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.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Inequality in Development

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Inequality of Access to Justice

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


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Inequality of Access to Capital

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

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

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Gender Inequality

The most egregious of all inequalities is that between men and women. Feminist sociologists have pinpointed the dominance of men in society as the prime reason for this and termed this phenomenon as patriarchy. Analysing all the main institutions of society like the family, marriage, kinship groups, media, religious hierarchies, business entities and the organs of the state, they have shown that all these play a role in maintaining the overall patriarchal structure of society. Over thousands of years this structure has become so well entrenched that to most people including women it seems quite natural instead of being the social construct that it is.
As a result traditionally most women in India have had to work more, they have been denied the right to inheritance of property, they have had to assume total responsibility for house work and the care of children and the elderly and this work is not counted as of being of any economic value, they have had to go underfed and have been subjected to domestic and external violence of the worst kind. As a consequence of this secondary status, women have to bear more babies to ensure that there are male progeny who will inherit the property of their husbands and provide security in old age. This is in fact the prime reason why we are a country of a billion plus population presently because no woman given a choice would bear and rear so many children. Along with this there is social control over the sexuality of women so that men can be assured that the children born to their wives are truly theirs and so ensure the purity of their descent. Naturally all this affects the overall physical and mental health of women adversely and especially their reproductive and sexual health. Since there is a taboo on the discussion of these issues women have to suffer their troubles in silence and this leads to mental problems. Thus, there is a deafening culture of silence surrounding women's reproductive and sexual health problems. The biggest irony is that the menstrual cycle which is an integral part of the reproductive process is considered in the prevailing patriarchal system to be the cause of various  negative things and has been given a dirty connotation in India. This affects the ability of women to maintain personal hygiene and results in their being afflicted by various diseases of the reproductive tract. A very sorry state of affairs that does not speak very well of our country in general and the men in particular.
The central problem, with regard to the health of women, is that they are seen as child bearing and rearing machines and the State in India is also mainly concerned with ensuring that they do bear and rear children safely rather than with enabling them to develop as independent individuals who can participate freely in their own and society's development. This despite the fact that as early as in 1975, India signed the declaration of the first World Women's Conference held in Mexico which inter alia had this to recommend to all Governments - "recognise the health needs of women of all ages and situations, those with children, girls who were yet to reach child bearing age and women who had passed the child bearing age range and also those living singly or as couples, give women the right to choose the number of children they wish to have and also the spacing between them and prevent any such discrimination and violence that is against the welfare of women, that prevents them from taking active part in the social, economic and political development of their societies and that violates their human rights". Subsequently the Government of India has also signed the Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1980. The dismal situation of women, arising mainly from their patriarchal oppression, can be understood from the following data culled from the National Family Health Survey III conducted in 2005-06 -
Selected Reproductive Health Characteristics of Indian Women
Characteristic
Female
Male
Adults with below normal Body Mass Index (%) 
33.0
28.0
Adults with anaemia (%)
56.2
24.3
Mothers with complete Ante-Natal Care (%)
50.7

Mothers with complete Post-Natal Care (%)
36.4

Institutional Deliveries (%)
40.7

Women 20-24 yrs married before 18 years of age (%)
44.5

Women15-19 yrs who were pregnant/had child (%)
16.0

Women who have suffered Domestic Violence (%)
37.2

Total Fertility Rate (%)
2.7

Source: National Family Health Survey III conducted by International Institute of Population Sciences, Mumbai, 2007. 
 A comparative study of the data from the first, second and third National Family Health Surveys has come up with an extremely disturbing finding ( Shrinivasan, K, Chandra Shekhar & Arokiaswamy, P (2007). Reviewing Reproductive and Child Health Programme in India. EPW Vol 42 No 27 & 28).
Even though the spending on family planning by the Government of India after the initiation of the new reproductive health approach in 1996 in the years 1998 -2004 has been double that in the earlier period from 1992 - 1998, the improvement rate in the case of many characteristics given in the table above has been less during the later period. This means that the Government is not following the correct approach towards solving the problems being faced by women. 
The correct approach that has been established through feminist practice the world over in the last few decades is that of Reproductive Health and Rights which "enables women and men, including adolescents, everywhere to regulate their own fertility safely and effectively by conceiving when they desire, terminating unwanted pregnancies and carrying wanted pregnancies to term; to remain free of disease, disability or death associated with reproduction or sexuality and to bear and raise healthy children." (Germain, A & Ordway, J (1989). Population Control and Women's Health : Balancing the Scales, IWHC, New York.).  Specifically, this approach entails the following (Correa, S & Petchesky, R (1994). Reproductive and Sexual Rights: A Feminist Perspective in Sen, G & Germain, A & Chen, L ed Population Policies Reconsidered: Health, Empowerment and Rights. Harvard University Press.) -
1.    Bodily Integrity - All women have the right to protect their bodies and have control over them. Women can't be deprived of their sexual and productive abilities by men or the state and they can't 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. 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.

