Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Lack of Dignity of Labour

As a society we have to ponder over how physical labour is being devalued, whether it is in agriculture, industry or in services. Increasing automation and the advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence are now making even intellectual labour redundant and causing jitters to the middle class but the greater tragedy is that of the devaluation of physical labour and even more so for self employed labour. Not just in terms of emoluments but in terms of their self image. Crores of people in this country are engaged in physical labour and many of them are doing it on their own as freelance service providers, craftsmen, weavers or farmers. They are highly skilled and yet they do not take pride in their skills.
I have already in an earlier post written about how the fourwheeler vehicles of our organisation are maintained by stand alone mechanics who provide much better service than the authorised service centres whether they are of Tata Motors or Suzuki. Yet one of these mechanics, Iqbal, does not value his work as much as he should. He has a small rented place with some open space outside in which he plies his trade. He is a first class mechanic and due to his golden fingers our vintage 1998 model Maruti 800 not only runs beautifully but it still gives an average of 18 to 20 kilometers per litre of petrol. He has also worked on our Tata Safari car of which we are the sixth owners and made it trouble free over a period of time. Whenever, there is some problem he attends to it promptly. On many occasions he has gone to the school in Kakrana at the drop of a hat to repair the Safari which initially was in very bad shape. He has then patiently taught the staff at the school to do some elementary repairs themselves.
He started off as an apprentice at the age of fourteen and has been working ever since. For the past ten years he is on his own in his small garage after having worked for others for a long time. He is now fortyfive years of age. He has in turn trained many mechanics who have apprenticed with him and then gone on to join the bigger authorised service centres. These provide some amount of employment and income security as compared to being an entrepreneur with a small garage.
I have always had great respect for Iqbal ever since I first came across him two years or so ago for the dedication and skill with which he works. Yet the other day a phone call from him drove me into a deep gloom. He said that his daughter who is in class eleven and studying accounting and commerce with computers needed a laptop and he couldn't afford it so could I help her by getting one from somewhere. Iqbal is a self respecting man and has never asked for anything but his voice sounded abjectly pleading. Here was a man of great skill but he did not have the money to buy his daughter a computer, even a used one and that had broken his self respect. Normally girls in the slum where he lives in a dilapidated house are married off once they reach the teens. Iqbal, however, has broken that retrograde tradition and even fought with his community leaders to do so and continued to send her to school. However, now when her daughter needs a computer, he feels ashamed that he cannot afford one and has to ask me for support.

It wasn't very difficult to get an used laptop for the girl as just one post in Facebook did the trick. But what set me pondering is the fact that Iqbal does not value his profession and skills. He knows that I spend most of my time punching keys on a computer and that as a consequence I garner a lot of resources for philanthropy and that my activity is much more remunerative than his. This is the case with the many other such skilled workers that I interact with both in the city of Indore and in the villages. All of them work hard and well in whatever they do but they are able to garner very small amounts as compared to the resources that I manage to accumulate. Most of these people are beneficiaries of our projects and so give me a lot of respect. Iqbal was an exception and he carried himself proudly till a few days ago. But now he too has become obliged to me and his behaviour has changed consequently and this is what is bothering me. If the real hard workers in this country don't have self respect because they cannot earn enough from their work then there is cause for concern.
Iqbal has an elder son who is in class 12. He is not very good in studies but plays football well. When I went to deliver and set up the laptop to his house, Iqbal, asked me if I could not get his son a job in the Indian Railways under the sports quota!! I asked him why he did not induct him into his garage? He said that the boy was not interested in becoming a mechanic and anyway there was no secure future in this line.  That is what is happening in farming also as the rural youth of today don't want to work on the farms. Just because punching keys on a computer and being able to write well in English is valued much more than physical labour. When millions of hard working and skilled people have lost their self respect and the new generation is turning away from such hard work in large numbers, then there is certainly a cause for concern that we will only be aggravating by ignoring.

