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, August 22, 2016


1. Rationale for Tribal Development
Tribal Development in India has been problematical from the time of independence. This has been due to a conflicting situation arising from the opposition between the traditional community based subsistence economy of the tribals and the modern market based growth oriented thrust of the mainstream economy. The challenge has been to integrate the tribals into the modern economy in a manner that was beneficial to them. This has generally not been possible because the tribals have lacked the requisite skills for this and the government system for equipping them with these skills has malfunctioned. Moreover, in order to save on the costs associated with modern development the tribals have often not been recompensed and rehabilitated properly for the displacement that they have had to face as resources have been extracted from their traditional habitats.
Not surprisingly this has led to dissatisfaction on the part of the tribals and its expression as outright political revolt and a further destruction of the natural resource base. The negative outcome of this is instability in tribal areas and a big loss to the nation in terms of natural resources destroyed. Thus, tribal development is necessary for social justice, political stability, economic redistribution and environmental sustainability. How is this to be achieved and what will be the gains? The answer is –
  1. Decentralised and local community controlled development has been acknowledged as a major desideratum for tackling tribal deprivation (Sharma, 2001).
  2. With the award of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences to Elinor Ostrom in 2009, it has come to be acknowledged that collective action is the best option for the management of common pool resources (Ostrom, 1990).
  3. The benefits accruing in terms of mitigation of climate change from such communitarian natural resource management in rural areas compensates for the emissions from the urban and industrial areas which cannot be totally nullified (International Institute of Sustainable Development et al. 2003).
2. Need for NGO intervention
However, the tribals being mostly illiterate and economically poor lack the capacity to counter the atomising influence of the centralised governance apparatus that tends to increase their deprivation through acts of omission and commission as we have seen. Consequently they need to be guided in their attempts to secure justice and development by trained social workers who can formulate appropriate strategies and supervise their implementation.  Thus, NGOs have to put in efforts along with the tribals to ensure collective action. One such NGO is the Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra and its sister organisation the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath which have been operating among Bhil Tribals in the district of Alirajpur in Madhya Pradesh since 1987. The organisation has promoted community based soil, water and forest conservation among the Bhil tribals resulting in augmentation of the natural resource base in 12 watersheds in the district. In the process 5000 hectares of land has been treated with a voluntary contribution of labour of 15,00,000 human days over a twenty five year period. Over the past three years the organisation has stepped up the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme by putting pressure on the government bureaucracy to provide employment on demand to the people. The practice of the bureaucracy is to discourage people from demanding work and then they provide work at their own whim and fancy. The Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra has mobilised the people to demand work formally and then pushed the administration to provide the work demanded which is much more than would have happened in the normal course of things. Thus, now thousands of more humandays are being invested in natural resource conservation.
3. Importance of Quantification and Systematisation
Just effecting mitigation of climate change and improvement of livelihoods is not enough as the gains must be scientifically quantified. Some of the work done thus far has been documented by the organisation as in the work in the Attha watershed (Banerjee, 2010). However, this documentation is only of the amount of work done and the increase in forest cover, irrigation and soil depth. For systematic quantification detailed measurment of the livelihood situation and the soil, water and forest resources is necessary both at the beginning of the intervention and at the later stages(Tiwari et al, 2011).  The need for rigorous quantification also arises because these eco-system services, as they are called, do not enter the market and so are not automatically valued in the economy in money terms like other services that are marketed (Behera et al, 2011).  However, given the importance of such services in the present global context of climate change, there are policy measures being adopted to pay the people, especially tribals and among them women who render such services. Consequently, a new organisation Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti (The Society for Respect for Women and the Earth) has now been set up to specifically work on gender and environmental issues in a focused manner. Undre this a Climate Change Mitigation Centre has been set up in one village, Pandutalav, in Dewas district, to systematise the work in the spheres of livelihood enhancement, eco-system services and gender equity leading to climate change mitigation. The schematic representation of the work of this centre is shown below.
4. Agro-processing, Marketing and Credit Support
Given the low per household private and common land availability in tribal areas, even after the best forest, soil and water conservation work cannot ensure sustainability of livelihoods without added incomes from value addition in agro-processing and subsequent marketing (Banerjee, 2003). This requires cheap and easy access to capital and credit support which is rarely available from institutionalised sources. That is why there is a need to initiate thrift and savings groups among tribals and link them with banks for leveraging their meagre savings for greater capital and credit support. Various cooperative value addition and marketing methodologies can then be explored to diversify the household income base. An added advantage of this is that the women can be made the main actors in these programmes leading to women's empowerment and greater gender equity.
5. Watershed Plus Pilot
The above scheme of systematic livelihood augmentation and climate change mitigation combined with agro-processing has first to be tried out as a pilot in one watershed. Experience of decentralised watershed management has shown that the optimal size for this is a milliwatershed defined as being of size between 1000-10000 ha area (Tideman, 1996). The process of climate change mitigation and livelihood augmentation has to start with a rigorous baseline survey of the watershed to determine its present characteristics. Once this is done, this data can then be used to design the detailed interventions required and the time frame in which they have to be made. The villagers and especially the youth will have to be involved in this baseline data collection. Apart from this the data regarding the geo-hydrological status of the underlying rock structure will have to be collected with the help of a geo-hydrologist. Remote sensed images of the watershed will also have to be studied. Once all the data has been digitised and analysed it can be entered into a GIS and superimposed on a remote sensed image of the watershed for further analysis. On the basis of this a detailed intervention plan can be drawn up involving soil, water and forest conservation measures, changes in agricultural practices, generation of renewable energy, micro-credit programmes, gender sensitisation, processing and marketing of farm produce and primary health services.
5. Resources Required
The village level data collection and data entry should cost about Rs 2,00,000. The geo-hydological survey in a remote area could cost Rs 1,00,000. The GIS analysis and plan preparation including detailed design of conservation structures will cost about Rs 2,00,000 including the purchase of remote sensed images. Another Rs 1,00,000 would be required as administrative, travel and coordination costs. The total baseline survey and project planning cost is thus Rs 6,00,000. The rule of thumb climate mitigation costs in hilly terrain are about Rs 15000 per hectare and so for a watershed of about 1000 hectares the cost would come to Rs 1.5 crore over a period of about five years. Another Rs 0.5 crore would be required to implement the renewable energy component for a total investment of Rs 2 crores. Thus, the total baseline survey and project planning cost is around 3% of the total project implementation cost.  A rigorous plan developed along the lines described above is a must as it would be able to quantify in monetary terms the benefits that are to accrue from eco-system services offered and thus justify the investment in the watershed. Moreover, as explained earlier, systematic quantification is also necessary for establishing the project as an example to be replicated.
Banerjee, R . Status of Informal Rural Financial Markets in Adivasi Dominated Regions of Western Madhya Pradesh, Working Paper No. 2. Mumbai. Department of Economic Analysis and Research, National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, 2003.
Banerjee, R. The Importance of Activist Mediated Collective Action for Tribal Development. Delhi. Indian Statistical Institute, 2010 (
Behera, B., Mishra, P. & Nayak, N.C. Payments for Environmental Services: Issues and Implications for India. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLVI No.20.
International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), International Union for Conservation of Nature andNatural Resources (IUCN) and Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). Livelihoods and Climate Change: Combining Disaster Risk Reduction, Natural Resource Management and Climate Change Adaptation in a New Approach to the Reduction of Vulnerability and Poverty, Canada: International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2003.
Ostrom, E. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1990.
Sharma, B. D. Tribal Affairs in India: The Crucial Transition. Delhi: Sahayog Pustak Kutir Trust, 2001.
Tideman, E. M. Watershed Management: Guidelines for Indian Conditions. Delhi. Omega Scientific Publishers. 1996.
Tiwari, R.,Somasekhar, H.I., Ramakrishna Parama, V.R., Murthy, I.M., Mohan Kumar, M.S., Mohan Kumar, B.K., Parate, H., Varma, M., Malaviya, S., Rao, A.S., Sengupta, A., Kattumuri, R. & Ravindranath, N.H. MGNREGA for Environmental Service Enhancement and Vulnerability Reduction: Rapid Appraisal in Chitradurga District, Karnataka. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLVI No. 20.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Biodiverse Agriculture

