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.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Honest and Trustworthy

Ramaswamy and I took a ferry across the River Hooghly from Babughat in Kolkata to the directly opposite jetty of Ramkrishnapur in Howrah one afternoon recently. Our destination was the Talimi Haq School run by the NGO, Howrah City Pilot Project, that Ramaswamy had set up way back in 1998 along with a few other activists. Ramaswamy and I were fast friends in school and many are the times when we had been caught making mischief together and got six of the best on our bottoms from our teachers. We lost touch when he left the school after class seven but by serendipity we met again in the late 1980s when I went to the NGO Unnayan which was working on housing rights in Kolkata and found him working there. So our friendship renewed and I am especially indebted to him for having started me blogging. The powerful medium of my blog has helped me to spread the stories and struggles of the Bhil Adivasis far and wide in India and abroad. The other day someone told me that in a discussion on Indian anarchism, my blog was quoted as being one of the best places to learn about anarchist thought and action. Now that is something!!!
Anyway this post is not about Ramaswamy and I but about a truly inspiring personality who is currently running the Talimi Haq School or School for the right to education (THS).  The Howrah City Pilot Project was set up with the aim of rejuvenating the decaying slum areas in Howrah which were facing the brunt of the deindustrialisation taking place there as Jute Mills and foundries were closing down from the late 1980s onwards. As part of this the Talimi Haq School was set up primarily to provide educational and vocational training to the children resident in these slums and later it became a centre for vocational training for women also. From the beginning this organisation has run on a shoestring remaining true to its activist roots. The person who runs this school and has been associated with it right from its inception when she was in her teens, is Amina Khatun sitting in pink salwar kurta in the picture below.
I had heard a lot about her from Ramaswamy but that afternoon meeting her for the first time I realised why the THS is such a great institution. The school runs from 9 in the morning till 9 in the night as children, adolescent girls and women come in batch after batch throughout the day to learn and train and Amina is there all the time. Amina is so dedicated to her work that she has never married because she says that most men are no better than cats and dogs interested in only the bodies of women and not their minds, especially a militant feminist mind!! She stays in a mezzanine floor below the THS, which itself is on the first floor and the room she stays in just 6 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet in height. Her room has been named by Ramaswamy as the Kabutarkhana or pigeonhole!!
Amina is primarily an activist who has taken up many causes for the rights of the women and children of the slum in which the THS is situated - Priya Manna Basti. She said that currently with the Mills having closed down, the latest was the Howrah Jute Mill which was just across the road and the gentrification of the whole area as rich people from Kolkata have moved in, employment opportunities have gone down substantially. So most women are doing domestic help work for these richer households and the men are either driving rickshaws or working as loaders or construction workers and many of the younger ones are into crime. In her lengthy career Amina has also been a crime reporter for an Urdu paper for sometime but later found it too demanding to do both social work and journalism together and so chose to concentrate on the THS full time. However, her crime reporting brought her in contact with police officers and finally that seems to have helped.
There is a piece of land in Priya Manna Basti whose owner bequeathed it to the Howrah City Pilot Project so that it could build a proper center for the THS. But the men of the locality objected to this and laid claim to the land and went to court. However, in the end they could not prove their claims and so the land legally belongs to the HCPP. Nevertheless, the men continued to oppose the transfer of the land to HCPP and on one occasion assembled a thousand strong crowd to eject HCPP from even the rented accommodation in the basti. Amina stood her ground and gave her standard challenge that if there was any real man in the crowd and not just cats and dogs then they should come and throw her out. The crowd backed down and so the THS is still running. Now one of the officers who once used to know Amina as a crime reporter has become a high level police official of the area and he came to the office of THS one day. He phoned beforehand to say he was coming and Amina hurriedly rented two sofas from a tent house nearby to make arrangements to seat the high level policeman and his entourage. The officer came and saw the school and was impressed by the infrastructure and the training (the school has a complement of ten computers for training the women in software). He said that the school should be in bigger premises if it was to be more effective. So then Amina told him about the land problem. He immediately took it up, saw the papers, and is now working with the administration to see that possession of the land is given to HCPP and a proper school building is constructed on it. Activism does pay sometimes.
Amina and her assistant Vinod are the full timers who are running the school on pittances of salary, to the extent that Amina donated a substantial part of a fellowship that she once got to the school. Amina in Arabic means honest and trustworthy and this is what this fiery feminist is. Soldiering on valiantly to bring some sanity into the devastation that is being wrought among poor communities by capitalist development.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Cry My Beloved Kolkata

