Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Everybody Loves a Good Drought - P. Sainath

P. Sainath's book has been at the back of my mind for many years. The title did put me off then, when I was ten or twenty years younger and more foolish than I am now, and when i thought droughts were boring. I must admit though that one cannot miss the irony in the title. I somehow thought the book would be a lot heavier than what I expected. But it is well written with a wry humor, full of small chapters, each a well researched story from the poorest districts in India. Sainath, a photo journalist, ex-JNU student (now one can use that as an identity) and one of India's foremost authorities on drought and famine, worked with 'The Daily' as its Foreign Editor and then as deputy chief editor for 'Blitz'. In 1993 he took up a Times of India fellowship  to pursue rural poverty and did some real, solid work at that level. This book is a result of the research he undertook - but still much of it is valid surely.
Penguin, 466 p, Rs. 299
Once again to paraphrase Avirook Sen from his book Aarushi - 'this is how India looks on the ground'.

Sainath covers the poorest districts in India - in the states of Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu - and examines critical issues like health, education, displacement, survival strategies, usury and debt, crime, water problems. In every story we get to see how the poor and the voiceless are exploited many times over by landlords, moneylenders and most times authorities who are supposed to help them. Instead of getting justice they often end up - as it happens so many times in India - being accused of the very crimes they are supposed to be victims of.

Sainath keeps his tone even, and I found that admirable because he saw this heartbreaking hardship and injustice from up close. But then he lets us decide for ourselves. Its a book written in 1996 but I am sure its still valid. Nothing has changed - unless it got worse - not here not there. The same exploitation continues in the villages, in the hills and in the cities.

From a well-meaning government scheme which promised an acre of land to cultivate, a miracle cow that gives great yield by being inseminated with Jersey semen, minimum wages to farmers to the final result where the miracle cows did not yield any milk, all local bulls got castrated, farmers not allowed to use the land and no minimum wage. After all that work, time and energy the poor farmers were worse off than before. Or laying a road in MP, with Ramdas Korwa's name on it. Korwas, primitive tribes who fall under the bottom 5% of India's poorest districts, command development - which means large sums of money - which the beneficiaries never seem to benefit from. So what's the problem here? A road was laid was it not? The problem is that where this road leads to, there are no Korwas - except one family - that of Ramdas Korwa. Somebody just got the money sanctioned and later realised that there is only one Korwa - hence his name. And after spending 17 lakhs on the road, it is still a kuccha road. What can the government actually do to help poor Ramda Korwa? His real need is a repair on his well which would have cost a few thousands. In fact the road stops way short of his house.

Two brothers - one is shown in the records as an adivasi and another is not an adivasi, thanks to a spelling mistake. With that go all the benefits one has to get as an adivasi. The quacks of rural India who bleed tribals with exorbitant prices, medical doctors who never show up, PHCs that are always shut. No medicines are given where medicines are supposed to be free. In 1992, USAID gave $325 millions (800 crores) to be spent on population control - where hazardous contraceptives like Norplant would be pushed onto rural women. The same contraceptives are not in use in any Western country says the author.  It is not surprising when he says that almost 80% of people's health costs are individually borne by these poor. They raise money from money lenders, end up selling their houses and lands, and finally even as bonded labour. And the government watches.

'Article 45 of the constitution calls for the state to provide free ad compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen.' Sainath talks of 60% of primary schools having only one teacher. The then NCERT's survey shows that of 5.29 lakh primary schools, over half have no drinking water facilities, 85% have no toilets, about 20% had no buildings. Schools that are being used as cow sheds. Sainath says that the poor want to send their children to school - its their only hope for a better life for their children.

Sainath points out here that as a society denying access to knowledge goes back a long way for us. Where the Manu Smriti talks of direct punishment to sudras and untouchables (if a sudra listens to he vedas his ears are to be filled with molten lac and if he dares to recite the vedic texts, his body is to be split). Now, the rules are there, but access is made difficult. Its a chilling reminder that this book was written in 1995 and in 2016 we had to see the death of the dalit scholar Rohith Vemula. Sainath gives the stats of a school in Bihar - 8 classes, 7 teachers, 4 students, 2 classrooms, one broken chair.

