Saturday, June 25, 2011

Throwing the Baby and Keeping the Bathwater

June 19, 2011 By Kaushik Mitter
Tags: Amitav Ghosh


Smooth Sailing on creativity
Three years after Sea of Poppies in 2008, master storyteller Amitav Ghosh is back with River of Smoke, the second part of his epic Ibis trilogy, where we are reunited with many old faces and meet new ones as the action shifts from colonial Bengal and its calm Ganga waters to the stormy seas off China, to bustling Canton in the thick of the Opium Wars, where a wealthy Parsi businessman from Mumbai holds his own in cut-throat trade battles...

In a freewheeling conversation with Kaushik Mitter in New Delhi recently, Ghosh insisted he hasn’t even thought where he’ll take the story in the trilogy’s final part, or when. He talks of how writing The Glass Palace (on Burma’s last king, exiled to India) some years ago led him to think of Sea of Poppies, how he’s excited by the “incredible creative energy” in the Indian arts today, about his favourite contemporary writers, of experiences at Oxford and Harvard, and how he sees a changing India evolving.

Ghosh, who divides his time between New York, Goa and Kolkata, says he now does most of his writing in Goa, and when he’s not working he relaxes with his family and plays a round or two of badminton.

Excerpts from the interview:

Do you find India increasingly becoming an intolerant place, where the liberal space is shrinking?
A. That’s absolutely true. The other day we lost our great painter M.F. Husain — such a tragedy, the way he was hounded out... having to move to Qatar, then dying in London. You see that phenomenon replicating at every level — that space for freedom, so essential for writing or any kind of art, is shrinking constantly.

It’s not just in India... Through most of the 20th century we always thought creative freedom is essentially a problem in relation to the state... This has completely changed — it’s non-state actors who are the main threats to freedom... You have the political parties, various activists, fundamentalists of various kinds, and you have multinational corporations — also very heavily invested in controlling the outflow of information. In America various forms of expression are threatened. It actually happened, you know — various people had criticised McDonald’s hamburgers, and they were prosecuted... they were just ordinary, poor people.

Q. Do you feel the liberal consensus around which the Indian state was founded is breaking down?
A. Yes, the ground has certainly shifted... and quite dramatically. It’s also curious to see so many stories about Rising India, Shining India, Glittering India... because in every aspect of Indian life you see signs of extreme tension. Just one example: 10 years ago it was perfectly possible to drive across the interior of Orissa — I myself have driven through Koraput and Kalahandi in a car. Now it’s almost impossible to leave the coastal belt. Midnapore in Bengal — so much a part of mainland India — today it’s not really under government control. If you add up (such) districts around India, you’ll see almost a third of the country is not under state control... And more and more areas are passing out of state control every year.

Q. You’ve travelled and worked extensively in the Sunderbans. Where are we going wrong on development?
A. What’s happening is a resource takeover by the private sector... The government seems to feel it can just hand over these resources to profit-making companies — I think that it’s a disaster. Millions of people are being displaced, there’s massive violence, it’s visibly leading to the complete unravelling of the political balance.

Q. Can the lives of the poor be improved without development?
A. The problem, say, in the forest region is that because of British era forestry laws the people who lived there were deprived of all rights to that land. The state claims control of the forests, people there were not given any title to these lands, which was always their common land... The most important thing is for their title to these lands to be restored. Then it’s for them to decide... Let them strike a bargain with the companies if they want to sell it. The people now have no right to decide, that’s why they are protesting. They don’t think of themselves as poor, it’s a life they have been perfectly happy with. You are actually creating poverty in order to lift them out of poverty!

Q. You grew up in Kolkata, you’ve lived there at different times, before and during the Left period. What is your take on politics there?
A. Oh my goodness, you really want to get me into trouble (laughs)... I think in its early years the Left had some important ideas — land reforms have been important in Bengal, give them credit for that. But for the last 20 years they’ve been completely moribund — I say this not out of any sense of antipathy towards the Left, but they’ve been completely on the wrong track. Even when thinking of development and industrialisation, they’ve had no vision...

