15 February, 2010

The information gap | Oped | ekantipur.com

The information gap | Oped | ekantipur.com

FEB 14 -
On a recent consultation between donors and grassroots groups, in which I was a participant, it was interesting to note that the tenor of the conversation hadn’t changed much in the last ten to fifteen years I’ve been involved in Nepal’s development world. The donors still said they were giving a significant amount of money to government (20 percent of the budget at last count), and the grassroots and community groups continued to claim that very little was reaching them. Where, then is the gap?

Is it the fault of the government, ridden with inefficiencies and corruption? Is it the lack of monitoring and evaluation on the part of donors, who hand out large grants to government and organisations without a great deal of track-back information? Is it the fault, perhaps, of civil society, which should have (but hasn’t) demanded greater transparency and accountability from government and NGOs?

How can people in Humla or Dolpo know what grant has been allocated for hydropower in their district, and ask questions regarding the allocation? Donors claim they have public information outlets — the World Bank, for instance, has a public library that stores all of its grant information and which is publicly accessible by everyone from journalists to regular visitors. But other donors have been reluctant to share information for a range of reasons, extortion and threats being one concern. Journalists say they don’t know the in-depth specificities of each grant and what it means, so they are in no position to track down projects as they are implemented.

On one hand, donors felt that there had been a lot of progress — the death of children under five, as well as the death of mothers in childbirth, had been cut in half in the last ten to fifteen years. So why is this information not being highlighted with the same enthusiasm? Why is there a general sense of malaise regarding work accomplished? Surely roads and bridges and schools have been built in the past few decades, and much of it supported by multilateral and bilateral donors? Why then do people at the grassroots still feel there is a gap in their access to resources, and that it’s not reaching them as much as it should? The government needs, perhaps, also to cultivate its media connections and highlight its accomplishments, which it has been slow to do.

I was also struck to see how women were still asking for support for single women’s groups, for free health care to female reproductive health care, for medication for HIV positive individuals, and for the end of discrimination between girl and boy children. Surely one would have thought about a billion dollars has already been poured into these issues in the past two or three decades? If not in actual material terms, the media and publicity would certainly make you think so. I don’t know the actual figures but there seems to have been a large amount of interest and concern about these issues at international levels.

And yet, as one woman from Jajarkot told me, “There was funding for single women run groups affected by conflict, but it all went to people in the district headquarters. Those faraway from the centre, who were more affected, didn’t get funded.” How can this be? How can the donors not be aware that it’s more urgent than ever to fund community-based organisations and not just national level networks, and at the same time also take note of this dynamic of elite capture at the rural level?

What can be an effective way to ensure that the funds for the conflict-affected, or marginalised social groups, or HIV positive, or women’s reproductive health, ends up where it’s meant to, and not in the local Pajero dealership? The questioning has to start from civil society — everybody from journalists to those closely associated with projects must start to ask questions and demand answers about the actual allocation of funds and their disbursement.

A young friend of mine recently came to visit me with a request to support him — he was in the process of setting up a rehabilitation centre for HIV positive people. When talking about funds, he said: “I’ve heard you need an inside person in order to get the funds. I just heard of an NGO that got a million dollars, but they had to pay 50 percent of it to a broker inside the donor organisation. The foreigners as well as the Nepalis share the money. I hear the foreigners fight to come to Nepal because one year here means they can buy a home back in their country.”

I don’t think that’s likely, I protested, having worked in a donor organisation myself and seen the great care and impartiality with which funds were disbursed. But no, for this young man, the impression is that the foreigners as well as the Nepalis are involved in a giant for-profit business in which the overhead is very, very high and most of the funds ends up in the contractors’ pockets. This may not be true, as I said from my own experience. But just the fact that many people think this is the case should be troubling enough for donors and government to make their information of grants and funding publicly accessible for civil society to monitor and track.

Rumours, as one knows, breed where information is stagnant or unavailable. It appears to me, after listening in to this conversation, that the key to greater clarity is more information. There should be a free flow of information of what goes on between donors and government and NGOs, including their accomplishments and failures. A government gazette which notes all contracts, grants and funding initiatives, along with whom it was allocated to, and distributed to all districts, would certainly help to clear the air and give people a greater sense of control regarding state initiatives.

Once this information is easily accessible to the public, it will be easier to monitor and assess. Currently, our country is still in the “hallai hallo ko desh” (a country of rumours) phase. Some initiative on the parts of donors, government, NGOs, and CBOs on social auditing and budgeting of funds, along with greater public information, would help everyone get a clearer picture of what was given out, and how much of it reached the intended recipients.

