Dec 232013

This column appeared in the DNA on the 31st of October

About a decade ago, I traveled to film my first documentary. It was a hot and dry May and we were filming the destitute Dalit and Pardhi women near the town of Udgir, Latur District, Maharashtra.

The documentary was on how self-help groups helped the women achieve financial independence and reclaim their lives through grit, courage and hard work. Each self-help group, which had approximately 20 members, and each woman in that group saved one day’s wages between Rs20 and Rs50. When the group reached a certain threshold in savings, the NGO working with the group gave them a female goat. The idea was simple: the female goat would mate and before long there will be a herd of goats. And that is exactly what happened. The women, in a span of two years, had a herd of 250 goats and were earning money with goat milk and milk products. What was interesting was what they did with the money they set up an anganwadi and a pre-primary school where their children could study without discrimination.
While one celebrated the women’s success, I couldn’t but help thinking ‘What was the State doing?’ Isn’t it the role of the State to provide quality education? After all, we are paying taxes, and the application of tax money includes education, especially for the poorest. There was a governance gap, and  destitute women used their miniscule incomes to plug that gap to give their children a better future.

Earlier this year, in the scorching heat of May, I was out filming another documentary in Vidarbha, Yavatmal, Nanded, Adilabad and adjoining districts. The documentary was not on farmer suicides as documentaries on Vidarbha tend to be but on the traditional knowledge of the Banjara and Kolam tribes. What I saw in the villages was impressive. Water pumps in every 10 homes, concrete roads, good sanitation, primary schools and girls and boys going to school. There seemed to be a lot more worldly goods two wheelers, DTH connections, TV sets and the like.

Older teens were in nearby cities for further education both boys and girls. On the face of it, governance seemed to have delivered the basics and more. But, two interactions left me wondering. A villager told us that his son was in the ‘shehar’ studying engineering. That they had managed to cobble together the first year’s fees, but were thinking of mortgaging their land for money needed in the second year. Our local guide was also the principal of the local college and he informed the villager that for his son, education at this level should be free because of a variety of central and state schemes. In another case, there were these old women, very feeble and totally blind with thick cataract. We asked why they didn’t get their eyes operated, and the answer was it was too expensive. Once again, cataract operations for women (and men) in that category are totally free provided by both the State and various NGOs. People simply didn’t know about it. There was a governance gap, and the poorest, weakest and the most marginal had slipped through this gap.

The role of the government is simple. It is to get things done based on policies that they have put in place. If the policy is subsidised food items and kerosene delivered to the population, then the governance gap arises when the public distribution system fails to deliver; if the policy is quality education to all children between the ages of 6 and 14, then the governance gap is the inability to provide schools and qualified teachers; if the policy is free medicines and hospital treatment to the poorest members of society, then the governance gap is not enough hospitals and doctors; if the policy is a society where women can walk without fear on the roads of India, then the governance gap is lack of adequate policing; if the policy is the creation of several thousand kilometres of roads in the country, then the governance gap is the shortfall; if policy is about keeping the borders secure, then the governance gap is incursions into the Indian territory; if the policy is a safe and equal society for all citizens, then the governance gap is riots. The list can go on and on. We just have to look around us, in our own everyday lives and see the governance gap.

Every time someone breaks a signal and drives away, there is a governance gap, because at the most basic level there is no respect for the law and law-breakers can get away with it.

Gandhi had talked about Sarvodaya (welfare of all), but he clarified that this is based on Antyodaya the welfare of the last in society. It is impossible for the Centre or even state legislatures to look at the needs of the  Antyodaya. For that you have local governments corporations and panchayats.  If you look at the West, the basics health, social service, education, sanitation, garbage collection and road maintenance are mostly in the realm of services provided by local government. The states and the Centre put in place policies that help local governments deliver, but the local governments will have to take these services  to the local community.

To ensure good governance, citizens have to be informed about what the government plans to do, and they should be empowered with the ability to question the government when it doesn’t deliver.

In reality, a highly centralised set-up makes that difficult. The best way to ensure good governance is to enable local governments and local representatives to deliver quality services to the local community where they live and work. And, more importantly,  empower citizens who live in that area so that they can take their representatives and administrators to task if there is ‘no delivery’.

Unless there is decentralisation, and local corporations and panchayats are  empowered, the gap in governance will continue.

