Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

It is said that Gandhi was opposed to technology and to large industry because for him “small is beautiful”. I believe this is a misreading of the Gandhian ethic. He would have idle hands in villages and small towns turn out useful artefacts from local raw materials rather than see them unemployed

Remembering Gandhi While Negotiating the Future

Mahatma Gandhi envisaged Independent India as a decentralized, participative and inclusive society. Are we? And why Gandhi remains relevant today.

By B G Verghese

Gandhi Memorial Lecture, 30 January, 2011, Gandhi Peace Foundation

Gandhi is eternal. But when we celebrate him on the anniversary of his martyrdom we must see and seek his wisdom in contemporary terms even though we remember the past. Otherwise he remains relegated as a once-upon-a-time figure in history, of limited relevance today. He himself was full of contradictions and would say, ‘if you accept my sanity, then believe not what I said yesterday but what I say today’.

Nor need we embrace everything Gandhian. He experimented with Truth and discarded that which failed or proved of little value. So we need to stay away from “isms” and adopt the Gandhi relevant to our current concerns through imaginative application.

Gandhi envisaged Independent India as a decentralized, participative and inclusive society where the tear was wiped from every eye. He preached sarvodaya or the welfare of all. The focus was on “the last man”, the poorest and most disadvantaged, whose welfare should be paramount in governance. Nehru found some of Gandhiji’s ideas quaint and impractical in a modern world increasingly driven by technology. So Bapu removed himself to Noakhali as a one-man Boundary Force to quell communal frenzy in Bengal. The Constituent Assembly in turn went on to produce a document that has served the country well and offers considerable scope for innovation and experimentation.

However, panchayati raj was not adopted as the foundation of governance from below but a concession was made to the idea. Community development was initiated as a government programme and panchayati raj launched in 1959 through administrative fiat. This proved unsuccessful but democratic decentralization was in due course written into the Constitution as a third layer of governance through gaon sabhas clustered in gram panchayats, with panchayat samitis and zila parishads above them on the principle of subsidiarity, each tier responsible for lower order functions and passing up more complex tasks requiring coordinated effort to the next higher rung. This remains work in progress, uneven in implementation but essential to build strong foundations for all grassroots programmes and ensure participation, transparency and accountability. This unfolding , despite obstructions, is slowly transforming power relationships with over three million panchayat members in place, a third of them women who also hold a third of all offices in the ascendant hierarchy.

In cities, urban panchayats are being similarly put in place, from municipal wards to metropolitan authorities, with resident welfare associations too assuming a useful role.

There is a famous saying of Gandhi in 1946. He had been called to Delhi for urgent consultations with the Viceroy from Urli Kanchan, a village near Pune, where he was busy planning rural reconstruction. He responded to the summons only after completing his consultations, remarking that unless Urli Kanchan was secured, India could not be strong. (Urli nehi bana, to desh nehi banega). Village India, home to the bulk of the people, was to be the foundation for the nation’s strength and progress.

Alas Village India, though developed in some ways, remains physically dilapidated, socially divided and hopelessly underserved for the most part in terms of basic social needs or millennium development goals. This is unacceptable and scorns the concept of antyodaya. The Last Man still remains the Least Man, his rights infringed and his dignity trampled upon. With gradual empowerment, a culture of silence among the underdog has given way to a culture of protest. A billion mutinies clamour for attention and many ancient wrongs not redressed have given rise to left wing extremism and “naxalism” among tribals and dalits who fall prey to such godfathers through necessity, not choice.

Agriculture has expanded and flourished in many ways. But there is very little additional land that can be brought under the plough. Yields have stagnated and, with sub-infeudation, small, fragmented holdings have become uneconomic. A fairly recent National Sample Survey found that over 40 per cent of the country’s farmers would like to give up agriculture for more viable occupations, leasing out their holdings to work as agricultural labourers or, preferably, using the sale proceeds to invest in the education of their children – their first priority – or start a rural enterprise. India lives in its villages. However, by 2040-50 a majority of Indians will be urban dwellers. Our slum-ridden cities are bursting at the seams and our villages need what President Abdul Kalam has called PURA, the Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas.

The physical and governance infrastructure of India has to be refashioned as numbers swell from over 1200 million today to 1700 million within 50 years.

