Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Thinking About Agriculture in an Industrialising Economy

Kerala has always resisted industrialisation because of the fervour of its inhabitants, who have, even through its communist manifestos, supported agriculture, information technology and tourism. However, tourism and information technology are dependent on post modern practises, which then usher in industrialisation. Not surprisingly, Palakkad which was known to be the rice belt of Kerala, is due to have  a coach factory, and an Indian Institute of Technology opening soon. This will mean new elite, as well as, working class consumer needs. Shri Shibu Baby John has been instrumental in setting forth the preparatory mechanism for housing projects in Palakkad  for the Domestic Migrant Labourers who now number 2.5 million workers from Bengal, Orissa and UP. (personal communication MP Joseph 9.5.2015). Since agricultural labour is being transformed rapidly into construction labour, as the wages are more remunerative, farming is going to be doubly threatened in the legendary rice bowl of Kerala. In the 60s, of the last century, the famine in Kerala resulted in changes in food patterns, and while  in Travancore yams and tapioca became the staple, in Palakkad, it was the wheat gifts of the  American Missionaries which tided the population. (personal communication, S Kumar 14.5.2015).The growing of rice became predominant in the 90s, and was also accompanied by the support given, in policy, to organic farming. Ezhimayoor and surrounding villages became a hub for rice cultivation, which then was to be generated as a success story for further duplication in other districts.
 This essay attempts to look at organic farming as an offshoot of new interest in survival strategies, where farmers are inducted into techniques which will allow for independence from Tamil Nadu vegetable and fruit markets.
After the fracas of the Mullaperiyar dam, the Malayalis have been very clear that they needed to de-link from the import of vegetables from the Tamil farmers. Ofcourse, the Tamils also lost milk and curd and vegetable sales, purportedly upto six lakhs during the severest of the months of discord. But the move to grow vegetables and fruits came in the early years of the 1990s, when it was observed that Kerala had a high rate of cancer episodes. It was decided then that the Malayalis should prosper by including fruits and vegetables in their diet, and they could escape the chemical ridden commodities of the large scale producer, if they could grow their own food stuffs in a monitored way, with help from the Kerala government.
 Thus, Kerala Horticultural Development Programme was set up as a collaborative venture between The European Union and the Government of Kerala.  Dr Jacob Thomas of the IPS was the first head of the KHDP, which later became the Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council, Keralam or VFPCK. He had a Phd in Agriculture and was very passionate about the project, and served as the Director of the Research Centre from 1991-1996. What the KHDP discovered was that farmers were educated, but they were very traditional. The attempt then was to induct new Agricultural Scientists and graduates into the organisation, and work with Self Help Groups in Kerala for the propagation of fruits and vegetables. “We invite farmers, help them to establish themselves, create networks and stable organisations, set up farmers’ markets, and invite traders.” The idea was, according to the current Deputy Director of the VFPCK to propagate through selected seeds,  and to eliminate the middle man. The European Union in the 90s was willing to help with loans, and as the project became successful, they withdrew, leaving a corpus fund to continue the work at hand.
From 2001, the new organisation, Vegetable and Fruits Promotion Council   was established, with a Board of Directors and a CEO. Majority stake was held by the farmers, and only 30 percent stake was with the Government. The representatives of the Board would choose the best panchayats in Kerala, and the fieldworkers would begin to visit them.
The Seed processing plant would harness the best seeds from the University scientists. Earlier, seeds used to come from Tamil Nadu, but now, the seeds would be accessed from Kerala research scientists and if there was sixty percent success in propagating the plant in the controlled circumstances of the laboratory, they would be given to the farmer for enhanced seed production for further distribution.
Palakkad was chosen as the site for setting up the seed production unit, because land was plentiful and labour costs were much cheaper than Alappuzha. Seed production requires a congenial climate, and specifically a dry climate. In Chitoor Palakkad, the Mother Seed or Breeder Seed is facilitated. The Agriculture Scientists go to the University, and get the seeds which are generated through research. The seeds are hybrid seeds, but not genetically modified. There are hundred trained seed producers in Palakkad. Phil Donasia, the Deputy Director says,
In 1996, we took them to Tamil Nadu, and trained them there. We produce  50 to 60 tonnes of seeds. These seeds are to be maintained carefully for genetic purity. Tamil Nadu costs are competitive. In Kerala it rains eight months, and isolation is impossible. We chose Chittoor for its dry climate, and its very committed farmers. So we grow the seeds and transplant them. When they are stable we distribute or sell them to farmers. The impetus towards organic farming has actually come from the media, which for years took it upon itself to inform readers about the statistics of cancer, the need for autonomy, for generating solutions to commonly known problems. A lot of checks and balances were put into cultivation and sustainable development through media alerts. Organic cultivation was considered to be safe cultivation.
There are three types of seed. The first is Naadan or local seeds. The truth is in Kerala, with our traditional methods, we can cultivate one acre, and produce one tonne, and in Tamil Nadu, the same acre produces ten tonnes. Then there are the high yielding seeds, which we seek now to get from Kerala Universities as prototypes, grow in our laboratory here, and then promulgate to Seed Farmers. Tamil Nadu uses the best  hybrid seeds, purchasing them season after season, putting in some costs initially and then reaping the benefits. Our farmers like to harvest the vegetables and fruit,  select the best for purpose of deseeding, wrap it in ashes, and use for the next season. What we are now helping them to do is to use the seeds we get from the Kerala scientists, where 1 kg of high yielding seeds can be propagated for five botanical generations. This is in keeping with the mind set of the Malayali farmer keeping the context of Kaala avastha (climatic conditions) type of soil (mannu) and the krishi or agriculture patterns.
