Monday, August 18, 2008

vidarbha agrarian crisis-Lessons from Kalawati

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Lessons from Kalawati
19 Aug 2008,

M S S Pandian

In his parliamentary speech defending the Indo-US nuclear deal, Rahul Gandhi spoke repeatedly of Kalawati, a destitute Dalit woman from Vidarbha, whose husband, a cotton farmer, had committed suicide because of debts. What had impressed Rahul in Kalawati's life were her efforts at diversifying economic activities — rearing a buffalo and digging a pond — to save her family from hunger. Citing her story, he claimed, "Like her, we need to diversify into coal, hydro and nuclear energy so that we can survive."

For Rahul, Kalawati's story is primarily a metaphor for the need to diversify energy sources so as to achieve energy security. But the fact remains that Kalawati's struggle to survive by foraying into diverse economic activities has not yielded her any security. Her family has lived on a monthly budget of Rs 300 and survived on dal and roti. She has often gone without food so as to feed the rest of the family, and never had the money to buy vegetables. When the press met her the day after Rahul's speech, she had not eaten in two days. It is outside help that promised to change her life. In short, hers were acts of desperation and not a well thought out strategy of diversification.

The meaning that Rahul draws out of Kalawati's life might have been done in all earnestness. It may even have some message in defence of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Yet it misses the larger picture. It is a story about agrarian crisis, lack of food and social security and the miserable mate-rial condition of millions of Indians who subsist on a daily budget of Rs 20 or less.

If Rahul fails to recognise this larger picture of economic misery in Kalawati's story, it is not entirely his fault. It is partly because of the changed economic discourse in India. In the post-liberalisation phase, the health of the economy is being viewed primarily in terms of growth and the performance of the markets. While the prime minister and his colleagues repeatedly showcase 9 per cent growth as the proof of the government's success, television anchors bombard the viewers hour after hour with the performance of the Sensex. Questions on whether the growth is equitable or capable of generating employment — questions that are important for the poor — are being relegated to background.

Relying excessively on abstractions such as the growth rate or the performance of the markets has the effect of rendering the poor invisible. Kalawati's poignant story has shown how such abstractions are a meaningless mirage for most Indians and does not reflect their condition in any way. It is the thick description of what she and her family eat, how her children read without electricity, and the pathetic condition of her dwelling that discloses the misery which lies concealed behind abstract figures like growth rate.

What is more, such invisibility of the poor in the economic thinking is increasingly desensitising the urban rich to the misery of the other half. The claims of the poor for state intervention on their behalf is increasingly held up to ridicule. If in the past welfare of the poor was treated as a responsibility of the state, today it is derided as pointless subsidies. Even the mid-day meal schemes for schoolchildren and the subsidised PDS rice are no longer viewed as providing food security to the poor.

At a time when market fundamentalism has become the common sense of the political class, policy-makers and the urban rich, Kalawati invites us to take a re-look. When Kalawati was approached by the media, she pleaded that the government should help her. Is there any message for us from her act of seeking out the state to intervene? There indeed is. The market is faceless and heartless. It treats those without resources like Kalawati as dispensable. The message of the 1943 Bengal famine, which claimed more than 1.5 million lives, is precisely this. Most of those who died in the famine lacked exchange entitlements, i.e. resources that can be exchanged in the market.

Commitment to the poor is both an ethi-cal necessity and the responsibility of the state and civil society. Treating Kalawati's life either as exceptional or as a mere story of grit will not help us realise this.

The writer is a Chennai-based social scientist.

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