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The Indian socio-political space is polarized as never before. The religious and economic right wings came together in an unprecedented show of solidarity and gave India its first Prime Minister who refuses to answer any questioning. The writing was on the wall. Subramanian Swamy had detailed the RSS "plan" as far back as 1999 with remarkable accuracy if one is to read it with the wisdom of hindsight.

Arundhati Roy had spoken of the economic separation going on in the Indian society in words that have since been seared onto the minds of most people who read them.

What we’re witnessing is the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in Independent India. The secession of the middle and upper classes from the rest of the country. It’s a vertical secession, not a lateral one. They’re fighting for the right to merge with the world’s elite somewhere up there in the stratosphere.

Journalists, bloggers, social media commentators have been pointing to this situation coming. This blog has certainly not pulled any punches, and the only surprise in it is the number of people who apparently did not imagine that people given to disregarding law and country while not even in power are wreaking complete mayhem now that they are.

Repulsive utterances and acts have systematically decimated any gullible people who had believed that the country would thrive under a Hindutva right extremist government. Pretty much the only supporters the government has left is its core constituency - those who support them not in spite of their communally hostile views and acts, but because of them. Businessmen are already talking about lack of investments, rupee continues to sink and so on.

Call it BJP's anti-intellectualism committing suicide by pitting itself against institutions of education or call it the simple end of the election campaign resulting in the fog of advertising coming off people's eyes, blaming the right is not such a difficult thing these days. They seem to be doing more than half the work themselves.

In the process, what is happening is a complete absolution of those who are not these barbarians. The nice halos of liberals, intellectuals, leftists and what not other identities with lofty morals are shining brilliant more from the lack lustre contrast of a determinedly incompetent right than any particular merit of their own.

How easy it has become to forget that the Congress pretty much handed the country to BJP on a platter, or that the excellent campaign of Kejriwal suddenly stopped talking of deliverables and dived into Gods after pitching the meager finances of the party into Varanasi and ensuring that hundreds of other seats did not campaign well for shortage of money? A careful Modi wave respected the Gandhi and Yadav parivars even when it swept across UP in a historic win. BJP returned the favor in Delhi elections giving AAP the landslide win so close to Kejriwal's heart. Of course, Kejriwal wasn't ungrateful. After becoming CM and whisking off for treatment at the supposedly hated PM's recommendation, his party did a nice purge of leftists who could have a problem with placing results over ethics or process.

And it goes on. Rahul Gandhi has started finding his eloquence. A near dead left is suddenly visible on Twitter. The country, as is normal for a democracy has no real answer for who should lead it.

Unless India wants to keep swinging between opportunists, the need of the hour is for a struggle for the intellect. A struggle to examine social norms, assumptions, and holy cows and test them against own reasoning, own experiences in life,  own sense of judgment. A struggle to assert own authority to demand accountability and performance from a government.

While there is no doubt that the Hindutva right is a disaster for India not just socially and economically, but in terms of intellectual capital, fundamental freedoms and perhaps even national integration itself, blaming the Hindutva right for the state of the country would be a mistake. For all their faults, their unsuitability was never hidden. A phenomenal carpet bombing of propaganda, entire cover ups of history, brutal and crude campaigns, opportunistic use of human rights propaganda and more got them a landslide victory. A complete multi-pronged brainwashing campaign with a budget to rival the GDPs of entire countries and still, their vote share wasn't a third of the voters in the country.

Can a citizen afford to forget that while the Hindutva right may be guilty of conducting this "advertising scam" and while it may be "guilty" of governing exactly as it has always said it wants a country to be run, it is the complacency of the left and the intellectuals that completely failed to challenge even a single prong of the facade? The word intellectual implies a mind that spends time in thought. A mind capable of more efficient thinking, more robust processes of concluding. Is it not time that the citizen asked whether the country's public intellectuals have served it well?

I have yet to find a reasoned argument that can engage with a crude and illogical defamatory conclusion that makes up in quantity what lacks in quality when it comes to propagation. Why is it that our intellectuals have not made an effort to fight the dangerous undermining of critical thinking nationwide, even as there has been no shortage of them screaming alarm that it was happening?

The right has never pretended to include people. Their concept is simple. "We are the rightful rulers of this land, and we'd like the rest of you to vanish. In any case, we will oppose you anything you want, fundamental right or otherwise" This is no secret. The fundamental of the ideology plays out when it is possible to simply accuse someone loudly enough for it to be a truth to be fixed with a lynch mob. It is not that the mob is stupid enough that no one realizes that the targets are probably framed. It is that the mob is fine with the destruction of the targets for whatever the superficial reason. Be it a Dadri lynching or "terrorists" in JNU.

The question of national integration has to be one for the left to answer. Because the left claims to believe in inclusion. Have they been talking to be understood by all, if a country can be fooled into pseudo-nationalist outrage at the drop of a hat? Have our public thinkers thought loud enough?

While our upper and middle classes are seceding into the stratosphere economically, is it not equally true that our intellectuals have so seceded into an intellectual stratosphere that their ideas of free speech and fundamental rights don't sound familiar to the masses?

