DFID in India VI: False promises

The final part of the Dodgy Development: DFID in India series by Eshwarappa M and Richard Whittell, published by Corporate Watch over the past few months, focuses on the British government’s Department for International Development’s funding of civil society organisations. This part comprises a film and two interviews. The film, False Promises, looks at the ‘Business Partners for Development’ project, funded by the DFID, which convinced people to allow a coal company to mine their lands with devastating results. In the two interviews that conclude the series, two people’s organisation activists discuss why groups like theirs should not take the DFID’s money and argue for the importance and necessity of international, people to people solidarity. Preceding parts of the series can be found here.



In this interview, Roma, a member of the Kaimur Kshetra Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, a land rights movement in Uttar Pradesh, talks about why it refuses to accept DFID funding and the compromises made by other groups that have accepted it.

Richard Whittell: The DFID lists ‘civil society’ among its partners in India and argues that by working with civil society groups it can give poor people a voice and help them in advocating their rights. As part of this approach, the department has given £25 million of British aid to the Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS) Programme, which it says is partnering with civil society in India to improve the uptake of rights and entitlements by women and socially excluded communities. Do you want the DFID’s money?

Roma: No, we don’t need that funding. Why should we need it? Through the kind of struggle that we are in, women have taken possession of many acres of land, thousands of acres of land, and we didn’t have any funding. They [the women] are coming with their own conviction that the land is theirs and it cannot be traded, it is not a commodity, it cannot go to companies. So they are recapturing their lost political space and they are raising their own resources. They are saying if we have land we can raise everything for ourselves: food security will be there, we can look after our education, our health, our water, sanitation, everything. And for that we don’t need any funding.

So why they are coming and funding women’s groups I don’t understand. And groups should not take that kind of funding. It’s really a trap. If we get into that trap we lose our struggle and our political movement also.

It must be very tempting to take the money given by agencies such as the DFID?

Yes, we are always in crisis! But one has to see it in a very long term perspective. What do we want to achieve? If we have come out of our homes, and we have dedicated ourselves to work for a social cause then we have to leave something. And there are resources within the people;[…] we got our independence, there was no funding agency – there was no DFID! It was all people’s struggle. It was a mass upsurge. And this money that is coming in, [it] neutralises all these kinds of movements. […I]t’s a big trap.

Can you give us an example of how people’s movements are neutralised by this type of funding?

So, for example, there was a big land rights march to Delhi organised by groups funded by the DFID and with the DFID’s money. Land is, of course, a very big issue and people are fighting to reclaim their lost land, after displacement by feudalism, by capitalism. Even for building up our public sector units, people are being displaced. They are being reduced to wage labourers.

We were involved in the initial planning for this march but when we came to know of the participation of the DFID we were really not very interested because the land struggle in our country is of a very different nature and it has a lot of unsolved questions that we need to answer. For example, the agrarian reform question – the question of radical agrarian reform – which will not only concern land but also water and the forests. These areas were totally uncovered, and [yet] agrarian reform needs to be talked about.

We had a very uncomfortable feeling. Then when it started the organisers had a meeting with the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, who himself is a former World Bank guy. Normally movements don’t discuss with the government before starting an agitation because the question then comes: who gave you the mandate to talk to the government?

So, the march happened and was very impressive. People were coming because they really needed land. They were joining in struggles and were craving for land. But after the march it was announced there would be a land commission. We think it’s a big hogwash because having a land commission means you have centralised control and we already have many problems with this. At the same time as this land commission was started we had one quite radical act: the Scheduled Tribes Forest Dwellers Recognition of Rights Act, which was talking about community ownership of land. But the Prime Minister did not talk about that and did not talk about implementing that act so until now the lands are not being allotted [in accordance with] that act.

[T]his creates a lot of questions in our mind and these limits were why funding was coming, why a lot of money is coming. You are talking about a land commission but there is a corporate sector taking huge amounts of land and making them into tax-free Special Economic Zones, and then our act is there but not getting implemented. So there is all this complexity and you know we really doubt the intention of the government.

But most of all we will not need funds from the DFID to launch this struggle. The DFID, plays a devastating role which is anti-people, and anti-poor. We don’t need its money. For example, people came to a demonstration today. Some 400 people came without a ticket for the train. They had their badges, that was their ticket; and [it is] by [their] rights [that] they came. It is our right to travel because our demands are not met. In a democratic country our rights have not been given so that’s why we are travelling. Why would we need the DFID’s money?

But wouldn’t funding help your organisation do even more than it is doing now?

If money comes in we will lose our agenda. We will sit in air-conditioned rooms and talk big about poverty, hunger and food security. But people come to demonstrate in the scorching heat, they come with their own money, their own resources because they want to bring change [to] their lives and [to] the mindset of the ruling class.

They get political sensitisation, so they go back and start working. They go back with the knowledge that a lot of people are with them. Poverty is a global issue. If you come to talk to anybody you will come to know that they do not feel they are alone. Many people are with them fighting against poverty. So they go back and they fight for political issues and political rights, and whenever people come to Delhi they struggle for their land rights. The women especially, they form groups, they organise themselves and they identify which land is theirs and go and take possession.

