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.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Children to the Fore

There is a major debate in NGO and activist circles about the compulsions of external funding. Among other things one major issue is that of having to follow the dictates of the funding agency. Often NGOs and mass organisations have to take up issues that they would normally not have. This makes them lose their core focus and become Jacks of All Trades ending up with dissipated impact. The Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath and Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra have largely succeeded in maintaining their core focus on Adivasi rights despite taking external funding. Indeed the power of the organisation has increased in recent times due to taking directions from one particular funder instead of getting dissipated!! Action Aid Association India funds the Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra for rights based work in Alirajpur. Action Aid raises the funds from individuals by asking them to sponsor the all round growth of children. Thus, apart from general rights based work, Action Aid lays special stress on the rights of children.
Now this is one area in which the KMCS had not done much earlier other than run some schools. Due to the direction given by Action Aid from 2012 onwards KMCS has become very proactive on child rights. Things have been made easier by the fact that the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act was enacted in 2009 and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 which substantially increase the legal rights of children. Applying the modus operandi that the KMCS has applied very successfully over the past decade or so with regard to other powerful people friendly statutes like the Forest Rights Act, the Rural Employment Guarantee Act,Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act  and the Control of Usury Act, the organisation began pressurising the administration to run the government schools properly. In the span of two years there has been huge impact with the running of the government schools having improved drastically basically through making the teachers attend schools and teach and provide mid day meals. Many new schools have been opened and school buildings have been sanctioned. Though given the poor infrastructure and staffing the quality of education is very poor but at least the schools are running and the children are getting many benefits. Since very crucially in India, children are as good as their mothers given the huge malnutrition and ill health that plagues the majority of the population, the organisation has also run a sustained campaign to improve the reproductive health component of the National Rural Health Mission. Health services in the area are in even more of a shambles than they are nationally and so immense pressure has been brought to bear on the administration to hold special camps in the remote areas. The auxiliary nurse medics who were not visiting the villages but submitting false reports have now been made to visit regularly.
To further increase the pressure on the administration and also to showcase what has already been achieved over the past two years, the KMCS took out a massive rally of thousands of people and especially women and children in Alirajpur on 20th November 2014. This is the International Children's Day declared by the United Nations and this year is the silver jubilee of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989. The rally was led by the women and children as shown in the picture below
 The children from the Rani Kajal Jeevan Shala, the residential school run by the organisation were the main sloganeers of the rally vociferously demanding child rights and child protection as shown below.
The rally traversed the streets of Alirajpur making the presence of the organisation felt in this town as it has done on many occasions before but this time specifically through children and women power. Then it went to the District Hospital to present the Health Department with a charter of demands regarding the proper implementation of the National Rural Health Mission as shown below.
It is to be noted that the sign board says that the district hospital is ISO 9001:2008 certified but it does not have any diagnostic facilities beyond the rudimentary ones. People have to go to private hospitals in nearby cities for advanced treatment. This is the blatant level of mendacity being practiced by the Government. After this the rally ended up at the District Collectorate to submit the general demands regarding the education of children and also other development issues as shown below.
 A public meeting was held in front of the collectorate in which the general secretary of the KMCS Shankar Tadwal and others set forth the charter of demands that were to be presented to the administration as shown below.
Finally the District Collector came down from his office and accepted the charter from behind the closed gates of the Collectorate surrounded by policemen and it looks as if he is imprisoned by the members of the KMCS!!
The collector saw the detailed demand charter which listed extensively all the many shortcomings of the administration in implementing various statutes and development schemes and exclaimed that the KMCS had done extensive research that even he with all his staff could not do!! Shankar told him that the difference was that the KMCS was powered by people's resolve whereas his staff were powered by the taxes extorted from the people and yet considered themselves to be lords of all they surveyed. In the end this attitude resulted in false claims like the one about the ISO certification for the hospital. Shankar of course did not reveal to the Collector that the painstaking documentation of administrative lapse had been done and submitted to him because the KMCS intends to launch a sustained campaign for implementation of all the lacunae documented by using the Right to Information and Public Service Guarantee Acts in the days to come!!!
All in all it was a very impressive show and for the first time in its three decades of mass action the KMCS took out a rally on children's issues with children at the forefront which was extensively covered in the newspapers.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Childhood in Jeopardy

