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.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Whither Right to Education

According to the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 (RTE Act), all children in India are entitled to free quality education upto class eight and it is compulsory to ensure this for both the parents and the Government. Since in the case of the vast majority of people in this country it is not possible to expend substantial sums of money on the education of their children, the responsibility devolves in their case on the Government. Since education is primarily the responsibility of State Governments under the seventh schedule of the Indian Constitution, it is these that have to provide most of the funds to implement the RTE Act with support from the Central Government.
The Rani Kajal Jeevan Shala (RKJS) in Kakrana village in Alirajpur district is a residential school run by the Kalpantar Shikshan Kendra that is associated with the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS). The school was set up in 2000 as an alternative to the moribund Government school system which despite all the efforts of KMCS could not be improved because of the severe lack of will on the part of the Government to increase investments in school education. There was some hope that things would improve after the passage of the RTE Act in 2009, as there was considerable hype at that time that the Central Government would augment the meagre resources being allocated by the State Governments to school education. However, those hopes have been belied and as the Annual Status of Education Reports of the NGO Pratham have consistently shown the quality of education is continually going down, especially in Madhya Pradesh.
Recently, the RKJS conducted a quick survey of 14 schools in its vicinity including itself, 8 primary with teaching up to class five and 6 middle with teaching up to class 8. Two schools among these were comparatively better funded. One was the special Government middle school cum hostel for girls in the Tehsil headquarters, Sondwa and the other the RKJS itself. While these two schools met most of the parameters stipulated in the RTE Act with regard to facilities and teacher qualifications and numbers, the situation of the others is pathetic with lack of properly maintained classrooms, toilets, playgrounds and qualified teachers. In most cases the schools are not running regularly.
What was even more disconcerting is that the data from the RKJS survey did not tally with that in the District Information System for Education (DISE) database maintained by the Central Government for these schools which latter was hopelessly wrong. The DISE website has this to say about the reliability of the data on it - "The School Data reported on this website is submitted by the School Head Master/Head Teacher through the District and State level authorities. Before data is submitted to the national level authorities, it is supposed to be first checked at the cluster level by the Cluster Resource Centre Coordinator. The MIS In-charge at the district level was then supposed to run the consistency module to check the inconsistency in the data before it is transmitted to State level authorities."  This means that the teachers are submitting false data and this is not being checked by the higher authorities before being posted on the DISE. When the data itself is wrong then there is no question of proper implementation of the RTE as the shortcomings will not surface and so will not be addressed. Thus, the DISE has a huge amount of false data on the basis of which higher level statistical analysis is done and the status of public primary education in this country continues to be moribund.
The RKJS has fairly good facilities including a library and video projection facilities in addition to the standard requirements and spends about Rs 15,000 a year per child on their education and the parents of the children spend about another Rs 5000 a year on their food. This is a very shoe string budget as the teachers and other staff work on minimum wages and the food is very simple.

Consequently, the education provided could be better if more funds were available. Yet it is one of the best schools in Alirajpur district and admission to it is much sought after by Adivasi parents who mostly migrate to Gujarat and are fed up with the dysfunctional Government school system. But this kind of one off effort by a people's organisation is not really the answer to the country's huge primary education needs which the Government should be fulfilling and isn't.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Sardar and the Dead Narmada

The Statue of Sardar Patel in the Narmada River like the Sardar Sarovar dam earlier has been constructed in violation of many social and environmental parameters. While in the case of the latter there was at least a long legal battle, in the case of the former the courts did not even see fit to entertain the petitions filed enumerating these violations. This is of course of a piece with much of the gigantic developmental follies, the so called temples of modern India, that have been erected in this country with total disregard for their social and environmental consequences. However, as a combined result of all these follies, what is going to happen is, that the Sardar from his impressive height of 182 meters is going to look on to a dead Narmada river.

When Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar Dam with much fanfare in September 2017, he had not thought that within a few months it would prove to be a gigantic folly as predicted all along by the Narmada Bachao Andolan. There is now not enough water in the dam and the river has become dead downstream of it. A year later as he once again indulges in fanfare to inaugurate another huge folly, he will yet again be ignorant of the extent of the blunder and its future deleterious consequences.  The roots of these follies lie in the history of the faulty planning of the Sardar Sarovar Dam.
A bitter dispute over the sharing of the water in the Narmada between the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat eventually resulted in a political agreement  in 1974 that the annual yield of the river available at Navagam, the site of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, should be taken as 34.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) at seventy five percent dependability. Of this 0.31 bcm was to be allotted to Maharashtra, 0.62 bcm to Rajasthan, 11.1 bcm to Gujarat and 22.5 bcm to Madhya Pradesh.  This political settlement estimated the annual yield of the Narmada at Navagam at seventy five percent dependability at a value well above the assessment by the technical experts of 27.4 bcm. Due to paucity of river flow measurement data even this lower technical estimate of yield of the Narmada river at Navagam was flawed because it was based on arbitrary assumptions for the values of the surface runoff, evaporation losses at reservoirs, return flow from upstream storages and from the groundwater aquifers and the carryover storages without doing any detailed sampling and simulation studies to properly estimate these values. 
Today, the actual flow in the river Narmada is even less. Due to secrecy maintained by the Central Water Commission about the flow measurement that it is doing, it is not possible to independently estimate what is the current flow. Given the massive deforestation that has taken place and the heavy development of groundwater irrigation in the catchment area, the flow in the river has decreased considerably from that prevailing earlier. So even though the full reservoir level of the Sardar Sarovar Dam is 138.7 m, the actual water level at the end of the monsoons is only 127 m. Thus, the dam is only half full. This was the case last year also and is likely to be the case in future too, given the much lower actual flow in the river compared to the design flow. As the flow in the canal starts for providing water to farms, industries and towns, the water level will quickly come down to the minimum drawdown level of 110.6 m and there will be little water flowing in the canal leaving the farmers in Gujarat literally high and dry. Like last year they can only look apprehensively towards a spring and summer of discontent.
What is of much greater concern is that there will be very little water flowing in the river downstream of the dam. The many dams in Madhya Pradesh upstream of the Sardar Sarovar have stored up most of the flow and that state is saying that since it is not getting the stipulated 22.5 bcm that is allotted to it, there is no question of releasing water to Gujarat!! Consequently there is almost no flow in the river below the Sardar Sarovar dam once the monsoons are over apart from the little that flows through the river bed power house after generating electricity. 
So first a huge dam is built based on unrealistic flow estimates and then a huge statue is built based on misplaced priorities and the compounded folly leads to the Sardar left surveying a dead river.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The End of A Dream

