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, December 4, 2017

The Beauty and Functionality of Kaash

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

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

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

Friday, November 24, 2017

Love, Death and Dhokha

The interaction between modernity and the Bhil Adivasis has not been a very happy one historically. Even though over the years, with the broadening of the reach of liberal democracy and the market in India and the benefits of affirmative action, things have improved to some extent for some of the Adivasis, the large majority continue to eke out a very precarious existence on the margins.  Two stories that unfolded over the past few months underline this.
The first story is about a young boy and girl who are studying in class twelve. Their parents had sent them, when they were very young, to study in a government residential co-education school in Ratlam district. The boy was a Barela Adivasi from Dewas district and the girl a Bhil Adivasi from Jhabua district. This particular school is famous because it offers fairly good education as compared to other government schools and is free. Many of its students have later landed good government jobs and so it is sought after. The parents of the boy and girl too thought their wards would go on to make good in life and so put them in this school even though it was far away from their homes. However, the boy and girl, who were studying in the same class, fell in love and decided to bunk school and elope.
Then all hell broke loose. The Bhils of Jhabua have a long standing custom that if a boy elopes with a girl then his family has to pay a hefty penalty to the girl's family many times the customary bride price. Over the years the bride price in Jhabua has increased tremendously as the Adivasis migrate to Gujarat to work as construction labourers and sharecroppers and earn in lakhs of rupees annually. The girl's father complained to the police and registered a criminal case against the boy of having abducted and raped his daughter. As both the girl and the boy were minors, the case went to the juvenile court. The boy's father came to know only after the police from Jhabua came searching in his village with the police from the local police station. The boy and the girl were living in Indore, meanwhile working as construction labourers. The father of the boy then went searching along with the police and handed over the boy and the girl to the latter. The boy was sent to a children's remand home after being produced in the juvenile court and the girl was sent to her father's home.
The father of the girl then placed a demand of Rs 5 lakhs with the father of the boy as a combination of penalty and bride price to settle the case. The father of the boy said that the bride price in Dewas in his community was only Rs 12,000 and he would at the most pay a penalty of Rs 8,000. All this was going on via phone as neither of the parents dared to visit each other fearing violence. Given the wide gap between the demand and the payment proposition obviously no agreement could be reached. The father of the girl then threatened to make his daughter give evidence against the boy and have him convicted. However, this was complicated by the fact that the girl once again ran away and phoned the boy to meet her in Indore and then they once again began to live together and work as construction workers. The father of the boy then became a little more intransigent and told the father of the girl that he could do what he wanted but there was no question of paying lakhs of rupees to him.
This is when I came into the scene. The father of the girl approached Lakshman Singh who is an activist with the Lok Jagriti Manch in Jhabua to resolve the issue and he got in touch with me over phone asking me to intervene in the matter since the boy's father was a member of the Adivasi Morcha Sangathan in Dewas with which I am associated. I told him I would have to get the details before I could be of any help. Once I got the details it became clear to me that the dispute was with regard to the money to be given as bride price cum penalty. I told Lakshman that the matter could be settled only if the girl's father agreed to the much lower bride price cum penalty of around Rs 20,000 or so which was a just amount and there was no way in which lakhs of rupees could be paid. I also told him that since the matter was a sensitive one in which the complaint was that a minor girl had been abducted and raped there was no way in which we could formally intervene and it should be resolved between the girl's father and boy's father and the boy and girl. Finally after a lot of heated exchanges between the boy's father and girl's father over the phone over a few weeks, the matter was resolved with the girl denying her complaint in court and the boy was acquitted. The boy's father, still fearing violence from the girl's family, did not visit Jhabua and sent the boy with Rs 15,000 to settle the matter!!! The girl going against her father and wishing to live with the boy turned the scales in the latter's favour.
The above story was about love, which is a major aspect of Bhil Adivasi culture, and the Dhokha or betrayal is by the modern economic and legal systems which create distortions in how this love plays out in reality. Adivasis traditionally marry once they reach adolescence, though with modern education there has been a brake on this as boys and girls who are pursuing their studies, delay getting married. Not always though as in the present case. The boy and girl in this case are still pursuing their studies and will give their twelfth board examination this year but they decided to take time off to elope in the meanwhile and are now living together after a small interlude of forced separation. There are many such cases where the girls' families, influenced by market forces, demand huge sums of money as bride price cum penalty and file police cases to force the boy's family to pay up. The boy lands up in the children's remand home, being a minor and eventually in most cases the matter is resolved with an agreement about the bride price cum penalty. In only a very few cases is the relationship broken up. If it had not been for the market forces making them greedy, the Bhil Adivasis in Jhabua would not have used the legal system to try and extort money from the boys' families.
The next story is about an unnatural death and once again betrayal by the modern system. A woman who is an active member of the Adivasi Shakti Sangathan  was bitten by a poisonous snake in her home. This snake had been there in her home for the past week or so eating the chicken that she was raising. Instead of killing the snake, the woman and her husband used to place incense sticks before its hole and ask it to leave!! Obviously it did not leave and one morning it bit the woman while she was giving feed to the chicken which were covered in a basket.
The woman raised a hue and cry and immediately her husband and neighbours came and killed the snake and then took her to a traditional medicine man. The medicine man said that he would not be able to treat her and she was rushed to the government community health centre in Udainagar nearby. There was no anti snake venom injection in stock in the health centre and none were available in any of the many drug stores nearby. The doctor at the health centre referred to the woman to the bigger hospital in Indore. However, the woman died while in transit to Indore which is about 50 kms away.
The Udainagar area is a snake prone area and there are quite a few cases of snake bites with some of them being of lethal snakes like cobras and kraits. Our farm in Pandutalav also has quite a few snakes which surface from time to time and we have had to kill a few of the more dangerous kind. In this case the woman and her husband decided not to kill the snake or chase it away and instead relied on beseeching it with incense sticks. Eventually, when the snake bit her the woman could not be saved because the people did not know the basics of first aid in case of snake bite, which involves tying a tight tourniquet above the bite to prevent the venomous blood from circulating and making an incision on the bite to suck the blood out using the anus of a chicken. Secondly the government health system and the private drug stores do not stock anti snake venom despite the area being prone to snake bite deaths. Thus, once again there is a betrayal by the modern system of the poor Adivasis. The market will obviously not provide for the Adivasis who do not have the money to pay for its services and so in the absence of proper public health services which do not cover even basic medical problems, let alone specialised ones like snake bites, the Adivasis are left to their own devices.
There are two NGOs working in the area. One is ours and another is a fairly big one. Both these NGOs do health work and spread awareness of the procedures to be adopted in medical emergencies. Yet the woman could not be saved.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Grand Old Man of the Fringe

