Sunday, August 07, 2005

Learning to aid III: choices, choices, and choices

This is the third and final post oh Ravi Kucchimanchi'’s conversations with us. The first two can be found here and here.


This was a widely free flowing discussion, where a situation was presented and we were asked for possible solutions or ways to tackle the problem. Though it was based on snippets from real life incidents, we'll assume that this is hypothetical. A simple situation of corruption being the primary obstacle to basic progress.

Now, let's take the example of a village with around 200 houses. 150 of them don't have electricity, though the village is officially "electrified". You investigate, and find out from the villagers that the only way to obtain an electricity connection would be to pay a fairly large bribe, say some 1500 rupees. This may not seem too exorbitant, but we're talking about very poor villagers, who spend about 40 rupees per month on kerosene for their lanterns. Many of them want electricity so that they can have a couple of light bulbs at home, their kids can stay back and study in the evenings, and perhaps they can afford a fan to use in the summer months. Seems very basic, but this small change means a lot to them. And they cannot afford to pay the bribe, and remain powerless (pardon the pun). The situation was thrown open to us, and we were asked for possible solutions. Here are some that were voiced.

1) Try to unite the poor villagers, and force the local authorities to provide the villagers these basic services by taking legal action against them.

Problems with this scenario: This would certainly be a long and difficult struggle. If you as an outsider were doing this, you will have to remain in this village for a long time (probably years) to see this fight through. That would be difficult for you. Secondly, the villagers might have to undergo a lot of other hardships (repercussions) if they start these demands. Thirdly, it is difficult to keep a group already with difficulties to stay united. Legal disputes and cases take a long time for resolution in court (years sometimes), and can be very expensive. Who will bear the expense for that many years? Who will ensure the implementation of the court verdict, even if it is in their favor? Much easier said than done.

2) We know that such corruption exists. But there is some validity of strength in numbers. So, couldn't the villagers unite, and then say that though they can't pay the huge bribe, they will together pool a smaller (but still large, because of scale up) amount each, and give this in bulk. Sort of like a Costco or Sam's club bulk rate pricing, a discounted rate of corruption (yes, a couple of us came up with this idea!)

Problems with this scenario: Come on, if an ethical battle is being fought, you have to take a correct stand. This would absolutely condone corruption. Additionally, it may or may not work, but will make any future in the progress next to impossible.

3) As an NGO, promote alternate energy sources, such as solar or biogas, which can be used in place of electricity.

Problems with this scenario: This one can be viable, but only in certain cases. The costs of solar lightning etc are (still) much higher than conventional electricity sources, and require a lot of funding. It is cheaper for say, solar cookers, but solar lighting is another proposition all together. With biogas etc, it's not enough to have cattle, but there should be a certain number of cattle, as well as sufficient quantities of water to spare. Again, cost factors are fairly high (to build a distribution system etc). However, some groups, like the Barefoot college have managed to solve some problems with this approach. Still, it is difficult for small groups to do this in a large number of villages. Implementation requires a huge grassroots base, which most groups donÂ’t have.

4) Look for sincere officials to help combat this problems. After all, all government officials can't be bad.

Problems with this scenario: It is absolutely true that there are good government and administrative officials, who are not corrupt and work sincerely. However, they are not the rule, and a large section of the officials are not in this category. Often, the good ones are themselves powerless given their surroundings (if say there is a good middle level official, but the immediate superior is corrupt, the good official is unable to act. Sometimes, a junior official who is corrupt might be politically or locally very powerful, and the senior official can't go against him/her). But it certainly is a good idea to find these officials, and take their help whenever possible. However, in say the situation above, this alone will not provide a solution.

5) Gather some villagers, surround (in this case) the linesman and ask him why he accepts bribes (say at a panchayat meeting). Try to publicly question him, and hope that yields results.

Problems with this scenario: Usually, the lowest official will claim that he's being paid too little. Then the villagers will clamor that this is not true, and reveal his (usually rather adequate) salary. He'll backtrack, and then say that his share of the bribe in only 50 rupees, the rest go to superiors. So he might magnanimously forfeit his share. But this gets more and more difficult as you go up the ladder (to say a senior engineer, who's cut is actually heftier). Still, there are merits in this suggestion as well.

