A Book That Shows The Stark Difference Between Knowing Caste Violence and Experiencing It

valmiki_joothan

 

“During a wedding, when the guests and the baratis, those who had accompanied the bridegroom as members of his party, were eating their meals, the chuhras would sit outside with huge baskets. After the bridegroom’s party had eaten, the dirty pattals, or leaf plates, were put in the chuhras’ baskets, which they took home, to save the joothan that was sticking to them.”

This might not come as a surprise for those already acquainted with caste violence in India, but certainly for those who are unaware–some voluntarily–and have no more than a general picture of the life of the ‘untouchables’ in India. And this is exactly where Omprakash Valmiki’s ‘Joothan’ fills this gap by allowing the reader to know about the life of a Dalit vis a vis the life of Dalits in general. Although, it could be a matter of debate whether or not the life of a Dalit could reflect the life of Dalits in general.

Compared to other autobiographies, it is a small book in terms of the number of pages. But it is different in nature as it tries to not speak just of the achievements of the author, but instead, is used as a mirror against the Indian society asking uncomfortable questions on caste violence. Joothan, refers to scraps of food left on a plate, destined for the garbage bin or for animals. However, for centuries, Dalits have been forced to consume joothan and ironically the best food that they ever get to eat comes from joothan.

The writer gives an example of how joothan became a part of the folklore of his community:

“During the marriage season our elders narrated, in thrilled voices, stories of the bridegrooms’ party that had left several months of joothan.”

An achievement of Omprakash Valmiki’s book is that throughout the book (also as an argument for those who try to sanitise or justify caste) he has argued for and emphasised a distinction in experiences. Being a Dalit and knowing about being a Dalit, i.e., experiencing as being and experiencing through knowing is an essential difference considering it shapes the outlook and action of individuals. For example:

a) “I was kept out of extracurricular activities. On such occasions I stood on the margins like a spectator. During the annual functions of the school, such as rehearsals of the play, I too wished for a role. But I always had to stand outside the door. The so called descendants of the gods cannot understand the anguish of standing outside the door.”

b) “The children of the Tyagis would tease me by calling me “Chuhre ka.” Sometimes they would beat me for no reason. This was an absurd, tormented life that made me introverted and irritable. If I got thirsty in school, I had to stand near the hand pump. The boys would beat me in any case, but the teachers also punished me. They tried all sorts of strategies so that I would run away from school.”

c) “If the people who call the caste system an ideal arrangement had to live in this environment for a day or two, they would change their mind.”

To be kept out of cultural activities in school, not being able to satisfy one’s thirst because of ascribed untouchability and being called names could easily be confirmed as a common experience for a lot of Dalit children, but for the upper castes, these realities do not exist. Hence, those who say that they understand caste violence and insist on measures like education and better jobs for the poor and uneducated Dalits, do not realise that this is a partial solution. Even after a good education and job, the Dalits are still looked down upon and discriminated against and examples of this the writer has shown drawing from his own experiences. In one case, when Omprakash Valmiki had to present a proposal to one Mr. Gupta (his senior), Mr. Gupta after having seen the proposal commented,

“So you have reached till here.”

And whenever Omprakash would score good marks in school, the upper castes would try to show him his place by saying,

“Study as much you want, but you will still remain a dalit.”

This is not to suggest that real sympathy or understanding can come only by being a Dalit. Rather, it is an attempt to say that the people who argue for modification and not annihilation of caste, do not understand the issue in its depth and also have some vested interest in the status quo of the caste system. Omprakash rightly notes that,

“But, father’s face and words kept coming back to me: “You have to improve the caste by studying.” He did not know that caste cannot be improved by education. It can be improved only by being born into the right caste.”

It would be a great error to imagine that education and economy alone could provide equality and justice to Dalits. What could one possibly do if even after being educated and economically well-off one is still measured by one’s ascribed caste, as was the case with Omprakash? And yet, to believe in these measures would be delusional.

The following examples from the book show that it is not just social or religious discrimination, but also the living conditions which further worsened life. Again, it is these experiences which do not exist for the upper castes, which in turn breed a romance for village life (in the backdrop of industrialisation in India). And this, Omprakash criticises by targeting a poem by a well-known Hindi poet Sumitranandan Pant (a Brahmin):

a) “Literature can only imagine hell. For us the rainy season was a living hell. The epic poets of Hindi have not even touched upon the terrible suffering of villages. What a monstrous truth that is.”

b) “The days of the rainy season were hellish. The lanes filled up with mud, making walking difficult. The mud was full of pigs’ excrement, which would begin to stink after the rain stopped. Flies and mosquitos thrived and were as thick as clouds of locusts.”

c) The poem by Sumitranandan Pant that we had been taught at school, “Ah, how wonderful is this village life”–each word of the poem had proved to be artificial and a lie.”

As opposed to religious revelations which instantly transform the life of the recipient and have the potential to transform the lives of others who are ready to accept it at its face value, the process of critical awakening towards already established ways of life is rather a slow and long process. But it is a sure way to liberate oneself and others by a process of cultivation of the mind and not mere following of dogma.

“I wanted answers to the questions bobbing inside my head.”

What were these questions? These vary from a specific question of why hadn’t Omprakash discovered Ambedkar yet as opposed to other national leaders to a general question of why were Dalits treated the way they were?

a) “The school had a library where books were gathering dust. There I first became acquainted with books. By the time I reached class eight, I had read Saratchandra, Pramchand, and Rabindranath Tagore. Saratchandra’s characters had touched my child’s heart very deeply. I had become somewhat of an introvert, and reading was my main passion.”

b) “The deeper I was getting into this literature, the more articulate my rage became. I began to debate with my college friends and put my doubts before my teachers. This literature gave me courage.”

