“You get scale and pace at the price of building decision making structures and trust.”

Series 2 Episode 5

In the Field Series 2. Ep 5. “You get scale and pace at the price of building decision making structures and trust.”

Approx run time: 38 minutes.

Note: In the Field is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. Readers are encouraged to listen to the show to get the full experience. The transcripts are meant as support documents and may not include inclusions from the day of recording and may contain errors. The audio version is the final version of the show.


Samyuktha Varma (SV):  The past decade has seen a proliferation of movements all over the world. Fighting for everything from racial equality, to end authoritarianism and corruption, for struggling farmers, for climate action, for net neutrality and to end sexual harassment. Protest has also become an unavoidable part of our daily digital diet and it is on the rise, as the stories of groups and their struggles have found their way to our living rooms and dining tables. And of course we’ve argued about them all with our nearest and dearest. 

In the Field is a show that is very interested in the question of how social progress takes place? And how each of the units of development praxis play their part? And at its heart, very often, lies the NGO, that works alongside these movements, with the government, for the citizens, and thanks to funders. It’s these NGOs, that engage with the state, help deliver services, or make people more aware and empowered.

But the NGO is constantly evolving , responding in many ways to external forces and demands. And this is an inner conflict that has fueled many, many water-cooler conversations and late nights in field spent drinking beer. As more people take to the street to protest, where does this leave the NGOs? And when we talk about civil society, are we leaving anyone out?

I’m Samyuktha Varma, I’m Radhika Viswanathan. And Welcome to In the Field, A show about India and Development supported by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. We’re back, after a long summer. Thank you for waiting. 


Radhika Viswanathan (RV): The year is 1979. Newspapers are full of stories of brides dying shortly after marriage. The cause? Suicide. Or that’s what most of the stories would say. Typical headlines read something like:

“Bride burnt to death”, “Housewife found burnt”

They weren’t long stories, mostly just short lines in local newspapers. But it was their frequency that was alarming. And the fact it was a pan Indian phenomenon - these stories seemed to appear consistently in news across the country. 

Dr. Ranjana Kumari was a student at JNU at the time. 

Ranjana Kumari (RK): Well I come from a family of freedom fighters. from Varanasi, where I was raised as a very nationalist person with Gandhian ideology, 

RV: She’s an idealist.

The 70s was the decade of activism. The emergency forged a generation, awakened them, politicised them. And many including Ranjana were on the streets often, protesting. One day in Delhi, word travels of the horrific death of a woman. 

RK: So uh, this was a dowry death case in Karol Bagh [a neighbourhood in Delhi] , where a girl who was burnt by uh, being tied to a cot and the family was struggling to register it as a murder,  

RV: The woman had been tied to her bed and set on fire. 

RK: I feel very very sad about what I saw first I encountered...and sometimes something really triggers something in you and the whole journey changes from where you want to reach to where you ultimately reach in life.

SV: The feminist movement in India is said to have begun at this time. The victim’s parents had called Pramila Dandavate for help. She was an MP, and feminist leader, who ran a womens NGO called Mahila Dakshata Samiti for help. And she called Ranjana and her friends to the neighbourhood. 

RK: So, anyway we reached there, we had this uh, fight with the police, which I saw Pramilaji like a, standing like a rock and trying to help the family, but then they refused, no nothing, she has committed suicide. Wheras we could see the ropes falling and you know under the bed. it couldn't be that somebody tied oneself and killed. 

RV: Stories like these get told over and over again about the early feminist movement in India: the rape of a tribal girl in Mathura, the dowry related death of Tarvinder Kaur and of many other young women who died far too early. They became the triggers that galvanised the simmering outrage and built the movement. 

SV: Since independence, the big social movements have directly questioned the way in which we have cared for our society’s weakest. This is Harsh Mander, activist and former IAS officer. 

Harsh Mander (HM): If we look at our own – and actually stop and think about some of the most significant things that have happened to change the lives of India's most dispossessed, marginalised, oppressed people and we start doing a listing, it would be extremely instructive. Say let’s look at the rights of workers, the rights of women to equality and safety,– the right to information, the right to work, the right to healthcare, the right to education, the right of sexual minorities, I could go on.  And it is social movements which have in many diverse ways fought these battles for justice, for rights, for a more compassionate, for a more humane, for a more secular, for a more just country – a country that is a little closer to the imagination and the pledges of the constitution.