I went out of Kolkata forty years ago and since then have had only a few rare stays of not more than two or three days at a stretch in the city. Now for the past week or so I have had an extended stay which has enabled me to go and visit all the old haunts of my late teens when I became independent and old enough to be able to explore the city on my own.
The Kolkata of the mid and late 1970s after the murder and mayhem of the Naxalite years, which anyway I was too young to know and understand much about, was indeed for me a city of joy. When I reached Class 12, then along with another enterprising friend, we would bunk from school, which was at the junction of Loudon Street and Lower Circular Road (the names have changed now but I prefer to refer to the old names) at 11.15 am, which was the recess time and make our way to the Cinema area between Park Street and Esplanade and take in a noon show of some Hollywood film or other. We would have muftis in our bags and wear those after taking off our school uniforms to look very adult. After that we would make a beeline for Nizam's and gorge a few beef rolls. Finally, we would make our way to Shaw's Wine Bar, a pub for the plebians in the lane behind the famous Metro Cinema, to take in a peg or two of rum or whisky and then head back home taking care to eat pan on the way to hide the smell of drink and changing back into our school uniforms. Those were the times when we were preparing for our board exams and various entrance exams and so we would spin a tale at home that there were extra classes in school. Apart from this often in the afterschool hours I would go walking and by bus to visit many of the heritage areas of Kolkata, especially the north of the city from Chitpur onwards which was the original area colonised by the British and the residence of the Zamindars and traders who collaborated with them in the initial years to build their own fortunes.
This time I began my revisit of those halcyon days of my youth in Kolkata by taking a heritage walk in Chitpur. This happened because an NGO had organised an event to focus on the heritage of North Kolkata. So I got to see many of the heritage buildings of the erstwhile Zamindars and traders which are still extant mainly because the roads and lanes on which they have been built are too narrow for them to be pulled down and converted into malls and multistoried buildings. The event organisers had organised a game which took the participants through one such heritage building which is now the office of the traffic police. It had some lovely inlay work on the floors with stones from Arabia.
 The game that the event organisers had us play had many questions that canvassed our opinions about what should be done to retain the heritage of Kolkata in the face of modern urban development which was bulldozing it. One such question was whether trams should be retained or not. Now this question cannot be answered in a simple yes or no as the organisers demanded. Because trams can be retained only if private cars are banned and not otherwise. Indeed it is a question of the type of transportation plan that has to be implemented for those areas of the city which have narrow roads. It is mandatory that in these areas there are only public transport, trams and buses and cycling and walking and private cars are banned altogether.
The city is choking with traffic even where the roads are wider and many roads have been made one way with traffic going in one direction during the morning rush hours and in the opposite direction in the evening rush hours. However, what galls most is the hideous flyover that has been built on the Lower Circular road from the Maidan to Park Circus completely destroying the beautiful view of heritage buildings along this stretch that I used to have as a teen. Cities in the west have completely banned cars from heritage zones and downtown areas, with only public transport and cycles allowed there. The inner city areas are thus beautiful to view without the modern monstrosities of skyscrapers and flyovers which have desecrated Kolkata and many of our other cities. In Kolkata the latest trend is to maintain the facade of the heritage buildings while building skyscrapers and malls behind them with the Metro cinema already having gone that way and the venerable Statesman building slated to be the next !! A more idiotic exercise in urban design will be difficult to imagine.
As I write this I myself am sitting in a multistoried residential gated building that has come up in an area of Kolkata which was once an industrial and working class locality with its own distinct street level architecture. This locality is close to the famous Rabindra Sarobar lake. I had heard that this lake at least has been well preserved and prevented from going to seed like most other ponds of the city which have become cesspools having lost their earlier charm. So I went to see if this was really the case. I found that the lake and its surrounding park had indeed been fenced in and protected and nice walkways built around it. There was 24x7 protection and cleaning of the area and the many trees were all conserved and labelled. However, the water in the lake itself was eutrophied and of a dirty green colour with vegetation growing in it indicating that sewage water was seeping into the lake in large quantities from somewhere even though I could not find from where this was happening. Though there are three posh clubs on the banks of the lake to which access is restricted and so I could not investigate what they are doing with their waste water. Padmapukur which used to be my swimming haunt as a kid and teen has become a cesspool more or less. Many national swimming champions have been produced there by the Bhabanipur Swimming Association but now the club is there only in name as there is very little water in the pond and what is there is highly contaminated.
The Kolkata I grew up in is sadly no more. Just a few days back the city also lost one of its doughty crusaders for a saner urban development in the ecologist Dhrubojyoti Ghosh who waged a long battle to save some of its eastern wetlands which are now protected due to his efforts as a United Nations recognised Ramsar site. So in the end there is very little left for me to do but drown my sorrow of having lost my beloved Kolkata of the 1970s in the liquor which is mercifully still flowing unabated at Shaw's Wine Bar catering briskly to the plebian's Dionysian needs.    

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Back to My Philosophical Roots

Ramlal and I went cycling again together after 35 long years over the irrigation canal that marks the boundary of Santiniketan and on towards the Kopai River and the red soil khoai as we had done in our youth. Ramlal is a tailor and an everyday philosopher who I befriended when I spent a year in Santiniketan after graduating from IIT Kharagpur to try and find out what to do with my life as I didn't fancy working as a civil engineer which I had been trained to do. I thought that staying in the vicinity of Tagore's Viswa Bharati University would give me some leads.
However, it was not Viswa Bharati but Ramlal who finally provided the direction to my life. Ramlal at that time was under severe financial stress as being the eldest of three brothers and sisters he had to take care of their upbringing because both his mother and father had expired. Ramlal's father was a cycle rickshaw driver who used to write poems which were published. Some of that literary streak had come through to Ramlal and though he did not write poems he read voraciously and had very mature philosophical views about life. He believed in working hard with scant regard for rewards. He was a tailor by profession with a small hut by the side of the road where he pursued his trade. This was the place for many Santhal tribals from nearby villages to come and have discussions and that is how I made a lot of friends with these tribals and went to their houses. Eventually, I ended up working with tribals for their rights first in rural areas in West Bengal and then in Alirajpur and so found my calling in life.
One of the best features of that one year's stay in Santiniketan was the cycle rides that Ramlal and I used to undertake deep into the nearby rural areas to meet our tribal friends in their villages. Ramlal and I have met a number of times since whenever I have visited Santiniketan again but never did we go on cycle rides because there was no time. However, last week Ramlal insisted that we go on cycles again when I asked him whether he would accompany me to see a learning centre for Adivasi children being run by the Suchana NGO a few kilometers from Santiniketan. So off we went on cycles again and it was a great trip because later we visited a weekly fair that is held across the canal in which the arts and crafts and music and dance of the Santhals are showcased. The years have gone by but the spirit hasn't.

Ramlal used to live in a mud hut with thatch roof like the one in the background in the picture but last year it collapsed and so now he has built a pucca house with help from his brothers and we are standing in the place where his earlier kuccha house was and smiling about our change in fortunes!!
That year in Santiniketan was critical for me in many ways. I read up Marx's Das Kapital during that time and critically analysed it and decided that its value theory was flawed. I also read many of his essays on historical and dialectical materialism and decided that they too were very simplistic and all this eventually contributed to me shunning the mainstream or the maoist left and striking out on my own to pursue anarchist dreams with the tribal people though at that time I had not read any anarchists apart from Gandhi. But reading Gandhi earlier in college had led me to the Upanishads and the initial move away from a career in the corporate world. In Santiniketan I continued this reading which was capped by the absolutely top class philosophy of the Katha Upanishad where Nachiketa displays what can be termed as the epitome of critical thinking. I also spent the year building a house for my parents and putting my freshly minted knowledge of civil engineering to use. The house I built has since been sold off but it still exists as evidence of my IIT degree!!
In the course of building this house I became very friendly with the labour contractor who was engaged for the purpose. Khaled was a muslim from Murshidabad who had begun his life as a labourer and worked his way up to being a mason and then a contractor. He was greatly surprised when I asked him one day whether he would treat me to beef curry cooked at his home!! He was hesitant at first but then I prevailed on him and that was the beginning of a great friendship. He strongly disapproved of my design of the slabs and beams because these masons generally heavily over design the buildings but I over ruled him and as is evident the building is still standing upright after all these years!! I met up with him a few times after that also but then I lost touch. One does not even know whether he is still alive.
Even though I disagree with much of what Marx has written, I whole heartedly agree with his statement that philosophers have only interpreted the world but the need is for changing it. So at the end of that very educative year in Santiniketan I set out to change the world and even though I have not succeeded in doing so the journey that began all those years ago has been a very enjoyable one.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Great Sugar Conspiracy