Except for a few NGOs across the country nobody else and least of all the Government is following this approach and so women continue to be in the doldrums.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Unequal Access to Food

One of the biggest problems facing India is that of hunger. The proportion of the population in 2010 that was suffering from under nutrition or hunger as defined by the calorie norms adopted in 1974 (2400 kcal per capita per day in rural areas and 2100 in urban areas), was an alarming 90 per cent in rural areas and 70 per cent in urban areas. Chronic hunger, especially that of mothers and children leads to stunting and wasting which severely limit the physical and mental capacities of the population. There is thus, tremendous inequality with regard to access to food in this country arising from chronic food insecurity for a majority of the people wherein a situation exists in which people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life. It is caused by the unavailability of food, insufficient purchasing power, inappropriate distribution or inadequate use of food at the household level. Food insecurity is compounded by poor conditions of health and sanitation and inappropriate care and feeding practices as the other major causes of poor nutritional status.Women in India are more severely affected by undernutrition and the reasons are multifarious and complex. They have to bear children, often in large numbers, in addition to the usual physical activity done by men. In fact in most households women have to do more physical activity than men as they have to undertake the care functions also in addition to income earning activities and are constrained by various retrograde patriarchal social norms and customs. This then affects the health of their children in the womb and immediately after birth.
Food insecurity is correlated with income poverty arising from a lack of well paid livelihood sources. This is primarily because agriculture in India is in severe crisis. Especially problematical is the fact that the production of pulses has gone down drastically to be replaced by soyabean which does not provide direct nutrition to the farmers unlike the former. While 70 percent of the population of the country resides in rural areas, the contribution of agriculture to the GDP is only 14 percent. In fact, there has been a steady decline in this proportion from 1990 when it was 34 percent while the proportion of rural population then was 74 percent. This has mainly been due to the fact that the share of public investments in agriculture, which are in large infrastructure support like the building of dams and canals, has gone down from 5 percent in 1980-81 to 1.2 percent in  2009-10 remaining stagnant at around Rs 10,000 crores annually at 1999-00 prices.
The investments that have taken place in agriculture have not yielded the desired results because of the problems arising out of the mismanagement of dam irrigation on the one hand and the consequent over dependence on ground water for irrigation purposes on the other. The biggest problem is that the canal networks in most cases are not completed or even if they are they are not lined properly and so there is either much less water available for irrigation or much heavier losses through seepage than were designed at the time of construction. There has been a tendency among water resource managers to just build the walls of the dams and not pay enough attention to building and maintaining the canal network. An assessment shows that in the fifteen year period from 19921 to 2007 there was no net addition to the canal irrigated area despite an expenditure of Rs 142000 crores on major and medium irrigation projects in this period.There is, thus, a serious over exploitation of groundwater resources as detailed by the Central Groundwater Board. This increasing dependence on ground water has resulted in an increasing inequity in water usage among the rich and the poor arising from the creation of water markets.
Moreover, this has happened at a time when the ecological sustainability of modern chemical agriculture has come into question and been further compounded by increasing economic costs. This has led to a situation where many farmers have had to give up farming or commit suicide. In fact the suicides by indebted farmers have been rising continually and the Central Government had to initiate a massive debt moratorium scheme in 2008 of Rs 72000 crores.The net result of this crisis in agriculture is that there is massive rural-urban migration estimated to be about a 100 million people annually as people move to cities and towns in search of employment. This, in turn,has fed an increasing trend of “contractualisation” of labour in industries and services with even established organised sector manufacturing firms relying more and more on contract labour as mechanisation reduces the requirement of the number of permanent skilled workers. The contract workers are paid very low wages and they have to live in highly unsanitary conditions in slums leading to a calorie consumption puzzle as they have to spend more on other social services like health and education than earlier and so cut down on their food expenses. This leads to social and industrial unrest. Matters have been compounded by the fact that since January 2008 the consumer price inflation rate began increasing from a relatively mild 5.8% and reached a peak of 16.1% in February 2010 and is still uncomfortably high at 6% mainly due to food inflation and rising prices of crude oil. This forced the Central Government to adopt a tight monetary policy and increase interest rates continually, which has led to investments and industrial output going down, affecting the GDP growth rate which has now come down to 5% from a high of 9.6% in 2010 after it recovered from the effects of the financial meltdown. Thus, overall the livelihoods of the majority are in jeopardy and both, incomes and food intake are low with 75 percent of the rural population in 2010 living on Rs 45 or less per day (equivalent in real terms to 1.25 US $ in 2000 prices at purchasing power parity conversion rates which is the World Bank's extreme poverty line and the proportion for the same in urban areas being 48 percent.
This is the context in which we have to assess the inadequacy of the Government's economic support measures for the poor. The outlay for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which has undoubtedly provided major economic support for the rural poor has gone down over the years. The other major support is the distribution of subsidised foodgrains through the Public Distribution System (PDS). However, the amount of support provided is inadequate and the system is riddled with corruption. Even though with the passage of the Food Security Act the coverage of the Public Distribution System will increase, the support to be given will be much less than what is required in the prevailing situation of low income and low food intake for a vast majority of the people. The huge crowds that line up before the PDS outlets to get the subsidised food and kerosene, as shown in the picture below, are testimony to the fact that hunger is a stark reality in India.
 One of the biggest challenges for the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath these days is to get the PDS functional. Ever since the new Food Security Act has been enacted there is a huge confusion within the system as it is being digitised. Consequently many Adivasis in the remoter villages have gone without rations for months together. As usual the staff have taken advantage of this situation to try and earn even more from corruption thant they usually do. On several occasions truckloads of people have come to our office in Alirajpur and then gone in procession to the Collectorate to sort things out. Without adequate food we will definitely not be able to leverage our demographic dividend with a hungry population.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Toilets and Inequality