SV: The most successful social movements have followed a loose trajectory, that goes from trigger to protest to mobilisation, and then to a long period of engagement with the government and society, to the creation of laws, and finally, most importantly a shift in social norms. 

Rajni Bakshi (RB): There’s an implication that social movements are fundamentally vanguardist, that there is an enlightened minority that has to garner these large numbers...there will always be a zealous core for any idea - driven by a specific commitment to a specific articulated ideology but that doesnt make a movement. what makes a movement is the ability of the zealous minority to gather and garner the support of vast numbers of people. 

SV: And every step requires a different set of people to carry the movement forward: the activists, the NGOs, the jurists - what journalist Rajni Bakshi refers to as the movement’s zealous minority. 

HM: We talk about them as if they are some kind of a homogenous kind of entity, but there's enormous diversity in how they organise, how they assert their culture, their funding, the language, the grammar, the instruments that they use.

RV: The movements also rely on the support of people for survival. They look to the public to share their outrage. It’s these citizens who need to be kept aware, and informed for their empathy, solidarity and support. And NGOs have often played a big role here. Like the MKSS in the case of RTI, or the many NGOs behind the Narmada Movement, who helped bolster the core architecture of the movement, and made sure that the world knew what was going on. 

Harsh Mander began his career as a bureaucrat. He’s also been a seasoned activist, and the movement he is now a part is the Karwaan e Mohabbat, or the caravan of love. It’s a movement that is trying to fight hate between us.

HM: We were convinced that hatred cannot be fought with hatred and darkness cannot be fought with darkness and you have to find a different grammar of engaging…

RV: and they follow a very simple principle: the principle of solidarity. It’s the anti “thoughts and prayers” way. 

HM: To go to their homes, to say that you're not alone, to say that we care and that there are people in this country who care, to say that we seek your forgiveness for what you have suffered. To then offer help in their battles for justice and finally, to tell their story to the rest of us. So it was conceived of as a journey, both of solidarity on one hand and conscience on the other.  

SV: In the feminist movement, the NGOs helped collect evidence that shaped the laws that now protect women against violence, harassment and rape. They consulted with groups, formed coalitions for advocacy and worked with all kinds of people. And this was how things moved forward. You’re going to hear Dr Ranjana Kumari again, remembering the mood at the time that the National commission for women act was passed in 1990: 

RK: So uh, finally we got the commission, it was passed when VP Singh was the Prime Minister of India. Ram Vilas Paswan was the Welfare Minister, I remember very clearly Najma Heptullah as even the Speaker of the House came to Ram Vilas's home and then we all sat on the floor and we all had dinner because we didn't have a big enough table for so many people to sit...and finally we got the law passed...

Ingrid Srinath (IS): It's not black and white. Clearly it blurs at the boundaries.  There are NGOs that work really closely with movements. 

SV: We’re talking to Ingrid Srinath, the former Secretary General of CIVICUS the World Alliance for Citizen Participation and now the head of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy at Ashoka University because she has worked very closely with both groups. 

Globally people talk about a schism in the once close relationship between movements and NGOs. It started in the late 90s. 

IS: So you're absolutely right in the way you're reading the history. This goes back in a sense to  2001 and the WTO meeting in Seattle, Washington.

SV:  An anti-globalisation sentiment had set in.  And many social movements around the world that were fighting neoliberal reforms, began to link-up their grievances against corporations, oppressive trade agreements, declining labour standards, human rights violations and environmental devastation. 

IG: It was the first time really you had these clashes between security forces and demonstrators on the streets of a major western city. 

SV: When it started many people hadn’t even heard of this fairly obscure organisation, the WTO, but the protests made an impact.

IG: And it sort of made everyone really, governments, business sit up and say there's something going on here that is much,

much bigger than we had imagined it to be.  It's not just a bunch of you know hippy, tree hugging do-gooders kind of thing we're dealing with, this is an actual organised political force now.  

RV: And then came September 11, 2001. Soon after there was a global pushback on civil activism and expression, as states sought more control. This had a kind of ripple effect on development.

