Origin and Progress
Before the Beginning
Once the royal seat of the Asaf Jahi dynasty, Hyderabad city has moved on from being the Nawab’s abode to today being the second most preferred city in the world to live. However, this transition hasn’t been a smooth ride as the contrast between the historic old city and the newly developing plush localities is ever growing.
Over time, Hyderabad’s old city suffered massive decay. There was acute lack of civic amenities such as regular water and power supply, proper roads, hospitals, schools or playgrounds. Along with this, there existed high levels of illiteracy, unemployment, low income, and lack of skill development facilities. Since it was a traditional and conservative area, women were not permitted to mingle freely in society. They were relegated to the domestic sphere and entirely dependent on their families, emotionally as well as financially.
The general poverty and ignorance further divided the people on caste and communal lines and often resulted in violent conflicts. The vicious circle of lack of resources and mutual distrust hampered the development of the area such that it began to lag behind other parts of the city not just in terms of urban growth, but also lifestyle and attitudes.
Communal tension as deterrent to development
The constant undercurrents of antagonism between different communities residing in the area created an atmosphere of tension as the real issues of development were sidelined. The consequences of this were:
- Exploitation of women at home and in the society: Girls were not allowed to study and could not explore employment opportunities. They were married at early ages and subject to physical and mental abuse. They had little say in household matters.
- Few centres of learning: Educational groups with potential preferred to establish institutions in the new areas, since the old city had frequent riots and outbreaks of violence. The children of the area had to travel long distances to get a good education, and often reputed schools refrained from accepting children from the old areas.
- Lack of capital and declining economy: The general sense of disharmony associated with the area hampered investments for commercial ventures and employment opportunities for individuals.
Formation of COVA
The old city was hit by violent riots of unprecedented scale from September 1990 to January 1991. About 50 Voluntary Associations came together under the aegis of Forum for Voluntary Action and Relief to provide relief to the victims.
Another NGO that became a major part of this forum was Deccan Development Society (DDS), based in Medak district that worked towards empowerment of Dalit women in over 60 villages over 15 years. DDS felt that relief and rehabilitation was not adequate to combat the plague of communalism, and thus launched the Communal Harmony Project, to prevent the recurrence of riots. Active involvement in the area inspired the following observations:
- Maintaining peace and harmony in a locality is the requisite of the residents. If different communities reside amicably, no amount of instigation from any vested interest can generate disruptions.
- While the orientation of the local people to the issues of development was scarce, outside interventions for development were resisted. Further, because the people tend to be suspicious of external involvement, the initiatives were unable to sustain for long; organizational and resource limitations also disrupted substantial work.
- As communities were closely knit, most organizations were formed along fixed lines. As a result, people are unable to imagine social activism beyond religious and political motives.
In the light of these findings, DDS catalysed the formation of a federation of local groups to address communal violence in the old city. The Confederation of Voluntary Associations (COVA) began as a network of 8 Community-Based Organisations (CBOs), and was registered under the Societies Registration Act in July 1995. By providing organizational and financial resources, COVA organised play schools, summer camps, adult literacy centres, and self-help groups for women. Following COVA’s initiative many NGOs began to make forays into the old city.
COVA envisioned the formation of Specific Area Networks that would gradually work independently. Mahila Sanatkar Mutually-Aided Cooperative Society, Roshan Vikas Mutually-Aided Cooperative Thrift Society, COVA Welfare and Charitable Trust, Youth TRAC (Youth Training Resource and Activity Centre) and District Network Programme (later identified as ‘Bandhan’) were some of the earliest networks. Interspersed with developmental activities, COVA also focused on peace initiatives at the local, national and international levels. From a rights-based and perspective-building approach, COVA also focused on development, initially in Andhra Pradesh and gradually moving to other states of the country. Christian Aid has been one of the earliest supporters and since 1997 COVA has been receiving foreign funding directly.
The following is a brief account of the evolution of the different spin-offs of COVA as well as of its strategies and interventions.