A blog by a right wing blogger, Amrit Hallan comes to mind. In it, he compares why Niti Central shut down, but Scroll thrived. To me, the reason seems to be that Niti Central was set up with the specific purpose of electoral propaganda when BJP was in the opposition. Its archives contain often reckless condemnation of a lot of things done by the UPA2 that BJP is currently doing, and it is no longer a suitable publication for the purposes of those it served, because its own archives would condemn those it favors. My guess is that in a few months, it will mushroom up in another avatar with content more suitable to publicizing the work of this government and nothing inconvenient criticizing very similar actions by another government.

But reading the piece by Amrit Hallan was a revelation. Not because his analysis differed from mine - that is bound to happen - I have an extremely cynical view of political propaganda as a whole and BJP affiliated propaganda in particular. What stunned me was how he saw the "Left". From reading his post, the inescapable perception is that of the "left" as he puts it (including leftists and "Congis", activists, etc) as a monolith. He goes to the extent of speaking of leftists promoting each other by name or linking to pieces and creating an artificial credibility where none exists. To look at the piece in terms of its merit as a debate would laugh it off the stage, because it is so absurd.

Yet, if someone does not understand the thinking that leads to stands on fundamental rights, would not completely independent instances of agreement with rights they do not wish to give appear to be an incomprehensible conspiracy? If I did not understand, say for example architecture and published something that creates an unstable building for reasons completely beyond my knowledge, would experts who trashed my article not appear as a conspiracy of elitists unwilling to recognize my masterpiece because I did not agree with them?

Would it not appear as a conspiracy to someone conditioned to react with hate to "enemies" of India, if their reaction were criticized for impinging on the rights and safety of another? To someone who has never had a deep dialogue on citizenship and the right of every citizen to their nation, would it not appear that there was nothing being impinged in order to correct a perceived threat?

If I wrote an article criticizing the beef ban in Maharashtra from an animal husbandry perspective, Asad Owaisi retweeted it, because he perceives the beef ban as a targeting of Muslims, a few dalit activists retweeted it because of the lack of recognition of dalits eating beef as a legitimate diet of Indian Hindus, if those endorsing fundamental freedoms retweeted it because they oppose the imposition of religious belief on people..... would it not appear to be a conspiracy to a well meaning, if ignorant urban product who has never cared for cattle, but been brought up considering it holy and further radicalized to believe that a cow is nothing and nothing but a symbol of Hindu faith?

Why would an urban mind think about the crisis of fodder and water in rural India? Why would it think of a centuries old thriving trade (and exports) of Kolhapuri chappals? Why would it think of massive income from the export of beef, because Indian taboos make India the only country in the world where beef (considered superior meat) is actually cheaper than goat meat, resulting in massive export business? These things are not told to the mind, the ideas of individual rights are not informed to the mind. What remains is a fog of outraged insult that anybody would kill and eat their mother. That is where the bizarre questions come from.

Would you kill and eat your mother?

Well, I wouldn't tie her in a cattle shed either!

That is what they know. Then begins the desperate search to make an emotional stand sound logical.

No one can know what they don't know. What sort of an intellectual capital have we created that there are so many among our masses who are unaware of the reasoning behind fundamental rights? What sort of an intellectual capital have we created that there are so many left in ignorance that they can be fodder for opportunists to feed ideas for political profit? How is it that we can have a country where the population of cows rivals that of states, and yet the products of our education have no idea of the economy cattle sustain beyond religious faith?

The cow is just an example. This kind of deficit of reasoning that results in dangerous, life threatening outrage can be traced to a lack of adequate information, lack of education, lack of public debate.

We could sneer at them for their stupidity, but it would be useful to remember that we are all products of our circumstances. None of us were born wise. None of us stop learning. All of us learn in various ways unique to us that trigger deeper thought on assumptions that often lead to complete changes in views.

Whose responsibility is it to inculcate such thought? Actually, no one's. Today, we have an abundance of activists pointing out problems and demanding solutions from governments and advocating change, but relatively few reformers who create change regardless of society or government. Governments themselves have over and over abdicated this responsibility. Remember, it wasn't fanatics ruling when we chose to embrace liberalism so thoroughly that our films went from coolie and mazdoor heroes to flashy cars and item girls. It wasn't fanatics in rule when our media chased wealth so thoroughly that national integration was no longer for public content. No more ek chidiya anek chidiya and mile sur mera tumhara. Now paisa bolta hain.

Well, paisa spoke. It spoke so loud that it created an entire fantasy world for youth who never experienced a public space where children dreamed of becoming teachers and scientists instead of MBAs and MNC employees. It never told them of social injustices and showed them films like Amar Prem. Their world is one where these ugly things don't happen. In fact, they are "less privileged", if you look at the bling they are bombarded with as "normal".

You cannot expect private individuals to educate public intellect. You cannot even force them to speak so that they are understood by masses without violating their rights to free speech. That almost sounds like forced conscription for weapons of mass instruction. Something a government will never bring about regardless of political party in power, because idiots are easier to con with pipe dreams than people asking why midday meals are so pathetic and where the money went.

So who is left, whose responsibility it is to create intellectual capital?

No one's. It is a responsibility abdicated by one and all.

But I can tell you what will happen if we do not have a more thinking citizenry. We will burn each other to the ground when incited by opportunists for goals that won't give us a thing beyond the heady sense of being the neighbourhood's biggest bully. Regardless of whether it is the left or the right, the dalits or the brahmins, the Muslims or the Hindutvawadis, everyone will burn. No matter who the opportunists, the ones dying in street fights are always cannon fodder.