One of the last bastions of Adivasi anarchism in Alirajpur has finally fallen!! Khodamba village which had been isolated in its hilly terrain without road and electricity connectivity is now on the road map of India thanks to the Prime Minister's Rural Roads Programme. Even though the last few kilometers to the village from Vakner village still require to be topped with macadam it is possible to drive to the village on the base of the road that has already been built. Last week I drove to the village in our Tata Safari to find that grid electricity had also finally reached the village. With this has come to an end the dreams that we in the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath had once had in the late 1980s of developing Khodamba as a liberated anarchist zone standing defiantly against the ravages of centralised capitalist development.
Three decades ago both we the activists, who had renounced modern development and the people of Khodamba village, who had not seen much of it and were instead sufferers of its negativities, pledged to develop the village as a bulwark against this development based on a mixture of Adivasi and theoretical anarchism!! Those were the days when we walked on foot, had no bank accounts, had no computers and rarely visited the towns and cities unless it was to hold some protest or rally. Once we walked seventy kilometers from the banks of the Narmada River to Alirajpur to organise a sit in.
Fighting the state as we were against its unjust forest laws and the forced displacement of people for the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River it was not long before we faced the hard hand of the state's repression and were summarily dumped into prisons time and again. This by itself was not very disconcerting but what followed was. We had to fight numerous cases, sometimes all the way up to the High and Supreme Court and this cost money. Also this continuous fight against repression distracted us from our efforts to build up an alternative anarchist economy based on sustainable agriculture and village industry.
So by the mid 1990s while the villagers of Khodamba began to migrate to Gujarat seasonally to work as agricultural and construction labourers to earn more money, we activists had to use computers to do consultancies for the very capitalist system that we so loathed to get funds to defray the increasing expenses of the organisation and in the process we got bank accounts, motorised vehicles and also began living in cities. All the utopian fervour of the early years of KMCS went up in the smoke of the capitalist onslaught what with the economy being opened up for neo-liberal development from the early 1990s.
Yet, I continued to harbour the dream that one day we would be able to develop our anarchist utopia in Khodamba and the villages nearby because they continued to be cut off from the mainstream due to lack of roads and electricity. However, over the years this dream was there only in my heart as the people of Khodamba slowly became enthusiastic votaries of the fruits of modern development. Possibly if I had stayed in Alirajpur we might still have swung it in a modified way. But residing as I did in Indore all of 250 kilometers away it was not possible to initiate decentralised rural development in Khodamba.
When I drove my car to the village the other day I found the people there very kicked that the road and electricity had reached Khodamba. They were enthusiastically making plans for irrigating their lands. Like many other villages in the area, the shallow aquifer does not have much water but the deep aquifer is abundant. Now that the road had reached their village they would be able to bring in a boring machine to sink deep tubewells and then draw water from them with submersible pumps run by electricity. Mobile connectivity is still not there but one can climb up on one of the many hills surrounding the village to get that also. There were not many people around in the village except the elder ones like the old war horse Inder Singh who had grown up along with me from youth to old age. All the young people had gone off to Gujarat to labour and earn money.
Coming back from the village all the memories of those heady years of the late 1980s crowded my mind. Many young people who would come to the KMCS as interns were sent to this village to teach the children there and we used to land up from time to time to see if everything was going alright or not. The walk through the hills from Vakner used to be very picturesque. The village itself was an idyllic heaven as shown in the picture below.

 All that is now gone with the wind of modern development. It is not long before the ugly box like modern brick and concrete architecture will come to dominate this idyllic scenario now that the road has reached the village. I had ofcourse left Alirajpur two decades back and become immersed in modern living in Indore despite my dreams but the people of Khodamba had perforce remained cut off from the mainstream and so fed my utopian dreams. Now justice has been done and they too are enjoying the benefits of modern connectivity!! 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Sky is the Limit

Amidst the hullabaloo of this October 2nd being the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi it has been generally forgotten that this is also the 150th birth anniversary of his wife Kasturba who too had fought valiantly for India's freedom and died in prison in 1944. Not only Kasturba but many other women fought against the British. One example is that of Preetilata Wadadar who along with Surya Sen carried out the famous Chittagong Armoury raid in 1930. Once again recently when a meme on Surya Sen became viral on Facebook there was little mention of Preetilata. This neglect of the contribution of women is a part and parcel of the patriarchal structure of society.
So on this anniversary day of Gandhi I decided to celebrate Kasturba's legacy instead by attending a meeting of a group of girls and women who were discussing the huge patriarchal obstacles to the emancipation and empowerment of women organised by the NGO Eka in the Aishbag area of Bhopal.
 This meeting is one among many that are regularly held under the name "Hamara Aasmaan" Our Sky attended by adolescent girls and women who are survivors of gender based violence within and without the home. I was asked to deliver a speech as a guest. Its been a long time since I have stopped giving speeches and so I did what I generally do when asked to speak. I asked questions and cleverly brought the discussion round to patriarchy!!
Then the dam broke as women and then girls began to speak about the barriers to women's freedom and empowerment. Most of the women and girls were from the Muslim community where generally they are married off early and then have to spend their lives as home makers. Yet in this small group at least there was a huge desire to break out and do something. Eka's work is centred around providing an opportunity to these women and girls to break out of their confines and dream big. It was heartening to see so much vibrancy among the participants and especially the adolescent girls with the latter daring to dream big. A few well educated and working Muslim women gave talks on how they had broken out of the home and pursued their own careers to inspire the girls.
It has been my case for quite some time now that the biggest blunder that our policy makers and planners committed after independence was in not tackling patriarchy. Even today despite so much talk of women's liberation and empowerment, the situation of women and girls remains pathetic due to rampant patriarchal oppression. So it is great that some women and girls feel that only the sky is the limit.  