I. From Children’s Programme to ICAN…
In the Children’s Programme, Green Kids Leagues and Child Campaigner Clubs started in regular private schools during 1997-2000 testify to the rights-based approach. The focus was on environmental activism and child rights awareness.
In order to reach out to new schools each year, COVA attempted to link the children’s programmes to WWF and Bharat Scouts and Guides. Programmes like annual science exhibitions and sports events which were unique to this part of city were also organised. COVA facilitated project works for children on environmental themes like energy, climate change and global warming, pollution, nutrition etc. This has since taken the shape of an annual Idea Fair.
It was also decided to train school children in co-curricular and extra-curricular skills like essay writing, public speaking, theatre and soft skills like time management. This intervention was known as the Para Education Programme (PEP). Open School Centres were also initiated for dropout children. Peace Clubs were formed to instil peaceful co-existence of communities. Bal Adalats were also part of this programme.
While there was once hardly any exposure for the students in old city to children’s activities in the new city, over time, there was not only frequent exposure but also a distinct recognition with their success. Through these activities, COVA reached more than 10,000 children from its 120 plus member schools.
Children’s Programme evolved into an independent organization – Indian Children Action Network (ICAN). An ad hoc committee was formed to oversee the process and advise on its programmes.
II. Youth TRAC (Youth Training Resource And Activity Centre)
Youngsters are impressionable and are often targeted by vested interests. COVA sought to address the existential needs of youth to safeguard them from communal politics. Recreation Centres were formed where livelihood training and computer literacy programmes were organised. Youth volunteers have been assisting COVA in peacekeeping on public festive occasions. They brave the stone-pelting of miscreants and offer assistance to the injured at hospitals. Many strategies like cricket clubs, football tournaments, creating gymnasiums were attempted to attract them to social activism.
As Youth TRAC participated in voter registration and election watch activities during the municipal elections, it was decided to focus on advocacy rather limiting to service delivery. The career counselling sessions of Youth TRAC, however, continue.
III . The Evaluation of 1999
The Evaluation Report of 1999 suggested the following new directions for COVA’s functioning:
- Building capacities of local volunteers for implementing developmental programmes in their localities independently.
- To reach out to children from alternate systems of education like open schools and universities, dropouts from minority communities and include them in the ambit of skill development.
- Extend its programme to other districts of Andhra Pradesh to integrate the rural marginalised with the mainstream through the formation of district networks involving grassroots CBOs and NGOs.
- Devote more time and resources to advocacy, action research and policy interventions so that the approach is to integrate macro concerns with micro interventions.
People’s Union for Civic Action and Rights (PUCAAR), a rights based collective, was formed to ensure access to basic amenities to the different communities in old city. Health, child labour, girl trafficking, law and order, police harassment and housing emerged as issues needing immediate focus. These demands were highlighted under the People’s Manifesto and presented to the state and central governments during general elections of 2004. It was time that leaders saw beyond religion and addressed the real issues of development of the area.
IV. For the Empowerment of Women
India Population Project (IPP) VIII funded by the World Bank was implemented by the Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad (MCH) in 1996. It was realised that most problems faced by women were due to their economic dependence. The vocational training centres for women were transformed into Micro Enterprise Centres. Mahila Sanatakar and Roshan Vikas were two affiliates that emerged from the Economic Empowerment Programme for Women. With the involvement of the Link Volunteers, Self Help Groups also started.
To ensure that the social empowerment of women was not shadowed by focus on economic and political issues, the COVA–Kasturba Gandhi Peace Centre (CKGPC) was formed in 2008. In association with Gandhi Smiriti and Darshan Samiti, CKGPC reached women and adolescent girls through Aman Saheli groups. In 2000, a Family Counselling and Reconciliation Cell was created to help solve family disputes.
