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.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Whither Rooftop Solar Power

The difference between hype and performance in national policy implementation is nowhere more visible than in the rooftop solar energy scenario prevailing in India and Germany. Germany decided two decades back to increase the use of renewable energy and in 2010 it legislated for a new programme called Energiewende or energy transition which aggressively promoted the switch to renewable energy with huge subsidies to wind and solar power generation and heavy investments in research to make both more technically efficient and cheaper to produce. A major thrust of this policy was to promote decentralised rooftop solar power generation with high feed in tariffs in addition to centralised solar and wind parks. As a consequence 32% of electricity production in Germany currently is from renewable energy and its cost of production has become so low that investments in coal based power has become economically unfeasible and is now having to be subsidised instead. Nuclear power generation is even more uneconomical currently and all of it is to be phased out completely by 2022. Not only centralised solar and wind generation but decentralised rooftop generation also has contributed to this huge energy transition that has become such a success that energiewende has now become a common word even in English. The price in terms of a surcharge paid by the citizens on their electricity bills which is given as a subsidy in the form of high feed in tariffs to rooftop electricity producers, is huge but has been enthusiastically cheered by the citizens because they feel that this is a transition worth making as they want to reduce Germany's green house gas emissions to zero from the 2% of world emissions that it is now. Those who first adopted roof top solar or set up solar plants on a large scale were assured returns at high rates till 2024 to promote solar power generation. Even though subsequently solar power costs have come down substantially and the rates for new generation are much less, nevertheless the German Government has kept its promise to pay the enhanced rates agreed initially to the first movers. Thus, renewable energy has become mainstream with installation and service agencies becoming common and the whole grid being optimised for the fluctuations that are a part and parcel of renewable energy due to natural fluctuations in wind flow and solar insolation over time. Despite Germany being a country with comparatively less solar insolation it took a conscious decision to promote solar energy and has now become the world leader in its technology and implementation and has brought down costs and increased efficiency of solar power tremendously.
What is the scene in India? Given that this country is much larger in area and receives much more solar insolation, we should have been the pioneers in solar electricity generation instead of the Germans or at least followed in their footsteps once they took the lead. While considerable movement is visible in centralised production of solar energy through huge solar parks, the progress in the sphere of decentralised solar energy generation is dismal. This despite the fact that supply of grid electricity to rural areas is a loss making proposition and has to be heavily subsidised. On the one hand the subsidy being offered to solar energy is not large enough and it is not being given as promised especially to the decentralised implementers and on the other there is the lack of an eco-system of service providers to make things work on the ground in remote rural areas. Thus, due to a lack of enough solar implementers the ecosystem for solar power for individual consumers is not building up and it is very difficult for such consumers to pursue solar energy deployment. I will detail below the various problems that we have faced in the implementation of decentralised solar energy that show that despite all the rhetoric we have a long way to go in India.
We began by installing 500 Watts of solar panels in our office in Indore to power the 1500 kva inverter cum battery system we already had. So instead of charging the battery from grid power we began charging it with solar power and also using the extra solar power after charging the batteries during the day directly through the inverter. We had to add a solar charge controller separately to the inverter and battery system. This charge controller had to be sourced from a supplier in Bengaluru while the panels were sourced from a manufacturer in Kolkata and the whole set up was installed by a vendor in Indore. This system worked fine except that once or twice we ran too many appliances on the inverter during the day leading to its burning out on one occasion. However, since the inverter was from a well known company that has a service centre in Indore it was repaired immediately.