Literature has always provided me with great inspiration to live a life of passion. However, over the past decade or so various circumstances have combined to keep me away from reading literature. Even when I feel like doing so I prefer to re-read classic stuff rather than venture to read new work which I mostly find pedestrian!! My connection with Bengali literature has become even more remote even though some of the best books I have read are in Bengali. In recent times it is because of book presents from my friends that I have read a few Bengali books. One friend presented me with a collection of later modern Bengali poetry and the anthologies of the poetry of Shakti Chattopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay. I have never been a fan of poetry and so had given the later modern bengali poets the miss earlier having read only the likes of Tagore, Nazrul and Sukanta. I did not gain much from reading these later poets even though they are acknowledged and much awarded masters of their craft.
Then my good friend Ramaswamy announced on Facebook that he had recovered a whole set of books of Subimal Misra in the latter's home and people could buy them. Ramaswamy, as another mutual friend once said, is a master of Bengali slang!! He speaks Bengali fluently as he was born and brought up in Kolkata despite being a Tamilian. Ramaswamy, however, had never read Bengali literature and so wanted to fill this gap and asked a friend about some offbeat author to read as he wasn't keen on reading the well known ones. This friend directed him to the works of Subimal Misra.

Subimal Misra is a unique personality in modern Bengali fiction. He has published only in little magazines, which are a distinctive feature of Bengali literary culture and never in commercial magazines. He has broken the established notions of the short story and the novel and come up with narratives that have no structure and concentrate on exposing the underside of human life which generally gets papered over. He has used the cinematic techniques of the French New Wave film director, Jean Luc Godard, the montage and the cut, in his works and has provided empty spaces in them inviting the reader to use his own imagination to write and give completeness to the stories and novels. Misra is the ultimate sceptic, severely critical of both capitalism and the kind of socialism that has been implemented to fight it and this scepticism is expressed in dark humour.
Ramaswamy, a diehard anarchist like I, became so enamoured of Misra's work ( it is he who had clicked Misra's photo above, when Misra was still mobile as he is now bedridden, in the iconic Calcutta Book Fair) that he undertook the onerous task of translating some of his anti-stories into English and then getting them published by established capitalist international publishers!!! So now Misra is not just the toast of a select anti-establishment coterie of the Bengali little magazine literary fringe, but of  anarchists and anti establishment freaks the world over. For the first time in his life, Misra is now earning money from his writings. ( He never received anything from his writings in the little magazines obviously since these are all voluntary efforts which run on shoestring budgets and made a living as a school teacher. He then published collections of his short stories and novels with savings from his salary much to the chagrin of his wife who said that the money spent on his publications if used wisely would have given them a better life (Touches of Xanthippe and Socrates here!!)). Lately he has named his publishing enterprise as the Underground Publishers!!
Ramaswamy said in the Facebook post that Misra was now ill and required money for his treatment and so it would be nice if people bought these books that he had recovered from his home. Since Misra had said that people could pay as much as they wanted for these books over and above the listed price,  as he left it to the readers to decide their own price in the same way as he left it to them to decide their own meaning of his works, so I bought the whole set of books that were available with Ramaswamy after paying a suitable price and after a long time read short stories and novels in Bengali again.
I can only say that the experience has been an enjoyable one. Nothing angers me more than the way in which the human race has got straight jacketed into institutions, rules and regulations and almost universally is wasting its time chasing money instead of fulfilment. Passion for life has been replaced by an insane rush to accumulate money which has not been dented any bit by the recent ill conceived demonetisation foray. Such is the control of this rush for money that I find myself chasing it also, just to be able to survive and do something creative on the side!!! Subimal Misra has consistently challenged institutions and norms and made fun of them through his dark humour and has even broken with the accepted forms of the short story, novel and non-fiction writing and published in little magazines and self published his books to retain his literary independence and his abhorrence of structure. He is the master of the anti-story written without any structure comprising arbitrary montages and cuts of the darker side of life and with any kind of overall meaning possible depending on the worldview of the reader. Thus, he has gone one step ahead of Godard and created a free form literature that is unparalleled the world over. As opposed to Marquez's magical realism we can deem Misra's oevre as anti-magical realism!! He has written anti-novels also but they get mixed up with non-fiction, political comment and literary criticism and so don't really qualify as great literature in my understanding in which literature should be only fiction devoid of any socio-political haranguing and analysis. However, his anti-stories are really great stuff that, while providing a searing and humorous criticism of modern decadence and hypocrisy, also provide inspiration for living a life on the fringe cocking a snook at the establishment.