Subhadra bought about an acre of land last year in Pandutalav village in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh with the idea of pursuing bio-diverse agriculture. The land has a hilly portion and a plain portion. The hilly portion was cut a little bit and the excavated soil was used to level the plain portion further including filling up a gully that was there in it. Then fertile soil from a tank nearby was transported to the plain portion to level it further. Stone bunds were placed on the edges of the land to ensure that all water remained in the farm. Biodiverse farming involves not only sowing a variety of crops but also having forested land nearby for a variety of trees, shrubs and grasses to produce enough bio mass for mulching. There are close to thirty different types of cereals, pulses, oilseeds and vegetables on this small farm and the first crop that will ripen in another ten days or so is rala or fox tail millet as shown below.
The Bhil Adivasis tradtionally had bio-diverse farming and so some part of the harvest would always come in regardless of whether there was more or less rainfall. There were also forests nearby which provided the mulch and the bacteria to enrich the soil. The aim was to produce for subsistence rather than for the market taking only so much from nature as they could give back to it. However, with aggressive promotion of chemical mono crop agriculture the traditional system is in decay. Nothing can exemplify this more than the fate of Aapsingh and Dunibai of Kanad village. Buoyed up by the high prices they received in 2014 for a few quintals of onion that they had grown that year, they decided to sow onions on as much as 5 acres in 2015. Other farmers too across the onion belt of Madhya Pradesh did the same. So when the onions were finally harvested there was a glut in the market and the price of onions came crashing down to just 25 paise a kilo. Aapsingh and Dunibai had already spent some fifty thousand rupees on the cultivation of onions and had a bumper crop of 40 quintals of onions which at the 2014 prices would have fetched them rupees one lakh sixty thousand which would have been a handsome profit. But since the prices had crashed in 2016 they would not even recover the transport cost of taking the onions to the market. They did not have the money to put their harvest in a cold storage and wait for the prices to rise again like some of the richer farmers were doing. Then their youngest son who is studying to be an industrial engineer hit upon an idea to create an aeration system to keep the onions from rotting in their home and two of his older sons who are employed in the army and the police agreed to fund this idea and so they have implemented an innovative onion storage system. This involves putting in a drum with perforations in the middle of the onions and driving air through the drum into the onions with a heavy duty fan. The picture below shows Dunibai alongside this aeration system installed in their house full of onions.
The whole house is smelling of onions and Aapsingh jokingly says that they have become onions themselves in the process. Whether Aapsingh's gamble will pay off or not depends on how the harvest will be in Maharashtra this year. If the harvest creates a glut once again, then the price of onions will remain subdued and eventually Aapsingh will be forced to throw away his onions despite his heroic efforts to salvage something from them. Aapsingh and Dunibai have been able to bear their travails with smiles because they have two sons in well paying Government service as otherwise they would have been on the verge of committing suicide.
Thus, for biodiverse organic agriculture to make a come back, there has to be a drastic change in agricultural policy providing support to it instead of chemical monocultures as at present.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Women Who Need No Protection

Today is Rakhee, a festival of the Hindus in which women tie rakhees on the wrists of their brothers asking them to protect them in times of trouble. However, in recent times women have become quite capable of protecting themselves and taking a lead in economic, social and political matters. Especially so since the passage of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, 1992 in India mandated one-third reservation for women in the three tiers of the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) which has since been hiked to 50 per cent. Women have overcome adverse societal structures such as, gender discrimination, caste dynamics, low literacy and patriarchy, amongst others and become politically empowered as a consequence of this opportunity that they have got.  However, this process is not smooth and it also requires training of the women. There are many organisations engaged in providing training to the elected women representatives (EWR) of PRIs to overcome the challenges that face them in the performance of their duties. The Hunger Project India (THP) is one of them. It  aims to "strengthen the role of elected women representatives in grassroots’ governance so that they are able to exercise leadership within their constituencies and practice gender responsive governance and transformative leadership based on the principles of human rights and social justice".
Despite over two and a half decades having elapsed since the passage of the constitutional amendment there are very few large scale impact assessment studies of the performance of the EWRs. I had the privilege of being associated with one such study commissioned by THP where I designed the assessment and did the analysis and report writing - "The aim of this outcome assessment study, has been to measure key capacities like the leadership of the EWRs, gained by the training and capacity building provided by THP, through the five years of their tenure. The study, has been conducted in the state of Madhya Pradesh, one of the seven working areas of THP that received consistent funding from 2009-2014.The logic underpinning this assessment is that the increased capacities of the EWRs as a result of the trainings received from THP should help them in performing effectively within their constituencies. In-depth interviews have been conducted with EWRs, who have been active members of THP’s intervention through the entire project cycle. One of the major contributions of the study has been the designing of a multi-dimensional Composite Capacity Index (CCI) that measures the capacities of EWRs, in the five domains of leadership abilities, confidence, status in households, knowledge regarding their roles and responsibilities and issues that they have taken up in the tenure. Along with that, the study also analyses the performance of the EWRs in terms of the benefits secured by them in their respective constituencies. A control group of EWRs have been selected for the purpose of the study to compare the performance of THP trained EWRs, in these aspects. Finally, the study also calculates a Return of Investment from the trainings conducted by THP in the state, through the entire election cycle".
 The study shows that the comparative performance of the THP trained EWRs with the control group provides evidence of the fact that training and capacity building form an important part of the functioning of the PRI representatives. With the training that is disseminated by THP through the entire five year tenure, the THP trained EWRs not only report higher values of capacity indices but also have benefited a larger percentage of households within their constituencies. Thus, not only have the women demonstrated enhanced leadership qualities, but also have been able to channelise these abilities towards the empowerment of the community. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Farmer's Independence from the Market

We in India are celebrating our seventieth independence day but the biggest producing community of people in this country, farmers, are woefully imprisoned by market economics and faulty science and technology and no one really seems to be bothered. One of the most heart rending sights for me in recent times was this photo of onions thrown on the road in front of the District Magistrate's office in Indore by farmers who were angry with the fact that their wholesale price had dropped to just 25 paise a kilo.

