Everyone Loves a Good Drought

A writer friend of mine recommended me this book when I approached him for something. I quickly read the reviews online and immediately ordered the book. I finished it in just few days burning the midnight oil couple of times. It’s written by a Mumbai-based journalist, P. Sainath. What is that ‘good’ drought? I have the same question too. Even before the book came, I was dumbstruck reading the reviews. This is the first time he has ever recommended me a book. How could he be so precise in judging what could be a good read for me! He could never have recommended me a better book. Why is it so special? The book is all about places that are close to my heart. He has identified the poorest eight districts in India and talked about the problems faced by them. Ramanathapuram (Ramnad) district in Tamil Nadu is one of them. My native place is in Thoothukudi district. Ramnad is our neighboring district. What is more interesting is that our forefathers are supposed to have migrated out of Ramnad district during droughts many generations ago. This books talks exactly about that. So this book talks exactly about what the elders in our families have been telling us as stories from time immemorial. And, this is in a totally different style. Therefore the experience of reading this book is a totally different one too.

The author is a product of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi (so those of you who want to stop reading this can stop it right here!). He visited each of these eight districts on a Times of India scholarship, spent about two years being with the people of these districts and did this research. It’s not an easy task. Most of the researches these days don’t go beyond Google. They are just compiled from multiple websites and tailored to suit their own propaganda. The author himself talks about how some of the researches about tribal people are done by western media especially. People just go to easily accessible villages that are close to highways or at the bottom of the hills, meet a few adivasis and conclude their research. Though he is an English journalist himself and believes that the English media is better than language media in many aspects, he doesn’t hesitate to admit that English media is far away from the ground reality and hence provide a lot of inaccurate news about them while language media are closer to the people and ground reality.

He wrote these as articles in Times of India first. Some articles shook or broke the chairs of power centers in unexpected ways for a journalist. He has even talked about how some leaders whom we have always seen as villains acted with responsibility at times of need. He has also talked about how they have failed to be responsible leaders by politicizing issues with their own ulterior motives. We also get to know how the real heroes who always fight for people never go close to power as well as how some of them get fully addicted to power after tasting it once.

Later when he compiled all these articles and published it as a book, it was critically acclaimed and showered with numerous awards. It is 20 years since it happened. The research coincides with the initial few years of Liberalization after the economy hit the rock bottom in the early 90s. So we don’t know how the situation has changed in last 20 years. It might have worsened or Liberalization might have turned around things for better as we would want to believe. Life has changed a lot for better for you and me. Has it changed for everyone likewise? We don’t know. There are those who keep saying that you and I think it’s only us who are India. A revisit to these articles and all the places in these articles will be a good test to validate if they are right or wrong. If the people in these eight districts have got rid of poverty, hunger and drought like you and I have, it’s nothing but the success of Liberalization. If at all it has worsened for them, it just means that we ate their food as well in these 20 years and we should just move on with that guilt. It isn’t new for us anyway!

Which are those poorest eight districts in India? There is a lot to talk about the list itself. We have always been given this acronym ‘BIMARU’ whenever we wanted to talk about the most backward states. It’s Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The list in the book starts right with two districts from Bihar and two from Madhya Pradesh and goes on to include two from Orissa and ends with two from Tamil Nadu. One of the districts in Orissa is in the border of Andhra Pradesh so the neighboring district from Andhra Pradesh finds a part-time role in the research. Entry of two districts from Tamil Nadu is certainly a surprise for some of us, because we have always been painted a picture that Tamil Nadu is one of the most progressive states in the country. Is it a lie then? Are Rajasthan and UP developed now as opposed to the popular belief? Not necessarily! If you just pay attention you will realize that these two lists are totally different. While ‘BIMARU’ is about the states this book is about districts. While Tamil Nadu may still be a progressive state with few under-developed districts, UP and Rajasthan may be ‘evenly’ under-developed. It is also to be noted that no district from any of the other south Indian states has found a place in the book. If Tamil Nadu is truly progressive as they claim, it’s a shame that there are two districts in the state which are listed in the eight poorest districts in the country. They better buckle up and do something about it at the earliest. While compiling these articles written in the early 90s as a book in mid 90s itself the author has asserted that the same eight districts might not have remained the poorest districts till then and things might have changed within those few years. If so much could have changed within few years, how much could have changed in these 20 years! Some of them might not have changed as well. It’s just that we don’t know which of them have changed and which of them have not.

