Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tuning into Movements Part 1

It seems that “movements” are everywhere in India. Now what actually constitutes a movement, as opposed to just a group advocating for a cause, is open to debate. But people here frequently use the term. I am going to select a few movements to write about: anti-corruption, which is very much in the news today; community foundations, which I am studying; and, body movements. 

Anti-Corruption Movement
Anna Hazare is a Gandhian activist who was arrested two days ago in Delhi as he was about to begin a “fast unto death.” Today, tens of thousands of people are protesting. Tomorrow, he will depart jail and take his fast and followers to a park in central Delhi. At a U.S. Embassy sponsored party for Fulbrighters two nights ago, we were warned by Embassy officials to stay out of the protests lest they turn violent. While Anna Hazare is employing non-violence in his protests, the police may decide to break up the crowd using other means.

The U.S. got sucked into this conflict when a State Department spokesperson said, “As you know, we support the right of peaceful, non-violent protest around the world. That said, India is a democracy and we count on India to exercise appropriate democratic restraint in the way it deals with peaceful protest.” This inflamed Indians who saw it as interference in its internal politics. Today there are claims by some in the Indian government that “outside parties” (read the U.S.?) might have a hand in the mass protests that are mounting.

For months, Team Anna, as he and his followers are called, have advocated for a bill to fight corruption in the public sphere. The bill would set up a Lokpal, or citizen’s ombudsman, to investigate claims of corruption by public officials. Team Anna proposed a “Jan Lokpal bill” with far-reaching powers, including the ability to investigate the Prime Minister and other top officials. The current Government of India, ruled by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and led by the Congress Party which holds the most seats in Parliament’s lower house, called the Lok Sabha, has proposed a “Lokpal bill” that would not have quite so far-reaching powers.

Tonight, I had dinner with Omahan Vin Gupta and his wife and son, plus two retired high-level Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers and the son of a former President of India. Every one of this group did not think the Team Anna version of the Lokpal bill was good. “The Prime Minister cannot operate under the constant cloud of investigation,” said one. Another said, “No one who has really studied these bills agrees with the Anna version. It is just not realistic to implement.”  

While the differences between these draft bills may look small to us outsiders, there is more to this debate than simply the scope of an ombuds office. As I read it, albeit from a foreign perspective, two other important subtexts are part of the discourse currently playing out on the streets of Delhi and other Indian cities where protests have mounted:

  • We’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to take this anymore. The people of India, especially the young people such as those students with whom I interact, are simply fed up with corruption. They don’t know what to do about it, but by wearing the protest slogan – “I am Anna” – they think they are making a difference. Today I had the amazing honor of going with my friend B.K. Goswami to the home of former Speaker of the Lok Sabha, P.A. Sangma, to discuss my playing an advisory role in a new university he is setting up in his home state of Maghalaya in the Northeast. I asked him what he thought of the protests going on. He answered, “The Government made a big mistake by arresting Anna…. Ninety-nine percent of the people out on the streets don’t know the particulars of the Lokpal bills being debate. They are just angry about corruption and this is the way to show their anger.”
  • We’re a democracy and citizens have the right to protest. The reason given for the Anna’s arrest was that he was about to break a law by gathering a group for his fast at a place and in a manner that was not approved by the Delhi Police authorities. However, the arrest has raised a whole different issue playing out in the media and among citizens asking why a peaceful protest should not be allowed. One editorial asked if India was becoming a totalitarian police state. After Anna’s arrest, the Congress-led UPA Government backpedaled, clearly seeing the blunder of arresting this 74-year old activist and, thereby, rallying many more people to his cause. They negotiated with his Team when he refused to leave jail upon his release and, essentially, gave in to all his demands. Tomorrow morning he will march from his jail cell to his fasting place.

While the smell of jasmine makes many see this Twitter and Facebook fueled movement as Indian’s Arab Spring, I am not convinced that either version of the Lokpal bill will end corruption in India. To fight for change in institutions is an important step. To fight for change in the hearts and minds of individuals, which is where corruption is rooted after all, is a more difficult undertaking.

Stay tuned to further developments on this fascinating story. And stay off the street of Delhi, as the U.S. Embassy advised American citizens.

Community Foundation Movement
The primary research project I am undertaking here in India is on the community foundation movement. I will do a comparison of different case studies of community foundations. While I plan to write more on this later, I have some initial stories to share after recent site visits.

Mewat Community Foundation & Mewat Foundation Trust
Mewat is a predominantly Muslim region of the country where the Meo people live spanning four states: Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Last month, I made a site visit to two community foundations in this region with the staff of Sampradaan Indian Centre for Philanthropy.

