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Working of NGOs in Ladakh

It is time to see if these organizations are really working for the betterment of people

(Greater Kashmir, India, Jan 26, 2011) — The Non-Governmental Organisations and institutions have been termed as the backbone of any democracy and their activism as pro-people and facilitating justice to all. During my posting as Special Officer, Relief and Reconstruction, after the August 2010 cloudburst I found Leh district alone, with a population of 15,000 odd souls, has more than one hundred and fifty non-governmental organisations- some local NGOs and some affiliates or “franchises” of world famous organisations. I was surprised to see an NGO office at every nook and corner; at the same time it excited me to draw inference that Developed Ladakh may be an outcome of this pro-active NGO system. But when I left Leh, after completion of my tenure there, the feelings on this were mixed and the experiences I gained on this front will remain a lifetime experience to deal effectively and in a constructive way, with these organisations and institutions. It was not that such a huge number of NGOs reached tragedy-stuck Leh all of a sudden for reconstruction but these organisations are, supposedly, working since many years, in various fields ranging from child welfare, women upliftment, poverty alleviation, quality housing, wildlife conservation, tourism promotion, tribal development, art and culture preservation, education promotion and so on. It is a fact that Leh is house to a couple of internationally acclaimed NGOs and institutions which have created a niche by real work and also gathering a rich resource-base and data-base on Leh. They serve also to showcase the Ladakhi identity. Some NGOs like SECMOL (Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh), LeDeG (Ladakh Ecological Development Group), Save the Children Foundation, among others, have been doing excellent work in Leh and the results stand as a testimony to this fact. But at the same time there are organisations, with much publicity and no substantial contribution, which far outnumber the genuine ones, having done negligible compared to their claims and the resources mobilised. The NGO culture of Ladakh has certainly helped in creating a greater degree of awareness among people, raising their standard of living, providing them basic amenities and promoting health, hygiene and education. But at the same time non-performing NGOs are a real threat to the peoples’ rights, genuine NGOs works on one hand and promote some publicity-minded and fund — organisations from elsewhere in the country to spread their tentacles in Leh. This may also be a threat to the isolated and preserved Ladakh identity in the long run.

Majority of NGOs based in Leh are just a few member organisations without much substantial work to their credit. To be optimistic, it may be construed that these organisations have cropped up drawing inspiration from the ones which have really uplifted the status of livelihood of many people in Leh, spread awareness and created vital infrastructure too. But as of now the fact remains that more than a hundred NGOs are just in name – or in their infancy. Post-Disaster Reconstruction was a real check of strengths and weakness of such organisations, some of them passed the litmus test while others fell under the huge burden of tall claims of proposed reconstruction announced shortly after the flash floods that devastated the Leh town and its vicinity. To the latter category belong the nationally famous NGOs mostly, because most of the local NGOs neither had huge resources nor manpower, only thing they could extend was “coordination”.

The Chamber of Indian Industry (CII), adopted a village Saboo, 15 kilometers from Leh town. Their targets were conservative and work done par excellence. CII constructed 2 houses and will be constructing remaining 11 in coming summer, apart from distributing free construction material to a large number of families. Another NGO, Samarpan, announced construction of 500 houses for the affected families, but ended up constructing only 2 in a period of four months. There was no issue with even such huge shortfall in targets of Samarpan, but the drama played by it took us by shock. At most devastated Choglamsar, a model house of Samarpan remained under construction all through the time we raised a colony of 170 houses in a period of two months. They took assistance from district administration, police and army too but complained the visiting chief minister about “lack of help from district administration” which prompted us to draw a blank on Samarpan. This NGO had come of its own, though the administration provided all possible help, but still to cover its utter failures it indulged in blame game. Over and above that, in print and electronic media it went ahead with its claims of huge reconstruction in Leh and a lot of emotional stories too. I call such NGOs corporate vents – they raise resources and claim credits without much substantial work. But the experience is not that bad all the way, the best one was from the Radha Swami Satsang Beas (RSSB). In all they constructed 6 community shelters at most affected places and their state-of-art construction is just seeing-is-believing. They approached the administration for just identification of sites of construction to be done by them, and did this job in record one month time at all the places. Their next meet with us was when a soft spoken, down-to-earth, former Air Vice Marshal entered my office and thanked with all humility for being given the “opportunity” to help the people, and handed over the keys. No press statements, no inaugurations, no sign boards or marks of RSSB on these building – it was first time in my life I saw an organisation having contributed in real terms for the poor and tragedy hit people and not claiming even an iota of publicity. Tall claims and negligible work on one hand and huge work in real terms without any publicity or show on the other, were the two extremes of NGOs we came across.

In all, 36 odd NGOs, including a couple of local ones, were involved in reconstruction and relief. Some of them like WWF and Save the Children Foundation did good relief work. Other contributed, in total, about 25 houses in various areas of Leh. But most of the NGOs who tendered their claims of reconstruction through media initially were either seen nowhere or reduced their targets to just few houses from few hundred. Question arises, even if only few local and non-local NGOs are performing well in Leh and rest not then why to worry for the non performing as it is a national phenomenon? The answer is quite complex. Working of NGOs in Leh area has become a culture and their number is just on a progression. Some NGOs perform well others don’t. Which do not perform, are not a real concern for people as such, but NGOs which perform become trust-builders in the area. People have faith in them and their deeds. Here is the point where worries are heaped. Once you have a couple of good NGOs around, you get to trust the visiting NGOs too, and that may be a serious threat to the local people of this isolated civilisation having a rich culture and tradition apart from having a very tough life. To elaborate, a Jammu-based NGO adopted 25 children of flood affected area Choglamsar. It came to notice when their parents approached our office for seeking certificates to the effect that children belong to flood affected families. Upon enquiry it was told that children are already taken by NGO to Jammu and are well settles in hostel, and admission being done in a top boarding school. I called up few friends in Jammu to ascertain, the feedback was quite disappointing, children were put in people’s houses for work and study, no hostel and boarding school, and the organisation was involved in conversion activities. Shocked over this, I took up the matter with Jammu District Magistrate, who upon enquiry found the children in shambles and a criminal background of organisation; later police arrested its office bearers and rescued the children. Ironically, back home in Leh, people didn’t buy our argument instead they were satisfied about the plight of children. Such was the trust in NGOs which was shaken only after the rescue clips were shown on a television news channel. Later the children were brought back and National Disaster Management Authority was requested to provide hostel building for them in Leh, which was readily done within two weeks. And we also sought support from various institutions and credible NGOs for their education.

The NGOs are termed as activists, pro-people, predevelopment, development-oriented, participation and so on. And they are, in many cases. But majority I came across in Leh are otherwise. So there is an urgent need to have a check on mushrooming growth of fake NGOs. Moreover, there should be a regulatory mechanism, which may be a self-regulation code among an amalgam of NGOs working in an area. Misleading NGOs must be under a scanner to ensure that credibility of genuine ones is not put into question unnecessarily. If timely checks are not put in place, the present trends are bound to turn ugly with passage of time. Onus is on one and all, the government functionaries, NGOs themselves and above all, the people.