Monday, August 8, 2011

Week 5: JC

Yogaramar Temple Exterior

Renugamban Temple Festival at night

These days SST is a well respected and trusted NGO in the Padavedu area.  The organization encountered many challenges when it first started working here ten years ago, and had to develop innovative strategies to gain communities’ trust. One of these strategies was helping communities renovate important cultural and religious sites that had fallen into disrepair. In addition to restoring temple architecture, temple grounds were also outfitted with basic infrastructure needs such as a compound wall, toilet, and drinking water facilities for visitors. Temple functions and personal poojas comprise an important part of people’s lives. For SST to recognize and act on this fact reveals its sensitivity to community priorities.  It is no surprise that working with people to preserve and strengthen an important cultural asset helped SST express its collaborative mission and become a stakeholder in the community. By partnering with temple officials, SST demonstrated its respect for existing socio-cultural leaders who—because of their standing within the community—then legitimized and promoted SST’s other projects and awareness campaigns. 

Government housing structure and SST staff member

Community toilet built by SST using government and community funds
SST now has a wonderful working relationship with temple swamis who can often be seen in the SST office. Since we've arrived here the temples in the area, especially Padavedu’s Renugamban temple, have seen an increase in pilgrims due to it being Aadi month—the month of festivals in the Dravidian calendar. SST organizes volunteers from TVS and SCL, as well as SHGs from the community, to help with crowd control, provide meals for worshippers, and take preventative measures against potential sanitation and hygiene issues. On the one hand, it is great that SST is working with the community to deal with the influx of temple visitors. On the other hand, it makes me wonder: why is the government not taking responsibility for these precautions? It reminds me of the trend in the U.S. in which government bodies step back from social welfare responsibilities and rely instead on NGOs to fill the service gap.

The Indian government has a wide variety of earmarked funds to help rural communities develop. The formations of SHGs and their linkage to credit sources is an obvious example. But other programs are not so transparent or accessible to the community. Furthermore, the relationship between communities and local government officials is often filled with tension. For instance, when I asked members of one SHG why they thought they did not get a perfect score on their government rating, they blamed it on government corruption. 

I like how SST tries to be more of a facilitative entity whenever possible. The organization strives to strengthen political and social structures already in place, thus addressing the breakdown between the development of government programs and their actual implementation. SST staff may educate SHGs about government schemes and help them apply for the funds to build better houses, construct roads, and improve their community in myriad other ways. Or they may partner with government public schools to help identify and engage “slow learners” in the classroom. But at times what the government is willing to provide may not be enough, or it may not be suited to the community’s needs. As a result, community action is the only recourse for the moment, such as in the case of crowd control for Renugamban temple festivals. In this particular case it is wonderful to see community organizing at work. I am also conscious that many years of relationship building between SST and the community had to occur in order for this action to take place.  But at the same time I wish the government were more hands-on in terms of quality service delivery. NGOs may mediate the relationship between the people and their government, but at some point the latter needs to step-up and address its shortcomings. Towards this end I see more room for macro-level political advocacy work on the part of all community stakeholders: SHG members, swamis, and SST alike.

Sweets and religious items for sale at Renugamban Temple

Temple vendor stall

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