The only concrete programme to be enunciated by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in his more than an hour long extempore speech on the occasion of the Independence Day, on August 15th, which was otherwise peppered with homilies, platitudes and promises, was that of building toilets in each and every school in this country within four years. He exhorted the Corporates to contribute to this effort and make it possible as the Government on its own would not be able to achieve this. Given the fact that the lack of toilets in schools is a major reason for girls dropping out of education after reaching puberty, this is indeed a very laudable programme for ensuring gender equality apart from its contribution to sanitation.
However, it is not enough to just build toilets. The public toilets that are there in this country are mostly in a very bad shape. Primarily because they are not taken care of. The entrenched caste system, over thousands of years, has drilled it into our heads that it is the business of the Dalits to clean toilets whether private or public. Since the Dalits have revolted against this and only a few now remain who are prepared to take up this vocation because they have no other alternative, there is a serious shortage of people to clean public toilets. Therefore, most public toilets in this country stink to high heaven and are also often packed with faeces. So even if all the schools in this country have toilets, the problem of cleaning those toilets will remain a serious one. Considering that Gandhi had first tried to solve this problem by shifting the burden of cleaning toilets away from the Dalits and making it the responsibility of all, more than a century ago and yet it still remains a problem, it is clear that the main obstacle is social rather than technical or financial. Our country now has enough resources and the technical ability to mechanise toilet or sewer cleaning but since there is this mentality that one particular caste should do the work and their labour is available cheaply, so they are still forced to do the work as shown in the picture below and since the number of people from among their community who are prepare to do this degrading work is dwindling, the net result is that toilets, sewers, rivers and ponds have all become full of faeces and urine. Only in some crowded places where it is viable to run public toilets by charging people are these in a relatively better shape but this is not going to be the case in schools where the children do not have money to buy copies and pencils let alone pay for using toilets.
Consequently, girls' inequality with regard to receiving education after they reach puberty is tied up with the inequality suffered by Dalits who are forced to clean toilets and sewers as nobody else is prepared to do so as the upper castes are not only not prepared to clean toilets but are also not ready to expend public resources in mechanising the cleaning of toilets.
A public toilet to run properly needs a considerable amount of water and also a system to dispose the waste water. The best solution therefore is to have a decentralised treatment and recycling system wherein after an initial supply of water, the waste water is treated and recycled continuously for flushing and some of it is treated to the level where it can be used for washing also.The teachers in the school have to take the lead in running this system once it is installed with the help of all the students, regardless of their caste, instead of looking for a Dalit to clean the toilets and failing to find one, letting them stink to high heaven and eventually become unusable or keeping them locked up unused as shown in the picture below of a toilet in a primary school in a village in Alirajpur district which incidentally does not have a roof!!