Many of his anti-stories are available in English Translation and there is a lot of literary criticism also of his works available on the internet but I will discuss here a recent one from his last published collection "Kika Cut" because it represents in many ways the quintessential Misra. The name of the anti-story is "Lenin is Lenin even if he had Syphilis (The bus won't start just because you bang its sides)". The book Kika Cut itself is a fantastic composition containing among other things a lengthy interview with Sartre, where he emphatically says that the author must not become an institution but must rather leave things open for the readers to interpret his writings in their own way and insert their own meaning into it. There are empty spaces provided for readers to write their own stuff but unfortunately these are not there in the part of the book where this anti-story is placed and so I am writing in this blog post of mine which can be considered to be an extended part of Kika Cut!!!! The book is a tour de force in montage and cut writing as everything is mixed up and at times one finds oneself reading various articles and anti-stories and the Sartre interview together along with the criticism of Misra's work by his readers all at one go. Life is actually all mixed up and we desperately try to order it for convenience instead of living it as it comes and the book Kika Cut is an invitation to live life as it is - chaotic and aimless. The book starts with a riddle which the reader has to solve. There is no answer of course to the riddle as it all depends on the reader!!!
Coming to the anti-story, there is a short paragraph at the beginning saying that the world has become a market and everything is being sold in it from the objectification of women in films to Lenin's posters in the World Trade Centre in New York.
Set in a village in Bengal, there are five narratives in the anti-story - Lenin's poems, the fight of the farmers against the marauding wild boar at night to save their crops, the meeting of the Gram Sabha to adjudicate on a formal complaint of domestic violence by a woman against her husband, the sexual escapades of a man with a teenaged girl who is a domestic help and the sexual escapades with an unmarried but ageing woman and her unmarried sisters of a young man from the city who has come to the village on a holiday. All four narratives proceed simultaneously interspersing each other without any warning sometimes a paragraph at a time and sometimes a line or two at a time. Eventually all the narratives remain inconclusive like life, presenting just montages fitted in cuts.
Lenin's poems that have been cut into the anti-story are a dark portrayal of Tsarist oppression of the masses in Russia but there is no call in them to the oppressed to revolt unlike there is in his political writings. The narrative of the poor farmers fighting the wild boar too is a depressing one, from the point of view of the farmers, as it is the wild boar that win even if the farmers unite to try and control them. The most interesting is the meeting of the Gram Sabha which is being held for the first time as never before has a married woman filed a formal complaint against her husband for domestic violence. The way the meeting proceeds clearly shows the extent of patriarchal control of village life in Bengal. The narratives of the sexual escapades also underline this patriarchy which makes men constantly seek sex and women too fulfil their desires despite a veneer of ethicality that masks the rampant underlying sexuality. All in all it shows that rural life in Bengal is complicated by various dark forces not the least that of the global market that has commodified everything as was mentioned in the beginning of the anti-story.
So this brings us to the title of the anti-story. It refers to the thesis propounded by some on the basis of some medical evidence of a peripheral nature that Lenin suffered from syphilis and this was the cause of his premature death in 1924 but that it was hushed up. Lenin tried to make the revolution successful in a country that he knew to be deeply patriarchal and feudal as is clearly portrayed in the poems that have been cut into the narrative. Thus, he attempted the impossible and so the statement that Lenin is Lenin who despite having known of the difficulty of bringing about a revolution in a pre capitalist country nevertheless tried to do so even though he was not in the best of health at most times. The subtitle is also interesting as it says that the bus won't start even if one bangs the sides. The revolution won't be successful even if one launches one if the society in which it is being launched is not ready for it. Rural Bengal even today is highly feudal and patriarchal as is most of India and the industrial proletariat has been atomised and depoliticised and so just shouting slogans of long live revolution are not going to bring about one!!!! Especially since the world is today, both economically and intellectually controlled by the market. The world we live in is a complex one and not amenable to simple solutions.
While, I generally liked Misra's approach to literature, breaking the confines of structure, especially his open ended story telling around events of a dark nature which leaves a lot to the imagination of the reader, I feel that he dwells a little too much on sexual intimacies between men and women. It is true that there is considerable amount of sex going on outside marriage in this country, with an increasing number getting caught on video indulging in it but it is within the framework of patriarchy and mostly oppressive of women even if in some cases women do enjoy themselves. Literature, as an insight into the complexities of the human condition,  is not enhanced by the graphic description of sex between men and women and in one case in this anti-story between a man and a minor girl. However, this grand old man of the Bengali literary fringe has to be respected for his uncompromising writings against the institutional hypocrisy that has strangulated human life. He has gone even further than Sartre as he does not philosophise and he does not provide any solutions - anti-magical realism. After reading him one gets further strength to live a life free of myths and masks.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Black Cash Remains King!!