But the problem with this is really about keeping the isolation of valuable commodities in place. We demand that there should be five hundred metres between one crop and another, so cross fertilisation should not take place. The seed harvester has to abide by these rules, or else the seeds cannot be purchased for further dissemination. In Modallamadda for instance, thought to be the mango capital of India, where the first mangoes in history are thought to have been cultivated, the farmers grow mangos for the family without insecticides and fertilisers, but for the market, they use chemicals freely. We do not have a solution for this problem, i.e organic farming for the family, and commercial farming for the market. The only possibility of saving future generations from this is socialisation of young children into horticultural practises, at the school level, as Central Schools are doing, and the question of introducing terrace gardening for personal use. By training housewives and interested individuals, we hope that they will make a commitment towards safe eating habits, by growing their own vegetables and fruits in their gardens, in their verandahs, or balconies, or wherever they can access sunlight and water.
Phil Donasia then shows me around the facility. They have vazhae (banana saplings) growing in plastic bags in virus free surroundings on the terrace of the VFPCK building. Seedlings grow in little tubs, hybrid seeds with proficency of reproductivity for five generations. These are not GM seeds. Since there is a lot of discussion about GMT seeds, individuals often communicate their reasons for doubting the validity of using such seeds. A scientist whom I spoke to in Tiruvannamalai, on 23nd April 2015 (where organic farming is a buzz word because of Rudolf Steiner and other alternative theologies,) says that GMT seeds are being endorsed today by the State, but corporate pharmaceutical organisations invest in armoury companies (war) and in gmt seeds, because both will result in illness and disease, making their own company even more profitable. Since corporations are taking over everything the small enterprises and concerns are being swallowed up.  With organic farming and the fresh vegetables and fruit movements, the same anxieties are rampant. Does government have a support system in place for these farmers with two and a half acres, the average plot in India for home based and market gardening needs? Policies without  concomitant support cannot  be viable.

Two field officers of the agricultural department introduced me to their field sites in Kozhanpara, Chitoor district on 13th May 2015.. These agricultural officers are part of a team, come in to VFPCK (Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council, Keralam) to file in their field reports one day a week, and for the rest of the time, they are in their field offices talking to officers and examining the soil, the plants, and the produce of the farmers. Meena Shyam tells me that there are 104 members in the Seed Growers Associations,
We chose Chittoor because of the dry climate. For Seed production dry  climate is essential. Because of the Tamil influence, since we are close to the Coimbatore border, family farms are large. For Seed Production, isolation is necessary. There should be 500 metres or half  a km between the different plants, otherwise cross pollination will  occur. We take  strict stand on this, because if the distance is not maintained, then cross pollination will occur, and then in the second and third generation differences in colour and quality will occur. Breeder seeds are used for two seasons, so while  it can be continued upto six years, yet  for purity, we provide seeds every two years”

Breeder seed for propogation is provided to good farmers. They are selected for their proficiency. From field inspections, rigorously and frequently conducted by the field scientists, such farmers are chosen, for their ability to maintain isolation distance, spacing between plants and germination capabilities. However careful, the cross pollination happens  and this can be made out from the colour of fruit and flowers. Rogue or rogi plants can be distinguished, and the field officer can recognise the good from the mutations. There are Samithis for the farmers or Associations. A minimum of 25 farmers (Self Help Groups) form a Vibam, and when they grow in number and the tonnage of production increases they become a Samithi. The farmers in Chitoor district work with the help of family labour as they are influenced by Tamil culture, and they sometimes have landholdings upto 16 acres unlike the Kerala farmers who have on the average two and a half acres per household. The mode of irrigation is open well or bore well. From December to January it is open well, bore well, but the water level is now dropping. After December, there is no water. Vibham and Samithi help the farmers to sell their crop. Earlier it was agriculture, but with the coming of the European Union initiative with Kerala Government, the farmers began to turn into market gardeners. The question was how to market, and where could farmers gather. It was the job of the Associations to take the product further. Further, the Agricultural officers helped them to go to training camps. Prof Dharmalingam from Coimbatore University became a great help in training farmers in new methods in seed technology, and in time became a director of KHDP.  Since these farmlands belong to the rainshadow area of the Nilgiris, there were advantages as well as disadvantages in terms of crops and seed proliferation. Nellampalli, Puthusheri, Vadakarapati, Modallamada, Elavancherry, Kollamkode were the most productive in terms of the new orientations. It began with production of 400 kilogrammes of  vegetables and seeds and is now  upto 60 tonnes.