I doubt whether Prime Minister Modi, who also spoke of himself being a Prime Servant, has thought all this out before announcing grandiosely from the ramparts of the Red Fort that as a Prime Servant he was proud to talk of toilets on Independence day for the first time in the nation's glorious history.  Many greater men have found their programmes for a sanitised India biting the dust before him and Modi's too will meet the same fate, unless he can ensure that toilet cleaning becomes the primary aim of each and every one of us in this country and does not remain as an albatross around the necks of the Dalits only.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Inequality

Every year I participate in Blog Action Day which is held on October 16th in which bloggers have to write a post on a chosen theme. The theme this year is inequality. Over the years the popularity of this event has waned and last year there were only 6000 odd blogs that registered and posted. Nevertheless, I have been a regular in this since its inception. Once I register for Blog Action Day as I have done today, all the posts I write are on the theme selected for the year till the final post on the appointed day itself. Today also happens to be the Indian Independence Day and so it would be fitting to discuss the topic of inequality with special reference to the current status of the Bhil Adivasis of Alirajpur as citizens of this country.
There was a news day before yesterday that there are seventy dollar billionaires in India with a combined wealth of about 180 billion dollars and among them the top five control about 85 billion dollars. At the same time an analysis of the large sample consumer expenditure survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation in 2010 reveals that the proportion of households unable to purchase enough food and other necessities like clothing, shelter and education for healthy living is as high as 75 per cent.  That means that not only are there high levels inequality between the super rich and the poor but that even within the super rich there is a high concentration of wealth. This huge rise in inequality coincides with the high growth rates of the economy achieved since the mid 1980s. Thus, it is evident that the growth that has taken place over the past three decades has been highly unequal.
The Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath began organising the Bhils from the early 1980s and the process picked up strength from about the mid 1980s and so the work of the KMCS has paralleled the high growth phase of the Indian economy. The rights mobilisation by the KMCS has enabled the Bhils to cash in on some of the growth by demanding and getting some of the resources being spent by the State and also being able to get better prices for their agricultural produce and their labour. However, since overall the policies of the State are skewed towards the super rich and the riches flowing to them are also further enhanced by high level corruption, even after doing better than they had earlier, the majority of Bhils remain firmly placed at the bottom of Indian society labouring their guts out as migrant workers in construction sites.

But what is of the highest concern is that the development process over the past three decades or so has deeply stratified a society that was fairly egalitarian before. There are now dollar millionaires among the Bhils who have acquired their wealth through cornering political power and monopolising activities like mining, bootlegging, land sharking, gun running and the like. In the same way as the Dollar billionaires, and especially the top ones among them, are respected and adulated by the mainstream society for having amassed their wealth, regardless of the means they have used to do so, so also the Dollar millionaires among the Bhils are respected by the common Bhils and the aspirations of the youth have now become to acquire wealth by hook or by crook and the traditional communitarian cooperation is being increasingly jettisoned.
The worst sufferers of these changes are the women. Anyway, Bhil society is patriarchal and has a custom of bride price in which the groom's family has to pay the bride's family a certain amount when marriages are solemnised and women are generally treated as objects rather than as persons and subjected to patriarchal oppression. Now with consumerism and monetarism the bride prices have shot through the roof further objectifying and commodifying Bhil women and increasing their oppression. Gender based violence has increased and rapes which were few and far between earlier are increasing. Witch hunting, is also on the increase. This is a retrograde practice wherein women are arbitrarily accused of using black magic to cause harm to the health or economy of a household. Earlier, such practices and disputes would be kept under control by the tradtional Panchayat system but with the monetisation of the society and large inflow of funds, the traditional Panchayat system has been sidelined and now the elected Panchayat system has become more powerful. The aggressive marketing of the idea that concentration of wealth in the hands of those who create wealth, that is the entrepreneurs, is good for the economy and society has gripped the imagination of the poorest of the poor among the Bhils also. Consequently along with wealth creation most of it is getting concentrated in the hands of the crooks who have manipulated governments and society at large to their benefit and the majority are living wretched lives and the environment is degrading at an alarming rate. We need to become independent from this myth of wealth creation which is actually producing illth of all kinds!!!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Conservation Ethic of the Bhils

