Wednesday, September 5, 2018

THE DENIAL OF DIGNITY IN A CASTEIST SOCIETY


Pratapsingh Rane’s assertion that Goans abroad are doing no better than cleaning toilets, in the Goa State Legislative Assembly in the context of the resumption of mining activity, has received a lot of flak. Many Goans – via video blogs – said that there is no shame in doing any job so long as one brings an honest wage back home. As the anger over Rane’s comment have cooled down, it would be more apt, as I have highlighted in previous columns, to focus on employments opportunities, working conditions and labour justice as issues that Goan society needs to discuss and address.

To be fair, Rane is not the first to make such a statement. Indeed, it is quite common to hear Goans referring to migrating Goans as ‘toilet cleaners’. Why, it is quite possible that any one of the many readers of this article might have made similar comments. The fact that the people in Goa have been so casually calling migrating Goans as toilet cleaners is extremely shameful, and urgently calls for a change in our collective mental attitude.

This doesn’t mean that Rane can be excused; he is an elected representative of the people of Goa and he cannot be spewing casteist venom on the people originating from the very state that he is an MLA. We can understand that his comments emerge from an identity and location in which feudal privileges have ossified over centuries. In any case, it is quite educational to ask why such a comment is demeaning. What is so fundamentally wrong in cleaning toilets that makes it apparently shameful, that mentioning it is an insult?

Everything, if one hails from South Asia. In South Asia, the dirtiest jobs are forced upon the lowest of the low who are forced to clean the filth created by others, often without any protective gear. Thus, a horror like manual scavenging is routine and normal for most in South Asia, particularly in India. There are communities that are condemned to do this job because they are forced to accept it as their way of life and their dharma. It is precisely because such practices are so widespread and entrenched in the social life of India that one finds one of the most horrible attitudes towards waste and its disposal. One would be lucky, in the subcontinent, to find a clean public toilet; one would be even luckier if one could find no garbage rotting alongside the roads and street corners. Because in the end it is not the duty, or dharma, of members of dominant castes to keep public spaces clean – someone else will be forced to do it. Thus, what is the difference between cleaning toilets or disposing garbage in India and elsewhere?

It is, again, everything. Or even if the difference is slight – for cleaning occupations are not necessarily high paying ones – it could still mean that the shame and humiliation are not as severe as in India. The cultural attitude that demeans people, condemns them to a life of slavery, and creates an insult out of what – as a society – we should have considered as valuable service is not necessarily one that blue collar workers have to suffer abroad. This is why a number of Goans could retort, “Look Mr. Politician, we do not feel demeaned for doing this work and we can provide for our family with dignity”.

Enjoying dignified working conditions abroad doesn’t mean that things get more hunky dory back home; it doesn’t mean that in our own backyards we do not participate and perpetuate the same casteist culture that Rane articulated. Other professions that are elevated as eminently Goan ones – that are iconic of Goemkarponn – such as fishing and agriculture have also been sneered at in public. The reasons are plain to see: these jobs are performed by those on the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy.

With the tourism and real estate boom, Goa has witnessed a huge influx of migrant labor. Often coming from poor regions and deprived backgrounds, these persons are exploited for their labor. In the absence of any proper regulation of labor relations these people often have the worst of working conditions – in fact, the lack of protective gear makes these jobs extremely dangerous. The denial of any dignity to the work that they do, and to their person, further adds to the problem. It is remarkable that a government that claims to tackle the problem of unemployment does so by making policies/legislations that remove roadblocks in capitalist investment, but never make any laws that protect the rights and dignity of the workers.

In this sense, our attitudes towards certain jobs are related to larger concerns of our society because the real issue that affects all is about proper wages and dignified working conditions. If one turns this formulation on its head, Goa is witnessing large scale migration, pathetic working conditions, and dysfunctional public spaces/utilities (including public toilets), it is because as a society we have not jettisoned these utterly demeaning and undignified attitudes towards persons whose labor makes our society possible. Yes, there are no good jobs in Goa. Which also means that there is an absence of good working conditions in Goa. Hence, one can understand the desperation which causes Goans to migrate abroad, and also the desperation which causes others to migrate to Goa.

