Letters from India No 14 & 15

´Letters from India´ is a fortnightly brief written by Finnish exchange activists participating in the Lokayan - Kepa co-operation programme. The ´Letters´ are circulated primarily among the staff of the organisations and members of the groups responsible for the joint activities, ie. Lokayan´s Global Responsibility Forum - Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam and Kepa´s India Group.
Susanne Ådahl


DELHI -- Christmas and New Year were spent with Indian friends (Rita, Vijay, Ritu, Manu). Delhi experienced a twelve hour power cut on January 2nd which affected all of northern India A major collapse had occurred in the northern grid which supplies electricity to all of North India. Since then there has been recurring power cuts. This newsletter actually covers two fortnightly periods and deals with two formal meetings attended in January and individual discussions held with Lokayan activists, as well as discussions related to the ricksha exhibition. As the Christmas holiday period included a number of informal invitations to visit Rita's friends, some thoughts on this will be included in the reflections section of this newsletter.

Ola Poikela, the second Finnish activist to visit India this year, arrived on the 11th. On January 20th Rajendra Ravi and Susanne Adahl will leave for Calcutta and Dhaka where they will be contacting organisations working with people's traffic issues and urban poor (ricksha pullers, hawkers and vendors, domestic workers, migrant workers). They will return to Delhi on February 8th. The remaining part of the exchange period will be dedicated to preparing the exhibition material with the Jan Parivahan Panchayat (People's Transport Council) and attending the Globalisation Convention, March 22-23.

Highlights from the fortnight

A meeting convened by Vijay Pratap of CSDS was held on January 11 in Delhi's Rajendra Bhavan. A number of Nepali and Indian senior party and civil society leaders and prominent individuals, including former Indian Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, former speaker of the House of Representatives in Nepal, Daman Nath Dhungana and Ambassador of Nepal to India, Bhesh Bahadur Thapa attended. The purpose of the meeting was to initiate discussions on the commonality of issues affecting the two countries through an understanding of the polity of Nepal and outlining shared concerns and future strategies.

Areas of shared concerns are environmental, economic and strategic. Climatic changes (melting Himalayan glaciers) and water management schemes affect the river systems on the plains of the Indian sub-continent. Trade barriers on exports from Nepal to India and economic pressures caused by globalisation (SAPs, mass unemployment, widening gaps between rich and poor) is the reality facing Nepali society. Political unrest in the Seven Sisters region of Northeast India has caused mass migration into Nepal. There is, for example, approximately 100 000 Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.

Recent anti-India demonstrations in Kathmandu, sparked by the alleged anti-Nepal statements of Indian film star Hrithik Roshan, can be seen as one in a series of riots in India-Nepal history reflecting the complicated relationship between the two countries. It is a form of political marketing in which anti-Indian sentiment sells well, says Anil Bhattarai, Nepali activist with hands on involvement in the dialogue process. In the current historical context the outbreak of violence is directly linked to the political instability in the country. Maoist insurgency and the populism of political parties bolster anti-Indian sentiment as a political strategy. False explanations presented by the dominant elites and misconstrued images presented by the media can only be made transparent if structural issues are openly discussed.

In order to create equilibrium in Nepal-India relations a basic change in outlook is needed that takes into account the needs of poor people and actively opposes competitive political formations. Dialogues among various professional groups are essential to strengthen a people to people dialogue in support of the mutual dependency between the countries, built on age old historical, cultural and political ties. This people to people dialogue process will continue during 2001 to bring about more transparency in Nepal-India relations.

Convened by Vandana Shiva was held on January 1-2 at the Constitution Club in New Delhi. In response to the Indian Science Congress (ISC) on "Challenges in the areas of Food, Nutrition and Environment Security" the People's Science Congress wanted to unveil the real agenda of the ISC - an aggressive launch of the corporate takeover of Indian agriculture and agricultural research. The ISC was originally set up to challenge colonial science and the colonisation of Indian minds, but today it has betrayed its legacy. The People's Science Congress presented topics on agriculture and globalisation, the new agricultural policy, genetic engineering, and sustainable and just alternatives including testimonies of farmers from different states.

Professor Jashpal, Chairman of the University Grants Commission, in his inaugural speech mentioned that scientists should not be mere scientists, but also political and social beings. The elitism of Indian minds does not recognise that making music, repairing bicylces or doing tailoring is science. The new consumer believes everything that does not have a 'made in the USA' label does not involve science and technology, and is, thus of less quality or value.

ce has become a bad word. Mainstream economists have forgotten the people in economics and are talking only of services, capital and goods. The belief that there will be only one market that will produce for all the people is a preposterous one. What we should be striving for is production by the masses rather than mass production. That is why the world today needs Gandhi more than ever before because he had the capacity to combine science, knowledge, technology and spirituality. It is only when we combine the agenda of science and the people that we can change the world.