IG: So there was a sort of a sanitising if you will of civil society work post 9/11. It became too difficult to do certain things. Funders simply wouldn't fund certain things and so there was in a sense the shift to what you might call a more technocratic model of development. 

RV: This became the new way of doing, this NGOisation of resistance as Arundhati Roy once called it. It was an approach that addressed society’s big challenges by ‘solving’ them. 

IG: The very nature of our work, the need to put things into frameworks, [log] frames, proposals, line items on budgets in some ways is antithetical to the way movement operates.  

RV: Like the MDGs which brought in a very structured process of intervention and impact, with standardisation, strict targets that had to be met and frameworks for scale. And we started to see new philanthropic money pouring into sector, and the promise of transformational technology. 

IG: And so if we got one laptop for every child and then if we just put a solar panel on the roof of every village home

SV: The Gates Foundation was founded in 2000 and quickly rose to become one of the most powerful sources of support to organizations around the world and it very much embodied this type of thinking. 

The years between 2004-2009 was very exciting for India’s third sector, the NGO sector or civil society: RTI, RTE, NREGA AND RTF were passed all as a result of long movements working closely with the government. But as tech and financial services started to boom, new donors emphasised “results”, the modus operandi for NGOs became service delivery, getting the last mile connected. 

IG: They also incentivised collaboration between the private sector, civil society and government and all of these put together in some senses led to this, what I'm calling sanitisation of development work or civil society work.

SV: This went with the popularity of calculating impact, through metrics, evaluations, and spreading these positive stories through solutions journalism. 

IG: And so there's a combination of factors really which subsequently – which essentially leads us to where we are now which is this kind of schism between what you might call the technocratic school of NGOs and the grassroots community led movement school of change.

Arundhati Roy, speaking about feminist organisations

Arundhati Roy (AR): The liberal feminist movement and the dalit movement have become heavily NGO-ised. Many of these NGOs have done very good work. On gender, on sex work, on homosexuality, on health on AIDS on all of this. But as long as their work doesn’t actually challenge the economic structures of the neoliberal empire, the money will keep coming. So the official feminist groups, will always keep their distance from radical feminist groups 

RV: But the break is also because of other factors. The government has been getting stricter about organizations declaring their sources of funding.  And philanthropists and funders have veered away from supporting work that directly confronts government policies and hold authorities accountable.  

IG: And I think another area of division is the relationship with the government.  While the movements tend to see themselves as advocating for policy change and/or holding the government accountable for the implementation of policy, philanthropists in the main just see government as a partner that you work with to achieve scale. And so there's a real drifting apart of people, each finding comfort among like minded people. 

SV: And the impact of this is now being seen in the extent to which NGOs receive the support of the government. While many work as the service delivery arm of the government and benefit from being able to scale their operations, in other areas where they still espouse the spirit of the movement, they no longer have a seat at the table. Take the National Commission for Women, for example,

RK: The appointment that we had proposed at that point of time was the National Commission for Women, for electoral college, so that autonomous women's organisations representatives would be appointed. or anybody, any academic, anybody who is interested in [inaudible] cause would be coming forward and appointed. 

There were centres for women all over the country now most centres have become defunct because government is not willing to fund them. so in that sense you see how you know there is an effort to quiten their silencing the voices of civil society controlling institutions you know all you can marginalising institutions so that everything is government, whatever happens has to be decided by the government. all intermediary agencies, have been marginalised and pushed. 


RV: Now it’s time for a story. This is Obalesh Bheemappa’s story. 

Obalesh’s voice plays underneath.

RV: Oblesh comes from the Dalit community. Many of his family members are safai karmacharis, sweepers or cleaners. His  sisters, his uncles, his aunts, everyone. One by one they all migrated to Bangalore for this work. 

[Obalesh - OB -in KANNADA] My cousin and uncle would go to work in Bangalore, and we never knew what they did. They did something. And I used to always wonder, what did they do? Where did they go? But they would smell a lot. As if they never bathed. And whenever they came back home, they would be drunk.  

RV (VO): Whenever his  cousins and uncles would go to work he would wonder, what did they do? Where did they go? But they would return smelling quite bad. As if they never bathed. And whenever they came back home, they would be drunk. 

OB: They looked happy, but were very smelly.  