Roots of atheism:

“Whenever my family performed pujas, or religious ceremonies, I would either sit outside or wander around. I started avoiding the puja early on. Father would get upset with me. He would talk about the belief of the ancestors, but that didn’t work with me. I did not argue with him about these issues but sat quietly. He would get irritated and scold me. Afterward, frustrated, he too would become quiet. He would ask repeatedly, “Munshiji, I hope you haven’t become a Christian.” I would reassure him, “No, no. I haven’t become a Christian.”

But something came to a boil inside me, and I wanted to say, “Neither am I a Hindu.” If I were a Hindu, would the Hindus hate me so much? Or discriminate against me? Or try to fill me up with caste inferiority over the smallest things? I also wondered why one had to be a Hindu in order to be a good human being–I have seen and suffered the cruelty of Hindus since my childhood. Why does caste superiority and caste pride attack only the weak? Why are Hindus so cruel, so heartless against Dalits?”

Discovery and disappearance of B.R. Ambedkar from the national narrative:

“One day I was sitting in the library, looking at some books, Hemlal put a small book in my hands. As I was flipping its pages, Hemlal said, “You must read this book.” The name of the book was Dr. Ambedkar: A Biography. Its author was Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu.

Ambedkar was an unknown entity to me then. I knew about Gandhi, Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Radhakrishnan, Vivekanada, Tagore, Saratchandra, Bhagat Singh, Subhas Bose, Chandrashekhar Azad, Savarkar, and so on but was completely ignorant about Ambedkar. Despite my twelve years of studying at Tyagi Inter College, Barla, I had never encountered this name. The college library also did not have a single book on Ambedkar. I had never heard this name from a teacher’s or a scholar’s mouth. On Republic Day we heard countless narratives of devotion to the country, but they never included the name of the author of the Constitution. All the media of communication had been unable to inform people like me about this name.”

Now, the main challenge for the book is to try to take the issue(s) beyond it being a good book, a must read, thrilling, etc. and place it in a position where it can serve the purpose of annihilation of caste for which radical Dalit literature is written. It is also necessary to further investigate if literature could be an effective means for social change. Other challenges include the task of ensuring that, in an age when everything is depoliticised, including literature, radical literature is brought to the mainstream (without falling into the trap of ‘best-selling’ books). This needs to be done so that people can be made aware of their own histories, to be able to objectively understand and criticise their own society, and self. It has to be done to invoke a critical curiosity to know more about issues that are sidelined. The act of reading has to be taken beyond itself, i.e., beyond being a mere activity for leisure to becoming a means for critical engagement. Vernacular literature can be a means of resistance against English language elitism in India.

“After working hard day and night, the price of our sweat was just joothan. And yet no one had any grudges. Or shame. Or repentance.

Why?”

This question is to all of us. And it demands an answer!

Note: The original book is in Hindi. English translations for all the excerpts above are borrowed from Arun Prabha Mukherjee’s translation of the book (2003).

This was originally published in youthkiawaaz.

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Ever Since I Grew A Beard, People Ask Me – “Are You Planning On Becoming A Muslim?”

20150706_144153Once upon a time, the beard belonged to all. It hung from the faces of believers and non-believers alike. It still does, but because of stereotyping it has become the symbol of just one faith as a result of extreme violent activities by some its adherents and also because of the role of the media in shaping public opinion on beards. The beard ‘belongs’ to the Muslims now. This I say not out of mere speculation, but from my own experience of it in public space for many years.

The holy cow, the modern car, people, wanting-to-be modern, all fight for their space in pre-modern narrow lanes of Varanasi. Wandering on these narrow lanes, I often found myself a subject of attraction and amazement. The reason for such an interest in looking at me was my six-month-old, untrimmed beard, and an attitude which told the spectators that I am an outsider. Looking for Kashi Vishwanath Temple on foot, when I finally reached there, I had to look for a place to keep my shoes. Since I did not wanted to present any offerings and just see what it is that the people worship in there with such devotion, I asked a fellow selling pooja items if I could just keep my shoes and not buy any offerings.

“Would it be possible for you take care of them?” I asked.

He looked at me and asked, “Mandir jana hai ya masjid?(You want to go to the temple or the mosque?)”
I was taken aback. I was very much shocked and hurt by his question. But, I did not want to create trouble for myself and also for him, as communal tensions in Varanasi were already high.

I replied, “Tumse matlab? (What is it to you?)”

Having sensed the anger in my tone, he looked at me, gave me a sly smile and looked away. I stood there for a few seconds, still lost, wondering what should my next step should be, I went away without entering the temple and looking at the tight police security, wondered what it would have had led to if I (or he) had made it into a big issue.
Before leaving for the temple, my aunt had advised me to put a teeka (a religious mark on the forehead, commonly practiced by Hindus), so that I “look” like a Hindu, which I refused because, I did not want to play the religion game.

A day before this incident, when I arrived at my aunt’s in Varanasi, her neighbour, a middle-aged woman, asked my aunt in front of me, “Who is this aatankvadi (terrorist)?” accompanied with laughter. For her this question was just a joke. Then she went on to probe why I had grown my beard, said that it doesn’t look nice and I must shave it off, that I won’t get married because of it, so on and so forth.

Many days later in a conversation about the Varanasi incident, a friend suggested that it would have been much better had I controlled my anger and disappointment and talked to the man at the temple to find out the reason behind his attitude. I wish I were wise enough then, but the next time I would certainly do so, as I am sure a similar incident is going to happen again.