After this we installed another 500 Watts of solar panels in our field centre in Pandutalav village about 50 kms from Indore. Here we installed a combined charge controller cum inverter sourced from a supplier in Chennai to save on costs. However, the solar inverter had some glitch in it and so it would not support loads of more than 10 watts or so. Since, the supplier did not have a service centre in Indore the only option was to send the inverter back to Chennai to be serviced. A detailed email was sent to the supplier giving the details of the problem. Yet the supplier sent back the inverter without solving the problem. So we had to send it back to the supplier. Yet again the inverter was sent back without the problem being solved. Eventually the supplier sent a new inverter as replacement because they were unable to diagnose what was causing the problem in the one that had been sent earlier. This meant a down time at the field centre of one month during which we had to use kerosene powered lamps!!! Solar inverter technology has become quite well developed and this particular company was using German technology and yet there were problems. Due to the fact that the market for solar inverters is not big enough, the companies selling them cannot afford to have service centres all over the country unlike say cell phone manufacturers. Neither has local expertise developed in repairing these inverters as in the case of cell phones. So if there is a breakdown then getting the inverter repaired is a pain.
In the meanwhile the solar system we had installed in the school at Kakrana last year had also stopped functioning. On investigation it was found that the special solar connectors that are used to connect the panels to the inverter had burnt out in the heat. So even though some current was coming through to the inverter it was insufficient and so neither was the system running nor were the batteries charging. Since Kakrana is situated 250 kms from Indore it was not possible to immediately go down and solve the problem. By the time the service personnel from Indore reached there, the batteries had become discharged. So the batteries had to be brought to the nearest town 25 kms away and charged from the grid, the solar connectors dispensed with and the panels connected directly to the inverter. Earlier also once the system had underperformed because the batteries had not been topped up with distilled water as is necessary from time to time. These problems that arose in Kakrana are the standard ones that have plagued decentralised solar units throughout the country for close to two decades and so currently we have thousands of panels lying idle across the country because the connectors have burnt out, the batteries have discharged and the charge controllers and inverters have malfunctioned and there are no service personnel nearby, unlike in the case of malfunctioning of the mainstream electric system. It is indeed a telling commentary on the mentality of the policy makers of this country that these basic problems have not been addressed and decentralised solar units are still being installed without providing a proper service eco-system.
Then we installed a net metering system in our office in Indore adding another 500 Watts of panels to make it a 1 KW system once net metering was made functional in Indore. In net metering during the day the consumer feeds the extra solar electricity produced into the grid while during the night she imports electricity from the grid. In this way there is no need to invest in expensive storage batteries. The consumer thus becomes a prosumer, producing and exporting electricity to the grid during the day and importing it during the night. If the prosumer is a net exporter then she gets paid for the electricity that she has supplied to the grid at a tariff rate decided by the Electricity Regulatory Commission. Unlike in the case of Germany this tariff rate is very small and equivalent to the prevailing wholesale rate for mainstream electricity.  Theoretically this is all very nice but in reality there are a lot of problems. The general employees of the electricity distribution company are not aware about this policy but the ground approvals have to come from them. Being used to bribes for any approval these employees stall the process expecting bribes despite the top level policy push for roof top solar net metering. Thus, the whole process of getting the approvals turned out to be a tortuous one since we were not prepared to pay bribes and took a few months to get through. Eventually, once the system was installed and operational the problem of billing arose. The meter reader was neither acquainted with the new metering system and nor was he ready to learn it when we tried to explain it to him. Despite our system having been a net exporter for the month for which the reading had to be taken, he arbitrarily reported that we had imported electricity as we used to earlier. So we got an inflated bill that we had to complain against. After this another person came to check the meter and we explained to him the whole system as he was also not aware of the net metering system. Anyway our bill got rectified for that month. Next month, however, the same problem occurred again and once again we had to file a complaint. This went on for a few months and now things have become better with zero meter readings being recorded. The cumulative export into the grid is to be paid for by the electricity company only at the end of the annual billing cycle and not monthly. Even though one such annual billing cycle is over, there is no sign of the electricity company paying us for the electricity we have exported to it. Knowing that the electricity company is not likely to pay for the exported electricity easily, given the huge losses under which it is running, I had sized our system in such a way that we would export during the winters and import during the summers and overall be only marginal exporters. We have fought with the electricity company and succeeded in getting the bills rectified but in many cases the prosumers have not been able to do so and are being slapped with the old bills in an ad hoc manner and so are complaining that they are not receiving the benefits that were promised. The capital subsidy that was promised on the installation cost has also not materialised. Thus, the net metering solar roof top programme is not likely to become a great hit in Madhya Pradesh if it is administered in such a slipshod manner. The situation elsewhere in India too is not very encouraging.
Finally, we got round to installing a bigger solar system in the field centre in Pandutalav village. The plan was to install a 1 horsepower submersible pump in the borewell cum hand pump that was installed there. However, sizing the solar system for this turned out to be a tricky proposition. Even though the power demand was only 0.75 KW what was crucial for designing the system was the electric current drawal by the motor. The pump runs at a current of about 8 amperes but the initial starting torque is almost double that at 15 amperes. Therefore, an inverter would have to be installed that could deliver 15 amperes to start the pump even if the running requirement was only 8 amperes. Given the way solar inverters work this would require a 3.5 KW inverter instead of the 0.75 KW of power required by the pump. So not only would the cost of the inverter go up but also that of the panels as a minimum of 2 KW of panels would have to be installed to be able to supply 15 amperes of current. Similarly the battery storage required would also go up from just two batteries to four. Since it was a waste of resources to install such a system just to run the pump it was decided to use it for other heavy duty uses also like running mechanical grinders, drills and welding machines. This is the big problem with solar powered pumps as it is a huge investment that does not make economic sense without a subsidy. In our case since the system was being installed with grant funding there was a hundred percent subsidy. However, it is unlikely that decentralised solar irrigation will take off in a major way in this country without subsidy from the government. There is a scheme for providing 90 percent subsidy to farmers for installing solar pumps but it is being provided to only a very few farmers in a district every year.
Once again in this system also there was a malfunction problem. I was away from Indore on an assignment when our centre manager, who is only functionally literate, phoned to say that the inverter had stopped working. By the time I came back ten days later and checked I found that the charge controller of the solar power unit was not working. The batteries had discharged completely. So I had to take the batteries in my car to the town nearby and get them charged from the grid. After that the vendor in Indore and I took videos of the various control panel indicators showing that the charge controller was not working and sent them to the supplier in Mumbai. In the meanwhile I used the original charge controller that we had installed in our office in Indore and which had now become redundant after the installation of the net metering system to charge the batteries and run the inverter and the pump. The service person from the supplier arrived in Indore after a couple of days with the replacement card for the inverter and not that for the charge controller. After testing of the system it became clear that it was the charge controller that was malfunctioning as we had informed them. Yet they had sent the service personnel with the card for the inverter and not for the charge controller. Eventually, another service person came with the proper card and the inverter was repaired after a week of down time. If we hadn't had a spare charge controller, then in the height of summer there would have been a serious water shortage and we would have to draw water manually from the hand pump to irrigate our plants as we had to do for a few days when I was away from Indore.
Given this kind of a discouraging scenario, the huge potential of decentralised rooftop solar energy is not being harnessed in any systematic manner in this country despite a lot of propaganda. It is both economically and practically difficult to implement decentralised rooftop solar given the lack of subsidies and a functioning ecosystem in remote areas for maintenance and repairs. Consequently it is only the committed people who have some kind of grant funding who are pursuing solar energy and it is unlikely to become a revolution like it has in Germany despite our country being much richer in solar insolation and much in need of moving away from coal based thermal power given its adverse climate impacts and the negative social and environmental impacts of coal mining.