We need money and all, but we know that funders like the DFID will not let us raise the right questions because it is not in their interest. They will put their conditions and all, and say do this, do that, otherwise they will take away the funding. They make us dependent on the funds so no-one launches any struggle. No-one is tempted to get funds and live in a very comfortable lifestyle.

People should not take funding. We feel very strongly that people’s movements should not go to these funding agencies like the DFID, USAID, and so on. There is a big list [of such funders]! We have to raise our own resources. Definitely in some places we need money, of course, but we will take money according to our conditions. But not from the DFID, otherwise we will end up in air-conditioned rooms talking about the struggles.

The money the DFID is giving is British aid, and is being given in the name of the British people, most of whom agree that Britain should be giving aid. What do you say to them?

We want to convey there is no fight between the people of India and the people of the UK.

Neither are they aware of the condition of India and nor are we aware of who is behind the DFID. If ordinary UK citizens are not aware what the DFID is doing then there needs to be a dialogue The whole of the media, the government are trying to suppress this dialogue. Dialogue from people to people doesn’t happen anywhere so there is confusion on both sides. We should have a direct dialogue, a people to people dialogue. Who is giving the money? Who is using the money? How are they using it and what is our reaction? What is our criticism about that and why don’t we want to take it? That needs to be communicated.


In this concluding interview, Madhuri Krishnaswammy of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) talks about how they cannot be helped by the DFID and discusses the need for international solidarity that is not mediated by the DFID or NGOs.

Richard Whittell: The head of the DFID in India said its funding for civil society aimed “to help Indian civil society organisations assist people in the poorest and most backward districts of India to realise their rights more effectively and in a sustained manner”. What do you think about organisations like the DFID funding civil society organisations?

Madhuri Krishnaswammy: It’s a bad idea. “Poverty and backwardness” are consequences of 200 years of territorial imperialism, followed by 60 years of neo-imperialism and a “development” model that has allowed the west and local elites to continue to control and exploit our resources.

Agriculture controlled by the agribusiness corporations, the squeezing of rural resources to subsidise industry, massive displacement and pauperization by industrial/pro-rich infrastructural projects are the main reasons for “poverty and backwardness”. The DFID, along with other “aid” agencies actively promotes this model of “development”, which might be more accurately called a model of expropriation, or – more simply – theft. The DFID is part of the problem and it is outrageous hypocrisy for it to pretend to be part of the solution. They tie you up and burgle your house through the back door and then arrive at the front door with much fanfare to provide a few sops as “relief”!

It’s a mystery to us how the DFID helps people “realize their rights more effectively in a sustained manner”. Every time the people try to realize their rights and protect their livelihood there is a police crackdown. DFID projects like the Madhya Pradesh Rural Livelihoods Project don’t even scratch the surface of poverty. They don’t address any real need and don’t aim at any fundamental change. All they do is throw some money about, most of which is grabbed by project staff and local elites which further fuels a deeply entrenched nexus of corruption and violence. At the very best, they give a few individuals a little support and send everyone else in the community scrambling and quarrelling for the crumbs. Our members are in constant conflict with the project because there is no transparency or accountability in the implementation. Where there is no conflict, it is because the project is considered irrelevant to people’s lives.

Civil society organizations funded by the DFID or any such funding agency become complicit in the continuing exploitation of working people and the plunder of their resources. Imperial plunder is not possible without buying up the ruling class of colonized societies. So, such funds are in essence the price of silence.

Could you give us an idea of what the Jagrit Dalit Adivasi Sangathan is and how it works?

Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) organizes tribal people (marginal farmers and wage workers) to struggle for their livelihood rights and their right to dignity and for social justice. It is something like a trade union and is a membership based organization, though unlike a trade union it does not focus specifically on “trade” or economic issues, but is a community organization that addresses a wide range of issues: wages, land and forest rights, health, education, community control over development programs, alcoholism, violence against adivasis, anti-women customs, reafforestation, non-industrial farming etc. In other words, issues arising from the community’s interface with the state as well as internal issues of the community.

JADS has primarily been a movement for the right to dignity. It has been very successful in curbing the earlier violence against adivasis by state agencies and local elites. Our people have recovered control over forests that they had lost under British rule and we have made some significant gains on the wage front. Mainly, what the organization has done is allow adivasis to recover their self confidence as a people, and to run their own lives. However, the question of poverty, of the invisible enemy which is a faceless system is still out there. As the organization matures, there is a growing realization that we need to reach out to other movements and organizations to try and build common struggles.

Members in a village elect a village committee. The village committees constitute area committees. The area committees send members to the district committee. The district committee leads the organization. Decisions are taken at weekly meetings of the village and area committees, and monthly meetings of the district committee. At present, one-third to half the committee members are women (hopefully more in the future).

