Nirad C. Chaudhary wrote in The Continent of Circe that India’s tribals were mainly found in hill forests. This was because, he reasoned, they had been chased there by the invading Aryans, who displaced them from their river plains. In an essay published in this magazine (Capitalism: A Ghost Story, March 26), Arundhati Roy expressed anguish over the tribal having no peace even in the hill forests he inhabits. From her piece, let’s isolate two broad points: first, that capitalism is generally bad, but particularly rapacious in India; second, that this has manifested itself in the exploitation of tribals and their sacred lands. She also alleges that India’s economic growth is underpinned by this pillage of minerals. She doesn’t spare anyone (including herself) who lives out life while the companies roar along and tribals suffer. She attacks the media, feminists, NGOs, philanthropists and their foundations. All are guilty—save the tribals, the exploited.
Let us look at her argument. First, that corporations make vast sums from the minerals they have stolen from tribal lands. In Roy’s words: “The era of the Privatisation of Everything has made the Indian economy one of the fastest growing in the world. However, like any good old-fashioned colony, one of its main exports is its minerals. India’s new mega-corporations—the Tatas and Jindals, Essar, Reliance and Sterlite—are those who have managed to muscle their way to the head of the spigot spewing money extracted from deep inside the earth. It’s a dream come true for businessmen—to be able to sell what they don’t have to buy.” Now look at the facts. Neither ore nor minerals are India’s main exports. They comprise only 3.4 per cent of all exports, according to Crisil’s February 2010 report, India’s Export Sector: Resilience Amid Global Crisis. Ore and minerals haven’t made India’s big companies wealthy, for they contribute less than one per cent to India’s GDP. The export of minerals did not commence with privatisation. They began in 2004. Till then, only old firms like Tisco and sail managed captive mines.
That the Jindals, Ambanis, Birlas, Mittals and the Essar group were not involved in mining was because cheap ore was available from surplus government production. All this changed in 2004, with Chinese demand growing. In 2006-07, minerals export was worth $7.3 billion, according to Occasional Paper No. 122 of the Exim Bank of India. Of this, 55 per cent was iron ore. This year, the export of iron ore was actually down by a quarter, and today’s level is the same as that of five years ago. There are two reasons: a fall in prices, and the ban on mining in Karnataka and elsewhere. The protests against environmental damage, by Roy and so many others like her, have been effective.
She writes that Indian states “signed hundreds of MoUs with a number of private corporations turning over trillions of dollars of bauxite, iron ore and other minerals for a pittance, defying even the warped logic of the free market. (Royalties to the government ranged between 0.5 per cent and 7 per cent.)” It is incorrect to say these royalty figures are a pittance. They are absolutely in line with what the rest of the world pays (Mining royalties: A global study of their impact on investors, government and civil society, The World Bank, 2006). The figure “trillions of dollars” is far from accurate.
Roy’s critique of capitalism includes scepticism about corporate philanthropy. It includes this comment: “What better way for usurers to use a minuscule percentage of their profits to run the world? How else would Bill Gates, who admittedly knows a thing or two about computers, find himself designing education, health and agriculture policies, not just for the US government, but for governments all over the world?” This is a puzzling thing to say about a man who has just spent $355 million to free Indian children from polio. Gates has given away $28 billion (Rs 1.4 lakh-crore), more than half his wealth. And he gives generously to fight diseases like malaria, which don’t affect his fellow Americans.
Similarly, Roy has a problem with the Tata group: “We all watch Tata Sky, we surf the net with Tata Photon, we ride in Tata taxis, we stay in Tata Hotels, we sip our Tata tea in Tata bone china and stir it with teaspoons made of Tata Steel. We buy Tata books in Tata bookshops. Hum Tata ka namak khate hain. We’re under siege.” But many might not know that 65.8 per cent of Tata Sons’s stock is held by charities (Ratan Tata owns less than one per cent). Under J.R.D. Tata, 81 per cent of Tata Sons profits went to charity.