Ever since I started to grow a beard, I have encountered this question hundreds of time, “Why have you grown a beard?”

I have always tried to be polite while answering it, believing in the power of dialogue and reasoning. However, I don’t think I have not managed to convince many people so far.

“Are you planning on becoming a Muslim?” is a question a lot of people have asked me. I ask them in return, “Do Hindus not keep a beard?” A common counter-point from a lot of them is that “Hindus don’t keep such long beards.” And when I counter this point by giving examples of contemporary Hindu-saint leaders, their reply to that often is “they are saints, you’re not!” Keep a beard, but keep it short (Keep a ‘Hindu’ beard, perhaps).

And it is not just Hindus who identify me as a Muslim, even Muslims see my beard as a symbol of practicing a religion. Just a fortnight ago in a conversation with a Muslim man on a train journey, I was told by him, “You look Muslim. You have grown a beard”. This he said in response to my liberal attitude on sex in a heated discussion about the rights of women which he dismissed and blamed it as a cause for the growing evils in the world . Since he considered me a Muslim, for him I should have ‘some’ knowledge of the shared values, but I didn’t. And the values were that of the role and rights of women.

In my six-month long stay in Mexico, nobody ever questioned as to why I had grown a beard or if there was a religious reason behind it or any other question related to it. They simply accepted the fact that I had a beard. The only time I was questioned, was by a group of Indians who approached me. Despite my unwillingness to meet or talk to them, one of them asked, “Are you Indian?” His friend was quick to add, “Must be a Pakistani. Look at his face!”

It would not be possible to generalize this social attitude that a beard equals to a Muslim, if it were only those known to me in my social and geographical space who shared this attitude. But, this attitude is common to all the places I have been to for a brief stay; Mumbai, Varanasi, Lucknow, Pune and Bangalore.

How ironic is it that on one hand the international cult of “No Shave November” legitimises the beard in India, while on the other, the beard is used to socially stigmatise and politically target those already on the margins.

Sometimes I fear that somebody known or unknown, may decide to target me, to start an unwanted, politically motivated, communal conflict, just because I keep a beard which looks like that of a Muslim.

I often wonder why people have the images that they have of a man with a beard. I think, it is primarily because of the international media which fed us images of some Islamic terrorists with long beards as representatives of all the Muslims which our media, and through them our people, bought unquestioningly. Now, to have a beard is to be a Muslim and to be a Muslim is to be an extremist, or a potential extremist, at the least.

To be identified as a Muslim because of my beard is not my main objection to this social attitude, but to be identified only as a Muslim is my objection to it. And this attitude has negative presuppositions towards the Muslims. Apart from this, why should a symbol become an ascribed identity of an individual? The beard could very well be religious and non-religious, depending on who grows it, provided the existing social attitudes accept them without identifying it with a particular religion and respect it as an individual’s choice. This would be real tolerance.

This was originally published in youthkiawaaz.

tnp: the new protester

The new protester is techno-cultural, politically sophisticated, more decentralised and independent than the old left. Dr. D, Banksy, et al disturb our sense of public space, occupied by advertisers, through subversive art

What comes to mind when one tries to picture a protest? An individual or a small/large group of people out on the street either marching or doing a sit-in, shouting slogans, holding placards and most important of all- making a demand! It is this act of asserting oneself/group, either aggressively or passively against those who hold power is the most exciting and privileged part of any democratic society, however mediocre. But, it has never been easy to protest and still isn’t, as the laws governing protest are obsolete and draconian, and new laws can be passed anytime by the legislative-executive nexus. But, this is where the dialectic between protesters with a demand wanting to change/influence a policy decision/ public opinion and those who hold the power to do so begin. The more effective and creative the protest, the harsher the law against it. However, the protesters have always succeeded, outsmarting the oppressive laws. Here, we will look at some of the new protest methods and movements in the recent years and how it undermines the oppressive laws and systems. They are also evidence of the changing politics of protest which has long surpassed the phase of marching-sloganeering. The new protesters are techno-cultural, politically sophisticated, more decentralised and independent than the old left. Dr. D, Banksy, et al disturb our sense of public space, occupied by advertisers, through subversive art.

1. Subversive Art

Dr. D

Dr. D is an artist who specialises in subversion of advertisements and billboards, twisting them in such a way that it ridicules and exposes the underlying hypocrisy. In his own words, “It was about 1999, after reading No Logo by Naomi Klein, in particular the bit about Jorge Rodriguez de Gerada changing billboards with paint and cut and paste alterations, it occurred to me that I could do something similar. I cut the letters “Su” from one billboard and placed them over another. The ad that had read “Suddenly everything clicks” had been subverted to say “Suddenly everything Sucks”.

Banksy!

Banksy is a pseudonymous English graffiti artist, political activist, film director, and painter. His satirical street art and subversive epigrams combine dark humour with graffiti executed in a distinctive stencilling technique. His works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world.

This is what Banksy did after Israel’s bombing of Gaza last year.

This is how Bansky subverted travel advertisements (watch video)


Here is a comic on Banksy by Zed Pencils.

2. Action-on-ground

Strike Mag

Strike is a bi-monthly newspaper dealing in politics, philosophy, art, subversion and sedition. Now, one would fine it hard to mention and single newspaper or a magazine in India which also deals in subversion and sedition. Strike is always in the forefront in organising protest rallies, talks or book fairs. They are very active on social media, too. Posting all of theirs and others subversive work on social media. The article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber published in Strike! gained popular attention, and most important of all, led to a subversive act. Cheers!? Somebody, yes, somebody glued posters made of excerpts from the article on London tube trains right after new year, with an intention to make the reader think whether their job is real or simply made up!