Funding is through membership fees, though we do get occasional contributions from individuals. We do not have any institutional funding. We are able to manage very well with this.

How would you be affected if you decided to take funding from the DFID?

Not just from the DFID. I think it would be a disaster if we were funded by any funding agency (Oxfam, Action Aid, etc.). The organization would be destroyed. The strength of JADS is that it is controlled by the people themselves. It belongs to the community. Its members own it. The organization is as integral to their identity as their family or kin group. The confidence of its members stems from the knowledge that they need be dependent on nobody, that they can run their organization by themselves. We’ve seen what happens when funded NGOs try to “run” communities: the community is kept on a leash, it is drawn into all kinds of projects that are not of its own choosing and have nothing to do with its priorities. Projects are started and dropped according to funding exigencies and paid staff can hardly be expected to brave all sorts of state violence to struggle for a just society.

As I said, the DFID wants to give us hand outs while they call the shots, but our people want to control and direct their own lives and that of their community. They don’t want charity. They want resources they can claim as a right.

The DFID presents itself as a link between British people and Indian people, with themselves as the mediators of British people’s charity. Through this process it paints a picture of Britain as a developed country that has become developed through the liberalization and privatization policies that it is encouraging in India. It ignores the history of imperial plunder but also the long history of people’s struggle within Britain that has been central to any progressive developments in this country, such as the welfare state. They also ignore the continued existence of poverty and exploitation within Britain and the continued struggles against this. So I want to ask you your thoughts on this and the potential for people’s organisations in Britain and India to work together in mutual solidarity.

As you said, the prosperity of rich nations and the comparatively comfortable standards of living of the working class are based on imperial plunder. Not on industrial capitalism, which is inherently based on the expropriation and concentration of wealth. But our comprador elites try to sell us the “liberalization-privatization” package saying: ‘look how developed the West has become with this’. They conveniently forget that this prosperity is based on centuries of imperial plunder or that nowhere has capitalism created prosperity without imperialism. Also, industrial capitalism has proved to be ecologically unsustainable, and a cancer that is consuming the planet. Why should we have any more of it?

Our elites also want us to forget that as a result of long struggles of the working class in the industrialized countries, they have had fairly sturdy welfare states, with public systems of health, education, strong labour laws, etc. This too has been crucial to the relative prosperity of the working class in these countries. How are poor countries supposed to “develop” without these? The tax to GDP ratio in India (despite the rapidly escalating number of millionaires and very rich) is around 18% which is much lower than the Scandinavian countries at around 45-50% and even the USA at 25% (I don’t know how it stands for Britain). The tax subsidy to the corporate sector over the past two years has been almost 5 times the social sector spending.

The attack on the welfare state and escalating aggression and theft by big capital is of course a global phenomenon. In India, the DFID, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and their various ramifications are centrally behind the push to completely dismantle public systems of health, education, food security, water, electricity, and throw our people completely to the mercy of markets controlled by big capital. There is a drive to amend labour laws and make them more pro-capital, while 93% of the workforce is in the unorganized sector (that is, they are completely unprotected) and the casualisation of labour is growing. Also, a much trumpeted “Second Green Revolution” which aims to bring agriculture under the complete control of global agribusiness is already underway.

Meanwhile, people are losing their land, water sources and forests to industry. When they resist, they are beaten, raped, killed, their homes are razed and their land is forcibly occupied. Very large sections of the country are now in a state of war. Activists and intellectuals who protest this are being arrested for waging war against the state.

So since we are all being beaten by the same stick it not only makes sense for us to come together, but in fact this is an urgent necessity. There should be no question of our solidarity being mediated by the DFID or NGOs, since these are part of the system that we have to fight.

But there are possibly some obstacles. Your people seem to have accepted the premise of industrial capitalism, while many of ours are questioning these premises. This is a problem we face in building solidarity with urban Indian working class organizations as well. And then, there is the whole history of imperialism which is still alive and growing stronger. We need to forge links across the imperial divide and to forge links based on a common understanding of how imperialism works and what has been its history. It can and must be done, but requires a lot of sensitivity and hard work.

The other problem is that all of us have to break out of a long history of economism, of our own specific bread-and-butter struggles. Being mired in these hinders our understanding of the big picture, of the commonality of our struggles. We need to develop a much more complex and nuanced common understanding of a shared vision of a just society and how to work towards it, how to deal with conflicting immediate interests.

There is also the problem of lack of information and unfortunately the NGOs control information flows. We really know so little about each other and really need to find more effective ways of transcending cultural and language barriers.


Each part of this series has been sent to the DFID for a response. We have yet to receive a reply, save for a single email acknowledging receipt of one of our emails. See also:

Dodgy Development: Films and interviews challenging British aid in India

Dodgy Development V: Power to the people? May 05, 2010

Dodgy Development IV: ‘A DFID colony’ May 05, 2010

Dodgy Development III: A DFID Education April 09, 2010

Dodgy Development II: Smile for the camera February 25, 2010

Dodgy development: DfID in India January 28, 2010