Monday, May 21, 2018

An Engineer First and to the Last

There is often criticism from various quarters that those who study engineering, especially those who have innovative potential, eventually end up doing something more mundane in life. For a considerable amount of time in India since independence, engineering education was heavily subsidised by the State and so this jettisoning of engineering by the students for pursuing careers mainly in management and administration, is considered to be a waste of scarce resources. Especially so in the case of those engineers who left the country and went abroad. In my own case the criticism has been even more trenchant as it has been alleged that I have totally wasted my education by choosing to work among the Bhil Adivasis and fight for their rights.
This criticism has some merit since there are many technological problems that need to be solved in India, both at the low tech and the high tech level and this is not being done. Therefore, I have tried to use my skills as an engineer to address some of the low tech problems as best as I can. However, what is needed is much more engineering innovation and recently I met face to face for the first time, an engineer who has dedicated his whole life to solving engineering problems of a cutting edge nature. This is my senior alumnus from Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, Varadarajan Seshamani. He graduated as a mechanical engineer in 1969 and then set up his own company to manufacture machine tools in Bengaluru. Since then he has set up many other companies for turnkey project implementation and manufacture of products in cryogenic engineering, thermo-electric engineering and ultra-violet testing of materials. He has not only reverse engineered many expensive instruments that are imported from abroad but has original patents for products that he has developed himself.
I came to know him initially through interactions on Facebook. These interactions were adversarial in the beginning because he is a supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party and so did not take kindly to my criticisms of the BJP's policies. However, as time passed it became evident to both of us that we were not blind followers of any faiths but applied our engineering training to the solution of problems at hand in the political and social sphere also. So finally as an opportunity arose for me to visit Chennai for some work I created a diversion to go via Bengaluru and meet him. Varadarajanji was kind enough not only to spare time to discuss his many engineering achievements during his long career but also arranged for me to meet other people in Bengaluru. Among these was Dipankar Khasnabish who too is an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur and a civil engineer like myself and happens to be the President of the IIT Kharagpur Alumni Association in Bengaluru. Dipankar was kind enough to have Varadarajanji felicitate me with an angavastram in his factory cum research centre for my supposed contribution to society.
 This was a great honour because Varadarajanji is a self effacing legend and I have done little in comparison. He is seventy years of age and yet he is still the innovation seeking engineer that he was when he started off as he takes on new problems to solve. The white board in the background as can be seen has preliminary drawings and calculations related to a new cryogenic engineering project that he and his team are working on. He has sold his house in Indiranagar in Bengaluru and is now building a new one in Whitefield closer to his factory cum research centre. He is now researching decentralised waste water treatment and reuse because he wants to make this new house of his totally self sufficient in water after learning that people like Viswanath Srikantaiah and I have done so with our own houses. Typically, instead of going for the standardised solutions that are available, he is working from first principles to develop his own system.
When I asked Varadarajanji why he did not think of migrating to the USA, he said that his first priority was to solve the many engineering problems that India faced and so he has dedicated his life to this. He said that he could not take orders from others and so he had set up his own companies. On many occasions he has done consultancy and contract work for foreign companies in their projects in India but always on his own terms. It was inspiring to meet an engineer who has remained dedicated to his profession and his country from the first to the last. I came away from Bengaluru with a stronger resolve to be more of an engineer myself in the work that I do among the Bhils. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Discussion on Marx's Theory of Value

Recently a long time friend, Depinder Kapur, posted on his Facebook wall an article by Amartya Sen on Karl Marx's continuing relevance in the present context on the occasion of his birth bicentenary. Amartya Sen singled out the concept of "false consciousness" which prevents the working class from forming into a class for itself actively organising against the exploitation of capitalism as an important contribution of Marx that has not been paid much attention to. This is indeed an unexplored area, especially so since capitalism has used mass media subsequently to push consumerism, films, professional sports, reality shows and the like to distract the suffering people from organising to overthrow it. But the discussion that ensued on Depinder's FB wall revolved around the validity of Marx's Value Theory, regarding how things that are bought and sold in the market gain their economic value and its usefulness in the present context of global late capitalist domination. In this discussion Apart from Depinder (DK) himself, Rajesh Ramakrishnan (RR) and I (RB) too participated. I am presenting an edited version of the discussion here because it presents a comprehensive idea of Marx's Value Theory and its main drawback.

RB - A basic understanding of Marx's schema of capitalist production and some common sense is enough to show that Marx's Value Theory does not have any practical validity. Marx's schema of capitalism is MCM' where the capitalist employs capital M in the form of money to purchase land, raw materials, machines and wage labour to produce a commodity C which is then sold in the market to realise capital again in the form of M' in enhanced quantity. M is enhanced to M' because in the process of production value has been added by the land, machines, labour and the capitalist to make the commodity. The production process is from market to market, that is, it begins with the procurement of the raw materials, land, capital goods and labour power from the market and ends with the sale of the finished product in the market.  Now, according to Marx, the exchange values at which the land, raw materials, machinery and wage labour are purchased and the produced commodity sold are determined by the socially necessary labour that is embedded in them. By socially necessary Marx meant that the labour expended must be of use to society and so for instance labour expended in jumping up and down in one place is not socially necessary if society has no use for it. Also even though society may have an use for a particular type of labour it might not value it enough economically - the home care work put in by women and the sewer cleaning work put in by Dalits. Thus, to what extent a particular type of labour is necessary is also socially determined. Therefore, to determine the value one has to know the quantity of socially necessary labour that is embedded in each commodity. It is not difficult to see that it is impossible to objectively determine which labour is socially necessary and to what extent in a complex capitalist economy producing millions of goods and services and influenced by various kinds of ideologies. Who is to determine what is socially necessary? Marx? Obviously not and so Marx cleverly avoided mentioning this problem with his elaborate schema in Das Kapital and generations of Marxists thereafter have not seen it fit to exclaim that the emperor Marx isn't wearing any clothes!!! Moreover, Marx goes on to say that wage labour is paid less than the value it produces and this leads to the generation of surplus value which is appropriated by the capitalist to enhance both his capital and the level of production. Once again how is one to determine this surplus value if one does not know the exchange value of the wage labour purchased and that expended by the labourer in the production process? So while it is all very well to say that socially necessary labour is the bedrock of value and that surplus is generated by underpaying wage labour, unless one can quantify this, it is just so much balderdash, that does little to enhance our understanding of price determination in a capitalist market economy. So Marx put forward a theoretical schema which could not be practically determined because in a modern capitalist economy it is impossible to calculate the socially necessary labour embedded in any commodity. Indeed how does one go about objectively defining what is socially necessary when this will always be normatively determined and vary from place to place and culture to culture and depend on relations between classes, in the Indian case castes also, genders, races, ethnicities, occupations and the like. It is self evident that value is created during production, defined as the processes taking place beginning with the procurement of inputs from the market and ending with the sale of the finished product in the market and that it is then unequally distributed among various actors in the production process. But Marx gives the impression through all his formulae that he had quantified this creation and distribution of value. Actually he did nothing of the sort as all his formulae depend on the quantification of socially necessary labour which is a normative rather than an objective parameter and so unquantifiable. Thus, his value theory is basically flawed.