A great deal has been written for and against the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes carried out on the stroke of midnight on 8th November 2016. Obviously a measure of this magnitude in an economy as large as that of India will have both positive and negative impacts. Since the negative impacts have been dealt with in great detail, I will dwell here on the positive impacts and argue that these impacts are not very great and could have been achieved much more efficiently without carrying out demonetisation.
The general rule of thumb assumption in the absence of rigorous data collection is that the black economy is 50 per cent of the official GDP or the black economy constitutes one third of the total economy official and black combined. Consequently it can be assumed that the black money also constitutes about one third of the total money in circulation. Therefore, given that about Rs 15 lakh crores were in circulation in the form of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, it was assumed that about Rs 5 lakh crores of black money would be rendered useless as they would not be deposited. Since the money in circulation is a liability of the Reserve Bank of India which it has to pay to the people of India on demand, extinguishing of Rs 5 lakh crores of money would mean a huge surplus for the RBI which would then accrue to the Government as a dividend. So, the Government thought that demonetisation would be a master stroke that would not only remove Rs 5 lakh crores of black money from the economy but would also give it a dividend of a similar amount.
However, within a fortnight of the demonetisation it became clear that the Government's expectations were being grossly belied. Instead of holding back from depositing their black cash hordes, black money holders were using various ingenious means to deposit them wholesale and within the first month itself some 85 per cent of the total Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes in circulation had been deposited!! ( Estimates are that eventually more than 100 per cent of the notes demonetised will be deposited because there was leakage from the presses where these notes were printed of which the RBI had no knowledge!!!) these Thus, the expectation of the Government that there would be a huge blow on black money as portrayed in this sand art below was totally belied and the Government panicked.
 Hastily it greatly bolstered the Income Tax Department's data analysis wing in Ghaziabad to find out who were depositing these notes in such large numbers so as to be able to track the black money holders. So the emphasis shifted to this huge data tracking exercise and the banks which were anyway burdened with exchanging and depositing notes were also mandated to send the records of these transactions to the Income Tax department. So now after a whole year of this tracking exercise the IT department has considerable data on who has deposited how much money in demonetised notes in excess of the Rs 2 lakh limit for savings bank accoutns and Rs 12 lakh limit for current accounts.
The results of this data analysis are as follows -
a) 18 lakh accounts have suspect deposits amounting to a total of Rs 2.9 lakh crores
b) 12 lakh of these accounts holders have filed responses to notice sent to them through emails or their Permanent Account Number (PAN) accounts.
c) 11.44 lakh PAN were deactivated because they were found to be duplicate ones allotted to the same assessee.
The problem now is that each and every one of these accounts will have to be investigated through the time consuming process of physical scrutiny of supporting documents, both in the case of those who have responded to the notices and those who haven't, to ascertain whether the money deposited was earned legally and whether income tax was paid on this earning. Given that under the normal course the IT department scrutinises only about 300,000 returns every year given its lack of manpower, it can easily be imagined how difficult it will be to scrutinise all the 18 lakh accounts with suspect deposits. So for the time being the IT department has said it will scrutinise only about 30,000 of the most glaring cases. The story does not end there as in most cases the assessees are savvy enough to file false documents in scrutiny to prove that their earnings are legal and that taxes have been paid. In such circumstances the IT department has to carry out search and seizure operations on the premises of the assessee involving hundreds of staff and police personnel. Such search and seizure operations are only a few thousand in number each year. Thus, all this hype about having detected Rs 2.9 lakh crores of suspicious deposits will take a very long time to materialise into actual taxes being paid to the Government unless the number of IT department staff is sufficiently hiked to take care of this extra demonetisation load. So far the increase in taxes for financial year 2016-17 has been in line with what has been taking place in earlier years also indicating that the demonetisation process has yielded only actionable data which has not transformed into higher taxes in the absence of action!!!
Apart from this a massive drive has been carried out against shell companies resulting in the deregistration of some 2.3 lakh such companies and the unearthing of about Rs 17000 crores that have been deposited and withdrawn through them post demonetisation. Also a campaign has been launched against "benami" property or property held in the name of other persons.
Finally it has been claimed that demonetisation has led to the increase in digital transactions in the economy. While the lack of cash initially and the waiving of charges on them did boost digital transactions for some time, as charges were reintroduced and the economy was remonetised, the digital transactions fell once again. Initially the Government had planned to remonetise to only about Rs 13 lakh crores or so instead of the Rs 17 lakh crores that existed before November 8th 2016. However, once the data for the GDP and jobs came in for the first quarter of 2017-18 indicating a sharp decline in both, the Government once again panicked and increased the remonetisation and so now the money supply is close to 15.5 lakh crores and still rising. Given that not much has changed as far as generation of black money is concerned, one can safely assume that one third of this is black money with huge transactions still going on in cash and so we are back to square one and as the saying in Hindi goes - after digging a hill we are left with a small mouse as reward!!!!
Thus, the only concrete gain from demonetisation is that duplicate PANs have been weeded out and there is greater collection and analysis of financial transaction data but without any idea as to when the action taken on this data will lead to actual increase in taxes and penalties paid and greater compliance in future. But demonetisation was not necessary for this. Earlier too there was a process of data collection of black transactions involving the reporting by banks of cash deposits of more than Rs 50,000 and high value bank transactions. If these had been diligently tracked by the IT department then dealings in black money would have been unearthed because the black money continually enters and exits the banking system instead of being kept totally outside of it. But this tracking was not being done to the extent necessary. It was only after demonetisation failed in its primary aim of extinguishing black money that the IT department pulled up its socks and initiated action against duplicate PAN holders, excess demonetised note depositors, shell companies and holders of benami property. But given the lack of staff it will be extremely difficult to convert this into extra tax income and better compliance in future, due to the ingenuity of tax evaders. So Black Cash continues to remain the King in India despite all the bluff and bluster of the ruling party!!!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Bagheli Poet and his Juicy Wheat

Traditionally Madhya Pradesh used to be the best producer of wheat both in quality and quantity in the country. These were the tall dryland varieties which were sown with organic fertilisers and without irrigation. Then the Green Revolution was introduced with the hybrid dwarf varieties and higher productivity due to irrigation and chemical fertilisers and the traditional varieties were ignored. However, a few farmers still continued to grow these varieties because of their better taste and nutritional qualities. Then as the productivity of the green revolution wheat began to decline and its cost of production began to increase due to the reduction in subsidies for fertilisers and irrigation, farmers began to switch back to the traditonal varieties. While most of these traditional varieties were durum wheat which is good for making pasta or sewaian, a kind of indian noodles, there were some aestevium varieties also which are good for making chapaties or hand made bread. One such variety is locally called Sharbati or juicy and was selected and developed all of fifty years ago as the c 306 variety. It is this veteran variety that is the most cultivated and commands the highest price among wheat varieties today.
Subhadra decided to sow this wheat on our farm and so began our search for this variety. A little research, however, revealed that, as usually happens, its popularity and the high price that it commands had led to many spurious varieties were being passed off as Sharbati. Most common among these was Sujatha which too is a variant of Sharbati but not of the same quality as the c 306. So this led us into a search for the true Sharbati variety. As a result we found not only the c 306 but also an extraordinary personality.

