Now that I have spent about 40 days in India, and off and on spent some some time with local NGOs, I have been getting requests from friends in USA and elsewhere about my impressions and how to organize some help for the poor in India. Unfortunately I really do not know. I spent most of the time in Andhra with middle class friends, and rest of the time visiting the mathematics department of Vivekananda University, Belur Math. I also spent three days in New Delhi talking to Shekhar Singh about RTI and sustainable development and a day in the Narendrapur branch of RK mission trying to understand their work on rural development.
From what I can see, RK mission work is impressive (I am basically an atheist and my main interest is in the mathematics department of Vivekanda University. The work of RK mission in rural developmement, I came to know only during my stay there three years ago through a visitor). From what I could gather, this work started over sixty years ago when a monk sheltered a few young people during the Bengal famine. In return he asked them to help the neighbouring weaver community and slowly the involvement with neighbours srarted. They moved from North Kolkata to Narendrapur and started working with nearby villages taking advantage of the youth clubs in villages to train villagers in agricultural technology. This slowly led to the development of teaching and research departments and an agricultural centre now supported by the government. There are around thirteen units in the Narendrapur centre from a school for the blind to Ayurvedic and Allopathic treatment centres to gardens of medicinal planta to schools to about four units involved in rural development of over two hundred villages. This is all very impressionistic; some more details can be found at Ramakrishna Mission Ashram, Narendrapur. In any case my impression is that some of the work of the mission started in a similar fashion. Some dedicated monk had a passion to do some sort of work. For example one became a monk after seeing his father beat up his mother and wanted to help women. His efforts resulted in Ramakrishna Mission Shishumangal Pratishthan. It seems to start with a combination of a nucleus of need, a dedicated monk with a passion for that work, and also the support of the mission and the community. I found that when I was walking with monks there seemed natural respect and admiration for the people who have given up normal pleasures of life to serve others and even shopkeepers were selling things cheaper to me. It is clear that RK mission is doing great work but it is not clear how it can be reproduced. Unfortunately, the the number of monks seems to stay around 1200 and they do not open new centres without 3-4 dedicated monks.
Then I also visited a couple of small local organizations in AP who have been doing social work for a few years and to whom I have been trying to organize funds on a small scale off and on. One of them T.Aruna in Ongole, a Kamma lady married to a Brahmin and has been involved in various activities with her husband's support for nearly 25 years. Whereas RK mission scrupulously keeps away from politics, Aruna first went along with communists and then with Telugudesam of which she may still be a member. My impression is that she helped a lot of poor women to organize self help groups, got land from the government for several poor, and in addition runs two different centre for the old and women in need with overment funding. The funding seems to come late sometimes 2-3 years late and meanwhile she borrows money to run the centres and seems to have lost all her property in the process. We helped to organize operations for two women in the short stay home. With funding from abroad, there is generally insistence on bills, accounts etc and it is not clear how these can be organized well in India. This accounting requirements seem to be an unnecessary distraction and in two cases I saw that volunteers could not cope with it and asked us to take the money back. Perhaps when reliable people are found, accouting requirements can be loosened. In RK mission, I found that sometines retired people help to keep accounts and there is only accountant for the whole Vivekanda University.
Perhaps the highlight of the trip is chating with Shekhar Singh who oozes aptimism and is justifiably proud of what RTI is beginning to do and now with the help of social audit. Rahul Banerjee whose "Recovering the Lost Tongue" ended in a somewhat pessimistic note now says that they won a few cases using RTI and feels more optimistic. Somehow the bureaucrats let RTI slip through, perhaps they did not take the new NAC seriously, and have not been able to dilute it so far. Moreover, like in any other group, there seem to be several well meaning bureaucrats and the challenge seems to be to organize these various cohesive groups which can work at least locally.
Those are my rough and somewhat incoherent impressions.
P.S. Shekhar Singh is a friend since 1977. Aruna is the sister in a law of a friend I knew from 1957. Mahan Mitra/Maharaj of Vivekananda University, Belur Math and I have common research interests; we colloborated in 2009, I know him from his work since 1996 and met me first in 2005.