Sep 042008

Nita has a good post here that looks at Mayawati and Obama, there is an interesting discussion that is also taking place. I began putting my two bits in and it just got so long that i decided to blog about it (thanks Nita, it has been a long time since i posted anything that i thought too much about 🙂

When we look at Obama, we need to look at him beyond his colour and see him for what he is – the child of two post graduate students, who has seen the world – not as immigrant labor or an army brat — but as part of the academic intelligentsia. His father was from Kenya – and the elite there, foreign education is not for the truly down trodden. His mother was an anthropologist and development worker. That is his background — and his value systems have possibly been shaped by that. If the US was not such a colour conscious country – they would look beyond the colour and see him as another one of the ‘upper class’ elite. If he was typically African American – he wouldn’t have got this far :). If he was typically white working class – he wouldn’t have got this far either 🙂

Contrast that with Mayawati. She is the second generation to gain from reservations. Her father was a government clerk. Her origins have more in common with the mainstay of the BJP vote bank. She was the protege to Kanshi Ram – possibly one of the most charismatic leaders of India post independence. In a way she is also part of the political elite. which is why she has got this far ….. the question is whether she will go further. Will she become Prime Minister ?

For me, caste and gender are not the only defining factor here. You possibly also need to look at region. She is a UP leader. If you want to be more charitable – she is a North Indian leader. Talk to the electorate in Maharashtra (even the ‘dalit vote bank’)- and she doesn’t have too many takers, talk to them in TN – they possibly would not even have heard of her. Talk to the in West Bengal – and she possibly does not even feature in the top 20. The problem with Mayawati is not that she is woman or Dalit or autocratic or corrupt. She faces the same problem that Sharad Pawar and MGR had, that Mulayam and Lallu have — they are regional heroes. Unless Mayawati positions her party and herself beyond where there are now — she will not be the PM. It has nothing to do with being either Dalit or Woman.

The Dalits in India are as diverse as any other community – in terms of language, culture, rituals, gods, heroes and even voting patterns. Pan Dalit identity is as difficult as a Pan Hindu or a Pan Muslim or a Pan Christian or even a Pan Indian identity. Unless Mayawati or anyone else overcomes their regional & caste persona and project a national persona – it is going to be difficult to be even a pan Indian Dalit leader . And, i am not sure that she should be positioning her self that way. If she has to succeed then she has to be a pan Indian leader and the BSP has to be a pan Indian party.

It is difficult in India to have an Obama or even a Clinton or a McCain. Our system is different. Our nation is different. We may follow the same broad principals – but our cultural variations make it impossible to project the one ……

btw – when all commentators talk about where is our Obama, he happened 70 years ago … despite the variations in culture, and the complete stranglehold of caste ……he was called Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar…..:)

May 012008

[tag]Dr.B.R.Ambedkar[/tag] in the Annihilation of Caste, 1935

The effect of caste on the ethics of the Hindus is simply deplorable. Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible. A Hindu's public is his caste. His responsibility is only to his caste. His loyalty is restricted only to his caste. Virtue has become caste-ridden and morality has become, caste-bound. There is no sympathy to the deserving. There is no appreciation of the meritorious. There is no charity to the needy. Suffering as such calls for no response. There is charity but it begins with the caste and ends with the caste. There is sympathy but not for men of other caste. 

The Indian Express, today :

In a chilling reminder of caste divisions that still run deep in rural Uttar Pradesh, an upper caste youth, pursuing a masters in social studies, has been arrested by the Mathura police for allegedly hurling a six-year-old Dalit girl into a pit of burning waste after she “trespassed into a Thakur area of Tarauli village. The child, Kamlesh, who sustained 50 per cent burns on Tuesday evening, is being treated at the Swarn Jayanti Samudaik Hospital in Mathura. Sunny Thakur, who is said to be in his early 20s and is the son of Ashok Thakur, has been charged under IPC Section 307 (attempt to murder) and under the SC/ST Act. He has been put behind bars.

Mar 072008

On the eve of [tag]Maha Shivratri[/tag] a great victory was won. Devotees, backed by the state and other institutions, ensured that the right to pray the way you want to, in the language that you understand, in the manner that you choose , was upheld

In the face of a growing demand for their dismissal as the priests of Lord Nataraj temple in Chidambaram, who assaulted non-Brahmin devotees for wanting to sing [tag]Tamil hymns[/tag] inside the temple, the [tag]Brahmin priests[/tag] ~ Dikshits ~ today agreed to allow worship in Tamil.
The Dikshits, who control the administration of the temple, relented after political parties, Leftist and Tamil nationalist groups threatened to agitate and make demands for a government takeover of the temple administration.
The Dikshits, who assaulted some devotees led by non-Brahmin priest Arumugasamy Odhuvar heading a Saivaite Mutt when they had come to sing Tamil hymns composed by revered saints of Hindu renaissance on Sunday, seemed much mellow today and welcomed volunteers of a few Leftist organisations who entered the temple for the same purpose.

And, this is 2008. Devotees still face the kind of threat that [tag]Tulsidas[/tag] faced when he rewrote the [tag]Ramayan[/tag] in Brij Bhasa and Jyaneshwar translated the [tag]Bhagwad Gita[/tag] into Marathi … thereby making them accessible to all. People of all types arent' allowed to enter places of worship. some prevent women. others prevent 'other' castes – whatever they maybe. Which is why last night's reading was so much more poignant.