RR -  What happens in the production process and in the distribution process is not self-evident. Today's economics talks about factors of production and incomes accruing to them. The classical economists looked beyond the ebb and flow of supply and demand and posited `natural prices' as a centre of gravity around which fluctuations took place. Ricardo went beyond this and showed that the total quantity of labour-time needed to produce a commodity was the regulator of its price. But Ricardo had no theory of where profit came from, though he attempted to analyse the impact of profit on prices. Marx stood on the shoulders of these giants to start his analysis of `the laws of motion' of capital. The challenge that Marx set for himself was to explain the conversion of money into capital on the basis of laws that regulate the exchange of commodities in such a way that the starting point is the exchange of equivalents. This is what he did in the first two volumes of Capital. This is where he went beyond Ricardo's use of concrete labour and introduced concepts of abstract labour, socially necessary labour time, use-value and exchange-value of commodities, and surplus value. But Marx had finished writing all three volumes of Capital and an elaborate study of theories of surplus value before he published the first volume. His attempt was to properly understand the dominance of production over circulation and show that profit does not originate out of circulation. In the third volume, he turned to the prices of production, at which commodities are sold in the capitalist market. Prices of production reflect an average rate of profit, this leads back to the question of profit, the source of profit, surplus value and socially necessary labour time, and exchange-value. To move from exchange value to prices of production, Marx explains how the average rate of profit is formed from individual rates of profit in each commodity sector and the equalisation of the rates of profit in capitalist production. In the simple case of a single commodity market, the capitalist gets a profit proportional to the surplus value contained in the commodities he sells. In the case of prices of production, the form of value has changed, the proportionality of the simple case does not hold, since surplus value gets re-distributed from one sphere of commodity production to another.
The quantification of socially-necessary labour time in an empirically observable way is not necessary for the operation of Marx's theory of the formation of prices of production. It is through capitalist competition that it is discovered whether the amount of labour embedded in a commodity is socially necessary or not. A part of the surplus value produced in sectors with a low organic composition of capital is drained off towards sectors with a higher organic composition of capital, implying that the human labour spent in the former was wasted. The equalisation of the rate of profit shares out surplus value previously created, the magnitude of which is explained by Marx's labour theory of value. It is the axis around which prices fluctuate. The total sum of prices equals the total sum of values. Without this, one is left with the neo-classical theory of supply and demand determining prices, which is purely empirical and not a theory. Empirical studies in Western countries have shown the correspondence between the labour content of the output of each industrial sector and the money value of sales from the sector. Criticism of Marx's labour theory of value has been a priori. A more elegant competing theory has not been advanced.

RB - The neoclassical theory of value is not the matter of discussion here and neither have I said that it is flawless and an alternative to Marx's theory. No doubt Marx did a lot of hard work to set up his theory but I still maintain that it has not added much to the empirically evident fact that human labour is required to create value as this has been happening ever since human beings began to produce and accumulate surpluses all of ten thousand years ago following on the Neolithic Revolution with the discovery of agriculture. Therefore, it is not surprising that modern day studies have shown that the sales value in an industry is proportional to the labour expended in that industry. However proportionality alone cannot form the basis of a calculation of the value of a product from the labour time expended in it because what is necessary is socially necessary labour time. To argue that the capitalist market decides what is socially necessary is to admit that it is a normative quantity because the capitalist market is not a freely competitive one but is in reality controlled by capitalists who then use their economic and political power to determine what is or isn't socially necessary. Right from the time of initial state formation about 6000 years ago, surpluses have been extracted from the labour of people and this process has just got intensified in capitalism. Even in the actually existing socialist states this was true. A theory to explain this must also be able to quantify it objectively as otherwise it does not achieve much if its mathematical formulae do not yield quantitative results. The basic problem is that the determination of which labour is socially necessary and to what extent, which is crucial to the determination of value, is normative and not objective. If it is left to the market then as is happening now, the economically and politically powerful will distort this determination in their favour. Marx, despite his elaborate mathematical analysis has not been able to circumvent this fundamental problem and has dealt only in the abstract and not with real world examples. Therefore, throughout history the distribution of the surplus generated has been decided by political struggle and that will continue to be so with the capitalists calling the shots currently. Consequently Marx's theory of value is fundamentally flawed. That a more elegant theory of value has not been advanced yet does not in anyway absolve Marx from having set up an unworkable theory himself.

