Sunday, January 27, 2008

Reading Lajja after 13 yrs

It was in the first quarter of 1995, just before my ninth exam, I first read Lajja. Needless to say, the far lighter Malayalam translation, which was not heavy-packed with the statistical data that Taslima had used, had moved me greatly. I was proud to have read the most controversial novel of that time and was hopeful about the meaningful debate on majoritarian communalism it would trigger.

Thirteen years later, the local school boy who grew in physical and academic sense (though remains as confused and touchy as he was), who has by now turned an avid anglophile and an English journalist, revisited the sad story of Suranjan. The disorientation of a progressive, intelligent and politically sensitive youth Suranjan in the communal mayhem in Bangladesh post Babri Masjid demolition and the “naïve mix of idealism and optimism” of his deeply patriotic father Sudhanmoy Dutta who is ashamed to leave his homeland give us a poignant story. Which, I believe is very realistic and sincere portrayal of deep personal tragedies in the midst of communal barbarism.

The novel brilliantly exposes our savage instinct to vanquish the weak. It reaffirms our commonsensical understanding of the origin of all communal cleansing: the ugly desire for power and resources; the ulterior intention to capture the legitimate political and physical space of the hapless minority using the numerical muzzle. In Indian condition, the victims are primarily Muslims as exemplified by Gujarat and countless riots which preceded it. Whereas, in Bangladesh it is Hindus who stayed on the motherland for the pride and love of Bengal.

At the receiving end of all barbarism, alienation and slights including the brutal rape and killing of his sister Maya, Suranjan soliloquises “What the BJP was in India, the Jamaat-i-Islami was in Bangladesh. The purpose of both groups was the same – the establishment of what might be called fundamentalism” (page 133).

All these years after the first reading I was disappointed since the novel has unfortunately hit the wrong target. I wondered all these years why it couldn’t be the trigger point of a useful debate on majoritarian communalism which in Indian situation would have helped analyse the anatomy of Sangh Parivar politics. But the intellectually void fundamental elements in the Muslim clerical leadership took offense and have been carrying out a vicious attack against the writer who had shown an outstanding commitment towards secular humanism. In fact, they could have turned the table on Saffronists. On the otherhand, the likes of Modi and Advani, the Hindu counterparts of Muslim and Christian fanatics in other parts of the world, comfortably sit at home and slyly smile at the vociferous expression of intolerance by the Muslim fundamentalists.

In certain ways, it is the failure of Indian liberal elites, intellectual community and particularly the Left, that the highly critical points raised by Taslima could not prompt a constructive debate in the secular platform. It ended up in the wrong hands and turned extremely counter productive and in the process exposed a spineless political leadership (Left in Bengal and Congress in the Centre) who disowned the writer at the behest of an unruly crowd, the self-styled saviours of Indian Muslims, who in turn, paint them badly and put them in a very precarious position. Who is as morally bankrupt as Advani and co.

Bush – Modi connection

Anyway, the extreme rightism and faith-based politics are not something patented by Sangh. The same traits are more than evident in George W Bush, who unleashed the `war of civilization’. Read the review of ‘The Assault on Reason: How the politics of fear, secrecy and blind faith subvert wise decision making, degrade America and imperil America and the world,” authored by Al Gore, Bush's opponent who was unjustly denied the presidency by the jury which was obviously biased towards the Republican. (A.G.Noorani, Frontline, Feb 1).

“President Bush has stolen the symbolism and body language of religion and used it to disguise the most radical effort…” observes Al Gore. Does it find resonance in BJP’s accession of religion?

“No President in recent history abused power with such impunity,” Al Gore observes about Bush. Keeping Modi in mind, we can complement “No ruler in the recent history butchered his country men with such impunity”.

Cast blindness:
In an essay on apartheid in the context of Barak Obama’s presidential bid, I came across a new word: colour blindness. “Colour blindness and sense of equality are not the same,” it says. The ‘no cast war’ carried out by the upper class Delhi students can be dubbed as a convenient ‘cast blindness’.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Economic devastation and Crisis response of Wayanad Farmers

A lop-sided international trade regime, an adverse climatic condition and sustained governmental apathy have caused a reverse trend in the agriculture sector across the country. Its implications in the agricultural economy have been reflected in the series of farmers' suicides in different states. One alarming case is Wayanad district of Kerala where 549 farmers committed suicide in five years. Notwithstanding the specificities of Kerala's agricultural scenario this is a microcosm of the Indian situation which calls for serious attention.

The shortest possible way of describing the devastation in Wayanad would be this: debt, drought and sharp fall in global crop prices have spelt doom to the five lakh-strong smallholding farmers of this primarily agricultural economy. Five successive years of drought, from 1999, have left the region with enormous tracts of non-cultivable farms and fields. This coupled with low price for agriculture produce has made the situation even worse. Pepper, the main source of income for a majority of Wayanad farmers, which once touched Rs.270 per Kg crashed to Rs.60. The recent slight improvement in the price does not alter the situation significantly. Coffee which used to fetch Rs. 70 per Kg for the farmer plummeted to Rs.15 in the same period. The Spices Board statistics show that the export value of pepper which was Rs. 885.28 crores in 1999 fell to a paltry Rs.178.8 crores in 2003. Similarly the nation's coffee exports also declined considerably – from $265 million in 1999 to $143 million in 2002.

