You may think that the most corrupt organisations in India belong to the government? But you may be wrong, because some of the biggest scammers in this country could be the non-governmental organisations, or NGO’s, and it is all done in the name of the poor of India.
In the old days, leaders of NGO’s used to work in the field, dressed simply, lived in humble dwellings and had minimal salaries, sufficient for their most essential needs. But today the new breed of NGOs you meet in Delhi or Bombay, is smartly dressed in jeans, he or she usually comes from India’s upper elite class, carry the latest laptop and often travel around in air conditioned cars. These NGO’s spend half of their time abroad, in London, Paris, or New York, doing smart presentations, with mesmerising slides and excel spreadsheets, in front of gullible westerners, always ready to shed a tear for the poor “downtrodden Indians”, so as to convince them to grant more funds.
And what is usually all about? Seventy per cent of the time “woman empowerment”, or “uplifting” the villagers. It is nowadays fashionable in India to highlight the downtrodden Indian women and their underprivileged place in Indian society. But no country in the world has granted such an important place to women in its spirituality and social ethos. And even today, behind all appearances – arranged marriages, submission to men, preference of male children in some rural areas (but girls are loved in India like nowhere in the world) - it can be safely said that very often, from the poorest to the richest classes, women control – even if behind the scenes – a lot of the family affairs: the education of their children (men in India are often “mama’s boys”), monetary concerns, and husbands often refer to them for important decisions.
Countries such as France or the US, who are often preaching India on “women’s rights” have never had a woman as their top leader, whereas India had Indira Gandhi ruling with an iron hand for nearly 20 years and proportionately they have lesser number of MP’s than India, which is considering earmarking 33 per cent of seats in Parliament for women, a revolution in human history!
But this obsession of NGO’s with women and village empowerment has completely eclipsed the burning issue that would require NGO’s attention with the tremendous amount of funds they attract from abroad : afforestation, as there are hardly any forest worth the name left today in India. Take the Himalayas for instance, and a region like the lovely Kumaon hills. Less than 40 years ago, people in Almora, the ancient capital of the Kumaons, still remember the beautiful blue cedars forests. Today, there are no forests left around Almora - they were cut down in the early 1970’s by contractors from the plains with the full knowledge of the government - except commercial pine forests, which impoverish the soil and do not hold it properly. Yet, there is terrible shortage of water in Almora, the climate has warmed-up considerably in the last 20 years and wood is fearfully expensive.
There are literally hundreds of NGO’s in the Kumaon hills, who are doing lots of women empowerment, lots of village uplifting, lots of weaving this and weaving that… but absolutely no tree planting. Why? “Because the others do not do it”, is the usual answer, when you ask some of the NGO’s or:“because it is too hard work”. But the beauty of the Kumaon hills around Almora is fast vanishing: more and more hotels are coming up, cutting more trees, like near the Kassar Devi temple, above Almora, where Vivekananda is supposed to have meditated and which has been bought to make into a resort by a non- resident Muslim who is suspected to have links with Ibrahim Dawood.
Most of the NGOs are funded by western countries but what is not always known is that they often get the bulk of their budgets from big Christian organisations such as Christian Air or Oxfam. Medha Patkar, for instance, has to her credit the Right Livelihood Award, the Rev. MA Thomas National Human Rights Award and others awards.
(Gautier is editor-in-chief of the Paris-based La Revue del’Inde (harmattan.fr) and the author of A New History of India.)