A more radical action which deserves mention here are the series of counter-propaganda posters which came up in London bus stops occupying advertising space (earlier occupied by positive advertisements by the police department), accusing police of being racist. Read more on the story here.

Meme Wars

“A meme is a unit of information – a catch-phrase, a concept, a tune, a notion of fashion, philosophy or politics. Memes pass through a population in much the same way genes pass through a species. Good strong memes can change minds, alter behavior, catalyze collective mindshifts and transform cultures. In our information age, whoever makes the memes holds the power.” – Design Anarchy, 2006

“CLIMATE CHAOS. ESCALATING INEQUALITY. FINANCIAL VOLATILITY. Multiplying real-world disasters sprung from the fantasy world of neoclassical economics — a faith-based religion of perfect markets, enlightened consumers and infinite growth that shapes the fates of billions. To rescue humanity from the mainstream’s march of doom, we need to kick over the orthodox shibboleths and build up a radically pluralist economics for the 21st century.”

A group of rebel economics students bombarded the American Economic Association’s conference (see pictures). Generally, one would see huge crowds sloganeering against such anti-people-environment institutions, but does it always have to be this way? Of course not! Memes like these are an effective and new technique of protest, attracts attention, provokes questions, no need for a big crowd always, but can be done by small group and also gets press space.

Kickitover is a campaign initiated by adbusters for the soul of economics!

Ghost Protesters!

Yes, ghost protesters! wondering what a ghost protester is? Well, another innovative technique by which the post-globalised protester has outsmarted the law. Spain introduced some harsh anti-protest laws and this is in response to these laws that the ghost protester (see video) was born. The police can’t pepper spray a ghost protestor for sure!


All you need is a few ideas and a broadband connection

“There’s a whole new audience out there, and it’s never been easier to sell [one’s art]. You don’t have to go to college, drag ’round a portfolio, mail off transparencies to snooty galleries or sleep with someone powerful, all you need now is a few ideas and a broadband connection. This is the first time the essentially bourgeois world of art has belonged to the people. We need to make it count,” Bansky!
This is in no way undermining the old and the most exciting form of protest- marching and sloganeering. But, trying to point out new ones and also move out of the old in many ways for the times have changed, identities and politics of the new generation that has taken up the fight for justice have changed and so must the politics of/in protest. Internet and technology as political tools have immense potential: India’s Daughter banned from screening on TV was released on Youtube, Priya Pillai used Skype when denied travel to UK for a meeting with British MPs.

Does an academic paper have to be countered by an academic paper, or a book by a book? Or a Davos with a WSF? Not necessarily. However, these acts must exist and one must play what role one can play best, but new forms of protest must also be acknowledged and given prime importance as an effective political tool, dissenting and challenging the powerful. The cultural industry has more hold over the mediatised than a public scholar, poet or a social reformer. What the new forms of protest are doing is, countering the cultural industry with its own cultural elements. A movie or an image attracts the mediatsed more than a book or a paper full with jargon. The old form of dissent-communication also alienates an entire generation who are taught to hate serious political ideas and love and believe what the cultural industry shows. So, a simple meme designed by the very tools used by culture industry can provoke a thought or two, gain global attention through internet and doesn’t have to be approved by some expert sitting above in the organisation. It also gives the artist and the technologically savvy freedom and a space of dissent of their own in the global solidarity networks, which is mainly occupied by the politically minded. The new form of protests also decentralise and localise- virtues that we talk about so much- the protests and also the power structure within them.

What remains to be seen and studied is the impact of new protesters on the on going justice movements and how it compliments the solidarity networks. This is well beyond the scope here and also not the purpose of this piece. Hence, I invite those who are interested to participate and take this discussion further. This is a collaborative effort and any material or idea can be re-produced without prior permission for non-commercial purpose.

This is the first article of a three-part series on the new protesters and its politics, written for Long & Winding Road

20 Years of National Alliance of People’s Movements

An encounter with people’s history

At Vikalp Sangam, when I asked one of the organisers of NAPM’s 10th biennial convention, ‘how many people would attend the event?’, she said, ‘close to a thousand people or even more’. Surprised, as I had never attended one with so many numbers, neither had I read/seen such a big people’s event being reported in the main-scream news media. Also, I did not know much about NAPM then. When I first entered the Rashtra Seva Dal (Pune) campus, where the convention was held, a colleague remarked, “it’s the JNU of Pune”. I gave it nice laugh. However, soon after entering it, I realised, it was more than that. It was a conglomeration of I-don’t-know-what; gandhians, ambedkarites, marxists, socialists, environmentalists, feminists, secularists, et cetera all had a place for. And was very easy to verify this in the posters and pictures hung on the walls and the trees and people attending the event in their ‘appropriate’ attire.

