A new book titled “Democracy of the Oppressed: Adivasi Poverty and Hunger” by Dr. Ramdas Rupavath, faculty in the Department of Political Science & Head, Centre for Human Rights, University of Hyderabad will be published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. The book has foreword written by Professor Werner Menski, SOAS, University of London.
The book revisits the concepts of the new politics of welfare and Adivasi livelihood within the context of state policy and socio-cultural development witnessed in India after Independence in the Adivasi scheduled areas. India needs to develop its own proactive measures to cultivate a democracy of the oppressed in order to combat tyranny of minority rich classes prevailing in the country. The economic deprivation, social alienation, destruction of large-scale ecology, displacement, in the name of democracy the political Power controlled by the rich class.
As a South Asia specialist and editor of South Asia Research since 2003, I have been privileged to learn about multiple voices from below in South Asia for many years. In this context, I first encountered the earlier work of the esteemed author of the present book in about 2014. I took his critical writings seriously, despite the fact that a major argument of his article focused on the model of a vicious circle of disadvantage for tribal communities in India. The fieldwork conducted for that article of 2016 had clearly identified many bottlenecks of development in tribal children’s education, but also began to show possibilities of change. I found the glimpses of hopeful evidence inspiring and could recognise them as reflections of emerging transformational change, also in tribal environments of India.
In contrast, the model of a vicious circle was something that I instinctively opposed for several reasons. The image itself suggests an interlinked ring of factors that operate to prevent change. It reflects fatalistic submission to disempowering oppression, a strategy that my activist, development-oriented mental frame of reference does not accept as healthy or productive. Use of such images risks constructing depressing barriers for any hope of real change. It discourages the voices from below and suggests to the victim(s) of oppression or disadvantage that there is no hope for relief, since so many changes need to happen before there could be any real progress. I was happy to discover that in this book the vicious cycle model does not feature.
My own research on South Asia and on India in particular has consistently suggested that studying India is not the same as examining earlier stages of development in Europe. There may be many points of comparison, but especially the demographic and socio-cultural realities of the subcontinent have generated very different conditions for any form of discourse about socio-economic development. Also, intimately connected to this, law-related core issues such as protection of basic social and economic rights need to be tackled in light of South Asian conditions, with plurifocal historical consciousness, and in massively different ways than in sparsely populated states of the Global North. It is also far too simplistic to treat India as a common law country, and to build on such misguided premises elaborately constructed arguments and impressively formulated assertions that all India needs to do is follow ‘the West’.
It might help here to understand my comparative approach and academic stance if I indicate briefly what I remember from growing up in a small village in North Germany. In the mid-1940s, with very immediate reverberations at least into the early 1950s, Germany was flooded with huge numbers of refugees from former parts of Germany that are now Russia and Poland. My father, who was 19 years old in 1945 and thus conscripted into the army at a late stage, on his return from being a prisoner of war in 1948, found that his home in Eastern Prussia was now in Poland. Facing complete disruption, he started work on a farm, just for food and shelter. A few years later, I observed as a child that many people still worked for food. A farmer’s wife, assisted by several young women, would have to prepare cooked lunches, plus coffee and cakes for late afternoon, every day in busy periods for dozens of people engaged in harvesting and other agricultural work. If the food offered was not good enough, people would gossip and go to work for another farmer.
A few years later, though, German farm workers expected money rather than food. Still some years later, most of them had abandoned agricultural work and found full-time jobs in various branches of the economy. Well before the arrival of machines that replaced most agricultural helpers, in the era of booming post-war German reconstruction, rapid changes were experienced by those willing to work hard. In fact, soon there was a severe scarcity of labour, and Germany famously began to recruit foreigners as ‘guestworkers’, from far-flung places such as Turkey, Spain and Portugal, Greece and Italy. Many of these migrant workers simply stayed on and made Germany their home.
