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"The aim is to discredit SEWA"
Kalpana Sharma
Founder of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA)Ela R. Bhatt,in an interview, speaks about her organisation's decision to pull out of all Government of Gujarat programmes. This follows the latter's "special audit" of SEWA's implementation of the Jeevika programme funded by the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD). Excerpts:
Ela Bhatt: " If the Government wants to work for the poor, it will have to decentralise resources and power."
Vivek Bendre

How did this crisis over the Jeevika programme develop?

The Jeevika project began in 2002. It was a livelihood project covering 40,000 earthquake-affected households in three of the poorest districts, Kutch, Surendranagar, and Patan. SEWA implemented it in partnership with IFAD, the Government of India, and the Government of Gujarat. It worked through village committees and District Women Producers Associations. A committee that consisted of SEWA and the Gujarat Government cleared all plans.

For three years everything went off well with the State Government releasing funds to SEWA, which were then sent to the District Associations. During these three years, the auditor appointed by the Government conducted regular audits and approved of everything. There was never a query or charge of misappropriation or diversion of funds.

So why did the State Government order the special audit?

There was a change in the top bureaucracy and an anti-NGO spirit prevails now. One of the accusations against us was that we are siphoning off money to our sister organisations. But the relationship between SEWA and these organisations is an integral part of the project document, and is formalised through a proper Memorandum of Understanding and has been in place for the last three years.

Another charge against us is that we worked with the All-India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI), which is headed by my son, Mihir Bhatt. But AIDMI was approached directly by IFAD to be part of this project because of its work in disaster mitigation. In any case, neither Mihir Bhatt nor anyone else from AIDMI has charged consultancy fees or taken any money from the Jeevika project for themselves. And as far as my direct involvement with SEWA is concerned, I stepped down from all positions in SEWA in 1996 and am not a signatory for anything.

Why then is the Gujarat Government targeting SEWA?

The queries raised by the special audit were circulated within the Government and also released to the media but our response to the queries was not. The aim seems to be to stop resources to the organisation so that there is discontent and dissension at the ground level. It is presumed that this would destroy the organisation. And secondly, this is an attempt to discredit the organisation so that worldwide its name is spoilt.

In the last few months, things had reached such a stage that it was impossible for us to work. The women at the ground level asked, "How can we work when we are not paid for our work?" The Gujarat Government stopped the release of funds in October 2004 and there were unpaid wages pending for 12,000 women. Finally, a predated finance order was sent by the Government amounting to Rs.1.67 crore out of Rs. 4 crore that was pending.
  I personally tried to talk with the officials and even with the Chief Minister. But none of them had any time. They would not even come on the phone. When all doors are closed, then what can you do? Finally when the money was released I thought that things would improve. We asked IFAD to help us set up a good accounting system. There has been no irregularity, diversion or misappropriation of funds but we want to come up to international standards. In fact, five months ago in a meeting with the Gujarat Government, of which SEWA has the minutes, we ourselves had asked for an audit by the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) of the Jeevika project.

Finally, it was the elected president of SEWA Ranbai Rauma who asked for a meeting of the SEWA executive committee that decided to get out of all Government projects. The next day we met the Union Finance Minister because the Government of India is also a party to the project and explained to him what had happened. We also asked him to set up an independent inquiry into the matter.

The space for voluntary agencies, specially those with Gandhian values, has shrunk in Gujarat and it has become difficult to work freely. There is no positive atmosphere in the State for our organisation to work. We have been left with no option but to withdraw from all projects.

What is the future for SEWA in Gujarat?

It is up to the Government and IFAD to decide what to do next about Jeevika. On other State Government projects, the Government of Gujarat must decide. We are not walking out irresponsibly. We are responsible for all our actions and accounts. We have to generate and strengthen our work. Because of this intervention, the migration of poor women had stopped but now it has started again.

What was most moving during this period when the funds stopped was how the poor gave support to the poor. Members of SEWA and organisers contributed one day's wages to help the women who had lost their livelihood. Some people gave grain. We collected 25,000 kg of grain. In addition, Rs.20 lakh from the membership dues of SEWA's seven lakh members were used to help these women. So in the end the poor bailed out the poor.
  If the Government wants to work for the poor, it will have to decentralise resources and power. This needs guts and I don't think any government has the guts. Even if they want to do it, they cannot do it through their own machinery. They have to do it with honest NGOs. The Government has to rethink its role and NGOs also have to learn to be accountable and professional and yet not lose touch with ground realities.

When the government speaks of liberalisation, this should apply to everyone and not just the corporate sector or Big Business. What about the street vendors, the homeless, the slum dwellers?

They also have to be freed from the Licence Raj. In any case, home-based work and street vendors are also part of the private sector. I see a great opportunity for liberalising the "people's sector" that involves 90 per cent of the country's work force. They are the poor and the most economically active. That's how this country runs.

The poor will be able to take benefits from the mainstream economy. But they cannot do this alone. They cannot take so many risks. So who will share the risk with them? The Government is becoming weaker and is holding hands only with the private sector. The latter is extending a hand to the poor but only when there's a profitable market. We have to help the poor to build surplus, to build capital. We have to do hand-holding as equals, as real partners for risk sharing.

My plea is for non-violent economic reforms. We got political freedom through non-violent means. The same way we can also get economic freedom. Everyone in the country should be able to enjoy economic freedom. Unless women have economic strength, they cannot use their political rights.

If they are economically deprived, they will not raise their voices.
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Report of the independent Auditor dt . 30/11/05 : - General Report and Specific observations
  Stumbling Block - Inddia Today
  Firing Line
  Letter From IFAD
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