There is much talk about India being on the verge of reaping a democratic dividend. In 2011, of the total population of 1.21 billion, 430 million people were in the age group of 15 to 34 years and another 360 million in the age group of 0 to 14 years. Thus, it is being argued that while the developed nations will be burdened with an ageing population in the future, India, will have a large young population who will be able to use their skills to take the country forward. However, the crucial factor in this argument is that the population has to be skilled and therein lies the catch. With public investment in education, health, and skill development being woefully inadequate, the government systems for these being ridden with corruption and inefficiency and a large section of the population living in poverty and unable to provide for these themselves in any meaningful way, there is a serious question mark as to whether this huge young population will be educated, skilled and healthy enough to be able to deliver the expected dividend.
Be that as it may, what is of added concern is the security of children. They are not only subjected to all kinds of violence in their homes, in the schools if they happen to be attending them and even more so as child labourers in various occupations with some being downright hazardous but also they are often abducted without any trace. The Bachpan Bachao Andolan, had filed a petition in the Supreme Court citing the data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau over the past few years of which in 2013 itself as many as 28,167 children were abducted and only about 40 percent of these cases had been investigated by the police thus indicating that the latter were culpable of dereliction of duty and should be hauled up for this. The Supreme Court took cognisance of this and issued orders to all the errant States to file affidavits giving details of what was the situation with regard to registration and disposal of children's abduction cases in their States. As is to be expected, the State of Madhya Pradesh did not consider it worthwhile to heed the Supreme Court's notice with the urgency it should have and gave a slip shod answer!!
The Supreme Court was not amused and ordered the Chief Secretary of the State, The Director General of Police and others to appear before it and file an affidavit giving the details as to what they had done to remedy matters. This finally woke these worthies out of their slumber and they presented themselves before the Supreme Court with the following details -
1. 34,753 children were abducted in the State over the period from 2011 to October 2014.
2. 30,247 of these including 18,354 girls had been recovered so far from among these and a special drive has now been launched to recover the remaining.
This raises a few pertinent questions. First, why is it that the police which is supposed to take prompt action to recover abducted children unwilling to do so. The reason is that it is woefully under staffed and already under pressure to contain other kinds of crime, maintain law and order and do security duty for VIPs. Thus, the safety of children comes pretty low down in its list of priorities.
Second, why did the Madhya Pradesh Government take the notice from the Supreme Court so lightly in the first instance. This is because there are many such notices from the higher courts that are served on the State Government for the violation of the rights of people and the former routinely gets away by dilly dallying and the cases get prolonged without coming to a conclusion. In the present case too, the petition by the Bachpan Bachao Andolan had been pending in the Supreme Court for quite some time and there had been many hearings earlier. However, the situation changed drastically when the Convenor of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, Kailash Satyarthi, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year for his three decade long struggle for child rights and especially against child labour and abduction. The issue of child rights gained some traction as a result and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, whose bench was hearing the petition, must have read about and been impressed by all the work being done by the Bachpan Bachao Andolan and decided to come down hard on the recalcitrant police and administration.
The third and most important question is what lesson does this have for people fighting for the rights of underprivileged people in general and not just defenceless children. Since the State is not interested in spending money in providing free or cheap social services to the poor it will also not be interested in protecting their rights. Theoretically the courts should be a forum where the poor can go to secure their rights but they do not have the money to do so and even when an NGO or a mass movement approaches the court on their behalf, given the over load of cases in the courts, once again because in most cases it is the Government which is the biggest and most frivolous litigant, it is difficult to get any judgement in the favour of the poor. As the experience of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath suggests, the use of mass action and legal action eventually just about enables an organisation to retain a minimal presence in the fight for rights without bringing about any substantial change in the situation.
Finally, the piquant conrtribution of the Nobel Committee in the saga of ensuring child rights in India has to be considered also!! Kailash Satyarthi was nominated for the Nobel Prize, by the European Union which happens to be a major supporter along with European NGOs of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan. Despite sustained work over the last three decades, Satyarthi does not have many admirers in India in the NGO sector or in the Government and so he wasn't nominated by an Indian!! The European Union did not rest after nominating him but lobbied hard with the Nobel Committee which was also under pressure from the American lobby to award the prize to Malala Yusufzai. In the end this hard lobbying resulted in both Malala and Satyarthi being jointly awarded the prize. A huge achievement by any standards, achieved mainly due to lobbying by neo-imperialist powers but met with lukewarm reception in both their post colonial countries!! Anyway the first concrete result of the Nobel Prize being awarded to Satyarthi as far as Madhya Pradesh, which is his home State, is concerned, is that the Government here has now been forced to act to retrieve all the children who have been abducted in the past few years and let us hope the glare of the Supreme Court will continue to be focused on this matter for some more time. Otherwise childhood in Madhya Pradesh at least is in serious jeopardy!!

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Bard is No More

Mahipal Bhuria passed away on 12th November, at the age of 65, bringing to an end a life dedicated to the documentation, preservation and propagation of the Bhili oral folklore. He also wrote original stories, plays and songs in the Bhili language. He was a catholic priest but gave all his free time to promoting the Bhili language. At a time when no one else in Madhya Pradesh was giving any importance to the Bhili language including the elected Bhil tribal lawmakers, Mahipal single handedly embarked on a mission to document the folklore of the Bhils and analyse their anthropological and cultural roots from the early 1970s onwards when he was in his twenties. He initially started by transcribing the Bhili songs and folklore and then translating them in the Hindi language. Later he wrote in the English language, the more important of his voluminous works being "Religious Songs of the Bhils" and "The Nature of Bhili Folk Songs".
He became an acknowledged expert on Bhili culture and was closely associated with the broadcast of Bhili songs, stories and plays on Akashvani Radio Service from Indore. Later he developed primers in the Bhili language for the education of children in their mother tongue in Jhabua district from where he hailed, being born in the village of Bhagor. A  photo of his is shown below.
He was an affable person and went out of his way to make friendships with people, especially those who were of a similar bent of mind. That is how we came to know him as he sought us out once he read of the struggles of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath in the 1980s. He was especially thrilled that the KMCS used the format and tunes of the traditional songs of the Bhils and wrote new lyrics for them based on the struggles of the Bhils that were going on, to provide a new cultural front to the mass movement. What was begun by Mahipal as a solo mission, got a mass following from the 1980s onwards, as many other Bhil mass organisations also adapted the tradional Bhili folklore to produce new songs, plays and stories. Today, this trend has spread to the commercial sphere also with many popular Bhili bands having sprung up and there is a vigorous production of Bhili music and plays which has been boosted by the spread of mobiles. Thus, even though we do not have Mahipal among us any more, his legacy remains vibrantly alive and his pioneering work will always be remembered. These are our last respects to a great son of the Bhil tribe. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Electrical Energy Conundrum