DK - Surplus value is generated from labour power in all historical epochs but in capitalism surplus value and money transforming into capital, would still need to be theorised. We cannot determine the price of socially useful production in a given capitalist or socialist economy where several other factors will play out - the priorities of the state in a socialist economy to transfer surplus from one sector of production to another and for state expenditure on itself. Like asking what is the price of a commodity produced in a free capitalist market, where no free exchange is possible. So laws of Capital are as useful as laws of Physics, the laws don't tell you the price or the speed of a falling object, they do tell you why a phenomenon happens the way you see it happening and that this is governed by objective laws and not human fantasy. Marx's Capital showed that as capital increases over time, with more surplus value generated converting itself into capital, the amount of Capital or dead labour increases in an economy. This leads over time to the fall in the average rate of profit in the economy because now lesser live labour is employed in production in a closed capitalist economy with no foreign markets. This will only generate lesser surplus value and hence a lower average profit over time. Ultimately leading to the crisis of capital arising from a lack of market for goods - with its need to suck more surplus value from the reduced labour power proportion of production. The speeding up of labour and its lack of control of the means of production, Marx was able to show, led to alienation. Unless you apply Marx's theoretical framework, you cannot reach this conclusion by simply saying the labour power was always exploited in history.

RB - I have said that since it can't compute value, Marx's theory is not only useless but by claiming to be able to compute value it is misleading. In physics on the other hand it is possible to compute velocity of an object because it is possible to objectively measure the parameters necessary to do so. This is true even in the case of such complex equations as those of gravitation and relativity which have mostly been later verified through experimentation. The Nobel prize in physics is given only when a theory has been practically validated a number of times. In Marx's labour theory, the problem is that all his brilliant theorisation hinges on measuring the socially necessary labour embedded in a commodity and this is not objectively determinable but is primarily the result of class, gender, ethnic, race, in the Indian case, caste and many other diverse struggles and never through just the play of supply and demand in markets which are themselves always politically and economically controlled. So the labour theory of value doesn't really add anything in concrete terms to our understanding of the creation and expropriation of value, despite its grand and detailed mathematical architecture.
Capitalism faced with the problem of the increasing preponderance of dead labour has found various means to increase the exploitation of live labour mainly through casualisation of employment and outsourcing which have also broken the back of trade unionism. Similarly the problem of falling demand due to the immiserisation of the masses has been sought to be countered through state spending in defence and other industries, state regulation of production and markets and state funded social safety nets. Finally, mass media have been used to spread consumerism and the power of the market and deepen the hold of "false consciousness" on the minds of the masses and provide a sop to drown their alienation. It is more important in my opinion to evolve strategies to counter these retrograde policies of capitalism that have made it so powerful and helped it to nullify the dire Marxist prognosis of its demise than wax eloquent about the theoretical beauty of Marx's analysis of the capitalist system, which is neither here nor there in the present context. Whatever relevance he might have had in his era and up to the early decades of the 20th century, currently in the age of late capitalism emperor Marx is without any clothes.

DK -  I was trying to show that what you think is "self evident" in the theory that value is created and unequally distributed, is what Marx tried to show through the laws of capital accumulation and the decline in average rate of profit. Marx never claimed to quantify for a country the surplus value produced by that economy. And you blame him for not doing that and reduce his theory to bunkum. I tried to explain that you cannot quantify surplus value for the economy of a country based on pricing. You ignore this point. So I think we are arguing at cross purposes.

RB - You did say that prices are determined in the market and instead of ignoring this i said that prices are not what we are concerned with while discussing the labour theory of value but socially necessary labour. Marx never calculated this because it is not calculable being a normative parameter that is not measurable. What is the point in setting up elaborate mathematical formulae to calculate value and surplus value if they cannot yield results in the real world because socially necessary labour is a normative rather than an objective parameter. A waste of time and energy as far as I can see, apart from misleading people into thinking that the theory will yield concrete data regarding how much surplus value is being extracted from the working class. If you agree as you do that value is unquantifiable in Marx's theory then whether you like it of not the theory is indeed bunkum.
The declining average rate of profit is a historical tendency arising from technological innovation not specific to capitalism and manifests itself only if there is a fully competitive market. In feudal societies also there were markets and financial and industrial capital from the 14th century onwards. Capitalism didn't suddenly come on the scene but evolved over a few centuries. The process of primitive accumulation, the description of which happens to be the only aspect of Das Kapital that is still valid, led to the initial build up of capital that then spurred the industrial revolution. As i said earlier capitalism has found many ways to get round this problem of declining rate of profit by manipulating markets, outsourcing production and creating monopolies with State support. Anyway you don't need Marx's theory to see that in a fully competitive market economy, technological innovation will lead to redundance of labour and so both a falling rate of profit and a contraction of demand relative to supply. Marx predicted that this would lead to a revolution and the demise of capitalism. But capitalism has worked its way around this problem in ways which i have already described earlier and instead Marxism is on its deathbed. 

Friday, May 4, 2018

Gandhism in the Time of Late Capitalism

Whether it is Marxism, whose propounder Karl Marx's birth bicentenary is being celebrated this year or whether it is anarchism and its distinct Indian version Gandhism, whose propounder Mohandas Gandhi's birth sesquicentenary is also being celebrated this year, both were late nineteenth century alternatives to capitalist development, which latter had become ascendant by then. Both provided criticism of the ill effects of capitalist development on the society, the economy and the environment in their own ways which led to the modification of laissez faire centralised capitalism into a more government regulated centralised system which had a fairly independent decentralised component also. However, the alternatives proposed by Marx and Gandhi were never adopted at a country level anywhere by a modern state as industrial capitalism came to rule the roost globally. While the Soviet Union and China implemented a strictly regulated form of state capitalism, India followed a slightly less regulated mixed capitalist path, sidelining decentralised Gandhian economic enterprise and nonviolent political action to the margins, while revering his philosophy in the abstract and converting him into an icon to be worshipped. Currently, there is no state that espouses even the distorted Soviet style Marxism but the Indian State still pays lip service to Gandhi's philosophy and so half heartedly pursues some of his programmes like cottage industry, especially the production of hand made cotton cloth and ridding the country of open defecation.