This year I have taken a resolution not to eat sugar in any form. This means that I am off sweets altogether. This is because sugar is the primary cause of obesity, hard disease and diabetes. Even though I am neither obese, nor a heart patient and nor a diabetic I have been bothered by the fact that I still have fat around my abdomen despite a rigorous daily exercise schedule and a low carbohydrate diet. However, on doing further research to try and find a solution to this midriff paunch, I found that sugar was the culprit. It appears that with middle age as the metabolism weakens the excess sugar that one consumes (all sugar as the energy needs of the body are fulfilled by the carbohydrates and proteins consumed) is processed by the liver into fat and deposited around the abdomen. So regardless of how much exercise one does, I do a rigorous two hour work out every day, the paunch around the midriff stubbornly refuses to vanish. So the only solution is to remove sugar from one's diet completely. This means taking the hard decision to abstain from sweets, cakes, chocolates, icecreams and the like!! Well I have taken it and over the last two months the paunch has shrivelled up considerably and I am optimistic that it will vanish completely in the future!!!
While researching the perfidies of sugar I came across a conspiracy to promote sugar between the nutritionists, food industries and pharmaceutical industries that has completely devastated the human race.
In the 1970s nutritionists wrongly targeted saturated fats as being the cause of obesity and heart disease whereas a British scientist, Yudkin, contended correctly that it was sugar that was behind these problems. However, Yudkin was silenced and instead sugar was promoted in a big way in the food industry resulting in a huge spike in obesity, heart disease and diabetes which has now assumed epidemic proportions. Sweet eating has become a major pastime among people across the world and their subsequent visits to doctors is fuelling the profits of the medical and pharmaceutical industries.
What is most worrying is that the prevalence of diabetes is increasing alarmingly among the poor also, especially the urban poor, as their food habits are changing and they are consuming sugar rich junk foods and drinks instead of more wholesome food. India is faced with a huge public health challenge as a consequence of this rising trend of diabetes among the poor who do not have the economic resources to fight this disease on their own. So after devastating the western populations with sugar rich junk foods and drinks, the food multinationals have targeted the developing countries in search of profits and the poor in India are in for an even greater health disaster.
SAY NO TO SUGAR has to be the slogan. This will incidentally also solve a major water availability related problem by drastically reducing the acreage under sugar cane which is a huge water guzzler.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Celebrating V Day in Pandutalab

February 14th  2018 was celebrated as V Cubed day at the Majlis Centre in Pandutalab. Three Vs because of Valentine, Vagina and Violence Against Women. Subhadra has from the beginning insisted that the centre would promote feminism and sustainable agriculture. It is her contention that on the basis of the limited evidence available regarding the human transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture, the neolithic revolution, the probability is higher that it was women who brought about this transition. Since women had already been domesticated due to the need to continually produce babies to keep the human race alive, it is they, she argues, who were most likely to notice that the seeds of some of the grasses were edible and tended to germinate easily when spilled on the ground in favourable conditions. It is only later that men appropriated this discovery and its immense civilisational benefits and further suppressed the independence of women.
One of the modern expressions of patriarchy is the celebration of Valentine's Day on February 14th annually as a day of love to mask the huge violence that exists in man woman relationships. True love is possible only if the relationship is free from violence and oppression. That is why for Valentine's Day to be a true celebration of love it must also be a day of resistance against patriarchal violence.
The story begins in 1994 with the staging in New York of the iconic play "Vagina Monologues" written by and starring Eve Ensler. Based on interviews with many women this play consists of many stories about women who have suffered various forms of gender based violence including the most terrible - rape and trafficking. The huge success of this play and the inspiration it provided women to stand up and speak out against gender based violence instead of quietly suffering to avoid the stigma attached to publicly admitting to being a victim of the same. Ensler and some other women then formed the voluntary organisation V Day on February 14th, Valentine's Day in 1998 to combat gender based violence with the V standing for Violence which was to be ended, Valentine or love which was to be genuinely established and Vagina which was to be foregrounded as an expression of womanhood instead of being hidden by the stigma that surrounded women's sexuality and its unjust exploitation by men. Initially the thrust was to organise shows of the play and raise money to fund campaigns against gender based violence. However, over time the organisation has become a worldwide movement against gender based violence that has raised over $ 75 million for the purpose.
As a prelude to celebrating their fifteenth anniversary on 14th February 2013, V Day hit upon the idea of a campaign to have one billion women rising up against gender based violence on that day. The simple idea being that given the fact that one third of all women suffer some form of gender based violence or other during their lives, roughly one billion women are victims of this. So to counter this there should be a movement of at least one billion women rising to fight gender based violence. The tremendous credibility that V Day has achieved over these last two decades in its fight against gender based violence resulted in the United Nations putting its might behind this campaign and carrying it across the world.

The Majlis centre in Pandutalab too, consequently, celebrated V cubed day and women and men from Indore and nearby villages gathered there for this. The high point was a feast prepared from the organic produce of the farm where Subhadra is conserving indigenous varieties that are slowly becoming extinct due to the onslaught of modern chemical agriculture.
Food was made on wood stoves from jowar, rice, maize, pulses and vegetables grown on the farm and processed by hand with the help of stone grinders and pounders. The people who visited from Indore enjoyed the food and the outing very much in the serene surroundings of the farm which is at the foot of a hill.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Visitors to Pandutalab