This is the wrong way of looking at it. Who are the Maoist warriors? Tribals. Who are the Salwa Judam thugs? Tribals. Unless we accept that the whole lot of them are government-sanctioned mercenaries, this is an internal tribal conflict. It has become externalised by Maoist violence against non-tribals. An assertion demonstrated easily. The Maoist central committee members are: V. Subramaniam, A. Hargopal, P.S. Mukherjee, M.R. Reddy, V.K. Arya, N.K. Rao, Kobad Gandhy, S. Singh, N. Sanyal, P. Mishra, A. Bagchi, P. Bose, K. Sudarshan, A. Yadav, Ramakrishna, B.P. Singh, M. Venugopal, Misir Besra and M.L. Rao ‘Ganapathy’. This is a list of caste Hindus and one Parsi. Of these 19, only one—Besra—is a tribal. Why is the tribal unrepresented in the body that does battle for him? Because the tribal is uninterested in the ideology of extremist Marxism. He is fighting for something else. The Maoist leadership is essentially urban, upper-caste people playing out the class warfare theory on tribal fodder. Maoist tribals are told by these non-tribal ideologues that their problem lies in the nature of the Indian state. This logic is innocent of any real understanding of India. Our problem is not the state, but culture. We cannot solve this by replacing the state. The corrupt, caste-minded, feudal, oppressive Indian will remain to man it, whatever form the new state may take. It is wrong for Maoist ideologues to see this as oppression of one community by another. The tribal is as rapacious as the Hindu when he has power. Shibu Soren and Madhu Koda are tribals.
To see excessive mining as causing Maoist violence is false because, as we have seen, that is recent. The problem lies elsewhere. So what is the internal tribal conflict? It is about whether tribalism should continue or whether tribals should open themselves to modernity. Let’s look at the data. Scheduled tribes are India’s least educated people. Surveys have found that literacy rates among tribal women are as low as three per cent in Bastar and 2.66 per cent in Midnapore (Health Status of Tribal Women in India, S.K. Basu). This is accompanied by all the problems we associate in India with illiteracy: early marriage, high infant mortality, early death. Infant mortality in tribal groups can reach 190 per 1,000 births, four times higher than India’s average.
A study on tribals in Madhya Pradesh found that they died 17.5 years earlier than other people of that state (Fertility and Mortality in Tribal Populations of Bastar District, Basu and Kshatriya). Such figures about another community would cause a riot, but tribals are exoticised by their sympathisers. It is romantic to see the tribals’ struggle as being against capitalist exploitation. But it is false.
When all’s said and done, the solution to such problems in dysfunctional societies like India is simple, though boring. Communities must start taking responsibility for themselves. They cannot wait for a revolution to come to their doorsteps and clean their neighbourhoods, or to care for their infants, or to teach hygiene to their women or to educate themselves. Nor can they entirely depend on the state either, though they must vote against those who fail to help them do this.
Experience has also shown that in tribal areas where external influence has been allowed, it can be a force for good. The tribals of Mizoram have 90 per cent literacy because of work done by the Presbyterian church. Shielding tribals from the outside world keeps them just as they are. This might have aesthetic appeal for some, but most tribals don’t think so. That is why the Salwa Judam militia attacks those who are their brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, this isn’t the sort of thing we can blame the whole world for, and so it isn’t good material for belles lettres.
Aakar’s arguments (The Ghost’s in the Details, Ma’am, Apr 30) are amusing and naive. He seems to have no understanding of tribal realities. If they accepted the church, it is because it came with a message of life and hope; they refuse to accept mining barons because they bring bad development and death.
Francis Minj, Ranchi
Give up, Aakar. There’s no way anyone can reform Ms Roy.
Lakshmanan J., Coimbatore
If we are nowhere despite adopting the British model of governance for more than 60 years, it’s because benefits don’t reach the people who need them most. No wonder huge swathes of territory are controlled by Maoists.