Why did the prices go down so much? Because those who are supposed to plan our agricultural production and draw hefty salaries for doing so are both incompetent and corrupt. Onion is a major component of Indian cuisine and even the poorest of the poor like to have it in their meals as both a part of the cooked dishes and as a raw salad. Thus, even if there is a small short fall in its supply prices tend to shoot up as there are major traders who hoard supplies of onions in cold storages waiting for such an opportunity. The biggest onion producing area in this country is around Nashik in Maharashtra. Over the years whenever there has been a shortfall in production in the Nashik area due to excessive or deficient rains, the price of onions, spurred on by speculation and hoarding, have tended to go through the roof, prompting the Government to take emergency steps like importing onions from abroad and raiding the traders to relieve them of their hoards. In 2014 there was a fall in production of onions in the Nashik region and this was immediately manipulated by the traders through hoarding and speculation to hike up prices. The farmers did not get any of these high prices as all of it was cornered by the intermediary traders. These days through the online trading of agricultural produce the manipulation of prices and the movement of hoarded stocks has become easier. The Government belatedly stepped into the scene to try and control prices by raiding the traders hoards and importing onions but the time lag was enough to send the prices of onions shooting through the roof. Even though shortfall in production over the previous year was just 2 per cent this was against the trend of annual increase in production of about 20 per cent over the past three years or so. Thus, the market expected a similar growth and so the shortfall from expectations was close to 22 per cent and that was a big gap which the hoarders and speculators could exploit. The onion trade is dominated by a few big traders who control the market and the cold storages. Matters are compounded by the fact that storage of onion requires special facilities like cold storages which are accessible only to the big players and not to most of the farmers. Indeed there is a dire need to have decentralised storage options for perishable food items as close Rs 100000 crores of food output is lost every year due to lack of proper storage. So there is a high post harvest loss for the farmers if they cannot sell their harvest in time. Over the past three years or so the traders have been manipulating prices of onions upwards by controlling the storage and despite several investigations, most importantly by the Competition Commission of India having established this, no action has been taken by the Government against this manipulation which has hurt consumers.
This continuous hike in prices of onions over the past few years had a time lag effect on the farmers and they responded by sowing onions in large numbers in 2015 unaware that the hike in prices was a manipulated rise. A bumper crop followed with an increase of about 25 per cent over the 2014 production and this time the big traders allowed the prices to crash instead of buying up the produce and so there were huge unsold onions in the agricultural whole sale markets. Farmers who had been fooled by the big market players let the onions rot in their fields as it was uneconomical even to harvest them and some of the more organised farmers took out rallies and dumped the onions on the roads venting their anger on the Government not being able to understand the market forces at play.
It is indeed perplexing that the Government agencies tasked with regulating the production and marketing of food items can be so cavalier in their job. Food items cut both ways in the Indian economy as higher prices for them lead to inflation which hurts the majority of the poor and lower prices hurts farming which is the biggest employment provider. One would have thought that there would be advance planning in the agriculture department of the government to ensure that agricultural production and marketing of crucial price sensitive food items like pulses, onions and vegetables remain stable so that both farmers and consumers are not hurt. But this is just not happening as the Government fumbles from one crisis to another and farmers remain prisoners of the manipulations of big market players. For instance it was clear many months before that there would be a bumper onion crop because farmers in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra had increased the acreage under the crop but there was no plan on the part of the government to prepare for this. Similarly, it has been a few years now that there is an increasing shortage of pulses vis a vis demand and yet the government has not been able to take steps to increase pulses production primarily because various trading lobbies are bent on capitalising on the shortages. Food production in this country has to be made independent of the market through government support because it is the mainstay of the livelihoods of a majority of the population and also it happens to be the determinant of the level of nutrition of the population. Remunerative prices to farmers have to be cushioned by subsidised food to the consumers. Matters have been compounded by the increasing failure of chemical external input agriculture which now dominates the farming landscape and is devastating the economics of food production and the availability of a diverse food basket. The key is to switch to organic diverse and local food production through appropriate subsidies and the strict control of markets and storages to ensure that hoarding and speculation does not take place. We won't have true independence as long as the big traders are free to manipulate agricultural markets. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Internet comes to Kakrana

