In defence of livelihood

Print edition : May 01, 2002

Landscapes and Lives: Environmental Dispatches on Rural India by Mukul Sharma; New Delhi: Oxford University Press; pages xi+234, Rs.475.

HUMAN beings are a species of land mammals. They, like other mammals, need plenty of clean water, clean air and other resources in order to live healthy lives, and the excess or shortage of any of them can literally be a matter of life and death. Mukul Sharma, a journalist well known for his fearless and graphic reporting of the insecurity of the lives of vast sections of people in rural India, has collected some of those reports to confront us with the grim reality that rarely makes front-page news in the major newspapers except when the graphics are emphasised further by mass murders or watery or land-collapse deaths of scores of people at a time.

The misery of the people is not caused only or even predominantly by malign nature. Landlords of ancient or recent vintage, land-grabbers, criminals and musclemen at their command, the police and the administration, and unregulated competition for scarce resources such as groundwater, fish or timber are all elements that can cause the destitution of the people or aggravate an already desperate situation. Poor farmers, fisherfolk, subsistence users of forest resources, or workers mainly dependent on the sale of their labour power for survival can suffer inhuman conditions of existence in 'affluent' Haryana as well as in 'backward' Bihar or Madhya Pradesh.

People struggle to make a living out of agriculture and by harvesting forest resources, by exploiting the shoals of fish in the rivers and the seas and by processing the resources of nature in factories or workshops. But the actual toilers - in the factories, the fields, forests, rivers, diaras, the coastal waters or the open seas - do not work under conditions that they ordained. Most of those conditions have come about by the designs of those who profit from their labour, and their coerced engagement in destructive competition with their fellow toilers.

The designs of the powers that be in disregard of the welfare of the people directly affected by changes in their means of livelihood have been illustrated by large dams that displaced thousands of people all over the central parts of India. A disproportionately large fraction of those dispossessed by the construction of dams, the demarcation of forest lands or the reclamation of diaras are Adivasis and Dalits. The former, the original users of many of the forest resources, were pushed back further into those often inhospitable habitats with laterite soil and unreliable rainfall by the relentless advance of predatory commercialisation. Dalits were denied land rights in most parts of India; and even when they were actual tillers of the land, they were denied ownership or occupancy rights on the grounds that they could not show written land titles. The British had dispossessed millions of people of their traditional livelihood on such grounds, and their post-colonial followers have continued that practice to the detriment of the welfare and basic human rights of the actual producers.

MUKUL SHARMA extensively documents the sordid tales of such deprivation in the Kaimur hill region of Uttar Pradesh as well as in the forests abutting on the central region of Rajasthan, Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh, Jhabua district in southern Bihar (now in Jharkhand), or Darbhanga district of northern Bihar.

Adivasis, Dalits or peasants of other communities must not, however, be seen only as hapless victims. They have repeatedly organised themselves to fight the iniquities and exploitation of landlords, moneylenders, contractors and criminal gangs in their employ, the police, forest guards and other strongmen acting as representatives of a class-and-caste-biased state apparatus. The fisherfolk of Bihar have formed the Ganga Mukti Andolan to free the ferry ghats and the waters of the Ganga and other major rivers of the incubus of British colonial practices, which have survived down to 1991 and which gave exclusive fishing rights and the right of control of the ghats to some Jalkar zamindars and contractors. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) is now part of the legend of the heroism of people's resistance against displacement and arbitrary exercise of power. In Rajasthan, the Jungle Jamin Jan Andolan has fought for the recognition of the rights of the original dwellers of the forests to the use of forest land and forest produce, under the supervision of the real representatives of Adivasis. In the district of Bhagalpur in Bihar, the Bhumi Mukti Andolan, launched by the Left parties, has agitated for the identification and distribution of 20,000 hectares of ceiling-surplus land - illegally occupied by landlords - among poor and marginal farmers, many of whom often lose their insecure plots in the frequent changes of the courses of the rivers. Mukul Sharma gives a moving account of many of these struggles spread across the incredibly variegated landscapes, riverscapes and coastal belts of the multiply endowed and multiply scarred country that is India.

GRASSROOTS movements of people are not merely reactive and kindled only at points of resistance against oppression by other humans. They can also build new institutions, construct new structures, and find new ways of living to escape poverty and find some of the freedom that is every woman's birthright. While big dams almost invariably lead to displacement, Indians have used small dams or bunds all over the country to store rainwater or the run-off from hill slopes, and used them for irrigation, afforestation and soil conservation. On October 28, 1988, a small dam and ponds for holding rainwater were constructed in the village of Sato in Bihar's Gumla district which lies about 123 kilometres north-west of Ranchi. The assured supply of water and security against soil erosion and landslips has made the Urao community of Sato now regard October 28 as their real independence day.

In Madhya Pradesh, the inhabitants of Gainda and neighbouring villages, in the district of Jhabua, have used halma, a traditional institution for collective labour, to construct numerous civil works that cater to the needs of villagers, with financial support from the government under the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) scheme. In Ralegan Siddhi, Maharashtra, villagers under the charismatic leadership of Anna Hazare have transformed their habitat into a green, prosperous oasis in the middle of a dry region. Not only have they regenerated the forest or grass cover by means of a ban on the felling of trees followed by extensive replanting; with higher productivity, they have adopted a series of innovations which have in turn raised their earning power and improved their quality of life. "They have grafted the drip irrigation system, solar panels and gobar gas plants" (p. 128).

