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A Little More Space

This article was written by Shrikant Wad (Batch of 2016, MPP).

“The essence of policy lies in common human spaces. No matter how we differ, we all share common spaces within” – Aruna Roy

“Choice” was the big concern. I was arguing with our professor for alternatives in MPP fieldwork. We were all going to MKSS (Majdoor Kissan Shakti Sanghatan). I was perhaps the most consistent opponent to this idea. I did not want to go to arid and saline rural Rajasthan, but to the vibrant urban life of a metropolitan city. I believed that would be the best way to understand public policy, to know the intricacies of actors, ideas and institutions, to find what exactly fails when the implementation fails, to know how the government actually works, to build and be aware of perspective… I came across all of it, but only with MKSS. I am rather thankful for losing arguments and embracing this once in a lifetime opportunity. I am not saying it was all a rosy picture. I didn’t find MKSS perfect or my fieldwork completely successful. What I appreciate is the open space! This whole experience, if at all has changed anything, has made me a better listener. I am learning to see the hypocrisies within myself and around, I can critique some, can accept some and face the reality. I have become aware of possibility of a common human space, that I share with others. In this small discussion, I will make an attempt to share my personal reflections, not necessarily the experiences or learnings in any order. Perhaps, this might look fragmented, inadequately corroborated, may not make a good story, may be incomplete; but that’s not the point. 

One hall for men, other for women and common unisex washrooms was the first surprise living in SFD (School for Democracy) followed by ‘Shramadan’ (donation through physical labour) and hectic day ­long lectures. A lot of activities done here are based on certain principles or ideas. Let’s talk about Shramadan. There is no division of labour in SFD. All of us do all the work­ cleaning utensils, rooms, toilets, campus, cooking etc. Every day, your group is assigned one task and rotation makes sure that you do all sorts within a week. There is no division of labour. I didn’t like this initially. A lot of jobless people around could do it. We, if not SFD, would be happy to pay for it. What’s the point if you’re all tired throughout the day, can hardly concentrate in class or do something creative? It didn’t take long to realize that this whole exercise was about dignity of labour. I talk of equality, dignity; do I mean it? Wasn’t there shame and disgust in cleaning toilets? Did I value physical labour­ really equally­ as desk work? I probably didn’t. Working with my group, getting out of comfort zone and putting effort for community­ I think I got closer to reality. Shramadan­ however discomforting and tiring­ somewhat worked.

Sometimes, living in SFD with the community could be a funny task. Here, you do good work and expect that people will do good for you. Your self-interest is brought closer to community interest. The reason why I call this funny is twofold­ first, this altruism doesn’t work in your favour, second­ paradoxically, you start liking the concept of private property. Let’s take an example of washing plates after lunch. You wash your own plate and keep it in rack. You expect that you will get a clean plate next time. I know several people who never cleaned their plate carefully and enjoyed other clean plates next day, whereas those (like me!) cleaning it every day sometimes had hard luck finding one. So, you tend to believe in the concept of private property. You want to own the plate, you want the same every time, you want the same mattress every night, you want to claim ownership, but you can’t. So, what do you rely on? You then rely on the State. You want SFD to ensure that everyone washes their plate well. But, accountability doesn’t necessarily always work.

Although MKSS has every justifiable reason to advocate pro-poor policy, I could not understand certain practices. We cannot wear shorts on fieldwork, but we drop pants and poop in the open. We wilfully pollute. When there are toilets available in rich village houses, we don’t ask for their help. When there is a vehicle available, we don’t take lifts. Whenever there is some comfort, something that adds to our efficiency, we deliberately choose a more difficult way­ all in the name of experiencing reality. Is suffering ourselves so essential to understand the suffering? What’s the logical limit of ‘experiencing’? To answer this question, I quote one of our lecturers at SFD.

“If the world really needs to be only understood through experience, science would not exist. Social science won’t exist at all.” -­ Satish Deshpande

We are very different from the people living here. It is obvious that we will notice differences; there would be tremendous pressure on them to practice the ideal. Every small thing will create questions, expose hypocrisies or build a new perspective. I have observed that people who have joined MKSS­ barring a few exceptions­ are those who personally faced injustice. Unless you are denied basic facilities and deprived of what you deserve minimum, you probably would not enter the lifestyle of MKSS. They have been impoverished and are often indifferent to luxuries. Most of them are distant from conventional materialistic pleasures. They fight on principles, not just for benefits. They have compelling reasons to do so. So, I ask­ is it about being indifferent to pleasures indeed? Am I missing the point? I guess I am. Naurti Devi­ the courageous superwoman Sarpanch­ said something that clarifies­ this:

“I might have learnt, got literate. Not my education, but my courage and passion make me what I am. We (herself and many other activists and supporters) are in pain. So we understand the pain of others. Pain alone drives us to bring change.­”-Naurti Devi

There couldn’t be a better answer to why I am living here. SFD life is not perfect, not ideal. It is not meant to be. It is an attempt, a step to draw inspiration from their stories. I don’t need to be extremely uncomfortable, but this little lack of luxury­ which makes me at least work for myself with my community­ is a driver for the change. There is significant difference between feeling sympathetic to “them” and feeling what drives them and why. There are hypocrisies, but living here is a step forward.