Friday, February 17, 2017

More on Philanthropy in Kakrana

The demolition firm of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are in the news these days for decimating the opposition on the cricket field with their lethal spin and catapulting India to the top of the ICC Test Rankings. However, there is another demolition firm that is quietly going about decimating the seven decade old mal-development perpetrated on the Adivasis by successive Governments in independent India with their path breaking initiatives in the Rani Kajal School in Kakrana that also deserves equal if not greater spotlight. This is the powerful philanthropist combination of Swapan Bhattacharya (Swapanda) and Nagendra Subbakrishna (Noggy).
Ever since Arjun Venkatraman installed the wireless hop internet in Kakrana and detailed how it was possible to mule data to Kakrana on hard disks from Indore, Swapanda has been diligently downloading videos of educational material from the internet in Indore and carrying it on hard disks to Kakrana. There these videos are screened daily in the evening through a projector for all the students and staff to see. The content ranges from educational material to vocational material so that the students and staff can learn about ways to make things as well as learn their lessons. One such vocational set of videos which has been a great hit is on tailoring. These videos teach how to do tailoring from the basics to the advanced.
The problem however, was that there was only one very old manual sewing machine belonging to one of the staff in the school and so the interested students and staff could not practice what they saw in the videos. This is when the other partner of the demolition firm Noggy decided to step in!! He funded the purchase of a state of the art electric sewing machine from Indore. However, as is the case with any advanced technological intervention in Kakrana there were initial teething problems. The reputed USHA company which manufactures these machines has stipulated that their service agent will set up the machine and give an initial demonstration and only then will the service warranty for the machine hold. This service contract is outsourced by USHA to another company in Indore. Despite repeated reminders to the service agent he did not come to Kakrana which is 250 kms from Indore to set up the machine and give the initial demonstration for over one month.
Finally, the staff in Kakrana decided to take things into their own hands and start the machine themselves. The roped in a professional Adivasi tailor, Nakla, who has his shop near the school to help them. To cut a long story short, Nakla proved to be an expert and successfully set up the machine and sewed the first dress with it.
Swapanda has great plans of getting the staff and students in Rani Kajal to achieve such proficiency in tailoring that they can supply orders to garments firms in the future. Even if that may take some time, what can immediately happen is that the school uniforms for the next session can be prepared in the school itself instead of having to be bought from outside.
Whereas the demolition firm of Ashwin and Jadeja are involved in a highly unproductive activity that in the final analysis is only wasting scarce environmental resources, the demolition firm of Swapanda and Noggy on the other hand are increasing the productivity of one of the most marginalised communities in the world!!. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Philanthropy at its Best

My college days in Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur (IIT KGP) were very nice not so much because of the studies or the sports but more so because of the great time spent with co-students doing many other things. After graduating we all went our separate ways despite being so close together for five years. I, especially, having gone off into the wilds of Alirajpur completely lost touch with my college friends. Then after three decades with the advent of the internet and Facebook we began connecting and catching up again and remembering the great times we had spent together in college. Many of these friends are now American citizens but nevertheless they still have a deep connection with the land of their birth and their friends who have stayed back. Nagendra Subbakrishna or Noggy as he is more popularly known is one such individual. We got in touch again after many years about two years ago. We have a practice of having a get together of old IIT KGP alumni when one of us comes in from the USA. So about four of us got together in Bengaluru and had a great time. Noggy then expressed the wish to come and see the wilds of Alirajpur. What with one thing and another he could not make it till about three months back when he along with his wife Kathy came on a visit to Alirajpur. The upshot of it was that both of them fell in love with the school in Kakrana.
Noggy has to visit India frequently every three months or so on work and now he has made it a point to visit Kakrana every time he comes down to India from the USA. On his first visit itself he was disturbed with the fact that the children in the school in Kakrana mostly have to eat pulses and rotis. He said that growing children should get more vitamins and protein. The parents of the children being poor can pay only so much and so the school in Kakrana has to be heavily subsidised through grant funding and as this is inadequate the food quality is nutritionally deficient. Even so attempts are made to provide vegetables. Noggy would have none of this and insisted that more protein and vegetables should be served to the children and donated money for this.
Kakrana being on the banks of the River Narmada has an abundant supply of fish which is first class protein. However, since a majority of the children in the school are vegetarian they will not eat fish. Then another IIT KGP alumnus, Sanjeev Sabharwal, suggested that the children could be given soyabean nuggets which have high protein content and also are tasty to eat. Since they are vegetarian there would be no problem of feeding all the children with it. So I began scouting round Indore to see what the price of soyabean nuggets were. The branded nuggets from top food retail outlets cost as much as Rs 150 a kilo. However, since Madhya Pradesh is the biggest producer of soyabean in this country, soyabean nuggets are available wholesale from top soyabean processors for as little as Rs 55 per kg. So we bought a quintal of soyabean nuggets and transported them to Kakrana. Now twice every week the children are getting fried soyabean nuggets and they are eating them with relish as shown below.
India is ranked 97 out of 118 countries in the global hunger index and Adivasis have much more than their share in the population among the hungry in this country mainly due to income poverty. Hunger affects Adivasi children right from the womb as their mothers are hungry when they conceive. This affects not only their physical prowess but also their intellectual abilities. As mentioned earlier, the parents of the children in the school in Kakrana being poor, they find it difficult to pay large fees and so both the education and the food in the school has to be subsidised through external grant funding which is not adequate. Under the circumstances, Noggy's concern for the nourishment of the students of the Rani Kajal School and his contribution to alleviating the situation by ensuring more consumption of vegetables and protein by the children is philanthropy at its best.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Exasperated Anarchist