The Digital India Campaign is another of Prime Minister Modi's pet projects. There is a lot of talk of laying optical fibre right up to each and every village in this country and providing country wide high speed internet access. Like much else, in this too there is more rhetoric than actual implementation, primarily because there isn't enough money to back up the loud mouthed announcements!!! For the past one and a half years or so we had been trying to get the internet to the Rani Kajal Jeevanshala (RKJ) school in Kakrana on the banks of the River Narmada in Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh without much success. Here is the detailed story of how we have now finally succeeded which tells a lot about what is wrong with this country!!
Let alone being connected with optic fibre, Kakrana does not have wireless connectivity also. The nearest mobile telephony tower is at a distance of 7 kms over hill and down dale. Thus, mobile phones don't work in Kakrana unless one climbs up on the hills. While most of the school buildings are in the valley below, there is one high hill about 30 meters in height within the campus of the RKJ. So whenever people have to communicate they climb up this hill with their mobiles. Smartphones can also receive a weak data signal of about 10 kilobites per second for checking emails at the most on this hill top. Since internet connectivity is so important in today's world and especially for a school for Adivasi children, initially a tent was set up on this hill to see if a laptop connected to a dongle wouldn't make possible some rudimentary emailing as shown below.
However, with a laptop the emailing did not take place smoothly mainly because the standard email providers like gmail and yahoo pack in a lot of advertisements with pictures which are too heavy for the very low speeds. When the emails are opened in smartphones then these advertisements are not there and so it is easier to access them at low speeds. So we began searching for alternatives. One was to go in for satellite internet but this had to be immediately rejected because it is very expensive. An attempt was made to get our research work on ecology in the school certified as a scientific activity so as to access free satellite internet through the ERNET facility of the government under the aegis of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. However, that did not materialise because NGOs are not eligible even if they are working under the aegis of a premier national research institute.
Looking around for solutions we came upon the wireless hop technology. This essentially meant using radio waves to transport data from the nearest point of good broadband optical fibre data connectivity in Kukshi some 35 kilometers away, straight as the crow flies, to Kakrana. The problem with this was that due to intervening hills there would have to be two repeaters on top of these hills between Kukshi and Kakrana. Setting up these repeaters and then ensuring their safety were both a cost and logistics issue. I went to see one such set up in Kodaicanal in the Nilgiri hills in Tamil Nadu to see how it works and the day I landed up it wasn't working because one of the repeaters had malfunctioned. This meant that someone would have to be sent to physically investigate the problem and set it right. Moreover, the software that has to be used for running this system is highly complicated and requires a fair level of computing skill which is not there in Kakrana. There are also some commercial operations in wireless hopping like Air Jaldi which is providing internet connectivity in the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand but they said that they could make an economically viable foray in Kakrana only if there was a substantial customer base prepared to pay for the service. So that option also fizzled out as the Bhils of the area around the school living at subsistence levels were unlikely to pay for internet service!! Indeed Air Jaldi has been stymied in its attempts to expand its base in the Himalayas precisely because it isn't getting enough paying customers.
Just when we thought that there was no solution I saw a Facebook post by Arjun Venkatraman of the Mojolab Foundation about a pilot he was setting up in a rural area of Karnataka with the wireless mesh technology. This involved setting up a local area network (LAN) with wireless routers with one of the routers having internet connectivity which he calls the community owned wireless mesh or COWMesh. This can work only if there are a number of enthusiastic participants in the community who are interested in keeping the mesh active and running. Arjun combines the COWMesh with Datamuling. Since in remote locations internet speeds are abysmally low it is not possible to do much more than emailing and that too through a client that edits out all the advertising that has heavy data. So educational content has to be downloaded at locations where data is cheap like in the Metros, put into hard disks and then transported by rail or road to remote locations where they can they be fed into the COWMesh for sharing on the LAN. On our invitation Arjun came down to Kakrana in April with a demonstration set of wireless routers and a raspberry pi which is a rudimentary computer which acts as the e-mail server when a dongle is connected to it. The e-mail server and one router was put on top of the hill and the other router was put at the bottom in the office and it gave the WiFi signals which then allowed other devices to access the internet. The first ever email from the office of RKJ was sent and it even had attached photographs. So finally a solution had been found and it was decided that Arjun would prepare a system for RKJ and set it up. Arjun did not charge for his expertise as he is funded by the Ashoka Foundation as a fellow to use innovative technology to spread internet and mobile connectivity in rural areas and he charged only for his travel and the cost of equipment which totally came to about Rs 40,000 which is a steal.
However, there were more problems to be overcome. Like most other high tech electronic equipment there is constant innovation in wireless routers also. Therefore, when the new routers arrived Arjun found that their hardware and software had both been changed in such a way that it was not possible to put into them the open source software that Arjun and some other wireless connectivity experts had developed for the COWMesh. He tried to hack in and change the configuration but this blocked the routers altogether as they had been password protected. Basically, the router manufacturer was trying to ensure that only their proprietary software would be used and open source configurations could not be superimposed. Then issued a lengthy email battle trying to get the manufacturer to replace the routers. It appears that the password lock had been so designed that even the manufacturer could not restore the software onto the routers once the router was locked!! Anyway, after much argumentation, the manufacturer replaced the routers with a new set. Arjun then prepared a COWMesh software that would sit over the routers in the raspberry pi.
Last week he came down to Kakrana with the modified system and then began the process of setting it up. LAN cables were required to connect the various parts of the system. These cables cost Rs 150 per metre mainly because of the expertise of crimping the connectors at the end which has to be done properly. However, Arjun had other ideas as he bought the cable at Rs 7 per metre and the connectors at Rs 3 each separately and a crimping tool. He taught Gulab and Dhani, the two operations and maintenance people at RKJ, to crimp the connectors on to the cable as shown below and so we had LAN cables at Rs 15 per metre!!

The routers had to be set up on pipes and covered with buckets to ensure that they were not affected by rain and sun. This fabrication work too was done by the duo of Gulab and Dhani as shown below using PVC water pipes and connections.
Finally one router along with the server had to be put on top of the water supply tank that had been built on top of the hill to get the mobile signal as shown below. The server construction involved some more local innovation as it was housed in a steel box which is sturdy enough to withstand both the sun and the rain. The lid is shown open in the picture to show the raspberry pie and dongle but it is actually kept closed.
The power supply is provided through an UPS and inverter. However, since this can provide a back up of about 8 hours only and sometimes the grid power outage in Kakrana is for much more than that, the next step is to put in a hybrid grid cum solar power unit that can power the whole IT set up in Kakrana involving the server, routers, laptop and printer. The COWmesh is now up and running and for the first time many teachers and students in Kakrana have sent and received their first emails. Once it was clear in April that sooner or later the COWmesh would be up in Kakrana, over the past two months a huge amount of educational content has been downloaded in Indore and transported by hard disk to Kakrana. So now regularly this content is shared on the COWmesh and the children get to see educational videos through a projector every evening. Since, the assembly of the COWmesh and its running have now been perfected by the staff of RKJ, they can easily set up other such meshes anywhere in the country. The Mojolab Foundation will provide the software and the hardware and RKJ will do the installation and set up. In future the COWMesh can be extended to the villagers in Kakrana also and they too can watch the educational content on their TVs if they are ready to pay the nominal price of running the system.
While at the community level the solution has been found and that too extremely cheaply and in the process the people have been technologically empowered, the problem of low speed of wireless internet connectivity in rural areas remains. It would be educative to go into the reason why this is so. The main reason is the adverse economics of mobile towers. It takes Rs 40 Lakhs to set up a mobile tower. In rural areas the grid electricity supply is unreliable and so the towers have to be powered by diesel generators. If good data speeds are to be provided then the towers have to be powered much more than just for voice connectivity and this will require a higher expenditure on diesel. The demand in rural areas is mostly for voice, that is, people are prepared to pay for voice and not for data. Therefore, to earn profits after having made huge investments in buying spectrum, the telecom companies first economise on building towers and then economise on the diesel for running those towers by under powering them and that is why in Kakrana the average data speed is only about 10 kbps. Clearly, the telecom companies including the Government owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited are not going to improve wireless data connectivity unless they are given a huge subsidy to do so. Similarly the Bharat Broadband Nigam Limited which is tasked with providing optic fibre connectivity to rural areas is also unlikely to do so unless there is a huge subsidy for the capital and operational costs as poor people in rural areas are unlikely to bear this cost. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has initiated a public consultation on a new Public Wifi policy for spreading internet use but it does not adequately define public Wifi to include community meshes like the one set up in RKJ. Neither is there any support in terms of reducing duties on imported equipment necessary for setting up such networks. Presently community networks for sharing of content or accessing the internet can be set up without any regulatory permissions but if such permissions become mandatory in future then it will only make the task of digitising India that much more difficult as it is inconceivable that communities will be able to go through the application process for such permissions without costly mediation by legal experts.
There is still a problem that cannot be immediately solved because of a regulatory hurdle. Voice telephony cannot be transferred in real time from the top of the hill to the school below through a gateway even though it is technologically possible because of a legal ban. So what is being done as a next step in Kakrana is that a voice mail box system is being installed which will allow exchange of voice messages through a gateway with a time lag but won't allow real time conversations.
All this just shows that the Government in this country does not back up its rhetoric with regard to digitising India with adequate policy and financial support to really reach the internet to the poor. After all, after having earned huge sums of money by selling spectrum to the Telcos, it is surely obliged to spend some of that money to digitise India. But that is a distant dream.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Crusader Gets Due Recognition

The Magsaysay Award for Bezwada Wilson is a well deserved recognition for the leader of one of the most dour battles being fought in this deeply caste ridden country of ours. Wilson, the son of manual scavenging parents who were forced to handle human faeces either from dry latrines or from sewers for a living, has fought a life long battle to get this abominable practice banished. He has not rested with just mass struggle and policy advocacy but has also taken the biggest institutional violator of the law against manual scavenging, the Indian Railways, to court. Apart from the Indian Railways all municipalities which have sewers, mostly the bigger cities, too, are guilty of violating the law as these sewers are routinely cleaned up by men and women who have to descend into them despite the fact that this can be done by machines. Wilson continues undeterred in his lonely struggle for the ending of this vile practice with his organisation the Safai Karmachari Andolan.