Britto, a local farmer and President of the Seed Growers Association says,
Till 2006 we had no subsidy. We were being trained. When we had an understanding of things our minds were changed. As Farmers, we cannot change our ways rapidly. The Association however grew to a 100 members. We grow gourds, coconuts, grass for fodder, and chickpeas. Mangoes are grown as a cash crop. However, mangoes are most famously grown in Modallamada, where the farmers grow for their own use organically, and for the market, with pesticides. Thirty kms away, we are not able to grow the same mangoes for home or for sale.  That is the thing with agriculture; everything has its own seasons and cycles, appropriate soil and weather. Here there is a cycle of seven years of rain, and then severe drought. In 2002 and 2012 there was a severe drought, and crores were lost. Dairy management has always been profitable, and helps us with income as well as manure and fertile soils. When there is drought, we manage by selling small portions of our farms, ten cents here or there. During the last drought, several varieties of sugar cane went extinct, and so also did things we grew regularly and consumed  habitually such as ragi (finger millet) varagu (kodu millet) cholam (maize) kadala(bengal gram) nelakadala (groundnut) Chama (Indian barnyard millet), ella (sesame) and kamba (pearl millet or bajra). We no longer grow these.
Other food items which are disappearing are tapioca, wild spinach and Kamban kool ( a millet gruel) which have given way to new food tastes, mainly non vegetarian such as biriyani and  fried chicken.
Britto says that in his childhood there was only one meal a day, and that too after a long day’s work but now over consumption is  a habit, and non vegetarianism a daily requirement. P Gangadevi, an Agricultural Officer says that because of  such over consumption and increase of lavishness, the poverty in contrast is much more visible. Earlier food was the marker of difference, but now it is vehicles which stratify consumers. Britto reminds us that his ancestors worked in the woods, or walked to Valayar (outpost near Coimbatore, where there were  once verdant forests) but now no one walks, and there are life style diseases. Earlier only sesame oil was used or coconut oil, and there was no fried foods. The earlier diet was rice gruel or ragi with a chutney of small onions and chillies, now there are four stir fried items with every meal. However, farmers like him still continue in the old ways, because they only go to Palakkad, Pollachi and Coimbatore for weddings, once or twice a year. For the rest they work on their farms, and never go to town, or have access to modern facilities. Even if he went to town for purchases, he never entered the malls and large city shops or their branches, he went only to the  traditional small shops. In the old days, the village supported the farmer. Four or five farmers worked together, but now with difficulty only two or three join up for work. Even the women go in jeeps to the town as packers of spices and the men join up for contract manual labour, which is much better paid than farm labour. Gangadevi says that the labour class in Kerala cannot be identified as labour, they have a house and all amenities, including access to education for children.This  may be contrasted to the living conditions for migrant labourers coming to Kerala from other parts of the country who live in the most degraded of conditions, and have minimal protection from the environment in their tin sheds, or collective and communal camp life.
An organic farmer near Mannil village, about ten kms from Palakkad says it will take upto twenty five years for a cultivator to acquire the skills for jaivakrishi. Another says, in the old days, that sort of farming was called prakarti, (nature) but now it is technically known as jaivakrishi. Most farmers cannot afford to do this kind of cultivation, because it is expensive. However, Appankuttan says that he knows one thousand organic farmers, they are part of a network. It is imperative to keep an eye on one another, for those not fully organic must admit that they use an ‘integrated’ approach. One of the most successful of these farmers is KSRTC Narayan, who however, has moved away from the organic movement, because according to those who  know him, he now maintains that commercial farming cannot be fully resolved with organic herbicides. However, he continues to be careful that the proportion is 80 percent organic, and says that he advertises his crops as “Fresh vegetables and fruit.” In a television interview on 14th May 2015, Narayan said that he and his wife were successful because they had the total support of consumers, not just locally but from distant places. His wife , a former school teacher said to the camera, “Retirement is no longer boring, and we, consumers and us, have all become a family”. One of the customers,  said in the televised interview, that the Narayan outlet “is becoming a co-operative and others also bring their produce here, and we buy from them too.” Another  client said that  Narayan and his wife sold vegetables which did not spoil for four or five days, even when not refrigerated. Narayan himself agreed, and said that they were concerned with quality over quantity, and did this work as a service. Appankuttan says  that they do this as a hobby, as their daughters are independent and work abroad. Appan himself grows only for his family, and they are selfsufficent in everything, except onions, garlic and potatoes which they have to buy in the market.
Padmaja Sasi Kumar, (the agricultural officer associated with Kannadi and adjoining village who had introduced me to the farmers in the locality) and I  watched the 11.30 am  Doordarshan television show on 12th May, 2015, featuring the KSRTC Narayan episode, at Appankuttan’s house. The latter’s wife in the typical hospitality of Malayalis brought us mangoes   and bannanas from their trees, delectable, free of chemicals, ripened naturally. Appankuttan feels that rice farming, organic or otherwise will be extinct soon. He introduces us to extended clan members who have started to diversify into pupae or silk cocoon production. This farmer buys butterfly eggs from Pollachi, hatching them on his farm, and then feeds mulberry leaves to the catterpillars, which then weave their cocoons, after which they are taken  for sale to Ramnagar in Mysore by tempo, with the other silk cocoon farmers who collaborate in the venture.
