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  • Free meals make them dependent, so should they go back to eating grass?

    By Girija Godbole

    A couple of months ago, a free community kitchen offering three square meals to the starving Sahariya tribals of Baran district in Rajasthan, was forced to shut down after NGOs claimed the tribals would become victims of the 'dependency syndrome'. But how and when do you draw the line between relief measures and sustainable rehabilitation?

    Forty-seven starvation deaths were reported recently from Baran district in Rajasthan. Most of the deaths were from the Sahariya community, tribals who subsist by gathering forest produce and working as casual farm labour.

    To provide relief in the form of food to the starving people in this district, a voluntary organisation, the Sant Ashram of Pehowa, Haryana, started a langar or community kitchen. Dozens of volunteers cooked and served substantial meals to the starving. But not for long. Other development workers in the area expressed fears that the langar would encourage unnecessary dependence. "At the langar they are eating three times a day. And at home there is no food," said one observer.

    Bowing to the criticism, the ashram decided to close down the langar. And the Sahariyas in all probability went back to eating chapattis made of sama seeds, a kind of wild grass.

    The question is: is it ethical to stop emergency relief in the fear of creating dependency? And were the Sahariyas offered any options other than the acceptance of the free meals?

    The Sahariyas belong to one of the nine primitive tribal communities in the country.

    They are still mostly hunter-gatherers. The Sahariyas form the single largest community in Baran district in Rajasthan, constituting 21 per cent of the population. In Shahabad and Kishanganj blocks, they form 34 per cent of the population. Almost 50-60 per cent of this tribal community lives Below the Poverty Line (BPL).

    Till recently, the Sahariyas survived on minor forest produce and a kind of shifting agriculture. When forests started dwindling around the time India gained independence and in subsequent years, the Sahariyas began tilling other people's lands -- mostly the Jats, Gujjars and Sikh farmers of the area. Not accustomed to the exploitative cruelties of the non-forest world, they lapsed into a life of bonded labour. Though freed after the passing of the Bonded Labour Act nearly a quarter-century ago, they continue to eke out a difficult living, working on other people's land in the forests and doing public works. Agricultural labour and minor forest produce provide most of their sustenance.

    The drought over the last three years put paid to that sustenance. Unused to drought and the complexities of a non agri-forest economy, the Sahariyas neither store foodgrain nor migrate to cities and distant regions. So, when the crops failed this year, there was no grain wage to be had from working other people's fields and therefore no grain to eat. Hence sama, seeds from a variety of wild grass which perishes and quickly becomes poisonous, became the only source of food for the majority of the Sahariyas. There were little government relief works on the ground leaving the poor tribals to face starvation.

    In disaster management circles the 'dependency syndrome' is the new buzzword. Dependency is to be avoided at all costs. And indeed dependency has been created in several communities, for instance in Orissa after the supercyclone, where years after the disaster some villagers refuse to get back to their traditional livelihoods and still wait for external aid and doles. Field workers who visited Orissa nine months after the supercyclone, for a Christian Aid study, were constantly confronted by aggressive local people who asked them what they were doing there if they had neither money nor material aid to offer. In one village a researcher was served Pepsi cola by a community that kept a small horde of the cold drinks they had received from aid agencies in the hope that the researcher would arrange to supply the villagers with more goodies.

    Development agencies themselves are often criticised for being victims of the 'dependency syndrome' -- in their case, dependence on external aid agencies. Sometimes the organisations themselves are responsible for transmitting the feeling of dependency to the local communities they are working with.

    According to Dr Phil Bartle, a senior planner, trainer and adviser to development projects with over 30 years of experience in the field of social and community development in Africa and Asia, the dependency syndrome is an attitude and belief that a group cannot solve its own problem without outside help. It is a weakness that is made worse by charity.

    In an emergency situation, relief work is the only solution. Distributing food, medicines and clothing becomes essential. As Dr Tom Palakudiyil, India representative of Christian Aid says: "If the house is on fire one cannot think about ethics."

    In the initial phase it is important that victims are made to feel secure and comfortable and also made to believe that there is help around. Immediately after any disaster the affected people may not be in a position to get on with their normal lives.

    People come out of the state of shock gradually and start making an effort to come to terms with their changed situation. It is at this stage that aid should be slowly diverted from relief to rehabilitation activities. The nature of a calamity will determine how long relief should continue. Generally development professionals experienced in disaster management suggest that after the first three to four months it is advisable to move from the relief to the rehabilitation phase. The aid should help them start their lives over again.

    Tom Palakudiyil of Christian Aid suggests: "The best strategy to avoid creating dependence on external aid is to shorten the gap between relief and rehabilitation. It is important to develop programmes that are sustainable and can be managed by the people. The best thing is to take them back to what they were doing. In the initial phase, the agency has to give direction to the affected people. Put them in touch with government as well as other sources of aid."

    Dr Mukund Ghare, president, Agricultural Renewal in Agriculture in Maharashtra (AFARM), agrees with him. He feels, "the key to avoid dependence is to take them back to their original livelihood as soon as possible". Ghare has been involved in rehabilitation work in the earthquake-affected Latur and Kutch regions. His experience is that many charitable organisations distributing food, clothing and utensils over a prolonged period often do not lead to any sustainable solution to improve the life of the affected. It is generally seen that the affected people stock up whatever comes along even if it is of little use to them. Their lives do not improve in any way.

    There are several organisations, however, which now develop careful strategies to make sure that aid creates livelihood opportunities for the people, enabling them to sustain themselves instead of making them dependent.

    As Debabrat Patra of Action Aid, who has been working with the affected people of Orissa after the supercyclone of 1999 says: "Our Food For Work (FFW) programme design ensured wage employment to each vulnerable household for a period of 10-12 days in a month. Extending the scope of FFW activity planning to areas like agriculture, shelter gave them scope for need-based programming. When somebody works for her/his private property, chances of dependency obviously go down to the minimum".

    According to Palakudiyil, "to make the community self-reliant it is necessary to identify individuals from the community who can act as leaders, volunteers who can deal with tensions, dynamics within the society. Efforts should be made to build the capacity of these individuals. It needs some mentoring by the development agency".

    To ensure development in the real sense of the word any developmental agency should encourage the local people to take the initiative to improve their lives. The role of the agency should be that of a facilitator.

    Brijpal Patel, working with the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) for the rehabilitation of 20 villages in Halvad taluka in Gujarat, feels that "the agencies implementing the programme have to primarily design their activities to lead to development and not just rehabilitation. So, need identification and the nature of intervention needed from the organisation should come from people, which can be expressed by the community through the gram sabha approach. We at CEE have done just this. It should also be made clear to the communities that the organisation's agenda is to facilitate development in future".

    As J W Fennell, vice-president of the London-based Humanitarian Services says: "Always give aid to save lives in an emergency but as soon as people begin to find their own coping mechanisms... the extent of your involvement is then a matter of politics, which can be thought through - or side-stepped."

    Unfortunately the media, after its fleeting attention, development agencies with their new theories, and the government with its lack of response and resources, all appear to have side-stepped the issue of the starving Sahariyas.

    Source: InfoChange News & Features, January 2003

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