Gandhi advocated the charkha. Visiting the huts of famine stricken farmers, he discovered abandoned charkhas put away in the lofts as home spun material had been displaced by cheap mill-made cloth from Manchester. Rather than beg, Gandhi called on peasants and urban householders alike to take down their disused charkhas once more and spin. Khadi was a brilliant strategy. It was not an end in itself but a means to self-reliance and dignity. The village industry movement was similarly imbued with the ideal of reviving lost arts and crafts and creating a new basis for rural and small entrepreneurship.

Unfortunately the appropriate technology option that was extant got frozen and became an end itself. Ideology caused technological improvement to be spurned to the detriment of productivity, economies of scale, improved processing and marketing. Khadi and village industries have, with some exceptions, stagnated. Khadi sales are mainly recorded during specified periods around Gandhi Jayanti and Martyr’s Day when rebates are offered. There has tragically been little or no innovation.

There are some 40 to 50,000 KVIC bhandars and outlets spread all over India, making this one of the largest single retail chains in the country. Such an asset itself presents tremendous opportunity to rejuvenate, improve and refashion the KVIC movement to promote small rural entrepreneurs and enterprises to absorb those moving off the land and seeking new opportunities. Creatively linked to industrial training institutes, vigyan kendras (rural science centres) and micro-credit institutions operating though the vast post office savings bank network and managed by first rate entrepreneurs, a remodeled KVIC such as this could revolutionise the Indian countryside. Add to this IT-enabled services, such as demonstrated by the e-choupal and similar experiments, and wider horizons beckon.

Systematic land titling in urban and rural India, the computerisation of updated land records with the imminent inauguration of the Aadhar (unique identification number or UID) programme could be equally transforming. The absence of accurate records of rights and land titles has stalled tenurial reform and the mortgage market, thus denying the land holder or tiller of the soil access to capital and finance that would liberate him from the usurious moneylender. Agrarian reform too has stalled, especially in hitherto permanently-settled eastern India. In the result, iniquitous and unproductive land relations, rank feudalism and tyrannical caste hierarchies have operated as a huge “agricultural depressor” and perpetuated serfdom over large tracts of some of India’s most fertile but unproductive lands such as in eastern UP and Bihar that should be its bread basket. Political will has been lacking. Nitish Kumar has turned some things around in Bihar but has yet to face up to the critical challenge of agrarian reform.

It is said that Gandhi was opposed to technology and to large industry because for him “small is beautiful”. I believe this is a misreading of the Gandhian ethic. As in matters of governance, he believed in subsidiarity in industry. He would have idle hands in villages and small towns turn out useful artefacts from local raw materials rather than see them unemployed. More sophisticated manufactures beyond the scope of artisanal effort would need to be produced at higher levels and on a larger scale with appropriate machinery and entrepreneurship. He abhorred the monotony, degrading working conditions and grime of the early and mid-industrial revolution factories of his time and felt man should not be an automaton or slave of the impersonal machine, denied all creativity. Those conditions have not entirely disappeared but they have vastly improved with legislative and social backing.

Gandhi himself pioneered trade unionism in India during the Ambarlal Sarabhai-owned Calico textile mill strike in Ahmedabad in 1918, and nurtured the concept of trusteeship. Wealth honestly earned, with taxes paid, was not to be despised if used as a trust for the wellbeing of others less fortunate. This was the beginning of corporate social responsibility in India, a concept that has vast potential in the new milieu when greenfield industries, mines, dams, ports, power plants and highways entail land acquisition, displacement and rehabilitation.

Displacement and environmental conservation have today become focal points of strife, litigation and grief. On an outside estimate, maybe up to 60 million persons have been displaced by development projects since the First Plan. Be that as it may, there has certainly been substantial displacement, sometimes multiple displacement with poor compensation and shabby rehabilitation in certain instances. But matters have steadily improved with a rising learning curve. There are now legislative safeguards. Environmental impact studies and public hearings are mandatory, conditionalities are laid down and monitored. There is judicial oversight, and better project preparation and management alongside increasing community awareness and NGO vigilance. Nonetheless, memories of bad experiences are not soon forgotten. Problems often arise because of retrospective application of new laws. The entire Narmada Valley rehabilitation package, approved in 1979, was negated by the subsequent Forest Conservation Act which barred degraded forest lands from being used for resettlement and rehabilitation. Instead, the yardstick became two hectares of (irrigable) land for every acre lost, with similar compensation for all coparceners, encroachers, adult sons and agricultural labourers. The proposition sounds fine. But where is the land? In the more recent Vedanta case in Orissa, the Forest Rights Act, an undoubtedly beneficial enactment, was applied retrospectively after the project parameters had been approved and clearances granted.