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Should We Laugh Or Cry?

The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has been given the prestigious "Champion of the Earth" Award for this year by the United Nations Environment Programme jointly with the French President Emmanuel Macron for launching the International Solar Alliance. He has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a Bharatiya Janata Party member from Tamil Nadu for launching the world's largest public health insurance programme - Ayushman Bharat. Are these two programmes indeed game changers as claimed to merit such high recognition? Let us find out what the reality is.
The foundation of a successful public health programme is its primary health outreach. Most illnesses start as primary health problems and need to be tackled at the initial stage itself to prevent them from escalating into immediate or chronic health problems of a serious nature. Unfortunately, the government primary health infrastructure and servicese in this country, especially in the rural areas, is woefully inadequate and dysfunctional. Consequently, most people have to rely on quacks and tradtional medicine men for their primary health problems with devastating consequences. Both these categories of health service providers practice irrational medicine and complicate rather than cure people. We try to provide rational health care, which also includes advising people to change their diet to make it more nutritious, but the hold of irrational food intake and healthcare is so strong on the minds of the people, promoted in no small part by the fast food and pharma industry, that we do not make much headway.
One lady who stays just across the road from our field centre in Pandutalab village and who had seen us cure many people, some in her own family, steadfastly refused to follow our advice. She would alternately go to a quack to get intravenous drips and visit the traditional medicine men to shoo away the evil spirits that had allegedly made their home in her. In between, her father in law expired. This gentleman too had disregarded our advice and despite being a diabetic and sufferer of hyperacidity and hypertension, refused to take proper treatment and relied on traditional healers and quacks instead. As the woman's condition deteriorated further, the traditional medicine men said that her late father in law's spirit had entered her and given the fact that she and her father in law had had quite a few tiffs while he as alive, he was now taking vengeance.
Then one day her husband called me saying that the lady was in very bad shape and getting spasms and would have to be admitted to hospital. This is not the first time that we had got such calls from people in dire medical distress and so I told him to bring her to our office in Indore. We took her to a senior general practitioner doctor and after examining her he said that she was suffering from a combination of hyper acidity and anxiety related problems which had become severe due to long neglect and mistreatment. She was given an injection of an anxiety relaxant drug and prescribed a course of anti acidity and anti anxiety treatment. Within a week she was cured of the severity of her illness and has recovered so much that she is able to work. The treatment is continuing because it will take at least three months to clear the ill effects of the long neglect completely.
Her two sisters in law, who live with her in the same house but in different rooms, also are suffering from various ailments and they too practice the same combination of cure from quacks and traditional medicine men. One of these women has recently become ill and she says that since her sister in law has been cured, the father in law's spirit has now moved into her and is causing her problems.
There is not only a need for providing extensive rational primary health care free of cost to the people but also a massive information and education campaign to convince people to follow proper nutritional diets, sanitation and hygiene practice. Innumerable studies have shown that public investment in primary health care is recovered many times through taxes from a population that is much more productive due to being healthy. Yet the "Ayushman Bharat" programme has bypassed this important basic foundation of a public health programme and instead targeted the secondary and tertiary health problems which require hospitalisation. So far the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana has not been able to adequately provide for even this hospitalisation care as the costs incurred by the people is much more than the insurance cover in most cases. This will plague the new programme also which while making bold to cover the world's largest number of people through insurance has made a financial provision of just Rs 200 per person for this. Which in effect means that those being hospitalised will get very little actual support. So this neglect of primary health care combined with a measly provision for secondary and tertiary health care will result in the Ayushman Bharat programme coming a cropper and belying its Nobel Prize winning rhetoric of being the world's biggest public health programme.
What about the claims of the International Solar Alliance (ISA)? It has been set up primarily to ensure that countries lying within the two tropics, which have greater solar insolation, the "sunshine countries", utilise fully their solar potential and so reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To this end a financial target of 1 trillion dollars has been targeted to be raised from developed countries which are mostly out of the tropical zone but which have both the financial and technical resources to give a big push to solar energy. To this end the ISA has roped in the old warhorse of many such grandiose development plans, the World Bank, to achieve its goals. Specific to India the goal is to have 100 GW of solar power by 2022. Given that the current installed capacity of solar power is only 23 GW this looks a far fetched dream. What is of greater concern however, is that the thrust of the solar policy in India is towards the installation of mega solar parks instead of towards greater decentralised generation through the involvement of communities and individuals. Thus, the subsidies for solar power are going to big corporations which are setting up huge solar parks and not so much to the poor to encourage them to set up rooftop systems. A vast number of households throughout the country in rural areas is without reliable supply of electricity and even today kerosene lamps are being used and post harvest processing is a serious problem. Rural industries are not being able to take off due to lack of electricity. This is to be contrasted with Germany where 90 per cent of the solar energy comes from rooftop decentralised units. Under the circumstances just making grandiose announcements in international fora and then involving the World Bank, which has consistently funded anti-people development, is a well orchestrated farce like the Ayushman Bharat programme.
Often, I have wondered about what I have achieved in all these years, slogging it out in the field to try and bring some people centric sense into development in this country. When I see the ground reality of people living in adverse circumstances due to a combination of ignorance and faulty planning and the grandstanding of policy makers beating their chests about initiating more such faulty planning I don't know whether to laugh or to cry.   