The Mewat Community Foundation is a newly formed CF that has a dynamic executive and some energy around the potential programs. When we arrived for a community meeting hosted by MCF, I was greeted with garlands of orange flowers draped around my neck as if I was some dignitary. I think they misunderstood my role, thinking I was related to the Global Fund for Community Foundations which has made grants to CFs in the past. They had a proposal ready for me to review, but I made it clear that I was only there to do research. Still, they graciously hosted our visit, took us to meet with the elected leader, called the Sarpanch, of a nearby village, then to another village to see a women’s Self Help Group which produces milk from water buffalos then sells it to a dairy.

The Mewat Foundation Trust ( on the other hand is an older CF that received a $15,000 grant from GFCF a couple years ago. SICP acts as the fiscal agent for this grant because MFT does not have Foreign Contributions Regulations Act status that allows it to accept donations from non-Indians. There was palpable tension between the MFT folks and the SICP staff. MFT feels that the GFCF grant money belongs to MFT to spend as it likes and that SICP has not been clear about what is needed to release the funds. SICP feels that MFT needs to meet some basic standards of accountability and transparency in order for it to release those funds.

The young Executive Director of MFT followed up our meeting by emailing a detailed proposal for spending the funds. The SICP responded that MFT needs to put some clear governance structures in place, as well as the programmatic activities being proposed, before funds will be released. This struggle is not what SICP wanted when it took the fiscal agent responsibility. And I doubt that SICP will ever again play that role for a community foundation.

Bombay Community Public Trust
The Bombay Community Public Trust ( is the oldest CF in India, having formed in 1991. It is one of the few CFs in India that is making grants. The Managing Trustee, Harsha Parekh, is a former professor of library science at a women’s college in Mumbai. She has a real heart for the community, especially issues affecting women and girls, and comes from a well-connected family in Bombay. Her uncle was the President of a major bank and the founding Chairman of the BCPT Board of Trustees. She invited my family over for dinner in her beautiful apartment in a high-rise overlooking the Arabian Sea.

The real visionary behind BCPT was Russi M. Lala, an author, professional philanthropist and amazing inspiration to everyone with whom he comes into contact. I felt honored that he invited me to his home in Parsi Colony in South Bombay. At 83 years old, he sees very few visitors these days. When I arrived he was finishing a thrice a week massage. “Helps the blood flow in this old body,” he said as he was wheeled by a nurse into a small sitting room overlooking the park with the Zorastrian fire temple at one end. He reminisced about the founding of BCPT which was during the 18 years he spent as Executive of the Tata Trust, the biggest foundation in India. The Ford Foundation sent him on an investigation mission to look at other CFs in the USA and Asia. “I saw the New York Trust and thought, we need one of those too.” He returned to propose that Bombay should form its own. And with the initial support of some big corporate leaders and the Ford Foundation, the BCPT was launched.

Navam Community Foundation
The Nav Maharashtra Community Foundation or Navam ( works in rural Maharashtra state. The founding director is a talented woman named Nirmala Pandit. She is a former human rights lawyer who worked for the United Nations then returned to Pune to start Navam. She was proud of the women’s cottage industry that Navam supports through marketing and selling crafts that village women make. I bought some while at their offices in Pune.

They have re-granted funds they receive from corporate or individual donors to village-based projects. The overhead for Navam’s administrative costs has come entirely out of Ford Foundation grant money. However, they will soon exhaust these funds. Ford Foundation has changed strategic direction and no longer funds community foundations in India. So, Ms. Pandit lamented that she was going to have to start taking a percentage out of each grant to the village projects in order to cover the cost of Navam’s operations.

Body Movements
I miss my family who left last week. I especially miss the entertainment of our daughters moving to music. Maybe joining a folk dancer onstage in Rajasthan or dancing to music in their own minds. To watch them is to see freedom of expression, creativity of movement and beauty.

I also miss the “Poopie Reports” my girls gave upon emerging from the bathroom. We were certainly tuned into movements of that sort, having experienced some early problems. And toilets in India are of two kinds: Western, meaning a proper seat and toilet paper on a roll next to it; and Indian, meaning a hole in the ground over which you squat then take a small bucket of water to wash yourself with your left (always the left!) hand. I remember the first time Leora successfully used an Indian toilet to go “pee-pee.” We were at a temple about to see the musical fountain show and she came bounding out of the bathroom smiling widely and saying, “I can’t wait to tell mama I actually did it!”

Movements come in all forms. I will be on the move soon, when I travel at the end of this month to Ahmedabad to visit Sabarmati Ashram from which Gandhi launched the Independence Movement. I will be studying with Gandhians there, trying to get a better understanding of the principles of swaraj (independence), swadeshi (self-reliance) and trusteeship (care for the community).  These may give insights into ways to strengthen the community foundation movement by going back to the Father of the Country.

Hope your movements are smooth, safe and satisfying.


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  2. The people who told you about the bill are themselves scare of this. The biggest hurdle in removing corruption from India are these bureaucrats. So if the Jan Lokpal Bill is passed they will be the first one to be questioned first. I amy not be aare about twhe technical part of this feel but the reality is we really are fed up and that why we support Anna.