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Speaker for Sangam Foundation Dinner Night: Professor Vijay Naidu on 90th Anniversary of Sangam on Saturday the 28th of May 2016

Professor Vijay Naidu, Acting Head of School of Management and Public Administration, and Director of Development Studies, School of Government, Development and International Affairs, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of the South Pacific, Laucala Campus, Suva.

Mr Sadasivan Naicker, President, TISI Sangam, Members of the Board of management, Executives, Mr Amaraiya Naidu, Mr Jai Narayan, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I feel very privileged to have been invited to speak at your annual AGM –the 90th such gathering since the establishment of the Then India Sanmarga Ikya Sangam, Fiji (TISI Sangam). Over the last 3 generations, Sangam has provided a range of social, cultural and educational services to citizens of our beloved country.

As has been rightfully the custom at previous annual conventions without exception, we pay our respect, and deeply felt gratitude to the founders of Sangam: Sevak Ratnam Sadhu Kuppuswamy, T.A.J Pillay, M.N. Naidu, and K.S. Raman, and the South Indian Girmityers who supported and made real their vision of a Fiji where they and their descendants will have a good sense of their identity, as well as dignity in the evolving Fiji society. Given their arrival after 1900 they had language difficulties, the plantation ‘bhat’ was based on North Indian Bhojpuri, adjustment to the conditions of indenture labour was very challenging and made worse by discriminatory treatment, the sense of loss and direction was widely felt.  The cases of depression and suicides among those who had come from Madras depot were the highest.

This small band of men led by Sadhu Kuppuswamy charted a course of positive development by promoting solidarity among South Indian immigrants through religious activities including the building of temples, and schools to promote South Indian culture and languages. From the start the Sangam was an inclusive organization and included South Indians who were Hindus, Christians and Muslims. The Sangam website carries symbols of this inclusiveness. However, this inclusiveness has been expanding over time so that for some time now, its 21 primary and 5 secondary schools and the Sangam College of Nursing (established in 2005) have been serving children and youth who are predominantly of ethnicities and cultures other than of South Indian descent. In this manner Sangam has promoted multiculturalism together with providing educational opportunities to scores of thousands of children of all ethnicities in Fiji.

As the distinguished jurist, and preeminent political leader, Mr Jai Ram Reddy in his address to the 2013 Sangam Convention noted,

Some 10,000 children attend Sangam Schools which are open to students of all races without any discrimination whatsoever.  Today you will find people educated in Sangam schools in all walks of life, in all profession and occupations.  Many have made useful and significant contribution to our national life.”

He further observed that,

“Although Sangam had limited success in the teaching of Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam in our schools due to lack of teachers, none the less South Indian culture is largely preserved through music, dance forms, pujas and festivals such as fire walking.”

The Sangam has many achievements that we all can be proud of. They include the schools, the nursing college, the temples including the preeminent Nadi Temple, the Lovu village, farms which include the production of honey, nurseries to produce seedlings, micro insurance scheme, and so on.

With some 64 properties comprising schools, temples and farms, Sangam is a very large and complex non-government not-for-profit organisation. On its website, Sangam is said to be the “most dynamic and powerful non-government organisation in Fiji.” We owe this to the founders of the organisation as well as to the leadership and stewardship of the men and women who have held leadership positions over the last 60 years.  

I want to turn to reflect on some challenges in the contemporary and coming years to the continued vibrancy of TISI Sangam. These challenges will test the claim of being ‘most dynamic and powerful NGO’. The challenges are both external and internal to the organisation. In terms of internal challenges, we need to ask the question whether there is appropriate multi-level governance at the national, district and local level. According to Mr Reddy, “The Sangam today is run in a very professional and business-like manner.” But is this so?

Do we have suitably qualified professional persons employed at the national, district and local levels? Is there a need for a clearer demarcation and identification of the roles of elected officials, and professional staff and employees? Are there better ways of formulating policies? Does the organisation need a Governance Charter and Code of Conduct for officials and employees? Are the organisation’s assets, and finances managed in ways that optimise returns? Are we assured by the auditing processes at various levels? What can be done to enhance the standard of leadership and administration in the organisation? Do we take advantage of leadership training opportunities? What are the opportunities for collaborative work with other civil society organisations, the government of the day and donors?

Very critically, how do we ensure that the Sangam remains apolitical and non-partisan? This precept has been fundamental to the organisation. It must eschew aligning itself to political parties.