RV: Back in his village, as a child Obalesh worked with his father in upper caste homes. He was too young to understand what that meant, he just remembers getting food and clothes from them. 

He moved to Tumkur, a small town near bangalore for school. He lived in a hostel, where he was first exposed to many progressive ideas, and learned about discrimination, untouchability and caste. He was introduced to the the dalit sangharsha samiti movement. As a young boy, he remembers giving out handbills, listening to people speak about atrocities in Karnataka, and he learned how to protest. He says, things finally came together in his mind when moved to Bangalore to work, in his teens.

One day he accompanied his brother to work. It was ten o clock at night and they went to a college in Koramangala a neighbourhood in the south of the city . And there he saw his brother cleaning the toilet bathroom. At night. 11 pm. Midnight.

OB: He used to clean the toilet, shift the excreta, pouring somewhere in the drainage and he is supposed to go back. It will take around one hour work.

RV: Another time, he accompanied his uncle early in the morning to the city market.

OB: I am telling this twenty years back story. City market was not like this.

RV: In those days, the market had open toilets. And his uncle would begin cleaning them at three in the morning. 

OB: 3am to sweep the excreta, putting water and cleaning the surrounding area. They will take some 50 paise each person 

RV: They would each be paid 50 paise per toilet. And every day they would clean as many toilets as would earn them a ten, twenty, sometimes fifty rupees. This was a big amount for landless labourers like them. Obalesh remembers in wonder how his migrant relatives would come back to the village with 100 rupees, 200 rupees 300 rupees at that time. He says, he was aware that these occupations were unclean but he didn’t tell his relatives anything because they did it with dignity, to earn money.

OB: It was a big amount ! where did they get the money from. And then I saw, these people are cleaning excreta sweeping excreta and collecting 20-50 paise each. And in one day they would make 50 rupees...that is big amount for them. So by evening they are full happy with drink and food and eat non-veg etc.

RV: And then one day soon after he was put to work cleaning garbage in the mutton and fish market in the city. He didn’t last more than a day. 

OB: Fish and mutton market garbage is a very bad smell. You can’t stand even one minute there, like that smell so two days I worked there a sa garbage shifting worker. When I lifted the carcass everything would fall on me – full smell.

SV: Obalesh escaped. 

OB: I had no money, no contacts but because of the dirty job, I escaped from there. I missed from there.

SV: Alone in the city he spent a few days sleeping outside, and then in the railway station, where someone recognised him. They took him to NIMHANS, the hospital for mental health and neurosciences. Where he got a job as a servant to a rich patient. He would sit by their bed, and take care of them. 

After that, a paediatric surgeon he befriended funded him to train as an operating theatre technician. This began a new life, and a new career where he worked in some of the best hospitals in Bangalore. 

But having faced untouchability, and having seen this unclean work in the city, he always felt he had to do something. And in his free time, he continued to work with human rights organisations.

In 1999, he was on the brink of getting a permanent job in government hospital when he realised that he had worked with the movements for so long that he couldn’t abandon them. 

OB: But by then I had worked with the movements for so long that I decided to not work in hospitals, I want to work for the community full time, even though I don’t have any life security options. 

SV: Obalesh today is an activist, at the heart of the anti manual scavenging movement, and he started an NGO, Tamate.  

OB: So I have learned so many things, so then I have started I realised that I am, came to capable to analyse the situation, why, what type of advocacy is required nowadays. because see in India, there are lot of good programmes are there unfortunately these legislations and programmes are not reaching communities, because in our India there is no proper community activists. People who are like a bridge work with the legislations and community, government and community programmes and community, bureaucrats to community. So in my life, my activism, this is the one thing, always I am the grassroot level activist.

SV: Obalesh works to fight systemic failure, what he sees to be a much larger atrocity than any individual act of manual scavenging. It is the failure of the system, the state, to care for his people. This violence of the state, that can endure even after a person is dead, Obalesh says, 

OB: See manual scavenging person who have died while cleaning the manhole, Supreme Court judgment is there, he's supposed to get ten lakh rupees [a million rupees] compensation. Till today where we have done protest, with the body, there only the person got ten lakh rupees...Why you are denying. what is your intention? that is atrocity...systemic failure.