Entering the Dr. Narendra Dabholkar Hall, which was big enough to host a thousand or more people, was filled with the number of people I was told would attend. I would call it an all India gathering; people from all over India, 17 states (cities, towns and villages), someone told me. We were there to document all three days of the convention.
Background to NAPM
20 years ago, in response to the rising inequality, oppression and destruction in the name of development, country’s progressive individuals and sangathans came together and envisioned the birth of the National Alliance of People’s Movements. There was enthusiasm, hope and determination to struggle towards establishing peace, justice and truly participatory democracy. Over the last two decades, we have been a part of the various people’s movements and struggles; there have been victories and there have been setbacks. (from NAPM website)
Scenario after 20 years
 Despite the changing times which are defined by neo-liberal policies and supported unanimously by all political parties, and having damaging impacts, people’s movements have continued to challenge, propose alternatives and pushed the boundaries of ideas and vision for a just society.  We witness that the rights of the people are increasingly curtailed, natural resources being appropriated and rule of law deliberately violated to undermine people’s movements. However, our struggles have together built increased awareness about such draconian policies, as a result of which exploitation and injustice can no longer be justified under the rubric of nationalism. People are resolutely fighting against the violations of their rights and no longer need outside instigation. Every village, every basti, every city has people who are raising their voices against capitalist and oppressive forces. But on the other hand, religious fanaticism and violence and discrimination based on gender and caste are raising their ugly heads. On one hand the ruling classes are keen on changing the pro-people laws enacted by the Parliament and rights bestowed by the Constitution and on the other hand, it is trying to take political advantage of the existing exploitation and violence to exercise its continuing control over society. (from NAPM website)

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What has NAPM achieved in the last 20 years of its existence? Well, the answer is not as simple as the question makes it to be. Yogendra Yadav, speaking at the convention said, “… in the last 20 years, NAPM has given us the strength, possibility and a platform to question what is development“, in days when ‘it became impossible to question ‘development’ as such. One was quite free to debate its forms, the ways of accelerating growth or distributing its effects more equitably, but the transitive character of ‘development’- that is, the intervention it represented into the internal affairs of the nation- was not to be challenged. That would have been to attack the underlying belief of a programme designed for universal happiness. You don’t argue about the obvious; the most you can do is try to improve it.’ (Gilbert Rist, The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith)

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Also, it has achieved the sympathies of millions of peoples around the world through its movements, like Narmada Bachao Andolan, it has won the sympathies of writers who have dedicated their work to people’s movements, the singer, the painter, the musician, and also given the strength to the victims of development to fight back. And most importantly, the sympathies of the young, to take ahead the struggle for peace, justice and democracy.

Other than a few Marathi newspapers, the only main-stream English news outlet to publish a story on NAPM was scroll.in. But, to our rescue we also had some independent news websites like Counterview, Two Circles reporting the event.
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UN Climate Summit, People’s Mobilisations And A Mutual Top- Down/Bottom- Up Solution

Preamble: Sustainability means different things to different region and people. What could be sustainable for a low income, high population country like India may be not be for the USA and vice-versa. For a long time now we have tried only a top-down, technocratic, one-for-all approach to solve the climate problem without any significant success, and since this summit is the last chance to get consensus on climate before the 2015 talks and along with it the replacement of Millennium Development Goals with Sustainable Goals, should we not push the world leaders for a mutual top-down/bottom up approach for mitigation and adaptation? Therefore, if the world leaders could agree over common principles such as emission reductions, yet different practices based on sustainable models for a given context and people, in international and in their respective domestic spheres, the problem of climate change and equity could be solved.

To assume an understanding of basic details, often becomes the habit of anyone working immersed in a cause or in a specialized field of knowledge. But, in the case I am about to make in relation to the issue of climate change, it is important to draw out the basic details in order to understand the crucial moment we are all in together, yet the separate/different solutions that we need to work out. So, to begin with it is important to tell the readers the what’s and why s of two important events: the UN Climate Summit 2014 and the People’s Mobilization.

Why the UN Climate Summit? 1

The Summit will serve as a public platform for leaders at the highest level – all UN Member States, as well as finance, business, civil society and local leaders from public and private sectors – to catalyze ambitious action on the ground to reduce emissions and strengthen climate resilience and mobilize political will for a meaningful, universal climate agreement in Paris in 2015 that limits the world to a less than 2-degree Celsius rise in global temperature.

Why is the Summit being held this year? 2

Countries have agreed on the need for a meaningful, robust, universal, legal climate agreement by 2015. (It is also the last chance to get consensus on climate change before 2015 talks!)

What type of announcement can we expect at the Summit? 3

The Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has asked world leaders to come to the Summit to announce bold actions that they will be taking in their countries. There will also be announcements from a number of coalition initiatives that consist of participants from Governments, the private sector and civil society, will address several high-impact areas, such as climate finance; energy efficiency; renewable energy; adaptation; disaster risk reduction and resilience; forests; agriculture; transportation; short-lived climate pollutants; and cities.

What will the outcome of the Summit be? 4

The outcome will be the sum total of the announcements made by the leaders of government, business, finance, and civil society during the Summit to address climate change, along with a renewed sense of hope, optimism and momentum.

Though the Summit is not part of the UNFCCC negotiating process, it is seen as an important milestone on the path towards closing the emissions gap , the difference between reduction pledges and the necessary emission cuts for the 2 °C scenario , and to a new legal agreement on climate change, that is to be approved by the COP21 in Paris in December 2015. 5

The failure of the world community up till now to agree to a post-Kyoto consensus binding all the nations is another reason for the Summit. As the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) are to be replaced with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the urgency to come to a consensus to fight climate change and its effects makes it even more urgent.

People’s Mobilisations

People’s Climate Mobilisation is primarily organised by 350.org . It is meant to be the biggest climate march ever! Alongside, individuals can organise their own climate march and be a part of the People’s Mobilisations.