For 30 years there was no agricultural policy in India, so why did the government flamboyantly exclaim in 1994 that it was re-tailoring its policy? Because of the IMF and World Bank demands. The main concern at this point is that the small land-holders should be at the centre of the policy. If they are ignored, then the government leaves out 70% of the sector. India can no longer say that the Indian peasant can save India from starvation. Peasants can no longer produce enough to even sustain themsleves, let alone their families.

What Indian farmers need is good, safe and reasonaly priced seeds and fertilisers. A reasonable level of affluence needs to be ensured in the farming sector. Today farmers have no say in the seed business and even if a policy is available it is one of exploitation of farmers. It comes as no surprise that Prof. Jashpal mentions Monsanto as topping the list of 'evil' corporations. He stresses that the seed business must be in Indian hands and, additionally, an organisation needs to be set up where farmers can go to test their seeds.

Even though the Agriculture Minister has stated that the import of Monsanto seeds will not be allowed, previous cases of moral and financial corruption in the government sector, makes this an empty promise until concrete action provides proof of a change in attitude.

A concluding remark of the opening session was that the next generation of wars fought globally will be over the control of agriculture and food production. I believe this war has already started and it is only by uniting the farmers of the world that we can reduce the casualties.

Theme: the Delhi master plan leaves no space for the poor

Prominent environmental lawyers filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court 10 years ago against the polluting industries of Delhi. These enterprises were developed either in areas designated for residential habitation or were non-confirmed areas. Now, ten years later, the case is coming up. A notice has been issued to bureaucrats of the Central Government who are avoiding the issue. They have not replied, nor appeared in court. Sheila Dixit, Chief Minister of Delhi, wants to throw the issue to the Central Government's Ministry of Urban Development, headed by Jagmohan. His stance is known to be anti-poor as witnessed, for example, by his actions during the emergency period when he, as the Governor of Delhi, demolished all slum clusters.

This 'hot potato' is linked to the planning of the new Master Plan for Delhi spanning the time period 2000-2020. The removal of polluting industries is a step in the process of cleaning up Delhi. The World Bank 'clean cities project', to be applied in all major Indian cities, also supports this development. Clean is not necessarily equated with environmentally sound, in this case. It is, rather, related to making the city fit for foreign investors and the multinational corporations that, the government hopes, will follow in their wake. This mega project of city beautification involves the building of flyovers and wide roads to facilitate the easy flow of motorised vehicles. This also means further banning of slow moving non-polluting traffic forms such as cycles, rickshaws and bullock carts. In public areas such as the railway stations the coolie system will be replaced by the use of self-service luggage carts. These are just a few examples of how public spaces for the poor are diminished. The message that is clearly communicated is a pushing out of the poor to make way for the rich and powerful.

Massive migration from rural to urban areas will continue to take place and these people will be working in the city regardless of how many industries are forcibly moved to the satellite towns. How will these people get to their places of employment? This is not only a transport issue for the poor. Also middle class families are dependent on ricksha transportation. Children are transported daily between school and home by ricksha.

Lokayan's Jan Parivahan Panchayat (People's Transport Council) has actively followed the developments of the new Master Plan. In many areas of the city there already exists bans on ricksha pulling. Whole streets are closed off and, additionally, parking for rickshaws is non-existent. Pullers waiting for passengers along the road sides are often attacked by the police. Nor will the city provide spaces for ricksha garages for safe keeping of the vehicles during the night. This restricts ricksha pullers in owning a ricksha rather than renting one. They simply have no safe location to keep it. This is a particularly acute situation for pullers who work seasonally.

Rajendra Ravi, Coordinator of the Jan Parivahan Panchayat, explains that the root of the problem lies in the lack of an integrated perspective to traffic policy making. Traffic planning is a very neglected issue and one of central importance to poor people. Lokayan is not against motorised traffic, but feels the primary need is to have a dialogue on how to reduce the pollution problem in Delhi. If pollution levels are not restricted this will affect rich and poor alike. Equally important is the voice of the poor. Who will secure the needs of the poor in the new Master Plan considering that there is no people's representation in the planning commission? There needs to be a long-term, sustainable perspective to city planning. Rajendra Ravi stresses that this is not a sectoral issue, but a social one.

Theme: Ecological democracy - globalisation and indigenous rights

Professor Rai Burman, anthropologist and specialist on adivasis in India, commented on the issue of globalisation and indigenous rights during an informal discussion in Delhi.

A starting point in the discussion of how 'the west has colonised the rest' is the eurocentrism of the ILO convention 169. According to professor Burman there is a conflict of definitions and use of the terms 'indigenous' and 'tribal'. The Indian government refused to sign the ILO 107 convention, that later became the 169, because, in the Indian context, the term 'indigenous' is not applicable to the local historical context of ethnic migration and settlement. The definition of the word 'indigenous' is seen as eurocentric, linked to the concept of 'original' inhabitation of an area by a group of people. On the Indian sub-continent, where migration of ethnic groups has been an organic process going on for thousands of years, the use of the 169 is conflictive from a juridical point of view.

Smitu Kothari, tribal rights activist of Lokayan, explains that the question of who is really indigenous in India is a contentious one because many tribals or 'adivasis' cannot be called original inhabitants of an area. They have migrated from somewhere else in Asia and have then settled on the Indian sub-continent some 4-5000 years ago. As most groups have at that time lacked written or illustrated records of their culture they have no proof of 'indigineity'. Many of these groups were not originally forest dwellers. successive invasion of Aryans and Mughals pushed them from the plains to forest areas.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that 80% of Indian mineral resources are in the tribal areas, as well as the major part of the country's hydroelectric and silviculture resources. Professor Burman has for many years been involved with Nagaland, a tribal area in northeastern India located in the so called Seven Sisters region. The interest shown in the area, by multinational companies, has to do with the vast oil and gas resources found there. In a public statement made during a recent visit to the area, the Counselor General of the USA said the region should be made fit for foreign investment.

The Indian government blames the indigenous/tribal groups for denuding forest areas although, in reality, forest cover in the Northeast has survived, and actually grown, as a result of indigenous natural resource management methods. Denuding will continue, but at the hands of the multinationals and any resistance that the indigenous/tribal groups will put up, will be crushed by forces far greater than the now so feared insurrection movements of the Seven Sisters region.

Smitu Kothari stresses that an important step in the move towards more democratic control over resources and decisions that affect the lives of adivasis is the issue of self-governance. This is a process that Lokayan has been actively following and supporting.

Widespread adivasi protests lead parliament to set up a commission under MP Dileep Singh Bhuria. The Bhuria Commission's report, released in 1995, supported the strengthening of self-government and concession of adivasi control over productive land and forests. As a result of public agitations to government indifference to the report, parliament passed the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act in 1996. Many challenges remain in the process of implementation, but now, also internationally, in the UN, adivasis have a legally recognised voice.

Just like the European proletariats of the industrialisation era were seen as vanguards in attempting to preserve agricultural resources, so too the tribals of today should be viewed as vanguards in defense of natural resources. This is why Burman feels that they are pivotal in the anti-globalisation struggle.

The growth of indigenous networks across the globe is a witness to the fact that indigenous/tribal groups are feeling a pressing need to unite against the power of multinational corporations set on 'vacuuming' Mother Earth. Gross human rights abuses are conducted in this race to feed the hunger of the North (and elites in the South) to consume more than the world can afford environmentally and morally.

Theme: People's technology

Arun Kumar, a founding member of the Patriotic People Oriented Science and Technology Foundation (PPST), calls for a de-colonisation of science and technology. He feels that Indians have not been able to confront colonial consciousness and to de-connect themselves from the colonial past.

The technological skills of Indian artisans go back hundreds of years and, to date, a vast repertory of local wisdom lies in 'street technology'. This is what needs to be discovered, celebrated and put to mankind's use.

The notion of universal science is destructive because in the process of standardisation that it demands, it leaves no space for local variation and adaption. Those who develop scientific and technological advances should take responsibility for the consequences of these processes. To address the issue of the societal responsibility of scientists and the need to discriminate between science that is good vs. bad for people, the PPST in 1993 organised its first National People's Science Congress. The thought process leading up to this was initiated already in 1980.

Arun Kumar states that there is no debate on traffic policy in India like there is on other areas of central concern to citizens such as education, housing or employment. The transport system and style of using the road network is chaotic and based on ad hocism. Rapid societal transformations have raised living standards, causing serious traffic and parking problems in the cities because middle and upper class Indians can now afford to buy cars and some families even own more than one. The 10 million people living in Delhi own some 4 million cars of which 3.5 are on the roads daily.

In the large cities of Asia like Bangkok, a solution that has been sought to deal with the problem of overloaded road networks is building flyovers to create more space for motorised vehicles. These are intermediate, short-term methods, which do not take stock of the long-term needs placed on city planning and the challenges of population growth.

Transport policy has to be linked to what is happening on a broader level, beyond the city, in rural areas. Only then is it possible to plan properly. Factors that increase pressure on cities need to be clearly defined. The most central push factors are reduced economic and employment opportunities in rural areas, as well as rural violence. Many of the individuals that migrate to cities end up in ricksha pulling as it is an entry level job for unskilled labourers.

Social workers are unaware of the linkages of issues, due to what Arun Kumar terms as societal institutionalism and sector based thinking. He feels it also has to do with a lack of ‘real Gandhism' in present day India. Already Nehru strayed from the path by stating that he did not want his clerks to travel by bicycle to the office.