We met up with Babulal Dahiya, a farmer in Satna district of Madhya Pradesh. Babulalji is a retired postal official but right from his young age he began helping his father with farming even while studying. He also liked poetry in his native Bagheli dialect and became a well known poet in this dialect reciting his own poetry and the old Bagheli folklore. In the folklore he found mention of various varieties of rice which were not easily available. This intrigued him and he began to search for these varieties and then after getting them he began growing them on 2 acres of his farm. In this way over the years he has collected and conserved more than a hundred traditional varieties of cereals, pulses and vegetables. He has now inspired many farmers around his native village of Pithaurabad to grow these varieties and has single handedly started a mass movement for the conservation of indigenous varieties. Thus whether it is the conservation and promotion of Bagheli folklore or of indigenous seeds, Babulalji has become a crusader par excellence.
He had conserved the c 306 variety also and so I went and met him and procured the seeds from him to sow on our farm. When we began our experiment with sustainable agriculture by starting farming we had never imagined that it would lead to such a rich experience not only in terms of farming but also in meeting such extraordinary personalities.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Celebrating Resistance

The biggest take away for me from the three decades of struggle at the grassroots is the privilege of having been close to some of the most extraordinary people in India. If one meets them casually somewhere one will not guess that these people are extraordinary but all of them have a fire burning inside and have contributed to the rich tradition of anti-establishment activism in this country. I was reminded of this the other day when I came across this iconic photograph that came on my timeline on Facebook.
This is a picture of a meeting of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in 2001 in Kasrawad village near Badwani to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the struggle featuring some of the people from Alirajpur. The people from Alirajpur are sitting together in a discussion.
The person sitting on the left is Vania of Jhandana village. When we in the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) in Alirajpur began initiating the campaign for proper rehabilitation of the oustees of the Sardar Sarovar dam in 1986, Vania was sceptical and even said that nothing would come of it. However, a few months later there was a problem in his village in which the Police was threatening a villager with a criminal case because his dog had bitten and killed the dog of a neighbour!!! Vania approached the KMCS and we intervened to solve the matter amicably in the traditional Adivasi panchayat and warded off the police. With that began a long association for Vania with the KMCS and the NBA. Among those in the picture above, Vania along with Amit Bhatnagar sitting with his son, Sarang, on his lap and Bawa next to him in the white turban were once arrested and severely beaten up by the police after a protest action against the forcible survey of the houses in Anjanbara village. The great thing about Vania is that not only did he fight the state for his rights but also fought with the NBA later when he felt it was not helping his cause!! When it became clear after 2000 that the dam would not be stopped and so rehabilitation would be necessary, he broke with the NBA and opted for rehabilitation in Gujarat even though this led to him being labelled along with another Adivasi stalwart of the NBA in Alirajpur, Dhankia, as an agent of the state.
The man sitting just behind him in a turban is Luharia of Jalsindhi village. He is another doughty fighter against the state who sacrificed his home in the rising rivers of the water rather than uproot it and rebuild it higher up in the hills. He is a poor man with very little land yet he stuck to his stand of not going to Gujarat for rehabilitation.
The smiling person in the Kurta with long hair is another rebel Jacob Nellithanam.  Jacob ditched his studies for a graduation in science and instead joined Baba Amte initially and later branched out on his own to fight for establishing sustainable agriculture based on indigenous seeds and farming methods. He has spent a lifetime in doing sustainable farming and campaigning against the devastation wrought by modern chemical and bio-engineered agriculture. He has been a close associate of the KMCS and has helped us to initiate sustainable agriculture and conservation of indigenous seeds programmes.
At the right end of the picture is Jayashree Bhalerao, whose husband is Amit, a person who came to the Narmada valley inspired by a lecture by Medha Patkar in Pune and decided to stay on and fight for the rights of the Adivasis. When Amit and Jayashree had children, Revli and Sarang, they had to decide about their education. They did not want to send the children off to some distant school as there was no good school in Alirajpur. So they decided to set up a school to teach both their own children and the children of Adivasis. This is how the residential school Aadharshila Learning Centre came into existence in Sakar village in Badwani district. In the two decades of its existence, Aadharshila, has provided an alternative pedagogy providing quality education to children which questions the dominant development paradigm which has devastated Adivasi livelihoods.
Bawa is another uncompromising fighter against the Sardar Sarovar dam who has remained steadfast in his opposition to it. He is famous for having written a letter to the then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, detailing the reasons for Adivasis preferring the hard life in the remote hills to one with modern amenities. According to him - "We have lived in the forest for generations. The forest is our moneylender and banker. In hard times we go to the forest. We build our houses from its wood. From its rushes and splints we weave screens. From the forests we make baskets and cots, ploughs and hoes, and many other useful things... We get various kinds of grasses; and when the grasses become dry in summer, we still get leaves... If there is a famine we survive by eating roots and tubers. When we fall sick, our medicine men bring us back to health by giving us leaves, roots, bark from the forest. We collect and sell gum, tendu leaves, bahera, chironji and mahua. The forest is like our mother; we have grown up in its lap. We know how to live by suckling at her breast. We know the name of each and every tree, shrub and herb; we know their uses. If we were made to live in a land without forests, then all this knowledge that we have cherished for generations will be useless and slowly we will forget it all". Right till the end he has fought the dam and finally he has been awarded a compensation of Rupees Sixty Lakhs by the Supreme Court for his perseverance and now he lives up in the hills above his old submerged lands.
Finally, there is Parthiv Shah who has clicked this photo and so he is not in it!! Parthiv is an alumnus of the National Institute of Design and a world renowned photographer and designer. He could have easily chosen a career in the corporate world but instead he has devoted himself to portraying the marginalised. He has done photo stories of mill workers, peasants, Dalits and Adivasis and their struggles like this one.
Thus, regardless of the fact that the dominant narrative of our times is that of late capitalist greed that is devastating nature and livelihoods across the world, there are a few people who discard the lures that a consumerist capitalist world have to offer and stick to their convictions and fight to bring about a more sustainable and equitable society in their own ways.  



Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Fruit of the Forest

Our farm in Pandutalav is on the edge of a forest. It reminds Subhadra of her childhood in her village where her parents' farm too was on the edge of the forest. So the first thing she did after we got the farm was to make a trip to Chhattisgarh and get the many fruit creepers that grow in the forest there to plant on the edges of our farm. These creepers have now begun to come to fruition and Subhadra is in seventh heaven. We are all now enjoying these fruits. One tuber that is particularly tasty and nutritious is what is known in Chhattisgarh as Dang Kanda and which is available in western Madhya Pradesh also being called Wori Kanda by the Bhils of Alirajpur. The picture below shows a basket full of these tubers on our farm.

Not only is this tuber very tasty to eat either plain boiled or as part of a vegetable dish it is also very nutritious. Dioscorea bulbifera as it is called in botany is constituted by 2.1 per cent protein and 79 per cent carbohydrate while the rest is fibre and lipids. It has 317 ppm iron and 305 kcal/gram of energy. Apart from this it has medicinal properties in curing swellings, boils, ulcers, dysentry and piles. It is also used as a tonic for cardiac and nervous illnesses. 
While researching the botanical and medicinal properties of this tuber I found that there are hundreds of such fruits of the forest which are beneficial in many ways. Traditionally the Adivasis used to rely on these to boost their nutrition and cure themselves of disease. However, now not only are these plants fast disappearing due to deforestation but there is also a much greater danger.
This is the change in mindset. Modern civilisation calls the Adivasis junglees precisely because they rely on these fruits of the forest. Therefore, the Adivasis these days shun these traditional foods and instead try to eat the food of the urban people. Since they do not have the financial wherewithal to adopt urban food habits they end up being malnourished.
When Subhadra cooked the Dang Kanda and offered it to our neighbours on the farm they refused to eat it saying it was junglee!! Subhadra of course would have none of that and scolded them roundly and forced them to eat the kandas. But it is unlikely that they will plant these creepers on the edges of their farms and eat the fruit regularly. 
The other day an academic anthropologist said that I was being romantic in finding value in the traditional practices of the Adivasis because in reality those practices and the traditional lifestyle they constituted were deficient if evaluated in modern terms. This is the kind of modern hubris that has destroyed not only the Adivasis but is also slowly but surely destroying the whole of humanity. Anthropologists these days come and do field work in Adivasi areas for their doctoral degrees and then rarely ever come back again once they have become tenured academics and prefer to look down on the traditional Adivasi lifestyle as being pre-modern and deficient and labelling those few of us still left revering their indigenous knowledge as romantic!!  

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Retreat of Mobilisation for Women's Rights

More than two decades back in 1996 Subhadra and I got a fellowship from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation (JCMF) to work on improving the reproductive and sexual health and rights of Bhil women. This was part of a programme initiated by the JCMF in the four countries of Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria and India to build a cadre of activists who would take forward the movement for securing women's rights. This programme was launched at a heady time when The International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 and the World Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995 had established firmly the following basic tenets of women's reproductive and sexual rights -
1. Bodily Integrity - All women have the right to protect their bodies and have control over them. Thus women cannot be deprived of their sexual and productive abilities by men or the state and they cannot be made to use these abilities according to the latter's whims and fancies.
2. Personhood - Women will take their own decisions regarding reproduction and sexual behaviour and nobody can interfere in this.
3. Equality - Women are equal to men in all respects and so the gender division of labour under which women have been given the work of exclusively tending the children and the elderly and also doing housework has to be abolished and men should also take up these responsibilities and allow women to participate more equally in social, economic and political activities. Apart from this women's health issues should be better addressed on par with those of men.
4. Diversity - The differences arising from difference in values, culture, religion, class, nationality and the like should be respected.
The programme ran for a little more than a decade and in that time over 300 activists and researchers across the four nations and 77 in India were given fellowships. Recently, the JCMF decided to review the programme and a rigorous evaluation consisting of an online survey, key person interviews and case studies. Yesterday some of the fellows who had responded to the survey got together to discuss the preliminary results of the evaluation and review the current situation with regard to women's reproductive and sexual rights. 
The review of the programme revealed that the fellows had done exemplary work both individually and to establish the field of reproductive and sexual health in their countries. However, the fellows themselves were not so enthusiastic about the situation of women's rights in India and especially reproductive and sexual health and rights. Patriarchy was still ascendant and despite more stringent laws that have been enacted over the past two decades, sexual rights of women and girls were being trampled at will. Public health services remained concentrated on providing maternal health services and that too at a minimal level whereas the gynaecological health of women was totally neglected.
Thus, on the ground most of the ideal points of sexual and reproductive rights enumerated at the beginning of this post are not secured and most women are doubly oppressed by patriarchy and poverty. The most worrying problem is that there is no big push for women's rights that was there two decades ago. The patriarchal forces at the world level have conspired to stall the holding of any more big conferences for women. The World Women's conference was held once every ten years since 1975 but after Beijing in 1995 there hasn't been one. Globally, the right to abortion, which is a crucial right of women, is under attack and most so in the United States of America. Funding for women's rights work both activism and research has also dwindled. Quite a few of the fellows who were running NGOs had wound them up because they had run short of funds and were unable to develop a second line of leadership and were now surviving by doing consultancies. The JCMF representative said that the Foundation was closing its very strong reproductive and sexual health programme globally and was switching its focus to Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation!! As far as the Indian Government is concerned it has always been focused on maternal health to the almost complete neglect of gynaecological health. It is in this challenging situation that we have to work to take forward the struggle for women's rights and it is indeed a daunting task.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Faithless In India

