On Earthquakes, Corruption and Familiar Visitors

This post was begun on October 2nd.

Today, I was awakened to my bed vibrating slightly, as if my alarm clock had grown hands to shake me into starting my day. In an instant it was over, and I thought nothing of it. Bleary-eyed, I opened my computer and attempted to connect my internet. It wasn’t until I was deep into my bowl of oatmeal that I considered that what might have woken me up was an earthquake. I wasn’t in Indonesia anymore!

I went downstairs to take my trash and compost out and asked my landlord if he felt anything like an earthquake this morning. He smiled, nodded, and said quietly, “You are very sensitive to these things, hai na (aren’t you/right/no?). I told him about my time in Indonesia, and his eyes widened, impressed. “Oh yes, there are many earthquakes there!”, he said, almost excited by the fact. He went on to talk about the 1905 earthquake that happened in Dharamshala that I hear about constantly from people (people talk about the earthquake here like Bostonians talked about the Curse of the Bambino to newcomers, at least until 2004) like it happened yesterday, like he somehow had lost something in the destruction as well. “This concrete jungle we’re living in is so fragile.” He told me that another big earthquake could happen any day now, and that all one could do was live one’s life and try to forget about it. A friend told me that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has some monks actively focusing their prayers on fault lines to prevent such a catastrophe from occurring again.

I thought about all the times an earthquake had happened somewhere in Indonesia, far from me, and I would get a Facebook post from a friend or relative asking, “ARE YOU OK?!?! There was an earthquake in Indonesia!” I would always assure them that I was at least 500 miles from the zone where one had to be even remotely concerned about ones safety. There were some small tremors in Gorontalo, small enough that I thought I was imagining them, but the only time I worried at all was when I was in Surabaya and I got a call from one of the AMINEF (American Indonesian Exchange Foundation) coordinators to tell me that if  was in Gorontalo, to stay away from the northern beaches because the tsunami that hit the Fukoshima power plant was on its way to Indonesia. It petered out somewhere around Taiwan, I think, and nothing came of it (that didn’t stop me from calling everyone I knew in Gorontalo to tell them to run for the hills…)

While taking pictures at a local Gramsabha meeting (a quarterly meeting between panchayat (town/city council) members and members of their communities) in Rakkar (near the Jagori office) later that day, I leaned against a wall for support. The wall began wobbling and again, I thought I was going crazy. Another earthquake! The meeting immediately turned to questions of disaster preparedness and emergency services. Prior to this, the panchayat had raised the issue with the community about building a boundary wall around the school for the student’s protection. Since this would cut into public land, most of the citizens did not support building a boundary. The panchayat brought up the issue of safety for the children at the school (it’s right next to the road and supposedly the boundary would prevent children from running into the road) and that got people riled up and worried about children’s safety. Eventually we all went over to the proposed site of the boundary, and that’s where things got interesting.

I was with my friend Gaytri, who was translating all this for me (if my Hindi was good enough to understand all this first-hand, I would jump for joy!). She told me that the community wasn’t supporting the boundary because there were only 30 kids at the school and there has never been an accident at the school. She was saying all this with a smile on her face. “What they propose is corruption,” she said, still smiling. The community doesn’t want the boundary because they know that if the panchayat undertakes the project, they will do it in a corrupt way. “If the project requires 50 bags of cement, they will order 100 bags, and keep the money” – the officials tend to create a need for projects so they can order more materials for the project than is required. They then keep the money they didn’t spend on extra building materials for the project. Everyone except me (and the other volunteer who came with me, Maura, from Switzerland) knew this – they were just playing at it because you can’t yell “corruption” in a crowded panchayat meeting. Again, I’m not in Indonesia anymore…am I?

Pictures of panchayat meeting:

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Knowledge of corruption, of course, causes some sort of action to be taken – whether the action is effective or not. There are seemingly endless checks and balances on these panchayat members, and still they seem to get away with stealing from the community.

1) In Rakkar (and I assume at every panchayat) there exists a social responsibility/order committee of sorts (the exact name is escaping me right now). This committee of nine citizens (not government officials) are supposed to keep track of the funds utilized by the panchayat to make sure they’re being used properly. It was decided by the community that during this meeting, seven new members would be elected because seven of the existing members were not doing their job on the committee. Five of these positions were to be reserved for women. Gaytri and Vandana (a Jagori team member and friend who works on the SATH team) volunteered, among others, and no one objected.

2) A man in a fancy Jeep showed up, at which point Navneet (SATH team member, friend and the person I work with on my English classes) said “more drama is about to start”. The man took a seat and immediately everyone focused on him. Gaytri whispered to me that he was the Panchayat Inspector who checked on about 10 panchayat in the district of Dharamshala to make sure they were doing their jobs. He talked (in between about 20 phone calls to lord knows who) about the importance of the people and their participation in governance. He chastised the panchayat members for focusing on the boundary issue from before and not on the issues at hand which were more important, like water and waste management problems. He seemed sincere enough, but he was gone in less than 20 minutes, off to check up on another community. It seemed that both the government from a top-down perspective and the people from a bottom-up perspective were, at least on the surface, attempting to provide oversight and demand accountability from their leaders.

3) Gaytri (about my age) also told me that she ran for the pretan position (the head of the panchayat) against an older woman she pointed to who was sitting in a chair under her dupatta, trying to hide from the sun. This woman beat Gaytri and won the election by 40 votes – 230 to 190. While Gaytri spent Rs. 2000 (about $40) on her campaign, mostly using it for advertising, while the other woman spent 1 lakh rupees (Rs. 100,000, about $2,000) paying people to vote for her. Gaytri says that she’ll see about running again in five years, when the position opens up again. She’s my new superhero, right up there with Hillary. I don’t get to work with Gaytri very much, so it was really inspiring to see how dedicated she was and to see how much she loved her community. (Sidenote: Rajni, the head of the violence division of AWAJ, was a pretan in a village around Shahpur for five years.) These are some serious women I’m working with who seem to really live out the values the are currently working so hard to protect.

Later that day, I got to practice my Indonesian with a Malaysian visitor (Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia are very closely knit languages) attending a human rights conference at the TARA (Training and Research Academy) at Jagori. The Indonesian jolted out of my mouth awkwardly as I remembered phases, but then couldn’t link them with essential words, or some Hindi would plop itself in the middle and I would get frustrated. The Malaysian said it was so nice to be speaking to someone in her native language before we parted ways, but it left me feeling like I was standing over a widening precipice with one foot in Indonesia and one in India. I’ll just have to learn to balance in such a precarious position until something can be done to unite my new experience here with my familiar experience there. I’m not in Indonesia anymore, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be reminded of it or see helpful parallels to my experience here.

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4 thoughts on “On Earthquakes, Corruption and Familiar Visitors

  1. Gaytri is really one of the warmest, most inspiring women at Jagori. Vandana too. I really admire the both of them for how they live out their ideals in the community.

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