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A spat in Gujarat

Print edition : Nov 18, 2005 T+T-

The controversy involving the Narendra Modi government and SEWA brings to the fore the issues of accountability of non-governmental organisations and politically motivated attacks on individuals and groups opposed to the regime.

IT is a familiar story in Gujarat. Government gets annoyed with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for speaking out against the state's complicity in the anti-Muslim communal pogrom of 2002 (the "pseudo-secular, five-star NGOs", in the words of Chief Minister Narendra Modi). So, it harasses them - sends officials from the Income Tax Department and Intelligence Bureau to interrogate representatives and go through the organisation's records. But they cannot come up with anything substantial. This kind of harassment has become so common that the media ignore it.

The latest controversy involves the internationally renowned Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA). The State government said it found some irregularities during an audit of a government scheme called the Jeevika run by SEWA. The NGO denied the charges and held public protests and meetings. The media jumped into the fray, tracking every blow in the battle between the government and the NGO. SEWA withdrew from all government programmes, leaving the government stunned.

The Jeevika project is a seven-year livelihood security scheme for earthquake-affected people in 400 villages across three districts. The Gujarat government took a $15 million loan from the International Fund of Agriculture Development (IFAD) to be repaid at 9 per cent interest and passed it on to SEWA to implement the project. It is estimated that the Jeevika scheme alone reaches 14,645 families, of which 5,316 are the poorest of the poor.

While conducting an audit of the scheme, the government said it came across several irregularities (see table). After giving SEWA a chance to respond, the government cut Rs.33.23 lakhs from the Rs.2 crores grant instalment and sent a cheque for the balance. "For the past 11 months, the government has stopped the release of project funds. We could not pay our field workers salary for five months. The government wants to destroy our credibility," says SEWA founder Ela Bhatt. However, the government says that it sent SEWA its grant regularly, most recently in March, May and September. "The grant is given as a reimbursement of expenses, based on our annual work plan. The government has not had a meeting to pass this work plan. After six months of petitioning, the government released Rs.1.67 crores of the Rs.4 crores which had already been spent. It has affected 14,000 poorest families who are not heavily indebted and pushed them back into poverty," says Namrata Bali, general secretary of SEWA. "The government is now asking us to return the funds of other projects in 2000 for earthquake relief, which are already completed," she says.

While the government claims that records are not properly submitted, SEWA insists that it has answered all queries from the government and that the government has not acknowledged them. "Finally, we decided to pull out, since the government was refusing to listen to us," says Namrata Bali. The government was aghast. "We are silent sufferers in its public tirade. We would still like to work with SEWA if it improves its internal systems. Instead, it delivers this blow and walks away from its responsibility," says a government official.

What happens to the project and the people who it is supposed to benefit? "Most of the groups are self-sustaining so it should not hurt them much. It is just that the pace of setting up new self-help groups will slow down," says Namrata Bali. "For two years, the government cleared all our budgets. Everything was going smoothly. Why are they attacking us now?"

WHILE the media focus centres on the drama, the larger question of NGO accountability remains ignored. Can an NGO just walk away from its commitment, not only to the government and the donors, but also to the people? Natural disasters in Gujarat such as the Kandla cyclone and the Bhuj earthquake spawned a disaster rehabilitation industry as international funding poured in. How has all that money been spent? The same government that has brought up the SEWA audit has, for two years, been suppressing a report on how money given for earthquake relief was utilised in Gujarat.

SEWA alleged that the government is harassing it because many members are Muslim victims of the communal riots. While the media has hyped the Modi government's harassment of SEWA, they conveniently forgot that the NGO chose to remain silent while Gujarat burned. During the carnage, while more than 20 leading NGOs organised relief under the banner of Citizen's Initiative, this eminent organisation chose to stay away. But it did supply raw materials in camps for women to make beedis - at a meagre Rs.8 per 1,000, says a relief worker.

"No NGO is coming forward to support it [SEWA] now. At a time when it should have spoken out, it chose to remain silent. With just one phone call to Bill Clinton, such influential organisations could have put pressure on the government to stop the violence that continued for three months," says an NGO representative. "It is true we did not make any statement against the violence because our members were directly under attack; 1/3rd of our members are Muslims," says Ela Bhatt.

Not only riot witnesses but also those supporting them have been directly under threat. But the media remain silent. An NGO representative supporting witnesses has been the target of death threats, and acid bottles were thrown at her house. When she met Vadodara's Police Commissioner, he ensured a complaint would be lodged, but not a single case has been registered. He promised that police personnel would provide protection for her home, but it did not happen. All he did was give her tips on what to do if she was kidnapped.

The government interrogated and conducted checks on NGOs because they spoke out against the pogrom. Digant Oza, a petitioner in a Supreme Court case against the Gujarat government, was interrogated and his records were checked. The government wanted to impound the passport of Jesuit Fr. Cedric Prakash, claiming he was supporting terrorists. Fr. Prakash had testified about the communal violence before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Many other relief workers and lawyers supporting riot witnesses have been interrogated and some even jailed on the charge of being `terrorists'. R. Sreekumar, Additional Director General of Police (Intelligence), was transferred because he informed the Election Commission about the government's lapses in dealing with the violence. Later, he was called by government officials and warned of the consequences if he spoke against the State during his testimony before the judicial commission probing the violence.

"Why doesn't the government have the same zeal and speed when it comes to conducting investigations into riot cases and punishing the culprits?" asks an NGO representative. If the government is keen on transparency, why are not charities affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) ever interrogated or investigated? And if it is genuinely concerned about accountability, why has the report on the earthquake rehabilitation funds not been made public?