Ramesh Parida, Delhi
Patel gets it right when he asks, “Why is the tribal unrepresented in the body that does battle for him? Because the tribal is uninterested in the ideology of extremist Marxism.” That should educate the likes of Roy.
Patel’s article, full of facts and figures, is an interesting, thought-provoking counterpoint to Ms Roy’s ‘India is evil and the only good in India are the Maoists and Kashmiris’ view.
Prashant M., Bangalore
Patel’s piece is a hurried and ill-prepared apology for those Roy attacked in her article. He touches on the issues tangentially but only to distract readers from the real problems.
Jiwan Kshetry, Kathmandu
I’ll any day prefer Ms Roy. She writes rubbish but is eloquent; this guy writes rubbish and is not even eloquent.
I stopped reading the goddess long ago; and I won’t read anything countering her as well.
Jaleel Khan, Lucknow
What needs to be debated is what kind of capitalism India needs, coz for all its faults, there’s no viable alternative.
Patel writes too simplistically, I’m afraid. Learn a bit more about aid and this sin-washing term ‘charity’ and then make your expert comments.
Soumya S., Germany
I think Aakar Patel was just superb (The Ghost’s in the Details..., Apr 30). This is probably the first time someone’s had the gumption and the intellect to forcefully counter Arundhati Roy using facts and figures from officially available statistics. Arundhati’s forte lies in maligning the state, accusing it of just every conceivable crime—from the lack of a holistic developmental strategy to shielding the rich and the mighty, of which she is very much a part. She is typical of the drawing room parasites who have nothing better to do than to dig up a cause, magnify it to the level of ‘national consciousness’ and then strut back and forth before the media and the glitterati who lap up everything. Reminds me of a Bollywood actress of yesteryear, who positioned herself as a champion of free government housing for the homeless in Mumbai even as she herself is a member of the privileged set and stays in a 4,000 sq ft bungalow in Mumbai.
Rosen John, Mumbai
Who is this Aakar Patel? He begins his piece with a quote from Nirad C. Chaudhuri, who by his own confession was more British than Indian. And so what if the Jindals, Ambanis, Tatas, Mittals, Ruias et al are not involved in mining? Once others do the dirty job, they jump into the fray and wipe out all the others. This is what happened with mobile telephony in India. As for Patel’s fascination with the Bill and Melinda Gates charity, they apparently gave a $100 million grant to the International aids Vaccine Institute a year ago. After Gates left India, the same institute was allowed human trials of their under-research vaccine in India! Patel is also surprised that caste Hindus are Maoist central committee members. A lackey of the corporate lobby will see only caste and religion in a movement that is above their convoluted intelligence. Joseph Stalin was the son of a landlord and Lord Eden the son of a cobbler. When they met, Stalin remarked they had both betrayed their class. Has Mr Patel ever thought of declassing himself?
Mahasweta Mitra, on e-mail
The difference between Ms Roy and Mr Patel’s write-ups is of empathy; the former writes with empathy, the latter lacks it completely.
Vaeyuru Tholibangan, on e-mail
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Aakar Patel's arguments sound amusing, if not silly. He has flawed arguments and shows his lack in understanding Indian society and tribal society in particular. Reality bites. Tribal situation is worsening day by day because of outside influence; the tribals are facing a clash of worldviews. Recent alien influences have been catastrophic. Patel should understand why the tribals accepted the Presbyterian church but refuse to accept the steel and mining barons. The church came with a message of life, the barons come with a message of development, which indirectly means death. The church came and consolidated the community, the state and mining and other companies come to destabilize the community. If Patel fails to consider this argument then he should vouch for all the tribal communities to accept Christianity so that they will, in his own words, they will have 90 per cent literacy. If, not the author must seriously analyze and distinguish the powers that build from the powers that upset the community.
The article was going well... and then I read the second last paragraph. Oh well. :-|
The author should have left it at dentifying the problem ... offering a solution that vague ruins it.