Four distinguished visitors came to the Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti last week. Shri Anandswarup Gadde a retired professor of Mathematics from Australia who was originally from Andhra Pradesh and has been associated with our work for more than a decade now. I first came to know him when he offered to fund the  print publishing of an edited version of my book on our work in Madhya Pradesh in 2007. He has been visiting various NGOs in India for some time now and last year he visited mainly the Alirajpur area of work of Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra and also paid a brief visit to Pandutalab. This year he came on a more extended visit to Pandutalab and he was accompanied by three other social workers from Andhra Pradesh. Shri Pragnanand who is involved in education of tribal children, sustainable agriculture and holistic medicine, Shri Prasad who is a doctor by profession but for the past three decades has been involved in people's science movement and especially in science education for children and Shrimati Aruna Tella who is involved in providing assistance to victims of domestic violence including the running of a short stay home for such women where they are also trained in income generation skills to be able to lead an independent economic life. They are shown in the picture below enjoying the morning winter sun at the centre.
 Their visit started with witnessing the sunday coaching school that we have been running at the centre for the time being till the residential coaching centre for girls starts from the next academic session. Shri Prasad and Shri Pragnanand took turns to teach the children in their own innovative ways for some time.
Shri Pragnanand was very much interested in Subhadra's efforts to revive traditional indigenous agriculture at the centre. He had said before coming to Pandutalab that he would like to taste some traditional Adivasi food. So throughout he and all the other visitors got various dishes prepared in the traditional Bhil Adivasi cuisine from traditional cereals and pulses grown organically on the farm at the centre. The final parting delicacy were laddoos made from chikni jowar which is a vanishing strain of sorghum that Subhadra is trying to revive. Subhadra has also installed traditional flour grinding and rice pounding machines at the centre and Pragnanand enjoyed himself trying his hand at the grinding machine turning out tur dal with training from Subhadra.

 Eventually Subhadra and Pragnanand reached an agreement that Subhadra would supply organic cereals and pulses and Adivasi preparations to Avinaash the organisation run by the latter which provides holistic health solutions and also markets organic products. Prajnanand took samples of quite a few varieties of cereals and pulses that Subhadra had grown on the farm as the tribal areas in which he works in Andhra Pradesh too grow the same cereals and pulses though of different genres.
The visitors also visited other NGOs who are doing worthwhile work in the sphere of educatioin in the area like Adharshila Learning Centre for Adivasi children in Sakar village in Barwani district and Eklavya in Bhopal which is involved in designing innovative learning material for children. In between there were trips to our environment friendly house in Indore and for a meeting with Professor Swapan Bhattacharjee who is a great supporter of our work and the famous tourist spots nearby like Omkareshwar Jyotirling and Mandu Fort.
The big take away for us was the discussions we had with these senior activists about the way to tackle women's issues, problems of agriculture and children's education. Shrimati Aruna has over three decades of experience in fighting for the rights of women suffering from domestic violence and Subhadra had a few long discussions with her. She too enjoyed turning the grinding wheel and said that the exercise helped to ease the pain in her shoulder!!
The Pandutalab centre of Majlis has been developed to promote healthy living based on labour intensive sustainable agriculture and this is the first time we had visitors who tried out this earthy concept. As time progresses we hope we will be able to extend this to nearby farmers also. All in all it was a great four days spent together.  

