Monday, July 27, 2015

Three Events, One Story: All is not well in the country

Three events in the three days of my visit to home this weekend, away from my routine works at UNICEF, make me repeat that all is not well in the country. Let me start with 23 July.

Event 1: After landing at Kolkata, I took a ticket for an Express train, and got into Kanchankanya Express that usually has few empty seats that gets filled up from Bolpur. So, if one wishes to have a reservation till Bolpur one can ask for upgrading the ticket to a reserved one. I met the Ticket Examiner and asked for such upgradation, and he checked his chart and told me to sit at Coat S7, Seat 28. I took the seat. After we had completed more than two hours of the 3 hr journey, the Ticket Examiner, asked me for 100 rupees, ticked off my ticket, and started walking. I asked him what about the confirmation note he is to give. He said, "That would cost more. But why do you need it? You are nearly at your destination." He just didn't stop. He had gone past. I never saw him again. Lesson 1: Corruption that was much less just couple of years ago in my experience at least in Indian railways is once again looking up.

Event 2: 26 July, Sunday. I went to the local market to buy some green vegetables. I purchased for 250 rupees. The bad I had carried wasn't even half full ! Unbelievable. I returned feeling, this has never happened. Cost of vegetables have never been so bad. Lesson 2: All is not good, neither for consumers nor for small vendors.

Event 3: 26 July, Sunday. At 8.00 pm I caught the Jaynagar-Howrah passenger train that was running nearly 4 hours late to travel to Kolkata from Bolpur. There were two families who were discussing among themselves about their poverty. These families were from a place called Murarai, on the Bengal - Bihar border in central part of State of West Bengal. They were terribly anguished. The first man was sharing that he had to pay 20,000 rupees as commission to get 70,000 rupees for his legally allotted house under the Indira Awaz Yojana (housing scheme of the government for poor). The second one said, his daughter lost a job as Anganwadi worker (as assistant to cook food) under the ICDS scheme, because they were asked to pay 75,000 rupees in advance as cash to guarantee the job. Which they could not. And the job went to someone who could afford to pay up. I joined in to ask, "Why, wasn't the corruption has always been there?". They said, "When the communists were ruling at least the poor wouldn't be asked to cough up, or would be let off with a request for a small donation to the party. But now, it is very straight: either you pay up or make way for one who can afford.". Lesson 3: There is a need to fight corruption at every level by every ministry and person.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Life in Delhi

My life in Delhi has got into a clear routine now. I wake up at 5.00 am on most of the days, and at times if I am too tired wake up at 6.00. After a wash I work till 7.00 am by checking the mails and updates on social media. I have bath at 7.00, get ready for office and by 7.45 I am on road. I reach UNICEF Country Office by 8.00 am. I have my breakfast at the canteen and I'm on my desk at 8.30. Till noon it is work....meetings....discussions....At about 1.00 pm we walk down for lunch, usually a few minutes early to avoid the rush. Back to desk in about 40 minutes. Work continues. At about 2.30 often I feel so sleepy that I doze off on chair at times. In case I doze off it is for about 15 minutes. And then work continues till 6.45 pm. I wind up, and am out on street to return to the guest house where I stay. On reaching I have a bath and begin to relax by watching some comedy channel and news channels alternately. Sharp 8.30 pm I rush around the corner to a restaurant for dinner. My favorite at this restaurant is "baigan bhartha". Usually it is a full meal, which means 2 chappatis, a little rice, dal, and two vegetables. I tried non-veg at this restaurant, but was not too happy with the quality, and so I have settled down for occasional omlette or scrambled eggs. Back to room before 9.00 pm to catch up on talk shows on television. At times the laptop is once again switched on for some more work. Usually the day ends with a long telecon with Shubhra at about 11.00 pm. 

Though there may be some minor variations on different days, the regularity has given me confidence to work. At the atmosphere at the office is great as I am slowly getting to know more and more colleagues. Just one regret: being an operations person who was always found among people on field, the centrally air conditioned office that has a whole lot of facilities still looks like a cage at times. The satisfaction comes from the fact that my interventions go a long way to influence policies, programs and millions of lives positively.

Friday, June 5, 2015

An Issue that troubles NGOs in Nepal

International Non Profit Organizations, specially those well meaning ones from India are facing troubles because Indian government is restricting carrying of materials or money to India for relief and rehabilitation purposes. Technically taking money or materials to another country are supposed to pay customs duty to the government. Considering that the operations in Nepal need high amount of money, taking hard cash, which in any case is restricted, is a bad way to follow. Further it can call for legal action. Transferring money to an account in Nepal without the permission of Reserve Bank of India can be construed as money laundering! As the initial special permissions for taking more cash and materials with easy permissions without paying Customs Duty is coming to a close, NGOs are beginning to feel the pinch. 

As for Nepal, all NGOs from India or any other country, shall be treated as International NGOs. The International NGOs are required to be registered with the Social Welfare Council. Read Rules here.  Section 20 under the rules are very important for INGOs. 

There are four important steps:
a) Register with the Social Welfare Council (SWC) which is under the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare. (There is a need to coordinate with this Council on the part of INGOs, and support them where necessary so that all INGOs are registered properly.)
b) INGOs must open an account at any authorized Commercial Bank one single central account into which it can receive all its foreign funds, and it can open sub-accounts to use the money if required. Once in every four months, the INGO must submit a report of receipts to the SWC. 
c) If an INGO is supporting an NGO, such NGO also must be registered with the SWC. That NGO must have different accounts for different projects. The selected NGO is preferred to be a Nepali NGO.
d) Every year, at the end of financial year, the agency must inform the Auditor General in approved format of the closing of accounts, and the Auditor General shall appoint auditors to audit the accounts.