Kolkata has so many things going for it. In an era of water scarcity, it sits in the middle of a water-rich region, with easy access to both the Northeast and to Southeast Asia. It can very easily become a cultural, financial, retail hub — it has all this going for it. But when the Left finally begins to think of industrialisation, what do they think? Of all the dirty old industries. It’s so ridiculous...

Both London and New York have been through this process of de-industrialisation — and turned that into an enormous asset. They became financial hubs, cultural hubs — all those old buildings turned into galleries, art spaces... It would be so easy to do that in Kolkata if people had any kind of vision, they would have done that. But when they (Left) think of industry, they think of our grandfather’s time, not clean industries... It makes you feel so sad and so helpless. And the reason is they’re still only reading Das Kapital, they’re thinking of the 19th century.

Q. Your new book River of Smoke carries on from where Sea of Poppies left off — with many of the same characters. Have you thought about where the story moves in the third and last part of the Ibis trilogy?
A. I really haven’t. It’s strange to relate, but I’ve always conceived of this trilogy as books not connected in a linear sense, but which have a more glancing relationship with each other, like parts of a puzzle, if you like. So when I finished Sea of Poppies, I didn’t know where the next book would go. In that way it’s no different from writing a book that stands on its own.
My main concern — doing it as a trilogy — was to stay with the characters and their families... If necessary I can take up the story 20 years later, 30 years later, two generations later... and I still feel free to do that.

Q. Does the close India-China relationship that you depict in River of Smoke have any lessons for us in the 21st century?
A. People talk about this (India-China) relationship as though it was something that fell out of the sky in the last 10 years… A lot of Indians were trading in China in the 19th century, unfortunately they were trading in opium. But there is no doubt that a lot of the capital accumulation that happened in India in the 19th century came from the opium trade… This was responsible for the growth of many present-day Indian firms. So China has always been a vital aspect of our economic life. The curious thing is that there is an absolute ignorance of that in India… we never grew up with an awareness of this.

What do you think of the new English writing in India? Anything that stands out in the recent popular fiction, chick lit, etc?
A. I don’t read much chick lit (laughs), but one thing I really love is this genre of IIT novels... Chetan Bhagat and Amitabha Bagchi, both of them are extremely talented writers. It’s strange, you know, the world they are writing about is probably not of interest to anyone outside India, who haven’t been through our educational system or similar systems. To me, it was simply fascinating. Amitabha, in his first book (Above Average), what he did I think went far beyond the boundaries of any such genre — it’s really making the IITs a kind of metaphor for India...
Speaking of chick lit, at one point when I was teaching in Harvard, a Kaavya Viswanathan was my student. I never read her book, so I can’t say anything about it, except that clearly it had problems... But the work that she did for me was excellent. She was a very talented writer. (Her 2006 debut novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, written just after high school, was withdrawn after charges of plagiarism.)
I was at Harvard very briefly, and she came to some classes... I was very impressed... In that brief time that I was teaching there I had so many brilliant students from South Asia, some of whom have now published books... (such as) Ali Sethi, who’s Pakistani, a superb writer...

Q. The recent book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother created a lot of buzz in America and elsewhere. You’ve researched extensively on China — do you find parallels between the way the Chinese and Indians bring up kids, in their education systems.
A. That’s an interesting question. I can’t say I’ve read this book of Amy Chua... I’ve read about it, read excerpts from it... I’ve in fact read her earlier book World on Fire (whose subhead says it all: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability). I think she’s an exceptionally clever woman... It’s also very interesting that her children are incredibly successful, and they adore her, they’ve said so repeatedly.
I think what’s happened in America, the reason it made such an impact is that Americans have begun to realise now that there is something problematic about their system of education. For years they’ve been accustomed to thinking their education system is the best in the world; now they realise it has very deep problems. I’ve brought up two children there, they’ve been through the whole American educational system — and I’m happy to say that they’ve done very well in that system. But I certainly realise this system is riddled with terrible problems.
I also think the strengths of our system are never properly articulated. The whole world has become so battered and bullied by this constant talk about the excellence of American education by people who have no experience of it, who don’t know what it is to bring up children in different places... people automatically accept there is something magnificent in that system and that our system is horrible... And it’s really not true.
I’ve taught at Harvard and at all these places... One of the reasons I really feel relieved not to be teaching any more is that I don’t think in many significant respects that the American system works...