6) How about negotiating a settlement with the officials, with a request that they at least consider requests from the poorest applicants without demanding bribes. The list would be provided to the officials by an impartial external group (say the NGO), with the guarantee that each person in the list is too poor to possibly pay the bribe. This person could the be awarded a connection. The carrot to the government officials in this case would be a guarantee not to go to the press, or press charges.

Problems with this scenario: Even if the officials agree to this (due to your constant pressure), they might take a very long time to execute this/clear the files. Additionally, would it not be unfair to the others, who, though they can possibly afford the bribe, should by right not have to pay it. Where do you draw the line? Here you are not really condoning corruption, but you are drawing some line to start your fight. However, it is a possibly viable stance.

These were just some of the ideas we discussed, and include real life situations. But do you have more ideas? Would you choose to do any of these, or come up with something different? There clearly aren't any right or wrong answers, just choices. Go on, what would you do?


Anonymous said...

I would opt for (5) or some modifications thereof. Perhaps the villagers should block the chief engineer or the electricity office itself instead of a mere linesman. This with (1), i.e., instead of a few from one village many from different villages, will carry some weight and might result in some results, I would think.

If villagers are also stern that they'll vote only for the party who takes care of their problems like this and not to somebody who provides cash and liquor the previous day, that too should make a difference.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
Interesting post.
I find it incredible that such politics occurs in a village of 150 homes. One thing though, I suspect that it legitimately is expensive to connect just one home to electricity, for even a corrupt official would not want to price himself out of a deal. It might be much cheaper per person if nearly everyone agrees to have electricity at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Remove the buyers from the market and the sellers will not have anyone to sell to. Basically ask all villagers to boycott taking connections, then the department does not receive any money at all as there are no buyers.

If the villagers are patient then over time this can be taken to press and the issue can get resolved just by waiting. It may look a bit weak, and takes time, but looking at the situation looks like this may help out.

The villagers uniting and taking action by going to the engineers office seems a violent threat at the face of it. Facing a group of 150 and justifying corruption can turn the group into a mob based on how bad their requirements are. (Shyam)

Anand said...

Shyam -- That's a nice suggestion. But is that practical? There could also be caste/class equations in a typical situation. It's tough to imagine those who can afford willingly giving it up. Typically people come up with excuses to make theirs an exceptional case.

Facing a group of 150 and justifying corruption can turn the group into a mob based on how bad their requirements are. Hopefully that should prevent the officers from justifying corruption in front of a crowd. In any case I don't see the deprived sections getting what's due to them without fighting for it. The fight could take different modes though. Gheraoing is one. Mass boycotting as you suggested is another.

Anonymous said...

Disclaimer: Not supporting non-violence here nor suggesting that is the best route always. Basically not taking sides as to the Gandhian way or not is the best.

Many a times I feel like punching the guy on the next car/bike for not following simple road rules, but is that going to help. I am an underweight/non-muscular fellow (relating to the village mass here being powerless) so violence/gheroing dosent work for me if I dont have numbers/power. That is my worry with that approach. If these are the deprived people then power equation is not with them.

Another way out is deny the engineer/workers in the electricity board any amenities in the village if they live somewhere nearby and depend on it, or charge them more for the same, basically suggesting the the villagers need to unite here. So if the villagers are going to play the caste/class/affordability game here, it boils down to a city situation where a person who can (afford to) bribe the telephone line guy 300/- gets the connection first and the other(s) has(have) to suffer.

In all I agree that this is quite a tricky problem that Sunil has posed here.

As this is the first time I am posting to a BLOG entry I am not sure if a discussion is what is apt in such comment colums, educate me if I am taking this too far in a unrelated area.

Sunil said...

Anand.....the problem here is getting the villagers together for long enough to see this through. Most of them are (a) scared or (b) unable to say take a day off work (it would sometimes mean starving for that day) to press the issue. But, for some one who doesn't just provide cash or liquor befor the election might have a big effect! happens every where. will be hard for a corrupt official to price himself out of a deal. But then, would the condoning of the corruption be a good thing on the long run? Of course, it will help in the villagers tremendously, if they do get their power.

