Category Archives: equity

View from the outside – reality or caricature?

Social situations suffer from problems of interpretation, as much as any literary work or puzzling movie. The dynamics which make a situation what it is are very widely spread, both in time and space. From the immediate spark to historical wounds, from neighborhood feuds to global markets, all play their part in shaping interesting situations.

For this reason, much like in the natural sciences, social thinkers have tried to find the ‘essence’ of the situation — Marx saw class war as the dominant dynamic, others see markets as playing this role, Nationalists see it as an ‘us vs. them’ logic, and so on. The problem does not lie in an analysis for personal clarity, but in drumming it around as the way to look at things. Since forceful views feed back into popular perception, the analysis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For example, tribal communities have always been handed the short end of the bargain for a long time. So also the Dalit community all over India. However, there are many facets of tribal or dalit life that is simply inaccessible to the external analyst (who is normally urban and middle class), their daily lives, routines, modes of resistance, their culture, songs, Gods and loves. If an external analyst tries to learn about everything he/she can no longer be ‘external’. However, given the respect such a person normally accords, normally due to eloquence of speech and unsubstantiated self-assurance, the way these people view the world and themselves changes. Dalit writers themselves have documented this change, with Dalit leaders despising their own roots in the villages, consistent with Ambedkar’s analysis. The loss of a world view has to be replaced, and modern, Western thinking and contempt for non-European thinking set in, with an intensity that only occurs in new converts to a way of thinking or a religion.

Another example is that of the current trend of acquisition of rural land for personal gain by the BJP government. It is being seen as a farmer vs. corporate/politician nexus. This, however, does not explain why quite a few farmers (always with large amounts of land) seem to be willing to sell. Rural Karnataka has had to my mind three major changes over the past few decades.

One, with laying of roads everywhere due to the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana (started by Vajpayee), transport to the nearest city/town centre has become very easy. With urban wages and a rural lifestyle both being within reach, most of the labor force prefers to work on construction sites. Farmers with lands larger than they can till (not just absentee landlords) are consequently finding it impossible to find farm hands. This was something I noticed in Bihar as well on a recent trip. The advent of television and the boom in rural telephony due to cellphones is also facilitating wider awareness of options beyond the rural economy, driving people out.

Two, the trend of waiving away farm loans was started in Karnataka and is now there everywhere in India. This is not a very new idea, with landlords historically having done this during bad years. However, now neither the fine grained differentiation between deserving and otherwise is no longer possible, with the latter gaining more, nor is there accountability, with farmers taking loans from the local bank and waiting for the Government to waive it off. Access to credit at low interest rates has also enabled over borrowing, say borrowing 3 lakh when all you need is 1 lakh. An interesting case was of a woman setting up a shop using microcredit and using it to buy a TV and refrigerator (even though her roof still remained a thatched one) in an urban slum which was documented by one of my classmates. Oh, and she defaulted on the loan as well.

Third, NREGS work is highly attractive wherever it is working even half well, and there have been cases of laborers not working and simply paying off the contractor to get wages, which in the case of men inevitably goes to the nearest toddy shop-owner. Farmers growing time sensitive crops like rice, which simply have to have certain things done at certain times, are unable to find workers and this forces them to shift to horticulture or other alternatives. Ironically, the proper working of NREGS seems to be putting people out of work in such cases — there are many farmers who are simply giving up cultivating more than what is necessary for personal consumption.

Thus, it is not as if the rural population is a passive, mute spectator to emerging trends, but very aware, discerning and looking at how to profit from change. The only difference is that they don’t use excel sheets.

When a community listens to an outsider describing it, there can be two reactions, both flowing from an awareness of what is important and what is convenient. Most would go with a path that makes things more convenient, like developing a victim complex, which is present in Muslims, Brahmins, Dalits, Christians, rural and urban communities if one cares to look closely. Any ideological stand that facilitates a way to not do inconvenient things and gain political power is preferred, even though it may have no internal coherency. The second, harder way of actually learning what is relevant from an external analysis without losing self identity is rarely taken, and such attempts are celebrated for very good reasons. From being a real, living community that had its own way of looking at the world, we get a community that sees a caricature of itself, which focuses only on some aspect of their life, as reality.

