Trampling cultures, identities in the quest for ‘development’: Can we find a middle ground? #Posco #tribals #India- June 22, 2012
Read late into the night, after a while. ‘Two pronouns and a verb’ by Kiran Khalap. A story about three friends, destiny, relationships, strength, and searching for who you really are. The language is beautiful, even though the story is simple enough. The characters come alive. But this post is not about the book.
It’s about one aspect of the book that is haunting me. Dhruv, one of the three protagonists, makes working with the Madia Gond tribals of Maharashtra his life’s work. The mission of his Madia Rights Centre, set up with the objective of “returning to the madias, the original inhabitants of the land, their constitutional rights”. After many decades of documentation and struggle, Dhruv and his friends succeed in convicting the three contractors who were the mafia behind the rampant destruction of these teak forests.
This morning, as I read Freny Manecksha’s heart rending editorial in The Hindu about the plight of the villages resisting the Posco plant in Odisha, I found myself in tears. I just had this sense that, in reality, there is no one or very very few who understand the story from the tribal perspective and there is probably no possibility of a happy ending for the tribals. Everyone-the state, the industry and even the Naxalites- exploit them. These people who are one with nature, who weep for the river running dry, who hide within the folds of their unique culture many precious secrets about life-saving plants, who truly believe in equality between men and women and who value the life of each child….. And here we are, the so-called developed or developing world, hypocrites, opportunists, drunken with greed and fear for our survival (survival of the world we call it, as if we are the world!)…here we are, telling the sons and daughters of nature what is right, what is good for them, what they ought to do, how they ought to live….it’s rather lopsided, that logic if you ask me.
And yet, like everything else, we must find the middle ground. Between the need to fuel our reckless consumption and the need to protect their isolation. Between certain disaster and the end of life as we know it. Between bleakness and hope.
Poverty and traditional living can teach us about sustainability, if we would pay attention- June 18, 2012
A friend passed on to me the phone number of someone who home delivers organic veggies in Gurgaon and I am trying to evaluate the benefits of ordering these at an increased cost. I do believe that going organic will benefit my family’s health, but how much can I protect my kids and the rest of us from exposure to all sorts of toxins in products like milk, fruits, even pulses, chicken, wheat and rice…stuff we consume all the time?
Reading about the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development organized by the UN, I cannot help wondering what a stupendous task it must be to convince people from across the globe to see the urgency of the issue. Modern lives have consumption and wastefulness at the core. To turn first principles around and conserve instead of consume is a very fundamental transformation that most people will find extremely difficult. Much easier to believe the worst will never happen and continue with business as usual! Many a time, I am gripped with fear about what sort of lives our children will lead in a future world where people will slay for water.
One of the essential themes of the the Rio+20 conference is the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and the seven areas that need attention are: decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness. There is a strong link between urbanization and sustainability. We do know that as man has rapidly urbanized, the pressures on the planet has magnified manifold and the objective of sustainability more threatened than ever.
The connection with poverty is more complex, in my view. I usually associate higher income with higher waste generation. However, I have noticed time and again that urban migrant populations at the bottom of the income pyramid lose their inherent tendency of conservation and judicious use of resources rapidly. Instead, littering and wastefulness are the first ‘urban’ traits they pick up. To me, this is strongly linked to the loss of identity that poor families must feel when they migrate into urban spaces. The lack of ownership of a home and its environs, the feeling of being transient inhabitants of a physical space, the nonchalance and thick-skinned abandon that is born out of being treated as society’s lowest rung all act together to breed a feeling of contempt for the urban environment.
Therefore, the biggest challenge of all for sustainable development is that of carving a space of dignity for the urban poor. One way is to create policy and mechanisms that ensures a basic decent standard of living for all- quality shelter and access to basic services like water, electricity and sanitation being essentials. Along with this, a code of urban conduct needs to propagated in which civic duties including aspects like cleanliness, safety and conservation are expected from individuals and households that inhabit urban spaces. Once again, community plays a critical role here. Inter-class suspicions and rivalries need to be left aside if we are to build a society that is safe for our present and in a fit condition to hand over to our children.
I suspect this is not an urban problem along though. On Sunday, I attended the book release of the 3rd Encyclopaedia of Social Work in India. The editor of the 5-volume series, Dr Surendra Singh is a family elder, an academician of repute and a man with acute sensibilities with regards to the social dimensions of developing India. He pointed out that despite over 60% of Indians still quoting agriculture as their primary occupation, only a single researcher had contributed an article on social work among the farming community. Just goes to show that we are ignoring social transitions that are happening at a massive scale across the nation. Consumed by the idea of urbanization, we are unable to see the inter-linkages across geographies, the proverbial big picture.
I’m the zillionth person to say this I’m sure, but a nation like India, which still has living traditional cultures within its folds, cultures that still practice age old traditions of sustainable living, has the unique opportunity to recognize these precious ideas and adapt them to modern life. In this, we need to hear the voices of the poor and give credence to their adaptability. We then need to help them retain the sustainable aspects of their lifestyle and adopt these across economic strata and geographies, not look down on them and force modern, usually unsustainable practices down their throat in the name of development. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the construction field, but that is a whole different subject to explore!