Such rapid socio-economic changes reflect the increasing ability of the industrial and service sectors of early post-War Germany to absorb the surplus rural workforce. This transformational capacity as an early and swiftly expanding developmental factor in Germany has definitely been missing in India’s early postcolonial economic reconstruction, which was further complicated by refugee movements in and after 1947 and significant general population increases also in rural areas. As this book confirms, in line with many other studies, Nehru’s focus on industrial development studiously sidelined concerns for the rural unemployed and underemployed masses. This may not be seen as a more or less unwitting oppression of vast numbers of people, rather a deliberate forgetting, or ‘oublierring’, as a recent study on caste discriminations has called this, the presence of disadvantaged village people in India, despite Mahatma Gandhi’s constant reminders, which of course fell silent in 1948.
In the rural Germany that I experienced a few years later, nobody seemed to talk about the right to work as an entitlement. Initially, simply the need to secure work in order to survive was dominant. It was clear to the numerous landless people in the villages that one had to build a future for oneself and one’s children, who initially also worked with their parents on the fields when they were not in school. A perspective from below, through this lens from 1950s Germany, indicates the presence of disadvantaged groups of people, refugees in this case, who knew that they had to help themselves to rebuild their lives and could not expect state handouts to secure their day-to-day survival and economic progress. Fortunately, increasingly ebullient market forces swiftly took care of the basic needs of such people. But I remember also that the collection of minor forest produce, as it is called in India, was still widely engaged in, mainly collecting firewood, herbs, berries or mushrooms, largely for domestic consumption rather than for sale.
The conditions in post-War Germany are, of course, very different from post-colonial India. And yet there are notable similarities, too. In both cases, an early government policy focused on industrialisation was promoted. If in Germany, this soon led to the vanishing of agricultural labour and a general scarcity of labour, the opposite has been the predicament of India. Here demographic developments have been such that the population has meanwhile mushroomed to over 1.3 billion people. As a result, a massive challenge for Indian perspectives from below has remained how to break into the labour market, a kind of glass ceiling predicament faced by hundreds of millions of young Indians today at different levels. In post-1990s conditions of economic liberalisation in India, reinforced by a notable move towards privatisation, which may also be described as a withdrawal of the stressed-out Indian state from certain domains, the competition for meaningful jobs has become a somewhat mad race on many tracks.
If the above observations apply mainly to urban Indians and the some extent also to the general rural population, for many tribal people of India, these changes at higher levels and largely outside their traditional habitat did not remain without ramifications. However, the implications have often not been positive at all. Non-tribal people migrated to and encroached on tribal habitats. Numerous huge infrastructural state projects, supported by assertive use of the ‘eminent domain principle’, simply took away the tribals’ forest lands and ruined their traditional livelihood patterns. At the same time, the erratic and often precarious sustainability of self-sufficient small-scale agriculture and collection of forest produce that used to sustain most tribal people of India could all too often not alleviate the constant risks of hunger and even starvation. Meanwhile, in addition to massive land alienations, various impacts of what one may broadly speaking call climate change have impacted even on remote forest dwellers. All of this, as we know, has led to mass movements to urban centres, in the hope of finding employment and decent means of survival. Such distress migration, which quite a few authors are seeking to portray these days as a form of climate refugee movement, causes yet more problematic congestions in India’s already overcrowded and heavily polluted major conurbations and other urban centres. It would clearly not be sustainable in the long run to simply watch such manifestations of rural-urban migration without any state intervention. But how does one prevent rural citizens from leaving their habitat if the law guarantees a right to freedom of movement within the nation?
The present book examines the impacts of a massive rural employment scheme, under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) of 2005. The book is based on based on extensive in-depth field studies and questionnaires, administered to tribal populations in various districts of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. In the later, fieldwork-based chapters of this book with their detailed findings, one locates amazingly rich evidence of what may be achieved with some forward-looking rights-focused rural employment planning. However, state involvement in such scenarios is not only designed to benefit the historically oppressed and neglected sections of India’s population, such as India’s tribal communities or Scheduled Tribes, probably many more than 100 million people now. It addresses country-wide all kinds of rural communities at risk of starvation and seeks to prevent them from moving to the big conurbations.
