I have been struck again and again by the refusal of destiny”, wrote British author Rebecca West, “to let man see what is happening to him, its mean delight in strewing his path with red herrings”. The first decade of the 21st century has proved that even without destiny’s red herrings, we can often remain oblivious of facts staring us in face.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
At the beginning of the decade, in September 2001, two hijacked American planes suddenly slammed into the World Trade Towers in New York, killing thousands and triggering off wars of reprisal that have spun repeatedly out of control. Four years later, on 8 October 2005, as India and Pakistan snarled and glared at each other over border issues, a terrible earthquake hit the Line of Control between the two countries and killed nearly a hundred thousand people during the holy month of Ramadan. The images that were beamed across the world after both incidents confirmed West’s prescient observation. Throughout the decade we have wondered how could the US not have realized that its forays into Iraq would ultimately unleash the demons of religious hatred that been sleeping for centuries? And how come India and Pakistan had waged four wars over a piece of land, completely ignoring the geological reality of the dangerous Yarlung suture zone, the hellish fault line beneath, where two instable tectonic plates render the basic stability of the entire area utterly fragile?
In the country today, land ownership is the Yarlung suture zone that runs beneath the entire edifice of modern India, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, but it is perhaps also the least noticed. Sudden quakes have been generated when varying economic interests of rural and urban India collide unexpectedly. The aftershocks have stalled infrastructure development projects, created armed insurgencies and triggered intense fear and loathing between people of different ethnic, religious or economic backgrounds. We saw Ratan Tata’s ambitious Nano project fall to the tremors set off by collisions in Singur, in the process destabilizing the West Bengal government. We also saw Anil Ambani’s ambitious special economic zone (SEZ) project unceremoniously stopped in Uttar Pradesh.
Ironically, as India modernizes, more and more land is needed for all kinds of public developmental projects: for building national highways and dams, setting up industrial production plants, in SEZs, and building smart modern satellite townships for the growing working class urban India. On 18 December, the fast growing National Capital Region (NCR) around Lutyens’ Delhi was the scene of bitter confrontations between the villagers of Bakhtawarpur and the police of Uttar Pradesh. The police sought to evict the villagers from 3 acres of disputed land, saying that they were squatters and the land was needed to develop a new township. The villagers said it was fertile farming land and had been theirs for centuries. Another impasse, another delay, and yet another chance for opportunistic political parties to fish in troubled waters.
Rural farmers in NCR and elsewhere, who sold their ancestral land to urban developers after the property boom, now sit on bags of cash. But they will also clutch whatever is left tightly, and do not mind using a bit of muscle and money power to encroach upon public land to add to their property. Money, greed and idleness are an incendiary combine. It can trigger off corruption and violence on a vast scale.
Today’s cash-rich farmers have capitalized on caste ties with the ruling parties and acquired a certain expertise in grabbing land. They, along with their sons, move around with armed guards in expensive cars displaying imported sunglasses, expensive gold chains, guns and mobiles with religious ringtones. Tribal caste loyalties run deep among them. And their barbaric Khap (caste) Panchayats rule supreme over the entire village. They award the harshest punishments against lovers who dare to marry across caste lines and ruin the “honour” of the clan, and demand that rapists from their village be absolved of charges. During weddings, Western music, “disco” dancing (by males only), catered Chinese and “continental” (sic) food and flashy dowry gifts may be a common sight, but weddings will still be arranged by elders along strict caste and gotra (lineage) lines. Often a rich family will book a helicopter to fly the groom and his friends to the venue and back, but the bride will remain in strict purdah.
In the tribal areas of mineral rich states such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, 40% of forest land in mining areas belongs to the tribals, who are mostly poor and illiterate. Development in mining areas means displacing the owners and creates ideal conditions for the growth of armed insurgent groups who have taken to attacking police posts, jails, train tracks and oil pipelines frequently. They shoot and behead suspected informers and collect taxes by force. The ill-equipped state police apparatus can do little else but stand helplessly around while these groups go on a rampage.