This September, world leaders are coming to New York City to talk about how to address the climate crisis. This is a crucial moment; we’re at a crossroads. We can and must change course by building a new economy through efforts to reconceive corporations and redefine economic progress. We need to do this in order to address the greatest crisis in the history of mankind. Together, we can create a world with cleaner air, healthier communities, and more economic opportunities. This is what we mean when we talk about climate justice. We know this world is within reach, but we’re going have to fight for it. 6

The People’s Mobilisations is about ‘taking to the streets this September to show our politicians that they need to choose a side. It’s either the people or the polluters.’ The demand is for Action, Not Words : taking the necessary action to create a world with an economy that works for people and the planet – now. In short, we want a world safe from the ravages of climate change. 7

But, easier said than done. The UN wants the Nation-States to make announcements (words) to address climate change and the People’s Mobilisations -representing the people- wants action, not words.

And in all this, how are we ( the people? ), to view the actions of the world leaders and of the big civil society organisations?

Undoubtedly, the lack of seriousness concerning climate change in world leaders, especially of the North, proves the lack of political will and hand-in-glove practices of big politics with big business.

But, what of the big civil society organisations that are countering the anti-climate movement ? How can one know the sanctity of their actions? Agreed that they are working for the good of all, but what is the sub-text of their speech? Does their big multinational size and way of working makes them similar to the companies they are against? If not, what makes them different?

The book Protest Inc . ‘highlights the enclosure of activism in increasingly large and bureaucratic NGOs. In the NGO world, there are three dominant, interconnected imperatives: winning victories, getting credit for one’s accomplishments, and raising money. In many, perhaps most, contexts today, the desire to be “effective” compels NGOs to a certain tameness. We see this, for example, in the severely circumscribed world of climate action advocacy in Washington, DC, today. The imperative to get credit for accomplishments and to raise funds to get more underlie the current fracturing of each progressive cause into an often bewildering array of separate, competing groups, each promoting its own brand. And in our world of creeping corporatocracy and plutocracy, NGO success on all three fronts can benefit greatly from close links to business and family wealth. 8

How closely are these big civil society organizations of the North working with grassroots movements in the South? What are they doing to ensure that the divestment from fossil fuels isn’t re-invested in renewable energy to stop the possible takeover of renewables by the market , so that it remains a decentralised and democratic mode of production? What will be the new political-economy of the renewable energy? Will action on climate change also bring equity along with mitigation/resilience? I believe it is vitally important to inject a string input from the Global South into the worldwide civil society struggle against climate change, which today bears a strongly Northern impress. 9

The answers to these questions are equally important to the central question of climate change as an existential threat.

A ‘local’ Indian model for sustainability

‘India’s meteoric economic rise in the last two decades has been impressive. There is however a dark side to it, hidden or ignored. Well over half its people have been left behind or negatively impacted; and there have been irreversible blows to the natural environment. Globalised development as it is today is neither ecologically sustainable nor socially equitable, and is leading India to further conflict and suffering. There are, however, a range of alternative approaches and practices, forerunners of a Radical Ecological Democracy that can take us all to higher levels of well-being, while sustaining the earth and creating greater equity,’ 10 says Ashish Kothari, founder member of Kalpavriksha.

Can India combine climate-responsible development with a commitment to building a modern, open, inclusive and plural society free of hunger, extreme hierarchy and gross injustices, in which every citizen can look forward to full democratic participation in making decisions that make her future? The answer is not that India can achieve that combination, but that there is no other way of realisng this vision except through climate-friendly, low carbon and equitable development. 11

Sustainability means different things to different region and people. What could be sustainable for a low income country like India may be not be for the USA and vice-versa. For a long time now we have tried only a top-down, technocratic, one-for-all approach to solve the climate problem without any significant success, and since this summit is the last chance to get consensus on climate before the 2015 talks and along with it the replacement of Millennium Development Goals with Sustainable Goals, should we not push the world leaders for a mutual top-down/bottom up approach for mitigation and adaptation? Therefore, if the world leaders could agree over common principles such as emission reductions, yet different practices based on sustainable models for a given context and people, in international and in their respective domestic spheres, the problem of climate change and equity could be solved.

For example, India, despite being the third largest emitter in the world has its per capita emission as low as 1.3 tons. So, a one-for-all policy would do injustice to marginalised communities and maintain the status quo for the top ten per cent. of its largest emitters. And India deserves special attention for three reasons. First, it is the world’s second most populous country, with a fast growing economy and yet with the largest number of dirt-poor people in any country. Second, India is a ‘laboratory’ for testing various things, including the success or failure of numerous energy models, including fossil fuel-based ones, decentralised or renewable energy systems, and different mitigation and adaptation strategies. And third, India lays claim to a climate policy and negotiating position based on certain principles(?). 12

Here, I will draw three examples for how India could work out these sustainable practices based on principles (some homegrown, some learned from other countries) to show how this could be done.

1. Learning from its indigenous farmers, a homegrown model: Although India hardly consumes meat, almost every farming family in India owns livestock. Therefore, one needs fodder to feed the livestock used for milk, fuel, field ploughing and fertilizer (cowdung). The US has to grow fodder to feed its cattle. If livestock sector contributes to 20% of carbon emissions worldwide, it is due to the industrial model of production, and the separation of livestock from the fields. In India, Livestock is not grown separately. The very animal used to plough the field, is fed by the straw of fodder left behind from that crop, and the animals faeces feeds that field. With every kilogram of rice grown, there automatically comes four kilograms of straw to feed the cattle. Hence, reduction in consumption of resources (Or using fully/optimally resources) and less emissions.