The only viable way in which the centralised forces of the state apparatus can be fought and overthrown, whether violently or non-violently, is through the formation of a massive centralised organisation of the masses prepared to adopt underhand means to counter the illegality of the state. But by definition, anarchists are against all forms of centralisation and stress on the maintenance of the purity of means to achieve desired ends. So they cannot posit a viable mass challenge to the state that they would so much like to get rid of. This results in a classic Catch-22 situation. Faced with this seemingly impossible scenario, some individual armchair anarchists such as Thoreau have contented themselves with holding forth from their isolated ivory towers against the iniquities of the state, while others of a more practical bent like our own Shaheed Bhagat Singh (before he gave up anarchism and became a Marxist during his incarceration prior to execution) have laid their faith in individual acts of violence against the state. Both these strategies have naturally proved ineffective.  
There have been many ways in which anarchists, who have actually tried to change the world on a mass scale, have tried to get around this dilemma. One common way has been to form a skeletal anarchist organisation and then latch it on to a larger centralised mass organisation that is at work against the state. Gandhi followed this course during the freedom struggle. The problem with this is that the purity of anarchist theory and action often has to be compromised to a greater or lesser extent. Additionally, there is always the danger that when power is eventually won from the oppressors, the centralised organisation tends to shrug off the anarchists and pursue a course directly in opposition to all that the latter hold dear. This is what happened in the case of the Gandhians after independence, and this is also what happened to the Russian anarchists in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Gandhi postponed his anarchist programme of village self-rule for parliamentary self-rule during the freedom struggle in the naive hope that the former could be achieved after the latter was in place, thereby contradicting his own pet dictum of not divorcing means from ends. The Congress led by Nehru, cashed in on this ideological confusion and rode piggyback on the tremendous charismatic influence of Gandhi to attain state power.