This is the season of the Diwasa festival among the Bhils. Also known as Navai it is celebrated to ask permission from the Gods to partake of the vegetables that are growing in the farms. It is the first festival of the Bhil Year which starts with the month of Okhatri which coincides with the month of April. Once the Diwasa has been celebrated the Bhils can eat whatever they grow on their farms throughout the year. The centre piece of the celebration is the night long singing of the Gaina or creation myth by the Gayan or bard accompanied by his co singers as shown in the photo below. A mediocre quality video of  a short piece of this singing can be viewed here.

The Bhil Gods are all various parts of nature like the clouds, the hills, the staple cereal Jawar. The Gayan sings about how the universe was created by the Gods and how it all belongs to them and so human beings must take permission from them to partake of the produce of their farms even though it is through their labour that the vegetables have been grown. Their is a deep sense of humility in the Bhils as they acknowledge that nature is the ultimate giver of all things material and that human beings are a miniscule part of this vast universe. That is why traditionally they have taken very little from nature and lived at a subsistence level.
The problem is that in today's private property and profit oriented market economy the conservative ethic behind festivals like Diwasa is slowly being forgotten and they have become rituals. The Bhils have been forced to become extractors and accumulators like the rest of society in order to be able to survive in the rat race and in the process the traditional conservationist ethic has got sidelined.
Every year during the Diwasa season the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath organises a discussion meeting on the importance of the Diwasa festival and its message for humanity so that its core ethic of conservation comes to the fore rather than its remaining only a ritual celebration. This meeting is held at the Climate Change Mitigation Centre that has been set up on a piece of poor quality farm land belonging to the organisation to promote soil, water and forest conservation and indigenous agriculture. Even if Bhil society as a whole is being forced to become acquisitive and destructive at least there are some new organic intellectuals and activists among them who see the value of the core message of conservation that is there in their myths and take the trouble to analyse them and build up a new theory and practice of conservation from them. That is why despite the heavy inroads made by Hindu Gods and Goddesses in recent times the celebration of Diwasa still continues with gusto in Alirajpur as does the conservation of nature.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Zionism and its Consequences

Zionism originated as a project to create a Jewish State in Palestine in the late nineteenth century. The Jews, who had been dispersed from Palestine thousands of years ago and who were persecuted throughout Europe where they mostly resided, sought a nation for themselves and wanted to build it in Palestine where they had originated. Despite the continuous persecution over centuries, a number of Jews had become financially powerful in Europe and America and so were in a position to fund the migration of the poorer Jews to Palestine to set up settlements there and build up an armed force that could protect these settlements. The crucial political development was the Mandate given to the British Empire in 1921, by the League of Nations after World War I to rule over Palestine, Syria, Jordan etc which had been part of the Ottoman Empire which was dismembered after the war. The British through the Balfour Declaration of 1926 acceded to the demand of the Zionists to let them migrate in large numbers to Palestine to establish a nation there. This brought them in direct conflict with the Arabs who were residing in Palestine and who vehemently opposed Jewish migration as this would affect their hold over the area and they were supported in this opposition by other Arab States of the region. And so bloodshed began which has continued now for almost a century. After the Holocaust  on the Jews perpetrated by Hitler during World War II, the Christian Europeans and the Americans began to look sympathetically at the Zionist demand for settling Jews in Palestine and mostly European Jews, who were survivors of the Nazi oppression, were sent in large numbers to Palestine. Given that the middle east was rich in oil which was to be the main driver of economic and military might in the twentieth century, there is every possibility that the American and European imperialists may have pushed the Zionist agenda to retain control over the region. Anyway this solid support from Europe and America has enabled the creation of the state of Israel and its continued existence. They have also pressurised many of the Arab States in the region to support Israel or at the very least not to oppose it. Zionism continues to flourish and encourages the migration of Jews to Israel as overall more Jews reside outside Israel than inside it. Consequently, since 1948, when the State of Israel was created through a resolution of the UN General Assembly and a substantial portion of the land was given to Israel as shown in the graphic below, the population of Jews in the erstwhile Palestine has gone up continuously while that of the Arabs has gone down and many of the latter are now dispersed across the world.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was formed in 1964 as a counterpoint to Zionism and the establishment of an independent Palestinian State free of the Zionists. This led to an escalation in the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews in Israel and there was a full fledged war in 1967 between Israel on the one hand and Egypt, Syria and Jordan on the other. The Israelis won a comprehensive victory within six days and annexed the Sinai peninsula and the Gaza strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from the Syrians and the West Bank including East Jerusalem from Jordan and completely occupying Palestine. Subsequently through peace accords the Israelis have given back the occupied territories and the Palestinian State has been established in the Gaza strip and the West Bank with the PLO having given up violence and accepted the existence of Israel and vice versa.
However, a section of the Palestinian Arabs continue to fight against the Israelis, especially the militant organisation Hamas which has vowed to drive the Jews out of Israel. Basically they are against the continuous building of settlements by Israel in the West Bank where the Palestinian State is theoretically sovereign. Overall Israel continues to violate the human and civil rights of Arabs within its territory and in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas has held sway over the Gaza strip since 2006 or so and continually engages in hostilities with Israel. There have been many skirmishes and battles leading to regular loss of life in the Gaza strip which escalates when there are conflicts like the one that is one going on now. Both the Egyptian and the Israeli Governments are not happy with Hamas and so they have imposed a complete blockade of Gaza not allowing any thing whatsoever, including food to be supplied to the area. Thus, we have two rigid opposing positions - that of Hamas, that they will not stop short of destroying the Israeli State and that of the Israelis, that Hamas has to be finished. Therefore, the war continues and there seems to be no end in sight and neither is there justice for the Palestinian Arabs as a whole as they are globally considerably less powerful than the Zionists.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What Price RTI?

The Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005 was hailed as a game changer in Indian politics when it was enacted. It came as a result of a long campaign begun by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Rajasthan. The MKSS initially began campaigning for transparency in the records of the works that were being carried out in the Panchayats or rural local bodies. The elected representatives and the Panchayat bureaucracy would connive to siphon off funds meant for development works by submitting false vouchers for wages and other materials. Eventually the MKSS was successful in getting the right to see these vouchers and verify their authenticity and thus exposed the scams that were taking place. Some legal measures were instituted and there were Right to Information Acts in some states. Finally in 2005 this campaign led to a central RTI Act that was quite spectacular in its provisions. Except for a few excluded areas which related to national security, citizens could ask for information about government documents and this would have to be provided within thirty days. If the information was not provided within this period then the official responsible for not providing the information would have to pay a penalty of Rs 250 per day for each day of delay upto a maximum of Rs 25000 and this would be deducted from his salary and paid to the applicant for information. There was a provision of a process of appeals in case information was not provided with the first appeal to be made to a designated higher authority in the institution or department concerned and the second appeal to be made to the Information Commission either at the State or at the Centre depending on whether the authority concerned was a state department or a central one. 
Thus, on paper, a powerful system of accountability was put in place. There have been many good outcomes of this Act the most notable being the transparency brought into the electoral process in our country. The organisation Association for Democratic Reforms used this Act and went all the way to the Supreme Court to force the candidates for elections in this country to reveal their assets and any criminal proceedings against them when filing their nominations. Many big scams too have been exposed in this way. Nevertheless, there are still a lot of problems in the implementation of this Act. The most important one is that despite clear delays or outright refusal to provide information the Information Commissioners do not hand down the penalties they should when the matter comes to them in second appeal. This has emboldened the officials to refuse giving information and as a result appeals keep piling up before the Information Commissions leading to delays and finally wishy washy orders. In some cases those demanding information have gone all the way to the courts and been able to get both information and the fine. However, going to the courts is a time consuming and expensive proposition and so it is not possible for everyone to do this.
The Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath in Alirajpur uses the RTI Act extensively and gets considerable information and also succeeds in reining in corruption in many cases. However, sometimes when sensitive information is involved the officials refuse to give information and then it goes into the process of appeals which is often a lengthy and fruitless proposition. Here is a description of a case that illustrates the kind of problems that the RTI implementation faces.
Subhadra Khaperde, one of the activists, passed her Master of Social Work examination in 2008 from the Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya university in Indore in 2008 and paid the requisite fees for the issuance of the degree certificates in both Hindi and English. Despite one and a half years elapsing the degree certificates were not given to her. She went a number of times to the university and spoke to the department concerned but to no avail. Eventually she filed an RTI application in 2010 demanding that the degree certificates be delivered to her and the reason behind this inordinate delay and the disciplinary action that should be taken against the person responsible for this delay. Within seven days the Hindi degree certificate was delivered but the English degree certificate was delivered after 55 days resulting in a delay of 25 days beyond the 30 day period mandated in the RTI Act. There was no response at all to the question regarding the disciplinary action taken against the person responsible for the delay. 