Between 1951 -90 over 21.6 million people were displaced by dams and canals, cut off from their lands, evicted from houses, communities torn apart, uprooted from their histories. 75% of those displaced since 1951 were still awaiting rehabilitation at the time of the book being written some forty years later. Tribals constitute 8% of the population but account for more than 40% of the displaced persons of all projects and get no benefits from these projects. Roughly one in every ten tribals in India is a displaced person. Sainath visited tribal villages where villagers huddle together in fear as the army test fires its missiles. There is a move to acquire the land but the tribals are determined to fight it. Mukta Kadam of Chikapar who was displaced thrice from her own home, from her own lands, when land was acquired for the HAL in Orissa. Thrice she has been evicted. The sad part is that caste certificates that are often linked to domicile certificates, which are in turn linked to land holdings make it difficult for them to get caste certificates certifying their dalit or tribal identity. For all the talk of getting caste certificates or identifying students like Rohith Vemula as a non-dalit, its time the government looked into how difficult it is for one to prove his identity in a system where the community is torn apart, there are no lands and there is no further proof because they are already out on the roads trying to make a living. These people are further subjected to more torture in the name of trying to prove who they are. Once again a case of making the victims the accused. In the case of Mukta - they have been issued eviction notices because they are 'encroachers'. The villagers laugh - they have been moving about in their own land which has been gradually taken over. They are encroachers in their own land.

Or the Koyas who, the author says, 'have interacted so imaginatively with bamboo', and who have been now cut off from their love and life while bamboo is sold to private parties who do not know how to respect it.

The tales pour in. Ratnapandi Nadar who climbs palm trees for 16 hours a day, starting at 3 in the morning for as little as 8 rupees a day. Kishen Yadav of Lalmatiya of Bihar transports 250 kgs of coal across 40-60 kms on a bicycle to earn as little as 10 rupees a day. Or the women of Kantaroli in MP who pluck and tie up 100 gaddas of fifty leaves each to earn 30 rupees a day. Or how in Surguja people do not use even bullock carts because they find bullock carts too expensive. Or Dharmi Paharini who carries 40 kg of firewood on her head and walks seven kms to the haat, but she has to walk 24 kms to fetch and cut wood in the forest, all in a day - for 9 rupees. The Kahars of Bihar who are landless and among the poorest communities of India - but do not figure either in the SCs or STs list. How do these people survive? How do they fight and live and not just give up and die?

On loans as little as Rs. 2000 middle men buy up the entire crop and force farmers to sell only to them. Obviously at the rates they determine. Of people who are bonded labour for generations based on a small loan taken by one of the family members. Or the farmer in Surguja district who sold off the tiles on the roof of his house to repay a loan of Rs. 4800 he took from the bank to buy two cows. (Compare that with the corporate fraud we see and one gets an idea of how India really works at the ground.)

Subhaso, a Gond tribal's land is auctioned off at night, to the forest official's brother in law at Rs. 2000 an acre when it was worth at least Rs. 40000 an acre, for defaulting on a loan that she never took. One thumbprint on a blank paper taken by the moneylender was all it needed for the tribals to lose their 9 acres of land. Funnily, Subhaso's husband generously gave the same moneylender a couple of acres free to build his house when he first came. Or tribals who have been allotted lands they cannot find. Or landlords how forcibly took over 180 acres of land from tribals and harijans, who somehow fought the matter in court and regained it, only to realise that the landlord had sold the land off to some Muslims, thereby pitting the two against one another.

And when he talks of drought Sainath points out why everyone loves a good drought - around 73 % of sugar cane in Maharashtra is produced in DPAP blocks or drought affected blocks when the irony is that sugar cane is a water intensive crop. And then the famous Kalahandi starvation story when a girl was reportedly sold to fend off hunger. The author shows how everyone has figured that only by playing up certain things will the media, and then the government will take notice.

And there are stories upon stories of how the poor are exploited. How all they need is to be left alone instead of being 'developed' - which is another word of being exploited and thrown out of their lands, of their communities, of livelihoods. Its a cruel, greedy world where no one asks the displaced what they want, how they can be compensated for being uprooted. The poor illiterates are thrown about haplessly with promises and red tapism and its a wonder how they still survive. This is the story of the larger part of India and of the poorest, the most backward. When even we, who are educated cannot deal with government departments to deal with water connections, telephone bills, property taxes, I wonder how an uneducated tribal or a farm laborer is expected to. If they trust the officials they are  stripped of their possessions, they are made to run around, they are never given any information. Worse they are displaced from their own lands, made bonded labour on small loans for generations, made into criminals for crimes they did not commit. Their communities are broken, they are treated as untouchables and then we are all worried about how these people are not able to produce caste certificates, landholding proof. If we have built something of this country, a lot is owed to the poorest of the poor who have had to pay the price financially, socially, physically, mentally. And these are the people we are so intolerant of really - their sons, their daughters who dare to speak up in today's society. Hopefully there will come a time when the price for development will be paid to them in full and they get the equality, justice and liberty that the constitution grants them. With interest.

The work is a wonderful read and is a definite marker in India's story. One must read it to understand how we have left our fellow countrymen and women shattered in our quest for development. Thanks to my good friend Vinod Ekbote for sharing another wonderful book and adding so much to my perspective.  

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