The guts of Wilson were evident when immediately after the award being announced he launched a broadside against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying that he broomed the street for just two minutes and ordered lakhs of toilets to be built without making any provisions as to who were to clean these toilets and the huge sewage load that would be generated.
The total sanitation campaign in India which has now been named the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has never addressed the deeply casteist nature of society in India. For instance the huge push for constructing pit latrines never factored in the problem of who would clean the pits once they were filled. There is a tremendous prejudice in this country against cleaning faeces and so even today throughout the country this is being done by the traditional Dalit castes who have been doing it for millennia on end. Since many of these Dalits have now stopped doing this work due to upward mobility, there is a shortage of people who will do this work. Consequently, the pit latrines have mostly been failures as people don't use them.
Bezwada has forcefully made the point that latrines should be so designed that they do not require to be manually cleaned and sewers should be cleaned by mechanical means. Just building toilets without providing for cleaning them without the help of the traditional manual scavenging people is a crime. The biggest hurdle he has faced is that many manual scavenging people have had to give up on their dignity because of a lack of alternative livelihoods and the government is the main culprit in this regard. For instance the Indian Railways which is the biggest employer of manual scavenging people can easily put in toilets that do not empty their faeces on the railway tracks in stations but despite several orders from the Supreme Court it has steadfastly refused to do so. Similarly municipalities can use machines to clean sewers but they have continued with manual cleaning which leads to the death of some people every year. There is much that is rotten in the State of modern India but nothing more so than some people still having to manually clean faeces for a living.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Skilling India

There is a lot of hype about "Skilling India" these days but are we, as a nation, lacking in skills? The traditional livelihoods, none more so than the artisanal and agricultural ones, have been based on skills developed over centuries and they have also tried to adapt to the changing market situation arising from modern development. However, modern development being predicated on the lesser and lesser use of human power with the help of more and more complicated technology has meant that not only the traditional artisanal and farming skills but also those that are necessary for the modern economy have mostly become redundant. A few highly skilled people are required to run the economy while the rest have to work at a very basic level of skills or just twiddle their fingers. At a time when mechanisation and computerisation have made human labour all but redundant it is farcical to speak of skilling people in large numbers as a precursor to heightened manufacturing. Because even if manufacturing on a large scale does take place in India, to be globally competitive, it will have to be highly automated. Whole plants will be run by a few people. When lakhs of engineers are not getting jobs then where is the possibility of even a larger number of skilled people being employed productively? There is a need to reorient the economy so that more basic skills are in demand in all three sectors - agriculture, services and manufacturing. In fact presently the vast majority of workers in this country, more than 90 per cent, are employed in the informal sector in casual jobs with basic level of skills. There is a need for a better allocation of resources to improve the remunerations, skill level and working condition of the workers in this sector and this can best be done by directing more business to the informal sector, financing and regulating it better and by training of personnel that is on the job rather than institutional.
In fact the informal sector has always faced a resource crunch and it is often acute for activists fighting for the rights of the downtrodden. Thus, as a principle we in the KMCS have always tried to make the most of scarce resources and this leads to serendipitous experiences. Some recent ones have a bearing on the way in which we should be skilling India.  Last year in 2015, Professor Swapan Bhattacharya after deciding that he would stay in the school in Kakrana, wanted to improve the quality of food that the students get. He wanted to put vegetables into the diet every day. However, given that Kakrana is situated 50 kms from the nearest wholesale vegetable market, and that locally on the school farm or on the farms of the farmers not much vegetables are produced to feed  200 odd people in the school daily, this seemed to be a Herculean task. Undeterred, Swapanda, as we fondly call him, asked some friends of his if they could not fund the purchase of an old motor vehicle and got Rs 2,50,000 as donations for the purpose. Since Swapanda had no experience of buying old or new motor vehicles he buttonholed me to act as his guide on the strength of the fact that I had earlier bought a second hand Maruti 800 myself. Buying a sports utility vehicle (SUV), however, was a different ball game altogether.
Initially a friend of Swapanda's agreed to sell his 15 year old SUV for Rs 2,50,000 and the deal was almost done. But the friend for some reason baulked at the last moment and then we had to go to the internet to find some cars. There was one car that was available for Rs 2,00,000 only but by the time we got in touch with the seller it had been sold!! The others were beyond our financial reach. So then we set off across Indore exploring the various second hand car dealers. Once again most of the cars on sale were out of our financial reach or were in very bad condition. Then at the last car dealer that we went to we found a beautiful red Tata Safari car of 2008 vintage that had a price tag of Rs 2,50,000 which was dirt cheap as it should have been around 6 lakhs at least for that kind of vintage. Swapanda on seeing it immediately plumped for it despite my saying that there must be some serious problem with the car if it was selling so cheap. Enquiries revealed that we would be the seventh buyers of the car in seven years!! We took the car around for a test drive and found that there were indeed various problems. Nevertheless,  Swapanda said that surely it could be repaired at some expense over time and even then it would be a bargain. Here is a photo of the car which will reveal why Swapanda is so enamoured of it!! Of course it is a repaint of the original!!!