Subhadra then went in first appeal to the Vice Chancellor demanding that action be taken against the erring official. To this the first response from the Vice Chancellor's office was that the RTI Act did not allow for asking questions about the functioning of the university!!! Subhadra then went in second appeal to the State Information Commission (SIC). In response to the notice sent by the SIC to the Vice Chancellor he asked Subhadra to present her case before him in person. When Subhadra did so, the Vice Chancellor said that she had already got her degrees and so why was she bent on action being taken against the person responsible for delay. After Subhadra insisted that action should be taken given the negligent behaviour of the staff of the examination department and that her problem was not her's alone but being faced by other students also who generally paid a bribe over and above the stipulated fees to get their degrees. She had not paid the bribe and that is why there was this inordinate delay. The Vice Chancellor in his order said that action would be taken under the rules against the person responsible and there the matter ended at his level and he sent a copy of this order to the SIC and to Subhadra. Later, Subhadra received another letter from the Vice Chancellor's office stating that the time period for giving the degree certificate according to the rules was one year and so there was no question of disciplining anyone as there had not been any delay. This despite the fact that the degree had been delivered to her after more than one and a half years. 
In the meantime the SIC became defunct. There were initially three Information Commissioners including the Chief Information Commissioner. One by one they all retired and so there was no one to hear appeals at the SIC. This was of course a ploy of the Government to make the Act ineffective as many scams of the Government of Madhya Pradesh had in the mean time been revealed through filing of RTIs by journalists and other citizens. One very active RTI activist, Ajay Dubey, who pursues his applications through the to High and Supreme Courts, then filed a petition in the High Court demanding the constitution of a full SIC consisting of eight information commissioners. After much dilly dallying the Government finally constituted the SIC again in 2013 in compliance with the orders of the High Court.
About a month ago a notice came from the SIC to Subhadra to present her case in person. On the appointed day Subhadra was present but the official from the university was not. Nevertheless the Information Commissioner asked Subhadra to present her case which she did. Then the Information Commissioner said that even if there was a delay she had got her degree so why was she pressing for action. Subhadra then explained to him the kind of corruption that is rampant in the examination department of the university and the great inconvenience that results for all students in general and it was not an isolated case. After that the Information Commissioner sent a strongly worded show cause notice to the registrar who is the information officer of the university asking why he should not be penalised for the delay in giving information.
This resulted in the Registrar calling Subhadra and pleading with her to take back her complaint as otherwise his career would be affected. Subhadra told him that he should have thought about this earlier and taken measures to improve the working of the examination department. To this he replied that since her action under the RTI Act the working of the examination department had been streamlined and now degrees, marksheets, migration certificates and the like are delivered within one week. Subhadra said that even though that is true, as she herself had later got her M.Phil degree and migration certificate in a jiffy, but since the case had now reached the SIC it would have to be resolved there.
In the next hearing at the SIC an official of the examination department was present and he pleaded with the SIC to show leniency as they had now improved their systems and they submitted a written apology for having cause inconvenience to Subhadra. The Information Commissioner asked Subhadra to be satisfied with this apology but she said that under the law the official should be penalised and she should be compensated for her inconvenience. Finally the Information Commissioner gave an order for a penalty of Rs 3000 instead of the Rs 25000 that should have been given according to the law. This of course was much better than on two earlier occasions when the KMCS members were not even given that as the information commissioners passed the order that the delay was not mala fide and so did not attract penalty!!!
This means that to get the full penalty we have to go to the High Court which will cost more than Rs 25000 and so it is not a feasible option. Thus, even though the RTI Act has brought about some accountability in the bureaucracy it has not been able to fulfil the potential that is there because the information commissioners rarely hand down the penalties that they should. That Subhadra could get Rs 3000 ( it still remains to be seen whether the official does give the money which anyway is much less than what has been expended in time and travelling expenses) is due to her obdurate persistence over a long period of four years and it is not possible for an ordinary person to so pressurise the information commissioners as she has done. Consequently the RTI Act remains hamstrung and corruption and non-performance rule the roost in government institutions.