The Dalit Indian American author Sujatha Gidla in her book "Ants Among Elephants", describes a scene that is quintessential of India. Her book is a memoir of her early life in Telengana, where she was born, in which there are detailed descriptions of the Maoist movement at its inception of which her uncle was a founder. Once Charu Mazumdar, the renegade member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who broke away from that party to initiate the Maoist movement in West Bengal, came to Telengana to hold a meeting with the renegades there to spread the rebellion. Charu was already very ill and so in the remote hilly forested areas, he had not only to be carried on the shoulders of other comrades but also given rest from time to time. While he was so resting, these comrades withdrew to a distance and then said among themselves that Charu was communicating directly with Chairman Mao and he would soon arrange guns and other resources that would enable them to launch the revolution in India!! This is quintessentially India because it shows that here FAITH is king!! So even atheist revolutionaries rely on faith, in an ideology or a charismatic leader, to carry them through trying circumstances in the same way as the faithful rely on Gods.
Not that India does not have a tradition of faithlessness. Right from the ancient times, when there were the Charvaks, there have been atheists. While the Charvaks were materialists, Buddha and Mahavira were mystically inclined atheists. But the tradition of faith has been so powerful that it has completely overwhelmed the tradition of faithlessness and so both Buddhism and Jainism have become faiths converting Buddha and Mahavira into Gods.
Babaheb Ambedkar, perceptive as he was, understood this very well. He had first announced in 1935 that even though he was born one he would not die a Hindu. He realised, however, that the Dalits at large would not be able to discard their reliance on faith so easily. So he searched around for a religion that was at once fair and also provided a set of beliefs that people could hold on to. His searches led him to Buddhism, which he reinterpreted to the extent that he could compare it favourably with Marxism by reworking the teachings of the Buddha. Ambedkar heeded the advice of the Buddha regarding not blindly trusting received wisdom and instead testing it out in real life. Thus, he questioned the mystic aspects of Buddhism and much of the myth surrounding the Buddha and instead opted for an activist and rationalist Buddhism aimed at bringing about social peace rather than only the peace of mind of the individual. Consequently, for Ambedkar the concept of "Dukha" or sorrow became the exploitation of the poor and Nirvana became not a metaphysical state or attainment, but a real society founded in peace and justice. With time the rationalism of Ambedkar's Buddhism has receded and it has become a faith.
How then can one be faithless and yet be effective as a social activist in India? This was the question that I faced when I first began thinking about becoming an activist in college. I read the Upanishads and the Bhagvad Gita and liked much in them but felt uncomfortable with the assumption of a supreme spirit in them. I read Marx and again felt uncomfortable with the teleological idea that history would progress inexorably towards a stateless utopia. The French philosopher Sartre seared my existence with his ruthless analysis of the self deception that we human beings practice of thinking that we do not have the freedom to make choices for fear of the potential consequences of making a choice and deflect this responsibility of making a choice onto God or a charismatic leader. Something that he called "Bad Faith". Then, I read his contemporary Albert Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus" and it gave me the clue to being both faithless and effective.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Holocaust of the Jews and the inhuman excesses of the Stalinist dictatorship in the Soviet Union, Camus pondered over the futility of an "absurd" life that has to be lived under the mindless oppression of the faithful and their institutions, whether of the state and the church or of the political parties ostensibly fighting for liberation. Camus came to the conclusion that the faithless person, whom he called the absurd hero, would have to carry on an endless struggle against the power of the faithful in pursuit of human freedom. To this end, he reinterpreted the Hellenic myth of Sisyphus, who was cursed by Zeus to perpetually roll a rock up a hill as it rolled down again when he reached the top, in what is possibly the most eloquent philosophical statement in support of faithlessness ever - "At that subtle moment when man glances backward over this life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling. I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy".
The struggle is important not the end. At once everything fell into place. I harked back to my early readings of the Upanishads and the Bhagvad Gita and reinterpreted some of the shlokas which had always inspired me. The obvious choice is of course the famous 47th verse of the second chapter of the Gita - "You have the right to work only but never to its fruits. Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction". Read alone without the rest of the faith baggage of the Gita this is a stern statement of faithless effectiveness!!! Similarly another famous Shloka, the first of the Isaponishad, can be slightly paraphrased to remove its faith baggage and yield a gem of faithless effectiveness - "This entire universe is dependent upon primordial nature. Partake of whatever is given to you by nature and do not crave the wealth of others". While the verse from the Gita speaks of desireless work, the one from the Isaponishad speaks of desireless consumption!!! 
Later, I came to read about  the Greek philosopher Diogenes. He not only inveighed against the Gods and received wisdom but also more importantly stressed that human beings should lead a life of hard labour in harmony with nature and not accumulate property. Thus Diogenes used to scrounge around, beg and because private property had no sanctity for him, even steal to get food and shout out at the better-heeled citizens of Athens for living in luxury. His aversion to anything private extended even to his body and so he would bathe and masturbate in public!! He used to publicly say that the priests in the temple of Olympia were the "big thieves" and the rulers and the philosophers who went there to ask them to supplicate the Gods on their behalf were the "little thieves". This behaviour of his led the people of Athens to call him a "kunikos" or dog and this is how his philosophical tradition has come to be called "Cynicism".  Diogenes went an important step further in denying the paramount power of the state. Diogenes not only refused to acknowledge the power of the state he also berated people for owing allegiance to some state or other. He declared that he was a free citizen of the Cosmos meaning the whole of nature and the whole of the human race. So Diogenes can be said to be the first conscious atheistic environmental anarchist. 
 There are a whole host of colourful stories woven around this iconoclastic philosopher. On one occasion Diogenes was washing lettuce to prepare a meal when Plato came along and told him that if he had paid court to the ruler Dionysius he would not have had to wash lettuces. To this Diogenes replied that if Plato had washed lettuces then he would not have had to pay court to the ruler! On another occasion Alexander the Great came and stood next to where he was sun bathing in the street and said to him, "I am Alexander the Great ask any boon of me". Diogenes is reported to have said "I am Diogenes the Dog please get out of my sunlight". He once went round the streets with a lighted lantern in broad daylight and when people asked him why he was doing this he replied that he was searching for one true human being. His disciple Epicurus is credited with this question and answer sequence negating the existence of God - "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?" 
Thus, one can live and work faithlessly in a country where most people are faithful, both those who believe in God and those who believe in grand theories of emancipation!!! However, this drastically changes the way one works for social and economic justice. Throughout my three decades as an activist, I have never sold dreams to anyone. I have always said that there is no guarantee that we will achieve whatever we have set out to do. Sometimes we gain some small victories but largely we have not been able to reform the unjust nature of centralised human society. So while Samson was eyeless in Gaza and relied on his faith, I am faithless in India and rely on my eye for rational action!!