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Water, Water Everywhere Not a Drop to Drink

Every time there is a huge flood in India with massive loss of lives and extensive physical damage, there is a hue and cry. Especially if this takes place in an area not normally prone to such floods. Assam and Bihar for instance are regularly laid waste by floods and so there is not much agitation over that anymore. But when there were sudden unprecedented floods in Uttarakhand, Kashmir, Chennai and Mumbai a few years back and now recently in Kerala, there is a massive outpouring of wrath and a severe blame game begins. In the instance of Kerala, one particular allegation has been that the many dams that are there in the state were almost full to capacity before the torrential rains began in late August and so they did not have much of a flood cushion to absorb the higher runoff coming into them and had to release this excess water downstream creating havoc. Stung to the quick by this allegation that began to be repeatedly made, the usually secretive Central Water Commission (CWC) did what it normally does not do - opened its mouth and revealed its data even if partially!!

The Central Water Commission has published a report in which it has analysed the data regarding the various river basins of Kerala and the impact of the dams on the floods there. The crucial data that needs to be understood is that regarding the river flows at the major dams and at the hydrological stations in the plains close to the sea where the floods mostly had devastating effect in the urban areas. However, the CWC has given this data only for the biggest river Periyar which also has 47 percent of the live storage capacity of all the dams in Kerala. Even though there is data regarding the total runoff and the total flow in the river along with the amounts impounded in the dams, for all the basins that have been analysed by the CWC, this does not give us an understanding as to the force of the floods at their peak. Therefore, the CWC's report is still deficient in this respect.
The Periyar basin has three major dams, the Mulla Periyar followed by the Idukki on the main stem of the river and another on the Idamalayar tributary. The peak flood discharge in the river at the Neeleshwaram measuring site of the CWC in the plains near the sea during the height of the flood was 8800 cubic meters per second (cumecs). The outflow at the Idukki dam then was 1500 cumecs. The flood cushion that was there in the dam resulted in about 1000 cumecs being absorbed. However, if a greater flood cushion had been created by releasing water from the dam in phases earlier in the month, then another 1000 cumecs could have been absorbed. The Idamalayar dam on the tributary of the Periyar released another 1500 cumec at its peak despite being a smaller dam as it had very little flood cushion. Being a smaller dam it could have absorbed another 500 cumecs if there had been more free live storage space in the dam. In other words the flood flow at Neeleshwaram would have been 7300 cumecs if these dams had been properly operated. This is more or less the case with the other smaller basins also as even if they had kept a flood cushion, given their much smaller live storage capacity as compared to the huge runoffs coming into them, they would not have been able to absorb much of this. The CWC of course goes overboard with this data and says that the lack of a designed flood cushion resulted in only a "miniscule" increase in the flood impact even though the increase is actually about 20 per cent which is quite significant.
The important conclusion that comes from this analysis is that the dams in general have limited flood protection capacities, especially when faced with rainfall that is of such huge proportions ranging from 100 to 250 percent more than the normal for the month occurring in just three days. Even though proper operation of the dams by following the rule curve which prescribes the level of water to be kept at the reservoir at different times of the year so as to provide a flood cushion, would have reduced the flood impact a little but that would not have averted the disaster. Actually, the imperative of producing hydropower, which is the primary aim of the biggest Idukki dam and most other dams in Kerala, led the dam operators to err on the side of keeping the reservoir levels high and failing to provide a substantial flood cushion.
The main reason for the floods in Kerala having been so devastating, is the huge deforestation that has taken place in the Western Ghats along with quarrying for stones and minerals as is evident from the graphic below.

This has been compounded by construction in paddy fields whose area has gone down from 8.5 lakh hectares earlier to just 2 lakh hectares now. The wetlands and the floodplains of rivers have also been encroached on. All this has together increased the runoff and also decreased the water holding capacity of the hills and the plains. The Vembanad Lake, which is a protected Ramsar site, into which several rivers drain has been encroached and its capacity to hold water has been drastically reduced because of the huge urbanisation that has taken place around it. Consequently it did not have the capacity to hold the huge runoff coming into it and overflowed and submerged the urban areas around it.
This massive deforestation and mining combined with indiscriminate construction in floodplains and fields is indeed the reason for floods in the Himalayas and their foothills and plains also from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh whenever there is an extreme weather event resulting in concentrated precipitation in a short period of time.
Flood control, not only in Kerala but throughout the country, thus, has to be brought about by greater soil and water conservation measures to increase artificial recharge and stabilisation of steep hill slopes and afforestation to increase natural recharge and reduce runoff. This will also have the benefit of sequestering carbon and preventing global warming and increase the availability of groundwater. Indeed in the aftermath of the floods Kerala is facing a drinking water crisis because many of the wells and tubewells have been packed with mud and debris. Even though repeated floods over the past few years in various places have shown that business as usual will not do, yet we do not seem to learn. The Madhav Gadgil headed Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel had specifically said that the Western Ghats and especially the steeper section in Kerala and Tamil Nadu should be conserved as an ecologically sensitive zone by banning construction activity all of four years ago. Their recommendations were vehemently opposed by all and sundry and the report was consigned to the wastepaper basket and the consequences are there for all to see.
The CWC in its report typically concentrates only on the dams. While exonerating these dams by saying that they even by design did not have the capacity to mitigate floods resulting from such a heavy downpour, it takes the blinkered approach of suggesting that some more dams should be built solely for the purpose of flood control and completely ignores the need for augmenting artificial and natural recharge as it has in other areas also. For instance in the Brahmaputra basin, the flow from the Tsangpo in China contributes only 5 per cent of the total flow in the basin and so if intensive soil and water conservation measures and afforestation are undertaken in the catchments of the Indian Rivers of the basin then flood control, maintenance of environmental flow and drought proofing can easily be done. However, the CWC once again advocates only dams and creates the false bogey of China either withholding and diverting or releasing excess water from the Tsangpo to create droughts and floods in India. Massive decentralised soil, water and afforestation programmes conducted through the local governance bodies will also provide huge employment and create a flourishing natural resource base for sustainable development.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Not by Teachers Alone