4

Sone-Sangvi, Kej, Beed (Maharashtra):

The breeze that began to flow around noon on April 6 had by the evening grown into a heavy storm. Then the hails, the size of mangoes, came pelting down, with rain that lasted until the following evening. When the weather finally calmed down, 55-year-old Chandrakant Ikhe began to count his losses.

“I had no heart to see my farm after this event,” recounts Ikhe, a progressive farmer still to reconcile to his unprecedented loss in those two days. Football size water-melons lay damaged on 16 acres, mauled by the rain of hail, he remembers, countless melons, unfit for consumption, still strewn all over. “See this?” Ikhe says in frustration, lifting a big melon showing cracks and marks, “it’s all a waste.”

Ikhe’s mental anguish is quite stark: There are long pauses between his sentences; he stares desolately at his forlorn farm with rotting ‘sugar-babies’ (sugar-baby is the melon variety he grew) as far as you can see. His crop worth at least Rs 20-25 lakh went to dumps overnight. “You are seeing 350-400 ton (MT) of melons,” he says of the destroyed crop. In a fortnight, it’d have fetched him Rs 5-6000 per MT.

Some melons escaped nature’s fury, he says, but they would fetch paltry price. Ikhe will manage to earn barely Rs 1.5 lakh, or less than ten per cent of his estimated returns. That, he adds, is not even his investment costs. It was for the first time he cultivated melons on a big stretch, he says.

From his returns he planned to renovate his house, marry off his only daughter this year, and invest in a new farm technology. “Now the priority is to fix loans,” he says. The plans, alas, are on the hold.

Farming is a risky profession, but Ikhe’s just learnt it’s also a gamble. “Had it rained a week later, I may not have suffered such a big.” He’s is among a hundred melon growers who suffered big losses in recent hailstorm in this village of Kej Tehsil in Marathwada’s drought-prone Beed district, their loss accentuated by extreme weather events that are occurring at such regularity that farmers like him have no idea how to cope.

Several climate studies point to a sharp rise in extreme weather events in central India, and warn the farmers would be at the receiving end. On the one hand, Marathwada region, of which Beed is a part, is experiencing a continuation of meteorological drought leading to severe water stress; and on the other, sudden climate events like hailstorm in March-April is wrecking irreparable damages to crops.

Sone-Sangvi farmers are not atypical sustenance small or marginal farmers. Most of them grow high-end crops with cutting edge technologies. Their stakes are high, their risks higher.

A few km from Ikhe’s village near Kej town, Waseem Inamdar, 32, is broke too. He shows us around his farm – a picture of devastation. This week, the farm, in the midst of barren land, would have harvested bananas, pomegranates, Kesar mangoes and grapes that had come to harvest, clocking him profits of around Rs 50 lakh, by conservative estimates. Like Ikhe, he too can’t recover his input costs. He spent Rs 20 lakh this year – or almost 40 times the average annual investment that a dry-land cotton farmer of 2-ha land would usually spend on his cotton field in this region to earn Rs 10-20,000/acre. That was mostly on drip sets, digging a few bore-wells, and fertilisers and other inputs. Inamdar’s investment and losses like that of Sone-Sangvi farmers would make a small farmer in Marathwada mighty nervous.

“It was the third and final blow,” Inamdar says showing a banana tree that caved in with the bunch of green bananas that now look like rotting. The first bout of incessant rain came in March first week; then in March end, but the third one on April 6 and 7 came with such strong winds and hails that nothing was left to be salvaged. “Last year too I had suffered damages, but this year’s losses are irrecoverable.”

Inamdar runs a brick kiln and agriculture implements shop. From the profits he made in that business, he bought 53 acres of arid farmland near Kej and developed it into a horticulture farm by putting in big money, in five years. He first developed a banana orchard; then grapes; on a plot of five acres stand the mango plants of exportable Kesar variety, and there are pomegranates too over a six acre plot.

What happened to Ikhe or Inamdar is symbolic of wide-spread damages to crops just before the harvest. In Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, the incessant rains wrecked standing wheat and paddy; in states like Madhya Pradesh; Maharashtra; Telangana, it flattened coarse cereals, oilseeds, potatoes and fruits such as mangoes, bananas and melons. Neither farmers nor government has an idea how to prepare for such a risk. The crop insurance schemes help companies, not farmers, says Ashok Gite, a retired agriculture assistant in Beed’s Salegaon village, seven km from Ikhe’s village. “We need a good insurance policy.”

The climatic aberrations are also threatening economies of regions. Kej Taluka, which derives its name from Kejdi River, provides a green contrast to the large swathes of an arid and dreary Beed, among the driest districts in Maharashtra and part of what is called the rain-shadow zone. That’s because of a dam that came up at the confluence of Manjra and Kejdi rivers, where Sone-Sangvi village once breathed.

In the mid-80s villagers were removed to a new place. Many migrated to Mumbai, Pune or Aurangabad for work. Those like Ikhe, who stayed put, slowly transformed their new farm-lands. The once dry-land farmers switched to growing sugarcane following on the footsteps of their prosperous counterparts in western Maharashtra when sugar mills proliferated around the dam.