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

From selling Chai to Selling Pakodas

Given the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a degree in Entire Political Science and not in Entire Economic Science, it is only to be expected that he is a bit weak in monetary and fiscal policy. He has now admitted as much in a recent interview given to Zee TV, where he has asked that his performance as the leader of his Government should not be evaluated just on the basis of the sorry implementation of the Demonetisation of high value notes and the Goods and Services Tax (GST). While one can excuse Modi for his ignorance in economic matters, the same license cannot be extended to the bevy of economists who are among his staff who should be advising him about the right monetary and fiscal measures to take instead of kowtowing to his absurd dictates regarding something that he knows very little about. Despite both demonetisation and the design of the GST flying in the face of established monetary and fiscal policy, none of the economists and bureaucrats had the guts to tell Modi that these would fail miserably. This in short is the problem with governance in this country in every sphere, from agriculture to industry to water management including sanitation to education to health, that the political and administrative practice is irrational and so incompetent!!
Let us start with demonetisation. What is the most important lesson that we have learnt from this exercise? It is that those in the habit of accumulating black money will try and game the system rather than let go of their illegal hordes. This is what happened. Huge amounts of black money were deposited regardless of the warnings from the Government that they would be tracked and indicted later for depositing the demonetised notes in excess of the limits prescribed. So almost all the money was deposited and now the Income Tax Department is saddled with the Herculean task of sending notices to these 18 lakh depositors of unaccounted money and proceeding against them. Most have not responded to the email notices that have been sent to them and not filed income tax returns that account for the deposits they have made. Due to the lack of staff, the Income Tax Department scrutinises in detail the returns of only a few thousand assessees every year and so it can easily be imagined how difficult it will be for it to scrutinise these 18 lakh depositors. Since email notices have not garnered much response, now written notices have to be sent and then staff have to be deployed to scrutinise the books of all these people. There has been an increase in the number of income tax assessees and the income tax deposited but this has been of the same order of increase as in earlier years and so it can safely be assumed that unearthing the black money deposited is going to be a long haul. All this at a huge cost to the economy in general and to poor people in particular.
Given this tendency of the black people of this country, who are incidentally also the top 1% economically, to game the system, one would have thought that the Government would have designed a GST that would have prevented such gaming. But no, once again there was great fanfare, as with the announcement of demonetisation and a worthless and unworkable GST was launched. Modi in his eagerness to copy Nehru's freedom at midnight speech, delivered another one at a specially called midnight session of parliament, declaring that he was freeing the economy of the country from the tyranny of multiple indirect taxes!!! But what actually happened is another sordid story altogether.
The lynch pin of the GST is the input tax credit system. I had described this in my first post on GST before it was launched, in which I had predicted that the faulty way in which the GST had been designed, it was bound to fail and I will repeat it here as without understanding this, one cannot appreciate the monumental blunder that has been committed!!
In the above graphic we ignore for the time being the tax that the manufacturer has paid on the goods and services procured by him and assume they are a part of his selling price of Rs 100. He adds Rs 5 for GST at 5 per cent and sells the product to the wholesaler for Rs 105 and uploads the invoice for the same to the Goods and Service Tax Network (GSTN), the internet based software that is to keep all the tax data, with which he is registered. Every month the manufacturer pays the total tax that he has collected from his sales in accordance with the invoices he has uploaded on to the GSTN to the tax authorities. The wholesaler on his part sells the product to the retailer at Rs 120 and adds Rs 6 for GST at 5 per cent. Since he has already paid Rs 5 of the tax to the manufacturer he can claim the input tax credit from the invoice that has been uploaded onto GSTN by the manufacturer and will pay only the net GST to the tax authorities. The wholesaler too uploads the invoice onto the GSTN. The retailer sells the product for Rs 160 and adds a tax of Rs 8 at 5 per cent when selling to the consumer, who, thus, pays the full tax. The retailer too pays only the net GST to the tax authorities after uploading the invoice of sale to the consumer onto the GSTN.
In theory the manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer will all demand that not only they get tax paid invoices from their vendors but that these are also uploaded onto the GSTN and the taxes paid in time by those who sell to them because otherwise they will not be able to claim input tax credits and will have to pay the whole GST themselves. At the same time the Government benefits because the input tax credit chain ensures that each and every transaction is tracked and taxes paid on it. Not only does this broaden the indirect tax base but also by completely tracking the income and expenditure of business entities, gives the Government a correct picture of the net incomes earned by them and so increases the direct tax base considerably as incomes cannot be concealed to evade tax while at the same time by making the tax payment system more or less automatic, the indirect tax bureaucracy can be freed to monitor the direct tax system which will now be augmented due to better indirect tax reporting. More importantly by unifying the separate Central and State indirect tax systems and simplifying them, the flow of economic activities would be smoothened bringing down the overall taxation and complexities of the economic system.
However, for the input tax credit system to work smoothly it is essential that there be only one or at the most two tax rates. This is because of the fact that with multiple tax rates, there is a need to classify goods and services which are to be taxed differently and this leads to complexities in the filing of computerised returns which in turn mean that small businesses below a certain threshold of turnover have to be exempted from registering in the GSTN altogether because they will not be able to comply with the complicated procedures and a considerable number of others below a slightly higher threshold will have to be exempted from filing the returns known as GSTRs and instead will have to pay a composition tax on their total turnover. Originally as conceived there were three returns to be filed every month. GSTR1 for the previous month was to be filed first by the 10th of the following month giving the details of all the invoices of purchase and sale of various items and the taxes paid or collected on them. Once this was done then all assessees could compare their returns with those of their suppliers and buyers to see whether all the returns matched and file GSTR2 by the 20th of the month, indicating those items of return that were not matching and also getting in touch with the suppliers and customers to rectify the anomalies. Finally once all the returns were matched and the input tax credits availed, then the final return along with the tax to be paid was to be filed by the last day of the month. There was a penalty of Rs 200 per day to be paid if the returns were not filed and taxes not paid by the stipulated date.
Unfortunately, things went awry from the first month after launch itself!! The main reason was that the complicated Harmonised System of Nomenclature (HSN) used in the excise duty regime earlier was retained in the GST regime. HSN was introduced by the World Customs Organisation to have a standard format of classification for goods which are traded internationally and have different tariffs so that international trade is smooth. This was adopted by the Central Board of Customs and Excise in India both for the customs duties and the excise duties so as to harmonise both duties across different goods. However, in the new GST system, which by design has a much lesser number of taxes by categories rather than goods, this was not necessary as even if there were effectively ten different tax slabs with exemptions and cesses, instead of detailed classification of each type of good only the broad categories of taxation in which the goods fell could have been named. Similarly for services too, the Services Account Code with detailed classification of services was retained even though there were just two rates of GST for services. What this did was it complicated hugely the returns filing process as each invoice had to mention the correct HSN or SAC number of the good or service sold and the tax that had been collected on it by the vendor divided into State GST, Central GST and Interstate GST. If there was a mistake then the return would not be accepted by the GSTN and if there was an anomaly in filing between actual sale and the return, then the GSTR1 of one business would not tally with that filed by another business with which it had transacted. Moreover, since the GST was introduced hastily without proper beta testing of the GSTN software, the system had innumerable glitches and often crashed. Also due to even further complications, the electronic waybill system which was to replace the earlier system of  paper transport challans which used to be carried by the transporting vehicles was not ready due to the unpreparedness of the GSTN software. So while the earlier transport challans and border checking of transport vehicles was removed, the e-way bills and their checking through handheld devices were not operational.
Therefore, in the first month itself the three stage filing system had to be put in abeyance and in great hurry an ad hoc system of filing of a hastily devised GSTR3b was introduced in which businesses only had to file self assessed returns of the overall buying and selling they had done and not the detailed invoices with their goods and services, HSN and SAC codes, amounts and taxes and pay the net tax as calculated by the businesses on the basis of this self assessment. This ad hoc measure was necessary as otherwise taxes would not be paid since the originally designed return filing system had failed and this would greatly jeopardise the finances of the central and state governments.
The provision to exempt businesses with turnover less than Rs 20 lakhs (Rs 10 lakhs in the North East) from registering in GSTN and to exempt businesses with a turnover less than Rs 1.5 crore (Rs 75 lakhs in the North East and Himachal Pradesh) from filing the GSTRs and instead avail of the composition scheme, provided loopholes for businesses to evade taxes and these were necessitated precisely because of the bad design of the GST. Even though the introduction of the reverse charge mechanism, which required businesses registered in GST to pay the GST on behalf of their vendors who were not registered on GST, theoretically created a pressure system that would bring in smaller businesses into the tax net as they would find their business going to bigger businesses, in effect because of the badly designed GST this did not happen as the input tax chain did not take off in the first place.