Q. You mean in the universities or in schools as well?
A. School education, college education... From top to bottom, it just doesn’t work. In some ways it’s become like entertainment... When as a college teacher in America you are offering a class, the children “shop” for classes. So which are the classes they’re going to take? The classes that are entertaining, the classes where they are marked very liberally. This is exactly what happens: they put their evaluations on their websites so that the students who are following know exactly who are the strict teachers, who are the not strict teachers, and they can game the system very, very well...
Education is not all fun. Education is difficult, but the idea that you have to make education fun at some point becomes self-defeating. You can’t make certain kinds of mathematics fun. You can’t make difficult things fun. And that’s not why you are doing education. Learning poetry by heart is not fun. But it’s very necessary to have that poetry in your head if you are studying English literature... I sometimes ask my children: Can you recite a poem? — and they’ve been to the top institutions in America — and no, they can’t.
They (Americans) think that rote learning is bad... But it is such an idiotic idea — what is learning but rote learning? How can you learn the multiplication tables as though it was fun? There’s nothing fun about multiplication tables... And learning is in fact 90 per cent rote learning. If you constantly attack this idea of rote learning, it’s ridiculous...

If you go to American universities now, why is it that all the departments of mathematics, engineering are filled with Asian students? They come from systems where the rigour is drilled into them from a very early age. If it hasn’t been drilled into you from an early age, you have to be truly exceptional. America is a country filled with very brilliant people, and many exceptional students. But the institutional structure doesn’t always support them.

Would you say the Indian educational system, with all its faults, still has a few lessons for America and others?

A. This is the point Amy Chua is making — in India and China and so on there is no strict dividing line between upbringing and education — it’s your family that is actually providing much of the education. And that you can’t reproduce elsewhere. For example, my niece in Kolkata, when she has to go through exams, the whole house shuts down. For two or three months no one will go out, (someone) will sit with her every evening, no one will turn on the TV, literally... the kind of things that every parent in India, every household in India does. Can you imagine this happening in America? It’s inconceivable.

Q. There are many in India who want changes in our education system, to bring in Western ideas, an American-style education...
A. That’s absolutely the wrong way to go. I’m not saying our system is without faults. There are many faults, many things wrong with it. But there’s a lot of stuff which I see constantly being said — from education ministry people and so on, most of whom have no connection with education. I look at it and just laugh to myself... These people have no conception of what they’re saying — they are going to destroy what’s good in our system and take everything that’s bad in that system and end up with the worst possible mess.

When I went from Delhi University to Oxford, I thought I was going into a place where there’s so much higher learning, so much a “life of the mind” and it was exactly the opposite... My education in Delhi had been much better than anything Oxford could have provided. I was far ahead of those other students; I’d read all the books already... I knew more than my teachers there, for heaven’s sake.

There were also wonderful things about Oxford. It let me explore avenues and byways I could not have done in Delhi, but that was possible because I’d been through this whole rigour... What really worries me is that they are in danger now of throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater!
One thing that is never factored into the debate here — do people even understand the level of cost involved... For each of my two children I’m paying over $50,000 a year for college education — each year for four years — so at the end on each child you spend something like a crore of rupees on their college education.

Our system is delivering an education which in many ways is competitive internationally — and at what cost? It’s less than one per cent of that cost. How will our society generate this kind of money for this (American) kind of education? It’s ridiculous. Even America can no longer sustain this. Everyone there is talking of the next big bubble being in American education, and I think they’re absolutely right...

Do you know what they have to do to put their children through college? People don’t realise this here — they take out these loans, and a staggering percentage of American children now come into life with a burden of loans which amount to $200,000-$300,000.

These loans have crippling rates of interest — they can never get rid of these loans, and they are specifically exempted even from bankruptcy claims... So if a person declares bankruptcy, even then they cannot get rid of these loans. For the first 20-30 years of their lives they are working to pay off these loans. Is such a system conceivable here? What impact will it have on the poor and all those who can’t afford it?

A Corporate State!!