Teachers day it is but teachers alone cannot do much to stem the tide of impending disaster facing humanity unless the syllabus and pedagogy are tuned to equity and sustainability. Late capitalism is sending us all to our doom because it has our education - syllabus, pedagogy and teachers all combined, selling us the myth that industrial development will improve our lives endlessly. Therefore, if we are to challenge the malevolent domination of capitalism then we have to devise our own syllabi and pedagogy of equity and sustainability and our own teachers to teach them in our own schools and colleges. While there are a few such schools, colleges are much fewer. As far as I know there is only one - Swaraj University in Udaipur in Rajasthan.
However, for initiating youth into activism on the ground what is required is a more rooted training given by activists that can analyse the dominance of capitalism and its malevolent effects by discussing mass struggles against it. Most grassroots movements against capitalist development have their in house training arrangements for their cadre but in the heat of the struggle often it is not possible to organise systematic training programmes. Therefore, the activists of mass movements for equity and sustainability across the country welcomed the setting up of the Sambhaavnaa Institute in Kandbari village in Palampur in Himachal Pradesh by the Kumud Bhushan Trust in 2010 for providing training programmes to youth and activists on various issues and strategies of grassroots mass mobilisation. The moving force behind the setting up of the institute is Prashant Bhushan, the people's lawyer par excellence who is both an activist and lawyer fighting for justice and sustainability but it was supported by a huge cross section of mass movements around the country as it fulfilled a felt need. Over time this institute has evolved into a fantastic training centre with a range of training programmes for activists and youth. While some activists work full time there anchoring the institute, the syllabus and the pedagogy is fluid and is often decided by activists from the field who are invited as teachers.
Last winter in December, Subhadra and I were invited to contribute as teachers to one training workshop for college going youth on development. Even though as anarchist activists soldiering on alone among the Bhil Adivasis we are always hard pressed for time and winter is not exactly the best time to be in the snow capped Dhauladhar ranges of Himachal for people who are more accustomed to the searing hot summers and mild winters of the Malwa plateau, we agreed to go simply because the idea of Sambhaavnaa is so good.
The first view of Sambhaavnaa is itself an education because the campus and the buildings in it have been designed and built with local architecture, materials and construction techniques by Didi Contractor, the eco-architect of the Kangra Valley. As a water conservationist what I liked most is the exquisitely designed water tank for the whole campus shown below.
The villagers in these parts are pretty ingenious and have designed over time an irrigation system called the Kuhl which diverts waters from the hilly streams into the farms for irrigation by gravity without the use of any pumps. The Sambhaavnaa campus used to be a farm before it was bought and converted into a training centre. The farm plots are still there with the kuhl running through them and the buildings built on the hillocks surrounding the farms. Thus, the trainees can work on the farm along with their training in equity and sustainability studies and strategies.
Its been a long time since the Alirajpur days upto the early 1990s  that I have undertaken long trainings. So it was a great experience that made me nostalgically remember those exhilarating years of my own youth when we used to think we would overcome capitalism. Subhadra and I had to comment on the presentations that the trainees made on the various people's movements in the country. This they had to do after first going through a training on the political economy of development. This is a very good pedagogy. The youth get a solid practical perspective on various aspects of capitalist development and the movements against it from activists in the field. In political activism today there is a big difference between theory and practice, much more than there was earlier. So it is necessary to bring this grassroots perspective into the training. The youth who came to the training unanimously said that while they had some idea of the theoretical critiques of capitalist development earlier, they had very little knowledge of the nitty gritties of actual ground level activism.
Obviously we need more such institutes across the country if the mass challenge to the madness of capitalism is to gain critical mass but till that happens one has to be thankful that we have at least one such institute in this country.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Pearl Diving in Bharia Land

