INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.

INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
Stumbling Block

The Modi Government's blocking of funds to an earthquake rehabilitation project of the reputed NGO SEWA reeks of vendetta and deprives thousands of poor families of their earnings.
SEWA founder Elaben Bhatt says the charges of financial irregularity levelled by the Government against her NGO are flimsy and motivated by vendetta.

Gujarat's mercurial Chief Minister Narendra Modi has a standard sales pitch for himself and the state he represents: "Gujarat pride". It is an effective if convenient slogan, except when he takes on an organisation that truly symbolises Gujarati pride. Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), founded by renowned Gandhian social worker Elaben Bhatt, is a legendary NGO that has earned international recognition and praise. Seven lakh Gujarati women get daily work through the self-employment network created by SEWA. If their families are taken into account, this means every 15th person in Gujarat owes his or her sustenance to one of the schemes launched by the organisation over the past three decades.

That's why the current campaign against SEWA by the Modi Government has triggered a seismic wave of shock and surprise across the state. The state Rural Development Department blocked foreign funding to the earthquake rehabilitation project Jeevika being implemented by SEWA. Jeevika provides employment to 14,000 families of Kutch, Patan and Surendranagar districts. The funding was stopped on the charge that SEWA had misused the funds but the evidence produced by the department is questionable. The blockage of funds has left high and dry 5,300 women, the poorest of the poor who were earning Rs 1,200-Rs 3,000 a month through the project.

Narendra Modi, stung by SEWA's allegations that it is being victimised because it employs Muslim women, has kept quiet on the issue and refused to meet Bhatt.

The UN's International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), which is funding the Rs 125 crore Jeevika project by a loan selected SEWA as an implementation agency in 2001. The fund was to be routed to SEWA through the Central Government and then the state Government, which is paying interest on the loan. The Rural Development Department threw a spanner in the project late last year. Things came to a pass this April when it ordered a special audit of Jeevika's accounts and did not even specify the terms of reference till SEWA asked for them. The NGO was informed that it had not properly used Rs 33 lakh of the initial Rs 6 crore it had spent on the project. When the harassment became serious, Bhatt, who has otherwise taken retirement, sought an appointment with the chief minister but in vain. Last week she met former prime minister A.B. Vajpayee to complain about the Government's alleged vendetta against SEWA. Says Bhatt: "The charges levelled against SEWA are flimsy. We don't know why we are being targeted."

Investigations done by India Today reveal that the real reason for the anti-SEWA campaign is a case of an ego-inflated bureaucracy, or rather a bureaucrat who had a beady eye on the funds SEWA was getting. The senior bureaucrat, who is involved in overseeing external funding of social projects, wanted SEWA to spring for a foreign trip of a senior officer (not himself) and to hold Jeevika meetings in a four-star hotel. Both requests were politely turned down by SEWA. Shortly after, the vendetta against SEWA began. Last month, the state-appointed coordinator for the Jeevika project, Jyotika Banerjee, quit in a huff, saying, "I couldn't handle SEWA's high-handed attitude." The chief minister has only compounded the problem by refusing to meet Bhatt. As a result about 5,000 members of SEWA took out a protest rally in Ahmedabad last week.

ANGER AND DESPAIR: SEWA members take out a rally in Ahmedabad to protest blocking of funds to Jeevika

A scrutiny of the charges levelled against SEWA exposes the state Government's fig leaf. One of the allegations is that SEWA paid Rs 4,000 to get 77 pieces of embroidered clothes made by its artisans for a fashion show ironed at a five-star hotel in Ahmedabad. Asks Namrata Bali, general secretary, SEWA: "If models are to display clothes in a five-star hotel and we have to get them ironed at a short notice, where are we going to do it?" Another charge is that the administrative expense of SEWA in Jeevika project was as high as 34 per cent. According to SEWA, it was the case only in the first year when much of the expenses went in setting up the infrastructure. Today the administrative expense has come down to 10 per cent, says Reema Nanavaty, Jeevika's project director.

Yet another charge that SEWA was misusing funds by assigning the job of training the villagers in disaster management to Disaster Mitigation Institute (DMI), an NGO being run by Bhatt's son Mihir, also does not carry much weight. When the earthquake struck Gujarat in January 2000 the only NGO in the state into disaster management training was DMI. What's more, the IFAD-SEWA agreement lays down that the disaster management training will be imparted by DMI. SEWA too has compounded the problem by alleging in private that Modi is targeting the NGO because it employs a large number of Muslim women. Says Rural Development Secretary Vipul Mitra: "By giving the issue a political colour, SEWA has exceeded its limit." With Modi trying to reinvent himself on the platform of development, he needs to take a broader view and see SEWA in the light of its contribution to society rather than viewing it through narrow tinted glasses.

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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
OCTOBER 24, 2005

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