The establishment of a parliamentary system with the candidates who went first past the post in elections being declared the representatives, instead of a system of proportional representation with a distribution of seats on the basis of votes polled, resulted in a scenario that gave undue advantage to the ruling Indian National Congress. Even though it got less than the majority of votes, it nevertheless got a majority of the seats. Moreover, the Congress used a combination of engineered defections and sops to wean away elected representatives and their supporters, leading to a continuous exodus of workers and leaders from among the socialists and communists.
Nowadays, all political parties—and there are many to accord with the varied diversity of the people across the spectrum from the left to the right and from the bottom of the social order to the top—that take part in elections, have recourse to unfair electoral practices prior to winning and dubious parliamentary practices after that. Indeed, the Bahujan Samaj Party of the Dalits, which had given a clarion call for cleansing the dirty politics of the "Manuvadi" upper castes when it first began participating in elections, too, has gone the corrupt way of the other parties. All parties have also duplicated the Congress model. No wonder then that hardened criminals who have both power and pelf in the local settings have begun winning elections in embarrassingly large numbers and dictating what little is left of party policy. Since winning elections and staying in power have become ends in themselves, rather than being the means for social transformation and people-oriented governance, both electoral and legislative practice have been reduced to being a theatre of the absurd.
The decade of the 1990s saw this theatre of the absurd enacted even at the grassroots level, with the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments introducing a third tier of governance at the community level in urban and rural areas all over the country. In the initial years of the republic, Panchayati Raj was given a complete go by. However, the failure of the Community Development Programme initiated in the early 1950s led to the appointment of the Balwantrai Mehta Committee to review this in 1957. The Committee found that in the absence of people's planning and participation, the programme had fallen prey to bureaucratic malfeasance. The Committee suggested the setting up of a three-tier Panchayati Raj system. Thus, a rudimentary local government system was begun in many parts of the country. But it soon perished. The main reason was that the state governments did not want to devolve powers to the panchayats. Given the strong concentration of resources and power with the Union Government, the state governments had little room for manoeuvre, and they did not want to lose what little they had. Apart from this, the district level bureaucracy was obviously dead against handing over the control of rural development schemes to the panchayats.  
The Naxalite upsurge of the late 1960s, followed by the mass movement of Jayaprakash Narayan in 1974-75, had made it abundantly clear that mass aspirations at the grassroots were seeking new vistas. After the elections in 1977, the Union Government set up the Ashok Mehta Committee, and it too made wide-ranging recommendations for the establishment of Panchayati Raj. Following on this, the Left Front government in West Bengal and the Janata Party government in Karnataka began on a new note with institutionalised rural local self governance. These experiments were immensely successful as they provided greater participation of people earlier excluded from electoral politics, in governance and development. The dominance of Congress in Indian politics began to decline, and strong regional parties began to emerge. The states thus began to increase their share of power and resources at the cost of the Centre and gained more independence in their own spheres of action. This made them more amenable to the idea of devolving resources to the grassroots. So with time, the pressure building up at the grassroots has resulted in the countrywide adoption of Panchayati Raj.
However, the malpractices of the parliamentary elections have extended to the village level, leading my friend and colleague Shankar to aver that the rule of the sarpanch or the elected head of the Panchayat is in reality a "parpanch" or hoax perpetrated on the people.
Theoretically, it should be possible to counter the corrupt political practices at the level of the panchayats if there is a fairly good local mass organisation. This is what prompted the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) to actively participate in the panchayat elections when they were first held on a direct voting basis in Madhya Pradesh in 1989. The KMCS was in a clear majority in four panchayats. In two of them, prior meetings held to decide on the candidates for the posts of panches or ward members and the sarpanch ended amicably with unanimous choices. Hence there were no contests as only one candidate filed nomination papers per seat. In the two other panchayats, things were not so smooth. The Congress saw to it that candidates filed nominations to oppose the KMCS for the post of sarpanch and panch. Despite this opposition, the KMCS coasted through with handsome margins in one of these panchayats. However, shockingly for us, the KMCS lost the post of sarpanch in the Attha panchayat, where we were headquartered. To add to that, the KMCS candidate for panch from our ward lost by one vote. It was clear that KMCS members had voted against the official candidates that had been decided on in the meetings prior to the elections.
A post-mortem revealed that the Congress candidate, a former KMCS activist who believed that a softer approach should be taken with the administration after the rights to cultivation of newar land had been secured by the KMCS, was supported by the ordinary voter who was in no mood for a long confrontation. In the case of the panch it appeared that the KMCS candidate had, in the early years, when the logging contractors had begun operating, acted as their agent and cheated the rest of the people of their wage dues. He even used to beat up the people when they protested. Despite the fact that he had later reformed himself and played a stellar role in setting up the Sangath, the people decided to pay him back for their earlier insults and torture at his hands.
What shook me most was that we activists did not get an inkling of this massive undercurrent of secret "resistance" among the people to the radical anti-state direction that we were giving to the Sangath's politics. Instead of coming out and stating their preferences openly in the meetings, they decided to use the secret ballot against us! I learnt an important lesson at that early stage of my activism—that the peasant masses offer covert resistance not only to their oppressors, but also to their liberators when the latter begin to go too fast for their comfort.
This, of course, is an old problem that has confronted activists fighting for radical socio-political change. The vast majority of people just want a decent life and with even a little bit of improvement are content to desist from active political struggle. Alternately, in the face of repression they opt for a compromise rather than confrontation with the state. Due to the patron-client system of electoral politics, the state in independent India, however oppressive it might be, still has to be responsive to a certain extent to the demands of the people in order to retain legitimacy. Following this episode, the politics of the KMCS became diluted to accord with the preferences of the people rather than that of the activists!
There is an anecdote about a king once asking his people to contribute a glass of milk each for the purpose of a feast. The people had to secretly pour the milk into a big cauldron through a hole in its lid. When finally the lid of the cauldron was taken out it was found that it was filled with water. Everyone had contributed a glass of water, thinking it would go unnoticed amidst the contributions of milk by the others! Similarly, for anarchists like us who rarely have anything tangible to offer to the people in the short run other than stints in jail, secret first past the post secret ballots result in a watery gravy for our anarchist dreams.
That panchayat election of 1989 marked the first time in my life when I voted. Previously I had considered the whole system of elections a sham and never voted. The hectic campaigning and managing that I had to do in the run up to those elections enthused me enough to go and vote. A number of women, it later emerged, had not even stamped the ballot papers owing to ignorance! Over the past decade and a half, the women have surely become more proficient what with electronic voting machines and regular training in the technicalities of voting. But disillusioned totally with the electoral process after that debacle, I have since busied myself with stamping cockroaches rather than ballot papers till the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party led me to vote again during the last Lok Sabha elections in Indore with similar negative results!!
The corruption in panchayats is made possible because of the first past the post electoral system that has been adopted at this level too, overriding the traditional method used by the villagers where the decisions are taken by the monthly gram sabhas, generally small in size. The elected executive of the panchayats, the sarpanch and panches do not have any salaries. They perforce resort to graft to compensate themselves for the time that they give to the panchayat. This problem came up in the three panchayats in which the KMCS came to power in 1989. We tried to circumvent this problem by having a team of people working by rotation in support of the sarpanches and we activists too did a lot of running around. Soon we found that it was a herculean task getting any work done because of the opposition of the "local state," constituted by the rural development bureaucracy, to our plans.
Nevertheless, we did some good work in watershed development for the first time in Jhabua district and used most of the development funds for income generation at the village level. This arrangement was not a sustainable one as it depended for its success on us activists monitoring it closely. The moment we withdrew from the process to get involved in wider issues, the system we had put in place collapsed. People tended to leave the sarpanches to their own devices and only expected them to deliver the goods. Eventually, all the three sarpanches were forced to resort to graft in collaboration with the bureaucracy who were only too willing. Things became even weirder in later elections, with members of the Sangath fighting against each other. The KMCS finally took the position that it would not actively participate in the panchayat elections as an organisation even though its members were free to do so.
The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Rajasthan, which later took up the same issue of corruption within the panchayats and elevated it into a successful national campaign for the right to information, has also not been able to overcome this basic problem of the apathy of the people towards higher political goals and support for the sarpanches who have to give their time for panchayat work. The two MKSS sarpanches who had won in the 2000 panchayat elections had to be compensated with funds garnered by the organisation from outside sources for the time that they had spent in managing the panchayat affairs. Despite having worked well in the interests of the panchayat with this external support, the MKSS was unable to retain these seats in the 2005 elections. One of these seats includes the village that is the headquarters of the organisation. The MKSS fought these elections on an anarchist plank with a people's manifesto and a declaration that no candidate for sarpanch would spend more than Rs. 2,000 on election expenses and the promise that the elected sarpanches would be supported with external funds for the time that they give to the panchayat. Yet, only two of the twelve candidates for sarpanch managed to scrape through against the other candidates who spent tens of thousands of rupees on their election campaigns. The people demand immediate fixes to their problems, without fighting long drawn battles to change the skewed over-centralised distribution of political power and the resulting corruption. Thus, between the devil of the state and the deep blue sea of the inscrutable masses, the true blue anarchist stands alone, thoroughly and exasperatingly checkmated.
This inability to make its presence felt in Parliament and the legislatures and even at the panchayat level has severely handicapped the people's movements in India. The Aam Aadmi Party of course has changed all that and for the first time and come to power in Delhi and is putting up a good fight in Goa and Punjab but it remains to be seen how long it can continue to succeed. Moreover, like the socialist and communist parties earlier, which too had won power from initial grassroots mobilisation, the AAP too has made many compromises once in power. Most people's movements, however, find it difficult to even win Panchayat elections let alone state of central ones.
 Yossarian in Joseph Heller's novel Catch- 22 is asked which he prefers more, staying alive or winning the war. He replies that he wants both, because winning the war is of no use to a dead man. He is castigated for such a view, which, it is alleged, would only help the enemy. He cynically replies that the enemy is the person who gets one killed, regardless of the side he is on. Present day anarchists find themselves forced to be part of a highly centralised human civilisation at war with nature. The crazy warriors who control the affairs of this global civilisation are constantly berating them for not wanting to win this war, which is both futile and fatal. When the anarchists are castigated for being enemies of progress, they can only reply forlornly that such progress would, in the long run, emerge as the enemy of both nature and humans. Of what use is progress if billions of deprived people all over the world have to continually pay with their lives and livelihoods for it?
 Like Yossarian, anarchists too can find no escape from a crazy predicament brought about by the warmongers incorporated. 



Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Long and Winding Road To Justice Has lost a Militant Traveller

I came back yesterday after a particularly tiring two days in the field mostly out of wireless connectivity to learn with a wrench of the heart of the passing away of Srilata Swaminathan on 5th February 2017 from a brain haemorrhage followed by a heart attack at the age of 73. We have lost one of the most committed activists fighting for the rights of Bhil Adivasis. She was a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist) Liberation Group and the national president of its women's wing. Yet she spent most of her activist life in the remote village of Ghantali in Banswara district of Rajasthan deep in the Bhil homeland. She had first gone there in 1978 to fight for the rights of the Adivasis to forests and a decent livelihood and stayed there ever since except when she fell seriously ill.
 I first heard of her in 1987 when she undertook a fast unto death in Banswara over the forest rights of the Bhil Adivasis which were being denied by the Forest Department. The Government caved in on that occasion and she broke her fast after a week or so. I had by then spent just two years in Alirajpur and was getting to know the deep problems of the Bhil Adivasis with regard to access to forests. The entire Bhil homeland stretching from Rajasthan to Maharashtra through Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh was beset with this problem and others related to the lack of proper development and exploitation by traders, moneylenders and Government officials. She was the pioneer of mass grassroots struggles against this injustice from the late 1970s and showed the way to many others who followed across the Bhil homeland in these four states.
In the early 1980s she fell seriously ill due to problems with her kidneys and by the late 1980s she was bedridden with edema and sores all over her body. She had used auto urine therapy for some time in the early 1980s to cure herself of amoebiasis after meeting the late Prime Minister Morarji Desai who practised this. She fell back on this again when allopathic treatment couldn't cure her and miraculously she recovered from her problems in 1989 and became her feisty self again.
Not only did she do her own organisation work in Ghantali and for the CPI(ML) all over India but she also provided support to other organisations fighting at the grassroots for Adivasi rights. She led a team of human rights activists to our area when the Madhya Pradesh Government cracked down on our organisation in 2001 killing four of our colleagues in police firing and sending scores of us to jail for long periods.
Today, throughout the Bhil Adivasi homeland there is a lot of political churn and the Adivasis have formed their own organisations to carve out an independent development path. This would not have been possible without the initial efforts made in the 1980s by Srilata to form grassroots mass movement, which led to many such organisations sprouting up. Obviously the early promise of a much more equitable socio-economic order that was there in the 1980s has not been realised but it is a long and winding road to justice and we have lost one of our militant co-travellers.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Past Sixty and Still Going Strong

