Village Community Development Association (VCDA)
This is an excerpt of a paper presented by the authors in the April 1997 seminar "Culture, Communication and Power" organised by Centre de Sciences Humaines (CSH, New Delhi) and CCRSS.
Presently we are organizing a training meeting for local animators of the Poor of the Mountain from different villages.
As an observation exercise, we start requesting them to draw a map of their village. Each one has to draw on the map of his/her village in particular what will reveal the social structures, social relations and all forms of social communication or discrimination (e.g. meeting places, footpaths, distance between settlements or houses, the relative position of the latter, signs of social differentiations, land distribution, cropping patterns, etc.). The drawing and the minute study of each one's map in the group help animators to understand hierarchical and unequal social frameworks, economic structures, cultural specificities, etc. The skills expected to be acquired with this exercise are, in particular, a capacity of minute observation, the ability to discover the social and cultural import of each detail, a deep insight into the rapports of communication or exclusion which prevail. Other institutions do statistical surveys: we do not believe in that.
Rural volunteers from different parts of rural Maharashtra come to participate in that training workshop. They are expected to study any subject of their concern on their own, relying on their intellectual capacities and as per their degree of concern and commitment. Information and knowledge are secondary though important aims of the workshop. Each participant is to present his view and understanding of social issues which he finds particularly relevant, and possibly his own experiences in the matter. Every participant ought to learn how to clearly articulate his/her own thoughts and submit them to the group scrutiny. After thought provoking discussion they use to get some new direction, new light from the questioning and experiences of others, provided they are ready to accept the suggestions and critiques. Free communication is the basis of the intellectual progress of all. No experts are called to be passively relied on as upon an alien or elder authority.
At the end of each six-day sessions we prepare reports which are circulated and read with interest in each one's local group. The report becomes the basis for further discussion in the next session besides being used by the local group as an extension of the self-learning process of the general session. This method spreads the thoughts and helps creating chains of groups of like-minded workers. This methodology is meant to boost the capacity of free and personal thinking, and qualities of mental autonomy, personal conviction. The participants are unable to forget the experience and education that they get in the workshop. We give stress on the process of listening others' thoughts and experiences, analysing them, forming and justifying one's own opinions and arriving at the correct conclusion as a result of prolonged questioning. We insist on the transparency of the communication processes which should take place on equal level. Nobody is big or small, more learned than another. Every participant is on equal footing. The group as a milieu of communication stands as the source of knowledge.
For the last seventeen years, we run a health programme. We give importance to health education and not to the distribution of medicines. No dispensary. The health animators -- most of them are women -- those with no formal school education or those who have gone to the school know only alphabet. During the training meetings issues of primary health care concentrating on preventive measures and public health are discussed. In the remote areas where the primary health centres are not reaching these health animators work as health workers (VHO). In the society, health of women is particularly neglected because of socio-cultural reasons. So we concentrate on the problems of women health. We organize health camps lasting a week where we show slides on women reproductive health and then charts and posters on diseases like aids and jaundice, the bad effects of tobacco chewing and cigarette smoking, etc. We make propaganda against injections, etc. At the same time we exhibit real human organs which create attraction in particular for school children. 'Scientific' experiments against cheating practices of 'magicians' are also arranged.
People should plan the development work of their village. With this intention, animators of the Poor of the Mountain, started gathering agricultural labourers, Employment Guarantee Scheme workers. Now these people have become conscious that they can plan for the development of their area, finding out work sites. Now they are demanding the incorporation of the right to employment in the constitution. Through various programmes, meetings, demonstrations, etc. , the consciousness has been created that it is the responsibility and right of local people to participate in the decision making process and have authority to deal with all such issues, and not only the duty or right of the government. A small step towards perspectives of economic democracy.
How do they exist at all and where do their problems arise from? They are a result of exploitative social constraints, values and norms. The poverty of the parents, root cause of child labour, is a socio-economic problem. Children are deprived of their childhood, they can not take education. We take meetings, organize these children and create a space for them to express their qualities and skills. As we arrange programmes where school-going children too take part with those who can not go to school, both of them come to understand one another better. Educational games and exercises of observation increase the capacity to observe and think over the situation. All is based on free exchange between children.