There are ways in which such impediments can be imaginatively overcome if the issue is not to become a battle between large and technologically advanced enterprises that the country cannot do without and sundry stakeholders, protestors and ideological opponents, especially when public interest is clearly involved in a holistic consideration of time and space. For instance, the provision of drinking water for a population of up to 25 million from the Sardar Sarovar Project is an enormous blessing whose social benefit cannot be minimized. It has prevented the periodic mass migration of thousands of people and livestock in drought years. Deserted villages have been restored to life.

India has to create an additional 12 million jobs annually to match the current year-on-year net increase in the labour force. This is a huge undertaking. Add to this the vast numbers of disguised unemployed and the estimated 30-40 million distress migrants that move seasonally ever year to find work in distant places merely to stay alive, and the horrendous magnitude of the problem becomes apparent. These are “nowhere people”, Malthusian refugees who move not because they are displaced by development but precisely because of the lack of any kind of development. They have rights in theory but in reality are unable to enforce their entitlements as they lose the right of belonging both in their places of origin as well as at their new workplaces. The UID might make these entitlements portable. Even so they will continue to live on the edge. Is this an acceptable condition? Surely not.

The State has sought to remedy the situation through ameliorative measures: embodied in the new Rights approach to development. Thus we have the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, food security legislation, the national rural health mission, the Beema Yojana for social insurance and so forth. Though valuable, these are at best palliatives. The Right to Information has however given teeth to transparency and accountability and thereby made increasing numbers partners in decision-making and governance.

Yet the problem of employing and ensuring the progressive welfare of growing numbers remains. A revivified KVIC programme on the lines mentioned above could absorb many millions in gainful employment and service off-farm occupations. But can any country ensure the welfare and security of its people in a highly competitive, globalised and predatory world without far more industrial and technological muscle? A tiny country might. Not a huge nation that constitutes a sixth of mankind.

So medium and mega industries are also needed with huge capital, technological and marketing investments. Given adherence to the subsidiarity principle, I believe Gandhi would not object to this proposition were he with us today. But he would have redefined his concept of trusteeship in more encompassing terms. Since corporate entities command vast resources, be they human, natural, financial, technological, managerial or marketing, they resemble and may even exceed governments in terms of their reach and power. Power and profits must, however be matched with social responsibility and accountability. Thus, in Gandhian terms, corporate social responsibility must move beyond limited welfarism and philanthropy to envelope a far wider canvas of social governance and the well being of the areas and peoples that fall within the operational ambit of these enterprises.

Almost 90 percent of India’s mineral and forest wealth and the headwaters of its peninsular rivers lie in tribal India. With economic reforms and de-regulation post-1992, and given the high rates of growth that have followed, these resources are being exploited, and not only by the public sector, in order to create the infrastructure and critical raw materials required to sustain the momentum of growth required to generate the incomes and employment needed to roll back poverty. Despite whatever has been achieved, suffering India remains a grim reality, with certain disparities having actually widened in the process. We cannot afford to lose more time. Millions have been waiting in the queue for a thousand years. They are not prepared to wait any longer. This is not a viable situation: where wealth accumulates and men decay.

Private corporate and even public sector investments in large mining, industrial and power projects in green field sites and wilderness areas have stoked resentment and even violence. The result has been prolonged standstills and even rollbacks which cannot be in anybody’s interest. Environmental norms must be observed, informed consent of stakeholders obtained and proper compensation, rehabilitation and training for and employment in the new livelihoods being generated guaranteed. But one cannot afford to be unduly rigid and forego larger and longer term benefits for narrower, immediate gains. Tunnel vision must yield to a holistic view over time and space.