Please give it up. There is no way any one can educateher as she knows everything about anything. She courted controversy on Kashmir. Recent news leak from Pak and U.S. officials public comments confirm the well known fact that Pak Military is responsible for the chaos in Kashmir. Would that change her Kashmir views. No - because in India we have got a powerful secular machinery run by missionaries, minorities, criminal politiicians and of course the left ever willing to see India break so they can spread their tentacles more effectively as it has happened in Eastern parts of our nation.
Ramesh Parida puts his analysis of the problem as well as the potential solution diligently. Indeed a large no. of non-extremists on either side of political spectrum share that view. That is because the viewpoint comes from real observations at the lives of people rather than from any theorization. Yet the micro-perspective of the problems and the solution devised in accordance to it is micro after all (though of course the observation about the British colonial legacy is the macro one); like observing individual trees in the forest. Not underestimating the significance of this perspective, I would like to stress the significance of the macro-perspective of the issue.
The solutions Parida proposes like the round-table conference and state's real and coordinated approach to communities and families are already in place in theory. And they are bound to be amiss in practice because it is not some written piece of constitution or legislation that really makes the state deliver to its citizen. Nor is the state a neutral and just mechanism to serve the people. The rulers are rather a group of people who rule so that their personal, family, factional or party interests can be promoted with ease and in perpetuity. Interest groups whose interests are aligned with those of the rulers benefit in the process and vice varsa. Since everything can be bought with wealth in the current system, promoting interest mostly means earning money; and in the process it is natural that the population, especially those at the margins get increasingly pauperized.
The central problem of the system is that there are no checks and balances to this tendency of mass pauperization resulting from legal and illegal swindles in which the rulers indulge; not by exception or accident but by the very inherent nature of the system. Moreover the cacophony of our time, particularly in India, is that the rulers and their associates with aligned interests should not be even criticized; let alone forcing them to be checked and balanced. Here it is interesting to observe the way in which communism, arising from efforts of liberated workers and peasants, degenerated into one-party and one-person authoritarianism eventually making way for its collapse. Over past century, Corporate Capitalism is increasingly showing the same streak with ridiculous intolerance to alternative views as they project the monolithic picture of free-market utopia in what goes in the name of mainstream media.
While micro-measures may be useful here and there now and then, it is hard to fathom they will be enough to address the roots of the problem for long enough and widely enough. The real solutions can be expected once the illusion of seeing free markets as the 'cure of all ills' is shattered.
Even after adopting the British model of governance for the last 65 years, we are still nowhere, leave alone providing for the basic needs of the vast rural populace that includes tribals and dalits in large numbers. The British may have given us some very good institutions, but they never asked us to continue with their model of colonial governance. It's time people go and find out how the Americans, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Korean and the Europeans have their models of governance and find one which suits us the best. When I say us, I mean both the chattering middle class and the underprivileged class. The basic delivery mechanism does not work. That's why our local officials don't even reach the remote villages, with huge swathes of area falling under the control of Maoists in central and eastern India, and other militant groups in the far notheast who look after the local populace. On the use of natural resources, let there be a roundtable conference, where you invite all, including the Maoists, the tribals and other stakeholders and chalk out a plan as to how much to exploit and how much to leave for our future generations, without harming, of course, the lives of tribals who have been living there for centuries. But first and foremost, we should completely revamp our model of governance, which includes a rethink on the all India services, the type of social democracy that we have, and find out the model which suits us best. Instead of different departments and ministries, why can't we have a large number of small groups consisting of development officials, doctors and educators who can go to far-flung areas, meet each and every family and/or community, assess their needs and deliver accordingly. But this can happen only if we overhaul our old and rickety British model of governance. When we find ex-bureaucrats like B D Sharma, who did some excellent work in Bastar, revered by Maoists, and the abducted bureaucrat Alex Paul Menon reading Che Guevara, it surely give us an inkling of what the bureaucrats themselves think about the burgeoning and unproductive bureacracy that is manning the Centre and the states.
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