Empirical data shows, average annual rainfall in Beed district is less than 600 mm and the number of rainy days, much less than most other regions. In last five years the district has received less than 50 per cent of its annual average rains. Yet (and here’s the root of the problem), Beed grows millions of tonnes of water-guzzling sugarcane to feed about 20 roaring sugar-mills that formed the late Gopinath Munde and late Vilasrao Deshmukh’s political and business empires. The mills are now staring at closure as the acute water-scarcity has begun to finally hit sugarcane cultivation. Neighbouring Osmanabad and Latur districts are also facing drought this year deepening the water crisis to unprecedented levels.

“If I recollect my childhood, I only remember poverty,” remarks Babruvan Kanse, a progressive farmer in Sone-Sangvi who leads a collective of about a hundred horticulturists including Ikhe. Kanse was first in his village to actually experiment with watermelon cultivation on his farm in 2004 and motivate others to switch to this short-duration fruit from the otherwise water-guzzling sugarcane.

Lack of water, stemming from years of poor monsoon, had already prompted the peasants to look for viable alternatives to sugarcane. Kanse grew watermelons on drip – it required less water and traders came to doorsteps to buy the produce. Melon is a short duration crop. You sow the seeds on the rows of soil beds (some use mulching paper sheets to hold moisture and reduce water use) in January and reap the harvest by mid-April. The yield per acre here stands at 25 MT. At an average Rs 5-6000 per MT (Rs 5-6 a kg), the per-acre returns could be an average Rs 1.25 lakh over just three-four months.“You make a one-time capital investment on drip sets and a recurring production expenses on seeds and fertilisers and chemicals, and yet you can make good money from this crop,” Kanse explains.

So the shift was swift. Where this village had 150 hectares under sugarcane in the 2001-2002 season it now grows soybeans and pulses in kharif and water-melons in winter. They adopted new technologies – like automated and semi-automated drip sets; mulching papers to increase water efficiency; in-situ water conservation tanks; some have built expensive green poly-houses to grow high-end vegetables such as capsicum – by pledging huge investments from whatever profits they made every year.

“Weather is a new problem,” Kanse says. It barely rains during the monsoon, affecting kharif; then in February-April, sudden hailstorm events wreck the Rabi crop. Water brought him economic prosperity, Kanse says, his new problems are driven by the lack of it.

Ikhe’s 16-acre farm is in the belly of Manjra dam reservoir; sans water this time. This used to be his farm that got ceded for the dam. Some Sone-Sangvi villagers farm in the catchment when water recedes. Many have dug bore-wells in the belly and laid pipes from far away water-sources, desperate for water. If it rained, this area would be under water, Ikhe says. For many years now, it has not rained and the dam never got filled to its capacity even once this past decade. It’s a common refrain in this part.

Ikhe says he dug an open well and several bore-wells on his 16-acre farm in the catchment of the dam when the reservoir dried up. If you stretch his drip pipes end to end, he calculates, they would run 8 km long. Place a water melon every foot, he says, and you will end up counting hundreds. That’s how many have gone waste, he laments. On his five-acre near his new village, there’s nothing growing.

Until last year, he grew vegetables, potatoes, sugarcane and even water-melons there – by way of drip-irrigation. He has, like many other farmers in this belt, a semi-automated drip-set. “You set the time and quantity of water to be used; different for different crops and you can single-handedly operate the entire 50-acre stretch with this machine,” Ikhe says. “We can adopt any technology,” Ikhe says, staring at his melon farm, “how do we conquer weather?”

2

Sheela Rathod was the first to consume a bottle of weedicide in their home. An hour later, as she was being rushed to a government hospital, her husband Mohan, consumed the second bottle. In a span of two hours on December 19, 2015, the husband and wife farmers of 4 acres in their mid-40s lay alongside battling for their lives in the Yavatmal hospital, their two shaken teenage-sons by their side. On December 22, Sheela lost the battle for life. Two days later, Mohan died.

“They were conscious all the time but the poison had spread in the body and could not be removed,” says their elder son, Santosh, wearing a cap to hide his tonsured head. The after-death rituals over, he is slowly coming to terms with the hollowness that, he says, suddenly surrounds him and his brother. Their immediate tension however is ‘debt’. “What do we do of the loans our parents took?” The list of debtors is long and includes of both formal (such as bank) and informal (money lenders) sources, he says.

It’s barely a fortnight since the two died, but Deonala, a village about 40 km from Yavatmal in Vidarbha’s cotton belt, is on the edge. Two others had committed suicide in October. They had mounting loans, and like that of the Rathods, rain-fed fields with failed crops: no soybean; no cotton; no lentils. For several years now, they say, they have not seen a good agriculture season that brought good monetary returns.

Almost every family in the village of 1500 people is reeling under debts that they can’t repay. Bad crops apart, there’s no work to be found. No cash in hands to meet exigencies. No source of money in sight. Most have no idea of how to sustain the next six-eight months until the next monsoon arrives and first shoots of a new crop show up. Deonala is staring at a long summer ahead, they know.

This is but a representational example of an unfolding new crisis that government and policy makers call scarcity – of water, crop, food and cash – that’s going to test both, the people and the government. For, this might turn out to be the toughest drought in the recent history for the peasant-farmers of not just Vidarbha, but many other regions – Marathwada, Bundelkhand, north-Karnataka, Telangana, parts of Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, western-central Odisha, stretches of Indo-Gangetic plains, and even Haryana. For some regions, this is an annual aberration. For others, it’s a continuation of drought.

