Rousing a Generation in Deep Slumber

The era of radical change can only come from a deep sense of belonging to a place, says R. Sridhar, in his talk at the Yugaantar Conference on Livelihoods and Economics for wellbeing.

Mahatma Gandhi tried to use nonviolent methods to chase the British away through the salt movement and the charkha, and he succeeded. This story gives us the hope to keep persisting, however terrible maybe the repercussions on us.

I will begin with a reference to Mr Aseem Shrivastava’s example of our Prime Minister launching the Make in India movement to further the Foreign Direct Investments which invites the rest of the world to come and make in India instead of Indians making in India. This includes nuclear installations rejected by the French Government to be brought here too. The image that is represented and what Indians are made to believe in, is that we are inefficient. We do not understand the process of creation, manufacturing and selling and thus whatever we produce is costly. However, the foreign industries are believed to have found more effective and efficient methods to teach us about manufacturing and hence what they produce in our land will be cheaper.

I always thought that the government was the most corrupt and inefficient system in our country. If inefficiency is the logic for bringing in FDI, then I believe that we need to stand up and make a strong case to bring in FDI in government to counter the arguments around the country’s potential.

We have been relying excessively on government systems and external agencies to solve problems for us. We need to involve ourselves in the problems because we belong to the land and can know best how to solve our own problems. Everyone wants to either Stand up in India, Sit up in India, Make in India, but I say Act in India.

Our roots are calling us!

The organization called Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the US studied the amount of chemicals in the placenta of a mother and her newborn baby to figure out the concentration of massive chemical use in the US. A new born American child has nearly 180 types of chemicals in the form of toxins, neurochemicals etc in its body. No wonder that we suffer from diseases like cancer, arthritis and other deadly diseases. It may be a grim picture that we do not want to dwell on, but what do we do about these issues and how do we take them up?

I grew up in Trivandrum in Kerala and I have felt a deep sense of belonging to the place and to the people around me. The trees that were planted when I was a child have now grown old with me. But developers now want to chop them because they are jutting out in the street!

Most of us seem to have lost our sense of belonging to a place. The question to ask then is, why did we stop belonging? What is it that kept us out? When we see a tree being cut or open waste being burnt on the road that contains dioxins and can cause deadly diseases, we remain passive because we don’t belong there. We are now transitioning into an era which has equality and justice as its foundation. Not everyone feels they can fight for what is right. The plea is, we can’t all be like Devinder Sharma or Satish Kumar.

People act, not because they are special… they have a deep sense of belonging to their place and hence couldn’t see their land deteriorating. If you think you’re not doing anything meaningful, then it means you’re not belonging anywhere and you need to start belonging!

Stories of Hope

In Kerala, Grasim Industries was set up to produce rayon clothes – for the rich – but deprived poor people of their livelihoods, farmers of their farms, fishermen of their produce and bamboo makers of bamboo. There was a panchayat head named Rehman who opposed the factory from day one when he saw the smoke from the factory rising and the effluents releasing in the river nearby killing the fish. He just walked in and asked them to stop the industry from day one.

We had to put in a lot of effort to close down the Grasim factory that brought in cancer to an entire region. It claimed to give 3000 jobs but wiped out 3,00,000 livelihoods. It took 45 years of struggle for us to close down this industry. This struggle started in 1957 when we were at the hieghts of the Industrial Era. Ironically, Nehru said, Industrialize or Perish. And Now we are talking about IT industry where at the age of 30, people are perishing working like slaves – but that’s another story.

Another example we have is of getting a ban on endosulfan, a pesticide sprayed on the plants. It began in 1975 and by 1981 people were already suffering from the diseases caused by endosulfan toxins.
Laxmiamma, a housewife and a mother of two children, rose to the issue when she saw her own children suffering. In 1992 she filed a case against endosulfan use in the municipal court and continued her battle into the the sub-courts and high courts. By 2003, we got a state ban on endosulfan and by 2010, we got a national and a global ban on endosulfan.

We are beginning to see the fall-outs of the Industrial Era. The pattern shows that it takes fewer years now to bring about change from the time we started… From Grasim to endosulphan, the time for the struggle has reduced from 45 years to 25 years – it seems that now people have begun to listen! So, why don’t we stop someone when we see them burning plastic on the road? Do we hesitate to speak up because we do not care, we do not belong, or do we believe it’s the government’s job?

Era for radical change

The endosulfan and Grasim Industries issues are one time issues. But GM crops can bring in a perpetual problem. Why are so few fighting abainst GM? Why is it that even when we are aware of the danger of GM crops and pesticide in food, we continue to buy the same produce from the shop?

We did have a movement against Bt Brinjal in this country – pushing up 20 to 30 MPs and MLAs to stand up against the GM production, and we were able to stop Bt Brinjal.

The government however is continuing its support of GM producers. After all GM crops will help the GDP grow – by the sale of GM seeds and pesticides, by getting people ill, polluting land with wastes and so on.

So when we are aware, how do we make the Government act? The only way to do it, is to understand at least two requirements of transition: the most important one is to develop a sense of belonging. The second is to care to communicate! I have spoken about GM crops to you and I implore you to please go to ten other people and do the same.

Just a few people standing up and protecting the country against GM crops can get the prime minister to eliminate GM from the country. We need to do this at least in our own self-interest – cancer is not selective. It can affect anyone. We know we don’t want to be martyrs in this battle. In Kerala, as activists we do not get funding from people easily, but we have managed to get most people to listen to us. This can happen in other states too.

Kerala is under a debt of 1.5 lakh crores and with one light push, things could be as bad as Greece. India is a country is on a similar path; looking to build new industries, taking loans from banks that hold crores of rupees in the form of debts from the non-performing assets.

We believe that the solution is to push hard for a green ecological movement in Kerala. So we deliberately engage with the political parties and leaders as well as with civil society.When people have realised the dangers of chemical farming, they want an organic farming movement. I believe that all we need is four people who will not sleep until we have resolved the issue. We need people who are committed to making that change. We need to give a land to our people free of pesticides and full of greenery. Maybe we will not live to see this world but our children will and until then, some of us will have to say, I will not sleep.

It is possible to activate civil society that has the power to change the system. People are working towards organic farming and 200 schools in Kerala have now adopted the green movement with children practicing farming. We have put the right seeds for the future that gives them the belief that farming is also an option as a livelihood.

We cannot trust our governments and our economic system to bring us good livelihoods and well-being. The only thing that will save us is our ecology, making our farms and lands revive and thrive and having our children’s minds open to this truth.

R. Sridhar


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