The present book is not a legal study, yet it conveys very clearly the message that India’s sound constitutional framework has firm pillars of support for such wide-ranging policies and measures of poverty alleviation. These solid signposts dictate that pro-poor and pro-rural policies need to be devised and constantly refined by those who put themselves in charge of development issues or were appointed to deliver results. The focus on rural development work risks becoming an elistist growth industry, a self-interested domain of specialists, forgetting or deliberately ignoring that public interest demands that the legitimate expectations of disadvantaged citizens are the main concern, and that their perspectives from below must not be ignored. Crucially, such development measures will therefore need to be monitored for effectiveness, ultimately to fulfil the solemn promises of the Preamble of the Constitution of 1950 and other relevant provisions.
The sub-tile of this book, ‘Democracy of the Oppressed’, seems to indicate that more consciously targeted and democratically inspired strategies are now at work to redress traditional and customary imbalances that could easily have fatal consequences for the lives and well-being of many millions of Indians. Together with India’s Fundamental Rights guarantees, the solemn preambular promises of ‘JUSTICE, social, economic and political’, together with LIBERTY, EQUALITY and FRATERNITY, have constantly risked being violated and discarded, so that it often appeared, taking a perspective from below, that they exist only on paper or as pious symbols. However, the Indian state, whatever that entity precisely means, is seriously charged with putting these solemn promises into practice, to the best of the state’s abilities. One learns this from a detailed study of the increasingly intensive interaction of the Constitution’s provisions on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy, a topic that is repeatedly referred to within the present study. This is Indian democracy at work, very different from what it was like in the early postcolonial era, but also noticeably quite different from various models of the Global North for how to manage a nation state of such massive dimensions that involve so much inequality and asymmetrical socio-economic structures.
To what extent India’s constitutional promises include a full-fledged and straightforward ‘right to work’ has remained open to various ideologically coloured interpretations. There is no doubt, however, that Mahatma Gandhi’s inspiring early leadership is reflected in the relevant key provisions of the Directive Principles of State Policy. Article 39(a) provides that ‘[t]he State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing – (a) that the citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means to livelihood’. Article 41 reinforces this and makes this important principle even clearer:
- Right to work, to education and to public assistance in certain cases.-The State shall, within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provision for securing the right to work, to education and to public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement, and in other cases of undeserved want.
This kind of provision certainly does not mean a basic right for all Indians to a stable, somewhat cushy, well-paid job with certain formal privileges. In training seminars for young academics in India, we have sometimes had to comment that this does not mean a right to a post-doctoral placement. However, the Constitution clearly demands that the State shall take seriously not only the evident needs of persons who are physically or otherwise prevented from engaging in paid work, but also those, tellingly, who suffer from ‘undeserved want’. The subtle language of this kind of provision can therefore easily be activated, if there is a will, to imply an obligation for the State to provide certain classes of disadvantaged people with sustainable opportunities for paid work.
I suggest that by connecting this element of ‘work’ to Article 21 of the Constitution, whether as a right, or in fact as a duty of every able-bodied Indian citizen, as we know since the protracted debates in India’s Constituent Assembly, we may get some further guidance. Notably, this is also proposed and highlighted in the extensive introduction of an important earlier study on the working of the MGNREGA. By guaranteeing the right to life in Article 21, in all its various dimensions, the Indian Constitution also suggests an obligation on the state to create, or at least to endeavour to provide and even guarantee, an environment in which every person protected by this Constitution has a basic right to survival. In a spirit of state welfarism, this may be interpreted as a basic obligation of the state to provide needy people at least access to some food and potable water. As a matter of rules, or even basic values, this may be clear-cut in principle, though it may run into problems of practical execution or may be counteracted by questionable assertions that such support is not possible, or not affordable. Such political obfuscations apart, more critical are debates over what should be the appropriate process(es) for the Indian state to implement and/or make such basic provisions available.