This is Dr.[tag]Ambedkar[/tag] on the role of social status in our society.

That economic power is the only kind of power no student of human society can accept. That the social status of an individual by itself often becomes a source of power and authority is made clear by the sway which the Mahatmos have held over the common man. Why do millionaires in India obey penniless Sadhus and Fakirs ? Why do millions of paupers in India sell their trifling trinkets which constitute their only wealth and go to Benares and Mecca ? That, religion is the source of power is illustrated by the history of India where the priest holds a sway over the common man often greater than the magistrate and where everything, even such things as strikes and elections, so easily take a religious turn and can so easily be given a religious twist.

Take the case of the Plebians of Rome as a further illustration of the power of religion over man. It throws great light on this point. The Plebs had fought for a share in the supreme executive under the Roman Republic and had secured the appointment of a Plebian Consul elected by a separate electorate constituted by the Commitia Centuriata, which was an assembly of Piebians. They wanted a Consul of their own because they felt that the Patrician Consuls used to discriminate against the Plebians in carrying on the administration. They had apparently obtained a great gain because under the Republican Constitution of Rome one Consul had the power of vetoing an act of the other Consul.

But did they in fact gain anything ? The answer to this question must be in the negative. The Plebians never could get a Plebian Consul who could be said to be a strong man and who could act independently of the Patrician Consul. In the ordinary course of things the Plebians should have got a strong Plebian Consul in view of the fact that his election was to be by a separate electorate of Plebians. The question is why did they fail in getting a strong Plebian to officiate as their Consul?

The answer to this question reveals the dominion which religion exercises over the minds of men. It was an accepted creed of the whole Roman populus that no official could enter upon the duties of his office unless the Oracle of Delphi declared that he was acceptable to the Goddess. The priests who were in charge of the temple of the Goddess of Delphi were all Patricians. Whenever therefore the Plebians elected a Consul who was known to be a strong party man opposed to the Patricians or " communal " to use the term that is current in India, the Oracle invariably declared that he was not acceptable to the Goddess. This is how the Plebians were cheated out of their rights.

But what is worthy of note is that the Plebians permitted themselves to be thus cheated because they too like the Patricians, held firmly the belief that the approval of the Goddess was a condition precedent to the taking charge by an official of his duties and that election by the people was not enough. If the Plebians had contended that election was enough and that the approval by the Goddess was not necessary they would have derived the fullest benefit from the political right which they had obtained. But they did not. They agreed to elect another, less suitable to themselves but more suitable to the Goddess which in fact meant more amenable to the Patricians. Rather than give up religion, the Plebians give up material gain for which they had fought so hard. Does this not show that religion can be a source of power as great as money if not greater ?

The fallacy of the Socialists lies in supposing that because in the present stage of European Society property as a source of power is predominant, that the same is true of India or that the same was true of Europe in the past. Religion, social status and property are all sources of power and authority, which one man has, to control the liberty of another. One is predominant at one stage; the other is predominant at another stage. That is the only difference. If liberty is the ideal, if liberty means the destruction of the dominion which one man holds over another then obviously it cannot be insisted upon that economic reform must be the one kind of reform worthy of pursuit. If the source of power and dominion is at any given time or in any given society social and religious then social reform and religious reform must be accepted as the necessary sort of reform.

 When the religious right in circa 2008 stands up and says 'this reform is against our religious traditions, ' what they are doing is following an age old tradition of dogma. They have opposed every major social reform movement – whether it was ending caste discrimination, or rights for women, or rights for various types of minorities not sanctioned by their dogma (religious, sexual, left handers, race … what ever) . It is no different now, than it was 80 years ago… except that it is citizens pushing for our rights … where are the leaders ? 

Mar 052008

I am currently re readingDr.Babasaheb Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste – It is a thin little well thumbed, book – actually a speech that is published in a book form. It

This is a book that every Indian ought to read…I read this almost a lifetime ago as part of what ever i was doing at that time. Read it fast, converted into data, precised it and forgot about it. This time around, I am going to savour it… and while doing so am going to post excerpts

As i read through it – some 20 years after I first read it – i keep nodding my head in agreement. Smiling at the humour. chuckling, when things don't seem too much different now than they were almost 70 years ago (two opposing factions. One threatened to burn the other's pandal if they held a political rally)…cringing when things don't seem too much more different now than when they were then (discrimination). And of course his wry comments…

The path of social reform like the path to heaven at any rate in India, is strewn with many difficulties. Social reform in India has few friends and many critics. The critics fall into two distinct classes. One class consists of political reformers and the other of the socialists.

I can't seem to find any copies in bookshops. But, it is online here and here 

It gives an insight into what ailed us, and what continues to ail us … caste …and more importantly deep rooted programming on caste lines.