At this moment, the most important thing is for INGOs to register with the SWC, start a central bank account, and if needed sub-accounts linked to the central bank account for spending purposes. Donor money from any country should be directly sent to the account in Nepal. Do not route the money through India, as the money is not meant to be used in India. Any money sent from India needs the approval of the Government of India. (Latest heard is that Indian Government is asking NGOs to put the money in the Prime Minister's Relief Fund to showcase works in Nepal as activities of the Indian Government, and contribution of the people of India.)

Monday, May 25, 2015

From Desk to Changing Destinies

As Director of Social Welfare Institute in Raiganj, I was working directly with communities, toughing the lives of over 200,000 children, and thousands of families. One of the most important part of satisfaction was the employment I was able to generate for hundreds of families through various interventions and programs. In India, if one can do a great service, it is giving employment to another person. Many of those staff moved into better positions, and good number of them joined various low level government positions in health sector. 

In Kolkata, when I worked as State Inter Agency Coordinator (2009-2010) in the post-Cyclone Aila response, though not much of controls were with me in the response days, the information I processed and provided enabled reaching out to several deserving communities. I also focused on state level capacity building of humanitarian agencies. So, number of partnerships were developed to strengthen human capacity to respond to disasters. As State Emergency Response Coordinator with Core Group Polio Project, (2011-2013) again I got the opportunity to work in the thick of things, with services reaching out to the unreached children, specially those denied of vaccination by those who are supposed to protect the children: their own families. Managing partnerships, reaching out to over 200,000 children, with more than 300 staff engaged in the process was an amazing experience. 

The Uttarakhand experience in a sense was desk based work, leading a small team of highly qualified humanitarian workers who had lot more experience than I did. However, soon I knew why the UN Disaster Management Team (UNDMT) had placed me there. It was a whole lot of negotiations that were conducted patiently with various levels of government officials, designing and setting the course of action, clearing the paths for early recovery of communities through appropriate guidance, advice and advocacy in the Districts and State. Soon I found that we had achieved more than we had hoped for. We had built a new way of doing things! We had influenced the way services would be provided to hundreds and thousands of people who had been affected / impacted by the disaster of May 2013. It was an incredible experience. 

The experience of working on the Multi-Hazard Vulnerability Mapping (MHVM) project (2014-2015) was an unique experience in the seven months I was engaged with the project. Key outcomes: the name of the project had to be changed to increase acceptability at the government level, designed how the project needs to be implemented for better long term impact, and set the course of action through a government owned process. The Uttarakhand amd MHVM project experiences have increased my confidence in working with government, and my negotiation skills. I have learnt how to strike at the root without being too vocal in public. I have learned how to analyze systems and power structures, so that the interventions are truly owned by the stakeholders and give the maximum output.

Then I had the break from mid-Feb to mid-April break to welcome our son Rajarshi. I began working from 15 April at UNICEF India Country Office as Consultant - Disaster Risk Reduction. Highly desk based so far. If someone asks me what do I do, I say, " I am like the housemaid. I do whatever comes on my way, besides some regular tasks....". People laugh and wonder! As of now, the tasks are multi-fold. I prepare number of TORs for various positions and consultancies, attend some meetings, prepare several types of reports. Some of the key documents I reviewed and gave inputs on include: Government of India's policy document on Smart Cities (and prepared a brief and a presentation on the same); prepared a beautifully designed Risk Profile of Bihar State (albeit with limited data); and a document on School Safety.

Present tasks at hand besides making of TORs that don't seem to end, (a) preparation of a district level risk profile for all states of India along with two colleagues in UNDMT; (b) designing program on preventable disaster risks; and (c) planning for expanding program interventions in the country on DRR. One key problem: I am still not able to measure how many people would be positively impacted by what I do. It is only that information can satisfy my heart. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

2015 : Joys, Pains and Plans

2015 : The year started on hectic travels, unimaginably busy schedule wherever I was and the birth of Emmanuel Rajarshi on 23 March, besides the much needed house repairs that seem to be never ending. I also took a break from work from mid-Feb, to give some time to family and to manage other fronts. By the fact that I am sitting down to write a blog after six months since the last posting is an indicator of what I have been through. Leaving children and Shubhra back home has been the biggest pain, as I had to shift to Delhi in search of job in mid-April.

Somehow, my look for a job in Africa or elsewhere seem to be somehow eluding me. In spite of so much experience in disaster management, doesn't seem to get me far! Opportunity that came on the way to work in Nepal had to be sacrificed as I had just signed the contract a week before the massive earthquake struck the Himalayan country. 

Back in Delhi, I leave early - by 8.00 am to Unicef office, and I have my breakfast there in the canteen. Leaving early helps me beat the heat. My usual breakfast goes like this: either two idli or bread toast, along with a cup of coffee and half plate fruits (containing five or six types of cut fruits on a quarter plate). My lunch is around 1.00 pm, again at the canteen. If I can get out of the office by 4.30 pm, I leave office early to beat the traffic, and if I cannot, then I remain till 7.00 pm, by when autorickshaws are available back again. It is difficult to get autos on Lodhi road between 5.00 pm - 6.30 pm due to closing of offices in the area, and the autos come filled!

About my tasks in Delhi, I shall write in the next. For now, it is just the joy of working for a dream, pain of missing hearing "Appa" from Vasu, our daughter, and an eluding plan for a better legacy that I would like to leave behind.