Sushma Joshi blogs at:



07 February, 2010

The pen is mightier

The Kathmandu Post, 2010/02/07

I was slouching along the road one day, my face swollen with a root canal treatment, my articles unwritten, when I came upon the ever-inspiring poet Manjul. “Here is one of our beloved writers!” said Manjul enthusiastically to his friend. Reeling from a family party in which I had been attacked over my writing the night before, I grouched: “You don’t know how popular. You should read the hate mail I get.”

Manjul Dai, who used to teach at the Campus of International Languages during the time my mother worked there, and who is kind of an uncle figure, proceeded to give me a pep talk. “When people give you that sort of response, that means you are making an impact. When people tell you your writing is nice, it’s good, that doesn’t mean as much as when they yell at you. Abuse is a sign people take you seriously.” Maybe, I conceded, slightly mollified.

Manjul then proceeded, in his usual poetic way, to tell me: “The power of the pen is mighty. Don’t ever underestimate it. And we don’t write for any politicians, any political party. We write for the people. That’s our life’s work and we must continue to fight with the pen as other people fight with the gun. The pen is our sword, and we will win our battles with it!”

This line struck a chord. Only the day before, I’d received a call from Ashok Darnal, a young journalist and colleague who’d told me that COCAP was co-coordinating a countrywide pressure campaign to get the Constitution Assembly to write the constitution on time. “We don’t have a lot of time left,” he’d said. “The deadline is May 28. If the CA doesn’t write the constitution on time, the country will plunge into a state of Emergency. We must move our pens to pressure the Assembly.” Ah, that pen again. Why did people have so much faith in the power of the pen?

But then, come to think about it, we are asking our 601 CA members to move their pens. We are asking them, before all else, to do that radical act — to write. Despite their reluctance, despite their foot-dragging, we are asking them to do what is difficult even in the most ordinary of circumstances (writing is never easy), but which must be so much more difficult when you’re shaping an entire nation-to take up their pens, and write their part.

The constitution will be written with pens, not with guns. The letters that make up this most important document will be formed with ink, not with gunpowder (or tea, or TV visuals with Rishi Dhamala in the background — although possibly in the constitution there should be a Rishi Dhamala appendix so he doesn’t feel too left out. Inclusion, as we know, is the mantra of the day.)

But the constitution is not just formed with pen and ink. It’s made up of strong consensus — with room for disagreement — as to what’s best for the nation as a whole. It’s made up of a vision broad enough, and powerful enough, to unite and make at home all 26 million. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, where I picked up an extraordinary series of books titled WORDS OF FREEDOM: Ideas of a Nation, and featuring 14 of India’s foremost leaders who were responsible for writing the Indian constitution, I was moved and stirred by the power and poetry of their thinking. I was moved, most of all, by the generosity of their spirit. Despite sometimes radically opposing views, all of them have something to contribute to shaping this giant nation.

Sarojini Naidu, India’s “nightingale”, poet and freedom fighter, talks about the vision of patriotism in extraordinary poetry. For her, patriotism ranks along visions of love and faith. But her patriotism is never parochial — she also reminds her people: “I beg of you, my brothers, not to limit your love only to India, because it is better to aim at the sky, it is better that your ideals of patriotism should extend to the welfare of the world and not be limited to the prosperity of India...”

Her vision of Hindu-Muslim unity is vast in its generosity. The Hindus contributed “mystical genius” and “spiritual passion” to the world, but the Mussalmans contributed Democracy. “But the first secret of this great world-wide Democracy was laid in the desert sands of Arabia by a dreamer of the desert and it is the peculiar privilege of his spiritual children to bring to this mystic India of spiritual value the human sense of Democracy that makes the king and the beggar equal.” She goes on to critique the Hindu system of caste exclusion which limits its capacity to fundamental equality. She goes on to talk about the “mutual reverence for each other’s creed, mutual love for each other’s civilisation, and mutual trust in your common good intention and… equal responsibilities in the evolution of your great national life of tomorrow.” That, she says, is true Hindu-Muslim Unity.

Chastising the British for the Jallianwalla Bagh tragedy (where the guns, to our shame, were fired by quiescent Gurkha mercenaries who followed orders with great alacrity), and talking about the women dishonoured in this ugly chapter of imperial British history, she asks the British: “What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world if he lost his own soul? You deserve no Empire. You today have lost your soul… what is your plea for reprieve?”