The above mentioned economic collapse has led to multifaceted social chaos. It has upset the loan economy. The region's loan economy, which has always been a representative of Indian agriculture, is in the doldrums. The smallholding farmers, whose budgeting was dependent on loans from scheduled and co-operative banks, consistently failed to repay the annual installments and the interest had a multi-fold increase. Rs. 752 crores is the collective outstanding debt of Wayanad farmers who have mortgaged their land to national banks. The size of the liability towards private moneylenders might be almost the same. Some of the farmers in the stranglehold of banks and private moneylenders took the extreme step.
Meanwhile, there was no meaningful governmental intervention to check the 'social tragedy'. Notwithstanding the announcements of several packages there is no substantial debt relief for the farmers. Let alone writing off the loans, the Central and State governments have not yet been ready to waive the interest of farm loans. In fact, the sweat of Wayanad farmers has substantially contributed to the exchequer through the export of cash crops and has enhanced the profit of scheduled banks through the repayment of heavy loans. But they were let down in the hour of crisis.

As far as the productivity is concerned, the government had hardly any programme for the irrigation of the farm fields. Setting up of independent irrigation facilities is not possible for the smallholding farmers in the district. Most of the land remains unirrigated in the absence of any large scale project. This is despite the fact that the abundant Kabani River flows through the heart of Wayanad.

In sum, the government and the financial institutions are insensitive and relief measures are largely ineffective. It is interesting to see the way the agrarian community responded to the crisis. While a few chose to end their lives the general trend is to fight back. The political response spearheaded by agitating farmer outfits like the Farmers Relief Forum and `Porattam' (meaning `The Struggle') saw the end of revenue recovery and attachment procedures. Banks now limit their punitive action against the defaulters to sending notices.

A substantive response with a long-term perspective has been initiated by farmers' clusters and is guided by NGOs. Organic farming has gathered momentum in the land which was abused with excessive chemical fertilizing. Internationally certified organic farmers have begun selling their produces in the international market at a price higher than the market price. Rural credit system is active in Wayanad and the SHGs, to an extent, act as a safety net.

The alarming level of rural unemployment has resulted in largescale migration to other districts and outside Kerala. A large group of village boys from Wayanad is working as bearers, cleaners and male servants in Kochi, Kottayam, Kozhikode, Thrissur and Kannur. Those who are relatively rich have managed to find their way out to the Gulf countries and add to the labour force there. For example, about 50 of a small village, Seetha Mount, with a population of 1500, recently went abroad to take up jobs while around 300 of its youth are working outside the district. You can see very few youngsters in the village presently. In addition to this, people now place great stress on educating children and making them employable despite the difficulties involved in this.

Another encouraging factor is the initiatives for agri-based industries. Some NGOs have launched food processing units. Farmers are slowly switching over to multi-cropping as crop diversification is a time tested way out. Nonconventional items like vanilla, bamboo, flowers and medicinal herbs find their way to the farm fields here. While it is clear that much more is to be done to enhance the production base, the evolving responses of farmers shows a rural community maturing into a social group which is able to withstand economic onslaught. The perseverance of this 'local' community to get over a 'global' challenge holds relevance in a 'neo-liberal economic phase', which is widely perceived in the developing world as a phase of `selective extermination'.

As a native of this hill district I have first hand experience of the life here. My involvement in the social actions and academic field studies – five annual N.S.S. camps, social surveys and a project paper on People's Plan in Mullenkolly Panchayat – have given me also an academic/intellectual perspective on the volatile economic situation here. The backward district of Wayanad continues to be my learning ground.

(Originally written in September 2006, a failed fellowship entry)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

I, Me and My Stories

Almost three months and a different ball game. But things seem to be on track ever since I ushered in economic journalism. In a general newspaper, what is the driving spirit of a reporter? Upon my experience, it is your being sensitive to the happenings around. Lot of passion, sentiments and emotion are involved in general reporting. Whereas, in business reporting it is more about arithmetic sense, adeptness in technical aspects and precision in handling the subject.

One career advantage I have foreseen while shifting to a business paper was the scope of learning and understanding vis-à-vis the dynamics of the economy. In that count, it is productive. But all depend on how well you make use of it.

When covering the garbage-ridden politics of Kochi Corporation, I enjoyed my colleagues calling me ‘garbage reporter’. Interestingly, my first business story was about a municipal waste-based bio-diesel project. On the 21st day in the new paper, when the story saw light, the overwhelming feeling was not delight but was a sort of relief. Because by the time, I had become hostage to an ominous failure fear.

In the initial days of auto reporting, I was apologetic to say that I am covering automobiles. Though, a lot of the industry terminology and nuances remain beyond my grip, this is really an interesting area. And I am particularly happy with a host of auto stories which have a green touch. I started with a story on retrofitting industry. A failed story attempt on CNG/LPG-fitted vehicles in the early Indian Express days had taught me about the environmental relevance of that breed of vehicles. It benefited me now, two years later. The government-move to grade vehicles on the basis of fuel efficiency is a story that I cherish.

When pursuing certain story ideas on electric scooters, I just discovered that my first automobile story was in the City Express, one and a half years back. I did not keep that story on e-bikes which was recently introduced in the city on my personal folder, since I was unhappy with the placement. This time, a big scale e-scooter initiative gave me a New Year story. And I had a feature story too; on Indian student engineers whose rural oriented inventions bagged UN awards.

Two water-shed events in the Indian automobile industry happened in the last fortnight: Ford-Tata deal and the coming of Nano. Thankfully, I got my slice of stories. That too, when I have almost reconciled to a belief that I am not good enough to do them. 12 stories including two page ones, I am happy. One thing that I still do not know is if I am strong enough to face the risk of trumpeting these small joys.

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