There are plenty of red herrings we Indians may have saved Dame Destiny, since we continue to neglect the above facts, mostly in the shape of grand discourses in impeccable English that sound so politically correct and noble. But if we were to cast aside our usual blinkers, we’ll begin to see how a whole vocabulary, with which an ordinary villager or urban migrant can express his or her actual problems in an Indian language, is slowly being expunged from the so-called “national discourse”. The more abstract and superficial meaning we ascribe to the appellate “India”, the easier it gets to speak of its future without biting our tongue. India rises, India marches ahead to meet its destiny, India hosts the Commonwealth Games, and so on.
Once we stand at such a high plane of generalization, simple everyday problems from the hinterland—such as: When will we get drinking water? How can we have uninterrupted electricity supply during harvest time? When will we have a doctor visiting the primary health centre in my village? How can I open a bank account to deposit my wages from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) without a permanent account number (PAN) card? —dim into insignificance. Then one day lava erupts over a seemingly insignificant incident, such as a villager found dead under mysterious circumstances inside a police station, and as the thana (police station) burns and the highway is jammed, we begin to wonder what could have enraged so many over so little?
In weekend debates in television studios, well-dressed corporate executives and financial journalists register a deep displeasure about how, in times of trouble, our state governments will just stand by, looking helpless and lost. How even the (relatively) young Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan hesitated to condemn the Marathi manoos xenophobia in Maximum City and how the suave Orissa chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, seems reluctant to help multinational companies which were invited with such fanfare to acquire the (already paid for) mines and land for production plants.
Actually, as sons of successful chief ministers of yesteryear, both Chavan and Patnaik realize instinctively that if it wants to stay in power, an elected government in India must justify its existence to voters not by winning applause from TV anchors or the developed world, but by creating more reserved category government jobs; promising free bijli or pani for farming; and ensuring cheap grains even if it will mean disastrous bank loan waivers, and even looking the other way when casteist and communal groups wreck law and order in the state. By cleaning up the cities, by enforcing family planning or facilitating the flow of global capital across national boundaries and permitting companies to acquire precious land and set up base wherever they want, a chief minister may make it to the cover of Time or Newsweek; but come elections, he’ll be out on his ear.
True, on the face of it, our villages are changing and the demand for consumer goods—from tractors to TV sets, mobiles to shampoo and instant noodles —has been registering a steady growth. Literacy levels are growing and regional language dailies are gathering thousands of new readers each year. But most of the present rural growth rests on tenuous grounds: good monsoons, a continuous upward revision of the minimum support price for foodgrains, repeated waiver of farm loans and corruption-free implementation of money-guzzling welfare schemes such as NREGS by the Union government.
When you see the smiling visuals of villagers in those widely disseminated DAVP (department of audio visual publicity) advertisements, the wretchedness of rural India seems impossible. But if you want to find out the truth about farm labourers subsisting on starvation-level wages; about a village mafia punching holes in NREGS with active help from corrupt legislators and panchayat officials; about hill women spending hours to fetch vital water, fodder and fuel, and having to bribe forest officials and panchayat workers and the patwari (government clerk), you’ll have to do some serious depth sounding for a change. And then you may realize that the urban slum dwellers that you felt such pity for were among the luckier ones because they have escaped the villages.
If there is one lesson to be learnt from the happenings in the first decade of this century, it is to accept that as a nation we are all living above fault lines, with an everpresent spectre of sudden and dangerous seismic activity. And since our policy planners are no more capable than the scientists from the Geological Survey of India in predicting and preventing sudden eruption of destructive quakes, our only hope for survival lies in pressuring successive governments to reinforce all visible bleachers, strengthen the links of communication, ensure that emergency squads are available close by, and mark the exits clearly in bold.
Mrinal Pande is a writer and freelance journalist in New Delhi. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org