Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Has Ambekar "Beaten Gandhi Hollow"?

The dishonesties of newspaper columnists are usually petty and insignificant, but not so with Swaminathan Aiyar's assault on the Mahatma in the Times of India on 9 February; it is a very large attack on the truth.

Its first sentence claims that: "January 30, the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, drove home the growing irrelevance of the father of the nation."


Why, Trinamool cabinet ministers in Calcutta did not attend the official ceremonies on the occasion, and the Mayor of Mumbai forgot too. Also, a "newspaper poll some years ago," showed "two-thirds of all voters thought that Sonia Gandhi was related to Mahatma Gandhi."

This is very weak tea and Aiyar moves quickly to a new brew: he claims Bhimrao Ambedkar "has posthumously beaten the Mahatma hollow."

He does not explain how that contest was arranged. Perhaps the statement that Ambedkar is "the icon of all dalits" is a gesture in that direction. For some reason, Aiyar seems to disregard the millions of us non-dalits who also consider Babasaheb iconic; not to mention the hundreds of millions who consider both men heroes.
But all this is preliminary throat-clearing; Aiyar's main theme is Ambedkar's opposition to Gandhi's idea that India should be composed of self-ruling villages. He quotes Ambedkar's rejection of panchayat raj in the Bombay Legislative Council on the grounds that a “population which is hidebound by caste ... infected by ancient prejudices ... flouts equality of status and is dominated by notions of gradations in life" cannot "be expected to have the right notions even to discharge bare justice.”

That view "continues to ring true eight decades later," Aiyar declares. As evidence of village-level infamy he points to the "mass killing of Muslims in Muzaffarnagar; the regressive "khap panchayats" in Haryana and Punjab; the recent West Bengal khap panchayat that ordered gang rape of a woman with a Muslim lover; the 2012 arson in a Tamil Nadu village after a dalit boy eloped with a  Vanniyar girl; and, in the same state, the "several cases" of intimidation that kept dalits from occupying reserved panchayat seats.

That is still a very weak case against Panchayat Raj, and to shore it up Aiyar throws in a reference to World Bank "research" confirming that "the world over, central governments tend to be far more egalitarian and secular in outlook than villages." He adds: "What Ambedkar said of hidebound villages is a global truth."

As a student of the Bank's research output for over four decades, I find it a bit hard to believe that it produced that definitive hold-all finding. I could be wrong, but it sounds more like something out of an Oxfam brochure or, at a stretch, a Human Development Report from UNDP

If Aiyar had looked closer home he would have found that the actual Indian experience with Panchayati Raj has been overwhelmingly positive.

Things got off to a slow start because Ambedkar's fears were widely shared. Parliament took 40 years to enact constitutional provisions into law and enable a system of directly elected bodies with quotas for women and Scheduled Castes/Tribes; and in the early years funding was limited and progress slowed by a corrupt nexus of conservative bureaucrats and caste leaders threatened by democracy.

However, by the beginning of the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2012), there were some 250,000 elected village-level bodies, with 3.2 million elected members, over a third of them women.

By then, their functioning had finally won the confidence of the Planning Commission. It increased funding 471 percent to Rs.775 crores (approximately $168 million), noting that although achievements in the past had not been commensurate with expenditures, the Panchayat system had proved to be a laboratory “of multi-level pluralist democracy, facilitating the achievements of consensus on development issues at the lowest level of government."

Experience had shown that at “the local level, groups learn to co-exist, cooperate, negotiate and arrive at acceptable decisions and even marginalized groups can gain confidence and move on from token participation to higher forms of direct social action for the collective good."

The realization of the effectiveness of Panchayat Raj has not led to any rethinking of the main thrust of Indian economic development. It has continued in the 12th Five Year Plan (2013 -2018) towards industrialization, with tall talk of "corridors" for manufacturing across the length and breadth of the country.

This points to a basic disconnect at the highest levels of Indian policy-making, and it should make ordinary Indians extremely anxious, for it shows that our leaders still think of "development" purely in terms of GDP growth and not the welfare of the people. Consider the following facts:
  1. India is tooling itself to fit into a world economy that is in a state of terminal crisis. 
  2. It is making itself part of patterns of global production and exchange that are killing the life-sustaining systems of the planet.
  3. In the process, it is destroying the basis for Indian productivity, both by unbalancing the complex patterns of social and ecological interdependence in the countryside and by paving over rich farmland for luxury housing and shopping malls.
  4. The result is an ever more obscene gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else: the net worth of India's billionaires increased 12-fold in 15 years. As IMF chief Christine Lagarde noted recently, that money could have eliminated poverty in the country -- twice over.
  5. There is massive proof, made concrete in China, that rapid industrialization will cause a whole slew of new problems, including massive despoliation of air, land and water, and a huge new burden of environment-related illnesses, especially cancer.  
  6. The more we industrialize, the sharper we will feel international pressures through manipulated energy prices and rigged currency markets. 
Mahatma Gandhi's advice that India should seek to revive its villages as the means of advance was not some idealistic pipedream. He knew Indian ground realities better than any other politician of his generation or since; what he proposed would have brought growth where it mattered most, to the poor. 

As things stand, if India is to survive with its traditions intact, we have no alternative but village-based development. 

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