Initially, there was a great rush by businesses to enroll in the GSTN and so there was a substantial increase in the number of assessees. The fear of penalty due to late filing and the hype created that the new system was foolproof and difficult to game, made businessmen who had avoided paying taxes altogether earlier to enroll in the GSTN. In fact as a consultant who often does interstate work, I too should have enrolled despite the fact that I keep my total turnover as a consultant below Rs 20 lakhs annually because the rule was that in case of interstate transactions the assessee would have to enroll in the GSTN regardless of the turnover. However, being confident that the system would collapse very soon, I did not do so!! Many of my other consultant friends did so and were soon all at sea and once enrolled they had to file returns or pay penalties. Eventually, as with the filing of GSTRs, this rule has also been relaxed and so now those with annual turnover below Rs 20 lakhs do not have to enroll in the GSTN even if they do interstate transactions.
Consequently, for the first month of July 2017 as much as Rs 92,283 crores was collected as GST, which was more than the Government's estimate that it should be 91,000 crores as calculated from the budgets of the Central and State Governments. However, since Government budget estimates are always suspect, a better way to analyse the collection is to break it down into its components. The CGST collection was Rs 14,894 crores, SGST was Rs 22,722 crores and IGST was Rs 47,469 crores. This does not constitute a rise of 22 per cent in indirect tax collection over that of July 2016 as was achieved in the earlier year. Anyway, the crooked businessmen soon cottoned on to the fact that without GSTR1, GSTR2 and GSTR3 being filed, the input chain would not work and so there was no way in which the exact transactions could be tracked. Even though there were declarations from time to time that GSTR1 would have to be filed in delayed timelines and eventually when the system became operational then all the ad hoc GSTR3bs would be tallied retrospectively with the actual GSTRs 1,2 and 3 that would be filed later, crooked businessmen began to game the system and file false GSTR3b returns less than their actual turnover. So for August 2017 the GST collections dipped to Rs 90,669 crores and after rising slightly in September 2017 to Rs 92,150 crores fell drastically for October 2017 to Rs 83,346 crores as the floodgates of evasion opened as there was no border checking of transportation and no e-waybill monitoring and so crooked businessmen began under reporting their turnover. The GST collection fell further to Rs 80,808 crores in November 2017.
This precipitate fall in GST collection was also due to a parallel reduction in taxes on various goods and services as protests against the high and often irrational and conflicting taxes gained ground. Especially so in the run up to the Gujarat assembly elections when the Government had to backtrack not only on tax rates but also on the filing of GSTR1 which was put in abeyance for the current financial year, thus completely freeing businesses from truly reporting their turnover. The Government then frantically began taking punitive measures as predictions were that there would be a considerable shortfall in tax collection if things went on like this and it increased the heat on businesses and so the GST collection for December 2017 has shown a slight increase to Rs 86,703 crores but is still highly deficient.
So the original aim of the GST is nowhere near being achieved. Since the filing of GSTR 1,2 and 3 is in abeyance and there is no border checking of transport whatsoever, massive evasion of taxes is going on. Businesses are selling without invoices and without charging taxes and so both evading GST and also by under reporting their income, evading income tax. The building shown below is the wholesale pharmaceutical market in Indore. It has been a den of corruption for long with the selling of spurious drugs and non-tax paid drugs. The building itself has been built by violating the municipal building rules in a big way.
  We source the medicines to be distributed for our reproductive health camps from this market and so I visit it frequently. Initially there was some trepidation among the traders about the impact GST would have on their illegal businesses but with time it has become business as usual with huge turnover being under reported as before. This is the case in all the wholesale markets in Indore and I suspect across the country as businessmen have gamed the system once again as they had done earlier during the demonetisation fiasco!!!
The Governments at the Centre and the States are obviously very concerned because their revenues are falling. So there are constant meetings going on to try and salvage something from this Quixotic fiasco that has severely dented Government revenue and threatens to get worse with time. But as is the ham handed norm with all government efforts, the means being suggested are going to be ineffective. What is coming out in odd statements here and there from the Government is that the returns filing system will be made simpler with the filing of just one return but the input tax chain will still be retained. Now how the input tax chain can be retained with filing just one return without first matching invoices in the preliminary returns is not being explained. Actually the only solution for salvaging the GST is to drastically cut down the number of taxes to just one or at the most two slabs and do away with the HSN and SAC altogether. Indeed if there is no HSN and SAC and the tax rates are just one or two, then invoice reporting will become very easy and can be done through a much simpler software on ordinary mobile phones in real time obviating the problem of invoices not matching greatly. So no one needs to be exempted whatsoever as even a very small business person will just have to press a few buttons on her feature phone to upload the details of the business done by her onto the GSTN. This simple system would also alleviate the woes being faced by craftsmen and small enterprises in the current system as they have suffered due to their inability to comply with the complicated return filing process.  But even though there have been recent announcements that the number of tax slabs and the rates of tax will be reduced, there has been no statement that the HSN and the SAC, which are the main culprits, will be scrapped. Possibly its only a show being put on by the Government that it wants to curb tax evasion and black money generation and it is not really interested in doing so. Otherwise it is difficult to explain this continued refusal to put a simple GST system in place that can both curb tax evasion and substantially increase both indirect and direct tax collection while bringing down the overall tax rates and complexity of doing business.
The cardinal principle of indirect taxation is that it should have ideally just one rate or at the most two, regardless of the nature of the goods and services to be taxed. This is because the moment there are multiple rates, the scope for lobbying and litigation to decide which goods and services fall in which category increases and tax administration becomes complicated and costly. Any benefits that are to be provided to any sections of the citizenry for various reasons should not be through differential indirect taxes and exemptions but through subsidies to the parties concerned. Any restrictions that have to be imposed on the sale of particular goods and services which are harmful, like cigarettes and pan masala, can be done by imposing higher income taxes on the profits of firms producing them rather than by higher separate indirect taxes on their sale which will have the same effect of pushing up the prices of these goods to discourage people from buying them. Similarly, instead of having higher taxes for luxury goods, it is better to tax the high incomes of those who buy such goods. A single rate of tax ensures that there is no market distortion and the economy functions smoothly.
What is galling is that despite the GST design and implementation completely violating the above well established principle of indirect taxation and so being a colossal failure, there is not enough criticism of it. Most independent experts are saying that there are teething problems which will be overcome with time as the system stabilises and not that there is need for a drastic redesign of the GST. Why in the first place is there a need for such revision and modification when, beginning with France in 1954, there are 160 other countries that have implemented GST before India and so there is already a wealth of evidence about what works and what doesn't that we can draw upon instead of inventing the wheel again like crooked fools.
The only person within the Government who has spoken some sense throughout is Arvind Subramanian, the Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India. From the beginning he has been saying that there should be a single revenue neutral GST tax rate of around 15-16% and he has repeated this in the recently released Annual Economic Survey. The problem with this is that he has calculated this rate on the basis of historical tax collection by the Centre and the States in a regime of massive tax evasion earlier. Also with such a high rate of taxation, many of the wage goods, which are used by the majority of the population, will have to be exempted from taxation, leading to crooked businessmen exploiting this loophole. However, if there is a low single tax rate of about 6%, then evasion will be almost completely curbed due to a foolproof input tax chain and so even on this low tax rate, overall there will be revenue neutrality or even excess of revenue may be earned on a much larger tax base. Moreover, if indirect tax evasion is curbed then the reported business incomes will increase substantially resulting in higher direct tax collections leading to greater tax buoyancy. One would have expected Subramanian to also criticise in the Economic Survey, the retention of the HSN and SAC which are the main culprits but being essentially an outsider in the cesspool that is the Ministry of Finance, he has not been able to do this. There is going to be a reduction in indirect tax collection this year due to the GST fiasco which has also severely affected small businesses and the overall employment scenario and there is no way in which the present GST can stabilise and the economy become free without a scrapping of the HSN and SAC and a drastic redesign. Yet he says the overall economic outlook is good.
Modi meanwhile in the same interview in which he has admitted to the failure of demonetisation and GST, has brushed this aside lightly, despite the grave negative effects on the economy and stated that people are selling Pakodas for a living and that should be counted as employment created by his Government!! The problem with this kind of outrageous statement is that like in the case of his tea selling earlier, pakoda selling from small road side stalls too, is in no way facilitated by the policies of the Government but are the result of its anti-people policies which lead to the informalisation of the economy and forced subsistence living by the majority, so that more and more wealth gets concentrated in the hands of a miniscule few. If pakoda selling or tea selling, for that matter, are such great professions then the question arises as to why Modi gave them up to become the Prime Minister!!! 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Close Encounters of the Gender Kind