The courts have pronounced minerals and other natural resources to be national assets that must be developed for the common good. In 1997, the Supreme Court handed down a judgement in the Samantha case concerned with mining rights in Andhra. It noted that Article 298 empowers the Governor, as head of the executive, ‘to sanction transfer of its lands, even in Scheduled Areas’. But there was a rider. In case of such a transfer, the non-tribal lessee must also assume the State’s constitutional obligation to improve the social, economic and social condition of the tribals. Therefore, the licensee or lessee should, as part of its project, ‘incur expenditure’ for reforestation and maintenance of the ecology of the scheduled area; maintain roads and communication facilities within the ‘impact area’ of the industry or enterprise, supply potable water, hospitals and medical cover to and sanitation for the tribals; establish primary and secondary schools and provide vocational training to the tribals to qualify them for employment in its plant or enterprise in accordance with their qualifications; and construct housing for tribals. To this end, ‘at least 20 per cent of the net profits should be set apart as a permanent fund’ and reflected in the annual budget of the enterprise, over and above the expenditure incurred or reforestation and maintenance of ecology. For its part the Centre should sanction exemption of this entire amount from income tax.

Gandhi would have applauded this judgement as a natural corollary of the principle of trusteeship.

Many corporate houses have gone beyond these stipulations and assured even more generous terms. The State has also chimed in to set out new conditionalities such as for profit sharing. In this reckoning, corporate enterprise should not be kept at arms length and be condemned as part of the problem but made part of the solution. The cynic will say that this is easier said than done and might point to the record of well known robber barons. This notwithstanding, there is no better option and there are many individual examples extant to underpin this hope.

Yet there must be vigilance. The recent global recession holds out a moral. Corporate greed bordering on rank thievery caused an irresponsibly inflated financial bubble to burst, threatening a global meltdown, huge financial losses, closures and unemployment. Growth is necessary; but can it be sustained forever to underwrite ostentatious living, obscene consumption levels and the plundering of finite global resources. Global warming comes as a warning of serious consequences from unsustainable development. The irresponsibility of some affects all.

Gandhi made the point pithily. There is enough in this world for everybody’s need but not for everyman’s greed. Should there then be limits to growth beyond a certain threshold of comfortable living? Should lifestyles be moderated? The Bhutanese decided early on that beyond a point, Gross National Happiness matters more than Gross National Product. Consequent on the recent global recession, President Sarkozy of France set up a blue ribband commission, led by Jeffrey Sachs and Amartya Sen, both Nobel laureates, to review the matter. They too endorsed the proposition that growth cannot be infinite and that at the end of the day and beyond a point, health, leisure, a clean environment and culture are worth more than crass material growth.

Delhi’s unrelenting vehicle growth, for example, has choked the city. Though the road network in the Capital has increased 3.7 times over the past 33 years, the number of vehicles (excluding light commercial vehicles and trucks) has increased by 21 times, with 1021 new vehicles being added every day (2007-08). An increasing number of households own more than one vehicle. Over 20 per cent of Delhi’s land area is under roads. Streets and sidewalks have been taken over for (unauthorized) parking, forcing pedestrians and peddlers on to the carriageway, narrowing usable roadways, aggravating congestion, reducing speeds and enhancing accident hazards, not to mention road and parking rage that has led to murder and mayhem. Road speeds have declined and journey times lengthened with increasing traffic jams, idling time, enhanced pollution and fuel wastage. On one calculation it takes two to two and a half hours of journey time daily from home to office and back.(Centre for Science and Environment). The loss of productive time is estimated at 420 man-hours per month in the NCR, an enormous economic and social cost.

Surely the answer lies in using more public transport, significantly enhancing motor taxes and parking rates, redesigning city spaces and restoring the pedestrian bicycle culture of the city. This would hold good for all of India, alongside a more general emphasis on social rather than high-cost private consumption whether it be in the fields of education, health or housing (in place of lavish, gated enclaves). Such a development would be in keeping with the spirit of conservation that Gandhi emphasized.

Gandhi was in the line of India’s great social reformers. He believed that a good society alone would provide the foundations for a good polity and a good economy. Ambedkar famously told the constituent assembly that though it had given India a wonderful constitution that granted one man one vote, social contradictions would derail progress unless every vote attained equal value. He was referring to the gross inequalities of class, caste, gender and other disparities that were widely prevalent at the time. Creating equal opportunity for equal citizenship remains unfinished business. If we look around us today, issues of ethnicity, identity, caste, community, language, and gender continue to divide us. Hence caste atrocities, tribal anguish, feudal tyranny, superstition, regionalism, localism, communal discrimination and disharmony, female foeticide, gender oppression, medieval khap panchayats and child labour continue to flourish. Even something as benign and necessary as a uniform civil code has been prevented from being legislated by obscurantist and communal political elements working in tandem with the religious orthodoxy of every stripe to ensure that petty vote-bank and clerical domination are not undermined.

