Palaniappan Of Theni

Palaniappan herds cows in the hills near Theni;
school he is enrolled in does not have a teacher,
windows gaping holes that offer entry to goats,
their pellets under tables still soft,
bulbs hang from exposed wires,
toilet is the bush beyond the banyan tree.
His father insists that he sits a few hours
at school with the children of the village –
mass of oily heads, sweaty bodies, loud vocal cords.
The day at school is done,
Murugan who owns the street corner tea shop
comes to ring the bell, in the belt
that holds his lungi at waist is the Tamil Daily
rolled tight as a baton to swat flies,
the Daily carries this headline:
Right to Education Bill effective from April.

Read Write Poem NaPoWriMo # 29

Degrees Of Deception

 

Chennai experienced incessant rains a fortnight ago. Even as my life was limping back to a semblance of normalcy, the meteorological  department a week later predicted another cyclone. A  depression brooded about 1000 kms off the coast of Tamilnadu, we followed as it moved as close as 750kms. I took to praying, an activity that I engage in with a lot of self irony whenever I do it during times of crisis.  When the  depression  weakened we  sighed with relief and we speculated jocularly what the metereological  department would have named the cyclone. The earlier one that paralyzed our lives carried a household name – Nisha.

I was marooned in my flat for four days without electricity, I could not step out because there was five feet water in our apartment complex  the first day after the rains. The water had entered into the   chambers where electricity connection from the TNEB are sourced to the flats , the TNEB technicians were called in to disconnect electricity supply coming  to our building. We were without electricity for four days, there was no power to run water pumps , so there was restricted water supply  all the four days. We had to wade through four feet of water to get our supplies of milk and drinking water.

This is nothing new in most parts of India, we are desensitized to images of people  afflicted  by floods. Every year while reeling under oppressive heat in Chennai, we read in the papers of the progress of southwest monsoon over the states of Kerala, Maharashtra, the plains of Northern India, the spate of Brahmaputra in the north east.  When the south west monsoon has spent itself the northern plains cool off. Cold wind blows towards the Indian Ocean and it picks moisture in the Bay of Bengal giving rain to Tamil Nadu, coastal Andhra Pradesh. Spells of low pressure develops over the Bay of Bengal, sometimes developing into cyclone giving heavy rains along the coast.

All the major cities, towns, and villages in India reel under rains, south west or north east;  crops are destroyed, thousands of people are rendered  homeless, properties get damaged.  The patterns of monsoon repeat year after year and news of the scars that rains leave repeat every year. We are never ready to manage the floods. Cities and towns are crowded, infrastructures like storm water drains and drainages are poorly maintained, drainage basins have been eaten away by illegal and unauthorized encroachments.

Those are larger issues that I cannot address, and those who should, do not care.  But I want to look at my peculiar situation because no municipal corporation or government has cheated me the way the builder and developer of our apartment has. I live in a locality called Virugambakkam, in a particular apartment  called Jain Ashraya Phase 2 built by the Jain Housing Society. It is located in  Vembuliamman street, a lane off the arterial Arcot road. Once considered a suburb, Virugambakkam has become a sought  after residential locality due to its proximity to Vadapalani and Kodambakkam. The lane where our apartment complex is located is the place where KK Nagar ends and Virugambakkam begins. Located in this limnal place has its advantage as we can move into the city via KK Nagar faster without getting into the traffic choked Arcot road. We moved into the apartment in 2005.  

There are multiple versions circulated about what this plot was before it was acquired by the Jains. Ours is in fact the third property that the Jains developed in the same neighbourhood, the first two are next to ours, developed sometime the end of 1990s and early 2000. Did all the three plots belong to an individual, sold away in parts at different time? Were all the three plots similar, farm lands and groves as many say? While remembering this suburb of Chennai, many people recollect that this was farmlands, groves and swamplands.  It is difficult to believe that all the three plots were similar, looking at them now. The first two plots are at the level of the road, while ours is a good four feet below the level of the road. Were all the three plots the same level, did the developer raise the levels of the earlier two plots? Why did the Jains not raise the level of our land before the apartments were built? Or was our plot not at the same level as the others, many say that our plot was a pond before it was drained for farmland. Two possibilities can be summarized – the other two plots had been raised to the level as road while ours was not by the builder; or the other two were  already at a raised level and Jains did not want to spend in raising the level of our plot as that would involve costs that they did not incur on their earlier two projects.

