Eating is an agricultural act - Wendell Berry

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Climbing down the pyramid!

It was the literacy campaign in 1991 in Taramani that first introduced me to the not so equal world we live in. Strangely, it was not the caste difference, but the class difference that made an impression on me. I came from an “upgraded” lower middle class. Parents came from very poor families but managed some basic education which got them salaried jobs and which moved us into the great indian middle class. They had built a home on one ground of land (2400 sqft) and although we did not have a room each to ourselves it was plenty – 800sqft. The part of Taramani we worked in was an urban slum with 100-200sqft houses on an average. I was young and full of enthusiasm to do “social service” and to “help” the poor illiterates. We worked with the local volunteers (who were 8th-10th level) to set up street level literacy centers for the illiterate adults in the slum. We bonded greatly with the local volunteers. Towards the end of the programme we (couple of 'my class' volunteers + me) decided to take the local volunteers from the slum around a tour of the iit campus as a picnic. They had a great time but their wonderous reactions to the scale of infrastructure at iit left us feeling very guilty at the end of the day. Guilty not because we had better homes and facilities but because it just dawned on us that every one of them can never have such facilities and so, 'What are we really trying to do with all this literacy'? We concluded that lack of good education was the basic problem for all the poverty and better overall education for all was the answer to all problems. We also felt that however many we could educate would be a constructive step towards the answer.

I moved onto a job, but carried the guilt with me. I promised myself to return to more meaningful work at some social sector organisation or NGO soon enough and not be stuck in the corporate world forever. To handle the guilt, I did volunteer in my spare time, joined groups run by similar spare-timers in working for better education for all, visited NGOs that worked full-time in the education sector, hoping to join one of them some day. 
This went on for 10 years and I had the opportunity to interact closely with a couple of NGOs in mumbai who were working with kids from some of the slums. It was the same old story. English education was the designed intervention to get them jobs. The kids passed out and got an opportunity to participate in the modern economy (eg: working in malls/coffee shops/mobile stores/professional caterers). However the process of getting them educated in english increased their aspirations to an extent which their employment could not satisfy. They were taught to dream, made to feel special, taken on many joy rides during their time with the NGO but when they stepped into the real world they did not have the skills to handle the ruthlessness of the modern economy. They grew more frustrated for they continued to inhabit the lowest class in mumbai with the realisation that their dreams may remain just that...dreams. One of the unfortunate fallout of the intervention was that the kids grew disconnected with their families. They never left the NGOs, always lingering around hoping for some miracle that would transform their lives into the ones led by their sponsors! I noticed this pattern of outcomes in rural as well as urban settings in varying degrees. Most of the people who choose to work at NGOs at are more affluent than their beneficiaries and with their sense of guilt they tend to mollycoddle beneficiaries and consequently tend to give them a rose-tinted vision of life. I felt that all this mollycoddling by the the 'NGO-people', is a way of shielding themselves from having to take a hard look at their own lives & choices, after witnessing, stark differentials in privileges between themselves and their beneficiaries. This way of assuaging their guilt blinds them to the basic problem, gives a false impression of reality to the beneficiaries and creates an unhealthy emotional dependence.  And so it became clear that, whatever the NGOs (all of them put together) were doing in the education sector, they were not really making a difference in addressing the basic problem. It seemed like the lot were having a lot of fun and patting their backs swimming against the current but were not going anywhere. 

In the meanwhile the guilt in me was mounting everytime I looked around. But the reason I felt the NGOs were not getting anywhere was because the 'basic problem' was actually different. I realised that lack of basic equality, and not basic education, was at the core of the problem and rampant exploitation of people, resources and nature was fuelling it. Trying to address the core or any other peripheral issues through some activism / organised effort in the current world would honestly just lead to frustration when one sees the connections. It became also clear to me that I was a very willing contributor to the problem and the answer lay within. I saw that the disparity in privileges, incomes and status exists for the current system to work. Also that exploitation is a necessary condition for the current economic order to continue.

The whole exploitation problem has become so institutionalised that it does not seem to be a problem at all to most. People do realise that there is an issue with ecological destruction, loss of livelihood, loss of habitat - diappearing of basic necessities like water/clean air from certain areas thereby forcing people to migrate and accept menial jobs in desparation, loss of bio-diversity etc but seldom connect these to anything to do with their lives and choices at a fundamental level. The actions they take to be sensitive towards the problem tends to be at a very trivial level like refusing a plastic bag in a supermarket while shopping a cart full of stuff when they could do without some of them. Why use a plastic bag when you can wheel out the cart and tip it over into the boot of your car? I felt that the car, the cart full of stuff, the need to shop at a supermarket - all of it needs to be relooked at, not just the plastic bag!

I searched for a life that was least exploitative and it led me to work with my hands and that led me to agriculture.

It has been 5 years since I moved into a lifestyle I am comfortable with. In the context of equality and expoitation, a few things have become clear to me.

  • The only way to bridge the inequality and basic human right gap is by people who are over consuming (just using more stuff like gadgets, clothes, luxuries, houses, maids, rooms, land, chauffers, nannys, cars, holidays etc) to consume less.
  • Having someone else to do one's personal dirty work, laundry, dishes, cook, clean etc when one is physically capable of doing it oneself is exploitative at the most fundamental level. This presumes that the time of the maid is less valuable than that of her/his employer!
  • All work is work. The basic reason to compensate some more than the other is a rule that has been made to keep a constant feed into the exploitative machine. If all work were to be compensated equally, there will be no one to willing to do another's dirty work as they would not need the money! No one does another person's house work out of passion.
  • The 'Demand and supply' argument that is used to defend differential compensation is flawed because demand and supply is artificially fixed to keep the differential intact.
  • It does not really matter if you contribute to charity, buy organic, give free tutions, pay for your servant's child's education, support fair trade, sport eco-friendly outfit, run for charity and all the rest, as long as you do not do your own work you are exploitative. You honestly do not want a world that does not have people poorer than you for then there will be no one to work for you!
  • If you have and use way more stuff, like cars, phones, houses, clothes, gadgets, shoes, land etc, than majority of the people in the world and are not willing to shed some of these voluntarily then don't bother planting trees or have them planted with your money, buying organic, avoiding plastic, work with NGOs to 'empower the poor', working with self help groups, etc for none of these actions can really balance the imbalance you continue to create and maintain through your own lifestyle.