Subsidizing spirituality

If we define as ‘spiritual’ pretty much anyone who does not worry (or have to worry) about getting his daily bread (which would include swamis, scientists and musicians), then it seems strange that those who actually put in hard work to earn money somehow willingly part with it to keep the other kind alive. It does not seem to end with just economically subsidizing them, but also allowing them to behave in ways simply unacceptable normally even though they are, for all purposes, under the mercy of the people who pay them. You do not have to think hard to find examples — Musicians, actors and spiritual gurus have not all been exactly role models, but they still seem to get by pretty well, even better than those who collectively keep them alive.

A straightforward and somewhat simple-minded reason for such collective insanity would be that the ‘spirituals’ are somehow brainwashing the mob into such behavior, that some version of class antagonism goes on behind such dynamics. It is of course valid in some situations, but cannot explain the general trend. Similarly, one can give evolutionary explanations saying the if a society has to evolve, it must always have variety, and somehow this is unconsciously understood by everyone and this is the reason why we subsidize cranks and academics.

However, a deeper look into human nature always shows a desire for transcendence. No matter how rich or poor and regardless of location, this is always noticeable. To transcend time and space, to leave a mark which remains beyond personal existence has forever been something we have been striving for. From hopes of being immortalized by folk tales and songs to training our children to be like us (or better), this desire crops up everywhere. Since the’ spiritual’ section of humanity aims at creations which seem to fit exactly such ambitions, the synergy between some strange kind of demand and supply is hard to miss. From gurus puporting to explain inner space and scientists outer space and musicians trying to link both, all the while creating edifices of thought, emotion and technique which remain with humanity for ever, these people naturally have something that the people can tap into, either by ‘consumption’ of their works of looking up for guidance in their own quest.

However, this relationship is not as one-dimensional as the above description might suggest. A good example is that of the Sringeri Math in earlier times. It was the largest landowner in the region and simply because of its size was dependent not only on the donations of the common people but also the good-will of the local rulers. Similarly, the rulers understood the influence the Math had in the region and patronised it for political reasons if nothing else. Hence the basis for the extremely cordial relations between the Math and Tippu Sultan.

All over the world, religious institutions played an important role in the material life of people, and continue to do so in India. The best recent example is the Gadag land acquisition issue where in the forefront of the agitation were the heads of the various Maths in the region, since the local BJP MLAs obviously would not do anything about it. In fact, until the deliberate attempts of the British to dismantle it, everyday life in India seemed to revolve around local institutions and were largely insulated from the vagaries of the large scale political vagaries. In such a situation, an ‘impartial observer’ who was largely insulated from the demands of normal life was naturally needed, and in a strongly religious country like ours, no guesses as to who would be that observer.

Afer India went onto the path of modernization, and the temples of modern India were being built, there are again no surprises as to who were to lead the discussions and debates on how life should be organised. New religions require new priests. Scientists of Nehru’s time were very active in public life due to the mandate given to them to build a modern nation, a trait that is not very conspicuous among scientists today, given that India has a new religion called economics. There were, of course exceptions to the rule, people who were truly unaccountable for their actions either due to extreme mass appeal or asceticism, but these are exceptions that prove the rule.

Societies seem to subsidize certain capabilities and allow strange behavior when they see how influential they can be in everyday life — either by helping them forget the humdrum of daily life, if only for a moment, as entertainers or inspirers, or by making life easier to live by reaching for concepts not everyone has the time or the talent to absorb. Spirituality, on the other hand, cannot survive unless it comes down from the skies once in a while and actually dirties its hands in the slush that all those who support it have to wade through daily.

Those on the ground want to reach for the skies, whereas those up above will do well to keep their ears to the ground. Just as life flourishes where the earth and sky meet, civilization can sustain itself when the farmer and the philosopher can actually understand each other.

Politics from above and below

A bus journey from Bangalore to Mysore shows interesting patterns – until the periphery of the urban sprawl, which extends nearly to Ramangara, you will see walls painted advertising the protectors of Kannada, of which there are more than desirable – Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, Jaya Karnataka, Pratidhvani Vedike, Kasturi Janapara Vedike and so on. They mysteriously disappear near the villages, where the walls are painted with advertisements for consumer goods and appear regularly at all the major towns in between. Maybe since their fight is against the English and Hindi speakers, they stay where such riff-raff tend to gather. Or maybe there is simply no interest for their cause among the `simple-minded, ignorant’ villagers. who knows.

