Protecting the Forest in Raipur, Chhattisgarh

The SPED III Program acts as a plaform for communities to organize themselves, make connections with local leaders and institutions, and address a variety of poverty-related issues.  Here is a wonderful story of a community defending the environment from one of our NGO partners, Raipur Diocesan Social Welfare Society, in Chhattisgarh, India.

In the village of Attarahgudi in Chhattisgarh, the villagers regularly meet to discuss their problems as part of the SPED III Program. During one meeting, the community examined a serious issue that emerged. The trees in a nearby forest were being cut down regularly, which was leading to environmental damage to this important resource. The villagers identified that those responsible were members of their own community.

After some serious reflection, members of the village committee, sanghams, and the local government decided to form a Forest Protection Committee. This committee was given the power and responsibility to safe-guard the trees in the forest.

However, even after taking action, they found that trees were still being cut down. This time, those responsible were coming from another village and could not be caught.

Once again, a meeting was called in the community to address this issue. With the support of the local government officials from the nearby villages, the community members decided to impose a series of sanctions. Anyone caught cutting down the trees would be penalized Rs. 500, their bicycle and axe would be confiscated, they would be socially isolated within the village, and any wood collected would be auctioned to support the Forest Protection Committee.

A few weeks later, a powerful person from a nearby village sent five of his thugs to cut teak from the forest. When the Forest Protection Committee came to know about this, a group of women went to protest their action. But the thugs would not stop and threatened the women with terrible consequences from their powerful boss.

The women returned immediately to the village and shared the story with the community. Together with the local government officials, they took up sticks and succeeded in chasing away the thugs. The next day, they registered the incident with the police.

The women were so affected by these events that they wanted to take some meaningful action to protect the forest in the future. In India, it is a tradition for girls tie beautiful silk threads called Rakhi on their brother’s right hand as a symbol of their emotional bond and their commitment to protect and care for each other. The women decided to tie Rakhis on the surrounding trees as a symbol of their solemn promise to protect the forest as a part of their own family (see above photo).

The action taken by the community of Attarahgudi village provides a wonderful example of environmental protection at the local level and the power of communities to make change when they act with unity and determination. The community did not give up when difficulties arose, but continued to work together to solve their issues. This provides a strong foundation for this village to continue making change in the future and a great example to inspire other communities to take action.  


India: 64 Years After Independence, Gandhi Still Inspires Peaceful Change

Local citizens, aware of their rights, organize to protest against an illegal transmission tower in Kerala. They are supported by SAFP partner organization, the Women's Initiative Network.

August 15th is Independence Day in India, a national holiday. This year, 2011, marked the 64th anniversary of the termination of British authority and the beginning of self-government for that country. The Indian Independence Act, which provided for Partition of India and Pakistan, was signed in August of 1947, with India and Pakistan becoming two independent nations following the transfer of power from Britain.

Mahatma Gandhi was instrumental in helping India achieve its independence. Among other notable individuals, he helped to steer the country toward what was seen as its necessary development into a sovereign nation, freed from the demoralizing rule of its long-time colonial master.

Gandhi was an activist. Throughout his life he campaigned for civil rights, improved labour laws, and equal justice for Indians. He famously used non-violent civil disobedience as a means of advocacy, public engagement, and achieving reform.

Currently, in New Delhi, 74 year-old Indian activist Anna Hazare is fasting to publicly protest against rampant corruption in India. His long-standing campaign to have government pass legislation that would create an ombudsman with sweeping powers to probe corruption at all levels, has led to widespread public support and demonstrations all over India.

Like Gandhi, Hazare wants to make change happen; he wants people to be witness to his actions, so that they can be inspired to demand an end to the endemic bribery and misuse of public funds that stand in the way of equal rights and opportunities in democratic India.

Much public funding is earmarked for local village-level projects and programs in rural India. C. Griffin’s blog of July 12th addresses the issue of corruption and discusses Save A Family Plan’s role in promoting good governance. Properly informed, local citizens can be empowered to demand transparency and accountability from their local governing bodies. They, too, can be models for peaceful action and inspire positive change in their communities.

India was the British Empire’s “jewel in the Crown”. The journey to independence was fraught with incredible challenges that continue to trouble the two nations that emerged in 1947. That India today is world’s largest democracy, fourth largest economy, and a global leader in science and technology, is proof that this country has the resources and ingenuity to overcome a difficult past and achieve greatness.

However, the greatest challenge remains the inequity—the huge numbers of impoverished, marginalized, and oppressed citizens who have yet to experience the benefits of an independent, democratic India. It is these people for whom Gandhi acted—for whom others now act in defence of justice and equality.

Jean Vanier, humanitarian and founder of L’Arche (worldwide network of homes shared by those with developmental disabilities and those who assist them), is an admirer of Gandhi, whom he calls “a defender of the poorest and the weakest…a man with a vision of liberation through love, wisdom, and non-violence.” According to Vanier, non-violence is, “…an attitude where we do not hate or want to use violence, but where we want the oppressor to change and to grow in justice and truth.” (Jean Vanier Essential Writings, Whitney-Brown, 2008)

Independent India and Pakistan did not arise without violence; sadly, Gandhi’s attitude was not shared by all. However, his legacy continues to inspire individuals and organizations in India, and worldwide, who work in peace to ensure a dignified, secure, and healthy life for all.

L.L. Chan

Corruption – An Obstacle to India’s Development

Investigations into events such as the 2010 Commonwealth Games have brought problem of corruption in India to the forefront of international news.

Recent protests in India have brought attention to a serious issue that threatens the country’s potential for development – the problem of corruption. Corruption is a deeply rooted issue that penetrates all levels of government and directly affects a great number of people in India. On a large scale, there are reports of individuals and companies illegally benefitting from large government-funded projects, allocation of resources, and the illegal seizure of land. Down at the individual level, many people are required to pay bribes to access services promised to them by the government.

Since corruption of this kind is nothing new to India, why has it recently brought about such a strong reaction from the people? It has been suggested that the rising inequality that can be seen throughout the country is partially responsible for triggering the recent protests. As India sees vast improvements in economic growth and prosperity, the government has worked to develop a wide range of anti-poverty programs to ensure that the financial success of the country is felt by everyone. These programs cost billions of dollars and far surpass the efforts of other Asian countries. However, many of the programs have little chance of reaching those most in need, largely because of problems with corruption.

Corruption creates difficulties among many of the families and communities working with Save A Family Plan, as I discovered during my stay in India last year. In one small fishing village that I visited in Tamil Nadu near the city of Tuticorin, we met with several families headed by widows who had lost their husbands at sea. Although all widows living below the poverty line are entitled to a small monthly widow’s pension through the Indian government, only one of the women we met with was receiving it. We learned that all of them had been turned away by the local government official, except the one who was able to pay a bribe of Rs. 4000 (about $100) to have him accept her application. The conditions that all of these families lived in were appalling and as someone from outside, I found it shocking that such a needless barrier could stand in the way of them receiving the assistance that they needed so desperately.

The problem of corruption is a major obstacle to India’s development and to achieving justice for the poor. With more than 45 years of experience working in India, Save A Family Plan understands the seriousness of this problem and designs programs that work to challenge corruption at a grassroots level. All families and communities involved undergo awareness training to learn about their rights and what they should expect from the government. They gain experience organizing themselves through their participation in sanghams (self-help groups) and have the chance to discuss the problems that they are facing. By joining together, communities can work to challenge corruption within their local government and ensure that everyone can receive government services in a fair and honest way. SAFP works to support these initiatives and promote a society where economic development is paired with justice and good governance for everyone.

By Cassandra Griffin
Save A Family Plan Staff