Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Seeking A Religious Identity

We just completed 63 years of Self Rule and despite the odds of managing a small conglomerate of billion odd noisy plebeians, we have survived. We have a healthy mix of people who believe India is truly on the path to achieving world leadership as well as cynics who believe ‘Shining India’ is a mere marketing gimmick popularized by the Government’s brand managers. Of course, we all know that the Truth is somewhere in between – just like everything else in life but when you are pressurized to take a stance, you are forced to take cudgels against one group or the other.

The need to identify oneself with any particular group is important to avoid being an outcaste. If I were merely Pradeep, I would not represent anything at all – it would just be a small irrelevant name lost in the thousands of Pradeeps that you get when you do a Google search. But if I were to identify myself as a forward caste, middle class Hindu Keralite Indian, I suddenly give myself rights to speak on behalf of many of “my” people. It may not matter how meaningless these identity groups may be to me but my being a part of them casts certain requirements on me.

The most prominent of these identities that I argue with myself on a regular basis is my religious faith or sometimes the lack of it. Whenever I am critical of anything that is part of Hinduism, I am accused by my family and friends of being pseudo-secular (being called secular is no longer in fashion) and not a good Hindu. When my religious identity is questioned, I asked myself- Am I a bad Hindu? What does it mean to be a good Hindu? Does being an idol worshipper or a temple goer entitle a person to a greater degree of Hinduness than someone who does not subscribe to such views?

I was born an atheist (kids have these bouts of atheism which peter out to faith for many) but have moved to a more centrist approach on religion where I have accepted that religion is a vital ingredient in our lives but its role is more of a cultural one. Cloaking spiritual practices in religion helps in their sustenance; I see many of my colleagues fasting regularly but this practice is more an identification of their culture and has very little to do with spirituality.

Studying in a college which had its foundation in Faith did not help necessarily in converting me but it did give an exposure to an alternate faith (‘alternate” from my perspective) and forced me to question my atheism. Our Director was a Swamiji (a saffron-clad IITian who we called ABC in jest) and we met many people who had given up their dreams to follow AMMA; but at the same time, there were swamis who demanded respect and seemed incapable of humility. Spiritual power is exhilarating and it can lead to a situation where men in saffron demand commitments from commoners without themselves surrendering to the requirements of leading such a life.

My attempts at understanding religion took me on many paths - Reiki during MBA days, Raja Yoga through BrahmakumarisTranscendental Meditation taught by an enterprising firang when in ICICI and recently Vipassana but it has always been difficult to tread on one path for long. Nevertheless, these experiments have largely made me sceptical of religion - it creates a Dvaita polarised view of the world when we start associating ourselves with our religion instead of being a mere human.

It’s funny how life forces you to accept things or look at things which you want to avoid. I have always distanced myself from organized religion, especially a temple but I am now married to someone who is firmly rooted in temple worship. My wife’s family has a temple in their precincts and they are quite grounded in the idea of religious rituals; the temple is their most prized symbol of identity which they relate now in this era, when they no longer own the farmlands in the pre-EMS days.

I am now expected to be a part of important temple functions which I personally find redundant but even though my mind rebelled initially, I am learning to accept it as a compromise that I need to make after marriage.  Being a liberal would mean adjusting to situations as long as it hurts no one I guess - winning brownie points in a debate is not the only thing that matters!!! If there are people who find peace in temple rituals and idols, so be it. I have no right to impose my opinions on people who find bliss in this form of devotion. After all, if our common goal is to find happiness and even if our paths do not converge, how does it matter?

Religion has a cultural essence and one starts becoming aware of it, especially when there is a perceived threat to one's identity. With the looming threat of terrorism and minority appeasement, there is a revival in the demand to identify and unite in the name of Hinduism. How many times have we heard that we Hindus are not united and so we suffer, learn from the Muslims? We may not practice our religion the way we were taught (I don't think we are ever taught this, of course) but when it comes to debates and any form of public stances, our enlightened souls start to identify with our religion.

We are all born to a certain religion and there is no choice involved there, even though one may choose to covert later on. When we see something in our family that we believe is not right, should we not raise our voice against it? Or do we stay quiet silenced by the fact that another family has the same issue but there is no one who is complaining against them. Religion is a tool which creates some procedures and processes for us to follow so that we can go along the right path but the tool cannot replace the actual path of spirituality. The path of spirituality does not mandate religion; religion is just a beginning, after a certain growth in our spiritual levels, we can discard it. When the path becomes an obsession, the destination slowly starts moving out of the horizon.

I have been critical about Sabarimala and Guruvayoor for their policies of not allowing women and non-Hindus respectively into their shrines. People have defended it saying that these are age-old practices and should not be disturbed but thoughts change over a period of time and what was right at any time in history may not be so relevant now. There are many institutions that we accept the way they are because it has always been that way but an institution needs to change with times to continue being relevant.

At the end of the day, religion is a personal matter but the pursuit of privacy in India is a selfish one. Sometimes, you may need to exhibit a certain amount of faith to get people to believe that you believe in HIM but then even better, why bother to even show. Isn't it so much easier to leave people to exercise their own judgments without you bothering to explain?

It is not easy for Governments to disassociate themselves from religion but it is precisely their role that has complicated what is essentially a matter of faith. The Government panders to symbols of militant groups from various religions and neglects areas where reform is essential. So, the Uniform Civil Code becomes a symbol of minority persecution instead of women empowerment and banning books becomes a law and order issue instead of a question of freedom of expression. Big Brother is adept at using religion to play vote politics and many of us play along with it, ignoring the implications that this means.

While it is easy to be critical of the rest of the populace and act like the perfect liberal, it is so easy to gloss over one’s own prejudices.Nisha Susan in a nice little article in Tehelka tries to look at her and her family’s jaundiced approach towards religion – an article which has inspired me to question my own prejudices and understand whether my actions have any disconnect with the philosophy I believe in and keep harping about.

I realize that while being a liberal is fine, I have my own faith systems like everyone else sometimes making it difficult to see my own inner assumptions about life. It is a bit like Paul Haggis’ Crash where the people who believe in being fair and honest in their assessment of others suddenly make a slip and their prejudices surface leading to a problem.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

Development Notes From Kerala

Mouthing platitudes like “India lives in its villages” comes easy but understanding rural development is an altogether different ball game. The Kerala Government, through its channel DD Kerala decided to market rural development stories at prime time and thus was born Green Kerala Express. GKE, in a span of 100+ episodes, took us through an expedition through several villages in Kerala to understand the work being carried out in rural/semi-urban Kerala and appreciate the work done by local bodies. Palakkad, Thrissur, Alappuzha and Trivandrum came out well on top among the various villages while Kottayam, Idukki and Kasargod were probably the least impressive.

A few thoughts that I had as a viewer of this experience:

Agriculture needs support to survive – Governmental apathy and bad governance is pushing the farming community to ruin. Corporate takeovers of prime agricultural land at subsidized rates (helped by ready-to-bend governments) is being marketed to people as life savers for people but see what Vedanta has done in Orissa and Coca-Cola in Palakkad and you understand who benefits from such tacit support. Obviously, waiting for the rains and doling out subsidies is not the solution – there has to be a larger concerted end-to-end solution to promoting agriculture. Villages like Palamel, Puthussery and Perambra have linked NREGS and Kudumbasee to reclaim land and make them fit for paddy cultivation. Aryanadu Grama Panchayat launched an innovative programme called Vitthu Mudal Vipani Vere (from seeds to sales) which ensured that the farmer receives seeds, financial aid, inputs on agriculture from experts and finally has a means to sell his produce at a fair price. Small farmlands are not sustainable because of the high cost of labour – one way as demonstrated in Trivandrum is group farming where a set of farmers come together and till all their lands together and make an earning, in proportion to their area.

Women Empowerment in development – The way a society treats its women indicates its level of progress. For all the impressive social indicators clocked by the state, the conspicuous absence of women in the public domain remains as a paradox of the Kerala model of development. Kudumbasree is a woman oriented, community based poverty eradication project launched by the Government of Kerala with the active support of the Centre and NABARD. The programme has 37 lakh members and covers more than 50% of the households in Kerala. Built around three critical components, micro credit, entrepreneurship and empowerment, the Kudumbashree initiative has today succeeded in addressing the basic needs of the less privileged women, thus providing them a more dignified life and a better future. The mission aims at the empowerment of women, through forming self help groups and encouraging their entrepreneurial or other wide range of activities. Kudumbashree, when combined with NREGS is working wonders for its women folk - for the first time equal wages are really paid and this has boosted the earnings of women and their status in the family.

Illusion of Rural development = Agriculture – While agriculture is the backbone of the rural economy, it is not the only sustainable activity. Many villages in Kerala, with the help of Kudumbashree, have created entrepreneurs who focus on dairy farms, fisheries and small scale units. Most of the activities have mostly acted as supplementary sources of income but there is recognition that such jobs generate money and people with no agricultural land can actually be helped by Kudumbashree and other Governmental agencies to run their own units. In Elappully, dairy farmers are now supplying milk to households, hotels and various other establishments in the panchayat and have branded it “Elappully Farm Fresh Milk.” Despite selling only the remaining milk to Milma, they have been able to earn a turnover of Rs.7.5 crore. They have also launched various value-added products under their own brand name. The presence of a large number of water bodies has brought marine farming (fish, shrimps) in several areas, with an active support of the panchayats.

Organic farming is Viable – Some time back, I had a talk with an uncle of mine who is a farmer; he grows the produce required for his own consumption and the rest is sold in the market. While he uses organic means to take care of the crop that he consumes, he sprays fertilizers on the rest. He says that no farms can survive only on bio-fertilizers and that the produce is affected adversely, without chemical usage. This is a rather common mindset and many farmers follow this style, however, GKE has shown that this is could be a misconception. Adat grama panchayat home to about 3,000 acres of kole paddy fields, has successfully launched itself on the organic path to farming and set a model for panchayats elsewhere in the State. The panchayat commandeered Kudumbasree units to process its organic only paddy and began marketing the rice under the brand name Adat and followed it up with Kerasree organic coconut oil. Mararikulam, Kudappanakkunu and Sreekryam have started their own selling outlets for organic vegetables.

Efficient Labour Utilization –NREGS has played a critical role in ensuring a minimum wages programme for workers who register with it. But it may not be always possible to provide employment on demand through works of productive nature at all times of the year. Also, to ensure requirement of labour for crops in agriculture season, it may be better to follow a system of running rural works only during the slack season, as demonstrated by Elappully Panchayat which has drawn its own NREGS calendar. A few villages like Kannadi and Sooranadu North have implemented the concept of labour banks to tide over the shortage of skilled labour. Kozhikode Municipal Corporation has a Swabhimaan Multi-Purpose scheme to provide service for works like plumbing, wiring, plucking coconuts, etc. for which there is a scarcity of labour now. It boasts that to call for help, one has to log on to their website and place his/her request and a person would be dispatched within an hour to resolve the problem.

Greater Decentralization – Most organizations in the country work like the Congress Party where workers have no say and everything is decided by the Central High Command. While this approach works fine for specific areas like defence and foreign affairs, day-to-day governance requires a more federal approach from Centre to State to Village to Gram Sabhas. Panchayats are better placed to understand local needs and will be more accountable than an outside person/entity. Bringing governance down to the local level would also help in better management of local resources. A few experiences in Kerala and Karnataka prove that a performing panchayat can not only improve the delivery of services to the locals, but also help in improving administration by improving revenue collections. Aryanad (in Trivandrum) now uses a concept called participatory budgeting where all the social minded individuals of the village come together in November and for a period of 4 months, they discuss, debate, budget and prioritize all projects for the forthcoming year. This has ensured a 100% completion of their projects and being in sync with the State’s budgetary plans.

Universal Education – Kerala’s biggest success story has been its success in primary education. But is 100% literacy a true figure or is it mere 100% enrolment; studies need to be carried out to estimate the student retention percentages in every school. Student attendance is a big challenge and with the RTE in place, more effort will be needed. The mid-day meal remains the main strategy of the panchayats but this has been streamlined with focus on nutrition (inclusion of vegetables and nuts, along with kanji), special classes for weaker students and starting tuition centres in SC/ST centres to encourage them to join schools. It is heartening to note that Malayalam medium schools have begun to devote attention to English, with special focus on speaking and reading skills (A government school in Elappully revealed that parents insisted that English be taught only as a language and not the medium!!!). Many panchayats have started initiating special neighbourhood classes, night classes and extra tuitions with greater focus on students from weaker sections to encourage them to integrate with the mainstream.

Environment-oriented growth –Environmental clearances are mere formalities that are provided in under- the- table meetings, rendering their certifications irrelevant. Since Kerala has limited public land, it has been decided to take up eco-restoration works in degraded forest lands. Palamel panchayat in Alappuzha, in its interactions with GKE, mentioned how the panchayat had to fight illegal occupations and mining in their village to stop the farms lands from going bare. Over a period of time, they have managed to reclaim private wastelands and converting them into fertile beds. Eloor (Ernakulam) has an energy sena of children who educate the neighborhood houses about energy planning by which they could lower the total electricity consumption by about 20% in each house. Akathethara in Palakkad launched an initiative of planting trees over roadsides by linking with NREGS to retain its sustainability. Over 1 lakh trees of different species have been planted so far and approximately 90,000 trees have been sustained in the effort. Bio-gas plants have been started in several villages to utilize the wastes generated in the villages. To make the environment movement more sustainable, people involvement is needed and they must be convinced of the utility of listening to Nature. Villages are now being encouraged growing fish in a large way because of its role in cleaning up water bodies, in addition to generating supplementary income to its people.

Infotainment is Marketable – When DD Thiruvanthapuram Kendra launched GKE, there were sceptics who dismissed it as another education programme, out of sync with audience tastes. But today when the programme has ended its successful run, it has gone into television history as a show that attempted to make a difference. The concept was innovative and so was the actual implementation – you had young, peppy anchors (who could actually speak Malayalam well), an intelligent and qualified jury, SMS campaigns to encourage viewers (SMS has a small weightage only unlike many other shows) and a prize money worth fighting for. As part of the branding, the sets were green and well-lit, the music was ethereal and the anchors travelled to villages only in cycles. The State Government spent close to 4 crore as prize money for the show and has been advertising heavily to promote sanitation as part of its Clean Kerala campaign (remember the days of family planning and immunization ads on TV, do you see any TV channels doing this now?).