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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 9, February 20, 2010

Bt Brinjal is Neither the Beginning Nor the End

Monday 22 February 2010, by K Saradamoni

A few days back, on January 26, 2010, we celebrated our sixtieth Republic Day, reminding us that we declared ourselves to be a sovereign Republic sixty years ago. We proclaimed that all people, living in this country, irrespective of religion, caste, gender, place of living would have freedom of opportunity. We told ourselves that ours would be a democratic country where freedom of faith or absence of it, right to live with dignity, to be treated as equal everywhere —place of worship, educational institutions, employment, restaurants, parks and other public places—was the fundamental right of every citizen. Without any special inquiry we can assert that we are not living in an India which we pledged to create. As usual, despite the cold and the fog Delhi has ‘celebrated‘ the day with a show of our defence capabilities, the tableaux, march-past of children and cultural troupes from various States displaying their performances. We can tell ourselves that our rich diversity is in-tact. Is it the complete truth of present-day India?

In the last few days, the national TV channels in India have been repeatedly broadcasting this sixty-year episode. They brought to us profiles of select women and men who carried forward the dreams of our early leaders and makers of our Constitution. These women and men were from the generation that imbibed the messages of our independence struggle and the promises of Free India to its people. One of the anchors told us that the Republic of India, being sixty, is a senior citizen and at pensionable age. I could not understand the meaning of what she meant; fortunately the panelists—all above sixty—did not discuss the anchor’s observation. As can be expected from them who are urban and middle class, with varying degrees of sensitivity, they talked about the reality of India at present that has a solid section of youth, the conflict inside the home as well as in public life between the above sixty and the youth, the problems both categories face, the need for the experience and wisdom of the elderly and the energy of the youth to collaborate while both respect the love for freedom of each other, changing values, and the need for a conflict-free society.

I have no quarrel with most of the things given above. But I would say that this is an opportune time to introspect and start open discussions on the last sixty years.

Yesterday one of the channels came up with a scoop. In one of the States of the Republic of India, the law does not allow a particular low-caste people aspiring to reach anywhere other than scavenging in which their forefathers had engaged for generations. While one has to be thankful to the channel for bringing this to light, we have to be ashamed and angry that no government which had ruled the country for six decades had known about this. The Congress spokesman, who was present, admitted that. However, I must say that while the particular State we are referring to openly stated their policy, the same thing happens in many places.

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I have often wondered ‘are not the body of women known as kudumbasree members engaged in garbage collection and cleaning all over Kerala a new version of the old scavengers’? True, they do not collect and take away the night soil. But one does not know what is contained in the increasing volume of waste/garbage generated by each middle class household which has proudly become a persistent consumer. The poor women, who are not regular employees of any official body, often sort out the waste and sell things like cardboard, certain type of plastic bottles, alcohol bottles etc. to a shopkeeper who does business on these materials. He buys them from these women at a pittance and they are sent to Tamil Nadu for recycling. According to the official version, these women are ‘empowered ‘. The truth is that they come for this out of dire distress.

These women come from poor and low-caste households. Many can be single earners which means that the family expects them to earn and run the household. I am yet to see a study on them. But I see them in groups after collecting and bundling the waste and then carrying them in an open carrier driven by a male driver. Along with the waste some eight or ten women would be perched on the vehicle. When I see them together I see that there are poorer and sicklier among them. They have no time to take care of themselves. When they fall sick they go to a hospital or clinic and take the medicines they are told to.

How many millions of women like these are there in the India celebrating sixty years of becoming a Republic with a Constitution upholding noble goals? Many can be in worse situations. India is still seen as an agrarian country. Till a few decades back this was true like many other countries. The Indian National Congress, even while fighting for independence, emphasised the importance of land reforms and raised the slogan of ‘land to the tiller’. Some States attempted land reforms which mainly meant reducing the size of holdings of very big landlords. The country did not witness a major rise in production and productivity and the emergence of a vibrant, committed peasantry as happened in some other Asian countries. The early decades of independence saw the country facing acute shortage of foodgrains and the launching of the programme which came to be known as the Green Revolution. Let us not go into the merits or otherwise of the programme here. The early Five Year Plans gave agriculture a lot of importance. It was the biggest employment generating sector. There were clashes of interest between the landowners of various types, big medium and absentee, the peasants, landless cultivators and labourers. But the system and people’s life continued without violent eruptions.

Despite the promises of the Constitution and the Panning Commission’s emphasis to fight concentration of income and wealth in the hands of a section of the population, what happened over the Five Year Plans was the opposite of the set goals. Slowly and steadily, improvements came to the life of the well-off and socially higher up sections of the society. It was not through agriculture, rural industries and basic education which Gandhiji had conceived to change the life of the poor rural people. Different levels of education, employment, wages and salaries, housing became part of the development agenda. The caste based hierarchy became less strong and visible at least in the urban areas. The hierarchy, based on education, socio-economic status, took over. The Planning Commission, economists and other intellectuals who were part of or near to the decision-making authorities successfully floated ideas around minimum levels of living, minimum wages etc. Debates followed as to how these should be measured. Concepts like unemployment, under-employment etc. also came up for discussion. The people, on the other hand, were clear that their work was irregular and earnings unsteady. The policy-makers and experts never talked about ceiling on salaries or fixing maximum earnings of the higher-ups. Over time all this got enmeshed in the thinking process of the nation-builders. The elected representatives of the people, whom the illiterate and the poor voted in large numbers, became part of the preferred circle.