I'm forwarding this article by Dr Vandana Shiva.We,the upwardly mobile,obsess and endlessly discuss the issue of corruption. Perhaps,this article will help us in having a better perspective.
I feel that one of the major factors behind corruption is an over centralized state apparatus endowed with huge discretionary powers.The thinking behind this could be that the State was a better arbiter to mediate between conflicting interests.But the present situation is that the State seems to be more aligned with the Corporate interest than with that of the poor, the rural and the tribal. Therefore it is imperative that powers of the State be decentralized in favour of local bodies.
Unfortunately,there is no organized effort in this direction.
Despite all the despondency all around,I remain hopeful that the people of this country will not be cowed down and something good, even for the Corporates and the State,will emerge from all these struggles. In a global,wired,world,it is impossible to fool all people for all times.
I trust all of us will retain our optimism and pray for precisely this outcome.

2010 was the year of scams — 2G Spectrum, Commonwealth Games, Adarsh Housing Society etc.

2011 has emerged as the year of the fight against corruption — with social activist Anna Hazare’s fast for a Lokpal Bill and Baba Ramdev’s fast to bring back black money stashed away in foreign banks.

The midnight police crackdown on Baba Ramdev’s satyagraha with 100,000 followers was yet another signal of the undemocratic tendency of the government to crush social movements and social protests.

At the same time, when Ramdev’s satyagraha was attacked in Delhi, 20 police battalions were being used to crush the anti-Posco movement in Odisha and destroy the betel-vine gardens that are the basis of people’s prosperous living economy, earning small farmers Rs 400,000 per acre.

The use of force has become the norm for the government dealing with people’s protests.
In a democracy, which is supposed to be by the people, of the people and for the people, protests and movements are supposed to signal what people want or do not want.

Listening to people is the democratic duty of governments. When governments fail to listen to the people and use force against peaceful movements they become undemocratic; they become dictatorships.

When, in addition, governments that are supposed to represent the peoples’ will and interests in a representative democracy start to represent the will and interests of corporations and big business, the government mutates from being of the people, by the people and for the people to becoming of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations. The state is becoming a corporate state. And this mutation transforms democracy into fascism.

Neo-liberal economic policies have a political fallout of inducing this mutation of government from a democratic representative of peoples’ interests to an undemocratic representative of corporate interests. Not only is neo-liberalism leading to the privatisation of seed and land, water and biodiversity, health and education, power and transport, it is also leading to the privatisation of government itself. And a privatised corporate state starts to see people fighting for public good and economic democracy as a threat.

It is in this context that we need to read the repeated statements of government ministers that peoples’ protests and social movements are a threat to democracy. Social movements are raising issues about economic justice and economic democracy. Corruption is a symptom of the deepening trends of economic injustice and undermining of economic democracy.

We need to connect the dots between the diverse social movements of tribals and farmers fighting to defend their land and natural resources, the movements of workers fighting to defend jobs and livelihoods, and the new anti-corruption movements whose faces are Mr Hazare and Baba Ramdev.

Corruption is the unjust, illegal and private appropriation of public resources and public wealth, be it natural wealth, public goods and services or financial wealth. The ecology movements and tribal and farmers’ movements are fighting against the corruption involved in the massive resource grab and land grab taking place across the country for the mining of bauxite, coal and iron ore, for mega steel plants and power plants, for super highways and luxury townships.

Farmers fighting the land grab along the Yamuna Expressway were killed on May 7. While they received a mere Rs 300 per sq. m. for their land the developers who grab the land in partnership with government using the 1894 colonial land acquisition law sell it for Rs 600,000 per sq. m. This is corporate corruption.

I have just received an SMS:
* Lush Green Farmhouses in Noida Expressway
* 10 minutes from South Delhi
* Clubs, Swimming Pool, Cricket Stadium
* Government Electricity and Roads

Farmhouses of farmers are burnt and destroyed to create “farmhouses” for the rich. Farms are destroyed to create Formula 1 race tracks and swimming pools for the elite. This obscene, violent, unjust land grab is the cruellest face of corruption in today’s India.

The privatisation of our seed, our food, our water, our health, our education, our electricity and mobility is another facet of corporate corruption. In the case of the privatisation of seed, farmers are paying with their very lives. Seed costs rise and farmers are trapped in debt. Farmer suicides need to be seen as part of the web of privatisation as corruption.