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Give Me Red!!

The other day a conversation with some activists prompted me to wonder as to what is the most important aspect about the social change work that we do among the Adivasis and Dalits here in Madhya Pradesh, since its large scale societal impact is close to zero!! After some thought I came to the conclusion that it is respect for the views of those we work with. Even if an idea for some programme comes from us activists, we never implement it without first sounding it out with others with whom we are working. Therefore, what little impact is there at the local level is due not a little to the fact that the participants in the programme have a major say in its design and implementation. This applies to both mass organisational and developmental work.
When we launched the gynaecological health camps for women in the slums of Indore, the first thing we did was to conduct detailed discussions with the women as to what their problems were and what they were doing to address them. Initially we were a bit apprehensive as to whether the women would open up and come to the camps for clinical examination. Many women eventually didn't. This led us to spend more time in discussions with the women to gain their confidence. These discussions have led to very good insights into how society works.
One example that is striking is that of the management of menstrual hygiene. This is a problem area mainly because of the patriarchal taboos surrounding it. Women in India, mostly use cloth during the menstrual period and then wash and dry the cloth in the shade for reuse. They have to dry it in the shade because it cannot be dried in the open under the sun because it is against the patriarchal norm that anything to do with menstruation is dirty and should be kept private. for poor women in urban areas this has become a serious problem because of lack of space which results in lack of privacy. Matters have been further compounded by the unavailability of cotton cloth for use during the periods. Earlier women used to tear old sarees to use as menstrual cloth. However, cotton clothing has become expensive and so in most cases poor urban women wear only clothes made from synthetic materials which cannot be used for menstrual purposes because they do not absorb the menstrual blood.
There is a school of opinion that favours the use of sanitary napkins by poor women and it is suggested that the Government should reduce the taxes on these, as they are now categorised as luxury items and also subsidise their price. There are also many innovations for making sanitary pads which are much cheaper. In fact under the Integrated Child Development Programme, subsidised sanitary napkins are being supplied to adolescent girls and women from the Anganwaris or child care centres. However, the problem of disposal of the used napkins still remains for poor urban women due to the patriarchal taboo. The subsidised napkins are few and far between because they have been supplied only to a few women and most others will have to buy the expensive ones from the market which is difficult given their poverty.
So even today, cloth washed, dried and reused remains the most favoured option for poor women. Given this fact a solution has emerged in Indore. In the slums in which these poor women reside, the small shops sell red pieces of thick felt cloth as shown below which are used by the women during their periods. These cloth pieces have good absorbent qualities and are cheap to buy. Three pieces of cloth are sold for Rs 20 and they last for six months. A larger piece of cloth with strings at the end also is available at Rs 30 for three pieces for use by those women who do not wear panties and have to tie the cloth. They can be washed and hung out to dry outside also because of their deep red colour which camouflages the blood stains. Though most women still dry them in the shade there are some who dry them in the sun.
What is most intriguing is that a demand from poor women for a suitable solution to their menstrual hygiene management problems has been provided by the market in a very cost effective manner and not by the government or NGOs which are pushing them to use sanitary napkins. Initially we too had thought that we would help the women in the slums to form self help groups and provide them with sanitary napkin making machines so that cheap sanitary napkins could be made available to them. The NGO Goonj also prepares sanitary napkins from the used cloth that it collects for distribution to poor women. However, in both these cases a lot of management is involved whereas in the market solution of providing red felt cloth the problem has been solved at the individual level.