August 22, 2009
"A Fine Balance"
Just when I was begining to think that volunteering with CRAWL was becoming routine, the organization has suddenly found itself in a predicament. If you recall, we operate at three locations: a school in the small village of Kardah, the larger Sealdah train station, and the smaller Dum Dum station.
Keeping the school operational is a non-issue, since CRAWL owns the space. The train stations, however, are more complicated. As I've mentioned, though we've operated with the stations' permission, we are subject to the arbitrary will of the station police and administration. Usually this is only an inconvinience. For example, Sealdah station doesn't like that we treat drug addicts, so they often force us to move our location of treatment away from the station wall to the parking lot. Yet I realize now that dealing with these incoviniences preserves a fine balance between us and the station. If we do not make a scene neither will the police. The balance is preserved, and we are allowed to remain. Yet as happened yesterday, the fine balance can falter under the most minor of misunderstandings.
For some reason, yesterday morning at Dum Dum station the police were clearing the small square where we normally work. They were shooeing all of the sqaure's inhabitants-- the vendors, the rickshaw drivers, the homeless people, and us. As this was happening, one of the volunteers was about to take a picture of a rickshaw driver. A nearby policeman soon accosted our volunteer, thinking that the picture was being taken of him. Though the volunteer showed him that there were indeed no pictures of him, the policeman took him over to where a group of other policeman stood. A big ordeal ensued, with the CRAWL's director stepping in to help him (thank goodness she was there that day). The result of all this is, however, is that CRAWL is forbidden to work at Dum Dum station anymore.
Apparently this has happened once before, in the May, and CRAWL was obviously reinstated. Yet the assistant stationmaster had already refused to reinstate us when our director spoke to him. We will try the assistant's boss, but having to cancel the Dum Dum project looks like a possibility.
This raises a lot of questions. First of all, how will the organization replace this project? Will they go to another station? Will they allocate more attention to the school? But what if the balance at Sealdah station was broken as well? Could the organization still exist with only its small informal school in Khardah? The school is not so established. It has about 30 students and is located in an abandoned building. And besides, as a long-term volunteer mentioned, it is the station projects and not the school that gets volunteers. People come here to see Kolkata, not Khardah.
All of this raises what is probably the central question of my trip. That is: it it really possible for a mobile organization to survive in such a harsh and unpredictable environment? Ultimately, CRAWL is just like the people it treats; it is without a home. In Kolkata, individuals and families on the street must struggle to survive from day to day. CRAWL's whole purpose is to give these people some consistency, a guarantee of help. Yet it appears as though CRAWL must itself suffer a similar hardship. My posts likely convey that every day at CRAWL has been different, presenting both new obstacles and new rewards. While this makes for an interesting time, how can an organization guarantee anything under such circumstances?
Mother Teresa Missionaries of Charity has stable homes around the city. Yet CRAWL fills in the some of the crevices between the Teresa locations, instead going to the people rather than have the people come to them. It's quite true that many of the wounded and homeless are incapable of travelling to a medical dispensary or a hospital. CRAWL is one of many organizations trying to fill a niche unoccupied by Mother Teresa's. It is Teresa's degree of establishment in the city that ensures its success. The Daya Dan house is able to run under a strict schedule and with few volunteers. CRAWL ventured out to help those that Teresa couldn't reach, yet in doing so, exposes itself to the same vulnerabilities as anyone on the streets of Calcutta.
CRAWL is able to operate under a fine balance. When the balance is maintained, the organization has agency; it can enable the sort of sense of community I wrote of in previous posts. But it is a fragile situation, and CRAWL has little experience, no clout, and ultimately, no control. If the balance is disrupted, we fall. CRAWL has decided to exist on the street and so must deal with the struggle of survival.
A possible solution? One of the co-founders, Nancy, wants to buy land to open a dispensary near Sealdah station. Owning a location should give some much-needed stability to the organization. But for an American to buy land in India is a process. Will CRAWL be able to hold out for that long? And if she can purchase the land, how will that alter the character of the organization?
The differences between Mother Teresa and CRAWL are presenting themsleves more and more clearly. My final week of experiences, as well as my interviews with the staff of CRAWL, Mother Teresa, and (hopefully) SMILE--the organization from which the founders of CRAWL seceeded--should answer some questions, while inevitably raising others.
Posted by cheyman at August 22, 2009 01:05 AM