Shyam, please feel free to discuss your ideas. That (in my eyes) is the main purpose of the comments section. A boycott is easier said than done, and there are a number of social/caste/religious factors also in uniting the village. And why will a villager who has power forgo this connection to help the cause? Especially when one discovers how much nicer and easier life is with electricity around. But yes....if the villagers can create a reverse system of boycott (i.e. deny the officials any services in the village), that might have some effect. But then.....the official could bribe the villager, saying if you provide (specific thing X) you'll get a connection :-)

Fascinating connundrum. And, if I have to take a stand, I'll support an option only if it is non-violent.

Anonymous said...

Pardon me for visiting TOI website. But check this out.

Anonymous said...

I think there should be both a short term and long term focus to such a problem - because as Sunil says, the villagers may not have the time or energy for a prolonged battle - 5 seems most doable - not stopping at the linesman and taking this maybe further up

and in the meanwhile, keep working on option 3 or even 1 - hopefully, it may not be necessary for the outsider to stay on for years, once there is some collective feeling within the village...
to me, option 6 is a no no, what is the point in further dividing the community instead of getting them together? this would only lead to further corruption...

Sunil said...

Nema......a shocking story, and very saddening. I'll forgive you for reading TOI this once.

Charu....actually option 6 wouldn't divide the village further. The poor don't have electricity connections, while the richer already the divide is already there. Meanwhile...the option is a slow-drawn submit a list, suggested by the villagers (a collective decision, not done on the sly) who decide who is poorest. The officials take their own sweet time to get the job done. There isn't any encouragement of corruption, quite the opposite actually. You first work to ensure that the poorest get their rights, and work your way slowly to the top. People have tried this option, and impressively, entire villages have been electrified, and corruption completely curtailed.

Collective feeling in the order to stand up for rights....takes a long time to achieve. Its an idealistic goal. 3 does work however, if the funds for that are available.

Anonymous said...

Sunil, my feeling is that among the poor, trying to identify the poorer and the poorest would cause division... I also think this would lead to other forms of corruption - paying bribes to be counted among the poorest! like what happens with welfare schemes based on economic / social background (the clamor for an mbc certificate, for instace)

Anonymous said...

but you are saying that this has worked - that is very impressive.

what you've said about building collective feeling - I thought of the concept of post-materialism - some sociteies, like the US for instance are considered post-materialistic - basic /materialistic needs are so fully taken care of, that they think about higher order needs - reminded me of this concept - I guess with poor communities they are struggling for more basic, immediate needs..?

Sunil said...

Actually worked because it wasn't an idea thrust upon them. The villagers themselves came up with the idea, after extensive discussions. And they themselves came up with the lists, which was then fwd'd by the NGO to the officials......all done quite transparently. So, the government imposed system (and buying an "MBC" certificate etc) never arose! But we're forgetting that we're taking this to be hypothetica :-)'s very sad to read that story of the lady who cleans your gym. It's especially sad because there are millions like her. But collective action will slowly change that.

Amit said...

Sunil - This is so depressing. The very fact that helping the needy in our country is sometimes a losing battle.

I remember a conversation with a social worker in India last year, who said that the social work is not about small victories which keep you motivated but about the losing battles on a daily basis and the fact of how much you can endure....

Riot said...

The tree hugger in me would say Option 3.

150 out of 200 is a pretty large number. What ever money they were willing to give as bribe could be pooled to set up an elementary solar system. NGO can contribute whatever they have with them

There are several solar energy companies today that will come and help set up a small system.

This initial set up can be used to power a common spot in the village. A school or a reading room. Kids can all come here to study in the evening.

If this works out, then the next step is to apply for carbon trading funds. Use this money to expand the solar infrastructure slowly

What say you ? Am I nuts or crazy ?

Sunil said...

Amit.....there are small victories, and they keep a lot of people going. And there are some remarkable successes as well.

One more reason.....that is a suggestion that will work, but not every where. But groups like the barefoot college (which I have linked to) have been successful with very similar approaches.

The carbon trading though may or may not work.....but it's worth doing. Slowly groups in India are learning about these aspects, and it is becoming more and more viable.

Sunil said...

yes indeed, blokes.

I just try to learn, and share some of my thoughts so that I can learn more.

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