India also enjoys a major advantage over other countries due to its large, actually largest cattle population in the world! When you have 281 million cattle, you can have a lot of ‘bullshit’. Some would laugh that off. But for energy experts, it is serious matter. According to them, 10,000 cattle can produce enough dung to set up a 1 MW power plant. This means India could fuel 28 GW of power generation capacity without having to depend on imported fuel or even polluting coal. 13

2. Lessons from Sweden, an imported/shared model: The Swedish model of waste management and waste to energy would help a high emitter like India produce renewable energy, and solve its waste problem!

Sweden is a small country. Its landmass is just 450,295 sq. km compared with 3,287,590 sq km for India. It population is even smaller – 9.6 million people compared with 1.2 billion for India. But its industrial innovation is amazing – Sweden manages its energy requirements, using non-conventional sources of energy, wherever possible, to reduce its dependence on oil and also to remain environmentally responsible. Consider this: The country has 242 biogas plants (2012, the latest figures) — 135 use municipal waste water (sludge), five use industrial waste (often waste water), 21 adopt co-fermentation of different kinds of waste including household waste. Approximately 50% of all municipal solid waste (MSW) is converted into energy, and less than 1% of the MSW ends up as landfill (Sweden now has a ban on landfills in place). Around 53% of the biogas produced in Sweden is used as vehicle fuel. In 2013, vehicle gas replaced gasoline and diesel equivalent to about 97,000 cars. About 62% of this was biomethane.

The potential in India for such waste management models is huge . And this does not include food waste or consumer waste (packaging, newspapers, etc). With the world’s second-largest population of humans, the largest population of cattle, and a large number of other animals, India could have created Gobar banks. Is it difficult for India to have a national waste management policy? Could we not ban landfills, the sway Sweden has? 14

3. Solar as a solution, a model to be expanded: India has plenty of sunshine. It has many people. India appears to have forgotten something important – rooftop solar. Assume five people to a household. That gives us 250 million households. To be conservative, let’s take just one-fifth this number, 50 million, as households with rooftops. Even a conservative figure of 200 square feet per rooftop (village rooftops can be significantly larger), with 100 watts of installed capacity per square metres, gives us a 2 kW system per rooftop. The 50 million households will thus have a combined capacity of 100,000 MW. That should give us an annual output of 1,600 kW/hour of installed capacity.

Critically important, this can be done without using up large tracts of land. Each household thus becomes both producer and consumer. The household consumes freely his own rooftop’s power but also earns when he sells surplus power to the grid. Since the distance between the solar panels and the households isn’t great, there will be huge savings in transmission (capital and recurring) costs. Once installed, maintenance costs are minimal. The savings would be massive for rural household electrification as compared to connecting a village to the grid would cost some 2.5 lac rupees ($4000!). Also, India’s transmission and distribution losses are an enormous 33 per cent! 15

The necessity for a top-down approach

A bottom-up approach alone is not a viable solution for climate change. Mitigation needs a top-down approach and adaptation needs a bottom-up approach. If not, then the culprit, ie, the rich Northern countries will never mitigate. Top-down is necessary as the countries that have polluted the most and have an abundance of resources are not taking sufficient cuts. And since two thirds of emissions are caused by the Northern countries and the repercussions of climate change are affecting the poor people and the Southern countries the most, we must see the issue of climate change as one of ethics and equity as well.

At the international level, we have to be able to agree that each nation will commit to ensure that the bigger polluters are brought to check. This means that the rich and the corporations across the world have to be given mitigation and adaptation targets. We need stricter international and domestic laws to ensure that this happens. At the domestic level, the community and livelihood sectors need to be supported (financially and technologically) wherever their carbon footprint is low to reach a minimum human level and also to develop sustainable alternative models as mentioned above. This would also make the poor economically viable.

Notes

1. http://www.un.org/climatechange/summit/

2. Ibid

3. Ibid

4. Ibid

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_Summit

6. http://350.org/peoples-climate-mobilisation-a-global-invitation/

7. Ibid

8. http://www.greattransition.org/publication/searching-for-radicalism-in-a-corporate-age

9. Praful Bidwai, The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis, op. cit., p. XXI

10. Globalisation in India, Kalpavriksha

11. Praful Bidwai, The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis, op. cit., p. 164

12. Praful Bidwai, The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis, op. cit., p. 5

13. http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-the-cow-jumps-over-the-moon-1810578

14. http://www.dnaindia.com/money/report-policy-watch-lessons-we-can-learn-from-

sweden-in-waste-management-2007453

15. http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-policy-watch-with-millions-of-rooftops-solar-power-is-within-reach-1810576

This article was originally published in Counter Currents.

Notes on big NGOs, Climate Change, Green Energy, Cultural Capitalism, etc.

Capitalism

(i) How can one know the sanctity of the big civil society organisations that are countering the anti-climate movement? Agreed that they are working for the good of all, but what is the sub-text of their speech? Does their big multinational size and way of working makes them similar to the companies they are against? If not, what makes them different?