Tejas Pande (TP): My name is Tejas, um, I was born and raised in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, which is part of the marathwada region uh, Aurangabad city, for the last 14 years I’ve lived in Bangalore and now I work as a designer at the Azim Premji University.

SV: In March 2018, there was a farmer’s march from Nashik district in northern Maharashtra to Mumbai city. Farmers walked across two districts to the capital, Mumbai and they were trying to draw attention to certain demands.

TP: Roughly speaking, they wanted legal titles to the land that they were tilling, …. and the other big demand was that they should be remunerated according to MSP, which is minimum support price. Right, so these were the two main demands that that sort of strike out into my mind. 

SV: This march was widely covered in the media and on social media as well. We all tracked the march in real time, as they crossed village after village. There were news dispatches, photos on Facebook and Instagram, and non stop tweets chronicling the event. 

TP: So as is the case with good middle class upper caste families, we have lots of whatsapp groups and there is some amount of interaction on Facebook as well, 

SV: Everyone was talking about it. 

TP: So I remember that I had shared a particular post, not as a not as sharing news but in response to a friend of mine from back home who'd posted a sort of disparaging like eye-roll sarcastic post about this particular long march that was being planned. Right, so basically just sort of dismissing it as a lal salaam gimmick. So it kind of irked me …. so then I posted something saying that well, the farmers are asking for their basic rights and they shouldn't be chastised for this…and so did a lot of political analysts and researchers, right, so it wasn't my bleeding heart, like a bleeding heart liberal who was feeling that way, it was backed by a lot of sound policy to say that this is the least we can do and it's not anything revolutionary.Um, right on cue, my family conversations on Whatsapp groups began to turn a bit sour, um…

SV: So what kinds of things were you hearing?

TP: And so the conversations were basically about how farmers were ill informed and they are not uh flexible, they don't want to change themselves according to the changing market conditions and requirements. Um, they are lazy, which, I mean, come on, so we were trying to , I think we were all trying to figure out how to have this conversation in a slightly civilised manner yet also trying to say you are out of your mind.

HM: In Hindi, I say ke pahle hame apne se ladna hoga, phir apno se ladna hoga, tab bhi pyaar ho sakte hain.  We have to first fight with ourselves and then fight with our own in the conversations we have on our dining table, with our families with our friends, in our workplaces and our WhatsApp groups.

SV: So then what happened?

TP: One of my uncles messaged me on one of the Whatsapp groups saying that I am misguided, is it because I am "lefty" ? And he sent me a video  of this particular gentleman, working in Pune, working in Pune, district who has been able to turn his agricultural practice around and become quite a successful organic horticulturist.

SV: Well if there’s a video...

TP: Now, congrats to him for all his amazing success but unfortunately we don't have access to markets, infrastructure and good climatological conditions in a way that western Maharashtra seems to be blessed in comparison. So it is always interesting that we never seem to compare apples and apples and there is no cognisance of that on some level that that there will be these fundamental differences and that can't be a solution for this.

SV: In the doldrums after the game of thrones finale, you may have read an article that went viral. It was an odd mix, an article about the most popular tv show of all time, published in Scientific American and written by techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. 

In it she talks about the difference between sociological storytelling and psychological storytelling - and we couldn’t help find that it relates so well to all of the things we’re trying to talk about in this episode: development, politics, communities, movements, change, human agency. Sociological storytelling is about deep context, understanding how institutions and social environments can shape us as individuals. 

RV:  And yet, we tend to veer towards what Zeynep calls psychological storytelling - today the individual story has never been more powerful! And the internet and social media helps us to self-mythologise - it’s all about the singular force of the individual, their grit and ambition being all that is needed to overcome historic prejudice or systemic barriers. 

The celebrity, the individual, drives almost all stories today, we have superstar NGO leaders, philanthropic saviours, and even bollywood celebrities who are dipping in and doing both. 

SV:Rajni Bakshi, the journalist, thinks that part of the problem is that there’s been dumbing down of thought, over the past thirty years. 

RB: Across the world the idea that the reader, the reader or the listener is in a hurry and has a short attention span so you should just get to the point and overlapping on this is the birth of the celebrity age - both in business, entertainment, even development sector. and the whole of life almost the whole storymaking of life has to be told through the celebrity.