I have argued for many years that since India is not Switzerland or Singapore, assumptions that state welfare may be handed out to all those who claim to need it would simply not be feasible for a massive nation such as India. India’s leaders of government, but also the higher judiciary, seem to know this very well, but may not speak about it in much detail. They have formulated policies of social welfare, though, especially obvious in family laws, that rely on people’s and families’ self-controlled ordering and mutual support structures, rather than promising that the welfare state will pick up the bills. Indeed, such fiscally prudent policies seem to be protecting India’s welfare state from excessive expectations and potentially fraudulent claims, by throwing the welfare burdens back to the social realm and the respective families. Insufficient attention has been given to such connections in India’s ‘progressive’ family law and personal law debates. Elsewhere, arguments driven by rich countries with small populations, such as Finland, that a basic wage for every citizen would take sufficient care of everyone’s immediate needs of survival, and would thus address the requirement of guaranteeing the right to life for everyone, have been debated at length, but dismissed as fallacious by experienced Indian experts.
The Indian Constitution does, however, as shown above, demand focused action to save the country’s most deprived citizens from starvation. One might cynically connect this to attempts to garner votes, yet such unproductive politicking distracts from the seriousness of this problem. The predicament of avoiding mass starvation has been shared by all parties and governments seeking to rule India, ever since independence, and seems reflected in the subtle wording of the pertinent constitutional provisions cited above. Significantly, Indira Gandhi’s slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’ about banishing poverty echoes in this book, but the challenges for India in the twenty-first century have risen to much higher dimensions and infinitely larger scales. This has demanded more attention for well-planned state action with a long-term perspective, not some one-off fire-fighting here and there. This book shows well, despite some reservations about such centralising powers, that this planned action seems to arise right from the federal centre and its financial resources, which are now handed down for distribution more or less directly to the local level. This method, it seems, is deliberately bypassing the states of India to a large extent, since the involvement of state bureaucracies would risk further leakages of the assigned funds and provisions.
The current rural employment policies and schemes under MGNREGA that this book examines in depth through extensive field studies, for parts of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, are therefore truly innovative, and as yet incompletely understood. Such policies clearly originated in the Congress era, but are being implemented now in ways that seem to make significant advances in encouraging Indian tribal people’s active participation in democratic decentralisation, giving them not only day-to-day support, but also a voice and platforms for making themselves heard, in ways that did not exist before.
It can certainly not be claimed that the job is done, and that everything is ‘hunky-dory’ in India, as a critical friend of mine, who is also a retired professor, tried to put in my mouth recently. Yet the author of the present study is quite correct to portray the MGNREGA as a partial victory for a full-fledged right to employment and, especially, as a valuable form of empowerment for women as the most visible effect of this scheme. There are grave continuing challenges along this route, though. Given that, as the present study confirms, so many tribal people remain uninformed or insufficiently involved in the operation of such schemes for rural work programmes, important chances are still being missed to make such projects as productive as possible. It is encouraging to read that there are many recent initiatives to promote self-help groups (SHGs) and low level self-employment schemes. As the tribal people presented in this book seem to have more disposable income now as a result of targeted local work programmes under MGNREGA, wise decisions about how to spend the new earnings are crucial. Frittering one’s income away in frivolous ways will raise new risks of precariousness. The book does not say much about this, but probably the role of women in this particular context will be crucial.
This study makes especially valuable suggestions about the need for deeper consciousness of India’s tribal people in terms of their involvement as empowered stakeholders in the planning, execution and auditing of MGNREGA projects. This, then, means tribal people are not only encouraged to claim their right to work. They are also empowered to practise self-controlled ordering for themselves and their environment. They are encouraged to take more control and to plan their own future and the sustainable future of the precious environment they live in. One of the most significant benefits of the MGNREGA schemes seems to be that it does encourage local people, including India’s tribals, to stay in their respective locality, thus slowing down the frightening scale of urbanisation in India. If the prolonged involvement of MGNREGA can alleviate tribal poverty in India in the long run, and also avoid the much-lamented and still observed snatching of state benefits by advanced people, then a truly effective revolution of the relationship between the Indian central state and the most peripheral citizens has been achieved. India needs to develop its own pro-active measures to cultivate a democracy of the oppressed. This book indicates significant progress on that road and its findings should be widely publicised.
Emeritus Professor of South Asian Laws
SOAS, University of London