The generation of farmers who saw indepen-dence loved the earth. They knew that their life was hazardous and there was no security in their life. Still they were proud of the work carried on by their forefathers. But their sons and grandsons, who grew up with independent India, had other ideas. They did not have the attachment their parents had to the earth and agriculture. They yearned for a different, ‘comfortable, better’ life. The next generation did not care for agriculture and had no difficulty in leaving the village. We cannot say that all of them succeeded in their dreamlands.

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It was easy for the hawks to turn things to their advantage when the government of the Indian Republic with lofty ideals and goals decided to launch the new ‘economic reforms’ which, among other things, meant opening the country to foreign private investment. This was a major break from the policy followed since independence. To stick to that decision was not easy as we could not always internally raise all the funds we needed. But we stuck to the determination not to accept foreign financial help with ‘strings attached’. The critics of the ‘new economic reforms’ see it as new imperialism. One observation reads:

Though formal colonial rule has ended, Western domination has resurrected itself with newer forms of control which impact upon human rights in ways that are perhaps more subtle and sophisticated, but no less destructive and devastating. The dominant centres of power, wealth and knowledge in the West have created an unjust, unequal global system which allows superpowers and super-states to invade alien lands, occupy foreign territories, impose economic sanctions, usurp natural resources, manipulate terms of trade, suppress industrial growth, thwart technology transfers, perpetuate crippling debts, dump toxic wastes, monopolise inter-national arteries of information, crush alternative ideas, marginalise non-Western cultures……..

(Human Wrongs, 1996, pp. 1, 2)

Elsewhere in the same book it is pointed out

that more dangerous for us and more victorious for the managers of globalisation is the demolition of the mind. It happens through large scale control of the book trade and the media, and among others medical therapy, academic research, economic management, development theory, agricultural research …….

We are led by the nose by the intellectual class of the West since our eyes were effectively punctured several decades ago. (p. 139)

The spokespersons of the powers that promote globalisation had at the early stage itself spread the slogans ‘There is No Alternative’ and ‘Jobless Growth’ and ‘Leaner Government’. The government thought it wise not to adopt the last, but in the case of the other two they have religiously followed the dictats. Without any reference to the constitutional promises and concern for the effect on the concerned people huge numbers of the ‘Class Four employees’ were discarded. The work they were doing are done by ‘contract labour’ without any security, and benefits like medical aid, housing and pension. Were these people eating away such a big chunk of the exchequer?

Agriculture and allied services, small scale industries, which are classed under the ‘unorganised, or household sector’, were giving work and earnings for the large mass of people. At that time, life was simple and demands limited. There were times of hardship, but one did not hear of suicide, not by one, two or hundred, but lakhs as happens now. Some of the ‘household’ industries were run by the entire family. They had special skill, and a sense of pride in what they produced, whether it be handloom—cotton or silk—, crafts made of clay, wood, metal.

Today every one of them, including khadi, has government appointed Boards to take care of them. Some of them have brought foreign experts to improve/revitalise the dying handlooms. This was traditionally done by the women and men engaged in the occupation. While the knowledge and skill passed down from generation to generatiom, improvements were also introduced by them. From the agricultural sector too, one or two male members alone or with family used to go to towns and cities to make money for which they always had shortage. The emergence of ‘migrants’ whose exodus is increasing can be an interesting “research” topic. But for the young boys who traverse the length and breadth of the country or beyond, it is not excitement. I see quite a number of them regularly. Very young boys who have come from Tripura, Assam etc. to work in the construction sites in Kerala. They send money home, but are lost in an alien place.

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This article is not to analyse the last sixty years of India in the backdrop of the constitutional promises to the people. It is not lack of patriotism if anyone says that they have not been met. It is a fact that the disparity between the haves and have-nots has become not only wider, but the former has become stronger.

They have wealth, education, and are close to the establishment. Their views matter and they know how to make themselves heard and also get things done in their favour. The poor, on the other hand, are illiterate and ignorant. They have been reduced to beneficiaries, always waiting for their share of the “gifts’ from the government. This has kept them unaware of the realities of their life.

There are many other reasons for this. The overall messages sent out by the forces of globalisation are success versus failure, achievers versus losers or the failed ones. The large mass of people, whose lot is hurt and humiliation, are surrounded by continuous celebration, created by dazzling shows of song and dance, advertisements, fashions parades, reality shows, shopping festivals and endless prizes. They together have erased the environment that was there at the beginning of the 20th century when the untouchables took upon themselves the responsibility to end the indignities they had suffered for generations. For the same reason, the government finds itself safe from disturbing questions like why the victims of Bhopal tragedy have not got compensation, how Enron, Monsanto and the like choose India for their operations, soaring unemployment, migrant (to be correct, wandering) labour, and farmers’ suicide in unbelievable numbers, and thousands going to sleep under the sky without food.

These are some things the speakers raised in the fast and meeting that took place in Thiruvananthapuram on January 30, 2010. The speakers remembered the salt satyagraha, and Gandhiji’s moral strength to face the empire ‘where the sun never set’ without arms or hatred. Brinjal is today a symbol. The fight has begun, but it is not just to save brinjal from the corporate hawks. It is to regain the Freedom, Self-Respect, Equality, Peace and Harmony we are steadily losing.

The author is a renowned economist and concerned social activist based in Thiruvananthapuram.

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