Disturbed by the political paralysis at the Center- May 8, 2012
The political deadlock we are seeing at the Center in India is really disturbing. When we do shavasana in yoga class, our teacher tells us to focus on each body part and let it go, imagining that it is no longer now part of the body, is detached, dysfunctional. That’s how the current political madness plays out in my mind. As if, one by one, critical functions are being rendered defunct and India will eventually reach a state of suspended animation!
Sounds like nonsense, perhaps, but it’s really scary! I agree that the Congress government has botched up on serious issues. But its still got two more years in power. So unless the Opposition really thinks it has a good chance at toppling the government and having early elections, I don’t see the point in obstructing anything and everything the ruling party is trying to do, obstructing Parliamentary proceedings, obstructing the business of policy making, the business of governing a country as large and chaotic as India, where children die in thousands and Maoists abduct ajd kill policemen!
I guess I don’t see the point because I am politically dumb, but really, as a citizen, I see each day go by as a wasted opportunity to make positive changes. When the top politicians in the nation engage in meaningless scuffles, citizens like me wonder what the future is going to be like!
The world is seeing massive economic shifts; the rules are being redefined and the growing economies (like ours) need to deliver. Or we can craft our own set of rules on how we would want to grow in order to secure a better future for our citizens and contribute positively to the global economy.
In the end, the targets for India are crystal clear. Address poverty, health, education and governance. Create a climate of opportunity, encourage entrepreneurship, attract investment towards sustainable industries that can nurture communities, not destroy them. Those would be highest on my list.
There as so many petitions I am asked to sign-Save the Girl Child, Speak Against Child Sexual Abuse, Stop Illegal Mining, Stop Ragging…..and so on. Can we put up a petition for Parliamentarians to make the Parliament function? Incidentally, that’s their job. Who gives them a right to waste public money fighting amongst themselves. Debate, by all means, but also take some decisions! The future of the nation, the future of you and me depends on it.
Good governance can only come out of good intention! Not feeling optimistic about Gurgaon- April 7, 2012
In May 2011, Gurgaon residents elected its first set of councilors under a newly formed Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG). Nothing dramatic seems to have happened since then. In fact, from what I hear, many initiatives remain mired in conflicts between councilors and contractors, contractors and MCG officials and MCG officials and councilors. Voters who dare to ask questions are pretty much told to shut up and show up to make changes at the next election!
So when Shashi Tharoor says that good governance must become the passion for governments, I can only laugh! In the context of Gurgaon, good governance does not even seem to be in the vocabulary of the government. Day after day, residents struggle with the same issues–bad roads, frequent power cuts, lack of policing, traffic mismanagement, no system to streamline private developments with mainline government-supplied infrastructure, poor maintenance of public spaces, no street lighting, mafia-run public transport, nuisance liquor vends at every crossing….I could go on and on. And councilors continue to not care. Clearly, they ran for public office with the sole intention of filling their personal coffers. I sincerely hope they are not being able to achieve even that, which is probably the case since contracts would need to be given out and some work shown for pockets to be lined!
Of course, part of the issue is that Gurgaon’s educated urban population doesn’t really turn out to vote. And priorities of rural voters and urban voters do differ. Councillors, therefore, do not really feel the need to be answerable to you and me. I am tired, however, of trying to divert the blame for lack of governance on lack of motivation by citizens. We deserve good governance because we pay the taxes that fund the government. Gurgaon’s urban citizens may not vote, but they pay hefty taxes to the state government and deserve not just basic, but world class amenities.
Gurgaon is an opportunity gone waste for Haryana. Yes, the government’s made a killing on land, but opportunity for continued revenue generation is being wasted as the city languishes in a semi-developed state. If Kingdom of Dreams is not making enough money to pay the government taxes, something is terribly wrong indeed! I don’t feel optimistic at all about a city that fails to make its entertainment destinations economically viable, a city where the transition from ‘scattered islands of population’ to ‘community’ is painfully slow and receives absolutely no government support, a city where no one really seems to care and those who do….. don’t vote!
Jalti Jhopdi update: Some done, more to do; but the poor need to take initiative for self-improvement too!
Yesterday evening was when our efforts to help the residents of the burnt down slum (Jalti Jhopdi project) culminated into the physical distribution of material. Each kit we gave consisted of a bedsheet, a medicinal mosquito net and a utensils kit that included everything a family would need to cook a basic meal and eat it. One matka per house were distributed later in the night.
With the help of Riyaz from the local masjid, we were able to organize the residents well. They formed a line and came one by one to receive the things, each carrying a card the masjid had distributed with details of the family and a list of what they had already got before.
