The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Development Hegemony: NGOs and the State in India By Sangeeta Kamat, Oxford, Rs 495

Over the past decade or so, the domination of externally funded NGOs in the political scenario of developing countries has risen significantly. With rapid globalization, it is important to take a fresh look at social development in the light of the work of the grassroots-level NGOs. This is precisely what Sangeeta Kamat tries to do.

The role of the NGOs working at this level is often dismissed cynically with the allegation that they have failed to transform their movement into a broader political vision. To them, it is believed, the idea of change has become a mere cliché.

However, instead of just writing a critique of such NGOs, Kamat takes a look at the positive contribution of NGOs in Indian politics. Based on the ethnography of one such organization working within tribal communities in Maharashtra, Kamat tries to trace the discourse of social transformation. The NGO which Kamat studies, professes development with social justice — an ideology that is in direct conflict with the state oriented model of development and modernization.

The social world of the NGO is differentiated into the non-political and the political. Development activities and agencies are, by law, decreed as non-political and herein comes the sansad side of the NGO. But the need of radicalism and the politics of resistance have resulted in the birth of sangathana.

The sansad is a careful accommodation of the state’s development model, managing various economic projects with professional non-adivasi employees. The sansad is in tune with the perspective of the state on problems of tribal poverty, exploitation and so on which is often decontextualized from the actual social and political setting. On the other hand is the sangathana, functioning with the adivasis as core members in decision-making as well as in action.

According to Kamat, the underlying conflict between the two different structures leads to problems in maintaining balance between the mainstream model of development and a highly localized participatory model of the organisation.

In an attempt to alleviate the suffering of the tribal population, the government often comes up with income-generation schemes, whereby it doles out capital and gives supportive infrastructure. Kamat points out that in this way the state emerges as a substitute for the landlord/moneylender in the life of the tribal. In the case of this particular NGO, the state has centred its activities around dairy farming. Kamat uses the Marxist notions of “reification” and “fetishism” to show how the cow assumes a special power to radically alter the fate of the beneficiaries. Milk, human labour are converted into products by technology. Kamat elaborates on the “unfreedom” of freed labour, wherein the adivasis voluntarily submit to the coercion of the state.

But where is the opposition and how is it represented through the sangathana' Kamat feels that the sangathana is largely ineffective as its praxis is, to a large extent, constituted by the state’s development discourse. This book is an important contribution to the analysis of the current trend of “NGO-ization” of grassroots politics. Its portrayal of the internal dynamics of the NGO and its role within the context of the state and social relations deserves praise.

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