A reader to ‘the Other India’…


It was at one of those artificially-busy importance-assuming
conferences that actually change little in the real world
where an old friend thrust a copy of the ‘Struggle India
Reader’ into my distracted hands. Welcome relief it was. From
air-conditioned halls and mindless chatter.

Here are indeed some issues deep from the grassroots. Issues
that most of us might be hardly even aware of. If there are
two clear messages that emerge from this 185-page book it’s
simply that, firstly, there’s a lot happening in today’s
India which is simply invisible to the average eye. And,
secondly, that alternative publishing is quickly finding its
own feet here. If only we’re willing to sit up and take note.

Slickly yet inexpensively produced, this title was published
by the New Delhi-based PEACE (Popular Education and Action
Centre) group some time back. Reviews for it are overdue; but
then does the media take note of books not churned out via
the mainstream, commercial setup?

As made clear by its preface, the goal is to question the
impact of so-called “development” happening across India
since economic liberalisation, privatisation and
globalisation was “unleashed” on India since the mid-eighties.

This fairly slim volume tries to introduce the reader to the
‘other India’, as it were. It focuses on people fighting for
their resources, a fair deal and their right to life. It is
divided into five sections, showing how the simple (and often
poor) Indian citizen has fought back, valiantly if sometimes
unsuccessfully, on various issues.

Sub-sections of this book deal with land struggles, workers’
struggles, forest struggles, struggles for water, and
struggles against displacement. For those of us who live in
contemporary India, these faces of the 21st century
superpower-wannabee are not alien or unreal.

We’ve all encountered this harsh face of the Indian state and
its capitalist class at one time or another. A face which can
be harshly efficient, if only it chooses to so be, or if the
stakes (financial that is, people don’t matter) are high
enough for the business-politician-bureaucrat class nexus to
move into overdrive.

This book explains the logic behind land struggles thus:
“(India’s) highly unequal distribution of land leads to, and
is maintained by, various forms of oppression and violence in
rural society. The caste system provides an ideological
justification for this exploitative structure. Caste
hierarchy bears a close resemblance to the land-owning
patterns; on the one end, the landlords are predominantly
from the upper castes, whereas, on the other, the Dalits are
mostly landless.”

There’s an interesting story of land struggles from central
Bihar — a state today mocked by the rest of India, but which
was once the home of knowledge and enlightenment and the land
of the admirable philosophy of the Buddha centuries ago.

We are reminded that in a region with an extremely low level
of industrialization, agriculture forms the basis of
livelihood of nearly 82% of the population. That’s about 60%
in Patna and around 90% in the other districts.

So there are many complex issues: land is a source of
conflict, land-reforms and other state interventions, tenancy
reforms, minimum wages, feudal power today, movements
fighting back since the late ‘seventies, and more. This acts
as a good primer for anyone wanting an understanding of a
complex issue.

In the case of workers, the focus of this book goes to
struggles in Hindustan Lever (one of India’s largest
companies, a subsidiary of Unilever the giant multinational,
which runs over 60 plants all over the country) and a
resource paper on “globalisation and workers’ rights”.

Hindustan Lever today has a product range from tea and coffee
beverages to ice creams, processed foods, soaps, detergents
and shampoo, to thermometers and industrial products. It
acquired Indian subsidiaries such as Kwality Food and the
erstwhile public sector company Modern Foods.

Over 9000 men are employed by the corporate. But the
treatment of workers comes out sharply in this text.

“When you bite into a burger at McDonalds, you probably
don’t realise where some of it comes from: an obscure
factory in Sahibabad in Uttar Pradesh. Workers there
process and package sesame seeds (’til’). But they put
in 12-hour shifts, don’t get any overtime allowances and
earn just about Rs 1800 to 2400 (around $50) per month!”

By offering case-studies of diverse ‘globalised’ factories
with ‘localised’ working conditions, this section gives a
good insight into the realities of the modern ‘global
village’. PUDR, the rights’ group, also gives an insight into
the politics of outsourcing, the contractualization of
labour, ‘lean’ production, mobility of capital, mechanization
and jobless growth, and more.

For the issue of forest struggles, we need to shift to the
southern Indian state of Kerala, and its north-eastern pocket
called Wayanad. If you go there as a tourist, this looks like
some scenic land out of God’s Own Country. But a closer look
would throw up the harsh face of class- and caste-based
exploitation.

But don’t forget the context: over 200 million Indians are
partially or wholly dependent on forest resources for their
livelihood. This includes seven percent of the country’s
population, comprising the forest-dwelling ‘adivasi’
(aboriginal) communities, whose very existence is intricately
linked to the forests.

In this book, we have a useful recounting of the history of
the all-India situation, and also a zoom-in to the current
reality of Wayanad.

Also from Kerala comes the story of Plachimada, a name which
has become synonymous with the anti-Coca Cola struggle there.

To get the setting, we are reminded: “There was a time when
rivers, streams and lakes were full to the brim and water
nurtured the people of the earth. But over the centuries, the
overuse and misuse of water has made it a scarce resource.”

So one could well imagine, or read up, on what happens when a
multinational giant bottling a soft-drink gets sited on 40
acres of “what used to be multi-cropped paddy growing lands”
in Palakkad, Kerala.

But the people have fought on, even if this issue doesn’t get
the coverage it deserves in much of the rest of India.

Displacement is a huge issue for the weak and powerless in
today’s India. Naturally, a significant section is devoted to
this — covering bauxite mining in Kashipur in southern
Orissa, the Koel Karo dam in Jharkhand, the lower Sukhtel
project in Orissa, the Mansi Wakal dam in Udaipur, the Tehri
dam project which is one of the most controversial
hydro-power projects in India and the second-largest dam
project in Asia in the new state of Uttaranchal, the giant
Tipaimukh high dam on the Manipur-Mizoram border.

Some figures: since 1947, development projects have uprooted
nearly 500,000 persons each year. At least 40 million people
have been already forced out of their lands and homes, many
of them more than once. Most were not even relocated in
planned resettlement, let alone “rehabilitated”. This book
says one estimate puts dams alone as having displaced 21.6
million people in India.

“We believe that the capitalist media allow little space for
information and pro-people analyses on people’s struggles.
Professional journalists often feel they have done their duty
by merely touching the surface of a few well-known movements
in occasional news stories,” say the StruggleIndia team which
compiled this work.

Obviously, they have a point.

This text reminds us of the harsh realities that many in
India face in their daily struggles to exist. While it might
seem depressing, the optimism flows from the fact that people
are willing to stand up and make their voices heard. It is a
useful contribution to the understanding of the ‘other
India’, one which urban dwellers and those having it good
often forget in their haste to make the second-largest country
of the planet a not-so-underdeveloped one.

——————————————————
ABOUT THE BOOK: Struggle India Reader is published by the
Popular Education and Action Centre (PEACE), F93 Katwaria
Sarai, New Delhi 110016. http://www.struggleindia.com Pp 185.
Price not mentioned.

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