Marxists and Gandhians, alike, have not come to terms with this domination of capitalism which has become near total in its late phase currently, using technology to intensify surplus extraction at the expense of the vast majority of humanity and the environment. While capitalism has also incorporated some of the alternatives proposed by Marx and Gandhi to better entrench their hold on humanity, Marxists and Gandhians have remained with their heads buried in the nineteenth and early twentieth century refusing to address the dynamic ways in which capitalism has come to control the destiny of humankind.
This was driven home to me two days ago when I attended a meeting of a committee constituted by the Government of India to design the celebration of the sesquicentenary of Gandhi's birth. Speaker after speaker spoke about the greatness of Gandhi, whether it was his nonviolence or his social reform or his decentralised economics and the need to popularise these among today's youth. However, none of these speakers thought it fit to ponder as to why despite so much state support for Gandhi's ideology it is today marginalised from mainstream developmental discourse and policy making in this country and is somehow existing on the margins on the strength of meagre doles from the Government and has little appeal for the youth. There was a clamour for these doles to be increased but no demand for a modification of the capitalist system itself or a modernisation of Gandhism, so that a more just social and economic developmental system can take centre stage. There was no discussion at all on how to use renewable energy and appropriate technology, especially in the field of water management which is emerging as a major crisis, to increase productivity in rural areas. Neither was there any discussion of the retrograde colonial legacy of policing and maintaining law and order which has effectively killed satyagraha as a political weapon. It must be remembered that satyagraha never really succeeded during colonial rule due to the draconian policing system that the British had put in place and this same system was retained after independence to smash many non-violent mass movements for justice in independent India.
There are claims being made of total sanitation and electrification having been achieved but in both spheres the reality is quite discouraging. Community and individual rights are being trampled on to promote centralised industrial development and only crumbs are being thrown to the majority of the population.
So in the end, like in the case of Marx, there will be celebratory programmes for Gandhi also, much more extravagant, because there is a state giving lip service to his philosophy, but no contemporary solutions to the social, economic and environmental crises being brought on by capitalist development are likely to emerge without a creative synthesis of Gandhi's thoughts with current technological and political possibilities.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Whither Public Health

One of my Adivasi colleagues in the mass organisation Adivasi Morcha Sangathan in Dewas, Saligram of Pandutalav village, was suffering from pain in his stomach for a few days and so he decided to go to the Government run Community Health Centre in the nearby Tehsil village of Udainagar. The doctor there diagnosed his problem as acidity and a mild hypertension and prescribed medicines for both. The pharmacy at the CHC did not have the medicine prescribed for acidity - omeprazole and so Saligram came away only with the medicine for hypertension. Late in the night the pain in Saligram's stomach began to increase and by dawn it was excruciating and he was finding it difficult to breathe. A local quack in Pandutalav said that the matter was serious and he would not be able to do anything and Saligram should go to Indore. So he called me up and said he was coming to Indore. When he arrived in two hours along with others in a jeep he was doubled up with pain. I immediately gave him two tablets of omeprazole and hopped on to the jeep and we went to a hospital. By the time we reached the hospital fifteen minutes later Saligram's pain had already eased and he was able to walk to the out patient department instead of the emergency department that we had thought of earlier. The doctors in the hospital found his blood pressure to be normal and an electrocardiogram revealed that his heart also was alright. Several other blood and urine tests were done but nothing emerged. Acidity it appeared was the only problem and so he was prescribed omeprazole. Saligram is now fine and regularly taking omeprazole to keep his acidity under control.
For quite some time before this Ravin the grandson of another old warhorse of the Sangathan in Dewas, Rukhria, had been laid low with pus emanating from his shin in two places where a rod had been inserted after he broke his leg by falling from a motorcycle. I had told him that it was probably due to the rod having been infected and would require its removal. However, Rukhria and others demurred and instead said that it was due to someone having done some black magic against Ravin!! So they engaged a venerable medicine man, another stalwart of the organisation, Deepsingh, to counter this black magic by chanting some good magic. Obviously this didn't work and finally Rukhria called me saying that something needed to be done. So  I brought Ravin to Indore and had his leg x-rayed. This revealed that there was indeed severe infection around the rod that had been inserted into his shin bone. So once again Ravin went on the operation table and the rod was removed and now he is fine.
In both these cases the problems were quite straight forward ones but the public health system could not solve them and so private help had to be sought. Luckily for these poor people I am around and so even if they had to spend some money it was not much as the doctors couldn't fleece them with unnecessary procedures as is their wont with people who do not know much about medicine.
A few days after this Subhadra and I went to Kolkata to hold a reproductive health camp there for women who are sex workers. The surveys and later the clinical examination and laboratory tests revealed that there is serious lack of awareness among the women about their gynaecological health and many of them are suffering from severe problems. Almost none of them had approached the public health system. The doctors who came to the camp said that in the government hospitals they do not get to do the kind of in depth history taking and examinations that were done in the camps because of the rush of patients and so they prescribe on cursory examination. During this visit, Subhadra conducted reproductive health workshops in two other localities near Kolkata with women and adolescent girls and the story was the same - little awareness of their gynaecological problems and the solutions required for them and lack of access to good public health services.
Innumerable studies have shown that investment in good public health services by Governments are recovered many times through taxes paid by a healthy working population. Yet right from the time of independence there has been a singular under investment in public health and now even what is there is dwindling. Hospitals are without doctors and medicines and people have to rely on private health services, mostly on quacks.
 The World Health Organisation has developed a tool called Disability Adjusted Life Years or DALY to measure the life years lost due to disability and death caused by disease. The map below shows the situation with regard to burden of disease across the world. The colour coding is from light yellow which are the countries with least burden of disease to deep red and brown which are the countries with a high burden of disease.