The other day I was involved in a debate regarding the indispensability of artificial energy use for development. After all intensified fossil fuel based energy use is what has spurred development since the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century and today we cannot even think of life without such energy. Especially crucial is the use of electrical energy which runs motors big, small and minute that power all aspects of our modern day lives. Therefore, I will briefly discuss the current global use of electrical energy and where India and more specifically the Bhil Adivasis of Alirajpur are situated. The biggest user of electrical energy worldwide in 2011 among big countries as opposed to small city states was Canada with an annual per capita consumption in KWh (1 KWh = one unit of electricity and consumption here is net of losses in generation, transmission and distribution, covering industrial, service, agricultural sectors and also domestic household use) of 16473 according to the World Bank. Among small countries which are almost wholly urbanised Norway heads the list with 23,134 units followed by Kuwait at 16,122 units. In Asia among the big countries, South Korea is at the top with 10162 units and Singapore among the small city states has 8404 units. Among the top economies worldwide the USA has a consumption of 13246 units, Germany has 7081 units and Japan has 7848 units. China has a consumption of 3298 units and India 684 which is the highest in South Asia. The lowest consumption is that of Eritrea in Africa at 49 units of electricity possibly because it is a war torn country.
Sticking to India and assuming an average household size of five persons and the share of domestic power consumption in total consumption to be 22 % ( Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation estimates), the average household consumption per day works out to about 2 units of electricity. The consumption of electricity for agriculture per household, assuming 65% population as involved in agriculture for a living and the share of agricultural power consumption to be 18% of the total, we get per household consumption for agriculture in rural areas to be another 2 units of electricity per day.Thus, a rural household on an average consumes about 4 units of electricity per day. This is obviously grossly inadequate if we compare it with electrical energy use in Japan for instance or even China. However, this statistic masks the fact that in reality most rural households in India do not have effective access to grid electricity either for domestic use or for agricultural use and their consumption is way below even this very low national average with about 40% of households still having no access to grid electricity. This is the case with the villages deep inside the Mathwar Reserved Forest area in Alirajpur, which form the core area of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, where grid electricity consumption is zero and there is some minimal consumption from solar panels.
While countries like the USA and Japan have to seriously consider cutting down on their electricity usage given the high environmental cost of such usage, India has to improve its electricity consumption if it is to provide a better quality of life to most of its people but to even double the current consumption through fossil fuel based centralised generation would mean an immense environmental cost. Also given the asymmetries in distribution, the increased electricity generated would be unequally distributed leaving the vast majority still short of minimum standards. Thus, India is faced with a difficult conundrum with regard to electrical energy consumption - it has to increase electricity consumption but without adversely affecting the environment.
It is in this context that decentralised renewable electrical energy assumes importance. Currently renewable electrical energy generation through wind and solar systems feeding into the grid is about 10% of the total electricity generation but decentralised renewable electricity generation is negligible. All the thrust in renewable energy is for centralised generation to feed into the grid which is not really going to serve the needs of the vast rural population that is starved of electricity. Therefore, there has to be a policy shift for decentralised off grid or distributed generation catering to small village communities. This can be a mixture of biomass gasification based generation and solar photovoltaic panels. The former for the heavier needs of agricultural production and processing and the latter for household needs. It requires roughly 6kg of biomass to produce 1 unit of electricity and a rural household requires about 4 units of electricity for its agricultural operations and this means a biomass requirement of 25kgs per day which is not very difficult to ensure with forest conservation and reutilisation of agricultural biomass. Solar panels have become more efficient with time but the problem of storage still remains expensive. However, for providing 1 unit of electricity for domestic use not much investment is required. The technologies for distributed electricity generation are there but unfortunately the will to implement them on a large scale in rural areas isn't and so there seems to be no prospect of light at the end of the tunnel for the Adivasis in Alirajpur!!!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Relevance of a Celestial Battle