SV: Today we’re in a battle of the narrative, storytelling has never been more powerful, but the fast blippy mediums of the digital world are not necessarily helping us see straight, or see deep.

RB: I think today the most urgent and most vital need is for people to be encouraged because i don't know if you can train people to do this, is to encourage people to tell multiple stories from multiple dimensions. our biggest problem, see this is not a new problem, but the epidemic feels like its new - firstly a one dimensional telling of the story and then very limited stories.

SV: And in the case of the farmers march, the complex mix policies and climatic conditions that were affecting their livelihoods rarely made in into those damn Whatsapp forwards:

TP: And it's very difficult to capture systemic change,... um, also those stories are just not sexy enough.

SV: We have now begun to vilify technology for our desensitisation, and this is certainly fair, with the power of platforms and their algorithms, the echo-chambers, and the limited audiences of independent media. But we cannot entirely blame technology. 

HM: I think that to my mind, the failures of our compassion and our empathy and solidarity and fraternity were not created simply by the virtual world. And the fact that we have taught ourselves to see and look away is something that predates the illusions that the virtual world creates.


RV: Protest is on the rise. In the past year alone we’ve seen people take to the streets to fight for justice for rape victims, for environmental justice, for police shootings, and these protests have had range - from the hyper-local civic issue to the most fundamental questions of society! 

IG: I think the main impact that the digital technologies generally have on movements is… it speeds up the process of mobilising.  Today you can get a million people on to the streets in a few minutes if the outrage is sufficient, but as soon as the authorities turn around and say fine, let's negotiate, those million people have no way of figuring out who will represent them, whether that representation should have the authority to negotiate on their behalf, what their precise demands might be, what they might be willing to settle for etc etc.  

RV: Across the world people are talking  about the future of democracy, many countries report growing mistrust in public institutions, and protests are seen as a symptom of this. We also live in an age where there is immense power to gather people to get them to rally around a cause. And people come, offering to be everything from sympathetic bystanders to impassioned mobilisers, but this solidarity also feels very ephemeral. 

IG: So that's the loss.  You get scale and pace at the price of building ways to decision making structures and trust.

RV: But there are people working on this problem, finding ways to directly connect people to political causes using technology:

IG: This is happening to some amount of crowd funding for movements.  I'm looking at sites like Crowdnewsing for example and noting that they're being able to raise money, not huge sums but substantial sums for causes that the average crowd funding network wouldn't go anywhere near. 

SV: How many times have you read a report about NGOs with the title that refers to “Building a bridge”. That’s because NGOs have always played this critical role, and connected themselves to the public at large through campaigns, to the activated movements, and to the government and the private sector. Activism does not achieve change without a phase of working through and with institutions and this is what NGOs have been so good at. 

In a recent development studies conference, the African scholar Mahmood Mamdani said that development studies used to be about critiquing empire, but now it works for it. This idea is seeing a resurgence, and isn’t something you can ignore any more. Many believe that if NGOs don’t change their relationships with powerful funders, if they don't challenge the sources of their funds, which in many cases has caused the very problems that they are trying to address in the first place, we’re not really going to get anywhere. But imagine how challenging this is at a time when they are being squeezed from every side, and funders themselves have been nervous and tried to play safe. 

But transforming civil society as a whole is not just about NGOs.  A recurring theme in this episode is that democracy includes but is not restricted to people casting their votes.  Of course that’s a very central part of democracy, but democracy has to be claimed. It is continuously contested, and that’s precisely why you need an active, engaged citizenry. One that supports all of these actors, and crucially, fills the gap, the schism, between them.

Underlying everything we have presented in this episode, is the need for an active, informed public. And it is in this way, ngos become more authentic expressions of the citizens and their movements.

Read : The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones, by Zeynep Tufekci in Scientific American and listen to Arundhati Roy speaking here.



Thanks to Harsh Mander, Ingrid Srinath, Rajni Bakshi, Dr Ranjana Kumari, Obalesh Bheemappa and our friend Tejas Pande.

Photo: Sandip Bhattacharya/Flickr used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Sounds: Sound Producer is Santhos Nataraja. Theme song by Hollis Coats. This episode was mixed and recorded at Third Eye Studios.

 Show and art design by Bhushanraj.

In the Field is supported by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies.