AHMEDABAD: “The value of a man is reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing… If only human beings were cherished as glorious things made up of stardust, in every field, in studies, in streets, in life and in death.” -- Rohith Vemula

When Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar, gave up his life I was forced to wake up to a reality where democracy is a delightful trope for the enslavement of the weak, development is the fetishizing of poverty and growth is a misnomer for it is always sans ‘for all’ tag. Through this piece of art and activism, I am talking of millions of men and women in India who have been exploited by the inexorable logic of economic growth and development to the extent that all attempts of the marginalized people to reclaim the benefits offered by the economic growth fallacy remains only an attempt draining them further of the little resources left at their disposal. I choose to use the words ‘growth’ and ‘development’ interchangeably because both the ideas have only been responsive to the pleasures of the prodigal son!

When we talk about economic growth in India, we are talking about the many impoverished souls who have been injected with fear, helplessness and despair by giant capitalist forces and this gives credence to the syllogism, “Economic development is exploitative… All exploitation involves violence and thus economic development is violent”. I am not denying the fact that inequality is important for the maintenance of homeostasis in a social environment; accepting the transformational character of human history ensures that a dialogue can be initiated with an aim to temporize space and act upon it. Problem arises when the societal rules favor the powerful to ensure that flux in the power centers can be contained and the histories of the weak can be eroded. It is then that exploitation is normalized and the opportunity to rise up the ladder of economic development cannot be availed by the marginalized. It is as simple as this- to build a new reality you should first erase the existing one and that is exactly what is being done in India and elsewhere.

In 2006, Kalinganagar witnessed the wrath of Tata Steel, the economic growth flag bearer in India, as ten platoons of police opened fire on villagers who had gathered to protest against the inadequate compensation for their lands appropriated by the government. When the hands of development caress the lands of marginalized farmers, they encroach upon the very existence of their livelihood, ruin their culture with a promise to modernize the society and enjoy ownership of resources that are appropriated from the weak by force. Languages are forgotten, traditions and aesthetics are met with indignation and differences are obliterated to create a culture of erasure and homogeneity; a world in which a lust for standardization leads to the validation of a single reality. The existence of a dominant world view lies in the repetition of those practices that revitalize the nodes of a capitalist society. “What is wrong with modernization?” some will ask. I say, “Everything!” Not because it promises economic prosperity and improved living conditions but because this discourse about development rests on the underdevelopment of the voiceless. Everyone knows that liberty is never absolute, but in India, liberty is a privilege. As Amartya Sen explains, “To whom and for whom is this liberty? Obviously this liberty is liberty for the landlords to increase rents, for the capitalists to increase hours of work and reduce rates of wages.” The uniqueness of the Indian society which is defined by the injections from cultural systems such as caste, religion and capital is that they aid the organization of inequality on the basis of birth and inheritance. A statisticalization of economic growth and development based on strict parameters such as literacy rate, life expectancy and per capita income gives a skewed understanding of what development is!

Though it is the power of exclusion on which the archaic interpretation of development rests, it also offers a possibility to define the dialectics of callous indifference and fandom that challenge the pretentious proclamations of the emancipating discourse of economic development.

Beyond the fandom of development and growth

All the narratives about alternatives to economic growth and development incessantly discuss about policy change at the structural level i.e. the role of the government and the corporate. I find such discussions empty in the absence of suggestions to challenge the superstructure, the ideological apparatus, which coerces individuals to submit to the development conventions normalized by the state. I cannot be at the vanguard, propagating about moral purity, when I consider myself to be a beneficiary of the capitalist world order; I eat at McDonald’s, watch movies at PVR and stay at Marriot hotel for conferences. However, I can use the privilege I enjoy to empower the voiceless to fight for their rights. What I am suggesting is an individual endeavor to make amends for part taking in a system that divides and rules. I draw from my experiences of having worked with economically disadvantaged groups in India and some of the alternatives that I found really effective rested on the idea of ‘coalition building’ and democratization of the economy.