Today, in north and central India, is the day of Govardhan Pooja to celebrate the victory of Lord Krishna over Lord Indra. The legend goes that Krishna advised human beings to worship Govardhan, one of his manifestations, rather than Indra the Lord of Rain. This angered Indra and he either stopped the rains in some places or rained down heavily in others to completely destroy the crops of the people. Krishna then lifted the Govardhana hill filled with food and brought it to the people to save them from starvation and thus foiled Indra.
How do we interpret this legend? While Indra was only the God of Rain, Krishna was the overall God of Nature. Thus, the early Indians who were worshippers of nature, through this legend seem to indicate that they felt that a holistic view of nature would be more appropriate than a partial one. So the wisdom of the ancient people who initiated this legend and the resultant worship is very relevant today when we have not only fragmented nature considerably more through industrialisation but also devastated it with scant regard for the renewability and resilience of various ecosystems which are the basis of life on this earth.
I grew up in an urban setting in Kolkata and so knew only of Kali Puja and Diwali and had no inkling whatsoever about Govardhan Pooja that is held the next day. I first came to know of this when I came to Alirajpur. In fact the Bhils here celebrate Diwali in a different fashion altogether. For them this festival is a thanksgiving to nature for its bounty in giving them a good harvest. So they do not celebrate it according to the Hindu Diwali calendar. Each village has its own Diwali celebration in December or January after all the harvest has been winnowed and stored away in their houses. The picture below shows women using a saree as an artificial wind creator in the absence of natural wind to winnow red gram.

On the first day there is singing, dancing and feasting and on the second day the bullocks are worshipped and fed the grain that they have helped in harvesting. The food has to be prepared for feasting and for this festival small millets like Bhadi and Batti have to be pounded in pestles and then boiled. The picture below shows women pounding the millets -

The ritual of worshipping the bullocks and feeding them is an elaborate one and here is a picture of a bullock being fed grain after the worship -
Finally all the cattle and goats are let out from the house amidst loud cries and bursting of crackers. This celebration of Diwali by the Bhils or the Govardhan Pooja by non-tribal farmers is so full of meaning and practical considerations of the human bond with nature as compared to the empty festival of lights and crackers that we urbanites celebrate. After all given the huge darkness of money making perfidy that undergirds our lives and livelihoods, a symbolic celebration of light can only be full of hypocrisy!! The message of the Govardhan Pooja or the Bhil Diwali, the real Diwali which is yet to come this year, is clear - we have to become one with nature and pay our respects to its wholeness instead of fragmenting and destroying it as we are doing now, if we are to survive in the future. The celestial battle between Krishna and Indra for an appropriate and holistic relationship with nature has gained in relevance today faced as we are with a huge ecological crisis brought on by the greed for money.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Unto This Last

A man that is a householder, went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and said unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They said unto him, Because no man has hired us. He said unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard said unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the good man of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
— adapted from  Matthew 20:1–16, New Testament, King James Version
The crucial argument in this parable is that the last of the workers was prepared to work the whole day and it was not his fault that he got an opportunity only at the end and so he too deserved the same wage because he too has a family to feed. Thus, the reward for labour is delinked from the quantity and quality of labour itself and tied to the basic needs of the labourer. This is also the argument in the socialist dictum - "From each according to his ability and to each according to his need", first popularised by Louis Blanc and later taken up by Karl Marx, which too has its roots in another biblical parable - "And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need" - Acts of the Apostles, 4:32–35: 32
 This parable in fact strikes at the roots of economic inequality - the ownership of private property.
 Then there is the famous verse from the Gita (Chapter 2 verse 47) which says "to work you have the right not to its fruits, don't be the medium for enjoying the fruits of work and neither be lured into not working" which delinks working from the fruits of that work and stresses that humans to exist must work but that the results of that work are not to be sought after. 
Thus, the problem of economic inequality, its roots and the means to be adopted for its solution have been the subject of human discussion from ancient times and it is indeed something of an irony that it should still be so today!!! 
The American philosopher, John Rawls, too proposed something of the same sort when he suggested that the priority social objective of any State should be to maximise the welfare of the worst off person in society and this is what informs most welfare measures of modern states where redistribution of incomes is sought to be done through taxing the rich and subsidising the poor.
John Ruskin, the British philosopher, who quoted the parable from Matthew metioned earlier, in his book "Unto This Last", was a critic of Victorian materialism and industrialism and relied on an evangelical interpretation of Christianity to press for a more humane social system, which would use the surpluses gained from modern development to pull up the people at the bottom of society and create a level playing field for them. As opposed to the classical economists like Ricardo and Malthus, he refused to accept that resources were scarce and instead worked from the proposition that they were abundant but were being disproportionately and inappropriately used and advocated that if need be some of the new industrial and urban development should be jettisoned because it clashed with nature and human weal. Marx had the same views as Ruskin, with regard to the devastation of nature by industrialisation but unlike the latter the former was an out an out votary of modern industrial development as a means of freeing humanity from scarcity and so he down played this aspect expressing the hope that once communism was established, and the rule of capital and its dehumanising alienation of labour abolished, the relationship between man and nature would stabilise. With regard to the exploitation of humans under industrialism Marx felt that the abolition of private property would suffice to remedy this. However, Ruskin and other anarchists have felt that centralised industrial systems cannot ensure equality and justice even if the ownership of property remains in State hands and this has been corroborated by later developments in socialist countries after revolutions. As succinctly put in this quote that is apocryphally attributed to Kafka - 
"Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy".
Gandhi, initially, was inspired by Ruskin to start his Sarvodaya Programme in South Africa, the principles of which were later elaborated in his book "Hind Swaraj" in which he also harked back to the Vedas and the Gita for more support for his anti-industrial and anarchist socio-economic programme. Gandhi in fact went one step further and said that those who do manual labour should be recompensed more than those who do intellectual labour as he felt that the former was more important socially than the latter.
However, the history of human development shows that private property and greed, which have been so inveighed against by both spiritual and material philosophers, has ruled society and as a result inequality has gone on increasing and is today protected by huge economic and military power against which both non-violent and violent protests have proved unsuccessful. Thus, removing inequality is a difficult proposition currently, especially as the capitalist control of the human mind through the media and academia have made inequality an accepted phenomenon for most people and they have become resigned to living with it. 
So those of us who would like to carry on the glorious ancient tradition that I have quoted extensively from above and reject INEQUALITY, will have to buckle down and fight as best we can against a very powerful and greedy system that thrives on it and has succeeded in conning the rest of the world into believing that concentration of wealth and economic growth are the only way in which we can develop as a race!!  