Their problems are not individual or personal issues. Social structures explain for this. While establishing personal contacts the objective is to create a collective consciousness. Women should understand that they are victims of social evils. We take meetings, camps. We have prepared a street play on this problem using folk forms of expression. We may take the help of court and legislation, though the court offers only a very limited scope. We try to act at the level of every day relationships, forms and systems of social relations. We bring together both the parties with their families for exchange and discussions. Collective debates try to solve individual problems while proving conducive to tackle issues of socio-cultural transformation.
What about health care?
With the reservation policy of 33% seats for women in local bodies, women happen to be elected for the first time. They immediately discover that they are completely unaware of the rules, regulations, functions, etc. in short of the whole working and nature of these local bodies. We organize meetings where everybody participates and narrates personal experiences, difficulties and problems. They come to overcome their difficulties through exchange and wide communication on their questions and difficulties. As an example of the effectiveness of wide exchange, a gram sewak (village secretary appointed by the state for local developmental issues) is supposed to administer the decisions taken by the sarpanch and members of the village panchayat. The experience of women newly elected was that the village functionary was totally unwilling to listen to them. These women members complained to the BDO (Block Development Officer, at the district centre) against such a gram sewak. The BDO requested him to behave properly. When such experiences are discussed in the group of participants, the latter get confidence and daring.
Sometimes we invite officers to attend meetings of the organization. We do not treat them as higher up people. We treat them at par with everybody. We do not allow them to make lectures and speeches about schemes. We take the precaution to warn them in advance that they have to come and discuss with the people, listening to them first, instead of lecturing them. In these meetings we sit in a circle on the floor, and officers have to sit equally on the floor, in the same circle. The level of communication is equal and common, and not hierarchical. At the time of demonstrations, we also as a principle oblige the officers to come out of their office and meet directly the people, for complete transparency of the discussion.
The development which till now took place was undertaken by a few for a few. We want to break down the monopoly of a minority which unilaterally creates and imparts knowledge.
We want to try out other forms of communication and social relations with regard for instance to creation of knowledge, decision making process, research methodology etc. in which transparency, exchange on equal terms, common responsibility and collective decision process are the main objectives. The kind of attempts that we undertake to that effect in order to successfully challenge the dominant structures of unilateral communication and information that we have pointed out are the following.
Free discussions are held with people from different communities for them to build up a unity of purpose and bridge the distance that society has put between them, for instance between men and women, tribals and landed castes, untouchables and others. A new time and space environment is created to promote personal expression of one's feelings, wishes, ideas, dissatisfactions and efforts; this is particularly important for abandoned women, children labourers, children in general, women in general. Self-expression is a point of elementary or basic strategy. The voiceless should recover their smothered voice.
The small local group is the tactical basis most adequate for these attempts. The small group of people from nearby villages meeting regularly generates soon the perception that "I carry also some weight in the society" on account of the discovery of one's capacity to think for oneself and act collectively with other. In-born but hidden capabilities come to the surface in individuals and the latter gain confidence in their capacity to achieve some change despite their low status. The group generates its own strength. The weak can regain daring and strength only through their internal systematic communication. Communication is an operational asset.
Information input as per the needs at the adequate moment, communication skills to articulate one's convictions, intellectual skills to observe and analyse, organizational methodology, social understanding focusing on structural constraints, reliance on hidden cultural capabilities of oppressed communities, etc. are among the specific pedagogical dimensions and needs. Permanent self-learning and group evaluation are the necessary safeguards to disintegration in the absence of external directive control.
Strategically, the group is the milieu of operation. Analytical tasks, evaluation, decision, intervention are most effective when carried out collectively. Cooperation and self-reliance in any substantial issue (theoretical perspectives, management, relations with superior authorities), and transparency are the key elements which the dynamics of the group depends upon. Their opposites are external guidance by experts with regard to the internal life of the collective, and advocacy by alien intermediaries with regard to the interests and objectives of the organization. They would spell the end of an approach based on internal processes of communication.
Communication, culture and power
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