Friday, June 10, 2011

Musings of a new AID volunteer

I hail from Kerala, a small bitter-gourd shaped state on the west coast of the southern Indian peninsula. Kerala is considered to be a socially well-developed state with close to 100% percent literacy [1]. The common man is well read of the world around him and also well aware of the broader political consequences of his seemingly innocuous day-to-day decisions. He understands his part in the electoral process and is well placed in demanding his right from an answerable government. Whether he acts on the power that this awareness bestows upon him is another matter altogether, but the point is that the awareness is there. This much is evident from Kerala’s social development index [2].

Coming from such a background it was difficult for me to come to terms with the idea that political awareness, or rather the lack of it, is a major problem in India. I used to believe that most Indians are politically aware, but still are so stuck in their own cocoons and day-to-day battles that they do not really care about the long term consequences of their decisions. This, I attributed to our cultural tendency to not look beyond the low hanging fruit [3]. We work hard to satiate our immediate concerns and when it comes to the  remaining even harder challenges, we give up too easy. I believed that the root of all problems in India is, thus, that of inbred human nature which cannot be changed over one lifetime [4].

And so, it wasn’t natural for me to accept that the realities were far harsher in other parts of India; there are sections of the population who would sell their votes for money, without a knowledge of what the long term consequences of their actions would be on their own lives, and without realizing how damaging bad leadership could turn out to be for the nation as a whole. 

The obvious question, then, is whether a broad awareness campaign would be the solution or not? By focusing on the fundamental concerns of creating political awareness among the larger populace and spreading democracy at the grassroots, will the people of India truly be empowered? At an immediate glance that seems to be the case.

Some wonderful work has also been done by AID in this regard in the form of the Eureka SuperKidz campaign [5] in the state of Tamil Nadu. This is an interesting model. It starts with children’s education where learning centers are set up in multiple villages which offer after school tuition focusing on results/skills based teaching. The idea, however, is to expand into adult education, livelihood training and women empowerment [6] based on the foundation set up through the SuperKidz program, once at least 1000 centers are established. This seems to be a long term solution that is scalable and reproducible across different parts of the country.

However, the question persists. Is education the panacea to all problems [7]? Think about this. One can’t blame some marginalized sections of the population selling their votes for money. When you are struggling to have a proper day’s meal, it would be arrogant of other more fortunate sections to demand that you should be ready to suffer hunger in the short term to possibly have a rosier future. When the disadvantaged marginalized sections are thus suffering from a concern of their immediate survival, it is easy and also extremely haughty of others to just dismiss them with a wave of the hand or even blame it all on education, the lack thereof. 

Then, there is also the issue of corruption, that deep-rooted malaise that plagues India’s democracy. When some corrupt state governments with passive support from the Center use dubious land acquisition laws [8] to violently [9] affect the lives of some sections of the population, in the name of development, it is difficult to ask these marginalized sections to trust democracy and follow the appropriate redressal mechanisms. How do you spread democracy at the grassroots in such a circumstance; education? There are way too many variables at act here. India is a complex nation. A one-size-fits-all solution can probably never be found.

These thoughts have been swirling around inside me for a long while now. However, it was at the AID 2011 [10] conference in Boston that the turbulent waters came to settle thus giving me a clearer picture; or, maybe not. There are still more questions than answers.

Why is there a general middle and upper class apathy towards the concerns of the marginalized? Is it because of the belief that there is a temporary price to pay for the nation’s development and as the GDP rises the effects will eventually trickle down? Or is it just willful ignorance, one where we just do not want to tackle the harder problems?  

Will sustainable development balance the growth aspirations of the nation with concerns, both environmental and those of the marginalized; or is sustainable development an oxymoron?

Is civil activism a refuge of people who covet power sans responsibility; people who want the power to influence the lives of the “downtrodden” but do not want to take ownership of their actions? If so, shouldn’t concerned people try to effect change from within the political system? Will concerned, motivated and educated people entering the system be a solution or is the political system itself corrupt beyond repair?

These are tough questions to answer. As written earlier, there is probably no one-size-fits-all solution. Hence, an attempt has to be made to answer all these questions and more, simultaneously.

[1] Kerala literacy statistics:
  1. “The Kerala Paradox”, T. Venkatraman, George Mason University (2008).
  2. How almost everyone in Kerala learned to read”, N. Raman, The Christian Science Monitor (2005).
  3. Wikipedia - Kerala.
  4. Wikipedia - Kerala Model.
  5. - Total Literacy.
[2] Kerala’s social development index:
  1. “The Kerala Paradox”, T. Venkatraman, George Mason University (2008).
  2. Wikipedia - Kerala Model.
[3] Borrowed from a comment made by Pawan (AID Boston).

[4] It is debatable whether cultural tendencies developed in a community over many years are passed over to subsequent generations genetically, but for the sake of effect I will stick to the word ‘inbred’ here.

[5] Eureka SuperKidz:

[6] Women empowerment is important for broader political awareness among the civil population. Women’s political participation is a key component of democracy.

[7] Question asked by Alisha (AID Boston) in a casual conversation.

[8] “People who argue that the act is draconian claim that a number of projects with no public purpose attached, as in the case of SEZs, usurped land from property owners, with the help of the Land Acquisition Act, at what is claimed as, well below the market value of these properties. It is argued that, even in the case of projects that are genuinely for public purposes, there is a considerable difference between the market value of the property and the value that the land acquisition officer pays the land owners. It is also argued that the relocation and rehabilitation of land owners displaced by the actions of the act, is not followed up adequately, and that this is not covered comprehensively in the framework of the act. A notable instance of opposition to land acquisition, through the land acquisition act, is the  Nandigram violence incident.” - Wikipedia (Land Acquisition Act, 1894)

Land lost, Singur farmer said no to compensation, commits suicide -

“Over 80 per cent of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) population works in the primary sector, with 45 per cent being cultivators and 37 per cent agricultural labourers. Land represents the most important source of livelihood, emotional attachment and social stability in tribal communities. The alienation of tribal land is the single most important cause of pauperisation of tribals, rendering their vulnerable economic situation more precarious.” - The weapon of empowerment, M. Hamid Ansari, Vice President of India (2010).

[9] “The Adivasis of Chhatisgarh - Victims of the Naxalite movement and Salwa Judum campaign”, Asian Center for Human Rights (2006).

[10] Association for India’s Development:

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