Jains had by the time our project was launched, won a considerable amount of credibility in the market among the middle class Chennaites.  Jain Housing Society was one of the builders along with Alacrity and Ceebros who was  involved in promoting  building projects in the suburbs – a flat in the suburbs was  more affordable for people like us than buying a flat in downtown.

Many of us during our visit to the site during construction ( we had already made our first payment towards the flat  ) enquired the Jains about the level of the apartment complex. We were asked not to worry about the level as it was intentional, part of the design of the architect. The drainage of water had been taken care of, they assured.  As the flat was built, the view from the car park of the tastefully landscaped garden gave a subterranean feel and we thought the creative architect had designed at this level for aesthetics. Little did we realize that the building was severely flawed.

Were we so naïve that we did not see this structural flaw that is so blatantly visible to anyone now? We were heady about our investment for several reasons and we so much wanted to believe that we were buying our dreams at a rate that was affordable for us, of course with fat loans from banks that would take us many years to repay.  My husband and I had never been astute about our savings and investments, but we wanted to think that nothing much had been lost and buying a flat with a large terrace would affirm that we were not too bad at all despite our lackadaisical attitude to matters serious like planning for the future. We look at our flat as a life time property, a place where my husband and I will grow old, from where my son will leave to carve his own life.  So it hurts very deep down that the Jains had deceived us in our faith that we kept in ourselves and a part of faith that we invested in them as a conduit of our dreams.  We were so naïve that we did not see that they were only doing business with us.

We are pained to see that all the residents of the 120 flats are naïve like us, they too have just this one home, not in a position to chuck this and move elsewhere. Value of property has sky rocketed, they can’t think of buying property in this locality which has long ago ceased to be a suburb, the city is pushing its boundaries farther and farther. Yes, the value of our flat has multiplied, but it is of no importance to people like us who will never sell our flats. Our flat is not an investment but the only home that we had ever wanted to build. Jains has not taken cognizance of these values that my family seems to be sharing with most of the families in our apartment complex.

The year we occupied the flat, 2005, we experienced heavy rains, unprecedented and the rains caught us in a spell of surprise i
nitially, and then in shock and outrage. Our apartment complex was flooded, the building was steeped in three feet water, the car park was inundated, the garden area was all submerged, the lobby area was filled with water. The electrical connections from the Main terminals to the flats were under water , for safety TNEB suspended electrical connection to our flat. The water pumps were submerged and anyway we did not have electrical power to run the pumps. So we went without water. Many of the families moved out, makeshift rafts with tyres and wooden plank transported old people to the gate. We were not prepared for anything of this magnitude. It took five days to pump the water out and nearly a week for normalcy to reign.

At that time, we had been on a one year contract for maintenance with Promags, an organization that is a subsidiary of Jain Housing Society.  Their officers worked day and night to bale out water and restore normalcy.  Soon after, we went and met up the Chairman/ Director of the Jains. We expressed our anger, there was more helplessness than anger, and a deep sense of outrage.

Jains undertook to redress the situation in certain ways. They promised to fill all the water bodies that they had created in the landscaped garden. These water bodies were non operative and had turned as breeding ground for mosquitoes. They then raised the height of the water pumps, they helped in setting motor pumps and pipes at various locations to pump out water during rains. An important outlet with a powerful pump was placed on the northern side of the building. This powerful motor would drain the rain water into the storm water drain on the Arcot road, an arterial road that is about 100 metres from our building. This underground pipe ran through a plot that had just then been bought by the Jains to develop into an apartment complex. The Jains completed these tasks, spent a few lakhs on these jobs and left the scene. Again, we trusted the Jains and believed that everything was in place. Thankfully we did not receive a rain that was as extreme as the year 2005.

2008 and Nisha proved to be something else. Within three days Chennai received rains that were six times more than the average rainfall that Chennai receives. Chembaramkkam lake was overflowing and so was Porur lake. Porur lake has been encroached by illegal settlements , so have all the canals in the nearby localities. Hence there is no channel for the rain water to course through to join the Adyar River. Whenever Chembarambakkam  lake is full, excess water is discharged and diverted into the Adyar river. The river swells beyond its capacity and floods the low lying regions.

Water level rose steadily in our apartment complex, principally because the inflow from the road was more than what we were pumping out. We learnt that the water was not getting drained from the northern side into the storm water drain in Arcot road.  Ironically the pump was in good working condition, the water that was pumped out was flowing back into the building. We suspected the drain, we dug to see where the problem lay. We observed that the stone drain that ran along the driveway of the new Jains complex was only few inches as against the two feet depth that the Jains promised us.  The movement of cars and vehicles had caused the drain to cave in.