Friday, October 10, 2014

Inequality of Transportation

Today a huge number of Indians are on the move. Primarily because a considerable number of people are migrating for labour. A conservative estimate based on various government data is that every year 100 million people or about 25% of the workforce are migrating seasonally for labour. Probably it is even more than that. In Alirajpur the proportion is as high as 85% of the workforce. Migration has become a permanent phenomenon of the present form of economic development where agriculture has been severely under funded and industrial development has been predicated on cheap casual labour. To avoid the problems arising from unionisation of local labour employers prefer to employ casual labour brought from other areas by labour contractors. A vast majority of these migrants are poor labourers. Only a miniscule proportion of travellers are high flying executives who are frequent travellers on aeroplanes. Most people travel by train and the Indian Railways issues some 8 billion passenger tickets every year for short to long distance journeys including repeat ones for daily commuters and also less frequent ones for long distance travellers. Understandably, given this huge rush of people travelling all the time the Indian Railways cannot meet the demand. Things have been compounded by the fact that for long distance trains there are many AC and Sleeper Class Compartments which allow travel in relative comfort but on which seats have to be booked well in advance. There are only one or two general compartments in which people can travel without reservation at short notice. Therefore, these compartments are jam packed with some people having to stand and cover long distances of over hundreds of kilometres. Thus, while the well heeled and those with the luxury to pre plan their travel well in advance can travel in comfort, the vast majority have to really struggle to reach their destination. All this of course has happened because the Railways are being pressurised to cut costs and show profits so the general compartments which are loss making have been reduced.
There was a time when conducting mass rallies in far away places used to be a song as all we had to do was climb on to a train en masse and travel free in the four or five general compartments that used to be there. On one occasion we even invaded the reserved compartments. However, this has now become impossible. Not only are there just one or two general compartments which are already jam packed with people but also there are strict security arrangements and so it is practically impossible to invade the reserved compartments. Thus, the pressure on Railways to make profits has also put the brakes on mass mobilisation over long distances to attend rallies in places of power. While the mainstream political parties hire trains to ferry people to their rallies, the mass organisations obviously cannot do so given their shoe string operations and so such rallies have become a thing of the past mostly.
So due to the rush in trains now people have to rely on buses and various other kinds of road transport also which are not only much more expensive but also more accident prone. These modes of road transport too are over crowded as the picture below of a jeep over laden with passengers in Alirajpur shows.
Not surprisingly India has a high road accident fatality rate of 19.9 per 100,000 inhabitants per year which is more than the global average of 18 and 211.8 per 100,000 motor vehicles per year which is significantly more than the global average of 93.3.
Personally, in times of old when we were young and bold when Subhadra and I have slogged it out in unreserved packed compartments but this has become difficult these days and we rarely attempt it anymore. Last year on one occasion I had to do it but for a short distance of about 200 kilometres that involved only about 4 hours of standing travel. Recently Subhadra had to rush to Raipur to visit a relative who had been paralysed by a cerebral stroke. It was the peak Puja holiday season and somehow I managed reserved train tickets for her online but eventually one leg of about two hundred and fifty kilometres from Nagpur to Raipur did not get confirmed. So she had to rush out of the station to the ticket counter and get a general ticket to board the connecting train. As she came on to the platform the train started moving. She began running for the general compartment which was at the back but it was jam packed with men sitting at the entrance who refused to let her in. Luckily there was one Ladies only general compartment after that and she somehow managed to get onto that. No sooner had she got in and sat down next to the toilet because the rest of the compartment was packed with women another woman took out her wares of lac bangles and asked Subhadra to buy them!! Subhadra saw that she had two small children with her so she asked her where her husband was. The bangle seller said that he had not been allowed in to this compartment by the police and so he was in another compartment!!. Subhadra told her that she did not wear these kinds of bangles and instead offered to look after her children so that the bangle seller could go and sell the bangles in the compartment. The bangle seller eventually succeeded in selling Rupees five hundred worth of bangles!! The general compartments are packed with such marginal people trying to make livelihoods out of nothing and desperately travelling from one place to another.
To cut a long story short the inequality that is rampant in society manifests itself in transportation also with most people having to bear tremendous difficulties to travel while a miniscule few travel in luxury.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Inequality in Development

