Rabial and the Indian Organizing Crisis


Kolkata    Friends, you read this number at your peril, because it speaks to a silent tragedy that plagues organizing everywhere and poses a difficult and desperate challenge at the end.
    Whenever I visit Kolkata I made a point to meet with Rabial Mallick, whom I believe it is fair to say, is the senior community organizer in India in terms and methodology that we would understand anywhere around the world.  Rabial was part of the first group of trainees in 1979 working under Herb White, a former Presbyterian minister who with church support was trying to spread the Alinksy-principles of organizing he knew and from the US, and Rabial was the only one from that seminal crew in Dharavi in Mumbai, who continued to organize over the last 30 years.  Rabial worked during this period for an Indian church-based center called, CIRCRS, where he was essentially the field director managing the community organizing program as the #2 person, while a church person was always in the first chair.
    During the crises in India when governmental norms were suspended by Indira Gandhi and money to support social change and work among the urban poor was disallowed from foreign donors, a consortium of church donors acted with amazing foresight and bravery before the restrictions were imposed to pre-grant a significant sum to the organizing effort to be held in trust and invested as long as possible to build the organizing.  There were court challenges, but the organizers prevailed and they and the organizational fruits of their labor moved forward.  Declining value of the rupee, less than perfect investments by the church, and decisions about sustainability that can always be second guessed, meant that the corpus continually shrank and was spent.  When I first met Rabial almost a decade ago, there were still 100 organizers under his supervision with projects in a score of cities.  He recognized that the money crises was coming, but having spent 20 years living with the donors’ harvest, it was hard to change the direction at midstream.  When I was in Kolkata in 2005, he no longer had the money to bring all of his staff together in one meeting to plan and implement the work, so he was unsure of the state of all of the operations.  When I saw him in Nairobi in 2007, it was clear that the money was running out, but there were irons in the fire, and there was still hope for a turnaround and more church support.
    When we sat down in Kolkata overlooking the Ganges flowing towards the famous Hooghly Bridge, I asked, as always, how the work was going.  He answered quickly, “very badly,” and the story updated quickly.  Another new director without any understanding or appreciation of community organizing and its value and performance had come in over the last six months with impeccable ties to the church hierarchy.  He had made an assessment of the remaining corpus and at the end of January decided to husband the funds to be able to sustain himself and a small staff on the church side over time, and proceeded to notify everyone else that he was shutting down the organizing operation and the support of the network or organizations they serviced on the 31st of March (the end of the fiscal year in India).  Rabial at just 59 years old days ago and 30 years as an organizer and all of the staff many with 20, 25, and close to 30 years were all being sacked.  There had been a ruckus about the promised severance.  They had had to fight for a “gratuity” as required for their years.  Rabial believed, luckily, that many would be able to make it for one or perhaps two years while they tried to regroup.  I was sitting with Rabial then and over the next number of hours as we moved to his office, visited with his Kolkata staff, and spoke with his visitors, we spent the afternoon together on all of their last day of work there.
    At the end of our conversation there was more clarity.  There was nothing I could do or say about the organizers working in rural areas and projects, ACORN International didn’t do that kind of organizing and had no clue how to ever pretend it could be sustainable.  Boiled down there was still Rabial and his top team of the dozen best and most experienced organizers he had with viable and operating organizations in Mumbai (in Dharavi where we work I had met the team at PROUD several times when I visited), Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, and Chennai.  All of these cities where places we either worked or were developing project and work, so one could hope for some synergy and a quicker bootstrapping to build power if the ways and means could be pulled together to save the best of what was left and amalgamate the effort with ACORN International’s work.  On a small page in my journal with the fan whirring above us here in the hot, humid season in Kolkata, the most New Orleans of Indian cities, the quick organizing math indicated that it could all be done for as little — or as much — as $3000 USD per month or 150,000 rupees.
    Who knows what is possible?  But, how does one allow all of these organizations to shrivel and die after 20 and 30 years of work.  PROUD just celebrated its 25th anniversary a couple of years ago.  The organizers had given me their program book.  There were pictures of the first leaders from the slum.  Herb and Jessica White and Rabial all had their pictures there.  
If something can be done, then it should be done.  Luckily, the ACORN International board is meeting in Santa Domingo in the middle of April, so there is a chance to get the information before them so a decision can be made and the risks either embraced as prudently as possible.  This is NOT how good organizations and good organizers should be allowed to die.  
A little goes a long way in India, so anyone reading who would like to send a contribution to ACORN International for this work in India, should go to the donate now button on the website (www.acorninternational.org) or my blog (www.chieforganizer.org) or send a check — at any amount — for the India Project made out to ACORN International (a 501c3) and mailed to Wade Rathke for ACORN International PO Box 3924 Bywater Station, New Orleans 70177 USA.