Wednesday, March 3, 2021



No matter your feelings are regarding the farmer protests, one thing is certain, the tractor is the symbol and icon of the protests. Farmers marching from all over Punjab and other neighboring states first used their tractors to barge through the barricades erected by the police. Once camped at the borders of Delhi, farmers marched inside Delhi along with their tractors to assert their demands. This is the first time that tractors have been used in farmer protests. So, why did tractors become symbolic of the protests?


The answer might lie in India’s modernization of agriculture, especially in the Punjab and Haryana, starting from the 1960s. A newly-independent India faced a crisis of grain shortage and hunger. The Nehruvian vision of modern India, led to a policy wherein chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanization was promoted in these traditionally agrarian spaces. The American agroscientist Norman Borlaug was roped in to implement the new vision. The resulting ‘Green Revolution’ not only created a grain surplus, especially of wheat from the granaries of Punjab and Haryana, but, over time, a situation where much of this grain would rot in poorly managed and ill-equipped storage facilities.


It is obvious, then, that the ‘Green Revolution’ agriculture was not possible without mechanization. Machines like tractors were necessary to plough the thousands of acres that a farmer would own. The use of draught animals was no longer economically viable, not that it was earlier if the deficit of agrarian production is given due consideration. While farmers needed to invest in more and more tractors, the use of draught animals was perhaps confined to smaller farms and on a much-reduced scale.


The Green Revolution, as one knows, had a catastrophic fall out, especially in the Punjab. The use of large quantities of pesticides and chemical fertilizers has led to an increased number of cancer cases. The high yield varieties of crops need greater amounts of water and this has led to a decrease of the ground water table level. The increased investment has only led the farmers into greater debts. Add to this, and the trigger of protest of decades of hardships, was the government’s plan to increase privatization of grain distribution. The farmers could lose their last option of earning a fair and minimum price for their produce.


For some time now, especially after the present government came to power, the ban on cow, and now in some areas buffalo, slaughter has been promoted as a way out of the Green Revolution mess. In fact, persons and NGOs associated with the ruling party, the BJP, or its parent the RSS, have been at the forefront in promoting ‘traditional’ agriculture. Of course, the laws banning cow slaughter predates the BJP: Goa’s Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party was one of the earliest regional outfits to legislate on the matter, in addition to the Congress. While it is only now that the rhetoric has shifted to banning the consumption of beef, earlier these laws were enacted ostensibly to protect the cattle for agrarian purposes.


The argument for promoting ‘traditional’ agriculture seems to promote a caste order in rural India. In 2015 when Maharashtra imposed a stringent ban on the consumption of beef, the Viniyog Parivar Trust, a Jain NGO instrumental in promoting the law, claimed that agriculture would be the main beneficiary of the beef ban. One of its leaders then claimed that more cattle will be available to farmers and consequently there will be more work for ‘untouchable’ communities traditionally forced to clear dead cattle and leather workers.


It then appears that farmers in North India have two options: continue with the mechanized agriculture (and ensure that the government fixes prices and makes proper policies) or go back to an older traditional form of agriculture—the bucolic idyll of Gandhi—and make a greater use of cattle and other such animals. The farmers have chosen neither and the choice is significant. After all the choice between Scylla and Charybdis is not choice at all!


By focusing on the need for a fair price, the farmers are not supporting either of the agricultural visions. Rather than choose between a modern, future-oriented Green Revolution or rooting for village-based traditionalism, the farmers are shifting the debate to fairness and just economic practices. It is unlikely that big farms would be economically viable through village-based traditionalism. The farmers know that mechanization is still necessary to earn their livelihood, or even profit from farming. Thus, the appeal of tractors as symbols of the protests.


As much as the tractors help to plough, they also are useful to push through police barricades. With a segment of the protests going out of control on Republic Day this year, and following the propaganda of news channels, the tractor as a symbol of the protests had a quiet exit from the scene. But not the protests: the farmers continue to ask for a fair minimum price that would save them from ruin and immiseration.


Following the farmer’s protest, many commentators believed the protests were crucial for the future of the Indian Republic. How exactly do the farmer protests stop the downward trend of India’s democratic institutions is something that, as the cliché goes, only time will tell. But one thing is for certain: the visions of both, traditionalism and modernization have utterly failed the small and large farmers in the country.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 3 March, 2021)

Wednesday, February 3, 2021


The cancellation of the IIT project in Melaulim is a clear indication that the government can heed the wishes of the people. The cancellation further suggests that all development that the government sees fit to impose on Goans and the Goan land is reversible. The decision to cancel the IIT project came after much chest-thumping bravado by ministers in the ruling government, especially after the Zilla Parishad elections that the BJP swept, that they had the mandate and support of the electorate.