Where have all our social reformers gone? We are only left with demagogues who cannot and will not liberate the millions still steeped in dead habit. It is this social divide that must be bridged in conformity with Gandhi’s ideal of an inclusive, egalitarian, secular society. Gandhi, I believe, stood for Fraternity - brotherhood - that noble ideal enshrined in the Constitution, rather than the narrower concept of secularism. Unfortunately, by adding Secularism to the Preamble of the Constitution by an amendment in 1976, we have relegated Fraternity and in doing so, hollowed out secularism in the bargain. In some ways secularism in India has come to mean equal respect for everybody’s communalism, with vote bank politics as the driver.

Social reform is something Gandhians of today as all others must address, for an unjust society can never prosper. Little is likely to be achieved by stray marches and dharnas. It will require patient persuasion by creating awareness of the inequities underlying the status quo and their injurious consequences. Women in particular must be liberated from the yoke of dead tradition. In Mao’s famous phrase, “women hold up half the sky”. Unless they are accorded complete equality with men, the “sky” could fall on our heads. Adoption of a uniform civil code, apart from the codification of the welter of outmoded personal laws that exist today, would be a significant step in that direction. Diversity too need not be feared but must be celebrated.

Two theorems bear repetition. India’s unity will only be preserved if it accommodates diversity. And, the country’s stability depends on change. Tribal India desires modernity and must be assisted to move in this direction at its own pace and in keeping with its own genius. Likewise, dalits and OBCs must know that reservations cannot continue for ever and that there must be a progressive exit policy for the “creamy layers”. The real answer lies in education and vocational training and an expansion in employment opportunities that ensures the well being of these disadvantaged sections of society and assures the dignity of the individual.

Minority protection is an acceptable principle. But it should not breed separatism through excessive emphasis. At the end of the day, the condition of the minority is determined less by numbers than by empowerment and equal opportunity. The proposed Equal Opportunities Act would be a major step towards this goal. Emphasis on social history and the common struggles of the people is necessary to overcome the current bias in a false periodisation of history and seen through the eyes and annals of conquerors and dynasties.

There are many wrongs, real or perceived, that remain to be righted. But going on “fasts unto death”, invoking Gandhi, is to caricature the man. Bapu fasted for self-purification and at a time when the only appeal was to an alien power. That situation no longer obtains. Current hunger strikes and fasts unto death are undemocratic and smack of emotional blackmail.

Finally, what of the Gandhian role in conflict management and conflict avoidance? Vinoba Bhave projected bhoodan as a means of relieving tensions arising out of land hunger. It worked up to a point and then ossified. Jayaprakash Narayan intervened in the Bihar Famine, supported a peace process in Nagaland and sought to redeem the Chambal dacoits as honourable members of society. There are other examples too. However, as India copes with the upwelling of a myriad of upwardly mobile cohorts from the disempowered under-mass of traditional “Bharat” to a modernising “India”, we must be prepared to confront and calm a billion mutinies. This cannot be left to government alone as the state is perceived as the “oppressor”, even “enemy”, by left wing extremists, insurgent groups and other embittered or radicalized elements. Who then is to intervene? The gap has been filled in a manner by men and women of goodwill, certain NGOs or other elements in civil society. Is this enough or even good enough?

Would it be possible to raise and train a credible national Gandhi Peace Corps, equipped with necessary skills in conflict avoidance, conflict management and conflict resolution, and with medical and counselling capacity to intervene, contain and damp down anger and mistrust and work for reconciliation, harmony and fraternity? This cannot be an ad hoc effort but requires a registered body, with a recognizable emblem like the International Committee of the Red Cross, and appropriate cadres with state and regional units. Ex-servicemen, retired professionals, former civil servants, doctors and lawyers could reinforce the core group. The Union and State Governments, corporate houses and philanthropists should be willing to support such an apolitical, neutral Gandhian peace brigade. The concept would obviously need to be refined and given shape in consultation with official, corporate and other professional, academic and civil society inputs.

Gandhi still influences the world as testified by the examples of Mandela, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi and others. But there is a great deal that remains to be done nearer home.

As we remember the Father of the Nation on the anniversary of his martyrdom, we must collectively resolve to restore the Gandhian ethic to national life in contemporary and practical terms. In doing so, the Gandhi Peace Foundation can well take a lead in charting the way forward.

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