A quick trip recently to Jharkhand proved productive in many ways, not the least in that I met three very senior stalwarts of the social sector. The trip came about because Professor Madhukar Shukla of the  renowned management education insitute, XLRI Xavier School of Management in Jamshedpur, invited me as a speaker in the National Conference on Social Entrepreneurship (NCSE) being held there. Even though social entrepreneurship strictly speaking should apply only to those organisations that run for profit business enterprises to provide services to the poor and not to non-profit development organisations that provide these services free through grants, Professor Shukla has widened the definition to include a few of the latter kind of organisations that generate some resources from the beneficiaries also in the form of contributions from them. That is how I qualified as a social entrepreneur despite primarily being a social activist and development worker because our organisation Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) does mobilise a considerable amount of resources from its members in cash, kind and labour to accomplish its work much in excess of what it accesses through grants.
First something about Professor Shukla before I go on to the proceedings of the NCSE itself. Madhukarji is an internationally renowned expert in organisation development in mainstream management education. About a decade and a half back he began to take interest in the field of social entrepreneurship and began researching organisations that ran for profit enterprises in the social sector either in providing livelihoods through income generation activities in agriculture, small industry and crafts or in providing services like micro-credit, water supply and sanitation, education and the like. About a decade back he put in a lot of effort to organise the first ever National Conference on Social Entrepreneurship where he brought together for experience sharing and discussions some of the leading social entrepreneurs of the country. And the great thing is that every year since then this conference has been held with ths year's being the 9th edition. I have closely followed these conferences from the beginning and even though I have not attended them before, I have read the details from the reports on the conference website. Every year many innovative organisations have made presentations and this was the case this year too.
The most important sectors from the point of view of the KMCS currently are sustainable agriculture and decentralised renewable energy production. I was happy to find very good presentations made in these sectors and got a considerable amount of information and inspiration that will help us to initiate work in these fields in western Madhya Pradesh. Madhukarji, by providing a platform for so many great social enterpreneurs to meet and share their experiences is doing a splendid job. This year Rs 4 lakhs was collected through crowd funding towards defraying the costs of the conference which too is a great achievement.

Once the conference was over, I came to Ranchi to meet the veteran activist Xavier Dias who has spent close to five decades in Jharkhand after he came there from his native Goa to fight for the rights of the Adivasis. He has been both a grassroots activist and a researcher and over the past decade or so has worked tirelessly against the depredations resulting from indiscriminate mining in Jharkhand which has devastated Adivasi livelihoods. These tireless efforts have taken their toll and today he is not in the best of health. I have known him on Facebook for quite some time now and so grabbed this opportunity to meet him face to face and pay my respects to him. He expressed his inability to understand where the world was going given the way in which capitalism had overwhelmed all opposition and had effectively prevented any large scale movement from coalescing against it. He was especially worried by the fact that people like us had now had to give up working at the grassroots in the militant mode that we used to and are just applying patches to a deeply defective system. Even though his poor health does not allow him to do very much these days, Xavier is one of the most active people on Facebook where he continually posts and comments on anti-capitalist struggles around the world.
Finally, I met up after almost a decade with Meghnath Bhattacharjee. One of the most colourful characters that I have known. He started off as a social worker with the jesuits and Mother Theresa in the early 1970s while still in college in Kolkata and then went to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai to study social work. However, he came away from there after just ten days finding the atmosphere there claustrophobic and instead came and joined the Tagore Society of Rural Development set up by the legendary Pannalal Dasgupta who himself had become a Gandhian after first being an armed revolutionary prior to independence. After some time Meghnath ditched Pannalalbabu and joined the militant left movement in Palamau in Jharkhand for Adivasi rights in the early 1980s. However, after a few jail stints he became disillusioned with this also towards the late 1980s and took up training for film making in Delhi. I met him for the first time when he came to Alirajpur to help with the organisation of the struggle against the Sardar Sarovar dam in 1989. I was in Adivasi dress and holding forth in Bhilali before a large gathering and his first comment to one of the others who had come with him was that the Adivasis in Alirajpur were very articulate given the way I was speaking!!
This was the beginning of a long friendship that has become deeper with the passage of time. Meghnad is a great singer and joker in addition to being a die hard activist. During the classic Sangharsh Yatra to stop the Sardar Sarovar dam in 1991, by some quirk he was assigned the task of ensuring security for Medha Patkar by the coordinating committee of the Yatra but Medha didn't know this. So he stuck close behind Medha wherever she went, even during press conferences, posing like the security commandoes who protect VIPs!! Medha commented to others that she could not understand what had come over Meghnath that he was hankering after publicity by sticking close to her when she was giving interviews to the audiovisual media!! He later sat on a 21 day fast with Medha at the Yatra. When I asked him how he, being a Marxist, had returned to his early Gandhism and agreed to sit on a fast, he replied that he had grabbed this opportunity to atone for all his sins!!
Anyway, from the mid 1990s after a short stint in indigenous soil and water conservation in Palamau he has been settled in Ranchi and has been engaged in documentary film making. He along with his associate Biju Toppo has made many films which have won many awards including two Golden Lotuses for best documentaries in two categories in the National Film Awards in 2010. He has just finished a fabulous biographical film of the great Adivasi activist and scholar Late Dr Ramdayal Munda which is not just a biography of the great man but a chronicle of the identity movement of the Jharkhandi Adivasis which finally resulted in the creation of the state of Jharkhand in 2000. He said that Jaypal Singh Munda had played as important a role for the Adivasis of India during the independence movement and later as Ambedkar had for the Dalits. However, while the Dalits had worked hard to curate the work of Ambedkar and build on it, the Adivasis of Jharkhand had done nothing to do the same for Jaipal Singh and there was next to nothing to commemorate his efforts. Meghnath said that he did not want the same fate to befall Ramdayal Munda and so had put his heart into this film and was also preparing to launch into another film on Adivasi religions which Dr Munda had started before he suddenly succumbed to cancer.
Meghnath was at his singing and joking best and we had quite a few laughs in between first class songs and it was really nice to see this man who had gone through so much trouble in his life in all his roles living with so much joie-de-vivre even in his mid-sixties. Unlike Xavier earlier in the day, Meghnath refused to be despondent about the overwhelming power of capitalism and said that the key was to go on fighting it as best as one could in joy, wine and song!! All in all it was a very heart warming trip in which I met three stalwarts of the social sector who are all past 60 and yet going strong and that has pumped a lot of energy into me to at least emulate them.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Agriculture to suit Water Availability