The country with the least burden of disease is Iceland which has an excellent and completely free public health system with a DALY of 18,265 per 100,000 population while the Central African Republic which has a DALY of 95,543 per 100,000 population has the highest burden of disease. India is unflatteringly situated with a DALY of 42,358 per 100,000 population. This means that for the whole population of the country, every year India loses a staggering 550,654,000 life years. This is an unconscionable loss but while we are concerned about rapes, genocides and mayhem we don't seem to be at all bothered about this much more horrific loss arising out of the lack of a good and free public health system.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Tradition in Tandem with Modernity

We live in a time when often tradition and modernity come to loggerheads with each other, sometimes resulting in murder and mayhem. Yet in the Bhil homeland at least, the two are going hand in hand as a result of the huge mass mobilisation by the Adivasi Ekta Parishad and the Jai Adivasi Yuva Sangathan. The latest example is the commemoration of Bhil Martyrs Day in Bisali village in Udainagar Tehsil in Madhya Pradesh on April 2nd.
This is an annual event in which the death of four members of the Adivasi Shakti Sangathan in police firing on this day in 2001 is sombrely remembered. It used to be an event of the Adivasi Shakti Sangathan till three years back when the Adivasi Ekta Parishad (AEP) decided to commemorate this event as Bhil Martyr's Day in memory of all the many great Bhil fighters who have given up their lives in the cause of Adivasi rights beginning with the exploits of Khajya Naik, Bhima Naik, Tantya Bhil and Chhitu Kirad against the British in the 19th century. Now it has become a major event in which Adivasis from all the four states of western Madhya Pradesh participate. This year the Jai Adivasi Yuva Sangathan (JAYS) too decided to take part and added a much needed youthful flavour to the proceedings.
JAYS is the epitome of modernity having been born out of a Facebook group created by a Bhil Adivasi doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi to further the rights of the Adivasis. This FB group soon gained in immense popularity among Adivasi youth in western Madhya Pradesh and today its members number in the hundreds of thousands of educated Adivasi youth. They have mass demonstrations and meetings in defence of Adivasi culture and rights. What is more important they have training workshops for Adivasi youth on important aspects of the Constitution and other laws that provide special rights and entitlements to the Adivasis, like the Fifth Schedule, the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act and the Forest Rights Act.
The AEP too has been especially proactive in mobilising the Adivasis who are in Government Service to exert their combined power to benefit the Adivasi masses in general. The AEP has also undertaken to preserve the traditional culture of the Adivasis and every year on January 14th it organises by turns in each of the four states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh a huge cultural gathering which is possibly the biggest such gathering of its kind in India and it is completely funded by the Adivasis themselves. There is a new pride among the Adivasis in their culture and tradition and they are using modern political mobilisation to strengthen the positive aspects of these while also acting to scotch the negative aspects like witch hunting, gender based violence and patriarchal oppression of women.
Many Adivasis turned out in traditional dress for the rally in Udainagar and particularly enticing were this father and son combination shown below.
   The rally was livened up by the JAYS youth and their slogan shouting. April 2nd also happened to be the day for a general strike called by Dalit and Adivasi organisations across India to protest against the Supreme Court's recent judgment ordering that there will be no immediate arrest when a complaint is filed under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act. So first the youth went round Udainagar in motorcycles urging the shopkeepers to down their shutters till the passage of the rally. Then the rally started with people dancing to the drums and the nowadays ubiquitous music from amplifier systems which are called DJs in local parlance. The rally traversed the distance of 4 kilometers from Udainagar to the Bhil Martyrs' Memorial in Bisali and some of the youth were dressed in jeans and tee shirts with interesting slogans as shown below.
The slogan says that the price of land and the courage of the Bhils never decreases!! The rally turned into a big meeting at Bisali where the Bhil martyrs' were remembered and their family members felicitated. The memorial shown below is looked after by the venerable Deep Singh who is a burwa, a traditional medicine man and also a gayan or singer of the epic creation ballad of the Bhils.
The meeting ended with the submission of a memorandum of demands for the betterment of the lives of the Bhils to the Tehsildar or local administrator to be forwarded to the Government of Madhya Pradesh. This was followed by a community feast of maize ghat and daal. Then while the people who had come from outside went back, the local people congregated again at night to dance to the beat of the drums and the music from the DJ. After night long dancing in which as many as 15 drum beating teams took part, 18 goats were sacrificed by various villages to end the celebrations in traditional style.
What was most exhilarating was the participation of the youth, especially the educated youth who are in government service. They had taken leave for one day to come from far and wide to participate in the event and unhesitatingly criticised the Government for neglecting the well being of the Adivasis. These youth are blissfully unaware of the power of global forces that are negating the possibilities of a more equitable and sustainable development and so they are full of energy and ready to fight for their rights.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Modern Development Reaches the Interior