The outrage over Rane’s comment is welcome, but its usefulness and the terms in which it is being posed is a matter of debate. Rather what we do with this outrage will make all the difference between our present condition and a better future, between casteist practices and decent work with a fair wage. Otherwise demeaning and humiliating attitudes will continue to proliferate. Sadly they are a way of life in India.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 5 September, 2018)

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

THE REAL (ETHICAL) CHALLENGE


The high-levels of Formalin, a carcinogen, found in imported fish have caused anger, deep anguish, and frustration amongst Goans. This is because the authorities and the elected representatives have failed to convey the truth to the masses, besides checking the irregularities. Goa’s reliability on external sources for fish (in other contexts also for vegetables and grains) has spawned talk about self-sufficiency. Goa needs to produce its own food, this discourse urges. But it doesn’t say who will produce this food, and there is no talk about improving the existing labor conditions.

Take for instance the viral #agrichallenge. It all started when images of an environmental activist group cultivating paddy circulated on social media. Soon many politicians cashed in, including a sarpanch, MLA, and ministers, and started challenging each other to cultivate paddy. While challenging each other to cultivate fields may seem like a new phenomenon, it is not necessarily so. The Rachol Seminary pioneered such exercises. For eight consecutive years, the priests and seminarians have been joined by locals from surrounding villages in cultivating a patch of land.

Members of the Rachol Seminary engage in the cultivation of not only grain and vegetables for the year, but – according to them – to also live as a community. The vision of Rachol Seminary is something that resonates with many Goans who believe that authentic Goan life is found through agrarian cycles. Thus, going back to the rice fields not only preserves a Goan way of life – Goemkarponn – that is cherished, but also buffers us from the onslaught of modern, capitalistic development. It is a way to renew, what many believe, the lost bonds of old community life of mutual affection and peaceful existence. Tied to the issue of community living and Goemkarponn is also the issue of employment. Many would argue that high unemployment rate is caused because land is not cultivated and the young generation migrates elsewhere. It follows logically that such ‘going back to the fields’ exercise will urge the youth to take up farming, mostly by claiming that it is very profitable to do so. 

However, the solution does not seem to be so straightforward and there is no clear indication that harmonious community living is achievable through agrarian reforms. If one takes a long historical perspective regarding Goa’s problem of inadequate agrarian production, migration, and unemployment, it would seem that old events are being replayed for contemporary Goans. These combined issues had vexed Goan intellectuals who wrote in Portuguese, Marathi, and Concanim newspapers from the 1900s; many tiatrs were written during this time depicting the plight of the poor due to price hikes and adulteration of basic items like rice and other necessities. The reality is that, as in the past, there is an acute labor shortage in addition to the unregulated selling/distribution practices and poor quality of the products.

The crux of the problem is the treatment of those persons who provide this vital labor that produces and supplies the basic necessities. The person who does the hard labor, along with the labor or work itself, is disrespected. Generally, in Indian society, this person is forced to do hard labor, with very poor wages. Jobs such as cultivating and fishing/selling fish are viewed as the basest occupations, performed by the socially inferior; often the names of these jobs double up as insults in almost all South Asian languages. (I am not going to reproduce these insults here, but you know what I am talking about!)

So when politicians and well-meaning activists urge the youth today to take up farming and other such occupations, the big issue that they ignore is that these jobs are not considered as dignified labor. This is one reason why many would like to find employment in non-traditional occupations. Very often these are ill-paid jobs as well, and, even worse, they place one at the mercy and patronage of a contractor or a politician (sometimes one and the same) to find the space to work and sell the produce for a good price. For instance, the recent investigation in the manner in which certain individuals control the prices and distribution of fish in Goa, in tacit cahoots, or otherwise, with governmental and political authority, exposed how the laboring Goan was pushed out of getting a fair price for his hard labor. And it is not as if the ‘outsiders’ are the problem, because the lion’s share of the labor of the ‘outsider’ is also cornered by a few kingpins. In Goa, they too are the laboring others who need better work conditions.