Today 28th September is the twentyfifth anniversary of the first ever mass national public rally and meeting in India against destructive development held in the town of Harsud in Madhya Pradesh in 1989. "Vinash Nahi, Vikas Chahiye" - Development without Destruction was the clarion call that was given in that rally. It holds great memories for me personally. Before this we in Alirajpur, under the banner of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath had never ventured out of that district or western Madhya Pradesh for any rally on such a large scale. We had many village meetings and then people decided to take up the cost of going such a long distance in trucks. Eventually ten trucks jam packed with a hundred men and women each covered the distance of three hundred kilometers over night to take part in this historic rally. The rally saw the presence of thousands of toiling people, intellectuals and activists from across India with the most famous being the likes of Baba Amte, Medha Patkar, Shabana Azmi, Kaluram Dhodhre of the Bhoomi Sena and Jnanpith Award winning litterateur  U.R. Anantamurthy. The politicians V.C. Shukla and Maneka Gandhi also came to the meeting and were famously prevented from sitting on the stage due to the objection of Baba Amte that this was a non-party political gathering. Guthia spoke on behalf of the Bhils of Alirajpur and I had the privilege of translating what he said. There was definitely great expectation in the air that a new nationwide mass movement would take off from this show of strength that would seriously challenge the inequality and injustice of centralised development which had only devastated the environment and the livelihoods of the poor without giving them much of the benefits of such development.
Out of this rousing rally evolved the Jan Vikas Andolan in a meeting in Bhopal about two months later which was to be a nationwide movement against destructive development with a strong grassroots base. However, over the years since then neither the Jan Vikas Andolan, which soon became defunct or the National Alliance of People's Movements, which today is the most active and powerful coalition of mass movements in the country, have been able to fulfil promise of the Harsud rally. No doubt struggles have multiplied in number and many laws have since been enacted that have made fighting for a more equitable and sustainable development model much easier than it was at the time, but overall we have not really been able to turn the direction of development away from its destructive core. In fact the struggle against the dams on the river Narmada which had formed the core of the upsurge at the time later became so weak that Harsud town itself was submerged in the reservoir of the Indira Sagar dam in 2004. The struggle against the dams on the Narmada still continues and remains one of the greatest battles against destructive development not only in India but across the world but it has to be admitted that it is a back to the wall fight rather than one that will be able to overturn destructive development.
I have often pondered on this failure on our part. The main problem as I see it is that we have not been able to garner the resources necessary for striking at the roots of destructive development. Not only financial resources but more importantly human resources. In 1989 there were hundreds of young people both from the middle and upper classes and from the oppressed majority who had joined the mass movements at the grassroots level and provided the cadre that is so necessary for running a movement. However, within a few years most of these youths left the movements to pursue mainstream careers and very few were left behind to continue the struggles. Newer cadre did not join in the same way as the earlier youths had done. As the battles escalated various legal, documentation and travel costs increased and it became difficult to sustain the movements on just donations alone. So in many cases, and definitely so in our own case of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, an NGOisation took place. Even though we have kept external institutional funding to a bare minimum it does bring with it restrictions on mass action of various kinds and so those few of us who have remained behind to continue the fight at the grassroots have lost much of our earlier militancy.
Also, the ruling classes have met the challenge of grassroots militancy with deep counter planning. The lollipops of academic tenureship and NGO funding have been effectively dangled before grassroots activists both from the middle classes and the oppressed sections. Moreover, Panchayati Raj which began to be implemented in earnest after the constitutional amendment making it mandatory in 1993, has pushed corrupt party politics into the remotest corners and so it is difficult for mass movements to retain cadres. Finally, the cell phone and digital TV revolution of the twentyfirst century has pushed consumerist culture into the deepest corners of the country and made political education for countering destructive development very difficult. The night meeting and regular leadership and ideological trainings used to be the mainstay of building up a counter culture but these have become very difficult to organise in these days of inane TV programming that is pushed directly into homes.
The memory of the historic Harsud Rally of a quarter of a century ago has consequently dimmed and I would not have remembered it at all if it had not been for a post in Facebook and an email from Aid India. I remember that I had said that day while translating Guthia's speech that September 28th is also the birth anniversary of Shaheed Bhagat Singh and his legacy, which has not really been pursued after independence except for some ceremonial remembrance, has to be actively adopted if destructive development is to be seriously challenged. That remains true even today. How to do it is a conundrum that has to be cracked as otherwise the anniversary of Harsud Day will also be celebrated ceremonially without a strong nationwide movement evolving for more equitable development.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Inequality of Access to Justice