Well, which are those two districts from Tamil Nadu in the list?

It’s Ramnad and the neighboring Pudukottai districts. The irony is that Pudukottai’s neighbor Tanjore district is one of the richest in the state. There are some common features across all these eight districts. Drought and water have a close linkage. Are these eight districts the ones with the lowest rainfall or poorest water sources? The answer surprisingly is a big no. These two districts from Tamil Nadu are definitely the ones with lowest rainfall in the country. The nature itself is against these two districts. Despite that the water management practices in these two districts have been exemplary for centuries here. Not many districts in the country have such big tanks and water bodies to store the little water they get. The big tank in Ramnad town is said to be at least 1000 years old. But it’s not the same case with the other six districts. Despite good rainfall and water sources people suffer there due to poor water management practices and various other problems. It’s not the nature that fails those people, it’s the human greed, exploitation, irresponsible governance, ignorance and many other issues that do the job. It’s not just that. During the droughts, people in these two districts don’t suffer as much as their counterparts in other six districts do. The loss of lives is far less, too. The author credits this to the literacy, awareness and better standards of governance here. This in a way confirms what we have been hearing. The author explicitly says this – the south Indian states are ahead by at least 100 years on many parameters. This is exactly what many socio-economic intellectuals too say. The south Indian states are comparable with some of the eastern European countries when it comes to some growth indices. It becomes a problem only when we use these for our political – hate propaganda. Does it mean that all those who ruled here are cleaner than their north Indian counterparts or they couldn’t have given a better governance? Certainly not. It’s definitely not a certificate for the rulers of these states. Had we had better leaders, maybe we would have been more progressive, comparable with western European or European countries in general.

He is not just listing the problems like most journalists do. He is also explaining how some problems were handled effectively in these districts and suggesting other potential solutions to the problems towards the end of the book. One of the most interesting case studies is the ‘Arivoli Iyakkam’ (Light of Knowledge Movement) in Tamil Nadu, which had a phenomenal impact to the lives of rural people. Just like there is a strong correlation between drought and water there is also one between drought and education. The author has expressed that there should be similar movements across the nation. We don’t know if it was done. If it was we should know what has been the result and if not we should know why it was not taken elsewhere or did not click in other places. Some data points given at the end of the book suggest that these two districts were incomparably ahead of the other six districts when it came to literacy even before ‘Arivoli Iyakkam’. After ‘Arivoli Iyakkam’, Pudukottai becomes the first district to achieve 100% literacy outside of Kerala. Now what’s more interesting is, what made it one of the poorest districts in the country then?

I used to hear this name ‘Sheela Rani Chunkath’ almost on daily basis in news for few years during my school days. That name comes often in this book as well. I also understood why that name was so popular those days. It was only when she was the collector of Pudukottai district, she did a lot of revolutionary things in the district. The ‘cycling campaign’ that she ran for women in collaboration with ‘Arivoli Iyakkam’ worked wonders in the district. It’s a simple theme. All the women in the district were encouraged to learn cycling. Cycling here meant much more than just cycling. It was seen as a symbol of women liberation. It gave them confidence and it meant removal of dependency on men. In more than one ways!

The granite quarries that were run by private mafia were snatched away from them and handed over to the scheduled caste women in the district during her period. It was a huge success. The quarries managed by these women had their husbands working for them for daily wages. It changed the whole man-woman equation in families. A large share of their earnings went for illegal arrack (liquor) before. Once these women took over and started handling the finances, more money was available for the family. Their kids had better food and education. Then they fight against illegal arrack as well and win it. ‘Arivoli Iyakkam’ and ‘cycling’ campaign didn’t just give them literacy, independence, more money and management skills. It generated more profit for the government itself through the quarries run by them.  The book also talks about how the local politicians, bureaucrats and private contractors worked over time to spoil this success. Even this has to be taken across the country as part of the case study – just in order to ensure that the same problems don’t arise there as well. He also talks about how challenging it becomes when illiterate women come to handle bigger roles in politics and governance just as puppets of their men. Needless to say - managing granite quarries and playing larger roles in politics are not obviously the same thing.

Even the next collector who came to Pudukottai district after Chunkath was good, which ensured continuity. That made them worry about the next one as well. If the next collector was not as good as these two, everything that was done by these two would crumble down in no time. That is where the limitations of individual heroics is realized. They can’t be sustained. The book talks about many such heroes in each of these eight districts. Even when nothing goes right it’s these heroes who make things look bright with a thin ray of hope. The book talks about the problems and threats they face and how an undue attention towards such people diverts the attention supposed to be received by the cause itself. It talks about how journalists played a responsible role in the 80s as well as how some of them wasted all their energy in promoting hero worship of these people.

While some of us criticized the mid-day meal in Tamil Nadu as a populist agenda, those in north Indian states thought that something like this would have brought more children to school in their states as well.

Except for the two districts from Tamil Nadu all other six districts are hilly regions. They are all tribal districts. It’s not that easy to drive development agenda in tribal regions. Unlike the people from mainstream they have a completely different culture, lifestyle and value system. What we call development may not necessarily be development for them as well. An interesting story illustrates this in simple terms. This particular tribal group is very violent and there is a lot of homicide within them. But they never touch anyone from the mainstream population, they never lie or steal. When they are jailed for some petty crime, they learn to lie from mainstream people and when they come back to their community it disturbs their balance. This is the point at which that inevitable question arises. “Do they really need this development?”, asks a person there.

The biggest injustice meted out to the tribal people is driving them out of their own land. They were chased out of their lands for the sake of building dams, factories, army training camps and so on. We go crazy if we have to give up our bedroom for just one night. But we easily say that they have to bear all this in the interests of the nation. In one of the army bases there, every time they come and say that there is training, people in all the surrounding villages have to immediately vacate their houses and can only come back when the training is over. They are paid a meagre Rs. 1.50 per head per day. Where do they go? Where do they stay? What do they eat? What do they do during those days? Nobody cares. “Can this be done in a posh Mumbai neighborhood?”, asks someone there. The very argument sounds ridiculous to us. Because it has gone into our minds so strongly that a place like Mumbai where people like us live and a place like theirs where only adivasis live are different. The only difference is that we can shake their base with our collective power of votes if they play around with us like this but those people can’t do that. It’s all the more difficult because most of them don’t even have votes. These are the dark pages of democracy. I know now some of you would say, “That’s why we are saying we need dictatorship”! What do I say? All the best! Anything is possible in democracy!!

Another story from another village is even more painful. The people who are vacated from a village, move on to a different place, build another village and name it the same. Then they are asked to move out of that place as well and they oblige. They build another village yet again. Now they are asked to get out of the third place as well. I know you would say they have to bear all this keeping the larger interests of the nation in mind. Agreed. But is it not the duty of the nation to provide them with alternate arrangements when they are shunted like this between places time and again? But the nation doesn’t do it. There is a lobby that works over time inside as well as outside of the government machinery to swallow the amounts allotted for such purposes. They also lose a lot of their kith and kin when they are shuttled around like this. That makes them all the more vulnerable.

When it comes to migrations, it is not just the migration that is the problem. These people who are forced to migrate out of their lands would have built their lives around the same plants and trees that they have been living with for thousands of years. When they move on to a new place, they don’t find the same plants and trees there. If you remove them from their lives they become nothing. We can’t even live without Wi-Fi for half an hour and manage without our regular food for more than week but we have an answer for this as well. We call it the ‘survival of the fittest’. Just imagine this – let’s say the governments and all the systems that we have put in place to safeguard us don’t function for just four days. The whole meaning of ‘fittest’ will change completely. We would end up being a prey to the new ‘fittest’ in no time. Don’t we all know this? We do. We are just confident that it won’t happen. Isn’t it that confidence that is causing all these problems?

