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Court Stays Government Move to Take Control of Church-run Development Project

ICC Note:
An attempt by Hindu radicals to take control of a Christian welfare project shows that even charitable work is viewed as a threat to extremists.

AMBIKAPUR, India (UCAN, 11/10/06) — A court in central India on Nov. 6 told a pro-Hindu state government it could not take over a welfare project entrusted to a Church agency more than a decade ago without explaining the move.

Raigarh-Ambikapur Health Association (RAHA) received a letter on Oct. 26 saying the government of Chhattisgarh had canceled a previous government’s order allowing the Church agency to manage the Integrated Child Development Service.

Ambikapur and Raigarh dioceses neighbor each other in Chhattisgarh, which was part of Madhya Pradesh until 2000 and has been ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people’s party) since 2003. RAHA was authorized to run the project in 1995 by the secular Congress government that ruled Madhya Pradesh at the time.

The Chhattisgarh High Court stayed the recent government order since it did not specify the reasons for the takeover, Holy Cross Sister Elizabeth, the RAHA director, told UCA News on Nov. 8.

The Oct. 10 letter from Amrita Beck, deputy secretary of the state’s Women and Child Development Department, said the government was taking over the project. The order also said that until the district collector made further arrangements, the district project officer wold look after the scheme.

Government officials did not take charge, RAHA project officer Sister Emelina Xess told UCA News Nov. 8.

The project is based in Lundra, near Ambikapur, some 1,300 kilometers southeast of New Delhi. The Sisters of St. Elizabeth started it in 1995 and handed it over to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyons six years later.

St. Joseph Sister Xess said the government has funded the project from the beginning and there have been no problems with this arrangement. The annual government allocation is 5.1 million rupees.

RAHA promotes holistic health among poor, mostly tribal villagers in the area served by Ambikapur and Raigarh dioceses as well as Jashpur diocese, formed this year from Raigarh. It provides pregnant women and children up to age 6 with medical care and supplemental nutrition. It also teaches trades to women who have dropped out of school and runs kindergartens for children. The project has 151 centers.

Sister Xess, a tribal nun, said the trouble started after BJP member Vijayanath Singh made a “false allegation” in the state legislative assembly in December 2005 that the Church agency used government funds to convert Hindus.

The government set up a three-member team to probe the allegation. The team reported back that it had visited 15 village councils and contacted 72 village leaders but found no evidence of RAHA indulging in conversion activities.

The probe team also said the agency had used government funds properly, though it did fault RAHA for not following government rules in the appointment of the project coordinator and assistant coordinator.

Sister Elizabeth said nuns hold these two posts for six-year terms. She explained that the nuns are not willing to risk appointing other people because of “the money and responsibility involved.”

According to local media reports, the state government ordered another probe after Singh continued to press his allegations. Latha Usendi, the state’s Women and Child Development Minister, headed the second team, which probed the allegations in May and June and also cleared RAHA of conversion charges.

Jesuit Bishop Patras Minj of Ambikapur says Singh has made a “baseless accusation.” The prelate told UCA News that the BJP wants to have Hindus run the project. He pointed out that the government had withheld project workers’ salaries for seven months. The staff decided to stage a sit-in, but on the day before the demonstration, the agency received a message saying the government had sanctioned the payment of salaries.

The takeover order says the government would not take responsibility for the office staff, but would retain field workers.

“Why this discrimination?” asks Dashrath Prasad Manipuri, a Hindu who works as an accountant with the project. The 16 staff members include eight Catholics, seven Hindus and a Muslim. Among the 302 field workers and their assistants, 41 are Christians and four are Muslims. The rest are Hindus.

Several local Hindus confirmed that the Church agency did not try to convert people. “We have no complaints. All the complaints are from above,” Mahender Gupta, a Hindu private medical practitioner, told UCA News.

Some project workers said they are not worried about who manages the project. “We want only our job,” explained Mahbol Alam, a Muslim who works as the project’s assistant statistics officer.

Sister Xess, however, is worried about what would happen if the government gave control of the project to Hindu radicals. “I would feel sad if the poor people didn’t get things as (they do) now,” she said.