The water  was first ankle deep when all of us moved our cars out , we parked them in drier areas – that was an effort by itself because no apartments in the neighborhood had enough parking place to accommodate our cars, so we drove about to various locations, homes of friends and relatives. Water then lapped into our lobby, we watched with consternation as the chamber where the electrical  connection for the flats are drawn from was getting filled up with water. It kept rising to a dangerous level and we called the TNEB to disconnect the connection coming to our building. It rained incessantly and we retired for the night our building plunged in darkness and our taps dry. What pained us and left us with a feeling of being cheated was that the other three Jains flats (two developed before ours and the one after ours) were safe and dry. And we knew that that was only the beginning because there was the forecast of a cyclone passing close to the coast of Pondicherry and Cuddalore.

We got up the next morning to see four feet of water in our lobby and five feet in the car park. The garden and the walkway were covered with sheets of water. We knew that we were reliving the 2005 floods. We will revisit the situation many more times as long as we live here and whenever the rains are intense because nobody can quarrel with the fundamental structural error that makes our plot a large bowl where excess water collect. We cannot put our building on stilts. So until then ….  And no contingency plan is fool proof, for various reasons that involve us as well as the Jains. We expected   the Jains to execute their promise with sincerity. We did not check when the pipes were laid, whether they ran deep. We trusted the Jains, as we had always done and also because we started feeling that Jains was doing a favour. Actually we have, now more than before, started believing that we are unfortunate to have bought this flat and that we had acted foolishly. So the Jains have been exonerated, they were and are doing what they are good at – doing business . They are not morally responsible if we lacked foresight.

We have gone to the Jains again asking for help. The negotiation will be a long drawn out, what will evolve this time is a matter of speculation. We have become like old people who learn to live with pains and cracks, smiling through decayed gums and rheumy eyes. We will noisily celebrate New Year Party in our car park area, forgetting (again like old people who have memory lapse) that the same space was lapping with rain and sewer water, that ghostly echoes ran through the emptiness of dark nights, just a month ago. And we will also invite to our apartment complex the Director/  Chairman of the Jain Housing Society, to hoist our country’s flag on the Independence Day. We need the Jains in the future years, don’t we? We have forged a relationship with the Jains.

How Much Do We Do

How much do the brief reports in the newspapers leave an impact on us? These are   reporting of events that appear on the first page, they run along the margins of the main story. We sip our morning tea as we sleepily skim the first page, not even registering these strips of news that we read as we impatiently move on to more interesting stories. If we come across names that are familiar, these stick in our memory out of context. That was what happened when I read about a dharna that VP Singh led in which Raj Babbar participated. These two names were impressed in my mind in isolation and I did not register any thing else – what was the issue at hand, not that the news report itself was helpful. When I rack my brain hard I can recollect that it had something to do with farmers, nothing else I remember.

There are two main concerns here. What do we read in the newspaper? Do they leave an impression on us? Is this dependent on the way I read, the background and personality that I carry to my reading activity or is it the politics of reporting that conditions my reading? A criss cross of issues construct a text, the newspaper is a text that is constructed at various levels by various scribes – the reader being an important one.

I hail from a certain background, I carry a certain personality to my reading – reading, especially newspaper reading on certain days, in certain frames of mind becomes an activism. Further, my subjectivity that inflects every activity, my reading included, is constructed by factors like family, values, class, culture and gender. It is on this layered site that my responses are shored up.

I open the door a couple of times to check if the newspaper is delivered, I have to wait for the newspaper to have my tea. These two have to go together. If the paper is late, I carry the irritation to the reading activity. The script starts being constructed on this frame of reference.