The farm that Subhadra has in Pandutalav has a limited supply of water from a borewell. So she has customised her Rabi sowing to suit this lesser water availability. Not only have the seeds of wheat, linseed, masoor and gram been sown at one feet distance from each other, watering is also being done through a small pipe only at the roots of the plants in limited quantities. This has resulted in more tillering in the case of wheat and more robust growth in the case of the other crops. Since the plants are at a distance from each other, there is space for a bicycle hoe to be driven between them for turning the soil and killing the weeds as shown in the picture below. In the background are perennial redgram plants around the borewell which are also minimally watered so as to ensure that they produce redgram throughout the year for use as vegetables.
This was followed by weeding around the plants and then a special organic fertiliser called Jeevamrit Ghol was applied. This fertiliser is prepared by fermenting a combination of cow dung, cow urine, gram flour and jaggery and then diluting it and applying it to the roots of the plants.
These processes require more labour but they produce more wholesome food with a lesser amount of water. Unfortunately there is no support from the Government for this kind of agriculture and so farmers in general are not prepared to adopt it. Subhadra can do this kind of agriculture as mentioned earlier because she can cross subsidise it from her earnings elsewhere. Its indeed a pity that given the serious problems of water scarcity, mal nourishment, illness due to pesticide and chemical fertiliser infested crops, soil, water and air and the looming crisis of climate change, the Government does not see it fit to support a switch to a more sustainable agricultural regime.

Friday, January 13, 2017

What Price Cashless Economy?!!

Once it became clear that those who indulge in the generation of black money had found ways and means to circumvent the "strategic strike against black money" that demonetisation was initially supposed to be, the Government shifted the goal posts and said that the aim was to usher in a cashless economy. Suddenly remove cash from the economy and even without adequate preparation to make it possible for those who are not part of the banking system in any functional way to adjust to this, hey presto, the Indian economy would become a digital one it was claimed. So here is the story of one man, who is at the bottom of the pyramid, who believed wholeheartedly in the Government's exhortation to deal only through banks.
Raisingh Patel is a sixty year old Barela Adivasi man who has about 2 hectares of farm land in Pandutalav village in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh. He lives on his farm in a wooden hut along with his family which includes apart from human beings, animals and birds also as is the custom among the Bhils.
He harvested 23 quintals of maize from his farm this year. The local traders were offering Rs 1150 per quintal and were prepared to come and lift the maize from his farm and pay him in cash. However, inspired by the Government's pitch to go cash less and also the prospect of getting a better price in the grain market in Indore city, he decided to take his produce there and get paid by cheque instead. He got Rs 1350 per quintal and was given a cheque of Rs 31250 by the trader who has an account with the Bank of India. Raisingh returned to Pandutalav and deposited this cheque in his account with the State Bank of India. This is a Jandhan account that is operated through an off branch kiosk run in Pandutalav by an agent of the State Bank of India which has a branch in the nearby market village of Udainagar some seven kilometers away. Many Government Banks have initiated the outsourced kiosk system to manage the Jandhan accounts so as to lessen their costs of operation. Raisingh had deposited the cheque on the 4th of December 2016 the day after he got it in Indore on 3rd of December 2016. When even after 15 days the amount wasn't credited to his account he asked the kiosk operator in Pandutalav what was happening. The kiosk operator said that the cheque was in the process of being cleared. More time passed and Raisingh became anxious as to what was happening with the cheque. Finally after a month had passed the kiosk operator told Raisingh that the State Bank of India staff had said that since this was a cheque from a different bank with a branch in Indore they would not deal with it in his Jandhan account and he would have to go to Indore and deposit the cheque in a branch of the State Bank there.
This is when Raisingh became desperate and gave me a call describing his impasse. Initially my reaction was to go to the State Bank branch in Udainagar and argue with the staff there. However, already one and a half months had elapsed and if the State Bank staff dilly dallied further then the validity of the cheque would expire. So I took Raisingh to the nearest Bank of India branch in Bagli town some 45 kilometers from his village to open an account there. The staff there said that to open a normal bank account Raisingh would need an Income Tax Department Permanent Account Number (PAN) and as he did not have one he would have to once again open a Jandhan account in a kiosk. These Jandhan accounts allow only withdrawal of Rupees Ten Thousand per month and so he would have to wait for three months to withdraw his maize sale payment in totality. Since getting a new PAN in a remote area like Pandutalav takes at least a month we decided to open a Jandhan account with the Bank of India kiosk operator in Bagli. It will take two days for the account to become operational and only then will Raisingh be able to deposit his cheque in the account by going to Bagli once again. And after that he will be able to withdraw only Rs 10,000. We also applied for a PAN for Raisingh as the bank staff said that once he got the PAN he could upgrade his account to a normal one which does not have the Rs 10000 per month limit on withdrawals.
Raisingh got about Rs 4600 more by selling in the grain market in Indore but he had to pay Rs 2000 of that to the transporter so his net gain over selling on his farm was Rs 2600. However, he has had to spend around Rs 1000 of that in running around to get a new bank account opened with Bank of India. So this is how the cashless economy is manifesting itself for marginal agriculturists like Raisingh. If I had not intervened in between, he would have been in deeper trouble. The Jandhan accounts are a burden for the Banks and they do not want to provide such services as sending the cheques of other banks deposited in them for clearing since that involves more costs which are not met by these accounts. So instead of making bombastic announcements of India going digital and cash less and beating its breasts that millions of poor people are now art of the banked population, the Government should instead subsidise the operation of the Jandhan accounts and make it mandatory for banks to provide the account holders with quality service.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Salt of the Earth