You can trouble them this way as well. Tell them, “You don’t have to leave your place. But everything that you thought belonged to you all this while is no more yours. You can’t even touch them. The trees, plants and everything else will belong to the government.”  This is nothing less than asking them to leave their places. If you just snatch all their basic means of sustenance from anyone isn’t it as good as killing them? We don’t even have the conscience to realize that we have no rights to tell them that the land that they owned and maintained and their produces don’t belong to them anymore. It’s partly the nature and the rest is their maintenance. There is a story about how a group that had built their entire lives and livelihood around bamboo tree and all its produces is asked not to touch them anymore. There is another story about how the tribal people struggle to save their forest from the looting of forest department, which was brought to save the forests from the tribal people. What an irony!

When I read this, I was wondering if having more plains and negligible tribal population were an advantage for states like Tamil Nadu when it comes to development.

In all these districts the people impacted are all invariably the adivasis or the harijans. That makes it all the more difficult for them to get any justice. We can easily put it back on them saying, “They have to find their own ways to fight for their rights”. It’s easier said than done. It’s a vicious cycle. At a time when eating three times food itself is becoming a near miracle, how can they come out of that and fight for their other rights and development? It looks like a long way to go.

Moneylenders and usury play a huge role in keeping these eight districts as they are. They first lend money in a way they can’t return it and then in return snatch the land from those who have it, else they make them their bonded laborers for life if they don’t have lands, else in some cases it ends up in more cruel crimes like prostitution. The only solution for this, according to the author, is the land reforms, which were attempted and successful in only four Indian states. Boss! Are you kidding? But, note this – there is not even a single district from any of these four states in this book.

The interesting story of how the definition of poverty line was done is shared in this book. It was a very simple and straight forward formula. Those who eat more than a certain number of calories a day are supposed to be above the poverty line and those who can’t are below that. They didn’t take into account any other factors like education, healthcare, etc. He also explains the reason why it was done that way. Those who were part of the committee that was formed to do this job had only sincere and honest people. They are not those people who shirk their responsibilities. They sincerely believed that the governments will provide education, healthcare and other basic facilities to their people and hence defined it based on food intake alone. That’s why there is a need to redefine it now. He also says, if they had known that the governments would fail to do their job even after 40 years like this, they would have spent more time and defined it right at the first time itself. Sounds reasonable, right! The government was lying here that the people below poverty line became half or less on one side and went to places like UN and World Bank and quoted different figures (almost double) to get their funds. We have had such shameless governments.

If you ‘really’ like this nation (please note the ‘really’… not those who have been fooling themselves and others alike with their empty jingoistic slogans), there is a lot to learn about the nation that you love so much. It’s a treasure. You will understand how your own people are being exploited by the smarter lot among your own people. As an individual there were only few things that I could relate to. This article is a compilation of just that. If you read it, you may relate to more things.

When I read some reviews about the book I found that people were like, “Oh my God, this is an eye-opener for me, I can’t believe that there are people who can’t even have three times food, I was broke, I am still not able to come out of it, etc.” Maybe because they are fortunate enough to lead a better – luxurious life. Some of them may find it even hard to believe these stories. If some people are saying that they won’t believe these stories then that in itself is an ugly evidence of the gap that exists. I had a different experience reading the book. I have personally seen the kind of people talked about in this book in the early part of my life. It’s just that I was fortunate to have a better life than them. But that doesn’t mean that I would forget everything that I saw.

I have had friends who said, “We had lunch today so no food till tomorrow”, when asked about dinner. So I can’t just get over these stories so easily. I have seen guys who distilled illegal arrack; I have seen middlemen who quoted Rs. 2 or 3 to purchase a produce that is sold for Rs. 10 in retail shops in nearby town; I have wondered why those farmers spoke so rudely to those middlemen during those bargains; I have seen doctors who were in government job but ran a private clinic; I have seen moneylenders who used to give usury; I have seen people who were beaten up by hit men even after paying much more than what they borrowed from these moneylenders; I have seen people who lost their home and properties in usury; I have seen people who exaggerated their problems to get the justice they deserved or just the attention of the ruling class towards them; I have seen people who walked for miles together to get water in famine; one of those people from Ramnad district mentioned in the book (either the exploiter or the exploited) may even be my blood relative; I have seen some great people who aimlessly worked and died for other people as if they had nothing else to do with their life though they could have had a far better life if they had chosen to live for themselves. So this book is about me and people around me. You may find yourself or your own people in it. So please read and tell me.


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