The government of Maharashtra has signed memorandums of understanding with Monsanto to hand over seed, the genetic wealth of farmers’ research and the knowledge wealth of society to a seed MNC. This is corporate corruption. The government of India wants to totally dismantle the public distribution system to benefit agribusiness and corporate retail. Undermining the right to food is corporate corruption.

The appropriation of public and national wealth through bribes and black money is the third facet of corruption. It is when all the streams of the fight for economic justice and economic democracy join as one will we have a strong and vibrant movement for defending and deepening democracy. Social movements are the life blood of democracy.

The government will, of course, try its best to crush democracy to protect the private economic interests it represents. The two faces of government who most frequently make statements about social movements subverting democracy are the human resources development minister, Mr Kapil Sibal and the home minister, Mr P. Chidambaram, both of whom have represented corporations against the public interest in their legal career.

They carry these corporate loyalties into their political career. They will do their very best to use every undemocratic means to crush movements for democracy and justice. Operation Green Hunt in tribal areas and the midnight crackdown on Baba Ramdev’s satyagraha are just two examples of the use of violence to protect corrupt corporate interests.

The corrupt militarised, totalitarian power of the corporate state is not democracy. Peoples’ vibrant movements fighting the concentration of economic and political power and the corrupt means used for concentration of that power are at the heart of democracy. It is people and social movements who have kept and will keep democracy alive in India.

The author is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust

Hemang Bhatt 22/06/2011 - 03:14am
Stopping Ramdevji could have been done in a civilszed way, say, give them 12 or 24 hours notice to vacate and give this notice publicly, say on TV. Then if they do not vacate then you can use a bit of force, but, beating up children and women at night?