Getting justice in this country is costly. Whether it is initially from the police or later from the courts. That is why poor people are in most cases unable to access it unless there is an organisation supporting them. The Int Bhatta Majdoor Union based in Ahmedabad is one such organisation that has been fighting for the rights of the brick kiln workers in Gujarat in particular and also in the rest of the country for over five years now. Here is a report from them about the gang rape of an Adivasi minor girl brick kiln worker and the extortion from her co workers by their employers and the action that the union has taken to bring the culprits to justice.
Rape and extortion at a brick kiln in Baroda district, Gujarat
Geeta (name changed), a 16 year old tribal girl, is a resident of Limkheda village in Dhanpur taluka of Dahod district of Gujarat. She has three brothers and three sisters. She has studied till class VIII.  For the first time in her life, she went to work in brick kilns at Navik Bricks, a brick kiln in Sankheda block of old Baroda district in the month of February 2014. Her brothers and cousins were already working there. The group had started work in the month of November and had spent almost four months by the time Geeta arrived to join them. Some members would come back to their home village some 150 kms away and then join back after a couple of days’ rest. The group of six persons was recruited to work in the brick kilns by Avani bai, a female labor contractor from a nearby village. The family group was advanced an amount of Rs. 90,000/- against six persons to work in brick kilns. Geeta’s family took Rs. 60,000/- for four workers while her uncle took Rs. 30,000/ for two workers. The group was engaged to transport fired bricks from the kiln for loading in trucks.
Dahod district is part of the tribal belt in Western India that stretches across a number of states. Tribal community is universally recognized as the poorest community in India. Dahod district is the main catchment for cheap wage labor in construction and agriculture sector in plains of Gujarat. The family owns a small amount of land that is not enough to provide sustenance. As local labor is not available, the family members migrate for wage labor work. The normal migration route is for agriculture work in Saurashtra, a far off region of Gujarat, an overnight journey away. This was the first time when the group went to work in brick kilns.
In February, Avani bai put pressure on the family to send one more workers for work as the advance was against six workers, but only five were working. So Geeta also went to the kiln as there was no other person left at home. After she started work, she was stared at and followed by three young men whom she did not know by name. One of the group members would repeatedly smile at her. Six days after she had arrived, when Geeta was loading bricks in the truck, this person climbed on the truck to receive bricks from Geeta. He pressed her hand. Geeta then moved away. That night Geeta was sleeping outside her hut with a group of young girls. Late in the night the three young men covered her mouth with a cloth and lifted her to nearby fields. They took her to a nearby hut where she was raped by the young man targeting her while the other two kept guard. By this time, the other girls realized that Geeta was missing. They raised an alarm. The workers gathered and rescued Geeta from the hut. One of the group members pursuing Geeta was the son of the owner of the kiln while another one was supervisor at the kiln.
After the incident the group decided that they will not work anymore at the brick kiln. The labor contractor and the kiln owner did not agree to let the group go back. They instead said that the family should reach a settlement about the incident, but continue working. The settlement offer was to marry the rapist and get some money. The workers did not agree to this. They informed their family members back at home who sent a vehicle to pick up the family. The vehicle arrived at the brick kiln two days after the incident. The female members of the group sat in the vehicle to go back. At this point the brick kiln owner collected a group that attacked the workers. They beat up the jeep driver badly who ran away. The kiln owner removed the tires of the jeep and kept it in his compound. The female workers were asked to go back to their huts. They were asked to pay back a sum of Rs. 1.5 lakhs (Rs. 150,000/-) if they wanted to go back.
It took the family members a week to collect this amount. A group came from the workers’ village along with the village headman to pay the ransom money and bring the group back. Even this did not happen easily. The workers report that the owner collected a group to kidnap Geeta but somehow they were able to sit in their jeep and go back to the village.
After the group reached the village, Geeta’s father approached the village headman to help in filing a police case. The headman approached the head constable who was on the local beat. Rs. five thousand was paid. A food and drink party was organized. However nothing came of it.
Dhanpur block is a major source area of brick kiln workers for brick kilns in Central Gujarat. Ahmedabad based Int Bhatta Majdoor Union has been active in this area. It has helped workers get their back wages in a number of cases. Bharat bhai is the Union cadre from this area. Almost six months after the incident, he came to know about the incident. He immediately contacted the Union. The whole group came to the Ahmedabad office on 18th September. After a debriefing session, the Union team went to the Sankheda police station on 20th September to file a report. Geeta’s brothers who had migrated were called back to give evidence. A police report has been filed under sections 370 A, 376, 342, 323,114 and POCSO Act section 3,4. For the first time, Section 370 of IPC that deals with human trafficking has been invoked after much argument with the police. 
The case is remarkable for its extreme brutality, but is in many ways symptomatic of the vulnerabilities faced by the brick kiln workers across the state and the country. It shows almost complete absence of regulation of any kind at the brick kilns. The system of advances leading to debt bondage, non-payment of wages, extortion if the workers want to leave early, violence including sexual violence – all these features are common to brick kilns all over the country to some extent. The incident has taken place in a state that has been touted as the model for the whole country. The brick kiln falls in old Baroda district, the constituency of the current Indian Prime Minister till he resigned his seat to keep the other seat won by him. The case illustrates that the law and order machinery of the state is outside the bounds of the poor unless mediated by civil society groups of which there are not many. The Prayas Centre for Labour Research and Action is one such group that has been actively working for the informal workers and is providing support to the Int Bhatta Majdoor Union in this case.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Inequality of Access to Capital