Talking about the Brahmin-Brahmin issue, she is equally impartial in her chastisement of Brahmins, and of the non-Brahmins. “Have we not made our culture a sword with which to destroy the intelligence and liberty of those who were disinherited from our caste?” she questions the Brahmins. Equally, she questions: “And you, non-Brahmins… shall you who for centuries let slide your human rights, today with beginnings of your conscience and consciousness to free yourselves turn your finger of scorn and hate to the Brahmin and penalise him to this generation for the sins of his forefathers?.. throw in your minds and spirit into that great ideal of culture, freedom and equality that originally should have been your inalienable birthright.”

At the end, she graciously thanks not just Mahatma Gandhi but also “the scholars of Europe who have restored to us our pride and ancient culture, to the antiquarian and the archaeologist who has discovered for us our own ruined cities, to the missionaries of all countries who chose the life of poverty in far-off villages and served the poor and the needy and the desolate. To all we owe thanks.”

Naidu sings India into being. Where are our freedom fighters who can infuse the same patriotism and fire into their poetry and let that shape the new constitution?

Perhaps what is lacking in Nepal is not pen and ink, nor even the willingness and motivation to move the pen to write (or speak) the document. Perhaps what is missing is the poetry of spirit that shapes a great nation, the generosity of heart to include everyone from princes to paupers, and the transcending of the self for a higher purpose.


04 February, 2010

The Jaipur Literature Festival : Twenty-First Century Identities

Himal South Asia Guest Blogger Sushma Joshi

Kancha Iiliah, writer of “Why I am not a Hindu,” talks about how Dalits are not just outcastes, they are “outwriters.” Their literature is not seen to be valid, people are not interested to read what they write. People ask and say: Can there be such a thing as Dalit literature? If there can be Vedic literature, and Bhakti literature, and Marxist literature, and Gandhian literature, why can’t there be Dalit literature, asks Iiliah.

Om Prakash Valmiki also picks up on the same thread: “We are not Hindus, we are Dalits.” The violence still faced by the majority of Dalits in India and other parts of the subcontinent is directly caused by Hindu thought. God cannot be touched by the untouchables in Hinduism, and this, says Kancha Iiliah, is spiritual fascism.

From the Current issue: L. Brueck on Dalit Literature

Art by Rumen Dragostinov
P.Sivakami, a Dalit female writer who shook up her community with her critiques of patriarchy within the Dalit community in her book The Grip of Change, talked about one incident in which she was in charge of distributing bicycles to Dalit schoolgirls. The girls chosen, the government bureaucrats exclaimed, couldn’t be Dalits—because they were too beautiful. What they meant, explained P. Sivakami, is that they expected girls who were poor, malnourished and ill-dressed.

Iiliah couldn’t resist taking a dig at S Anand, the khadi-dressed organizer of the panel—and a Brahmin. “Look at him, he’s still wearing Hindu clothes while we wear these suits that Ambedkar told us to,” he joked. “Give me your coat!” responded S Anand, pulling at Iliah’s coat in mock dismay. Illiah also points out that caste has a distinct racial history. “Why do you think he looks like this, and we look like this?” he asks. After a bit of discussion, the panel agrees that caste has become pretty mixed up and there is no longer any racial purity left–however, discrimination is still deeply entrenched. “A group of Dalits changed their names and started to use Sharma,” said Valmiki. “And now the Brahmins in that area no longer use Sharma.”

“How can you people be so backward,” exclaimed one foreign-returned Indian, who cited South Africa and his puzzlement that Indians were apparently the only people in the world still practicing such racial apartheid. Of course, this enlightened gentleman’s observation immediately brought to the room the sense that the Dalit case was not unique–indeed, racial and religious discrimination still existed all over the world still.

Next out in the front lawn, Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize winning author from Nigeria, gave a beautiful rendering of a praise song. “Praise songs are meant to be hypnotic and mesmerizing,” he said. “Sometimes people who return from foreign countries and hear praise songs of their lineages and they become dizzy. You feel your head expanding.” I for one had to press down on the top of my head for a few seconds to make sure nothing was exploding out of there after that mesmerizing moment. Wole explained that he had staged a play with a praise song and certain suggestible actors had to be asked to leave since the drumming, the incantation and all the other powerful forces was getting too much for them and they were getting into a trance. It was better, he explained, that they be off the stage. The oral storytelling power that Wole brought to his reading, the sense of a griot out on the podium hypnotizing the crowd with metaphors of the road, the search, the constant dissatisfaction…It was almost as if, like a line in his poetry, that “strange voices were guiding my feet” and the horseman galloped on to a new sense of being as I listened to him read.