I have been associated over a decade now with The Hunger Project (THP) which trains and guides elected women representatives (EWR) in Panchayati Raj in various states in India to enable them to effectively carry out their duties in the face of opposition from a patriarchal society. Their work is exemplary and I have attended many of their annual conferences of the EWRs of Madhya Pradesh panchayats in Bhopal. Last year in December too I attended one such conference and met some exceptional women who are quietly breaking patriarchal barriers and effectively carrying out their duties for the benefit of their community. A few years back I had done a detailed evaluation of their training programme in Madhya Pradesh and had made suggestions for improving them. One main suggestion was that the district level federation of EWRs should be made more active so that the Panchayat bureaucracy which generally stymies the efforts of the EWRs to deliver on development and services can be effectively countered. This suggestion was implemented and the results are there for all to see. One EWR, Pushpa Singh of Shahdol district who is currently a Sarpanch, said that she had been an EWR since 2005 but it was only in this term that she had come into contact with the THP and because of the training and the functioning of the Jagriti Sangathan, she had become active and effective. Another EWR, Baisakhi Markam, had used the power of the Jagriti Sangathan to put pressure on the district administration to allot house plots to landless beneficiaries of the Prime Mininster's Housing Scheme. She had thus tackled a recurrent problem in government schemes of improper planning, in this case giving housing grants to people who did not have any land on which to build the houses!!
This time the conference was organised around three main themes -
1. Tackling malnutrition, which is a serious problem in Madhya Pradesh
2. Ensuring Livelihood Security
3. Implementing Development Works
Selected Women came up to the stage and described the ways in which they had worked in their panchayats to improve matters in these three crucial areas. This included the following -
1. Identifying severely malnourished children and convincing their parents to take them to the nutrition rehabilitation centres for extended stays of two weeks and the planting of kitchen gardens to improve the availability of vegetables.
2. The implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme which is facing serious problems of shortage of fund allocation.
3. Improving the functioning of the Public Distribution System
4. Improving the functioning of the National Rural Livelihood Mission which involves the generation of incomes through self help groups.
5. Implementation of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana for providing housing to all people who are below the poverty line.
6. Implementation of well irrigation schemes.
The EWRs said that their strength has been considerably enhanced by their federation, the Jagriti Sangathan, which enables them to put their problems before the Block Level and District Level officials and also the members of the legislature and the parliament. They said that as individual EWRs they did not carry much clout but when they went as a group under the banner of the Jagriti Sangathan, then they were able to get their work done. One lady from Balaghat district, Ramkali Sanjam, who is a Sarpanch or head of the Panchayat, has been especially enterprising and it was a treat to listen to her. She is the lady sitting in the front row to the left. The banners on display are that of the Jagriti woman EWR Sangathan and the name of the conference - The Flight of Confidence.
Ramkali said she had formed twelve self help groups which were making the midday meals for supply to schools and anganwadis or creches and these were functioning properly resulting in both nutrition for the children and income for the women members of the groups. She as the chairperson of the Block Level Jagriti Sangathan had used this position to get these groups sanctioned by speaking to the Chief Executive Officer of the Janpad or Block Level Panchayat. She had also sourced high quality seeds of potatoes and turmeric and provided them to the members of the self help groups to help them to produce high value crops on their farms. Considerable employment had been generated within the Panchayat through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and this had curbed migration from her Panchayat. Finally and most importantly she had taken advantage of the Government scheme for subsidised solar energy pumps and by lobbying with the District Collector, sanctioned a hundred such pumps for farmers in the Block. This last is an exceptional achievement, because it is generally difficult to get solar pumps installed given the lethargy of the bureaucracy at the district and lower levels in this regard despite the push for renewable energy from the Central Government.
The affirmative action that has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the posts in Panchayats and urban local bodies are occupied by women has not realised its full potential because in many cases these women are just proxies with their male kin actually exercising the powers. Thus, the THP, by training hundreds of EWRs throughout the country and also organising them in federations to leverage their combined strength has been doing great work in breaking patriarchal barriers to women's involvement in development and politics in this country.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