So where does this leave us in terms of our great desire for self-sufficiency? The problem of unemployment and self-sufficiency will persist so long as the mass of people provide labor for a pittance from which a handful will get rich. It will persist so long as there are laws that do not protect those who work, but on the contrary sell off everything to the highest bidder. In other words, an unequal and hierarchical distribution of wealth will forever ensure that the laboring classes remain poor and the produce that the rest of us consume is of utterly inferior quality – sometimes even life-threatening. In such circumstances, one can understand why some seek greener and cleaner pastures. So if any demagogue tells you that he/she has a solution for these problems, it is safe to assume that it is empty propaganda. It is actually a slow killing propaganda, much like the formalin-laced fish.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt:  1 August, 2018)

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

SPORTS, POLITICAL PASSIONS, AND PEACE


For those who believe that sport and politics should not mix, the on-going FIFA World Cup 2018 might be a tad bit disappointing. The game between Switzerland and Serbia witnessed tense moments, leading to a few controversies. Switzerland, whose squad had many players of Balkan heritage, appeared to be the perfect team for a mixture of political rivalries in a sporting match. Especially, since the match was against Serbia, which gained independence after a bloody war fractured Yugoslavia into countries like Albania and Kosovo. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independent status, which made the clash between Switzerland and Serbia all the more tense given that Switzerland’s star players, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, have Albanian and Kosovan heritage.

What perhaps made matters worse was that Serbia lost thanks to two stunning strikes by Xhaka and Shaqiri – who celebrated by gesturing the Albanian double-headed eagle. It did not help matters throughout the game that players like Xhaka and Shaqiri were heckled by the Serbian fans in the stands. One witnessed such controversies even in the run-up to the World Cup. Argentina cancelled a friendly with Israel, which was to be played in Jerusalem on a stadium built at the site of a former Palestinian village, after global pressure and even uproar. The shadow of bloody political conflicts and wars hanged uneasily over the proceedings of the World Cup; one that is not necessarily conducive to the progress of the beautiful game or for peace in a world that is increasingly being pushed to the brink of more violence.

In such situations, the on- and off-field actions and statements of sportspersons matter. For instance, after the controversy – with a possible two-match ban and/or fine – Shaqiri admitted that it were emotions that led him to celebrate in the manner in which he did, and that he would not like to say more about the matter. Even if he did want to invoke a memory and history of the war and exile that his family faced, and indeed many others too, Shaqiri did not really demonstrate that his actions were motivated by a higher goal. In many ways, his equivocation in the matter – especially to avoid the two-match ban that would have been disastrous for Switzerland’s campaign – makes the invocation of a bloody political conflict on a sporting event of such proportions seem unnecessary and superfluous. Clearly, sports and politics haven’t mixed well.

But we can contrast this with other examples wherein the role of superstar sportsmen has been stellar. Think about Didier Drogba from Ivory Coast, who has played much of his club football for Chelsea. In 2005, Ivory Coast qualified for the first time in the 2006 Germany World Cup. While the team had secured the place with an away 3-1 win against Sudan, back home in the Ivory Coast there was a civil war raging. Drogba and his teammates addressed the nation live from the dressing room and, kneeling down, pleaded for peace. The results were remarkable as the warring factions actually decided to lay down their arms; the peace lasted for about five years. Closer home, Sri Lankan cricketer Kumar Sangakkara appealed to the country to maintain peace, following the anti-Muslim riots in March this year. Many have often cited the statement of former Bangladesh cricket captain, Mashrafe Mortaza, after Bangladesh’s T20 victory in the Asia Cup, when sport-related nationalism borders on war-mongering and insanity. “I am a cricketer,” he said, “but can I save life? A doctor can. But no-one claps for the best doctor in the country. Create myths around them. They will save more lives. They are the stars. The labourers are the stars, they build the country. … I say, those who cry ‘patriotism, patriotism’ around cricket, if all of them for one day did not drop banana skin on the street…or obeyed traffic rules, the country would have changed. [If] this huge energy was not wasted after cricket and was used to do one’s work honestly even for a day, that would be showing patriotism”. Clearly, sports and politics can mix well.

But this mix can be a happy one only if the superstar sportsperson uses his/her stardom in the right way. What this means is that the superstar sportsperson views his/her social and political responsibility as an extension of his/her superstardom. This is not to say that every sportsperson should actively involve themselves in politics if they don’t want to or can’t, but to ensure that their stardom and support from millions of fans is not (mis)used for purposes of jingoism, racism, and war-mongering. The statement issued by the Swedish team, after one of their players, Jimmy Durmaz, was subjected to racist attacks online following a last-minute defeat to Germany in the present World Cup is a case in point. The entire team rallied around Durmaz, who is of immigrant heritage, to present a united front against hate speech. 