Appankuttan says in Palakkad, farmers just do not like to take risks. They enjoy their work, and there is a saying among them that Pullthoti Adichu Kozhi y al Attrem Madi Jeevikan. This means that the cow’s feeding platter when scraped will give one enough to make a living, or that subsistence farming depended on the cow and pasture. So ten acres and twelve cows is wealth indeed. Appankuttan suggests that it was his association with relatives who were from Alleppey district who persuaded him to give his children a good education, and because of this, his son is a professional with an LLB, and earns a good salary, with out having to bear all the anxieties of a farmer, which range from unseasonal rain, and low prices. The agricultural officers whom I had spoken to earlier, told me that they had heard of farming as a new occupation for people who felt that this was a passion, but they had not met any. Appankuttan feels that the organic farmer has to have more than one acre for it to be successful, and that certainly it must not be contaminated from the canal water from other farmers’ fields. As Palakkad farmers were dependent on bore wells, it was feasible. While farmers are aware about the vulnerability of their situation, scientists are much more vehement about the technicalities of the dangerous situation India is now facing.  In the Financial Chronicle of May 19th 2015, A.V Balasubramanian  from the Centre of Indian Knowledge Systems (www. Ciks.org)writes,
For several years now, agriculture in India is said to be in a state of crisis. This is tantamount to saying that India is  in crisis since about 70 percent of our population is still in rural areas with agriculture as their main livelihood. This crisis manifests itself as increasing impoverishment of the farmers and lack of options for rural non-farming employment. There is an alarming degradation of the resource base of agriculture, especially of soil, increased pressure and demand on land from non-agricultural activities, erosion of biodiversity in terms of both species and varieties of cultivated crops and decline in cattle population. This has led to distress migration to the cities and causes scarcity of labour in rural areas for agricultural activities. (FC, KNOW,  pg 12 19.5.15)
The  Gulati Institute Report of 15th February 2013, on Domestic Migrant Labour  in Kerala (authored by DS Narayan, CS Venkiteswaran and MP Joseph)  suggests categorically that building up urban centres rapidly in Kerala requires the presence of domestic migrants from Bengal, Orissa and U.P to augment the Malayali worker presence. However, these migrants, who live frugally and send the major chunk of money to their homes, are referred to as aliens, and are treated as such. Tragically, many of them are landless labour from SEZ domains, or farmers with small land holdings. They live in dreadful conditions, as tenants in barracks or community flats residence organised by language or regions,  with no facilities for cooking or eating. As for even occassional recreation, after work, this is taboo, for  the Malayalis resent their presence in local parks where they themselves congregate, mistrusting them for their proletarian habits.  The domestic migrant tended to say  to the data collectors, that the local people treated them well, but this is something which is part of the good behaviour clause manifesting itself, since the Malayalis  actually have nothing to do with the “other”, ignoring them totally. Thus the Minister for Labour and Rehabilitation Mr Shibu Baby John was anxious that they be provided with appropriate social security and safe living conditions.
 Farm Land is also rendered dissolute not just from rapid urbanisation, but because the Malayali no longer knows how to manage new kinds of waste, which are not bio-degradable. Everywhere, the householder is being told that the official policy is that each person should take care of the waste generated by his household. A survey  of web related articles on Garbage in Kerala, shows how urgent the situation is as journalist report across the state. The land is being polluted at a very rapid rate.  My field notes for 11th May 2015 are as follows,
Allapuzha is burning its waste.There is no collection schemd. Every house has been told to take care of its own garbage. As a result they bury it or burn it, or throw it into the river or canal. Burning is the easiest solution. No one seems to have heard of climate change or global warming. As no garbage collector comes around,they just sweep it up into neat piles and light bonfires. It keeps away the mosquitos they say. They are surprised by the rising temperatures in summer in Kerala and the unseasonal and intermittent rain. “People have been sent abroad to study recycling and invest in incinerators. But they don’t practise it. Money is allotted for this but there is no implementation. People throw garbage into their neighbours yard. They drop things out of the windows. Awareness has to start at a very young age. If there are Collection Centres, the matter of recycling plastic would go very well. “
In Palakkad, the story is the same. Flat owners have been told to burn their refuse on a daily bases on the terrace, and the ashes will be collected by the Government. How this will work in the Monsoon, no one knows, and what will happen when the wind blows is a puzzle. Daily burning of the waste produced by sixty flat owning households? The Kuduma Sthree comes around now every alternate day. In Alapuzha, the fruit shop owner says he takes the organic waste home to a cousin’s place, where it is stored and collected by a merchant who makes manure. Several shopkeepers told me that the municipal van does the rounds in their town, but householders are not encouraged to give them their waste. At a crunch they could pay fifty rupees and bribe the municipal truck to take their waste. Because of garbage piling up, the mosquito menace is huge. Diseases like chikanguniya and malaria are rampant. John, a jeweller’s assistant working in   the Kottayam  region, who travels in the train  from Aluva to Trichur, as a co passenger, whom I interview, says that the only solution to the waste problem in Kerala is to change the mind set of the Malayali from passive to active, to demand recycling and collection facilities, to avoid plastic and to encourage children to conserve and use carefully without littering.