I carry memories of reservation bill that VP Singh introduced during his reign as the Prime Minister of India. This provoked a large furore among the youth of the country, hundreds of young people partook in strikes and protests and many expressed their anger by immolating themselves. VP Singh came to power after the jaded era of Rajiv Gandhi when everyone became suspicious of the cloyingly disarming smiles of the failing Nehru scion. VP Singh seemed a foil to Rajiv. The sanguine man with intense eyes appeared like a perfect mix of ideal and passion that those belonging to the era of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel found lacking in the new generation Congressmen. At least he will not sell the nation to the Quattrocchi, everyone thought, which he did not at any point. He may have bungled as a leader, one can sit and analyse his decisions about the reservation policies. But, images of young people dousing petrol over themselves and killing themselves keep appearing. I was a student then, I could not believe that people could kill themselves for a cause – can any cause go beyond one’s own life? This is the VP Singh that got embedded in my mind and this remains the palimpsest on which any text about VP Singh gets deposited – he has taken various avatars as a politician, an activist, a writer, an artist, a poet. When I read any piece of news concerning V P Singh, I carry this baggage and if the text of the news is not explicit, I construct my own text. So is it with Raj Babbar the aging actor from yester years who married the stunning Smita Patil. Even if the news item in the paper did not offer a strong text, I had already constructed one – I had carried certain assumptions and beliefs to the text.

The script surfaced and got rewritten when I read in the web a couple of days later an  article called ‘Corporate Rule = Fascism’  written by Vandana Shiva. What remained disengaged images of people who did not matter much, coalesced into a meaningful narrative that was scripted not by the big names that remained with me when I read the news in the paper, but by the grit and courage of farmers in their combat with the government and a rich industrial house.

In this article the environmental scientist and activist Vandana Shiva writes of the plight of the farmers in Dadri in the outskirts of Delhi on Ghaziabad, whose farmlands have been acquired by the Government of India for aiding Reliance set up its gas based power plant. Dadri located in the rich Gangetic plain has been chosen as the site for the 10,000 crore power plant. Passing it off as developmental work, the Government has put to use the Land Acquisition Act and acquired the land without informing the farmers about it. Only on the day of inauguration of the Project did the farmers know that their lands have been taken by the government. Their lands were fenced away. When the farmers protested, the government offered to pay compensation. Located at the helm of urban boom, the value of land here is Rs 13,5000 / sq.m and the amount offered by the authorities is Rs 120/ sq.m. When the farmers protested they had been asked to fight their case at the court. Though only 700 acres of land is going to be used for the power plant, 2500 crores have been acquired keeping in mind the high value of the land. Farmers of seven villages in the region have been protesting and it was during one of the protest that VP Singh and Raj Babbar participated.

Vandana chronicles the details of the protest, she brings to the centre stage the lived experiences of the people who bore the police attack, an event that mainstream media marginalised and drove behind the giant shadows that VP Singh and Raj Babbar threw.

She writes:

Sharavati has been attacked severely on her legs and neck. She cannot speak.

Sona’s pregnant daughter-in-law was dragged out of a room after breaking down the door. The attack has traumatized her to such an extent that she is having fits. Her husband Charan Singh was thrown in Jail.

Maya, a widow had all her cash and jewellery stolen. Her son, Sunil drives a taxi for a living. He had just sold an old car for Rs. 30,000/-. That was taken. Tear gas was exploded in his eyes. He has lost his sight. Maya said, "His eyes were what kept the family alive. How will we survive?"

Even the disabled were not spared. Makhan Singh was attacked by a bayonet. When Lal Giri was attacked, his aged mother Asharfi threw herself in the way to protect him.

Dalit labourer Udaibir’s son Jagdish’s son’s leg has been broken, and a 16-year-old son Chandeema is in jail. His wife’s mangal sutra was snatched. His one and a half month grandson Kapil who was in his lap was snatched and thrown on the floor.

No one was spared. Shiela was hit on the head and face with a bayonet. Her head is still bleeding.

Vandana Shiva explains what she means by corporate state. The state that has power joins hand with moneyed corporates to exploit the powerless people. She writes, “The partnership between corporations and Government is leading to the emergence of a corporate state – with the state using its political power to help corporations appropriate the wealth and property of citizens, and the corporations using their economic power to help politicians who have helped them to crush democratic dissent.”  The marriage of the two powerhouses has resulted in spawning of several SEZs across the country.