Reflections: celebrating death on New Delhi - acts of responsibility

The mother of Rita's childhood friend, Dileep, passed away around Christmas. I attended the Kria ceremony celebrated during the last day of mourning. The Havan ritual carried out on this occasion is meant to purify the soul and the house of the deceased. Family members throw Havan Samagri, a mixture of herbs and wood shavings, as well as ghee onto a fire accompanied by recitals of a Brahmin. These are offerings to the fire god. Traditionally, the Kria occasion was when the eldest son took over the control of the family. Dileep's father used the occasion to re-affirm his authority as the family's eldest member and attempted to solve a dispute between his daughter and his daughter-in-law over a matter of inheritance.

As an outsider, coming from a country where invitations to funerals are usually not extended to strangers, I initially felt a bit uncomfortable, but also very honoured. The notion of death as something as inevitable as birth is actively communicated in the Indian society. The karmic belief makes the concept of life a fluid one, not confined to only the one lived at the moment. Participation in the Havan ritual is a way of honouring the family, of sharing together the purification of the soul so it can travel onwards to its next life.

I also celebrated my father's death anniversary on January 4th. I had decided to do it according to Indian traditions. Rita instructed me on what are the customary ways to achieve a holy connection with the soul of the deceased by offering food, so called 'Prasad'. Offerings of food prepared with ingredients of high quality are given either to family members, Brahmins or the poor. The last option, naturally, seemed the most appropriate. A widow prepared the Prasad - puris, vegetables, achar and halva - which we delivered still hot to the tomb of a Muslim saint near Rita's house where poor people gather on Thursdays. The food was served on leaf plates so also the cows would be able to participate in the celebration. Altogether 100 people received a hot meal and I felt it was a much better way to communicate with my father than to put a candle on a grave.

I feel we have a lot to learn from Indian society on how grief and a connection to generations passed, and still to come, can be used as a way to bring joy to those in need. The concept of good deeds and social responsibility through a redistribution of wealth is a tradition that teaches us how we are all connected to each other in a very concrete way. It makes us seek out others, whether they are friends or total strangers who need our support or to whom we can give support.

These organic institutions are changing also in India. The growth of individualism threatens the social fabric. The traditional Indian family gave a designated space to each individual within a structure that was inclusive. Now many Indians live in cities far away from family or within a city like Delhi where distances are enormous. Of course there are problems also encountered in the extended family model, disputes and difficult compromises. In fact, we became involuntary listeners to a family dispute on the train from Jodhpur to Delhi. Our neighbours on the train had heated discussions until midnight and resumed deliberations in the early morning (5 am). In spite of the problems, families give the support that no institution can replace. The concept of family need not be one of blood ties. In its broad and inclusive definition ‘the family' becomes a group where solidarity and mutual support is the basis for common action. No matter how well organised our welfare model is, we can never institutionalise emotional support.

The elites speak of sound values, social responsibility and environmental awareness, but this is merely lip service because they do not practice what they preach. This, I want to stress, is not an Indian phenomenon. I have seen it in many places, including Finland. Here I do not want to sound like a moral barometer, because we are human and we err. We try to live well, but cannot always live up to ideals. It is different when lip service is used as a political strategy and an 'image polisher'. What we are experiencing is a global crisis of leadership. In India elites drink tea in 5 star hotels for sums that would sustain a low-income family in food for several days, instead of sitting in their local park buying a cup from the tea wallah and experiencing the reality of the society they affect with their decision making. Here we can hardly speak of good deeds and social responsibility any more. It is quite simple, really - those who have more want more, and still they want to sound like they are doing it all for the good of the citizens!

Good deeds are not a thing of the past yet and acts of charity do keep many social institutions alive in India. One such institution was the blind school in Jodhpur that I visited with Rita. We happened to come to the school when they had an all school musical function to which we were invited as the guests of honour. It was wonderful to witness the pride and enthusiasm of the students as they presented songs and dances. Most memorable was the heart wrenching gazal (love song), presented with such pathos and abandon that no one could avoid smiling, by the youngest student of the school.

The inevitable moment came when the headmaster of the school calmly stated that now our guest from Finland is requested to present a song or funny story from her country. I had dreaded this and, at some point of my travel planning, did actually remember that it would be good to learn a few basic songs. In the bustle of departure it was easily forgotten, so there I was singing the song about the little frogs, jumping around an imaginary May pole. The children liked it and said they could hear I was also dancing and not only singing.

The incident made me aware of how we live in a country where oral culture is not upheld among people unless you have a special interest in e.g. music, sing in a choir, work with music or sing with your children. It is a kind of a resource loss, an important means of communication that has lost its place in the stressful pace of modern life.