Tuesday, March 5, 2019

WHEN EMPOWERMENT IS CHILD’S PLAY


In January this year, many Goans watched a video on social media and Whatsapp of a Swedish acapella group, Vocal Colors, rendering a beloved Goan song Tambdde Rosa. The Swedish acapella group were Goa to collaborate with Child’s Play India Foundation led by Dr. Luis Francisco Dias. The Foundation was set up about 10 years ago with the aim of training underprivileged kids in classical music and continues to do so today. The story of the Foundation’s inception and work provides important lessons for a deeply unequal society as that of India.

A former gynecologist and obstetrician, Dr. Dias moved back to Goa from the United Kingdom to set up the Foundation in 2009. So, why did he leave an established medical practice in the UK? As happens with so many who pursue careers in medicine or engineering or suchlike lucrative professions, Dr. Dias felt his calling to be elsewhere. His heart was not in medicine. When he encountered the opportunity to work in the UK, Dr. Dias thought that he could exploit the numerous musical opportunities available there while he worked as a doctor. And exploit them he did!

But there was also something greater than self-interest that was nagging Dr. Dias. He saw the great inequalities, especially amongst poor children, in India, and felt it was unfair that some should have opportunities and others not. Could something be done about it? Could classical music be the way to do something about it? The Foundation started gaining shape once Dr. Dias witnessed the performance of the El Sistema Orchestra and the Buskaid Soweto String Project Orchestra. The Foundation, while taking its inspiration from El Sistema, a movement founded in Venezuela by José Antonio Abreu in 1975, share something in common with it as far as an unequal society is concerned: the belief in the transformative power of music.

So, what is the vision of the Foundation? According to Dr. Dias’s public presentations, the Foundation is driven by the idea that, in an unequal society, deprived children need to be systematically given opportunities. At the core of this idea is also the belief that the inner potential of underprivileged children will only be developed if they are given a chance. And one can easily agree with this vision. Deprivation in India commences with the lack of opportunities at birth, especially in the case of the underprivileged. This starts right at the level of formative education and is more severe in the formal and institutional level with gross inequalities observed in schools, colleges, and universities. The Foundation, therefore, uses music to overcome the flawed educational system currently in place in India.

And it works! I had the privilege to attend one of the Foundation’s annual concerts back in 2015. A large part of the audience was composed of the parents of the Foundation’s trainees. These parents were easily distinguishable, mostly daily wage laborers and domestic helps, by their clothes. These are parents who can pay for expensive private schools and coaching classes. Neither could they afford expensive extracurricular activities. Yet, like any parents, they were brimming over with pride to see their children perform on stage. While this is not evidence for equality, one saw the transformative power of music in action. For a few heartbeats they could see their children excelling; their talents identified, honed, and channeled fruitfully. The purpose of education is precisely this, and the Foundation through its efforts gave us proof that their vision is potentially empowering.

More privileged parents, frustrated with the schooling system of today, talk about alternate ways and encourage their kids to also think out of the box. Rahul Alvares, a Goa-based environmentalist, is one such former kid, who wrote a delightful account of taking a break from school when he was 17. The book, Free from School (1999, 2nd edn. 2005), details how Alvares found his true calling of environmentalism by pursuing his interests. As important as Alvares’ book is, one always wondered how such a thing would be possible for underprivileged kids whose parents lack personal networks and money, especially since Alvares’s interests took him to various corners of the world? Child’s Play Foundation, as a charity organization, provides the vital institutional base for underprivileged kids to explore their extracurricular interests, indeed it fosters this.

One could very well ask if, in the ten years of its existence, the Foundation has produced a prodigy, a Mozart or a Beethoven for our times. But that is not exactly the job of the Foundation and it is also not what one should expect from such an organization as the Child’s Play. The idea, it seems, is not to create one genius but to allow as many children as possible access to music so that it fosters positive values that are useful as adult members of the society. For, if a society structured as ours is, to reward accidents of birth, and thereby takes away opportunities from most of the children, a radical act of correction would be to create those very opportunities to those who do not have any.