In the wetlands of Kolkata, the Mudially Fishermen's Co-operative Society has taken the initiative to use a cheap and ecofriendly method of filtration of sewage water in wetlands and cultivate fish there for supply to the markets in the city. Up in the Himalayas, in northern Uttar Pradesh, which is now part of Uttaranchal, and where women under the leadership of Sundarlal Bahuguna started the Chipko Movement, villagers have to continue the struggle against deforestation, unscrupulous contractors and an indifferent or corrupt administration. The women of Bacher, a village in Chamoli district have formed a Mahila Mandal to ban the felling of trees in both government and private forests by government agents, private contractors or other villagers. For re-planting they obtain saplings from Dashauli Gram Swarajya Mandal, an offshoot of the Chipko Movement. They also pressured the State Electricity Board to provide electricity to the village. The board had taken no steps in that regard even after the villagers deposited earnest money, and it was the women's agitation that finally galvanised the board into action.

As a journalist, Sharma has naturally chosen the more colourful stories of success achieved by ordinary people either with their own initiative or under the leadership of charismatic leaders. But we should remember that a continuous improvement in the living conditions of ordinary people should be built into the routine processes of a society and economy. Although India is a formal democracy, neither within the state apparatus nor within its social structure do the ordinary people exercise that autonomy of choice that is legally and morally their right. Hence it is very important that we should hear from Sharma and other dedicated observers like him the stories of the struggles of the ordinary people and their occasional victories in an unjust society. But we should remind ourselves that through thoroughgoing land reforms, universalisation of education and participatory democracy, the pockets of victory can become the quotidian reality all over the land and lose their heroic but episodic quality. There is at least one State in India - namely Kerala - where such a state of affairs has come near realisation through decades of social movements and committed Left politics; there are at least two other States, West Bengal and Tripura, where the government is aspiring towards those goals. The struggle for realising those goals is an uphill one and is pitted with contradictions. But we should never lose sight of the fact that local victories or charismatic leaders are not a substitute for the real capture of state power by the people and the empowerment of the most disadvantaged sections of this society - women and children, Dalits, Adivasis (especially in States in which they are a minority), and the minority communities (especially in States ruled by Hindu chauvinist parties or their allies).

UNFORTUNATELY for us, the state apparatus in its role as the arbiter of social conflict will long be needed since in many situations it is impossible to avoid hurting some sections when benefits are given to some other sections, or having to make a choice between present gains and future losses or between more employment versus more income. The necessity of these unpleasant choices is particularly glaring in the stories of struggles over the use of the coastal waters or backwaters that are in some ways the most fascinating in the kaleidoscope of human drama presented by Sharma's fascinating book. All over the coastal regions of India, hundreds of thousands of fisherfolk have made a living by harvesting the sea with the help of country boats with or without sails, and with nets that were mostly woven by themselves. Then came mechanised boats, followed by trawlers capable of fishing on the high seas. Along with them came more deadly snares for the fish in the shape of ring-seines and purse-seines. These implements and technologies were naturally beyond the means of the poor fishermen, and were controlled by large companies with deep pockets, many of them multinational. These developments were encouraged by the Indian government which gave them various incentive packages in the name of export promotion. The trawlers often violated the prohibition against their fishing within, say, a six-mile limit from the coast or during the monsoon months. The prohibitions were imposed after protests were made by various fishermen's organisations, supported by the main trade union organisations such as the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), and the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), and on the recommendation of inquiry committees set up by the Central or the State governments involved. The legal and illegal operations of the trawlers, equipped with ring-seines and purse-seines, led to the fishermen using country boats and losing much of their earlier catch. Moreover, these operations resulted in the depletion of the stock of fish in the seas. With spawning seriously affected, with too many young fish caught only to be thrown away dead, and with too many fish that were not considered commercially profitable ensnared only to be spoiled dead, fish became a casualty. Even if the operations of the trawlers could be regulated, the problem of overfishing would remain. Many traditional fisherfolk now ply motorised boats, use ring-seines and want to cash in on the large international and national market for prawn and other varieties of fish that tickle the tastebuds of the rich. Prohibiting the entry of all fishers other than the descendants of fisherfolk has been suggested as a measure; but this could be socially regressive since it reinforces caste divisions; moreover, it would be difficult to enforce.

Coastal waters are even more difficult to demarcate than land borders between different national jurisdictions. Moreover, traditional fisherfolk with little scientific equipment at their command do not always know when they have strayed into, or been blown into the territorial waters of another country. Even if they had been so equipped, they could not avoid the consequences of the endemic tension between India and Pakistan, and the armed warfare carried on by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Jaffna peninsula. The fisherfolk have been victims of these conflicts: they have lost their boats and equipment to bandits and coast guards, have been killed in encounters, and hundreds of them and their children, who accompanied them as helpers and apprentices on their hazardous voyages, have spent long years in prison, often with very little hope of redress or release.

A song of the fishermen of Diu is reproduced by Mukul Sharma:

Humari jaat machimaar Humari naat machimaar Hum sab machimaar ek (Our caste is fishing, our occupation is fishing, we fishermen are all one.)

Shall we live to witness a day when all fisherfolk, all peasants, all workers and all the women of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka would be able to chant similar songs for themselves and believe in them too?

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