Sometime in March, I was conducting a food procurement and distribution survey and the strangest feeling struck me as I questioned the dietary choices of a woman in Anandpuri block of Banswara district, Rajasthan. I had reviewed the most recent National Family Health Survey and my visits to Anganwadi centers had confirmed issues of malnutrition and anemia in the region. However, the conversation with the woman kept leading to issues of water scarcity, and I couldn’t help but wonder why I was asking her about food diversity when she was clearly articulating other concerns.
In previous posts, I have outlined a common model of NGO, social enterprise, and aid work that I have observed in India. Through this model, community driven initiatives are generated through meetings and dialogues; however, not all voiced concerns can be addressed. One of the reasons for this is that organizations that rely on institutional funding tend to avoid political obstacles or involvement, instead choosing to work within a system, regardless of its efficacy. In the scenario mentioned above, I received a lot of feedback suggesting VAAGDHARA would not work on water issues directly because there are plenty of water related projects sanctioned by the Indian government’s NREGA scheme , and that those who were dealing with water scarcity issues should attempt to resolve them through the same. Upon further inquiry, one project manager at VAAGDHARA also added that obtaining the funding through the scheme can be difficult and that it requires maneuvering through the political system; thus, VAAGDHARA chooses to address malnutrition issues through interventions which are less water intensive such as kitchen gardens.
All of the information above culminated with confusing rumination on the seemingly obvious problem inherent in dealing with food diversity and malnutrition when a community may be dealing with water scarcity issues. I repeatedly kept asking myself how I could ask a farmer if her family was eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables when she does not have access to water year-round. I became even more perplexed as I read the World Health Organization’s take on the relationship between water and malnutrition: “[W]ater supply, sanitation and hygiene, given their direct impact on infectious disease, especially diarrhea, are important for preventing malnutrition.” I began to question whether we were finding the most effective way of engaging community driven initiatives.
Jan Jagran Shakthi Sangathan (JJSS) is a people’s movement organization working out of Araria, Bihar. I bring them up to highlight how their work steps outside of the model described above. To understand how JJSS is different it is essential to understand the roots of their origin and the intentions of their work.
In a conversation with Ashish Ranjan, member of JJSS, he noted that when JJSS started working eight years ago, the economy was suffering and that people in the organization wanted to work to revive the rural economy and fight abject poverty. After conducting a survey, they realized that people were largely demanding employment through the NREGA act, which guaranteed them employment or financial support in a situation where work was not available. The thought was that by increasing household income, people would be able to purchase books, spend money on education, food, and other expenses which would improve their livelihoods and the local economy. Unfortunately, people did not know how to demand the work they were entitled too, and the entitlements from the act were largely going unfulfilled.
Thus, JJSS’s intentions became clear: an intention to hold the government accountable to the benefits entitled to the rural poor written by law in in the interest of the public good. According to their website, “JJSS mobilizes rural poor to demand better services from the government and to get the existing entitlements as laid down by the various legislations. JJSS aims to bring about a larger change in the lives of rural poor by means of ‘sangharsh’ (struggle) and ‘nirman’ (constructive activities)”.
There have been tremendous obstacles along the way, but JJSS has been able to challenge existing power structures to bring either employment or unemployment benefits through NREGA to many poor and marginalized individuals across a few blocks in Araria, Bihar. By educating people on how to apply for work and empowering them to demand their entitlements, JJSS has helped unite thousands of individuals in the region. People have used the money earned from the work provided in the NREGA scheme for many reasons, from leasing land for agriculture to improving household food consumption.
According to Ranjan, one reason that JJSS has been able to challenge those power structures is because it does not rely on institutional funding, rather it rejects it. Additionally, there are inherent requirements that heavily funded organizations tend to demand, such as understanding impact as a final result through numbers. Instead, JJSS places greater focus on the process and ethical practices.
What I want to achieve by highlighting JJSS is to present a possible alternative direction as we seek to improve the conduct in the development sector. India functions in a matrix chock-full of issues regarding caste, gender inequity, race, class, religion, and more. Often, the work of NGOs and other organizations is targeted at benefiting the most marginalized of these communities. The society for Cultural Anthropology journal recently did a wonderful series on keywords in ethnography and design. In the series, they discussed the tendency of development to be designed while treating “politics as the constitutive outside, or the tendency to remain silent with respect to politics in favor of ethics and values, rather than seeing these as always already entangled.”
Government programs such as NREGA have more funding than most NGOs, foundations, or development organizations could hope to have . I’m not proposing that we stop trying to introduce technologies, improve accessibility, or provide aid to marginalized communities. Rather, I’m simply pointing out that efforts to support and empower these communities need to hold government programs created for the public good accountable, rather than undermine them .
 Government of India, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. National Family Health Survey: India 2015-2016. Mumbai, Maharashtra: International Institute for Population Sciences, Dec. 2017. Web. Accessed at: http://rchiips.org/NFHS/NFHS-4Reports/India.pdf.
 Government of India, Ministry of Rural Development. “H3. Status of Completed Water Related Works in FY: 2017-2018.” The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005. Web. Accessed at: http://mnregaweb4.nic.in/netnrega/water_related_report.aspx?lflag=eng&fin_year=2017-2018&source=national&labels=labels&Digest=cT/J7ChEq5LOfEr0AmsuAQ.
 World Health Organization. “Water Sanitation Hygiene: Water-Related Diseases.” 2018. Web. Accessed at: http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/diseases-risks/diseases/malnutrition/en.
 Jan Jagran Abhiyaan. “Welcome to Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan.” 2012. Web. Accessed at: http://www.jjabihar.org.
 Shuman, Lucy. “Design.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website. 29 March 2018. Web. Accessed at: https://culanth.org/fieldsights/1355-designhttps://culanth.org/fieldsights/1355-design.
 Government of India, Ministry of Rural Development. “Funds and Finance.” The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005. Web. Accessed at: http://nrega.nic.in/netnrega/Fund_Finance.aspx
 Ganz, Marshall, Tamara Kay, and Jason Spicer. “Social Enterprise Is Not Social Change: Solving Systemic Social Problems Takes People, Politics, and Power – Not More Social Entrepreneurship.” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Spring 2018): 59-60. Web. Accessed at: http://keough.nd.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/SSIR-Spring_2018_social_enterpise_is_not_social_change.pdf.