Therein lies the lesson. It is important to create opportunities for children so that they can work hard to develop their talents. As a society, it is important for us to recognize that opportunities need to be created both within and outside the schools. The educational system in India only rewards individual merit of those who are already equipped with systemic privilege and cutthroat competition. But as Dr. Dias recognizes, the solution lies in the privileged working at democratizing access to opportunities. Fortunately, we do not need time to tell us if such a vision will be successful on a wider level. The pride felt by the parents of Child’s Play children itself shows that, in their small way, the Foundation has already made a difference.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 6 March, 2019)

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

COPS AND SENTINELS


The ‘Traffic Sentinel’ initiative by the Goa Police has divided public opinion. While both sides, that is, those who support and those who oppose the initiative, have their reasons, most miss the forest for a few trees. Many do not seem to notice the larger issue at stake, which is, public law and order, due process, and the efficient functioning of the state. While there is no doubt that traffic violations need to be curbed, it appears that the authorities have abdicated their role in the maintenance of law and order. And yet, it should also be highlighted that the citizens cannot be expected to fulfill the duty of the state and its agents.

The ‘Traffic Sentinel’ initiative has been in operation since November 2017. According to news reports, in 2018 alone, over 700,000 challans were issued for various traffic violations. Initially, citizens who registered as sentinels reported these violations through Whatsapp and social media. The premise of the system is that these citizen-sentinels will accumulate points for reporting violations, and, having accumulated a certain number of points, will be rewarded with cash and prizes. In November 2018, the Goa Police launched a mobile app and the launch of this app, together with a hasty cabinet approval in January this year, created some controversy. The controversy erupted because these citizens-sentinels have been increasingly facing anger and even mob violence for clicking pictures or recording videos of traffic violations. While the police establishment was extremely confident about this initiative despite the mob violence, the government seems to be backtracking on its support for the initiative.

To cut to the chase, the ‘Traffic Sentinel’ initiative is a bad idea. Not because the logistics are impossible to work out, but it appears that there is no legal basis for the citizen-sentinel to exist. Take, for instance, the fact that any person reported by such a citizen-sentinel can challenge the charge in court. If so, the citizen-sentinel needs to appear in court to testify. So, it seems that the citizen-sentinel is just a witness, as in so many other situations where laws are violated. Moreover, the ‘evidence’ of the alleged violation is not absolute as it can be challenged in a court of law.

This arguably places the citizen-sentinel in a legally ambiguous space since the citizen-sentinel is not only reporting a violation but in that specific situation is also – in a way – ‘enforcing’ it. The person who reports the violation ends up in a confrontation with the alleged violator of the traffic law. What one observed in the mob violence in Vasco, for instance, was precisely the legal gray areas of the initiative, creating chaos. The citizen-sentinel is not protected by any special law as a ‘Traffic Sentinel’, and neither are the already understaffed police able to guarantee a citizen-sentinel’s safety as seen in Vasco.

While the issue of the police being understaffed is serious and may have led to the formulation of such an initiative of citizen partnership, a bigger issue that needs to be tackled is the police’s loss of authority in enforcing some of the simplest and most important laws in our society. This is not to say that authority needs to be enforced through violence, as often happens through police brutality, or by imposing hefty fines. Rather, the police establishment needs to inform the people of Goa how they will enforce just authority without harassing or abusing the citizens of Goa. The widespread prevalence of police corruption through bribes when it comes to traffic law enforcement only adds to the deficit of trust. The fact is that a police officer does not inspire trust, be it in the case of enforcing just authority or upholding the rule of law.

It takes two to tango, as they say. Just as the state needs to enforce laws in an unbiased manner, the citizens too need to obey laws to promote a healthy society. One could argue that the reason so many citizens registered for the ‘Traffic Sentinel’ initiative was because they wanted to bring change. However, in the context of traffic violations, it seems that the inability of the state in enforcing these laws is only matched by the disregard that citizens have for some of the simplest and basic laws. For instance, traffic laws ensure an orderly flow of vehicles and pedestrians and minimize the risk of life and limb. It appears that people in Goa are more concerned about the small fines than their lives (and the lives of their loved ones and fellow citizens). For what else can explain the utter disregard for basic norms of safety and, not to mention, the prevalence of rash and negligent driving, when so many lose their lives in traffic accidents every day? To an extent, even those who are ‘Traffic Sentinels’ are part of a culture that does not privilege the safety of all.