Let us look at an example. The residents in the slums of Govindpuri, Delhi, were promised public toilet facilities for which the state had already given contracts to private builders. In the absence of toilet facilities, the residents had to defecate in the open and the middle-class groups in the neighboring areas created a huge hue and cry about the lack of hygiene amongst the slum dwellers. In many cases such limitations force them to take up low paying jobs and work in stifling conditions because people find it difficult to detach the ‘dirty’ tag from the identity of the slum dwellers. It is only when the slum dwellers collective decide to seek accountability from the authority for not having constructed the toilets in time that they could counter the systemic violence they were subjected to. A collective voice helps in fighting the ‘ghettoisation’ of the marginal communities and in resisting the alienation the individuals suffer when they are neither allowed to participate in the formal sectors of the economy nor are there any rules to include the informal workers in the development process. It is here where the role of the individuals, like you and me, surfaces in the discussion about alternatives to economic development. The people who suffer at the hands of capitalism are born into a system that makes these atrocities seem normal. A dalit, a member of religious minority or a eunuch in India is made to believe that their suffering is their redemption; the only identity which defines them is their ascribed status of being a lower caste Hindu, a non-Hindu or a sexual minority. Their histories have been ‘invisiblized’ and the only way to enable them to challenge these power hierarchies is through the reclamation of control by the community and the initiation of a critical thinking process.

Many small communities in India are doing a considerable work in making the economically weak groups independent through self-governance. SEWA (The Self Employed Women’s Association) in Ahmedabad is a microcosm of the general picture of the informal sector in India and proposes the idea of ‘economic freedom’ for the poor based on the principle that in the coming together of people lies the necessity to address the lacunae identified in the existing system; to take a political action and change the balance of power in favor of the poor. The formation of collectives by the marginalized communities and the subsequent use of their agency are sustainable for two reasons. First, at the local level it is easier to identify the exploiter and find solutions to address the problems. Second, more often than not, the social rules weigh heavily over the constitutional laws and thus the solution to the problem lies largely with changing the way people enact their privileged identities and exploit the poor. Caste system, gender bias and religious extremism are forms of violence perpetrated by people in their everyday interactions in the society. Only when all the domestic helps in a society decide to boycott a house where one member from their group has been mistreated, can we expect to see a change in people’s attitude towards the demeaned ‘Other’.

The ideological apparatus is reinforced through the reification of social injustice at the level of community building, ownership of resources and the right to education. Economic freedom can be realized only when the primary socialization of individuals is challenged and a community of the marginalized is built through the process of conscientization. The self-determination of the oppressed can be valued as a revolutionary force when personal meaning conjoins with a common purpose i.e. the purpose of the oppressed mass. The community resources can be protected from capitalist control if the members decide to manage and organize the resources such that each individual is a stakeholder in the process of development and sustainability. The idea of environmental justice, for instance, begins with acknowledging that disparities exists in cost and benefits distribution and thus it is very important to identify the disproportionate burden of costs that some social groups are forced to bear due to the process of industrialization and development which benefit other, more powerful groups. Thus it relates not only to the cost-benefit distribution but also helps examine the social relationships which either enable or disable individuals to participate in the decision making process.

In order to generate a consensus about both the common purpose and the means of ensuring its materialization, individuals need to be educated in a system which acts as a primary vehicle in the development of critical conscience. What ensures the sustained subjugation of the poor is their continued exclusion from the upper class systems of education. The government infrastructure and training can neither compete with the private educational institutions nor has the government provided adequate leverage to allow for the inclusion of poor within the learning domains of the private schools and universities. There is a need to think about an education system that draws from the pioneering principles of social pedagogy. The school at the Adivasy Academy in Chota Udepur, Vasant Shala, is a wonderful example of how loyalty to caste and other such social systems of discrimination can be shaken in an education system if we realize that the localized encounters between the students and teachers have political ramification when the students are made to question the reality through the process of critical thinking. At the Adivasi Academy, children from different castes are made to sit and interact with each other and this helps the students to question the authenticity of what is given to them. The model followed by this school provides a platform for creation of hybrid identities which are nothing but a metonymy of presence in that it provides the children an opportunity of being at two places simultaneously i.e. in their family where the caste system is revered and the school where it is turned inconsequential in presence of ideas of social justice and equality; this simultaneity makes the authority of the caste system no longer immediately visible.

Thus, the idea of education as the ‘uncoercive rearrangement of desire’ where the self assimilates with the other to create a distant future through the method of ‘literary training and mind changing processes’ informs my understanding of economic freedom in a diverse land of many cultures and traditions. I envisage a world where the ‘gift of bread and bequest of peace shall be unto the last as unto thee!’

(The writer is a research scholar, FPM-C MICA).