The Chief Minister, Pramod Sawant, assumed that this sweep of the Zilla Parishad elections is people’s approval of his leadership and giving him the go ahead for the recent projects in the Mollem forest reserve. Similarly, the Health Minister, Viswajit Rane, who also tasted success in the Zilla Parishad elections as all the candidates he supported emerged victorious, acted as if the people of his constituency had given him the green light to proceed with the IIT in Melaulim.


For the legitimacy of Sawant’s leadership, the stakes at the Zilla Parishad elections may have been indeed high. Sawant became Chief Minister in 2019 after the demise of Manohar Parrikar, but has never been recognized popularly as the leader of the people of Goa. In 2017, the BJP had managed to cobble together an alliance, after the Congress failed to form a government despite winning a majority of 17 seats. The 2017 election thus disregarded the will of the people, in fact it reminded many of the horse trading era of the 1990s. Parrikar and the BJP justified their actions saying that they had a greater share of the polled votes. As a result of the 2017 horse trading fiasco, and the fact that he faced opposition within BJP supporters, Sawant desperately needed an electoral win, where both the vote share and seats would be in his and his party’s favor.


One cannot really fault Sawant and Rane for claiming that the Zilla Parishad results meant that Goans were effectively giving consent for the development projects. Perhaps the Chief Minister and the Health Minister jumped the gun because of the victory despite the widespread protests against mega projects, be it the IIT or the infrastructure projects in the Mollem forest. In the months leading up to the Zilla Parishad elections, these protests drummed up support for the anti-people and anti-environmental policies of the government, both through sustained actions on the ground and through social media. The public opposition to development was so strong that the Zilla Parishad sweep had to be a sign that the people were wrong, or so everyone thought.


And so, following the results of the Zilla Parishad elections, many, for this or that reason, were deeply dejected that all the protest had amounted to nothing. No matter what one believed, it seemed that everyone accepted the narrative that the victorious side promoted; many tried to make sense of why Goans had effectively voted for the same people who promoted the destruction of their land.


But the people of Melaulim seem to have proven everyone wrong! From what one gathers from the core leadership of the Melaulim protests, the primary goal of the protest was ownership of land. The people of Melaulim did not change their demand of land ownership even after most of the BJP-supported candidates won in the Zilla Parishad elections. They stuck to their guns, and in fact are pushing for their demands ever more vociferously these days, despite the IIT project cancellation.


While the issue of why Goans vote for pro- destructive development politicians might have to wait for some other day, the Melaulim case forces us to think about the role of elections in Goan society today. What are elections for? Just an occasion for the transfer of power and the gift and favors that are exchanged before voting? What is the value of one vote?


The value of a person’s vote comes into serious question when the government blatantly disregards people’s wishes. In this case by promoting destructive and harmful development. If the health of the citizens is jeopardized due to the coal dust, if the land on which citizens and their ancestors have lived and worked on is not legally theirs (as is the case in Melaulim), or forests and other fragile ecological niches are destroyed, or the fact that the government decides that another railway line should be cut through villages and the houses in them, then the government does not serve the interests of the people that voted it to power.


While politicians supplicate before the voter before elections, what happens after is that the will of the people is, more often than not, ignored. In fact, as far as the history of Goa is concerned, post 1961, what happens after elections matters much more than the pre-election promises of the politicians. A recent case in point is the private resolution to scrap the three linear projects in Mollem where 11 members voted for the resolution, and nine abstained. The resolution was defeated by 20 votes.


An electoral victory is no license for ‘development’. From the Melaulim example, it is quite clear that winning an election, or having a greater vote share, or majority seats, does not give authoritative powers to the elected representatives. But it is also clear that while one can approach politicians for personal favors, one cannot count on them when it comes to issues that determine the collective future of the state. The people then have to protest and put their lives on the line. This unaccountability of elected representatives post elections is fast rendering the electoral process empty.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 3 February 2021) 


Tuesday, January 5, 2021



This is not the first time that Goans in large numbers have questioned if Goa is truly liberated. But this is the first time when a large number of peaceful citizens, including children, were detained by the police, for creating awareness about the destruction of Goa, right on 19 December, the day Goa was liberated from Portuguese rule! The recent protests, in a long history of protests in Goa, were sparked by the Government’s decision to promote the double-tracking of the South Western Railway, and a power line and a new National Highway through Goa’s lush green Mollem forest on its southern frontier. That the state government has received a grant of 100 crore rupees for the year-long celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of ‘Liberation Day’ only added to the irony of the situation. 