V. The District Network Programme
In 1999, COVA decided to move to other districts to understand the issues of rural Muslims. These were made possible with support from Cord-Aid (erstwhile Bilance) and Christian Aid. With partnership from CRS, COVA was able to undertake Mandal-wise surveys to identify credible organizations and resource persons who could take the programme forward. Shikhsha Yatra was implemented to lobby for education and awareness campaigns for Panchayat Raj elections. In 2004, the central government’s department of Science and Technology chose COVA network as a nodal agency for the implementation of the Year of Scientific Awareness Program in 16 districts. The networks in different districts organised a number of peace rallies to promote communal harmony and peace. The District Network Programme was evolved into ‘Bandhan’ in 2009 and implemented HIV/AIDS awareness programmes in nine districts.
However, in some places, it was felt counter-productive to speak of communal harmony where there was no tension. Thus, COVA had to revise its strategy and address these issues in subtle ways.
VI. Networking in Hyderabad
The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 recommended an inclusive approach toward Muslims and minorities. COVA initiated the Equal Opportunities Facilitation Centre (EOFC) and organised Career Melas for the ‘excluded’ sections of society. COVA also collaborated to form the Hyderabad Forum to advocate for justice for Muslim youth in the city.
VII. National Collaborations
COVA has been the State Secretariat for Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) and Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP). With Muslims for Secular Democracy and All India Secular Forum, COVA fights religious fundamentalism and advocates for the rights of minorities. It collaborates with VANI and Credibility Alliance for strengthening the voluntary sector.
VIII. Research Centre
COVA developed a Research and Resource Centre with separate training, research, mobilisation and communication units to be useful after its affiliates become independent. As part of this, research studies were organised to study the socio-economic conditions of Muslims in various districts of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. COVA also contributed the Hyderabad segment to research conducted by OXFAM on urban poverty. Due to paucity of resources the Centre has been discontinued since 2008.
“Kal Aaj aur Kal” – Time for introspection
It was 2006, nearly 12 years since COVA was formed, a reasonable time to review the interventions made. The conference “Kal, Aaj aur Kal” was organised using Future Search methodology with various stakeholders. PUCAAR became COVA’s logical initiator in Hyderabad. Within a similar framework of the rights-based approach, efforts began to form a South India Muslim Women’s Rights Network. There was enthusiastic response from groups in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
In his foreword to COVA Annual Report 2006-2007, Dr. Mazher Hussain observed:
COVA started in 1994 in response to the communal riots that had become endemic to the old city areas of Hyderabad. Post 9/11, conflicts were no longer brief, localized phenomena as they acquired transnational dimensions, that could threaten the very existence of the human race. Secondly, as globalisation transforms existing socio-economic structures, it further disadvantages the poor in the global South and threatens their basic rights as citizens and human beings.
Lastly, as natural and man-made disasters grow in number and frequency, they result in “relief fatigue” where governments and organisational/individual donors are unable to contribute beyond providing initial relief. The divide keeps increasing as more and more communities are being left to fend for themselves to reconstruct their lives.
In view of these developments on the local and global levels, COVA has revamped its approach to be relevant in the changed context. Three broad areas of focus for the future emerge:
- Establishment of a Centre for Applied Peace Studies: to facilitate an understanding of the genesis of conflicts and devise practical methodologies to mitigate conflicts that could aggravate.
- Initiation of a National Campaign for Right to Basic Services: to enable the poor and marginalized to access basic services like water, sanitation, education for social integration and a dignified human existence.
- 3. Formulation of strategies for Community Owned Disaster Management and Rehabilitation: to enable local communities to deal with natural and man-made disasters.
The way forward
In order to work towards its goals of global peace and communal harmony, it was imperative that COVA’s networks became more independent. The following programmes are being planned in this regard:
- Establishment of a Centre for People’s Foreign Policy in South Asia: for greater involvement of citizens in foreign policy
- Streamlining the Citizens Assertion Campaign: to advocate for the Right to Basic Services
- Launching the COVA Livelihood and Activism Portal (CLAP): to promote educations and employment opportunities and enlist youth as peace activists.
- Facilitation of a Media Action Group (MAG): to sensitise the media on urgent issues of public concern.