Two months ago I went on a journey like never before. Pearl millet or bajra as it is called locally is a very nutritious cereal that used to be grown widely by the Bhil Adivasis in Western Madhya Pradesh in the monsoons. However, with time it has been replaced by corn in most areas except some of the remoter parts of Barwani and Alirajpur districts. Even in these districts the traditional varieties have vanished and what is sown are the hybrid varieties. We tried to reintroduce the cultivation of indigenous Bajra in Pandutalav village on our farm last year. However, since ours was the only farm with Bajra, and since it ripens early, it was swamped by birds and we had a difficult time saving the crop from them. Eventually, we managed to harvest a little and on winnowing it yielded about forty kilos only. It was so tasty to eat that one friend of ours bought almost the whole of our produce leaving very little for us.
Subhadra remembered that many years ago when our friend Jacob Nellithanam had been running a campaign to preserve indigenous seeds, he had brought a variety of Bajra that had long whiskers on its seeds when on the plant that prevented the birds from eating it. She said that we should get that variety as only then would we be able to revive Bajra cultivation in Pandutalav. So began our search for the whiskered pearl!!
We searched in many places and asked many people but to no avail. Even in the most remote areas of Barwani and Alirajpur this whiskered variety of Bajra had become extinct. We got to know that in Barawani a hybrid variety of whiskered Bajra is sown but on going there we found that it is only sown in the winter season and not in the monsoons.
When we had almost given up hope, suddenly one day my activist friend Naresh Biswas published a post on his Facebook Wall in which there was a photo of a girl holding a cob of whiskered Bajra saying that on a visit to the Patalkot area of Chindwara district he had seen this variety still existing. I immediately got in touch with him and asked him to give us some seeds. He said that it was difficult to get as this was the only cob that was remaining because in Patalkot also not many people are sowing bajra anymore.
I must digress into describing Patalkot here before taking the story forward. Patalkot is a valley in Chhindwara district of Madhya Pradesh just south of the Satpura Hill Ranges which fall in a steep cliff into the valley.  Due to this steep cliff the valley remained isolated for a long time and its residents, the Bharia Adivasis, lived a subsistence forest dependent life far removed from modern development.  Consequently, they have been categorised as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) by the Government because of their long lack of access to education and health services which has adversely affected their ability to adjust to the modern economy and polity. So special development packages have been implemented by the Government for the Bharia Adivasis and roads and electricity have been provided in the valley. In addition to this, adventure sports like sky diving and paragliding have been promoted from the top of the cliff in Patalkot by the Tourism Department and this has led to an influx of well heeled tourists into the area, boosting the local economy.
The Bharia Adivasis are still very poor because they have small landholdings and the soil quality is not very good. Water too is not readily available for irrigation and so in most cases the Bharias take only a single crop during the monsoon season. Schools and health centres also do not function properly. There are many villages in Patalkot which still do not have road connectivity and grid electricity. However, they still practice indigenous bio-diverse agriculture and depend on a considerable number of herbs and plants of the forest for their subsistence. This is why Naresh Biswas has stepped in. Naresh has been promoting indigenous agriculture and the conservation of seeds which are slowly going into extinction due to the spread of chemical agriculture and hybrid seeds. Naresh has been conducting this Beej Swaraj or seed independence movement in the Baiga Adivasi areas in the districts of Mandla and Dindori in Madhya Pradesh and Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh for quite some time. He has now extended this to Patalkot also. This effort of Naresh's made it possible for us to trace the whiskered bajra seeds that we were so desperately looking for.
One fine morning my son Ishaan and I set out in our car for Patalkot having got the contacts of Gyan Shah of Kauriya Dhana village in Patalkot from Naresh. Given the fact that the highway roads from the town of Hoshangabad towards Patalkot are in bad shape and full of cows and traffic leading to jams, we decided to rely on Google Maps to take a short cut along the village roads which had been macadamised under the Prime Minister's Rural Roads Scheme. We were progressing quite well towards our destination when unfortunately the data connectivity vanished in the villages and so we lost our directions on Google Maps!! Nevertheless with some help from the villagers we finally managed to get back on the highway to Patalkot succeeding in bypassing the town of Pipariya which is a major traffic congestion point. The view into Patalkot from on top of the Satpuras is really breathtaking. There are a number of tourist points that have been developed from where these splendid views into the valley can be enjoyed. These are also the places from which in winter adventure sports like sky diving and hang gliding are arranged by the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Department. Gyan took us to these viewpoints first and then we proceeded to his village Kauriya Dhana.
Kauriya Dhana is one of those villages that is still to be connected by a motorable road and grid electricity. Gyan said that no car had ever gone to his village and so we would have to park our car in a village before that and walk down to his village. It was getting late and a total walk of six kilometers to his village and back would mean darkness falling before we could climb out of Patalkot. Our car, an old 1998 model Maruti 800, has been customised to travel on rough rural roads and so we overruled Gyan and told him that it would be the first car to ever reach Kauriya Dhana!!
So off we went piling on a few other passengers who were walking to the village on a bumpy stony track with Gyan and Ishaan getting down often to clear the bigger stones from the track. Eventually we reached the village after a few minutes and it was indeed a sight for sore eyes. Typical small Adivasi huts made of mud and baked tiles situated on their farms at a distance from each other. A few pucca houses were under construction with grants from the Prime Minister's and Chief Minister's Schemes for rural houses but overall it had an old world look with forested hills on all sides.
Gyan then brought out the prized bajra seed. He had been able to collect just one cob of bajra from a more distant village and had sown half of it and saved the lower half for us as shown in the picture below where his niece is holding it for display.
Such is the state of affairs as far as preservation of our indigenous seed heritage is concerned. After searching for so many months and finally undertaking such a long journey we could lay our hands on just half a cob of the dry land pearl. The Government is busy promoting sky diving in Patalkot oblivious to the immense treasure of indigenous seeds that is on the verge of extinction and is still available because of the Bharia Adivasis. So it is people like Naresh and Gyan who have to make the effort to conserve this heritage and provide us with an opportunity to go pearl diving in Bharia Land. All in all it was a memorable trip to a part of Madhya Pradesh which we had never visited before. The seeds have been sown on our farm in Pandutalav and are doing very well.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Whither Independence for Adivasis

There are provisions in the Indian Constitution, in its Fifth and Sixth Schedules, for Tribal Self Rule in accordance with their own indigenous genius. These have mostly been honoured in the breach by the Indian Central and State Governments, which have intensified the colonisation of Adivasi areas after independence in pursuit of resources for modern industrial development, starting from where the British left off. Consequently for most tribes people, apart from the few who have been elected as lawmakers and employed as Government servants, independence has never really meant freedom from tyranny and oppression and instead they have had to face direct and indirect displacement and the resultant misery.
I have had the privilege of being part of some mass movements of the Bhil Adivasis to implement the Fifth Schedule in their areas of residence and actualise Tribal Self Rule and achieve true independence.  One such was the effort by the Adivasi Morcha Sangathan in Dewas district in the late 1990s which tried to actualise the provisions of the Fifth Schedule by empowering the Adivasi Gram Sabhas to prevent sale of liquor, control the management of forests and prevent logging of trees both legal and illegal, prevent the police from falsely implicating Adivasis in criminal cases and reverse the alienation of Adivasi land usurped by Non-Adivasis.
Predictably, as the power of this mass movement increased the State Government of the time, a Congress one incidentally, came down hard and crushed this movement with police atrocities killing four of the Sangathan members and jailing many more in 2001 in a repeat of many other such repressive actions on Adivasis after independence. Many false cases of a serious nature like attempt to murder and waging war against the state were foisted on the leaders of the movement. Even though eventually, due to their fabricated nature, the Adivasis were acquitted by the trial courts in all of these cases, the Government in its perversity decided to appeal against this acquittal in one case which had charges of attempt to murder and waging war against the state. This appeal was admitted by the High Court in Indore in 2008 despite its flimsy nature because cases of appeal filed by the Government routinely get admitted without much application of thought.
The case is yet to come up for final hearing after ten years. This is because the High Courts throughout this country are hugely overburdened by cases mostly filed by the Government in a perverse manner and so there is very little time to hear the huge pending list of cases. In the present case, the Adivasi movement leaders were first falsely implicated with serious offences and then despite being acquitted in the lower court due to lack of evidence were further oppressed through appeal. Some of these leaders were in their fifties in 2001 and are now past the age of eighty. One has already expired. Another one Jagsingh is bedridden with rheumatic arthritis that has completely taken away the strength from his legs. Yet Jagsingh has to attend the court from time to time in a wheelchair as shown below.