The first time that any serious debate took place on the meaning of liberation in contemporary Goa, at least in recent memory, was about 4 years ago. In 2016, many responded to some unsavory comments by a group of freedom fighters, who asserted that Goans who had opted for Portuguese citizenship must be punished. The irresponsible comments by some Freedom Fighters opened a Pandora’s Box and the ensuing debate highlighted that in a truly liberated Goa, the voices of the people would not be muzzled. In such a Goa, another strand of the same debate pointed out, the Goan landscape would not be destroyed by commissioning mega-projects in the fragile ecology of Goa.


In the current context, while Goans were debating if they truly enjoy liberty in their homeland, many people also remembered the Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. His memory is alive and kicking largely because many, including political opponents, view the Government acting in a highhanded and dictatorial way. A spokesperson for the Aam Aadmi Party, Sandesh Telekar, and the supremo of the Goa Forward Party, Vijai Sardesai, likened the current CM Pramod Sawant’s repressive measures to those enacted by the Salazarist regime on the Goans who questioned Portuguese rule in Goa.


To an extent, remembering Salazar’s dictatorial regime at this moment makes sense. Goans are witnesses to how their liberties are being slyly eroded by the state through its police, among other institutions. While the full extent of Salazarist repression in Goa is yet to be studied, what is important in this context is that his name serves as a shorthand for the highhandedness of politicians and governments who repress the citizen’s right to free speech and dissent. The Sawant-led government’s refusal to allow any protest, along with its refusal to scrap the triad of destructive projects, is clearly seen as a dictatorial way of functioning. In liberated Goa, definitely, representatives of the people should be more responsive to the grievances of the electorate as well as the integrity of the state’s resources.


To his (dis)credit, Sawant is not the first Chief Minister of Goa to be likened to a dictator. His mentor, the late Manohar Parrikar, whose portrait sat next to Sawant when he took charge, was the first CM to receive the dishonor of being likened to a dictator. Ever since Parrikar first took charge as Chief Minister, after a decade-long saga of political horse-trading in the 1990s, his dictatorial style of functioning became the hallmark of his government. His word, it was said, was the law, and many of his supporters even admired that, claiming that such a style delivered the ‘good governance’ that was desperately needed in Goa then.


But comparisons to Salazar started happening about 10 years ago more openly. For instance, a gag order of sorts was issued against the tiatrist fraternity in 2014. This move came after Parrikar was being widely criticized, with his aura of ‘good governance’ waning. The tiatrists had had enough of his style of governance and, as is their tradition, were subjecting him to stinging criticism. The now-rescinded guidelines were framed for performances at the Ravindra Bhavan and explicitly demanded that MLAs should not be criticized nor attacked personally. Such a gag order revived memories of censorship, for tiatr and tiatrists were indeed under censorship in the final years of the Portuguese regime.


It is no coincidence that new debates about the meaning of ‘liberation’ or ‘liberty’ were articulated simultaneously with a revival of memories of a dictator or dictatorial ways of functioning. Liberty cannot exist without freedom of speech and protest. And these are the fundamental rights that are being extinguished in the name of development, or in the name of citizenship (by refusing to see the benefits of dual citizenship for Goans), or in the name of cultural-religious politics (like indirect beef bans or frequent shortages, and increasing communalization of the society by political parties and their fringe groups). Freedom and liberty, then, appear to be a distant dream or an illusion, or something that, at best, can be found in the pages of textbooks or in politicians’ speeches.


Goa’s post-Liberation history has been one economic crisis after another. In recent years these economic crises have only deepened, and new social problems have added to the state’s woes. The people of Goa have paid a high price of poor economic planning, an almost non-existent regulation of industry, and development of an extractive nature, be it for tourism, or in the iron ore mining, or in the unregulated growth of the real estate industry. The forcible promotion of projects and the destruction of Goa will only further erode the confidence of Goans of having any rights or protection in their own homeland.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 6 January, 2021)