(ii) The book Protest Inc. ‘highlights the enclosure of activism in increasingly large and bureaucratic NGOs. In the NGO world, there are three dominant, interconnected imperatives: winning victories, getting credit for one’s accomplishments, and raising money. In many, perhaps most, contexts today, the desire to be “effective” compels NGOs to a certain tameness. We see this, for example, in the severely circumscribed world of climate action advocacy in Washington, DC, today. The imperative to get credit for accomplishments and to raise funds to get more underlie the current fracturing of each progressive cause into an often bewildering array of separate, competing groups, each promoting its own brand. And in our world of creeping corporatocracy and plutocracy, NGO success on all three fronts can benefit greatly from close links to business and family wealth.1

I believe it is vitally important to inject a string input from the Global South into the worldwide civil society struggle against climate change, which today bears a strongly Northern impress.2

(iii) What of the market? Are we to dispose if off? If yes, then how? One of the biggest threats to green energy is its takeover by the market. With all the money divested from the fossil industry, political power and the emerging lucrative opportunity to make profit from the green industry the market may take over it. If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.3 And to supplement this is the existence of Intellectual Property Rights which would act as a political weapon by those who possess it. As of now, almost 50 per cent. of patents on solar energy is owned by China. Today Chinese manufacturers make about 50 million solar panels a year — over half the world’s supply in 2010 — and include four of the world’s top five solar-panel manufacturers. What would be the implication of all this on equity? If the same people who owned fossil resources come to own green energy? Then the decades long battle against climate change would be half won. And will we then get caught up for decades again to fight for equity?

(iv) There are arguments that go to the very root of the climate crisis, ie, Capitalism. Isn’t the very structure of our production and consumption at the root of climate change; the mass mania of globalised development and endless growth? Climate change demands that we consume less, but being consumers is all we know. Climate change is not a problem that can be solved simply by changing what we buy – a hybrid instead of an SUV. Jeremy Rifkin designated this new stage of commodification as ‘cultural capitalism’. In ‘cultural capitalism’, the relationship between an object and its symbol-image is inverted: the image does not represent the product, but, rather, the product represents the image. We buy a product – say, an organic apple – because it represents the image of a healthy lifestyle. As the example of buying an organic apple indicates, the very ecological protest against capitalist ruthless exploitation of natural resources is already caught in the commodification of experiences.4 We will have to do away with capitalism as the only solution to climate change.

(v) What will be the power balance of the new world order that we all dream of without keeping the war-for-resource in mind? Will green energy also end America, Europe and its multinationals’ dominance (read war) over the oil rich middle east? What of the military-industrial complex?

(vi) Lastly, how can the world’s citizens, who have a vital stake in a global solution to the climate crisis, become actors in the effort to resolve it? How might civil society organisations, environmentalist groups and political parties across the world forge the collective will and develop the wherewithal to educate the public and governments on the urgency of climate protection and influence climate policy-making and the international negotiating process?5

Notes

  1. http://www.greattransition.org/publication/searching-for-radicalism-in-a-corporate-age
  2. Praful Bidwai, The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis, op. cit., p. XXI
  3. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/03/giants-green-world-profit-planets-destruction
  4. Slavoj Zizek, Three Faces of Bill Gates
  5. Praful Bidwai, The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis, op. cit., p. XII

The Deafening Silence on Climate Change

 

climate_change_header

India is the third largest country in terms of carbon emission. India is the second largest country in terms of population. India is the the country to hold the biggest democratic elections in the world! To exclude the rest, these three factors are enough to highlight the rising importance of India globally. Still, why is there a deafening silence on climate change in India, not only by the media but also by the politicians, subsequently followed by the people as the two former agencies are responsible for prioritizing any agenda.

Politicians and public opinion

Any observer with sound knowledge of Indian society can easily differentiate between the real issues of the country and the not-so-real issues which the politicians exploit for their own benefit . A classic example of this is how, “…..both 1992 and 2002 (riots) did was to fool people into believing that the communal divide is greater than the class divide. “As soon as you convince a society that Muslims or whatever group is the problem, you have tricked them into overlooking the real problems like labour laws, corruption, housing shortages, and poor infrastructure (and climate change), Sinha said.” The point that I am trying to make is that, politicians have always deceived people into believing, prioritizing and acting on issues that are of less importance than the once that require immediate attention. And the same happened during the general elections. Issues like Congress free India, Modi’s superiority over Rahul Gandhi, and the need to replicate the development model of western countries in India as the only solution for its problems. Amidst all this, not a single senior politician, be it Modi, Rahul Gandhi or any other influential leader ever questioned   this model of development, neither did they ever mentioned the threat of climate change, as if it were non-existent, as the $900 million anti-climate change think tanks in America would want us to believe.

Media and public opinion

The power that media yields is known by all and requires no in-depth explanation here. Yet, the media in India never chooses to exercise its power to influence public opinion on climate change. TV coverage of environment news in less than one percent! Be it print media or the TV. It’s only on the internet that a few niche climate change media outlets and organizations along with a few individuals on social media that are busy doing the job of the mainstream news media. Instead on focusing on issues, the media focuses of personalities, as was evident by the complete surrender of media to Narendra Modi during the general elections. The root of the problem is the advertising-driven revenue system of the news media and also its slow but complete take over by big corporations. Now that Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance has acquired complete ownership of India’s biggest media company Network 18, there would be hardly be any report seen about Reliance’s misdeeds in the news channels owned by the company. This is true not only for Reliance but also for other major companies who have heavily invested in other news companies.

Interrogation

We must question, why is it that neither the politicians, neither a “free” media and nor do the people ever talk about climate change with any seriousness? Why can’t political parties not organize people again to fight climate change as it does during its political rallies? Why is it that some bolloywood personalities’ personal life have become more important an issue than climate change which has fatal effects? Why is it that the climate change has not become an everyday issue with people? Why don’t we take it with as seriousness as we take other things like celebrating a festival?

Invoking  conscientizacao on climate change is the primary responsibility of the media which must result in action by the politicians.

And what are the people and civil society to do?

Well, they must act together on their own and ensure that people who yield power in the name of democracy perform their duty well. This is our only hope.

Post-scriptum: This article was originally published in Counter Currents.