More than 100,000 villages and several small towns are in acute crisis if one adds the tally of blocks and tehsils declared scarcity-hit by ten states after the revised or second crop assessment in November. The severity is invisible at this stage; it’s the peak of winter and on fields in some parts the winter crop is yet to be harvested. In many parts, like Marathwada, Bundelkhand, or north-Karnataka, drinking water scarcity looms as artificial storages and the rivers run dry. And farm suicides are back with a vengeance in the areas under scarcity: local language newspapers are reporting three to four suicides every day.

About 300 km from Deonala, in village Dadham of Akola district, 15-year-old school boy Vishal Khule killed himself on the morning of November 22, a few days after Diwali, in his small home, while his mother cooked chapatis. When he collapsed, his parents noticed a white liquid oozing out of his mouth, and the emptied can of “poison” lying by his side. Vishal was a 9th class student of Maharanapratap Vidyalaya in Akola town. He would commute to his school and also help his 2-acre father Vishwanath on the farm when he was back.

His elder brother Vaibhav, 18, has dropped out and works as a daily-wager wherever he finds work. In Diwali, Vishal worked with his brother, but could not earn enough to buy new clothes and some school books, his father said. The Khules belong to an Andh tribal community. The village has marginal farmers, who double up as farm labourers to make a living. But with their own fields lying empty and drought wrecking the farms of big farm owners, there’s no farm employment.

“This is the worst year and a continuation of drought for last three seasons,” Akola district collector, G Sreekanth, said. “We began preparing for the coming summer in September, last, even when monsoon was to officially end.” The administration sensed the impending crisis when rains failed completely.

Akola, like many districts in Maharashtra, received only 60 per cent of its average annual rainfall of 692 mm. “That’s around 500 mm rains, which may not sound all that bad, but we got 400 mm of that in two days, on August 4 and 5,” he said. After August 5, Akola recorded 41-day gap in rains – a very long dry spell, he said. “Every crop has failed: soybeans, cotton and tur (lentils),” he said. “People don’t have money in their hand and there’s going to be shortage of water,” he said.

It was the crop failure and lack of money that drove Bhimsagar Sonone, 39, and his wife Vrushali, 35, to attempt committing suicide on November 12, a day after Diwali, in a fit of rage, in their home in Pardi, about 80 km from Dadham in Akola district, but they miraculously survived. Like the Rathods did, they too consumed a bottle full of weedicide, meant for the crop of green gram on their two-acre farm. They were saved because they got medical aid in time.

“It was wrong of us to have done that,” they said at their Pardi home, still visibly depressed. The couple has three children, a daughter and twin-sons. A day after Diwali, the two fought with each other, just as any couple would. The reason for conflagration though, was there was no dime to buy new clothes and get their children some Diwali crackers, Vrushali said as she cried. The anger over distress spilled over. Farming in rain-fed conditions has become a never-ending drought, Bhimsagar says, nailing one of India’s biggest structural problems of poverty and growth bottlenecks. “Without water you can’t farm.”

They narrate the story that the Rathods would have, if they were alive: The farm yielded nothing; loans mounted; cash flow choked; tension and desperation built up; household expenses became difficult to be met; and no sustained work could be found. He had mortgaged all of Vrushali’s gold ornaments.

Multiple loans

Back in Deonala, Sheela’s death has added to the burden of the 19 women of her age, members of a self-help-group. For, after her death, the remaining must repay her equated weekly installments of loans they took from different non-banking financial institutions that seem to have mushroomed in this part.

“Do something, these loans are giving us blood pressure,” pleads Pramila Rathod, a neighbor and one of the senior members of the group. “I am working overtime to mop up funds to repay the debts.”

Sheela like these women juggled multiple loans that add up to between Rs 75,000 and Rs 1 lakh, to be repaid over two or three years, on a weekly basis. “Everything else stops,” Pramila says, “not the loan installment.” Together, each woman must pay Rs 4000 or more every week or so – Rs 15-16000 a month depending upon the number of loans each one of them has taken from the micro-finance companies.

When most cotton growers in rain-fed conditions don’t make even Rs 10,000 in profits from their farms, juggling multiple loans several times their frugal income is a sign of a vicious debt cycle they have landed themselves in – it’s a ground similar to the one that triggered a spike in farm suicides from 2005 to 2008.

Pramila shows us the pass-books for each of her loans: there’s Equitas; Vaya Finserv Private Ltd. (which formerly was called Outreach Financial Service India Pvt Ltd); there’s Jan-Laxmi finance and there are a couple others whose passbooks the women could not show us. The group has to split within themselves the installments of Sheela and when they are struggling to repay their own, it is a Himalayan burden.

Each of these loans comes at 20 per cent or more interest rate, much higher than the ones salaried class pays on buying consumer goods. Most of them have willingly and knowingly opted for multiple loans for the lack of options. Pramila explained it: “Our bank loans are unpaid; we have not been able to pay our bills for inputs to the dealers; private hand loans remain unpaid too, so who would lend us?”

Enter the companies, ready to dish out small cash to a group without any collateral, and the families, desperate for money, latch it up – without thinking of the consequences. The money goes into farming and when farming fails, the loans trigger a vicious repayment cycle for which you must borrow more.

Deonala’s women have much of their gold mortgaged with private lenders or jewelers; pawns they are unable to free. Cattle prices have tanked as buyers shrink and a cow-slaughter ban hits the beef business in the state. Government aid would be far too less and come mostly in band aids, the villagers rue.