There is no way that the FIFA World Cup can be held in an atmosphere where the political does not mix with the sport. In fact, the World Cups in the past were held in extremely volatile and fragile political (as well as economic) conditions; think about the world wars and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Inflamed political passions will, more often than not, be a part of sporting events. Especially because sporting events are frequently used as a distraction from the pathetic political conditions that the masses find themselves in. The question is how the superstar sportsmen and their millions of fans would respond to such moments of hate and distraction.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 4 July, 2018)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

POWER FAILURES AND POWER POLITICS


From April onwards, there have been several power failures in the state; they are not over yet. At the beginning of June, it became crystal clear that the cause of the power failures was not just faulty and aging equipment, but also gross mismanagement by the electricity department. Goans even learnt that to keep a particular big time corporate builder happy, the department had decided that an entire taluka could suffer a day-and-a-half without power.

One can think of the frequent power failures as a metaphor for the sorry state of affairs in Goa. Every year one witnesses a spectacular display of inefficiency in the management of public infrastructure by the administration. At other times, the administration deliberately denies the public services and utilities as it happened when two of the Panjim-Betim ferries were used for the benefit of casinos. There is no accountability and no one has been able to hold the administration accountable for simple and basic services. The result is quite plainly visible – flooded streets, overflowing sewage, leaking roofs of public schools, snapped electric cables, damaged footpaths, and general chaos all around.

One needs to ask why does such chaos, emerging from mismanagement and an unaccountable administration, recur every year? The reason is that the elected representatives – across party and ideological lines – have failed to provide the leadership that the positions they occupy demand. I am not making an argument that perfunctorily blames politicians – or corruption – in general. But what I am suggesting is that there is a particular systemic problem within the administrative system with the elected representatives having abandoned completely the idea of public good. If we would turn the formulation on its head, corruption results because elected representatives have abdicated responsibility, trust, and accountability – or public interest so vital for the system. One could think of elected representatives in the past as crafting the Constitution, or formulating land reform laws in Goa as promoting ideas of public good.

Abandoning ideas of public good has consequences for the administrative machinery. One has to understand that the administration can be divided into two broad sections: the executive, which is occupied by the elected representatives and the cabinet ministers; and the bureaucrats or the government servants, who are employed to run the administrative machinery, which includes the implementation of the policies and laws that the executive formulates.

If we consider the incident wherein the whole of the Tiswadi taluka was left without power, it appears that certain decisions were made by the Power Minister (the executive) without taking the concerned bureaucracy into confidence (or without informing them properly). Alternately, one can suggest that the bureaucracy did not properly respond to the decisions of the executive. Sample this: when news of the builder being unfairly favored emerged, the Chief Engineer of the Electricity Department admitted that he had no knowledge of the work being carried out. Given the fact that there is a stop work order from 2017, the bureaucracy should not have allowed the workers to go ahead with the work since due process was not followed. In any case, the Department was not prepared to undertake the work of such proportions, and one doesn’t know who exactly gave the orders to commence the work.

Goa may have many leaders with thousands of supporters, and who shower them with countless favors, but the fact is that once in power – in ministries, or in legislature/parliament, where it matters the most – they are rarely able to run the affairs of the state efficiently. Contrast this with the spectacular display of promises and popular support during the campaigning for elections. Also, consider the situation immediately after the results are declared, when cutthroat power negotiations take place. All these theatrics give the impression that the political class wields immense power to change the world for the better, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Indeed, they do wield very real and tangible power but that is often used (or misused) for private gain and to further the interests of big businesses.

Perhaps, the rot goes deeper considering the fact that the elected representatives are rarely seen conducting the business of the state inside the parliament/legislature, or through the administrative system. It is becoming increasingly clear that more and more politicians spend their time in election rallies than anywhere else. For one reason or the other (legitimately or not) sessions of Parliament or the Legislative Assembly have been wiped out. In Goa, for instance, there wasn’t a single cabinet meeting held for the last three months. The important budget session was conducted in an unprecedented rush because the Chief Minister was ill. If any laws have been passed in the last 4 or 5 years, they are done so without any public discussion. Many of these laws are detrimental for the people and the environment.

It is important that citizens extract accountability from the administration; emphasize that the affairs of the state be conducted through proper channels like the legislature and local governing bodies. One can suggest that if the system is collapsing – or not functioning properly – it is largely because the persons in the administration have not ensured that it runs smoothly. The elected representatives, and to a lesser extent government servants, do not seem interested in upholding public interest. Selling off public resources – and therefore public interest – to the highest bidder today is the norm. The manner in which power is expressed in our society needs to change, one that privileges public interest and not private gain. 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 20 June, 2018)