Yesterday was one such hearing where an application had been given on behalf of Jagsingh for exemption from court appearance. The motion hearings for cases of serious criminal offences along with civil cases of higher value are heard together by a Division Bench of the High Court consisting of two judges. Due to the huge vacancies of Judges posts in the High Court, the Division Bench sits for just the morning session for two and a half hours after which the judges sit as single benches in the afternoon. There were 131 cases listed to be heard by the Division bench in a space of two and a half hours. The case of Jagsingh was listed at number 91. Consequently by the time the lunch interval approached at 1.30 pm his case was still some ten cases away. So his lawyer got up and made a special plea for his case to be heard before the court rose as it would be difficult for him to come again and again given his serious medical condition. The Judges graciously agreed but by that time they had become very tired disposing of so many cases in each of which they not only have to apply their mind but also dictate orders all in double quick time. Therefore, the judges heard the arguments and just said heard without giving any orders and so the case of exemption from attendance for Jagsingh remains pending. However, because he had a senior lawyer appearing for him at least the case was notionally heard and he won't have to attend the court again as later an order in his favour can be coaxed out when the Judges have more time in the next hearing.

This is the kind of injustice that Adivasis are facing today. Throughout the country Adivasis are being displaced or oppressed in the interests of furthering modern industrial development and if they protest then they are being killed and jailed after being implicated in false cases. Even if they somehow manage to get acquitted in the trial courts, the State perversely appeals against the acquittals in the higher courts where, due to the huge pendency of cases, final hearings do not take place and even motion hearings do not come up for proper hearing. Jagsingh happens to be one of the few who has a Sangathan to back him and so he is not having to pay the exorbitant fees of engaging senior lawyers and the cost of travel to the court but today there are thousands of other Adivasis in jails across this country unable to secure their freedom because of their poverty. What kind of independence day are we celebrating is the question.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Gate Keeping in the Interest of Capitalism

This is that time of year when examinations hold centre stage in India, not only for students but for their parents also. There are a plethora of examinations with the most important being the school leaving and college entry ones. Primarily because these are the ones that control the gates to a well paid career in the global capitalist system of which India is an insignificant but gradually more significant cog. These examinations themselves occur once at the end of the school phase of a child on the threshold of adulthood but since they are so important from the point of getting a decent toehold in the capitalist system, children have to prepare for them well in advance. Indeed the whole school education system, supplemented by the ubiquitous coaching institutes, has now become geared to training students to crack these examinations and the content has consequently become encyclopaedic and the learning rote. Huge amounts of information have to be memorised and the answers to questions have to be in pre-determined formats. The well publicised end of this education is not the gaining of knowledge and insights per se, even though that may happen by chance along the way, but the cracking of examinations that will ensure entry into good colleges, which in turn will later ensure jobs that promise pelf and power as minions of the global capitalist system. Such is the power of this system that very few students and parents are able to ignore it and so become victims of it, even when they crack these exams and gain entry into elite educational institutions by losing their childhood in order to compete to get ahead of others. Understandably, performing well in these examinations requires huge investments in schooling and coaching and so it is mostly the rich and powerful who are able to get their children to succeed and even after that a considerable number from these privileged sections are left out in the cold. Those children from the under privileged sections, who do get in to the elite institutions as a consequence of scholarships and reservations, also become part of the capitalist system and rarely pose a challenge to it.