In other words, the issues before us are the role of the police as a law-enforcing authority and the role of the citizens as a law-abiding entity. While both have an important part to play, it is important to recognize that the state and the citizens need to promote due process and the rule of law in the long term. The ‘Traffic Sentinel’ initiative appears to be a shortcut – the police fine violators to show the numbers on paper, while in reality everyone does as they please. The solution lies not in allowing people to take the law in their own hands but in following due process and the rule of law. Responsible behavior by citizens and the efficient, accountable functioning of state bodies can make a difference.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 6 February, 2019)

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

PAST AND PRESENT FOR 2019


Our political condition becomes worse with each passing year. The nature of public debate (rather the absence of it), the deteriorating condition of public infrastructure, and unscrupulous bids have plunged Goa into chaos. Thus, taking stock of the bygone year, or reflecting on the past on any anniversaries (such as the recently concluded 57th Liberation Day of Goa), appears to be an exercise in futility. However, can we really afford to ignore the past? If we do, we run the risk of subjecting ourselves to the same political manipulations of the past. It is only by considering the past errors that we are able to avoid blunders in the present and future. However, making sense of our present in relation to the past (thereby charting a vision for the future) is not as easy as it seems.

Tourism and mining are the two main industries of Goa today and the government’s policies regarding the regulation and development of these industries is a major concern for the future. These two industries in Goa share a similar history in terms of their origins in the economic policies of the Portuguese state. A large number of Goans depend on mining and tourism – more on tourism than mining today – and these two industries place heavy demands on resources like land and water, not to mention the human resource. The Justice Shah Commission reported huge illegalities in the mining sector, which means that the Goan hinterlands and forests have been hollowed out. Just a few days ago, the Union Cabinet has approved new regulations for Coastal Regulatory Zones, in an attempt to promote eco-tourism and development on the coast. It is a chilling reminder of what is in store for us as resource-extractive and culture-destroying economic activities have continued for over half a century, and the government today further seeks to promote this destruction. 

When the erstwhile Portuguese state gifted mining leases in perpetuity to private capitalists or industrialists, the Goan economy was experiencing economic stagnation. The increasing calls for decolonization in the 1950s had also put the Portuguese state under severe pressure to demonstrate that the Goan economy was fit and fine. In this, they conveniently gained the support of local industrialists and capitalists. The tourism industry, too, has its origins in the economic policies of the Portuguese state. However, the present tourism industry in Goa begins with the Indian government trying to boost the national economy either by exploiting Goa’s beautiful locales for leisure activities or by introducing exploitative and unsafe activities for the sake of earning foreign exchange. Goa was the main target due to its Portuguese- and Catholic-inflected culture. Goans were convinced by the central and local state authorities that large resorts (and golf courses) would bring in jobs, stopping the out-migration of Goan youth. In the last two or three decades, successive governments have used the rhetoric of preference-for-Goans in employment to promote the interests of large businesses.

Considering this long history, it is obvious that the economic policies of various states and governments have progressively promoted economic development dependent on large infrastructure and heavy industries. This has exerted immense pressure on the land and the people living in it. In recent decades, with an increasing imposition of neo-liberal economic policies – even by chest-thumping nationalists – we observe that there is an increasing migration into and out of Goa. In fact, migration in and out of Goa is related to the same economic and political processes that created industries like mining and tourism. With agricultural productivity declining from the late nineteenth century, Goa witnessed an outmigration to British-ruled cities like Bombay, Karachi, and Dar-es-Salaam. The out-migration continues, except to different locations; and the difference between the in-migration then and now is that, in our time, large numbers are migrating into Goa, who also face exploitation within the tourism and mining industries.

So, a long view of Goan economic history shows that we are heading for increased destruction of land and other resources and increased migration into and out of Goa all in the name of development, employment, and boosting the state’s and nation’s economy. But this is not the future that we want. Every contestant and each political party during elections give us a vision that further promotes this long process of destruction rather than suggesting ways to halt it. Repeatedly, we fall for such a vision not just because it comes with the promise of jobs and prosperity, but also because it seems that no other vision is realistic.

The results of the recently concluded state legislative elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram suggest that there is possibility of change in the future. Indian citizens are desperate for any positive change after the misrule of the BJP for the last five years. Would a change in power roll back all the bad policy decisions and destruction of the environment? Arguably not. The nexus of capital, big industries, and political parties runs deep in all national parties. This is important, as a shift in power at the center or state would not mean that land-grabbing, water-polluting, and generally destructive development would end. Therefore, we need to think out of the box, and force those who wish to represent us to do the same. Our would-be representatives need to tell us specifically how they will get Goa to step away from the current path of destruction; how we can break the pattern of Goa’s economic history for the last 100 years. 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 2 January, 2019)