These organisations, along with the collection of miscellaneous Senes, and the more established Congresses and BJPs, represent the `sexy’, visible side of politics in India. Whatever the theoretical aims of such people, all they do nowadays is power brokering without any particular ideology guiding them. Power is required to acquire money and more power, nothing else seems to matter. Not surprisingly, the common person is both attracted and cynical toward them. Attracted, since they seem to matter the most, and hence can be a source of leverage when need arises, and disappointed since in most likelihood, they are not responsive to his needs.

If politics is a process of rearrangement of power, then these organisations simply have no proper method by which to devolve power to those they claim to serve. They would claim that power in a few hands will be more effective for the battles of today. Unfortunately, not so in the ultimate war against prejudice, hatred and misunderstanding.

Is it really that hard to empower individuals? Take the example of computers for Kannada speaking people. There isn’t a single Kannada font out there worth its name. The best one is from, god forbid, Microsoft. Can’t any one of these outfits with their enormous reach pressurise the government or themselves undertake the task to make one? A computer completely usable by someone who does not know English is still a dream.

Similarly, those who go on protests to protect Kannada culture, however one may define it, don’t seem to want to take it forward by putting in the hard work to become established poets or authors or even decent journalists or expositors of famous works. Wonder where Carnatic music would have gone if Tyagaraja had started going on dharnas to save traditional music.

Similarly, taking out processions and discussion meetings about slum dwellers or farmers or tribals or whoever is going to create a very aware, sympathetic, but ultimately useless set of armchair philosophers. Unless one has the commitment to stay in a place for years on end and bring about the change within themselves and the world around them, there is no hope that anything constructive will ever happen. In a place of contrasts like India, the challenge not only lies in outreach to the less priviledged, but also in forgetting whatever one knows about ideas of desirable and otherwise, and try and see the world from a point of view as alien to you as a person from the Amazon.

This is a more subtle, constructive politics that allows a person to assume charge of her life and gain the confidence that her destiny can be written by herself, and that too by modes of living which are not derived from a middle class model. It is slow, painful (like all interpersonal interactions are!) but ultimately the only way forward.

Selco’s Lab, Ujire

Where it happens...

Finally had a chance to make it to the Selco Incubation Lab housed at SDM Institute of Technology, Ujire. It is a small place, with 2 full time employees (one of them a graduate of IISc). It is managed by a person named Anand Narayan, who is now a farmer (his previous profession being in the wireless industry in the US).

Anand (left) and the principal of SDMIT at Anand's farm

The main focus here is to bridge the technology gap at the ‘last mile’, as Anand puts it — Working with farmers, artisans, vendors to find out needs and coordinating with companies/institutions to get the technology part done. They do some in-house work, but have too few people and underfunded to do many things on their own. Since SELCO is a famous name throughout the world, they get numerous interns from places like Cambridge and MIT (Through the Engineers without Borders and such programs) who spend the summer developing interesting technologies, like cookstoves with thermoelectric generators which can be used to charge mobile phones and animal repulsion systems for coconut trees.

They also spend quite some effort field testing equipment like stoves and lighting and giving valuable feedback to the manufacturers. For example, they deployed LED lighting in barber shops, vegetable stores and found out the reasons why they are not preferred. A design student then tried to address the issues and came up with multiple innovative lamp designs to suit their needs.

Another area is water quality testing, and they do such tests for samples submitted from nearby areas (including from Veerendra Hegde’s home!). Some interesting things I spotted there:

Different cook stoves being tested -- no 'one size fits all' policy!
View of the lab...
Some of the people and stuff they worked on here...
Combined Solar/Biomass based dessicator -- used for local food processing, especially bananas
Rice dehusker

The commitment to make a difference in the lives of potentially thousands of people is quite inspiring, and to see people who worked on ‘high’ technology doing things that would be looked down upon as low-tech is a useful exemplar for all.