When you go in to do charity, you may hold off from expecting gratitude, but you do not anticipate criticism. It was disturbing for us when the very first recipient in line wanted to exchange her sheet because she didn’t like it! It brought us to reality a bit and we carried on. The real test, however (and a lot of fun) was the distribution of slippers to the kids. Getting a hundred kids into single file height-wise line was the most challenging thing I had attempted to do in a long, long time! Much squealing and squabbling later, we succeeded in giving away chappals in multiple sizes to all the kids in the jhuggi.
After we pulled it off, we saw some of the older kids coming back saying they hadn’t got a pair. Sure enough, the mother was wearing new slippers and had sent the kid asking for another one!
Don’t get me wrong; these are simple people. But somehow their circumstances train them to be greedy. We were clear that the kids would be bought chappals because we knew most of the adults were out working when the fire happened. Presumably, they were wearing chappals. These are all domestic workers; we asked them to request their employers to give them an extra pair of chappals.
The psychology that if you get anything free, you ask for more is ingrained into the poor because they are desperately poor and because they perceive themselves as temporary migrants at the bottom of society’s long heirarchy of socio-economic status. They acknowledge their kids should go to school, but do not send them to the free school the mosque runs down the road! They say only individual toilets will work because there is so much infighting, no one would maintain them! They say they are here only temporaily, so why invest (even just their time) in improving their homes. Offers to provide insulation material that they can install themselves were met with lukewarm response.
It is impossible to help communities that refuse to put in some effort to get organized. It is a huge challenge to help people who do not seem to have a desire to really improve their condition. Is it possible, however, that these people genuinely have no hope for better lives? That they are as impoverished in imagination and aspiration as they are in their economical condition? And that is the real Catch-22 situation- Is it ethical for us to invest efforts into building hopes if we do not have a sustained program to help them truly integrate into a society that is happy to have migrants at the fringes?
I do not have ready answers, but I hesitate to promise what I cannot deliver. Clearly, offering some opportunity for education to children at these temporary shanties is the single-most impactful contribution we can make. Followed by shelter, health, hygiene and political empowerment. If we are able to find 5 motivated jhuggi dwellers who can dream of a better future, something might be possible!
Why the tremendous urge to know the future? A doubting Dragon’s musings on the Chinese New Year-Jan 24, 2012
Dragons are destined for success, as per Chinese beliefs and it is expected that there will be a 5% increase in the number of children born to Chinese parents this year. This isn’t just speculation, its what actually happened in 2000, the last Year of the Dragon!
Well, I’m a Dragon too, so is Rahul and a lot of our friends and I’m really wondering if we are more ‘successful’ or ‘fortunate’ or ‘intelligent’ that other people born under the other eleven Chinese signs! Of course it’s nice to think so, but it’s really hard to believe this could be true. Yet, belief in all sorts of astrological phenomenon and deductions seem to play a significant factor in our lives. While in India, the traditional Vedic system of astrology that uses birth charts (the janampatri) is predominant, urban Indians are adopting all of the new systems being practices the world over
In my teens, I remember that the Greco-Roman zodiac signs (Aries, Taurus, etc) being a huge craze. Propagated by Linda Goodman, whose book was referred to endlessly and formed the basis of many gossip sessions, many of my peers went to the extent of pursuing or terminating relationships on the basis of Goodman’s interpretations.
By the time I was in my 20s, I became aware of a confusing array of beliefs, some based on astrology, others on differing systems that claim to understand current situations and predict the future. The Chinese Zodiac, Tarot cards, healing crystals, numerology, Feng Shui and Vastushastra as well as the old palmistry stuff are now all around to add to the pleasure of finding out what the future holds for you.
I have always been extremely wary of any methods that claim to offer all of life’s decisions on some sort of a platter. Experts practicing any of these systems, I feel, have been developing an increasingly stronger hold on their followers. Its not just readings that they offer; they go on to suggest and sometimes prescribe how their followers should lead their lives.
Now individuals are free to believe in what they wish to, but it seems to be extremely irrational to place my faith in any of these systems instead of on my own judgment! Of course, I happen to be born to parents who made their disbelief clear to me, so I was never predisposed to seeking my answers through this route. My dad did not waver in his disbelief even when he was detected with cancer and in the entire year of his fight against the dreaded disease.
I also observe that the higher the stakes, the more the urgency to know the future. So celebrities, politicians and industrialists frantically consult soothsayers, as do ordinary folks when they wish to take decisions about their careers, marriages, children, etc. Clearly, as the stresses of life increase, these kind of beliefs prosper. Urban centers where concentrated populations compete bitterly for opportunities to progress become great markets for opportunists who exploit insecurity.
I guess my basic question is- What’s wrong with leading life without knowing? Isn’t most of the fun in the journey anyway, learning along the way, tweaking strategies and being able to take credit for the good stuff also 🙂 Do we really believe that bad luck is avoidable (through pujas, chants, crystals and other forms of ‘good energy’)? It’s an open question. My skepticism is apparent…and I’m willing to take my chances!