One of the most interesting experiments to face the new world, where earth may be indeed become dead or absent from misuse, is bionics,  a creative blend of biology, botany and engineering where for instance, fish farming is linked with nutrient production for plants which are grown on a bed of algae and gravel. Vijayan, a friend of Appankuttan in Palakkad circulates the waste or offal from the fish to the plastic covered algae troughs on which he experimentally and successfully grows coriander, cauliflower, spinach, marigolds. He  tells Padmaja Sasi Kumar and me that he knows only two people other than himself who are experimenting with this method, which requires electricity to  circulate the water in the fish tank to the various troughs. One according to him, is a farmer on the Coimbatore border,  (who taught him the modalities of New Age farming on igneous rocks, osmotic plastic sheets and algae, with constantly circulating water from the fish pond,)the other is the  award winning actor Sreenivasan, in his Chennai home. Perhaps the question of climate change and adaptation is already in place with the courage and labour of unknown farmers like Vijayan and his son, who do what they do because they have guts and ambition, and a desire to see things work for the betterment economically and socially of their farming families.
Susan Visvanathan, CSSS/SSS JNU. 26th May 2015

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Around Arni, and the bus to Vellore and Beyond

I catch a bus twice a year, from Chennai, and go towards Tiruvannamalai. Sometimes, I stop to see my father’s sister in Vellore. There is always a water crises in the summer, and the CMC (Christian Medical College) buys its water from Andhra villages, which send the water for the residences in trucks. The land so arid and deforested, begins to change, as one moves towards Tiruvannamalai, and one passes Arni, where agriculture becomes   vivid, changing the landscape by the season according to harvests and seasons. The rail track is sometimes bedecked with seasonal flowers growing at the edges, including lilies during Easter week, growing wild. In the bus, sometimes, patients with leprosy get on, with their kin, and there is a sense that the Vellore hospital provides succour to many of these peasants, who have an unerring sense of their own self worth. The bus is often packed with others who are heading to Tiruvannamalai for festivals or are devotees at the 1000 year old temple, and pilgrimage is a constant occupational source for flower sellers and leafplate vendors and vegetable gardeners. Some villages on the route are so poor, that they thresh ragi by leaving it on the road, and allowing the trucks and buses and cars to ride over it. In hot summer, at Dharmagiri, the peasants bring perfect mangoes from their small plots to sell to the bus riders, and in other seasons, it would be grapes, bannanas of various shapes and sizes and colours, and cucumbers, kakdis, gourds, peanuts soaked in  water and salt, while still in their shells and ofcourse the ubiquitous fried snacks the tamils so love, using local grams, sesame and rice. In Gingee, the forts of the 13th century Nayaka kings rise above the agricultural fields, on rocky hilltops from where they once, as Telugu kings and overlords in Tamil country viewed their subjects. The work of intellectuals from rural communities who return to their roots, and provide new learning avenues is now well established in this belt, where alternative pedagogies have found immense popularity among the local people. Pondicherry, Tiruvannamalai and Vellore are the new hubs for the networks which orient others working in more distant fields and forests with tribal and dalit children.
Landless labour makes a living in the city, the women as domestic servants, and the men as carpenters, masons, cycle mechanics and white washers. That they go out as anonymous sandal wood smugglers is something that their families don’t know about. The twenty labourers who were killed by the Andhra police without any compunction, avoiding  the legal process is something which shocks the nation. In a country which is rocked by suicide, murder and rape on a continuous basis, we still pride ourselves that we are a democracy, and that our courts both local and Supreme are respected.
 Tensions between the States, in a Federation of States is something that is endemic, particularly with regard to water and forests. When Veerappen, the sandal wood smuggler evaded the police in Karnataka, it was certainly because the local communities provided him with support. He hid in the forests, and his reach went as far as Kerala. A police officer, who visited the Dalai Lama, and spoke about his inability to shoot Veerappen on sight, as might be expected of him, was told  calmly, by the Nobel Prize winner and commonly acknowledged saint, “For the greater good.” A decade ago, police officers did feel that their call to duty was a moral code, with its repercussions for their own sense of work and vocation.
 Now, we know that encounter deaths receive no signature of legal vindication, unless it is politically motivated. Those  twenty lives are gone,  like many others lost in encounter killings, but how do we make sure that these needless killings by State machinery is not reduplicated?
If there is no respect for  courts of law, fascism rises, in its notation of predatory crimes, as “normal”. However, the poor do have their rights, and this is to survive in conditions which are so hostile, that we cannot even imagine them, as we eat our toast,eggs and  hill produce jam, or our paranthas and potato curry, or our idli and sambar, and read the endlessly horrible news in morning papers. Yet, the poor too celebrate their lives, and any bystander can see that in the daily chores there is so much love and laughter.  The bourgeoisie often feels humiliated by their joi de vivre. But, “Seeing is Not Believing”, as Sociologists are taught very early in their careers by their teachers.