In terms of leadership, while every year we pay due respect to our mothers and sisters in the Mathar Sangam, the question that comes to mind is to what extent there are efforts to mainstream women’s leadership in the organisation? I completely agree with Mr Reddy’s assertion,

“There is no basis for any form of discrimination against our mothers and sisters.  Any discrimination is wrong and immoral and cannot be defended in this day and age.  All forms of discrimination must end.  Education for our women has to be encouraged and Sangam as an organisation must continue to give every impetus for women to go forward and to attain the highest levels of qualifications possible, and assume a greater leadership role not only in Sangam’s affairs but also in the nation.”

What have we done to promote mainstreamed women’s leadership in the Sangam? And how has Sangam responded to Jai Ram Reddy’s call that violence against women must not be allowed to raise its ugly head? Shouldn’t Sangam actively engage in the national and Pacific-wide campaign to end gender violence?

Several dimensions of the external environment post daunting challenges. The first of these is the rapidly changing demographics of the country generally. The 2007 Census figures indicated that Fijians of Indian origins constituted 38% of the population; population estimates in 2013 showed that Indo-Fijian percentage in the overall population had declined to 36% and it is estimated that by 2022, in 6 years- time their proportion will be below 30%. The Indo-Fijian population is declining fairly rapidly overtime. This changing demography of the country has serious implications for the composition and direction of Sangam. Three years ago Mr Jai Ram Reddy had spoken of half empty rural schools. The majority population by far in a number of Sangam schools in urban and per-urban areas are iTaukei, and those of cultural groups not associated with Sangam. So the question is whether cultural organisations like the Sangam face existential threats.

It is said that 2017 is the year of reckoning for the sugar industry in Fiji; the make or break year. Almost all of us have a heritage that goes back to the 10acre cane farm which gave rise to many rural communities, and in some respect formed the backbone of Sangam. We need to give serious thought to rural livelihoods, the sugar industry’s future, and to the future of urban centres such as Ba, Labasa, Rakiraki and even Lautoka. As the sugar industry is so significant to Sangam communities, the survival and wellbeing of the industry should be of considerable interest to Sangam leadership.

On the positive side TISI Sangam has maintained links with Sangam offshoots in overseas Pacific rim-countries through leadership, kinship and sports ties. In these ways Fijians of South Indian origin who have emigrated continue, and even reinforce their relationships with Sangam, the rest of us and the country. Our Sangam networks abroad do provide added dimension to possible new resources that can be tapped for mutually beneficial activities and causes. These include support for TISI Sangam’s existing facilities as well as new initiatives. It is critical that there is a reaching out to the new generations being born overseas through their parents and grandparents.

In his 2013 address, Mr Jai Ram Reddy spoke about sick and poor people among us, and made reference to the Ramakrishna Medical Centre in Nadi and the Sathya Sai Medical Centre at Vuda. Lautoka.  And asked, “Can Sangam also join their efforts?”    He suggested that the “Sangam Village at Lovu will lend itself to such an idea.  It is within a high density area in ideal location, where many of the poor live.” An extension of medical and nursing services is care giving which is in great demand abroad and increasingly, here in Fiji as our population ages. This initiative plus the one regarding retirement homes will provide opportunities for those who train as professional care givers.

Professor Wadan Narsey has been talking about the great potential of retirement homes in Fiji. Those who have grown up speaking Tamil, Telegu, and Maliyalam, and eating South Indian food such as Idli, Dosa, rasam, khata bhaji, fantastic curries etc will love to return home to retire!

This proposal that has been making the rounds for some time. Such an initiative if followed through along international standards in a staged, incremental way may be feasible, and focus the attention of a number of overseas Sangam organisations.  This is a worthy project for further deliberation.

Finally, I take up the question that Mr Reddy posed about the organisation becoming even more inclusive of persons of other cultures joining TISI Sangam, as we take up the challenge of fostering multi-culturalism, peace and harmony. With a multi-ethnic alumini from Sangam schools that number in the tens of thousands, should we not promote their inclusion? I wonder if an affiliate entity called, ‘friends of Sangam’ might be a worthwhile idea to pursue.

In my speech tonight, I have praised TISI Sangam’s very considerable achievements, commented on its organisational complexity, and have asked questions of its governance and capacity and the challenges that it faces in the contemporary period and the foreseeable future, and made some tentative suggestions about possible ways forward.

We have been left an invaluable heritage in the TISI Sangam created by the sacrifice and stewardship of our ancestors, are we up to the new challenges that face the Sangam?