 We drove the car home and then the fun began. On searching the internet for details of the car we read in one review that it is a "tractor with an AC" - a powerful car that drives well but requires a lot of maintenance which is expensive because the parts are costly. We took it to a Tata authorised service centre for starters. They did a system check of the car with a computer and found that its suspension was almost gone, the engine wasn't in good shape, the electronics and electricals were not working and the gear assembly needed to be overhauled and gave us a tentative repair and servicing estimate of Rs 1,50,000 that would in all probability shoot up to Rs 2,00,000!! We obviously shot down most of their suggestions and asked them to do some immediate repairs for which they charged us Rs 20,000. While it ran and handled better after this it soon broke down!! After this we decided to ditch the Tata authorised service centre and do what I had done with my Maruti 800 earlier, go to a hole in the wall mechanic in the informal sector. And that is how we come to the main thrust of this story.
My Maruti 800 mechanic, Iqbal, is a self made man. He has studied only up to class seven and has learnt the skills of automobile repair hands on once he gave up studies after reaching adolescence since he was making much headway in them. I had reached him earlier after having had a bad and expensive experience of getting my Maruti repaired at the authorised service centre. True to the KMCS spirit, I had bought the Maruti 800 car of 1998 vintage in 2011, second hand, for just Rs 50,000. We bought it mainly to cart the various props that we need for conducting Reproductive Health camps for poor urban women. With a carrier on top, the car is able to cart all the stuff we need as shown below with Subhadra at the steering.
Whereas the authorised service centre even after three attempts and a lot of expense could not improve the handling and running of the car to my satisfaction, Iqbal at a fraction of the cost was able to fine tune it to such an extent that it runs silently and gives an average of 20 kms per litre currently despite being close to two decades old. He even changed the braking system of the car and made it hydraulic using his ingenuity. Iqbal took on the challenge of bringing the Safari up to the mark with some hesitation in the beginning as he said that he had never worked on one before. However, slowly and surely he began getting it into shape beginning with the suspension. Many parts had become old and were going kaput and had to be replaced. The big problem unlike in the case of the Maruti was that the Safari mostly stayed in Kakrana and when it broke down for some reason either there or on the way between Kakrana and Indore it was difficult to get things right immediately. On one occasion the car broke down enroute from Indore to Kakrana. We had to tell Iqbal on the phone what had happened and he instructed us to open a few things and report and on the basis of that he did a diagnosis and got the parts from Indore and came and repaired the car. On another occasion the car wouldn't start in Kakrana and once again there was a telephonic conversation between the people in Kakrana and Iqbal followed by opening up of a part of the car to identify that part that has malfunctioned. Iqbal then came down with the relevant spares and repaired the car.
The Safari on one occasion when we were riding it from Indore to Kakrana broke down once again. We were near a place called Manpur some 50 kilometers from Indore and it was early in the morning so instead of calling up Iqbal we sought out a mechanic in Manpur itself. There was some problem with the axle and also with the clutch plate which had become worn. The mechanic, Govinda, opened everything up and then ordered the parts from Indore by bus and fixed up the car and we were on our way again after a few hours. After we reached Kakrana, the car once again began stopping suddenly while running. It was not until the day we were returning to Indore that it became clear to us that this was happening because there was a leak in the water cooling system which was heating up the engine. We couldn't locate the leak and somehow brought it to Kukshi town some 50 kms from Kakrana by continually refilling the water in the cooling system. A mechanic in Kukshi tried to find out where the leak was but couldn't. He said that the parts of the Safari are available only in Indore and so if we left the car with him then it would take a lot of time and so it was better that we just filled water continuously and took the car to Indore!! So we did that over a distance of 100 kms and reached Manpur and Govinda's garage once again!!! Thereafter, Govinda took over and opened up the whole engine which had become damaged due to overheating, found the minute leak in one of the cooling pipes and did a complete overhaul of the whole car. So we have ended up spending about another Rs 1,00,000 on the Safari but now it is in top shape. Other owners before this had not shown the patience that we did and had disposed of the car in quick succession. Indeed one friend of Swapanda's, a scientist like him, after driving the car the day after it was bought had suggested that we give it back even if it meant incurring a substantial loss because he thought there was no future for it!! Swapanda gave him a dressing down saying that as a scientist he should welcome challenges instead of steering clear of them!!!
Iqbal and Govinda are only two of many such skilled people in this country who have not received any formal training but have learnt on the job and have learnt well. They do a good job and do it cheaply and much better than the authorised service centres which charge the earth for their sub standard services. This is the case in all sectors of the economy. Thus, it is these informal training processes in the vast informal sector that have to be supported instead of setting up institutions which churn out ostensibly skilled people but are actually white elephants that gorge resources without adequate productive output. Iqbal and Govinda make out a living through struggle as their existence is a contingent one as is that of many millions more in the informal sector. Govinda is a high scholl pass out but instead of pursuing higher studies in the hope of getting a job in the formal sector he decided to learn automobile repairing in a garage. He is very tech savvy and when Swapanda showed him the videos that he had downloaded from the internet regarding the assembly of automobile engines he cleaned out all the music from the micro SD card on his mobile phone and filled it up with the videos!! Iqbal works alone in his garage. When asked why he doesn't employ some help he says that daily wages have now become Rs 300 in Indore and he cannot afford to pay that much to a help. His son is in high school and wants to study further instead of join Iqbal in his garage because he feels that a secure job in the formal sector is both more paying and more prestigious than working in a garage. Thus, if the Government were to provide Iqbal with the money as a training fee then he would be more productive and also train another person or even his son at a much cheaper cost and more effectively than in the many institutions that the Government is setting up under its skilling initiative. Working with the hand as a technician should command respect in society as only then will the youth be freed from their hankering for secure white collar jobs that are anyway becoming scarce and are not that well paying anymore. Our country does not lack in skilled people, it only lacks in respect for these millions of informally skilled people. Instead the crony capitalists who skim off public resources at will without providing sustainable development opportunities are the ones who command respect and that is why despite all the economic growth in recent years, poverty and hunger continue to dog most of the people.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Extra Judicial Killing

Extra judicial killing by security forces continues in this country despite several hard rulings against it by the Higher Courts. Burhan Wani, the commander of the Hizb ul Mujahideen insurgent group in Kashmir fighting for Kashmiri independence, could have been apprehended after he was surrounded by just laying an indefinite siege but the trigger happy security forces, possibly angered by the recent killing of eight CRPF jawans in an attack by the Lashkar eTaiba, another cross border armed group and also by the killing of Col. M.N. Rai by insurgents earlier in a similar situation when after agreeing to surrender they came out firing at the forces, decided to go for the kill. Revolutionaries, militants and criminals may not have much respect for the law but that does not give a licence to the security forces, who are charged with maintaining the law, to break it.
After Burhan I am sure somewhere in India some Indian citizen has got killed by some security personnel or other as this happens regularly across the country. According to National Crime Records Bureau statistics on an average there are about 4 custodial deaths by the police alone every day in India!!!! if the paramilitary and military are taken into account this figure will be even higher. This is because there is a culture of impunity for state forces and they frequently take liberty with the law. In practical terms there will be some extra judicial killings because of the situation in which an encounter takes place between a militant, armed revolutionary or criminal and the security forces which are tasked with snuffing out armed resistance to the might of the State. However, to ensure that this kind of killing does not get out of hand, as it is bound to do given the huge power of the State vis a vis the citizen, there are clear provisions in the Constitution, other statutes and Supreme Court and High Court rulings to regulate them. There are clear provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which clearly lay out the right of accused to a due process of law regardless of the nature of their crimes which is the basis of a liberal democratic and just dispensation and India is a signatory to this.
Secondly, there is the important issue of the legitimacy of the State in the eyes of the citizen. If there are too many extra judicial killings then the State begins to lose its legitimacy and the citizens tend to take the law into their own hands which is a very dangerous situation. Especially so in insurgency hit areas and even more so in an area like Kashmir where Pakistan is funding the insurgency. One does not know how many Kashmiris support the call for freedom from India but definitely there are a significant number of Kashmiris who don't including the whole of the Kashmiri ruling class regardless of political colour. However, there is enough evidence to show that the security forces in their over reach have struck against civilians indiscriminately and many innocents have been affected and this has led to mounting disaffection and anger against the Indian State. Indeed Burhan himself was motivated to join the insurgency after the security forces needlessly brutalised his brother Khalid. The situation today in Kashmir, from the point of view of the Indian State, is not as bad as it used to be in the 1990s primarily because of a huge military and security presence which has more or less hobbled the insurgency on the ground. Even though this heavy military presence is primarily directed towards preventing a recurrence of the kind of plannned intrusion into Indian territory by the Pakistani military in Kargil in 1989, it has also wiped out the armed insurgency with the number of active armed militants coming down from several thousands to just over a hundred or so. However, this has come at a huge cost to the exchequer. If the insurgency could be eliminated then the military presence would only have to be on the border against Pakistan and there would not be the need for such a heavy deployment. Insurgencies can never be eliminated by the use of force alone. There has to be a dialogue also and for that the State must have some legitimacy in the eyes of the insurgents and their supporters. The insurgents are like fish in a pond. if there is no water in the pond then the fish will die. there is obviously a lot of water in the pond as was demonstrated by the huge flare up protesting the killing of Burhan recently and which is still going on with determined resistance to the Indian State by citizens demanding independence for Kashmir. Admittedly Pakistan has had a hand in supporting both the insurgency and in fanning the protests after the killing of Burhan but why is it that there are so many people in Kashmir prepared to listen to Pakistan rather than India? So even if Burhan was a dreaded militant who had the blood of many on his hands and he was constantly urging more people to join the insurgency, nevertheless, not only from the human rights angle but also from the tactical angle there should have been a visible attempt by the Indian State forces to apprehend him and bring him to trial rather than kill him out right. Instead the security forces followed the Israeli strategy of killing at the first opportunity which has not really helped Israel in any way in snuffing out the Palestinian Intifada. Israel can afford to follow such a strategy because its military adventurism is funded by the USA but we have to fund our own security from our own taxes and that means that we have less for development work if that security bill escalates as it has done in Kashmir and other insurgency hit areas of the country due to a hawkish policy.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Farewell to Arms