In an article that I read online in Down To Earth on SEZs, Sunita Narain writes of a nation that has hurried into an enterprise, which is a win win only for the rich. Not even government stand to gain anything at large except for the kickbacks that ministers get in using their power to take away land from the farmers at
discounted prices under the guise of antiquated Land Acquisition Act. The industrialists do not buy the land at the prices that the seller wants to sell, and very very large tracks of land are acquired at discounted prices; the land is worth its money in gold as the value of the land will soar sky high because of their proximity to important cities in fairly well off states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh. Is anyone thinking of Bihar and Chattisgarh? The industries that are set in these special zones are exempted from income and excise taxes, so what does the government stand to gain by subsidising the rich? Sunita Narain writes:

The fact is that sezs are not even about creating a few special zones. They are about the abdication of responsibility to sort out the underlying problems that plague the country as a whole. The fact is that infrastructure, power; water, housing, education and health services are in a mess. Over the past 50 years, we have tried in our ham-handed socialist ways to find answers to provide services for all. We don’t know why, but this approach is not working. There is growing impatience about growth. Therefore, the easier and much less complicated answer is to let that part of India, which can provide for it, to prosper. The grandiose idea will be then the government can take care of the needy with some sops and some more developmental schemes. But we forget that the reason why the answers of the past were not working was precisely because we ensured that the rich were ecologically subsidised in the name of the poor. Now this will get worse.

Talking of developmental schemes and sops given by the government, it is fitting to invoke Partha Chatterjee’s essays ‘Populations and Political Society’ and The Politics Of The Governed’ where he differentiates between the civil society that consists of selected elite members who are citizens and the political society made of the populace who are the targets of various schemes and policies of the government. He traces the origin of this dichotomised society to the birth of nation state. He begins at the French Revolution from where he traces the history of nation states through the colonial period to the present day. The western nation states born out of the French Revolution were built on the beliefs of sovereignty and equal rights, citizenship and freedom. However, this did not extend to the countries that they colonised.  The people who were colonised were not citizens but subjects, targets of various policies relating to “land settlement, revenue, recruitment of the army, crime prevention, public health, management of famines and droughts..” Before the nation state, the developmental state was born with its innumerable policies targeted at the population/ subjects by the colonialist. In the postcolonial period too this legacy continues where the concept of civil society with its egalitarian ideals of freedom, citizenship and equal rights to all members of the society exists in the theoretical realm alone. In actuality civil society is restricted to “a small section of culturally equipped citizens”; the rest, the large population are excluded from this elite group by the institutions of the state. The state looks at this populace not as citizens but as subjects to be controlled and taken care of by various economic, administrative and developmental policies. Partha Chatterjee writes, “Most of the inhabitants of India are only tenuously and even ambiguously and contextually rights-bearing citizens in the sense imagined by the constitution. As population within the territorial jurisdiction of the state they have to be looked after and controlled by various governmental agencies.” They are the recipients of doles in the form of schemes given by the government. The subject/objectification of the populace does not go uncontested; the bastion of the elite civil society has always been subverted by the “natural leaders” from the population, in an exercise that can very well be called as “expansion of democratic political participation”. Further the populace negotiate power through their electoral rights. Partha Chatterjee writes, “India is the only major democracy in the world where electoral participation has continued to increase in recent years.”  It is the electoral mandate that invests people with power. 

Aruna Roy the social activist alludes to this while criticising the backing of SEZs by the government. She said thousands dependent on agricultural land will be displaced and left without livelihood and that the government is accountable to these people. On the concluding day of the Indian Social Forum she said, “We will fight for our rights in different ways .. to draw the attention of the government that is out to destroy democracy… We leave this place with a pledge to oppose SEZs, and work for the formulation of policies for the poor and the displaced. Ultimately the politicians have to come to us for votes, and that will be the time to give them a fitting reply.” The population/subject of the political society evidently calls the shots as they decide how they shall be governed.

Coming back to the average reader who sees fringe news going centre stage. S/he is assailed with so much about SEZs – both the endorsement of such enterprises as well as critiques. Newspapers are used both ways – as a medium to blot out the voices of the suppressed that are represented at various forums, and as a neutral medium that broadcasts counterpoints. There is the hunky dory story from the industrialists and the ministers – their tone is liberalistic, celebratory, conceptualising the bridging of the urban and the rural, the artisans, and farmers with technocrats and bureaucrats proclaiming that this symbiotic wedding will change the face of India. Stories of dissents and protests led by farmers and activists leave hopes in the heart of the reader – the reader is impressed with the media that remains unbiased. Being a liberal at heart, s/he is glad that so much noise is being made, so nothing will go wrong. The average reader believes that progress and development need to bring a difference in the lives of everyone. S/he believes in an egalitarian society where wealth percolates down the layered society – a win win for everyone concerned. S/he sits every morning at the table, sipping tea and exuding an air of importance and purpose stemming out of the belief that the act of reading, being informed and taking a stand is an activism, an armchair activism nonetheless.