The other day I got an email from a friend working in one of the financial institutions in Wall Street in New York in the United States asking me whether the coming to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the centre under the leadership of Narendra Modi would ensure an IRR of 20% in the infrastructure sector in India. The IRR is the internal rate of return, also called the economic rate of return which is the rate at which, when discounted to the present, all the projected net cash flows from a project during its life cycle equal the initial investment. Only if the IRR is significantly more than the going interest rate on borrowed capital does it become profitable for any company to undertake a project and the financial institutions lending to it also are assured of repayment of the loans with interest that they have advanced to the company. Given that the interest rate charged by banks for loans to projects currently in India is around 13% due to the Reserve Bank's policy of high interest rates to curtail the stubbornly high inflation rate, it is not unreasonable for financial institutions to demand an IRR of 20% from a project to fund it. Unfortunately for the capitalists, IRR in the infrastructure sector in India has been well below 10% in recent years mainly due to two factors - the high cost of land because it is difficult to evict people forcibly from land these days and the high cost of raw materials and energy due to environmental laws and increasing scarcity of non-renewable natural resources. Thus, what the friend in Wall Street was basically asking was whether Narendra Modi would be able to reduce the costs of land and raw materials to such an extent that the IRR of infrastructure projects could go up to 20% from the current 10% or less (there are many projects which have not been able to go on stream because of high raw material and energy costs after the plants having been commissioned and so are reeling under huge debt and interest burdens, especially in the power sector) and make them viable to fund.
The crucial thing here is that the IRR is concerned only with the economic costs of a project. Since the economic costs have to be minimised if IRR has to be high so there is a tendency to reduce the social and environmental costs either by undervaluing them or externalising them altogether. This has been the motto of all development right from the time agriculture was developed in the neolithic era some ten thousand years ago. However, this process of externalisation of social and environmental costs increased many times once industrial development started and it continues apace spurred on by the thrust of financial institutions to earn super profits on the money that they loan out to various companies. But the world over the financial institutions are faced with serious obstacles because social and environmental costs cannot be externalised so easily anymore as people have become more resistant to forcible displacement and the environment also is hitting back in many ways against its devastation through floods, droughts, a non renewable natural resource crunch, global warming and the like. In India, in recent times, land acquisition has become particularly problematical because of a long history of displacement without adequate compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement of people which has created a trust deficit for the Government and the Corporations among the people. So much so that over the past decade there have been some fierce battles both on the ground and in the courts waged by the people affected by such unjust displacement of whom tribals are in a large majority because most of the resource rich areas, where infrastructure projects like mines, dams and power plants have to be constructed, happen to be forested habitats of the tribals. As a consequence of these struggles India now has a new Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARRA) to replace the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894, a Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forestdwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act (FRA), the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESAA) and the National Green Tribunal Act (NGTA), which together make it very very difficult for the Government and the Corporations to acquire land and devastate the environment. One of the most important victories in recent years is that of the Dongria Kondhs shown below who were able to prevent Vedanta Resources, one of the biggest mining and metals conglomerates in the world, from displacing them from the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa to extract the bauxite that is there underneath them.

Both displacement and devastation of the environment had become costly in the developed countries much earlier due to higher levels of awareness and so social and environmental costs had to be internalised in the IRR calculations pushing down the rate of profit. The corporations there aided by their governments and international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank began outsourcing their manufacturing and services into the developing countries. However, now even in India things have become difficult and increasingly social and environmental costs are having to be internalised and that is why my friend in Wall Street was asking whether Narendra Modi would be able to improve matters for them by halting and reversing this IRR reducing trend in India because he had been able to do precisely that in the state of Gujarat while he was Chief Minister there for three decades by trampling on the rights of the people and devastating the environment.
It is not surprsing, therefore, that Narendra Modi has, immediately after coming to power at the centre, given a clarion call to global investors to come and "make" in India and has initiated measures to dilute the strict conditions of the LARRA, FRA and NGTA so as to ensure that IRR can be hiked up once again. One can see this as a battle between capital concentrated in the hands of a few on the one hand and society and the environment on which the majority depend for their livelihoods on the other. The majority do not have access to capital and are somehow clinging on to what little they have to eke out a living. Those in control of capital, however, are concerned only with getting returns on it even if it is at the cost of devastating society and the environment. Since this creates a situation of conflict, a major part of the accumulated capital is spent on maintaining armed forces and the police and fighting wars or suppressing revolts. To provide legitimacy to this grossly illegitimate use of power, capital also controls the media and academia so as to keep the masses and intellectuals steeped in inanities rather than become conscious fighters against this injustice. Unless this huge inequality in access to capital is removed and Wall Street not only occupied but demolished, there is no way in which justice can be ensured.