Wole Soyinka, asked about the religious conflicts in his country, said: “This is a virus.And it has spread all over the world.” Two hundred people died recently, he said, in one of these incidents. He grew up, he said, listening to church bells next to the muezzin’s call for prayer. Muslims sent over meat to their neighbors on Ramadan, and the Christians sent over rice and other gifts on Christmas. “I’m right, you’re wrong has now become I’m right, you’re dead,” he said dryly. He sounded bewildered, a little bit, that those tolerant times seem to be past.

Soyinka then talked about his year of solitary confinement, and how he used bones to make pens, and coffee as ink, to write poetry in the margins of books people brought in for him and then smuggled out. “I believe in forgiveness and reconciliation,” he said. “But sometimes you have to be careful since these people are incorrigible, and you can’t be too forgiving. But most of all, I believe in restitution.”

An audience member, responding to his beautiful rendition of a poem in Yoruba, asked him: How do you maintain your Yoruba identity in this age of contamination? “You must maintain a core identity even in a contaminated world,” said Soyinka.

In the Mughal Tent, Isabel Hilton and Tenzing Tsundue debated another fragment of the global story on how to hold on to an identity in another kind of pulverizing force—a nation state intent on wiping out the identity of a people. Hilton talks about Tibetan nomads who are being resettled in barracks in the middle of the desert, with no work. They are given some compensation which they finish within the year. Then they are stuck there, with no work. Herding has been made illegal, and not just a way of life could be gone. Tibetan nomads are to be “settled” within the next two years. “It could be too late very soon,” she says. There is silence in the audience as we digest this.

“How can Obama dare to give our country away?” Asks Tsundue, who has just been asked by William Dalrymple, moderator, about that famous President’s statement that Tibet will always be part of the Republic of China. “What right does he have?”

Hilton had different views. Since China will never give up Tibet due to its strategic location, its water resources, and the sense of it being a part of larger China, she said, it may be more practical to think about ways in which Tibetans can have an easier life, and how their way of life can survive, in this reality [See The new relationship in Himal December 2009 for the evolving political relationship to Tibet in the region]. This is what we should be negotiating about, she said. “The Chinese government is not a monolith,” she said. “As somebody said, government is often a big issue run by little people.”

Tsundue, with the undying hope of the exile, didn’t agree. “Freedom cannot be given: it has to be taken,” he said simply. “It has to be worked at. It is not what China will give or not give. They will leave when their interests are exhausted.”

“It is very dangerous for Tibet,” Isabel Hilton said, “To see the Dalai Lama as the embodiment of Tibet. After his death, there will be a big void. We need more secular voices. Where is the cultural Tibet–the writers, artists and thinkers? We need to work to create a new cultural idea of Tibet.”

And this, perhaps may have been the food for thought for today—that all the discrimination faced by Dalits, all the religious terror wrought on minorities in Nigeria, all the persecution faced by Tibetans–all of this could perhaps be moderated, perhaps even shifted to another level, by bringing down the religious volume and putting more secular voices on the dias. And by creating new cultural identities of what it means to be a Dalit or a Bhramin, a Nigerian Christian or Nigerian Muslim, or a Chinese or a Tibetan of the twenty-first century.

इ eat god, I drink god, I sleep on god...


I eat god,
I drink god,
I sleep on god…

It is the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival and Girish Karnad, who is supposed to give the keynote lecture, along with heavyweights like Wole Soyinka and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., are missing in action. They are possibly lost in the Delhi fog, or the traffic, or maybe they didn’t even depart their home cities and countries in the first place. The roads, you know, says one of the organizers. Apparently this is a good enough explanation and the crowd asks no questions and asks for no explanations—we start off the day with a remarkably serene and unhurried shift to readings of Kabir instead. The day is beautiful, the sky is blue, there are long runners in pink, yellow and orange fabrics above our head and two dhol-players are causing a tremendous ruckus and making us all feel invigorated. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is on stage and goes from Kabir to Arun Kolatkar with effortless ease. And that is why, instead of a lecture on “Entertaining India”, we are listening to a lovely poem that eats god and sleeps on god and talks about how the poet hopes his mother-in-law (plus all his other in-laws) would drop dead so he could be alone with his lover.