Earlier, the better educational institutions at the college level were all government ones but over the past decade or so given the huge demand for such institutes that are gateways to the capitalist world, many private colleges and universities have come up, which while promising great placements to their students are prepared to relax the entrance cutoffs for a hefty fee. This has further vitiated the already skewed access to elite education tuned to landing plum jobs in the capitalist system. Not surprisingly students who have slogged from an early age to get into the capitalist system and often have to take loans to pursue higher education, are in no position to question and rebel against this system and at the most any student unrest that does take place these days is with regard to getting scholarships to defray the high expenses of college education and not about the content of this education and the fact that this education is geared to producing meek cogs of the capitalist system. The Central Government has now proposed that the University Grants Commission, which controls both the course content and funding of universities both public and private in this country, is to be discontinued and replaced by a Higher Education Commission of India. The government funded universities and colleges are to be provided more autonomy with regard to deciding on course content and securing funding and this has been construed by many as an attempt by the Government to further reduce its already meagre funding of higher education under the figleaf of allowing more autonomy to decide on course content. Of course most univeristies are hopelessly outdated in their course content in terms of the needs of the capitalist system and also totally irrelevant from the point of view of the needs of a people centred socio-economy but it is unlikely that without Government funding they will be able to improve their capabilities and relevance in this regard. Faculty and students of universities have already begun protesting this move as it comes on the heels of a sharp decline in funding of higher education both in terms of reducing faculty and research funds and also cutting down on scholarships for students. Government funding of school education is already pathetic and consequently most school education in this country both public and private is in a shambles already resulting in an elitist private education system that produces encyclopaedias but not critical thinking individuals.
In the midst of all this a storm has arisen with the West Bengal Government dictating that the Jadavpur University in Kolkata, which conducts special entrance examinations for its humanities and social sciences courses, including English Literature, will have to discontinue these tests and instead rely on the performance of students in the school leaving examinations to select its intake. The university faculty and students are up in arms in Jadavpur, saying that humanities and social sciences and especially literature, require many subjective skills which are not tested by the school leaving examinations and so are not taught in schools. These skills are better in those students who disregard the school syllabi and teaching and pursue their own reading and so do not perform as well in the school leaving examinations as those students who study to crack these examinations and so a special test is required to identify such true lovers of the humanities and social sciences. Whatever may be the merit in this claim, which needs to be independently and rigorously verified before arbitrarily ditching the current selection system as the West Bengal Government is doing, this has made me reflect on the education system as it exists which I have increasingly become critical of over the years.
I too was initially a victim of this system and so studied with gusto for examinations and cracked them to get entry into an elite institute all of four decades ago. However, when we were in school it was still possible to read outside of the syllabus as the competition was not as cut throat as it is now and so I did a lot of extra curricular reading, especially of literature, humanities and social sciences despite being formally a student of science. Moreover, in our time, college education was very cheap and so there wasn't the kind of pressure there is today when students have to pay in lakhs of rupees to get educated. Then in college I began doing quizzing in which one has to know almost everything about everything if one is to win the competitions. Consequently, I began reading philosophy also since often questions would be asked regarding this or that philosopher. However, on reading philosophy, both eastern and western, I became critical of the formal education I was receiving to become an engineer. So I began reading much more of philosophy and politics and very little of engineering. Eventually, I did become an engineer at the end of five years of study but by then I had become an anarchist questioning the need for huge centralised systems controlled by capital and kept running by the products of an education system geared to perpetuating the dominance of capitalist industrialism to the detriment of both society and the environment.
The first question that I asked myself was the relevance of most of what I had been formally taught in school and college to promoting a more sustainable and equitable social and economic system in the country. Throughout my formal education I had never once been prompted to critically review the received wisdom even though this is a basic desideratum of both natural and social science. All the great philosophies, regardless of whether they are western or eastern, are circumspect about knowledge and stress the importance of critical review. Yet throughout my school and college education I had never been taught to be critical of what I was being taught. This has become even more so these days when students have to score 100 out of 100 in their school leaving examinations and crack arcane and extremely difficult math and science questions in two minutes to get into elite engineering and medicine colleges. When in life one continually faces intractable problems which force one to be critical and spend hours and days to solve them, what is the point of wasting years together studying how not to be critical and to solve problems in two minutes flat. Thus, it is not surprising that humanity as a whole and we Indians in particular are beset with insurmountable problems that we are not being able to solve and are instead serving out time as lackeys of a global capitalism that is running singlemindedly towards an ecological apocalypse.
So anything of value that I have learnt in life, primarily after college, is from critically reading content required to solve problems that I have encountered in pursuit of my goal of establishing a sustainable and equitable human system. I have also learned how to live minimally from the Bhil Adivasis with whom I have spent the most part of my life. I was surprised to find after this reading that despite Gandhi being eulogised as the Father of the Nation and being accorded the status of a saint for advocating ascetic village centred development, there was neither an attempt to place him in the context of both ancient Indian and modern Western anarchism from which he had borrowed considerably nor a critical review of the obstacles that capitalism places in the path of anarchism and had in Gandhi's. There is a near complete silence about the fact that Gandhi was heavily funded by Indian capitalists and so the policies that were eventually followed by the Indian National Congress both before and after independence were such as to favour the growth of these capitalists at the expense of the rural masses for whom Gandhi shed so many tears and advocated the revolutionary oceanic circle anarchist development paradigm. Even though I believe that a more equitable and sustainable civilisation must be an anarchist and so decentralised one I nevertheless realise that given the industrial development that has taken place it is difficult to go back to a less industrial system which involves more physical labour and lesser extraction of resources. This is the biggest challenge of our times - to bring about a sustainable and equitable development system but the education system is not addressing this challenge at all.
The major problem is that even if one rejects the formal education system it is difficult to sideline it. Simply because it is next to impossible to raise resources in the capitalist system without a certificate of  having completed such an education. Such is the devastation wrought among the masses by the capitalist system that it is difficult to pursue anarchist goals through voluntary contributions from them. A classical Catch 22 situation where one must reject the capitalist education system to be able to build up a challenge to it but if one does so then one is left without resources to mount this challenge!! Throughout my activist career I have had to source funds from the capitalist system and I have done so by flaunting my degree in engineering from an elite institute. Later, to enhance my earning capabilities I did a Phd too. Initially, I did not get entry into any university because they insisted that I would have to do course work for two years before I could start my research. My plea that I had already done considerable research and published it in reputed journals and so did not need any further training, which is another cooked up criteria to perpetuate capitalist control of education, fell on deaf ears. Anyway I finally managed to wiggle in to a new Phd programme started by a private university but even there I finally had to write my thesis in a pre-determined format even though I found it to be very restrictive. The only advantage is that I can now more forcefully present my anti-capitalist and anti-statist views because of the fact that I am a Phd!!
Coming back to philosophy which is what started my own true and joyous educational journey, all the great philosophers were free thinkers totally unshackled by the kind of regimented learning that takes place in schools and colleges these days. The university system of the twentieth century onwards has not produced a single philosopher of any weight as compared to those of the ancient and medieval times. What the philosophers of our times do, is just chew the cud of what has gone before!!! Even celebrated ones like Russel, Sartre and Camus. Though there is something to be said for the critical theorists, especially Marcuse, Marxism generally has degenerated into a farce!! Therefore, there is an urgent need to free education from the straight jacket that it has been transformed into. Instead of wasting time learning tons of subjects which people rarely use in life later on, we have to let children learn what they want within a broad framework of sustainability and equity. Unfortunately, unless children and their parents can throw off the yoke of capitalist job seeking, this will not be possible. One has to take the risk and do one's own thing. Especially since these days with the internet one does not have to rely on formal enrollment in a brick and mortar college anymore. I don't see many young people doing this even though I did it in college at a time when the opportunities for such educational moonshining were limited, mainly because of the kind of regimented schooling that they have received and also because of the huge expenditure of higher education which forces them to think of earning money after graduation instead of doing something worthwhile. I have offered many young people the opportunity to work at the grassroots and live minimally while trying to learn about the problems there and finding solutions for them. Till date not a single one has taken up this offer. The lust for joyous and free learning seems to have been killed by capitalist gate keeping.