The statistics for child infanticide in Dharmapuri were so high, that Jayalalitha had to set up child adoption centres, and so also the statistics for rape, suicide and murder are alarming. V.Sujatha, in personal communication, informs me that body weight says nothing about the presence of anaemia, so the fact that the fields are green, agriculture successful, market gardens plentiful, the children sturdy and school going, and mid day meals compulsory, says nothing about the real condition of the populace. Subsistence societies are essentially food producing and food consuming. Their nutritional needs are met on hand by whatever is available. In a weaving village near Madurai, the people received their cotton thread from Co-optex, wove the sarees on the streets, on simple wooden looms, and ate the produce of their gardens. There was nothing available in their shops by way of vegetables or fruit, which they could neither afford, nor were in the habit of eating. Plantains, gourds, rice was sufficient for their daily intake, and there was no other world that impinged on this every day reality. The  Ministry of Skills  which now engages with employment-feasible learning has to take into account weaving and fishing communities where artisanal communities have to be reintegrated into new ways of making a livelihood which is locally pertinent, instead of forcing them all into smart city construction as manual labourers or cyber coolies. Agriculture, Fishing, Forestry and Pastoralism and Craft Production grow together,  With climate change, the equibilibrium has to be restored in terms of contextual learning, where cotton, sea shell, wood, lac, bamboo and metals all provide livelihood options when worked with, for urban consumer culture, without damaging the environment. This means new learning patterns, which are not only oriented to clericalisation of the masses. Its seriously cheaper for the State to support Agriculture than plan a mission to mars for purposes of habitation.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Open School and Marginalised Communities

The Importance of Open School for Traditional and Marginalised Communities

Traditional communities who have their roots in the soil as farmers, landless agricultural labourers and tribals, or in the coastal regions as fishers, are first generation  learners in standardised education. We often presume that these local communities are without knowledge. However, Paolo Freire and others have always drawn our attention to the need to educate ourselves about the rights and privileges of these communities, and how we must in fact learn from them.
Industrialisation has meant that peasants and tribals are reduced to one category, that is cheap labour. A theory of beauty is inherent in their lives. This is part of the craft and artisanal traditions of which they are representatives of. Luxury markets in India and abroad define the use of these traditional skills as essential to the goods they produce, whether in leather, shell, gems,  metals, cloth or wood. Designer culture sees these as necessities, and makes good use of them. Khadi, handloom and mirror work are seen as desirable within the capitalist framework of couture culture. Let us proceed to imagine then, that the brutalisation of these indigenous communites happens when they are deprived of access to food and shelter.
School education is seen to be the way out of an imposed poverty. It is believed that if these communities receive a standardised education, then they will be able to negotiate out of the difficulties that they face as impoverished communities.
Since smart cities cannot be built without cheap labour, clearly the State represents an industrialised world view as a total social good. However, there are many who believe that subsistence economies (those who live on the food they grow, or the fish they catch, or the pastoral and nomadic communities who live frugally in their habitats) must be supported. This is because the earth is organic and resplendent and must be protected for its multidiversity. Not surprisingly, the aspect of niche culture as being protective of the earth becomes a point of view that is seen as activist and ecologically sensitive. We are quick to presume that the genocide of the peasants and tribals through deprivation is a necessary aspect of industrialisation to which the Nation State has been committed since independence. However, the West is mortified by its own history, and in many parts of Europe and Asia, green movements have been more than successful.
Craft and artisan communities depend on the environment for their livelihood as well as their sense of well being. The diminishing of state concern for agriculture, so visible to us. is a very short sighted perspective. With climate change, it is necessary to address the needs of the farmer in a different way. The farmer with small landholdings is actually investing in other crops which might survive unseasonal rainfall. While he loses his wheat, bajra, rice, peas and pulses, he might still have his sugar cane crop standing. Mushrooms too are being harvested around the year, as the temperatures can be maintained artificially.
The costs of schooling are very high for such communities, and once crops like cotton or ginger escalate or drop, the farmer’s fortunes fluctuate.
Formal schooling comes with lots of costs, including certification  for teachers and students and blackboards, text books and uniforms. Alternative schooling actually provides children in marginalised situations with the possibility that they can pass the Open School exam at the learning pace that is suitable to them. Open University further extends the possibility of their entering into professional occupations. Artisan communities would benefit from the ways in which the skills that they need to promote their traditional arts were rated more positively. Design schools teach weaving, pottery, block printing and upto 40 other skills for a cost which is beyond the average middle class Indian household. If these skills are so relevant to conspicuous consumption in urban society, then why should children of rural communities be made to feel that they have no place in society.
 A child refused to go for a maths exam, and was severely punished by her parents. Her father tied her to  his motorcycle with a rope, and was noticed by journalists visiting  the village to report on some other case. The father was jailed for a night, and when interviewed he said that his child only liked to do craft, and everything else was boring. Alternative School Education is promoted by networks of activists all over the country, and it uses Montessori or Rudolf Steiner or J. Krishnamurthy methods  to  innovate with education,  attending to each according to his or her needs. With the massive cuts in education, and the blocking of opportunities for the poor. to accelerate urban development and industrialisation, it won’t be surprising if there is revolution or state repression, as these go together.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Winter's Tale

Kiran Bedi cavorting in public spaces was really hard to fathom. How can there be such a turn around, and how could it be even plausible that she should reinvent herself, in this new "say cheese" girl- of -the moment avatar. As keeper of Tihar jail, she brought about some changes which were indeed extremely interesting. Even the SBI started to use her campaign in their advertisements, since rolling pappads was seen to be a useful occupation for men who were chastised by the state or by their  householders.
There is nothing small about those reforms, nothing petty. Yet, when she spoke in Ram Lila Maidan, in the company of those who wanted to change the system, she was autocratic in her gestures and voice."Chup Raho! Baith Jao!" she kept shouting into the mike. Perhaps, the petty bourgeoisie bases of the Aap Party, which by its very name is synechdocal in its approach to women, has drawn in over time a roster of professionals and the upper middle class.