In Search of Gram Swaraj

I had never attended a meeting of the Sahariya Adivasis who reside in parts of southern Rajasthan and northern Madhya Pradesh despite having visited their habitats on quite a few occasions. Finally, I had the opportunity to do so last month. The Sahariyas are classified by the Government of India as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) a category consisting of 75 tribes across the country which have very low development indices and are excessively marginalised from the mainstream. Other tribes dominate over these PVTGs and so they are not able to avail of the benefits of affirmative action for tribes under the provisions of the Constitution. Like other Adivasis, the Sahariyas too have a very strong culture of folk songs and dance which they enjoy especially during their festivals as shown below

The Ekta Parishad has been working for close to two and a half decades now in the districts of Morena, Sheopur, Shivpuri, Bhind and Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh and Kota and Baran in Rajasthan for the rights of the Sahariyas, especially their land rights, which have been alienated by non-tribes and the Government . The Shahpur block of Baran district is one area in which there is a heavy concentration of Sahariyas. This is where I spent a night with activists and members of the Ekta Parishad.
I learnt that a new initiative had begun in the area. Ravi Badri, a computer scientist, who has become a full time activist of the Ekta Parishad for some years now has been working in the Shahpur area. Earlier there was a funded project for rights based mobilisation in the area but it wound up a couple of years ago. Since then Ravi has been exploring the possibilities of self funded and self motivated mobilisation by the Sahariyas instead of external funded and externally motivated mobilisation. The modus operandi is to organise meetings of the Sahariyas in their villages to discuss their problems and try and find solutions to them. In one such meeting the discussion veered round to the traditional modes of organisation of the Sahariyas which pre-dated the present election based panchayat system at the village level. This revealed that there is indeed an indigenous organisation of the Sahariyas. According to Ravi, the traditional governance system of Sahariyas is a tiered system with the Chourasi or organisation of 84 villages being the highest and the Patel orPradhan or Barhai being the representative at the village level. Between these two are the Barhavi, Chaubeesivi and Adtaleesvi  at the 12, 24 and 48 village levels.
These traditional organisations govern cultural matters of the Sahariyas mainly related to marriages, rites of passage and religious celebrations. They have considerable powers too, as they can ostracise people who do not follow the social norms of the Sahariyas with respect to marriages, rites of passage and religious celebrations. Each village has a Patel who is the cultural leader and the Patels of 84 villages together make up the Chourasi. But these organisations were not involved in regulating the socio-economic matters of the Sahariyas which had become the domain of the elected panchayats and so a part of the mainstream political, administrative and economic systems.
The discussions of the Sahariyas then turned to whether the traditional organisations could not be made to intervene in socio-economic matters as well for the development of the Sahariyas as a whole. The members felt that this could be done and they decided to tackle the problem of alcoholism which had laid the Sahariyas low by affecting their health and so the capacity to work and earn and also increasing their expenditures.The first call for community action against alcohol was at a Barhavi called for the purpose. Even though it was intended to be a 12-village meeting, about 35 villages participated in the meeting. The community passed its resolution against alcoholism through a panchnama that was circulated to all the villages with the penalty of ostracism to be given to those who disobeyed. The panchama is also the document used for calling a meeting. The beauty of the system is that when a traditional panchayat is called, anyone from the invited villages can attend, everyone sits on the same plane, the patels, pradhans and some prominent members of the community like incumbent and ex-sarpanches are extended a formal welcome through a tika and it is a flat meeting without any 'expert' speakers. Anyone can speak their minds at these gatherings. Women do not traditionally participate but Ravi and his colleagues are making efforts to bring their inclusion at these meetings.
This intervention by the traditional organisation of the Sahariyas in preventing alcoholism turned out to be a roaring success as people took it seriously and closed down the liquor vends in their villages and also kept tabs on people who were going to the market towns to drink. This also sparked off a spate of meetings of the Barahvi level in village after village in which nearby villages were invited for night long meetings after a community dinner to sustain the momentum and take the movement forward. It was to one of these village meetings that I went along with Ravi Badri of the Ekta Parishad.
The meeting started off with the singing of a paean to a Saharia Goddess and then Patels and others from the various villages attending the meeting came up and spoke about the way the liquor ban was being enforced. Later the meeting began considering other agenda that the
Chourasi could take up like forest, soil and water conservation. While the anti-liquor agenda was one that the people themselves had chosen, the forest, soil and water conservation agenda was being pushed by Ravi Badri to try and give a more lasting basis to the socio-economic intervention of the Sahariyas.
This took me back to our own efforts at initiating anti-liquor movements and also forest, soil and water conservation efforts in the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath. The former took off with great gusto and spread to a large set of villages but after some time they died down as people went back to selling and drinking liquor. The latter happened at a more sedate pace and in a much lesser number of villages but had a more lasting impact and are still in existence. One does not know how the efforts of the Sahariyas and the Ekta Parishad will fare in the long run but there is always difficulty in sustaining social movements in the face of the onslaught of capitalism which continuously tries to atomise society to push its wares and especially liquor which not only brings in the moolah but also prevents people from organising to protest against the depredations of capitalist development.
Another thing of note is that the idiom of the mobilisation of the Sahariyas was more religio-cultural than politico-economic. Our experience in the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath has been that it is very difficult to synthesise religio-cultural and politico-economic idioms in mass mobilisation. While using the religio-cultural idiom we used to always stress on the primacy of the politico-economic but in the end we could not sustain the movement at the peak levels of mobilisation that it reached at one point of time.
Finally there is always the important question of resource mobilisation. The KMCS could not mobilise enough resources from the people and eventually had to rely increasingly on outside resources which led to a distortion in the democratic functioning of the organisation. It remains to be seen how well the Sahariyas are able to mobilise resources to maintain the independence and the direct democracy of their traditional organisation and make it an effective governance system for the conduct of the politico-economic affairs of their community and establish Gram Swaraj.
Anyway one is always enthused by efforts at establishing direct democracy and it is indeed welcome that such efforts surface continually in various corners of this country despite the overwhelming dominance of the mainstream politico-economic system.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Beauty and Functionality of Kaash

The grass Kaash (Saccharum spontaneum) is a common sight at this time of year throughout the country and because of its white flowers it provides a scenic beauty to the landscape. It is also used to make brooms and mats. One of the first things that Subhadra did after she got her farm in Pandutalav village two years ago is to plant this grass on the hilly parts and the border bunds. This year there has been a profusion of this grass and so Subhadra has  happily made brooms from the grass to serve our purpose for the whole year both in Indore and the farm.

 The process is quite laborious beginning with the cutting of the grass and then separation of the thinner and the thicker parts of the stem which are used to make two different kinds of brooms - one for light brooming and the other for heavy brooming. Then these stems have to be woven together to form a long piece.
 Finally the long piece has to be folded around itself and tied to form the broom and then trimmed at the edges.

With time the availability of ready made brooms in the market has led to the use of kaash brooms dying down even in rural areas though mats made of kaash are still used and also sold in the market.
Kaash flowers because of their scenic beauty have been a part of art, literature and film also. The most famous use of kaash flowers in film is the scene from Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali" where the young girl and boy are enjoying themselves in fields among Kaash flowers far from their home. They first see for the first time the high tension electricity lines and then the passing of a train in an enjoyable serendipitous encounter with the modern to give them some relief from their poverty stricken village life. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, the author of the lyrical Bengali novel on which the film is based has termed this poetically as the joy of the unknown. More than half a century after this scene was filmed, acclaimed for the symbolism in it of the encounter between the traditional and the modern, one is left wondering whether that encounter has indeed been a happy one!!