Babusha, Mohan Rathod’s elder brother, has loans; so have two other brothers, Baliram and Raju. Their wives, members of self-help-groups, are indebted too – to the same micro-finance institutions.

An agent of one of these companies said on the condition of anonymity that his company has a deep penetration of micro-loan business in Vidarbha and it is expanding fast. The loans look small but they yield big returns. Since there are no collaterals, it’s the easiest route to cash, but also an equally difficult cycle to come out of. The lenders know most borrowers use it for agriculture purpose and when nationalized banks refuse to lend more to the defaulting account holders, they lend at a high risk.

A fiercely hectic repayment schedule, very high penalties on default, and a collective pressure builds up tension, says Pramila, extremely worried about her next repayment. “The day Sheela died we repaid her installment,” she says. “If her sons find some work and earn some money, it will be good for us.”

In their last moments, Mohan and Sheela kept telling their sons, that they were sorry for them; that they must look after each-other; and that they should move out of the village if they could.

In their two-room hut with a mud-littered front-yard that has a thatched shade, there now hang framed photos of Mohan and Sheela who tilled their lands laboriously and raised their sons frugally.

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Where do Santosh and his younger brother Sandeep go from here? “We are finding it very difficult to get work outside,” Santosh said. There are hundreds like them wanting work. Both had dropped out of school after the ninth class. “We can’t farm this land,” he said as he took us around an arid, stony, land at the foothills of a small hillock, a few km of walk from their home. It’s a ten-acre stretch, of poor soils, that Mohan tilled with his three elder brothers. This year though, in addition to his share of four acres, he had leased ten acres from a tribal farmer and invested in cotton and lentils, hoping for a better return, his sons said.

Mohan expected at least 40 quintals of cotton from 14 acres; he got three. Lentils are fetching a good price in the markets, but Santosh rued the fact that the plants have no pods. This field and stretches as long as one can see are a spectre of doom and gloom – a dry anaemic land with cotton and lentil plants that have fallen lifeless.

2

Narendra Dabholkar was a notable rationalist from Maharashtra who quit a flourishing medical practice to devote time to social reform and had founded the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti to combat superstitious beliefs among people. He was brutally murdered after receiving threats from religious fanatics for many years. Extremists condemn him for opposing Hinduism. Liberals endorse him in principle. Yet, given that most of his work happened in Marathi, most Indians commenting on him have little idea of what thoughts the man promoted.

This marks the first of hopefully many efforts to make his thoughts accessible to a wider audience and my small contribution to promoting rationalism among people.

This is the first of three parts translating the speech into English..

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Lokahitawadi (Gopal Hari Deshmukh) was born in Maharashtra in 1823 and Prabodhankar Thakeray died in 1973. Maharashtra has a 150 year tradition of social reformers who examined prevalent folk traditions. There were Lokahitawadi, Mahatma Phule, Savitribai Phule, Dnyanoji Mahadev, Godkar, Ranade, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj, Tukadoji Maharaj, Ghadge baba, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Swatantryaveer Vinayak Damodar Sawarkar, Hamid Dalwai and Prabodhankar Thackeray. Such an unbroken stretch has not been the fortune of any other state in India. And if we consider them to be schools of learning for social reformers, each headed by a learned guru, then Mahatma Phule was the learned guru of them all.

But as we clap on hearing his name, I'd like to share an example. We know that Savitribai [Phule] had started teaching girls and those who opposed her used to throw filth on her clothes as she passed on the way to school. So she used to carry a spare sari to change into for teaching, on reaching school. But what we don't know is that at that time, there were pamphlets circulated in Pune, which if I tell you now, you will laugh. They said that this Phule says women should be taught to read and write, but women must not be taught to read and right at all. Why? Because if women learn to read, they will read bad/obscene books. No idea how the man who learned to read knew this... Women who learn to read will read inappropriate books and women who learn to write will write naughty letters to their husbands.

You are laughing, Phule's father didn't laugh. He called Phule and ordered him to stop teaching girls. Phule asked, "Why?". He replied, "Our religious tradition says so. Learning isn't a woman's work, her arena of work is the kitchen and children.". Phule retorted, "Whatever was written in religion may be written, I have decided that I will teach women." Phule's father said that that wouldn't do and that everyone had to obey religious strictures.  Phule refused to obey. His father said that if he wanted to teach women, then it would not be in his home.

And because a 21 year old Mahatma Phule and his 18 year old wife Savitribai Phule stepped over the threshold and left their home in order to teach women, you 40-50 women [in the audience] are sitting here confidently.

Which brings me to this incident. A woman from the pardhi community from Amravati, who didn't have water where she lived, filled water at the school next door. The school headmaster thrashed her badly. Ignore that she was beaten. She was beaten, there was police investigation of the headmaster's actions, that is not the point. What was worse was that because a woman was touched by a man not related to her, their caste panchayat excommunicated the woman, her husband and her two children, didn't allow them to live in the settlement, forced them to sit under a tree and fined them 31 thousand rupees. Of this, they were able to pay only ten thousand. Ashok Pawar, an anti-superstition activist from that community wrote the story of this injustice for the Sadhana weekly magazine which I edit. I was astonished to find that a reader I had never met, a retired teacher called Bhigde, sent me 21 thousand rupees in cash, requesting that it be given to the caste panchayat "because our community will take at least another 500 years to repay these sins." Where is Mahatma Phule? The money was sent to the caste panchayat. This is the reality.