The idea that Kejriwal jumped the gun and ran off to Benaras, and wanted an eight room house  larger than the  houses that bureaucrats have was seen to be really loathsome by the voters. Now, he is back, and says he can govern Delhi. Let's hope "Aap" stays by its verve to stand in terms of its charter, regardless of its losses.
We are hoping for a clean Delhi, certainly, and a cleaner river. The construction boom in the city is now stable, and living in the dust and lacking nothing has been the lot of the middle class after the Commonwealth games. We get caught in traffic jams, we watch films at ridiculous rates in movie halls monopolised by pop corn eating youth, who spend as much as double the daily wage of the working class in the city. We look away as the sacralised poor, weaned away from the communist party into animistic ideologies, who accept their condition, not as the result of their lack of education, but a consequence of their karma, fix us with angry stares.
Number 1 and Number 2 have taken over the city, and the Gujarat model of development, which is ghettoisation, without compunction stares us in the face. Varun Gandhi, scion of the Emergency power centre, Sanjay Gandhi, who converted the city in its present form, by throwing the poor across the river, and with his tirades  and invectives against Muslims appears on national tv to comfort or compensate Shashi Tharoor, who has not stopped smiling since he was interrogated for the untimely death of his wife by poisoning. What's it all about?
And ofcourse, Republic Day, which is a day of national celebration, celebrating the Constitution, has become a day of jumbled hopes and victories, as motorcycle feats by men who drive faulty choppers as part of their occupational hazards at work, show us amazing tricks we would not want our children to copy. Islamic State promises to take over the skies, and with the rain, fog, and possibly seismic jolts at under 5 degrees,  which are common at this time of the year,Delhi is in for more than perforated eardrums and cracks in the wall plaster, in the winter cold.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Support to Women at Work

Ivan Illyich in his book "Gender" looks at the way gender neutralisation could damage the cause of women's quest for social and political equality. The book demands that women should protect their rights at work in such a way that the biological functions of conceiving, rearing and nurturing are not put in danger. For the last three decades, the State has ensured that the working woman should be protected. And it is this that allows the recent court ruling on the presence of creches in the workplace to be so much in keeping with the humanitarian quest of freedom and human rights for men and women at the work place.
It is singularly embarrassing to read a  piece on men and women's aspirations drawing from a four decade study conducted by Vanderbilt Peabody College, USA. The essay is titled "Defining Success Differently", by Kuruvilla Pandikattu, Financial Chronicle Tuesday, January, 2015.  To quote him, or the findings of the study "Men valued full-time work, making an impact and earning a high income. Women as a group valued part-time work and cherished community, family involvement, time for close relationships and community service."
So true, so true, we might all say. It also means that equal opportunities in school and being equally talented does not culminate in the same occupational drives or attainments for men and women. The women in the study became "generally employed in general business, elementary and secondary education, and health care or were home makers".

The unspoken matrix of women's education, their ambitions and achievements is made possible only if institutions and their families support them. In the late 1970s, the women activists who supported Adult Education, and Universities associated with them in Manchester, argued that Feminism needed the support of men. Clearly, Socialism and Feminism had a long history of mutual support, and History Workshop Journal (HWJ) chronicles the way in which inspite of this known history, the women still had to withstand the protests and laughter of their men comrades when they wanted a Feminism conference. But the men did turn up and took care of the children while work on this was proceeding.
Here's hoping that multinational stakes in  rapid industrialisation does not create the Good Wife fallacy of the 1950s in America. It could be the stuff of a new form of socialisation, more dread than the  Haryana rhetoric that women are invisible, women are non-existent in public spaces, the  uniform rhetoric that comes up when they are routinely hidden away for one reason or another, or plaster moulded into some societal hegemonic injunction to be what men want women to be.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Evening Performances

Yesterday I went to listen to Moushumi Bhowmik and Satyaki Banerjee, who organise a Baul festival in Calcutta, and came to present their work at the School of Arts and Aesthetics in JNU. They were fabulous. Somewhere the syncretistic culture of music has always been profound, and listeners and singers share in a long history of the tapestry of time. The previous evening, Bombay Jaishree Ramnath had calmed the audience with her lullaby to Krishna which was drawn from the folk traditions and adapted to Carnatik music by her team and herself. How amazing to be able to move between these different worlds; to inform and educate at the same time through the intensity of one's emotions and passions.
Moushumi spoke about a woman fakir who travelled between Bangladesh and India, without papers, without identity kit of any kind, travelling in trains and buses, going from site to site, pilgrimage hub to periphery singing her songs, and bringing music from these different places into her repertoire. Against the notion of terror, is the concept of mystical music which crosses boundaries.
When we think of maps, we often imagine them as even  and still landscapes, as we see them in textbooks, government maps, newspapers or digital presentations, unfolding for our use as we make our journeys real or surreal across the web of time and space. It's people who make maps what they really are. Music informs us of this ability they have to create bridges, and in the new world, electronic aspects become the key to sharing and innovative. Many years ago, Shankar Baruah established a base in Sattal for creative artists to meet, and electronic and eversions were the repertoire that young people and some elders brought to the site, where they embraced the concept of the momentary passion of hearing, with the long history of technologisation and art.