On a recent visit to Alirajpur, I succeeded in driving my 20 year old Maruti 800 all the way to Bhitada village on the banks of the River Narmada. Primarily because a macadamised road is now under construction to this village situated deep inside the Vindhya hill ranges bordering the Narmada and the cutting of the road has been completed upto the village while macadamisation has taken place till the village before it under the Prime Minister's Village Road Scheme. Accompanying me on this ride were two old comrades in arms, Roopsingh and Guthia, with whom I waged many a battle in the initial years in the 1980s and early 1990s for the rights of the Adivasis of Alirajpur and with whom I had earlier made the trips up hill and down dale to Bhitada on foot as that used to be the only means of reaching the village then. In Bhitada we met up with another old warhorse, Kahariya, and together we reached the Narmada River to take a photo of ourselves enjoying the fruits of modern development.
The river in Bhitada earlier had a distinctive character as there were rock outcrops over which it cascaded providing a natural ladder for a special breed of very tasty fish, Moini, to climb up. Bhitada was famous for this fish and the villagers used to catch it with bamboo traps called Murrhia, placed strategically in the channels that led to the rock outcrops. All that became history with the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam and the conversion of the flowing river into a reservoir. So the Moini fish vanished but other fish small and big and crocodiles are now flourishing in the river. On the way to Bhitada we had met a young man from Attha village who visited the village everyday to buy fish caught there and then sell it at a premium in his own village. He had purchased a huge fish of the carp variety weighing 16 kgs at a price of Rs 70 a kg which he would sell in Attha at Rs 100 a kg.
 We had gone to Bhitada mainly to see and photograph the traditional water harvesting system called Paat. This is a system in which the water from a stream is diverted through a wier on the side and then into a channel that has a lesser gradient than the stream itself. So after a distance of about a kilometer or so it is at a height compared to the stream and reaches the agricultural fields of the farmers as shown below.
The channel later has to negotiate gullies that come and connect with the stream and also scrape past sheer rock walls so extensive stone bunds have to be built to carry the channel across to the farms as shown below.
Thus, the paat system is a community run one in which all the households that are going to benefit from the water have contribute time and labour to keep it running. Earlier, this system, which uses gravity to channel the water to the farms and so is ecologically sustainable as there is no use of fossil fuel energy, used to be there in many villages in Alirajpur. However, with the supply of cheap subsidised electricity this system has fallen into disuse in other places and now is extant only in Bhitada where there is still no electricity. But with the road having reached Bhitada the time is not far when electricity will also and then the paat system here too will decay.
The purpose of this visit of mine to Alirajpur was to assess the community work done for soil and water conservation with funds provided by the organisation I4FARMERS. A few months back this organisation which consists of people residing in the United States of America who are keen on addressing the problems of agriculture generally and Indian Agriculture in particular, started a new programme of recognising the efforts of farmers in practising sustainable agriculture. As part of this Guthia and his wife Chagdi were selected for their exemplary work in soil and water conservation on their farm. However, since it is the policy of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath not to award its members individually as whatever they have achieved would not be possible without the support of the KMCS and the Adivasi community, so the award money was spent on doin community soil and water conservation work. As part of this a team of ten households worked together on each other's farms for ten days constructing stone bunds to conserve soil. Guthia and Chagdi used their turn to reinforce one such mega sized bund they had constructed earlier. This bund due to its size needs to be reinforced every year with more stone bunding prior to the rains as shown below.
 However, the tragedy is that their paat is no more. The river flowing through Attha village, Kara, is a perennial one because of the extensive soil, water and forest conservation work that has been done by the KMCS members over the past three decades. Earlier, the farmers used to draw water from the river through the paat. But now since cheap subsidised electricity is available they instead draw water with electric pumps. The farmers have dug temporary wells into the river bed into which they sink their submersible pumps and draw huge amounts of water for flood irrigation throughout the year. So the flow of the surface water in the river has reduced to a trickle not sufficient for diversion into a paat channel. Guthia and the other farmers of course are very pleased as he now cultivates throughout the year and not really concerned about the much higher use of fossil fuel energy that this involves. Anyway since soil conservation still is a labour intensive activity on these hilly farms that work at least is still being done by this community and some other families also took part in making new bunds on their farms.
The whole vista in these villages has changed dramatically due to yet another development scheme of the Government. The Prime Minister's and the Chief Minister's Residence Scheme under which beneficiaries are given grants of one and a half lakh rupees to build brick and concrete houses. One village Gendra, on the way from Attha to Bhitada has become unrecognisable as the road there is lined with a series of pucca brick and concrete buildings where it used to be dotted with the traditional wooden tiled roof huts which have vanished.
One of the young boys of the village was getting married and in this too the impact of modern technology was visible. Earlier in such marriages the traditional drums and pipes used to be played without any amplification whatsoever. But now new electronic high decibel music systems have come into vogue and they blare their stuff throughout the night to which their frenzied dancing and then the bridegroom's party packs itself into a series of motor vehicles and goes off for the marriage to the bride's village instead of going by foot as was the custom earlier.
Two wheelers and four wheelers have become common currency in the area. I still remember that in the 1980s we had to get our wheat milled into flour in the market village of Umrali and then walk 16 kilometers up hill and down dale to reach our village with the load as in the villages there were only hand milling stones. Sometimes when our flour ran out we had to mill our flour by hand!! The people of Bhitada are greatly thrilled that the macadamised road to their village will become a reality within a few months. There are already two farmers who have bought four wheelers which carry the villagers and their produce to market. They are eagerly waiting for electricity to arrive. Thus, the ecological footprint of these simple farmers has shot up considerably with modern development having come to their villages finally after all these years.
Fossil fuel energy certainly increases productivity and makes life easier and so is always welcomed. However, it is possible to produce energy sustainably in a decentralised manner also. Unfortunately our highly centralised systems controlled by powerful corporations provide subsidies for centralised production of energy and externalise its social and environmental costs instead of promoting decentralised and sustainable production of energy. So three decades of community work in sustainable development by the KMCS stands sidelined due to the aggressive push of centralised energy and transport systems into this once remote area that has seen exemplary soil, water and forest conservation work.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Honest and Trustworthy

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

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Cry My Beloved Kolkata

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

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Back to My Philosophical Roots

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

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