Field Experiences of Funding, NGOs and Human Rights

-Liz Mount, PhD Candidate in Sociology

Liz Mount in South IndiaI gazed out the side of the auto as it sped down the highway and the passing buildings became smaller and farther apart, dwarfed by tall, lush, green trees.  I was in a large South Indian city conducting pre-dissertation research on how NGO-led sexual rights activism impacts local communities of sexual minorities.  That day, I was accompanying Vishwas, an NGO staff member, and Anjali, a hijra who recently had her phone confiscated while in police custody; Anjali had come to the NGO for help recovering her phone, with Vishwas acting as negotiator. 

The auto finally stopped in front of a large, wooden gate surrounded by white cement walls at least 12 feet high.  I was becoming more curious about this place since it didn’t look like any police station I’d ever seen.  As we stepped out of the auto, I greedily inhaled the fresh air, realizing how accustomed to the city pollution I’d become.  

We entered the gate after Vishwas mumbled something to the guard.  As we walked up a small hill, I looked around at the expansive grounds, amazed at how scenic this police station was—there were so many tall, beautiful trees with red buds poking out, green grass everywhere. Compared to the noise of the city, it felt practically silent. I asked Vishwas and Anjali exactly what kind of a police station this was and they explained that it’s actually a beggar’s colony run by the state. Apparently, the police are supposed to pick up people that they witness soliciting money and bring them here for “rehabilitation.” However, the police have quotas to fill, so they pick up people that they assume to be beggars, meaning anyone who looks really poor.

As we walked through the resident quarters, we begun to see people—all women dressed in light blue cotton saris.  Their eyes were large and hollow, everyone was very skinny and many of the elders were missing limbs. They were gathered in a rectangular space with a long table at one end, where five young women dressed in fashionable salwar kameez were speaking while a crowd of at least 100 women in blue saris sat on the floor.  When I asked what was happening, Anjali said it was a meeting where the staff would interrogate the women, screaming “Why?!  Why were you begging?!” and convince them that begging was not a solution to their troubles.

I was looking around, trying to take everything in, when an elderly, short woman with a gentle face walked up and asked me in perfect English, “Are you with some NGO?” Not knowing how to answer, I pointed to Vishwas, saying I was visiting, but he works for an NGO. Then, the woman explained that she was picked up by mistake and she asked for help contacting someone who can get her out. Vishwas responded in a gruff tone, asking what she was doing in Bangalore in the first place. She said she came because she needed money, again asking if we could please email her friend to let them know she’s here. Anjali told her to write the email address down but the woman said she didn’t have a pen, so I quickly started looking in my purse, but Vishwas snapped “Don’t!,” giving me a serious look, so I stopped. Vishwas told the woman he’d come back tomorrow and motioned us to follow him, while the woman watched helplessly. 

We managed to get Anjali’s phone back, to her delight.  As we walked back to the gate, passing the large crowd, I asked about the woman who had approached me. Vishwas explained that the authorities would not like us interfering in her case and the next time something happened to one of “their” people, the staff might not be as helpful. This incident suggested that NGOs claiming to work for “human rights” are not equally concerned about all human rights violations, which turned out to be a pivotal point in my research.  I realized that NGO “issue based” funding is allocated for specific groups of disenfranchised people, making it imperative that NGO staff focus all their efforts on their particular subgroup in order to ensure continued funding for the NGO, and thus ensure that staff continue to get paid.  

About 12 weeks after my visit to the beggers’ colony, I was sitting in the Bangalore airport, waiting to board my flight back to New York.  I saw a Times of India paper with a headline that grabbed my attention: “12 More Unnatural Deaths In 24 Hours at Beggars’ Colony.