But the momentary is the base of the formation of memory. Who can forget Kishori Amonkar's grandeur? Or the lustre of M.S Subbulakshmi. The two combine in Bombay Jaishree, whose composure and joy are all her own. Archivalising music however, is on  a completely different plane. For Sociologists, the film and the tape recorder are emerging as the most important ways of thinking about the present. For the School of Arts and Aesthetics, it is their very discipline, and subsumed within its  everyday palette of methods.
Musicians bring to us the ability to create worlds which are different from the one we know, primarily because they are working with experience, the most intimate of our sensations. What do we feel, how can their  ardour, and intensity of feeling make us change the way in which we think about the world? For them theologies and technologies are only ways of reaching that assimilative space, where they are one with the cosmos and with people. My former neighbours Anurpriya Deotale, and Mukesh, used to fill the corridors with their music and it spilled out of their house at all odd hours, violin and sarod, separately or together. They moved on, but the memory of those years when they were experimenting together were significant spaces for their friends. Sometimes, the idea that the work people do is intensely for themselves, and yet, in sharing it, it becomes something else is the most profound space for the performer. In giving, they become one with the audience. Moushumi and her colleagues
while singing, communicate that going to Baghdad or going to Nizamuddin Auliya can be a singular moment for the Baul fakir. And it is in that vedantic moment, that Indians have been consumed, whether it is historically notated or not. For me, Arunachala and Ramanasramam, in Tiruvannamalai become the space of the still heart. The mind is free, and whatever the political conditions people will think for themselves.
In secular India, the freedom to believe has always been a constitutional right, and when the pathologies of self definition raise themselves in violence and corruption, the citizens do evolve ways by which these can be controlled. Democracy is the right to free expression, but when religion, to which music is so inextricably linked by its somatic power, turns depraved, then freedom to practise becomes a question in itself. Leela Samson and Ira Bhaskar, resigning from the Censor Board is a  powerful moment which communicates how democracies respond when authority is bypassed, and the whipping up of  incendiary emotions is thought to be the right of politicians and cult leaders.
Yesterday night I heard the cult music of the Dera Sacha Sauda chief, Ram Rahim Singh Insan on tv, and thought, this is like the American cults of drugs and death in the early 70s. They were terrifying to read about,  for books were written about it, as people, specially young people were murdered or committed suicide in the company of these cult leaders who fed on a particular kind of abysmal devotion of unsuspecting adulation. So that's what makes syncretism by itself interesting to study, since the Human Rights Questions of the right to life and dignity are always at the forefront.

Translation as Praxis

When I joined JNU in 1997 as a teacher, it was because I had spent almost twenty years wanting to return to my alma mater. Ofcourse, the 18 years at Delhi University had been spent very well. I had received a good training in narrative analyses, made friends, got gainful occupation at Hindu College, which shared a wall with Delhi School of Economics, where I was a research student at the Department of Sociology. My three daughter grew up in the environment of academia, friends dropped in, their father was extremely supportive, inspite of work demands of his own. The children were in the company of kids who had academic parents, and every evening their father took them to colleagues' houses while I completed the cooking and other daily chores. Every morning, he dropped them to their bus stops (they all went to different schools) and left their packed lunches with the kind neighbour who ran a creche.

1997 was the fulfillment of the academic dream to teach my own specialisaton. It was strenuous, it was demanding. I was quite startled. My former teachers gave me an Mphil Compulsory (ten a.m class) and a new experiment which was to teach Language students subsidiary Sociology, a 3 pm class. When I said, "But I have just joined!", the Chairperson at that time said "But you are a seasoned teacher! Ofcourse you can handle it!" Keeping a job is harder than getting one, so I went about my duties. It was totally exhausting for  someone like me, to time my day by the Contract bus which dropped me to work at 9 am, after meandering all over Delhi,  and collected me at 5.30 pm, with a 45 minute traffic jam halt at South Extension market in the evenings.
After two years I started falling down from exhaustion, and in the first instance, broke three bones in one arm, and when the plaster was off, I broke six bones in the other arm. So effectively, I was handicapped for six weeks. After that, I shifted to the campus, and life became easier, but it meant that my husband and I could not live together again, since I became a class room teacher, singleparenting three very young children, and he became a well known seminarist and public intellectual, describing himself as a social science nomad.
The class I taught to the Language students was a eye opener. There were 25 of them. They came from different language belts. They were essentially comfortable in a variety of regional languages, including the dominant Hindi and Urdu, but were specialising in various European languages such as German, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, and also Asian and Indian languages such as  Arabic, Persian, Tamil, Urdu and Hindi. One or two spoke competent English. How was I to teach them the concepts and terms of Sociology? We devised a very elegant platonic system of dialogue, discussion, and debate through mutual translation. Those who understood explained to the others. For me, that was the essence of JNU, not just self learning, but teaching one another through discussion and loyalty to the quest. As a teacher, when I ask students to do something, I expect them to follow my  request, and to explain to me why not, if they do not. The dialogue comes from how they interpret my request, for one gets a variety of responses. For me, the consensus that teaching methodologies vary from teacher to teacher is the most exciting thing about JNU. It would be a great pity if the idea that one syllabus, one window of learning would rule over the idea of learning by enquiry, something that our JNU teachers provided as such a valuable substitute for learning by rote.