The good part is the strong focus on immediate deployment rather than to focus as a museum, and attempts to encourage local entrepreneurs to disseminate the products, which is far more sustainable than a donor-based approach.

It was an interesting experience, and hope to see more and more interesting things coming out of this place.

This Fissured Land – Review

My second book by these two authors – Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, ‘This Fissured Land’ is as much an exercise in understanding systemic biases against those who rely on their local ecology for sustenance as it is a history of India from an ecological point of view. It also makes clear the ecological roots of the various tribal/peasant vs. forest department conflicts that continue to plague India to this day, nowadays very much in the news due to the Naxalite problem.

The agenda of the book is to understand usage of resources by various types of communities, which are classified from lowest impact (hunter/gatherer, pastoralist) to the highest (Industrial/urban dweller), and the conflict that these usage patterns have caused and who eventually won. It also examines the belief systems, technological capabilities that made each type of community what it is. In short, the hardware and software of coexistence and conflict of very different human communities are examined here.

Books such as these are as important now as when they were written, just to give some historical perspective on what seems extremely ‘odd’ or ‘natural’ in our society today. For example, shifting cultivation terrifies ecologists as much as wildlife sanctuaries reassures them. While shifting cultivation may no longer be a sustainable practice nowadays and wildflife sanctuaries may have no alternate, it is instructive to understand under what circumstances this has come to be the case. Most opinions about tribal poaching and Naxalism are held without any historical context, and thus the actual problem is never identified. This leads to strange prescriptions like ‘kick the tribals out of the sanctuaries’ and ‘send in the army to wipe out Naxalism’, which are not assured of positive results but will definitely increase the suffering of those who are already at the brink.

The book  starts off interpreting prehistorical societies in India as being shaped by their environment and technologies, and given ecological explanations for the rise of the heterodox traditions of Buddhism and Jainism, and finally an interesting explanation of caste as a system to prevent resource conflicts. It then comes to the Colonial Era and outlines the major changes in the belief systems especially with respect to the utility of forests, whom they belong to, and the inevitable clashes when traditional users of the forests were excluded from them in the name of British interests.

It then outlines how a change in administration did nothing to change the forest policy of the State, with British interests being replaced by State and industrial ones. The subversive acts of those who were denied what their ancestors assumed to belong to them are then highlighted and this seems to be the only thing that people outside seem to care about.

Reading this should ensure no one ever blames tribals for the present state of the environment in India. Its strong focus on equity and its insights into understanding how conservation is not a value-independent notion, but stems from a certain world-view are useful take aways from the book.

Bahuguna in Melkote

Was pleasantly surprised by the news that Bahuguna was passing by Mysore and will be in Hosajeevana daari in Melkote (look in the map next to this post). An informal meeting was arranged and a few of us from Mysore were there.

The Bahugunas with Surendra Kaulagi

Bahuguna spoke for sometime and then there was a discussion with  the people, with questions ranging from the serious like his advice for the handling of the people’s movement in Chamalapura (the power plant nearby Mysore that was recently shelved) to the idiotic like ‘have you been threatened’, ‘why do you wear a turban’.

Sunderlal Bahuguna

One thing that immediately strikes you is how peaceful the man seems to be. The intensity and fire of a man who led what is probably the largest peoples movement in the Himalayas are not immediately seen in his calm, composed demeanour. He seems slow to irritation, considering how patiently and properly he handled even the most idiotic of questions. Vimla Ben, though she did not speak (atleast not into the mike) always had something to say to Sunderlal which he relayed to us. This in some ways confirms a long standing hunch, that activism that is grounded in inner strength, non-violence and compassion seems to be the only sustainable way to go about things as opposed to action based on anger, fear or insecurity which is the current, heavily glorified trend.

He understandably has no faith in the Government, which like every institution is primarily concerned with its own survival and hence favors the status quo. Thus, change can only be brought about by a concerted peoples movement along with ‘Eternal vigilance, the price of liberty’ (to paraphrase Bahuguna). He also made an interesting point about ‘replacing high learning with good behavior’, which I think should ring true for anyone who has observed the ‘well educated’ engineers and kind in Bangalore. Education, rather than acting as a liberating force, simply increases divisiveness and parochialism as people get more confident (arrongant?) due to academic and professional success, something that IISc has shown me since I joined.