sushant chakravarty 22/06/2011 - 02:12am
I fully agree with you that the ongoing events one after other, be it the series of scandals and then the merciless crackdown on innocent protestors. are making us bow our head in shame in front of the world. In fact we have devalued the people's right which is the most significant in the democratic setup.
We have come to such situation that we have to redefine democracy and try to find out whether democracy that exist in present context is really of, for and by the people.
According to the definition in vogue today, democracy is defined as the government of the people, by the people and for the people. Adult suffrage plays an important role in democracy. In the name of forming a democratic government, different political and communal parties throw their hats into the election ring. Every party issues its own election manifesto to influence the people in order to carry the laurels in the ensuing election battle. Besides, different parties entice the voters through election propaganda.
Where educated people are in the majority and political consciousness is adequate, it is not very difficult for people to weigh the pros and cons of the manifesto of a particular party and to ascertain what is in the best interests of the people. But where there is a dearth of education and political consciousness, and where people fail to understand the reality of the manifesto and are misled by wrong propaganda, they cast their ballots in favour of parties whose ideals go contrary to the social interest. Consequently, parties are installed in power which go against the interests of the people.
In the present democratic system, the right to cast a vote depends on age. Suppose people get the right of suffrage at the age of 21. This assumes that all persons attaining the age of 21 have an understanding of the basic problems of the people, but in reality many people above the age of 21 remain ignorant of these problems for want of political consciousness. So the right of suffrage should not be based on age. This right should be vested in those who are educated and politically conscious. Conferring voting rights on the basis of age means that people may cast their ballots without proper understanding and knowledge, while many educated and politically conscious people are debarred from voting because of their age. This is the greatest lacuna of democracy.
The second lacuna is that in the democratic system people have to hear lengthy, insubstantial lectures which are also often misleading. Leaders have to canvass all and sundry to get votes. They have to placate thieves, dacoits and hypocrites because the latter command great voting power. That is why democracy is the government of thieves, dacoits and hypocrites. The government cannot take action against them because a government which curbs their nefarious activities cannot last long.
It is possible in a democratic government that the members or the elected representatives comprise more than fifty percent of the total number of candidates winning at the hustings while the total votes secured by their party may be less than fifty per cent. In such a condition the government is said to be of a majority party, but in reality it is the government of a particular minority party. As the government is formed by a particular party the opinion of another party or other parties is not respected in the legislature. Though all parties participate in passing legislation, bill are passed according to the wishes of the party that is in the majority. When acts are passed by a particular party, that party often derives benefit from the enacted law while the people at large do not derive much benefit from it at all.
Kapil Sibal with his articulate way will try to convince all that is wrong as right and push the Lokpal bill which suits the corrupt government and all his colleagues will help him in this misdeed. Just imagine he quotes Baba Ramdev a real heroic figure who has reinvented Yoga in our country as charlatan.
The problem with him that he has to make his party bosses happy and get blessings of Manmohan and Sonia.
We have to understand that the government is formed by a particular party, the independence of the government servants is also impaired. The members and leaders of the ruling party interfere with the work of the executive and force it to tow the party line. Under duress work is done which benefits a particular party but harms the interests of the people at large. In the democratic system government officials cannot go against the wishes of the government leaders as the former work under the direction of the secretariat which is headed by the cabinet formed by the ruling party.
In so-called democracies even the judiciary cannot function independently as the ruling party pressures judges and judicial officers. Thus judgements are sometimes delivered which strangulate justice.
Independence of the audit department, too, is indispensable for the proper functioning of the public exchequer. But owing to the pressure of the party in power, it often fails to act independently. For want of proper auditing, public funds are squandered and misused. Consequently nation-building activity is not carried out properly. A government is to govern and serve the people, but it is not possible to govern in the democratic system, for who is there to be governed?
The public are placated in order to secure votes which makes the would-be rulers unfit to rule. And the would-be rulers are themselves incompetent, immoral, hypocritical exploiters or how else would they get elected? They take recourse to devious strategies and the power of money. That is why there is no one to provide worthy leadership. And as far as the question of the people is concerned, that is meaningless in a democracy. In this system the party and the leaders serve themselves in all possible ways.
Thus, it is crystal-clear that the democratic form of government is riddled with lacunae. Without removing them it is impossible to properly run the administration of a country.
Now let us discuss some reforms to democracy. Democracy cannot succeed in countries where people are illiterate, immoral, or backward. Countries like England, the USA and France are suitable for democracy, but even these countries need to introduce some reforms.
First, legislators in the states and at the centre should be elected on the recommendations of the people at large. At the time of electing representatives the people should pay heed to their education, moral standard and sacrifice for the society etc. If the representatives are elected keeping in view these factors, they will not be guided by party interests but by collective interests. In their minds the interests of the entire human race and society will dominate, and not any class interests. They will be able to enact laws keeping in mind the prob lems of all and sundry, thereby accelerating the speed of social reconstruction. Their impartial service will bring happiness to all.
The voting rights should be vested in educated persons who have political consciousness and awareness of people’s problems. Age should not be a bar to voting right. If illiterate people are given voting rights there is the possibility of antisocial and incompetent representatives being elected.
To provide a fearless and independent ambience to the administration, the secretariat should be kept free from pressures from the cabinet. The cabinet should confine itself to legislation, the passage and passing of the budget, the implementation of its plans and policies, defense etc. The power of ministers should remain confined to the parliament and they should not poke their nose into the workings of the secretariat. The chief secretary should not be under the president or the prime minister but should act independently as the executive head. All the secretaries should work under the chief secretary. Free from cabinet pressures, every department will serve the people well.
In the present system the judiciary functions under a cabinet minister, and pressure from the minister may impair its independent functioning. To remove this defect and to ensure impartial justice, the judiciary should have the right to function independently. In no case should the chief justice be treated as inferior to the president or the prime minister. Only moralists and honest persons should be installed on the hallowed seat of justice. If people fail to keep this issue under their close scrutiny, injustice will take the place of justice.
Finally, for the proper utilization of the public exchequer, the independence of the audit department too, is a must. The auditor general should be independent of the sceptre of the president or the prime minister. Only an independent audit de partment can keep proper accounts of every department.
Thus, there should be four compartments in a properly constituted democracy – legislature, executive, judiciary and public exchequer – and all of them should be independent from one another. But in such a situation there is still the possibility of injustice and exploitation. So to supervise or monitor the function of all these compartments, the benevolent dictatorship of the board of Sadvipras(Group of honest and moral people, In this context led by Lokpal) is required so that spirituality will reign supreme.