There are many outstanding people in the villages who are an asset to the Bhils' fight for their rights in Western Madhya Pradesh. One such stalwart is Deep Singh of Bisali village in Dewas district. He is a "Burwa" or traditional medicine man who treats patients with a combination of natural herbs, leaves and roots and the chanting of mantras to propitiate the Gods and shoo away evil spirits after first assessing the pulse of the patient as shown in the picture below.
He practices medicine with diligence. This includes mobilising his community to protect the forests adjacent to their village so that they have enough trees and plants of medicinal value from which he can get his herbal medicine. He then processes and prepares this medicine. However, he is not a die hard burwa in the sense that when he realises that his medicine will not be able to cure the patient he refers them to allopathic doctors. He himself was suffering from eczema and could not cure it with herbal medicine and so he took allopathic cure and is now free of the problem. Consequently he has tremendous respect in the community.
What is more important from the Bhil Adivasi mobilisation point of view is that Deep Singh uses his influence for building up the identity of his tribe. He is a fierce advocate of Bhil autonomy and has been to jail a number of times in the fight for their rights. He has also spearheaded a cultural movement to establish the traditional Bhil culture. He is a "Gayan", the traditional Bhil bard who sings from memory the Bhil creation myth and other epic songs. He can be seen below singing one such epic along with support singers called "jhelu"s in a night long celebration at a memorial for Bhil martyrs that has been constructed on his land.
The singing goes on for the whole night but here is the Youtube link to a small portion of the Gayana which is a paean to Khatri, the God of War, who is being propitiated along with the spirits of the Bhil martyrs whose memorial statues are in the background. This celebration of the martyrdom of Bhil heroes is held every year on April 2nd and is attended by thousands of people from all over western Madhya Pradesh who are affiliated to the Adivasi Ekta Parishad.
Finally, Deep Singh has also initiated an important project to conserve and promote traditional seeds and agriculture of the Bhils. Such men are the salt of the earth and are doing their work quietly to save humanity from its impending doom!!




Monday, December 19, 2016

A Philathropist With a Difference

A few days ago we received the news that Nico (Dr. Nicolaas Nobel), as he was popularly known, had passed away after a short illness at the ripe age of 83 on November 29th 2016 at his residence in Noordwijk in the Netherlands. This is a loss of a philanthropist with a difference. Dr Nico did not just collect and donate funds for philanthropy but took an active part in ensuring that the funds were indeed well spent by regularly travelling to the field and forming a deep understanding of the local context of the beneficiaries. The Rani Kajal school in Kakrana would not have been what it is today without his thoughtful support.

 Dr Nobel studied Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He subsequently worked in Amsterdam as a tax-lawyer and as a publisher of articles and newsletters about Dutch and international tax law. As a student, Dr Nobel became friends with an Indian boy studying at Cambridge University. This friend invited him to tour India after finishing his studies, and he accepted. In 1958 he completed a 7 month tour through India by car, nearly covering the entire country. Having made a number of new friends, he returned often for short visits. As a result, Dr Nobel regarded India as a second home, and himself as half-Dutch and half-Indian. During his many stays, Dr Nobel saw not only attractive areas of the country but also the misery in which a large portion of the population still lives. Dr Nobel was inspired to make a difference, and began organizing funds for development activities in India after his retirement. With some money of his own he founded a Charitable Trust that, after a few years, also received support from various funding agencies. From 1998 to 2005, the Trust financially supported several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for development work to help prostitutes and their children, HIV-AIDS wards, leprosy colonies, orphanages, cataract operations for the blind, schools, drought relief, environmental conservation, sustainable agriculture and many other important causes.
However, what is most important is that in addition to managing the Charitable Trust, Dr Nobel maintained continuous contact with Indian NGO workers, traveling to meet them and see their work up close. Due to his age and the increasing demands of this work, he stopped travelling at the end of 2005. But his philanthropic work continued apace gaining in its depth and reach. When Professor Swapan Bhattacharya decided to take up residence in Kakrana and help with the development of the school, Dr Nobel enthusiastically supported the new initiatives which have now propelled the school into a much higher level than before. We can only pay homage in humility here to this great soul who is with us no more