Today, we are fighting for an anti-superstition law, the bill for which is before the upcoming winter assembly, what is it called? It has the name of our subject.  Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2011 (it was passed in 2013, after he was murdered). The discussions you are having about inhuman and inappropriate traditions, how long has it been since the law has been proposed? Only 18 years. It has been approved by the Assembly five times in these 18 years.

In 1829, Lord Bentinck passed a law banning sati practice and our shastris and pandits went to court claiming that the immolation of the wife after the death of her husband is our religious tradition. Lord Bentinck did not agree. The pandits asked, what would happen of her character/reputation? That is when Lord Bentinck started a seven rupee pension. He faced criticism over meddling in matters not of his religion or trade. He replied that if he saw a woman burn and did nothing, he'd be useless as an administrator.

Even today, people throw stones when a wish is fulfilled [speaking of specific orthodox tradition]. If I threw stones, I'd be arrested for stone pelting, but thousands throwing stones is appreciated as religious faith. And there is no law for this. They ask, which law should be used.

It needs to be understood. Not all traditions are bad. Dharma-shastra (religious rules) say that a Ganesh idol should be of the earth (made of mud/clay) and it should be immersed in flowing water. In earlier times, there was plenty of mud and rivers had plenty of flowing water. Make a nice clay idol, and the texts prescribe that it shouldn't be larger than the span of a palm, and use it for worship. Then, return what was taken from nature back into nature. But a hundred years ago, you didn't have plaster of Paris, toxic paints and gigantic idols. Maharashtra's population had not reached 11 crore. Can the same practice be continued now?

We suggested, that the idols not be immersed in the river. If you see the Mula Mutha in Pune, it is more like a sewer than a river. But people would throw the idols in there. Then we decided that we would take the idols as donations after the religious rites were over. Senior scientist Vasantrao Gowarikar and I stood there to accept donated idols. People who called themselves protectors of Hindu religion came and stood next to us, with loud religious bells and whenever we started to speak, they'd ring the bells loudly so that we couldn't be heard. Their did not accept our questioning of their religious tradition to dispose off idols in flowing water.

Then we went to the High Court, and Supreme Court and all the decisions were in our favor, and now, what we were suggesting is an official order from the environment ministry.

What does this tell us? We need reform.

Narendra Dabholkar's speech on tradition and superstition - English translation Part 2

Part 3 coming soon.

4

When you begin with a conclusion and backfit "science" to prove it, absurd things happen.The Holy Cow seems to be one such absurdity plaguing India these days. Trumpeting the importance of the cow, the Hindutva right governments are all out to "protect" said cows by preventing all cattle slaughter. While cow slaughter is already banned in most states, Maharashtra now takes another step up the bovine ass to ban all cattle slaughter, meaning calfs and bulls that could earlier be slaughtered with appropriate certificate can no longer be killed.

This, naturally has implications statewide as the bulls get reduced from economically viable livestock to a liability overnight in addition to the cows. The idea of bans on cattle slaughter itself is economically problematic in a country with a large number of poor people. From the obvious removal of beef as cheap nutrition for economically weaker sections to the removal of specialities on menus of non-vegetarian restaurants that serve beef (buffalo meat is tougher and not completely substitutable). From the removal of the prized beef from the meat exports leaving only the tougher carabeef (buffalo meat) to instant losses for cattle owners who will no longer have buyers for their livestock.

While the move is projected as a pro-Hindu move, in reality, there is a significant number of eaters who are Hindu, but even more importantly the economic loss to the cattle owners is largely among Hindus - since Hindus are greater in population, own land and livestock in greater numbers. The largest beef exporters in India are Hindu. Meat eaters can eat other meats, it is livestock owners that are left with nowhere to dispose off unviable livestock, let alone profit from it. As drought stricken farmers take up loans to transport bulls to cattle fairs in a desperate effort to sell them, they still don't find buyers. Who would buy bulls in an era of motorized transport and slaughter bans? What would one do with the bull? Our champions of the Hindu Rashtra appear to not have thought that far. Yet as drought sweeps Maharashtra, there is going to be an urgent need to sell people further driven to ruin by the cattle slaughter ban some con about why they cannot sell their animals for slaughter instead of feeding them non-existent feed and watering them with scarce water.

Alas, the problem is, in their hurry to protect, they haven't quite figured out what to do with the cattle that don't get killed. More than that, the impracticality not being a deterrent, they are aiming to expand such "protection" across India. Jharkhand may follow suit with a similar expanded ban. But how can this be done without appearing to be complete idiots?

The efforts are relentless. It helps that the greatest defenders of the slaughter ban have never been responsible for looking after cattle and are free to expound on the merits of a live cow over a dead one. Thus they are completely free to use all their creative faculties with scant regard for practicalities. "What we don't know can't inhibit us"appears to be the new mantra. All sorts of uses for otherwise useless cattle are being found - namely dung and urine.

The premise of the Gobar economy, as I've started calling it, is that excreta is more valuable than feed. Therefore, the grass that has passed through the body of a cow is not as valuable as the dung that exits the other end. Or, more accurately, you will earn enough from dung to cover the cost of grass PLUS the money you'd have earned from selling the animal for meat. And of course they don't get laughed right off the social networks because most people there have no idea what grass, dung or cow meat costs in India. They also appear to have no idea that fertile milch cattle too provide dung and urine as additional utility and ban or no ban, no sane cattleowner butchers milch cattle because they are too profitable to be sold for the one time price of meat.