So starts the day. I have never heard of Arun Kolatkar but I am ready, at the end of the reading, to run out and buy his book. The bookstore is full of books by the authors who are present at the event, but first a writer should look around and check out the people who are present—a colorful assortment of women and men dressed in drop-dead gorgeous Indian fabrics, and where the Westerners look rather plain and pale unless they invested in some Indian fabrics and trinkets. No doubt the place is teeming with literary celebs—the problem with spotting them is that everyone looks the part, right down to little girls who carry their books around like devoted readers and writers. I spot is a group of local Jaipurians who are looking at the schedule with deep concentration. I savor this scene for a while—locals immersed deeply in their own literary event.

Then a minute later I realize why people are concentrating so hard on the schedule—basically, half the speakers are absent, there has been a drastic change of plans and nothing is going according to schedule. The people who have arrived early are asked to be on panels, and before long I find myself listening to Vikram Chandra (scheduled to present on the last day) talking about his latest book about the underworld, as well as the banality of evil. He talks about criminals and murderers that he met. The most horrific thing that he came to learn, he said, was that most people who did these terrible things were ordinary people like you and me. They were not monsters. They were religious, god fearing men who kept shrines at the back of their homes, and yet they were able to commit horrific acts that the ones that occurred during Partition. “The frightening thing is to realize that the people who are murderers and criminals are not so different from us,” he said. “There’s two degree of separation between criminals and people in the audience.” I had met Vickram Chandra when he was teaching at the Breadloaf Conference in 2002. I noticed that eight years in the United States seem to have trained him to become more charitable to the world than condition of the rest of the world allowed for.

Claire Tomalin (scheduled to speak on Saturday) gave her talk on Jane Austen promptly and with joy. There is nothing more delightful than a Jane Austen scholar who loves the writer and treats her with the greatest respect. Claire talked about the conditions of Austen’s life—her poverty, her lack of money, her lack of publishing success, her ten years of depression and being unable to write—all of which added up to a literary phenomenon. Austen talked about taboo topics that other writers didn’t touch, she said. Tomalin gave her talk with humor and intelligence, and the audience responded in kind. Jane Austen appeared to be required reading for women in India, from the questions—half of the questioners also insisted that Claire MUST see “Bride and Prejudice”, which was the final word on the book. Claire insisted, politely but firmly, that she did not see these adaptations. ““Bride and Prejudice” made me realize a lot of things I hadn’t learnt from the book,” gushed one reader enthusiastically. I belched. One reader, however, did add an interesting tidbid—Austen’s horrid Mrs.Norris had been reincarnated as a cat in Harry Potter.

Then we went on to see Geoff Dyer and Amit Chowdari, moderated by Amitav Kumar, talk about “Visible Cities”. Geoff talked about his latest book on Venice and Benaras, and read a short chapter about a monkey who steals a man’s sunglasses in Varanashi and holds it hostage, while the man tries to get it back from him by bribing him with bananas. All would have been well and good and we’d have thought it was just a good piece of comedy if he’d not read about how the monkey could “evolve” (be careful with that word, writers!) as a species if he gave back the sunglasses, and if he didn’t, he’d always be a monkey. Then he talked about “history”, just a line or two but enough for an audience member to wonder if he didn’t know, as a smart man of the twenty-first century, how colonial culture categorized Third World peoples as “monkeys”…Hmmm… this bit of monkeying around was possibly smart of him, or maybe it wasn’t. Not in a tent full of people who are too aware of post-colonial criticism. Amit Chowdari read about Calcutta—a beautiful and evocative piece. Then he referred to Susan Sontag’s “Under the Sign of Saturn,” and how Walter Benjamin had talked about how he was a man born under this sign, therefore he never finished any of his projects, and this was the line she’s picked up and written her essay on. A literary throwaway aside, kind of like strolling through the streets of an old city as a flaneur.

The afternoon ended in the front lawn with the delightful Mr. Alexander Mc.Call Smith talking about his “#1 Detective Agency” and how he came up with this idea. He and William Dalrymple, who was interviewing him, had a good laugh at the expense of the Scots, who apparently indignantly protested the ten thousand pounds allocated by the Scottish government for the festival—the money, suggested the critics, could have been better spent on fighting illiteracy in Scotland. “There are actually Scottish secret agents out there in the audience, dressed in kilts, trying to keep track of this money. They think we don’t see them, but we do,” chucked the writer, as he burst out in a fit of laughter.

Sushma Joshi blogs at www.sushma.blogspot.com and www.sushmasfiction.blogspot.com