The last month has been a sad one. Saying good bye to Alirajpur is not easy. The seniormost activist there, Khemla, refused to believe that I was indeed leaving. He was the first guy I had met in Alirajpur at a time when he was in his prime as a fiery activist taking on a very anti-people state system. After all these years both he and I are a shadow of our former selves as is the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, which now as a matter of policy does not undertake any actions that may lead to the lodging of criminal cases against its members. Since 2007, as there are now laws that enable us to fight legally for various rights and entitlements that earlier we had to go to jail for and the cost of fighting legal cases has become exorbitant, the KMCS treads the straight and narrow path of the law!!! Here is a description of what Khemla was like in his prime.

I spent almost a decade in Alirajpur in the 1980s and early 1990s living among the Bhils and they have been the best years of my life. It all began with my first meeting with the most colourful Bhil character I have known, my colleague and fast friend Khemla in his small hut in Badi Vaigalgaon village. Khemla is a born rebel. He is the only one of five brothers who attended school. Traditionally the Bhils mostly make their children tend to the cattle when they are small and once they reach adolescence they marry them off and harness them to the farm operations. Not surprisingly they have been highly reproductive as a result and combined with a continuous disposession from their lands, water sources and forests by non-adivasis and the colonial and post-colonial states, this had led to them being reduced to penury by the time Khemla grew to school going age in the early nineteen seventies. His father decided to send him to school seeing that there wasn’t enough land to sustain all his sons.
The government had introduced a residential school system for adivasi children who cleared the primary level to counter the high dropout rate and so Khemla went to study in a hostel school in class six at the nearby weekly market village of Umrali. Unfortunately corruption, which has been and continues to be the bane of Indian governance, meant that the children in the hostels used to be dished out substandard food. Khemla protested against this and when the hostel superviser beat him for this Khemla hit him back and was rusticated for his pains. So that was the end of schooling for Khemla. Naturally he got married once he was back home in accordance with custom. But that did not douse his latent fire. He had taken training under a “burwo”, a traditional medicine man, and was capable of going into a trance to commune with the spirits. So he was highly respected by villagers far and near and was quite effective with his cures for sundry ailments. About this time the government decided to introduce a new scheme of barefoot doctors called the “Jan Swasthya Rakshak Yojana”. Khemla, being educated and also a burwo, was easily selected for this, given some training and then appointed. This increased his prestige within the community, as he became a "sarkari" or government man.
What bothered Khemla the most was the tremendous repression and extortion that his people suffered at the hands of local government officials and the ubiquitous sahukar or moneylender-trader. The most reprehensible was the behaviour of the police. The Bhils had a traditional community dispute resolution system in which the agrieved parties and the whole panchayat, which could be as big as the people of ten to twelve villages in case of inter village disputes, would sit together and sort out matters. However, this was not favoured by the police obviously because it would reduce their earnings and so they systematically weaned the village patels or headmen off this system and instead encouraged people to report disputes to them. Thus over time an excellent community system was destroyed and the misrule of the police established. Once this was done custodial torture and the many other tools of harassment that the police have were brought into play to extort money from the illiterate adivasis.
Khemla began a singlehanded struggle against this malpractice. Every time the police would arbitrarily pick up some adivasi and the news reached him Khemla would go to the police station and get him released. He even went to the tehsil town Alirajpur and met the Subdivisional Police Officer on a few occasions and submitted written complaints to him. The news of his activism reached the local Member of the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly (MLA) who was himself a patel and had been one of the first people to be lured by the non-adivasis to break the traditional adivasi system. He called Khemla to Alirajpur and told him to give up his foolhardy ways and join his political party instead. There was so much to be earned by cooperating with the police and other government staff and acting as their agent and informer the MLA said to Khemla. Khemla in his inimitable style ticked him off for being a traitor to his people and living off their blood and sweat and came away determined to continue his campaign.
No sooner did he get off from the bus at Umrali on his way home than he was arrested by the police there and taken to the police station. There he was stripped to his underwear and given the lambasting of his life by the assistant sub-inspector and told that he had better desist from his wayward ways. He was kept in the lockup for a night and released the next day. Instead of going home he took a bus back to Alirajpur and then from there to Jhabua. He went straight to the District Collector, the head of the district administration and gave him a written complaint and also a vivid oral description of what the police had done to him. The net result was that the ASI was transferred and an inquiry instituted against him. This concatenation of events added to the legend that Khemla was becoming and made him into a one-man army.
Khemla is a resourceful guy. He regularly took advantage of the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) schemes. He had been given ten goats and two thousand rupees for tending to them as a loan once. He said that money was not needed for tending goats, which had to be grazed in the forest. So he had immediately sold two of the goats for three hundred apiece and along with the two thousand rupees cash had made up the two thousand five hundred rupees that he had to pay back as there was a fifty percent subsidy and deposited it in the bank thus becoming debt free. The remaining goats have ever since provided some supplementary income. Since he promptly paid back his loan he became eligible for another grant. This time he had landed another rupees six thousand for the construction of a hut under the Indira Awaas Yojana and built his own home. This scheme at that time was so structured that the grants could be given only to a group of people who were setting up a new colony together. So Khemla had roped in six other people from his village, done the entire running around, got a barren hillock sanctioned for the purpose and got the money released for all of them together. He had then got another loan sanctioned under the IRDP for starting a provisions shop and his wife was running it when I met them for the first time. Once again he had paid back the seed money immediately and so cleared the loan and had no payback problems to worry about.
Khemla was to take me to Gendra village where the initiator of the Bhils' struggles in Alirajpur under the aegis of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, Khemraj, stayed, so I got down from the bus at Umrali on a hot summer afternoon in 1985 in the midst of barren hills like red dragons all round. I had been told to ask for directions at a pan kiosk. The owner of the kiosk raised a clenched fist in salute and greeted me "zindabad" - long live, when I introduced myself to him. He called a young boy and told him to take me to Khemla’s hut.  I crossed the Angkhar River, which was a dry sandy bed, walked along a dirt track behind my young guide in between hedgerows of cactus boundaries of fields and finally reached the bottom of the hillock on which stood Khemla’s hut. My young guide shouted out to him and we climbed up the last few rocks to the hut. A dark short man with muscular limbs and a round face emerged and raised his fist in greeting saying as was customary – zindabad. I responded similarly a thrill going through me. I had found my romantic revolutionary niche at last! Inside was Thavli, Khemla’s wife who was slim and tall, taller than Khemla and sharp featured and as I was to learn later sharp tongued too! He had three daughters at the time one of them a toddler. All of them were living together in a dark windowless hut, whose walls were only shoulder high.
After spending a night in novel surroundings listening to Khemla's second daughter singing a lullaby while she swung her younger sister to sleep in an improvised cradle made from a rope and a bedsheet we set off the next morning for Gendra. The road from Umrali to Bakhatgarh was metalled but not macadamised and was a dusty brown in colour. The joke was that the road upto Mathwar ahead even of Bakhatgarh was black in colour only on paper as the money had in fact been used to colour the lives of the government staff, contractors and the political leaders instead. So Khemla and I bumped along in a ramshackle bus and after some time got off at a village called Palvi. From there it was nine kilometers of walking up hill and down dale to Gendra. We were greeted by occasional shouts of zindabad as we wended our way to and finally reached Gendra and the picturesque country tiled primary school, one small room of which was to be my home. Khemraj came out, hugged me and said he was really happy that I had come. At last he could boast, he said, that there was a man in the organisation who had actually read Marx in the original! He introduced me to Shankar an adivasi boy who had just passed his higher secondary examinations. Shankar had heard of the exploits of the activists and come to Gendra to meet them. He had liked what they said and what they were doing and decided to join them. Amit the other non-adivasi activist in the group had gone home to Delhi for a change of air.
We immediately set off for a swim and fish in a big tank in nearby Kosaria village some three kilometers away. Khemla dived into the water and by some magic of his own caught as many as six fish with his bare hands. We came back, cooked the fish over a slow wooden fire, and had them with rotis made of maize flour, something that I had never had before. 
This first introduction to Khemla and the decade of reckless militant activism that followed in Alirajpur is all history now as we have become old and comparatively sedate having bid a farewell to arms.