I was born a Chitpavan Brahmin, supposedly the highest caste and sub-caste in our Maharashtrian community. Although financially weak, I enjoyed certain privileges because of social status. At the same time, I believed in equality and talked about it. It was always about ‘they should not be discriminated against’, ‘we are all equal’ stands. Elsewhere-ization of caste existed vividly. Living in Dalit Bastis, eating in Bunkar and Rajput houses, I heard stories. I witnessed the brutality and ruthlessness of the so-called upper caste, upper class. Feudal forces, lying with bureaucracy and political leadership, were cruel to the extent of using violence­ merely to stop a Dalit wedding, deny someone food or cut someone’s water supply. I often coated caste with its cultural aspect, but it is essentially a socio-political identity. Learning through their real-life experiences, I hope I not only believe in, but also try to practice equality. I have privileges and I should acknowledge them. If I do not discriminate, I need to not only avoid it in particular incidences, but also in thoughts, in assumptions and in relationships. I note what Satish Deshpande said in class­:

“Discrimination presupposes that you are not being discriminated on justifiable grounds. It is difficult to prove, as evidence is difficult. Discrimination is a relational concept. Discrimination presupposes social support based on popular prejudice. It is not some event observed just once, it is something in practice.”-­ Satish Deshpande

The other day, we were ‘taken’ to the MGNREGA site and given a task of digging around 40­ by 60 feet cubicle pit. Although for just four hours, we worked arduously. Working with axe and shovel, with dust and dirt, with sweat and blood, I felt ‘useless’ throughout. I don’t have the physical capability, manual skill or the spirit of working in community. It re­affirmed, rather asserted my beliefs towards dignity of labour, skill in physical work and decency in work. Unlike a typical office job, we developed a sense of compassion and belongingness naturally in the process. It was not competitive (however, we made it so) but an accommodative, collective work. We all felt the same pain, same level of belongingness. Perhaps, this is a reason why impoverished, neglected and exploited people come together more often than white-collar middle­ class. Tragedy brings people together and gives them strength to fight.

Beyond physical pain, this was more of a learning experience for me. MGNREGA workers are one of the exploited workers we came across. Unlike any other work I have heard of, their work is measured dually­ task completion as well as time commitment. They hardly get full payment, have to do intense physical work, lack any insurance or medical aid, are given absolutely zero facilities at workplace and have no decision making power in the use of technology. Well, I understand that MGNREGA is not an employment generation program, but more of a short-term solution to the crisis. Yet, if this government run program exploits them so much, doesn’t it legitimize private contractors to follow the same? Isn’t the government legitimizing the brutality of an employer who pays no more than minimum possible wage? Talking of minimum wages, I have noticed that some of worst policy problems here are also with definitions. Wage, poverty level, compensation, pension, relief, grant­ all are measured in absolute terms. Most of the figures are not inflation proof and hold no value in today’s times. Isn’t it more desirable as well as practicable to define them in ratio? If we have pay commission and dearness allowances to revise salary of government employees, why can’t we take realistic stand on transfer payments as well? Although MGNREGA is not creating assets, although it suffers from corrupt practices etc., it is unjust to take it off without assuring an equivalent alternative­ through state policy or market. Poor people working on MGNREGA are not there for side income, but for survival. Even when we say labour may get paid better in industry or as migrated labour, it is untrue. If they do, we won’t see private players crying over the paltry amount government spends on MGNREGA. Unlike private or PPP entities, the state has ultimate responsibility and is accountable to people. People are not mere beneficiaries of these policies, but they own the resources. State is in the business of facilitating this ownership in a just fashion. That is why, state must ensure basic right to food, healthcare and work to life.

Through various lectures and the ideas being imposed at SFD, there is substantial reason to believe that MKSS and SFD are pro-poor organizations. There is a conspiracy theory that these kind of fieldworks are attempts to brainwash us. It was very popular for some time and looked very attractive. Again, Aruna Roy clarified and I agree with her­

“The right-wing, pro-capitalist agenda is anyway prevalent. We are doing a conscious attempt to show you the other side. We may sound left sympathizing, but we are essentially pro-poor. MKSS and SFD are not stubborn close­ minded groups, but they are making consistent effort towards equality and egalitarianism. It is all about being open-minded!”-­ Aruna Roy

I appreciate this clarity. I have seen the so called pro-capitalist ones as well. I have not seen same level of clarity, honesty and humility in any right-wing agent. Even if SFD tells you only one side, it is worth it. Satish Deshpande, Kamla Bhasin, Vrinda Grover and many such eminent speakers have enriched this journey remarkably. I learn to take pride and say confidently that I believe in and mean equality. I can say that I am a feminist. As speakers like Prabhat Patnaik, Aruna Roy make us aware of the other side­ which is equally justifiable­ I tend to believe that there is hardly any correct or wrong, right or left position. Labelling is bad and destructive. The real social and political positions are nuanced, so is the public policy.

Well, I have crossed the 2000 word limit for personal reflections. I have not written a comprehensive essay or a story. I did not want to write one. It’s a long journey and there is so much more to write, so many experiences and so much of learning. For the little space, I just remember something Satish Deshpande told us, that was written on back of a new rickshaw. It says a lot about the process of development and learning.

जल मत, किश्तोमे आयी हूँ ! : Don’t be jealous, I came in installments!

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