By Pratim Roy

This is a true story. Arjun Singh Nag is a Bastari tribal from Chattisgarh in Central India. He is instrumental in running a forest cooperative – thereby providing livelihood opportunities to his people through collection of Non Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) and conserving the natural resource base by community monitoring such as only matured trees to be harvested, marked and village institutions to be built up for sustainable management and use of natural resources.

Keystone Foundation, an NGO to whom I belong, works with tribal communities in the Nilgiris and is now in the process of networking with other similar initiatives in India. Last year, we had a successful Bastar meeting with a number of community organizations, the Forest Department and Arjun Singh Nag became a friend of Keystone.

This year, our NTFP partners organised (it takes place every year) an NTFP exchange program to invite people from South East Asia in Philippines for a workshop – exchanging experiences, learning lessons.

Arjun Singh has never travelled beyond his village in Bastar. We took this up as a challenge that here is a person who should participate in this workshop and bring back to India and his village valuable knowledge and practice on forests and communities.

He first had to travel to Bhopal from Jagdalpur (Bastar District’s HQ) which is an 18-hour journey to get a Tatkal (Urgent) passport (a passport given under special circumstances). Letters were written, phone calls made to the Collector Bastar and he got the passport from Bhopal.

The passport was sent to Delhi through our travel agent and submitted to the Embassy for visa. In the meanwhile, Nagji gets an official letter from the Regional Passport Office, Bhopal stating that his passport is “defective” – is not valid for travel, so he must come in person to Bhopal to get a fresh passport issued.

Clouds began to gather around this sunny event. Prayers, contacts and phone calls around the country were made. Friends in high places in the Government managed that the Regional Passport Officer in Chennai talks to his counter-part (most probably IAS batch mate) in Bhopal to expedite this matter. But still he needed the old passport as the old one (due to printing and software error). In these situations all sorts of errors crop in and mostly it happens to the weak, vulnerable people in society – empirical data shows this pattern.

His visa application gets rejected by the Philippine embassy and we ask the travel agent to courier the defective passport to Bhopal – to a non-descript hotel where Nagji has been holed in. The courier leaves on Thursday from Delhi to reach him the next morning, but no, the story does not end like this – the courier is delayed (Blue Dart) and it reaches on Saturday – passport offices are closed, we again try to find some way, but the RPO tells us that it can be done only on Monday. Two others, who were to accompany him for the workshop, leave for the Philippines on Sunday – leaving Nagji extremely nervous. A man who has been in the village, how can he go abroad, board a plane all by himself – without knowing any good English? I speak to him for an hour giving him the confidence; my other colleagues give up, saying it is now difficult, the travel agent says it is impossible.

The new plan emerges that he has to get the new passport on Monday and get in a train to Delhi to submit the visa application before 10 AM (visa applications are not taken after that). He gets the new passport (without giving any money!) and misses his train which should bring him early to Delhi. He comes in the next train – the people waiting for him at the Railway station have gone, phone calls, sms, e-mails fly between Kotagiri and Delhi and a second pick-up party is scrambled to pick up the forest-man. It is too late for the visa. We lose Tuesday. The workshop in Philippines has begun on Sunday itself. Time is running out. From Tuesday we make another plan – try and contact someone high up in Manila through our NTFP network and let the person talk to the Embassy officials or the boss himself (Ambassador).

Faxes, phone calls go back and forth from Wednesday morning as Nagji will appear in the counter for his application. The Travel agent warns us that the embassy officials requires 4 working days – Wednesday to Monday to process a visa so his ticket to Manila has to be on Tuesday! What will he do going to the workshop when it was already finished? Positive thinking, storage tanks or rather warehouses are tapped and I say to myself: either he gets it today or he goes back to his village. Anyway I will accept the verdict; I have finished all my cards.

The sweet talk from Manila works, the faxes and letters (redrafts…) weave their way through and he gets the Visa!! In one day. As I write this, today is Wednesday – the 24th September, 2003 he gets the visa, the travel agent organizes his ticket… and I have to explain to him what to do in the International Airport in Delhi – baggage check, ticketing, immigration, etc. He will take a flight to KL and then to Manila, from there our friends will take care of him. The story has not ended – just as we thought all our hurdles, one after the other we had crossed – like coming back into the game and winning after a huge initial set-back… As he is a tribal, he does not have a degree (education) so his immigration will not be cleared; we are again working on it…

This is the story, the old saying of “where there is a will there is a way” and to add if you have Grace (needs to be tied all the time as part of you) with you it is a win-win situation all the time, come what may…

PS: His passport has a ECR (Emigration Clearance Required) he will not be allowed to leave the country unless he has a ECNR (Emigration Clearance Not Required) – Nagji tells us that he is a lawyer which means that he has BL (Bachelor of Law) degree, it is five past, the offices are closed to get the proper stamp for ECNR (that is if he is carrying his law degree…). Tomorrow there are no flights to Manila from Delhi. Today another miracle has to happen – very fast, I hope the Grace Officials from above have not closed their office for today.

Keystone Foundation, Kotagiri, Nilgiris (Batch of ‘85)

Green Intermediaries