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss

Thirty three years ago in 1983, after graduating from college, I started rolling and am happy to say that I am still doing so. Within a month or two I shall dissociate myself from any formal association with the organisations Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra (DGVK), a public trust and Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS), a trade union, in Alirajpur, which I had helped to set up in 1985 and with which I have been deeply associated for the past three decades. I am doing this, both to move on to new things and also to allow my Adivasi colleagues there to pursue their own genius without being dependent on and circumscribed by the modern skills of a non-adivasi person like I.
When I graduated from college as an engineer, I did not take a job in the corporate sector or go for higher studies abroad as all my other classmates did. Instead, I joined the huge informal sector of this country where people live from hand to mouth and and from day to day!! And the most informal of all in this sector have always been the Adivasis. So I went to live and work with the Bhil Adivasis in Alirajpur and that is how the organisations DGVK and KMCS came to be set up because in the modern world it is not possible to fight and survive without a minimal organisational presence. After a decade of great fights and great living at the margins in Alirajpur, I got married to Subhadra Khaperde in 1993. She insisted that I must move out of Alirajpur and work with her for the gender rights of women and girls. So we moved out of Alirajpur and began working in Khargone and Dewas districts from 1994 onwards. From 1994 to 2001 we worked in these areas setting up more organisations, the most notable being Kansari Nu Vadavno, which translates as the "Felicitation of Kansari", Kansari being the powerful life giving Goddess symbolising the cereal jowar or sorghum, which is the staple food of the Bhils. This was a women's organisation that fought for reproductive health and rights. We were also simultaneously working for the establishment of Gram Swaraj or Village self rule for the Adivasis under the provisions of the Panchayat Extension to the Scheduled Areas Act. The Government of the day liked neither the women's mobilisation which had completely stopped the illegal sale of liquor nor the mobilisation for village self rule which had marginalised the administration in the villages in which the organisation was strong. So in a massive armed police operation it cracked down on the organisation and killed four of its members in firing and clapped dozens of others including me into prison. That was the end, for that time at least, of both the women's and village self rule mobilisations.
This made us roll again back to the city of Indore, as in the mean time a son had been born to us in 2000 and Subhadra also had decided to take a sabbatical from activism to pursue higher studies having been only a high school pass out earlier. I too had to begin doing consultancy work to garner funds for the huge legal expenses that kicked in after the Government crack down on our organisation. Moreover, it had become almost impossible to work for rights given the huge repression that the Government resorted to against mass mobilisation for rights and justice.
Then from 2005 onwards the years of struggle for rights by many grassroots organisations across the country began to bear fruit and we had legislations like the Right to Information Act, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Forest Rights Act, Right to Education Act and the Right to Food Act being enacted, thus giving legal force to basic rights which earlier we had to fight and go to jail for. Our Adivasi colleagues in Alirajpur asked me to help them to reactivate DGVK which had been lying dormant as it had become increasingly difficult for them to survive and fight just on ad hoc contributions from the people and well wishers and the odd fellowship. They said that if advantage were to be taken of the new legislations, then institutional grant funding would have to be accessed through the registered trust DGVK. So from 2007 onwards grant funding came into Alirajpur and work took off with a bang again. Within a space of just four years we set Alirajpur afire with significant implementation of the legislations mentioned above and also a big campaign for justice for migrant labourers some of whom had died after contracting Silicosis in quartz crushing units in Gujarat. DGVK was awarded the Times of India Social Impact Award for its exemplary mobilisation of Adivasis in Alirajpur in 2011. The trade union KMCS has always been a force to reckon with in Alirajpur and it has now gained in considerable strength. A picture of a typical rally of thousands of people that periodically shakes the earth and the air of Alirajpur is shown below.

However, our work on gender rights and especially reproductive health and rights of women had lagged behind and had become almost zero in this time. So, Subhadra once again has started this work in Indore from January this year. Once she got into the work, it became clear that it is a very difficult exercise and will require full time commitment from both of us. Moreover, the work in Alirajpur should ideally be led by the Adivasis there in all respects. Even though most of the programmatic work is directed by them, the work of managing the DGVK accounts and legal compliances was being handled by me. Now even that is going to be done by the Adivasis and to make sure that there is no dependence whatsoever on me, I have decided to move out of the organisations there completely. After two decades we are going back to reproductive health and rights work that we had first done in Khargone and Dewas, to try and reinvent ourselves working with some of the most deprived and oppressed people in this country - economically disadvantaged Dalit and Adivasi women.