Yet, they do not seem to have hurried to construct their cow protection centers - probably because their rural staff aren't complete idiots and will be wondering where the money for care comes from once the propaganda utility is over. Still, it does not serve to stem the torrents of absurdity spewing in social media in a desperate bid to prove that an economic loss inflicted on cattle owners by those who profit from ideology and not cattle; is not actually a loss.

Here are some such statements:

Would you kill and eat your mother?

No, but I wouldn't tie her in a shed either.

A cow doesn't have to be given special feed if she isn't giving milk. Just grass and water.

Grass doesn't manifest from thin air. It grows on land, has to be cut into bales, transported, fed. Paid for. Grazing can only last so much. But of course, you can always leave your "mom" at a garbage dump for some takeout. In Maharashtra where we have drought in a fifth of the state before the monsoon ends, we are talking of an animal that drinks an average of 60 liters of water a day. Have you ever watered a cow? I have. A twenty liter bucket and half each time offered twice a day doesn't sound excessive at all. Particularly in hot weather. This would be ferrying three LARGE buckets of water PER COW, DAILY. In places like Marathwada, children are quitting school to help families find and ferry enough water to survive. There are people marrying water wives not so far from Mumbai - their only job is to ferry water. Someone want to explain how simply giving water to a cow three times a day is a minor thing for the sake of faith? How many of the loudmouth laptop jockeys would ferry three buckets of water out of respect for their real mother?

Uses of cow dung and cow urine

The uses of cow/bull dung and urine are the same whether the cow is a productive one or non-productive one. Makes no sense to maintain a non-producing animal for the sake of excretion. Additionally, buffalo dung is practically interchangeable with cow dung as fertilizer or plastering floors and walls of mud homes.

The government has jumped in with all its four feet to make cows more useful.

Maharashtra is now promoting organic farming

This is no doubt a very welcome step, except the government is also promoting GM crops. Organic farming depends on a very robust ecosystem of organisms that keeps pathogens and pests at bay. Genetically Modified crops have a high dependence on chemical inputs - which destroys the ecology. When push comes to shove, is the government that betrayed their largest supporter group to push GM crops, going to create the chemical free space organics will need? Let us see. If they do, it will be great. Unfortunately a cynical part of me believes that the farmers will be pushed toward the two opposite goals simultaneously and left to deal with the results and absorb consequences on their own.

Cow urine disinfectant

This is probably the most alarming of the lot. The idea is not entirely impossible. Cow urine is used in some organic pesticides already. However, the idea that because it is non-toxic for humans and can be safely used to control several pests does not automatically mean that it will work to prevent vectors of infection among humans. Inherently, there is nothing in cow urine that would prevent organisms that decompose living matter to thrive - cow urine, for example can be happily added to compost heaps without any harm to the decomposers in it. For that matter, so can human urine. Excellent sources of nitrogen to get a compost pile hot fast. For someone into organic farming, the idea that anything that can be added to a compost pile will prevent growth of microorganisms is a little difficult to digest. No pun intended.

Still it is possible that the cow urine is processed in a manner that enhances its action against pathogens. Not impossible. There are many other organic products that have proved safe for medical use - for example sphagnum moss for absorbent dressings or maggots to clean infected wounds.

There appears to be no conclusive research that would indicate its suitability in an environment where humans in fragile health would be kept. To run a trial of such a disinfectant in the ICU of a hospital - monitoring or not treads into several problematic areas.

  1. To begin with, trials are best conducted by scientists and not politicians.
  2. Trials conducted without consent are ethically problematic.
  3. Even utility in a human environment would not establish safety in a situation where sterility is a requirement. Many pathogens occur naturally in the environment but are rarely a problem unless they manage to find a host. Examples would be Fusarium wilt in plants or tetanus among humans. Given that hospitals often have patients with injuries and the target use appears to be sterilizing instruments in an ICU (of all things!), the risk also needs to be assessed in terms of safety around open wounds.

By default, organic and sterile have a problem co-existing and while I am all for organics, it is important to recognize that hospital treatments are often not organic to begin with. The need to promote a cow urine based product, with dubious and currently unproven safety directly in a high risk environment stinks of "research" invented by PR departments. A scientific mind ought not to have a problem with systematic testing for target use before deploying in real life situations.

A scientific mind ought to have a problem with human trials without consent and a scientific mind ought to be asking who is responsible if irreversible infections happen.

All this STILL will not explain how unviable cattle can find an alternative viability that is greater than the input into their care. It still will not explain how cattle dying horrible painful deaths from plastic ingested in garbage heaps where these "mothers" are abandoned by their "sons" is more pious than cattle well cared for till they are finally butchered. It does not explain how cows abandoned at garbage dumps but buffaloes and bulls (till recently) being fed well for slaughter respects cows. It does not explain how it respects cows for them to be turned into an economic liability for owners, nor does it explain what the government's right is, to pay public funds for the passive upkeep of thousands of animals that could feed people, while people die of hunger.

Even Savarkar had recommended allowing cattle slaughter if that made economic sense.

But is our cow infested right wing willing to relook at the gobar economy and allow the poor to make choices that sustain them?