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India, myth and reality

India, in one of its varied avatars, imagines itself as the land of Mahatma Gandhi, of non-violence, of peace. This is an integral component of rhetoric, virtually across the political spectrum. Yet, political and administrative action everywhere appears often to provoke greater strife, conflict and polarisation. Talking about 'taking the people along' and 'consensual politics' is a near-sacrosanct political cliché; the reality, however, suggests that the only people who are, in fact, 'taken along' are a narrow and exclusive elite of power brokers, on the one hand, and the constituency of violence, on the other. As for the larger mass of the people, particularly the poor and disadvantaged, they are held in manifest contempt, and are more often 'led on' - deceived and exploited - or 'taken on' - confronted with force - wherever the interests of the elite, which holds the entire system captive, are at stake.

The absence of an integrating vision of peace and development, the inability to think coherently, strategically, and to derive action from valid principles, the proclivity to approach every issue in isolation, through ad hoc measures of 'relief', or on the basis of a range of long-held dogmas, lies at the root of the widening arc of political strife in India. Even where policies are sourced in apparently positive, sometimes impeccable motives, the actual consequences are often disastrous. This was particularly and dramatically in evidence in the recent controversies and violence in Singur and Nandigram, where land was to be acquired for projects that the leadership believed important for the development of the State and the greater consequent prosperity of its people.

In the absence of a coherent vision, however, the manner of execution provoked violence and eventually jeopardised the very possibilities of the development that was sought. It is not presently clear why violence occurred in these locations or whether it was at all justified. The point, however, is that the manner of execution of these projects, the way in which the sentiments and interests of large masses of people were felt to have been ignored, could secure neither peace nor development.

Similarly, in the name of 'peace and development' the leadership at the very highest levels is willing to enter into negotiations with mass murderers and there are few who dare to question such initiatives. To speak against India's many 'peace processes' appears to be wrong-headed, tantamount to war mongering. Thus, when the leadership speaks in favour of talks with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the justification is that this will restore peace to Assam and lay the foundations for progress and development.

Yet, in subverting the entire notion of the rule of law, in ignoring the long years of criminality, the inhuman and directionless violence in which ULFA has engaged, and in seeking to bring terrorists into the 'democratic mainstream' from a position of privilege, the very notion and role of violence in this 'mainstream' becomes more entrenched. Worse, the ensuing 'peace' does not, in any measure, guarantee the much-sought-after development or prosperity. Mizoram was brought to peace after a deal with the insurgents 20 years ago, but there is little evidence of development in the State.

The point, essentially, is that you cannot envision development unless you can envision the peace, stability and interdependence of the larger system. Such a vision appears to be entirely lacking today. Instead, we have a political culture of directionless dissent, of permanent opposition. Everything is opposed, protested, demonstrated against, but no viable alternatives are ever suggested. In this, the political classes are increasingly supported by a class of professional protestors and are often unknowingly infiltrated by subversive elements that have a wider disruptive agenda - including a range of overground front organisations of Left wing extremists. Clearly, such a strategy of continuous disruption cannot take the country forward.

No party, today, has a coherent plan for India as a whole, one that comprehends and embraces its poor. What we have, instead, is a continuous recycling of old formulae or new dogmas. In areas of conflict, there is a constant harping on 'land reforms' as if a redistribution of land could magically resolve the problems of poverty, backwardness and deprivation in rural India. But the truth is, the pitiful acre or two, which would fall to the lot of most farmers if greater equity was sought in ownership, cannot support the families of the rural poor. The talk of rural land reforms as a solution to rural poverty is nonsense. There is simply not enough land to create productive employment for a rural population rapidly approaching 800 million. Yet these old hangovers of an anachronistic thinking persist.

On the other hand, the transformation of marginal land holdings into productive assets and capacities for larger populations, though it remains a tremendous challenge, also constitutes a tremendous opportunity. In a far from representative case in Punjab, a man working for wages as a harvester driver sold the 1.5 acres of agricultural land that he owned near Ludhiana for over 65 lakh rupees. Husbanding the land yielded little revenue, but the money received from the sale was quickly invested into an excavator, which he now owns and drives, giving him an assured income in the suburbia of a boom town. Part of the money was also invested in improvements in his house and his family now enjoys a much better standard of living.

Regrettably, such possibilities are systematically undermined and destroyed by, on the one hand, current policies of land acquisition and allocation by the government, and, on the other, by unscrupulous practices of land sharks and developers, both of which skim off the bulk of the value of this precious resource, leaving the original owners with no more than a fraction of its real worth. If this real worth could be transferred to, and translated into productive capacities for, those who are being dispossessed of their lands, this would not only meet the imperatives of equity, it would simultaneously address the issue of a more inclusive development and also help escape the pervasive personal tragedies of 'developmental displacement' of millions of India's poor.

India has no dearth of resources. It is the absence of a strategy to harmonise these many resources within an immensely complex system that is producing the tensions and conflicts of our age. And these will not only persist, but will escalate, unless they are reconciled within a broader vision of integrated development and peace.

(Published in The Pioneer, January 20, 2007)





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