted.
What do you hope will come out of Cairo?
I hope we get an agenda, which reflects the reality that is the perspectives and experiences of the world’s women, most of whom are poor. I also hope that resources will be directed to these priorities.
What happens between now to Cairo?
What has emerged here is the need for dialogue with our respective governments. In the case of India, the National Population Policy is being formulated. Ultimately, a grassroots membership organization like SEWA hopes that the needs of the women at the grassroots level will be recognized. We hope that these women and children will be able to have their voices heard at an international level.
How can family planning programs be effective in India?
On a conceptual level there should be an understanding that work and employment are the foremost priorities of the poor. Family welfare policies and income-generating programs must be the basis of an action program. Empowerment of women is essential along with education, information and awareness. Finally, women should be viewed as a valuable resource, and not a liability.