Vimla Ben

He is never sarcastic during his speaking, something that I admire about most Gandhian leaders. Sarcasm seems to be a very useful device to show your intellect and attract attention and one can see plenty of this in Dawkins’ `The God Delusion’, which irritated me to no end. There seems to be some intrinsic problem with differentiating things as right or wrong with logic and condescension (which to me is what sarcasm is all about), as opposed to a the peaceful alternative of holding something as the Truth, backed by strong personal conviction and action. People like Bahuguna and Vimla Ben seem to be driven by a strong sense of Truth rather than a simplistic true/false logic. Truth, backed with a very strong ethical system derived from Gandhi can be a very strong force indeed as this couple has shown.

Contrary to the angst that postmodern thinkers seem to display when they worry about cultural relativism and ‘many Truths’, Bahuguna is supremely confident in his understanding of the same, of which there is only one to him. The Indian notion ‘One Truth with many faces’ seems to be a far more effective platform on which to build discussion and mutual understanding and action. Activism driven by Satya and Ahimsa seem to me to be the only kind in which there is no ‘collateral damage’.

Overall, it was a great learning experience and an inspirational one too. Below are some photographs taken along the way.

Fields along the way
Tree in Memory
View along the way
Random tree in full bloom
End of an interesting Day!

Political Fasting – Gandhi’s footsteps ?

There seem to be a huge number of politicians going on fasts nowadays, preferably a fast-unto-death (with glucose being fed intravenously, just to be sure). Keeping in with a new trend in trying to split up states with the ostensible aim of improved governance in backward areas, our political babas are nobly taking up this burden using ‘peaceful, non-violent, Gandhian’ methods, to quote one of them.

Whether such actions are aimed at better governance or creating new political posts for those who have been sidelined for decades is probably apparent to everyone but the most partisan of people. Invoking Gandhi to justify this displays not only a lack of understanding of Gandhi’s views on fasting, but also how Gandhi is now a political expedient rather than a political ideal.

Gandhi fasted very regularly as he considered it a form of self purification and penance. If one looks at the many times that he has fasted, most of them were aimed at performing penance for the violence that was happening elsewhere, perpetrated by someone else, particularly communal violence. His aim was to bring about a moral awakening (he believed in the ‘inherent goodness’ of people). The effect of such fasts was nowhere more dramatic than in Bengal during the Partition, where he single-handedly stopped communal violence simply by refusing to eat, whereas the armies of Mountbatten could not control a similar situation in the Punjab. His most famous fast against the Government was  in opposition to the decision to have separate electorates for the Dalits. Ironically, present day politicians invoke Gandhi and fast for the exact opposite purpose, it seems. Aware of the fact that he had a huge following throughout India, he rarely fasted against the British, but mainly against the atrocities his own people committed (as penance).

One of the first political fasts against the Government in Free India resulted in the death of the person fasting (named Potti Sriramulu) and the formation of a Telugu state (Andhra Pradesh) and paved the way for linguistic division of India. Again, the Andhra region seems to have taken the lead in further divisions based on regional identity. Without doubt, in a country as diverse as India the smaller the unit of administration, the better. Greater autonomy at a smaller scale can atleast give people the chance of a more accountable Government.

A more apt question to ask, however, is what effect will division along regional identities engender, de facto : removal of corruption ? speedier justice ? equitable resource distribution ? Political division merely results in replication of the older State machinery at a smaller scale, and will carry all its deficiencies forward. Like they say, it is easier to take a person out of a slum than taking the slum out of a person. As long as the reliance on a corrupt bureaucracy driven by powermongers in Parliament remains, no amount of division will result in any good, but result in deepening the already huge divides within the country.

Present day politics, from tribal agitations to farcical climate change negotiations, seem to be guided by a single principle : dominate or be dominated, leading to a very unfortunate Hobbesian conception of society and polity. There seems to be very little place for mutual respect, understanding and compromise. As long as life is seen as an endless competition, cooperation and trust can never be important. Without trust there is no understanding, without understanding no empathy nor peace.