Obama’s Gandhigiri

November 11, 2010

By Uma Sudhir, Resident Editor, NDTV
I could almost feel the glow on Indian faces when Barack Obama made references to Gandhi. I mean the one Gandhi that all Indians, cutting across the political spectrum, can unhesitatingly take pride in, for his philosophy of non-violent resistance, `’the only logical and moral approach in the struggle for justice and progress’.

The 49-year-old called him “a hero not just to India but to the world” and even gave him credit for where he is today.

“I might not be standing before you today, as President of the United States, had it not been for Gandhi and the message he shared with America and the world.”

So far, so good. But it also set me off on uncomfortable questions. Beyond the Bollywood-inspired Gandhigiri of recent days, does the man we call the Mahatma really have the place of a hero in the Indian way of life and thinking, its polity today?

Even as the US first couple’s quotable quotes and dancing to Indian tunes had taken over media and, by extension, popular mindspace, a little entourage that got virtually no attention from the national media, was making its way into Andhra Pradesh and its  capital Hyderabad. The group consisting of small farmers, activists and students had started on a journey from Sabarmati, the birthplace of Gandhiji, symbolically on October 2 and was travelling some 16000 km through 20 states, to reach Rajghat, the Mahatma’s final resting place, on December 11.

Just to get a feel of it, I got on to the bus that was taking the motley group that called itself the Kisan Swaraj Yatra. The people on it spoke in many different languages. There were people from Punjab, Bihar, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and other parts of India. But they had one thing in common. They were here because it symbolised to them what the Mahatma had stood for : Gram swaraj. Something that they thought was very much under threat in today’s India.

What struck me was that these people were not mouthing intellectual, theoretical, armchair constructs but were simply sharing what they had experienced in real life, in real ways. And that’s why it is important to tell this story of hope.

Ponnam Mallaiah is convinced that this is not an event just for farmers, it is for all of us. Because our seeds and agricultural inputs, our land and water, determine the food we eat and our health, he explains. Mallaiah is from Enabavi village in Warangal district. He was one of the first to take up chemical-free farming 10 years ago, at a time when input-intensive agriculture had made the district notorious as the highest fertiliser and pesticide-consuming, suicide capital of the country. Going the organic way, saying a collective ‘no’ to genetically modified crops, his village became the first GM-free and chemical-free village in the country.

But it is not simply about idealism or ideology. It is about economic brasstacks. Mallaiah tells me he inherited 20 acres and now he owns 35 acres. “I will be buying another five acres for ten lakh rupees very soon,” he tells me with pride. From a situation where every house was under debt, the villagers take pride that there is no one indebted in the village now. A similar story of change and self-reliance is emerging from other villages that have chosen to walk the same road as Enabavi.

Covering 28 lakh acres or 12 per cent of agricultural land in the state, this has emerged as the world’s largest and most successful ecological farming project. And this is the story that Mallaiah wants to share with farmers across the country, who have lost hope that agriculture can be a viable option.

“That is real freedom to me, madam,” he tells me. “And it can happen only when we have control over our seeds. Our village decided against growing GM seeds. We grow our own locally developed seeds of corn, rice, tobacco, chillies, vegetables, cumin, bengal gram and we are happy. If we depend on others for the seeds, they will dictate not just the price of seed but what we grow, how we grow and when we grow. And also what you and I eat.”

I remember Barack Obama’s words in Parliament: “Together, we can strengthen agriculture.  Cooperation between Indian and American researchers and scientists sparked the Green Revolution.  Today, India is a leader in using technology to empower farmers, like those I met yesterday who get free updates on market and weather conditions on their cell phones.”

A college student who was watching the Obama speech along with me asked : “All of us know that farmers getting updates on market and weather on their cellphones is a lie. Minister Sachin Pilot wearing his Rajasthani turban and making it sound like the real India, isn’t it all such a lie?”

Of course, it is a sham. But the whole of India virtually plays along, knowing it is a BIG LIE, because we are somehow made to believe that we must project the `positive’ image of a progressive, technology-savvy India.

How can we admit to the world the shame that the hands that grow food to feed us, some two lakh of them, got so desperate that they reached out for pesticide and killed themselves. How can we say that 70 per cent of our people account for less than 15 per cent of our GDP?

Admitting that there is something fundamentally, seriously wrong puts the burden of addressing the issue. It is easier on our conscience to behave as though `Aal izz well’. So if Barack Obama says India has already `arisen’, we prefer to clap to that and believe that we are on the verge of becoming a superpower.

I remember Chandrababu Naidu impressing Bill Clinton in 2000 by presenting him with a driving licence within minutes, saying technology made it possible in Hyderabad. Clinton said that would not have happened even in the US and Naidu glowed with pride, even though he and the rest of us all knew it was all a sham, nothing more than play-acting an artificial reality.

But then did the Green Revolution and the input-intensive technology of hybrids, chemicals and irrigation not make us self-sufficient in foodgrains? Does it not bring to mind the picture-perfect images of the lush fields of prosperous Punjab, with its wheat and mustard fields?

Khushi Ram who runs a small chai stall in Faridkot closed shop for 15 days to join the yatra just to warn whoever he could, wherever the yatra was going, not to go the Punjab way. The gains are deceptive, he explains. Punjab is actually dying. It has become the cancer capital. In the so-called grain basket, 90 per cent of the development blocks are classified as dark and grey zones. In many, many places, ground water is exhausted or unfit for consumption. The land is degraded. And yet we don’t learn any lessons?

But isn’t BT cotton a success story? How can you reject technology that has changed India from an importer to an exporter and made India the second largest producer of cotton in the world? Konda Reddy says he was one of those very impressed with the gains it gave, the first few years. Less expenditure on pesticides, productivity up. But then it didn’t prove to be a sustainable, long-term option. He says productivity has fallen, new pests need pesticides once again, what did he gain, he is wondering,

“We are worried that the country’s very development notion may be going wrong when the Prime Minister says only 6-15 per cent of Indians will remain in rural areas, living off farming. And the government is orchestrating moves in that direction. There are fundamental changes taking place. All this despite the impossibility of rehabilitating people elsewhere. There are no other livelihood options available, nothing. It will be the largest displacement in human history,” worries activist Kavita Kurungati.

But then when agriculture begins to be seen as a business opportunity for big corporations. When basic resources like land, water and seed are seen as commodities to make money, at the expense of the very sustainability of our resources and the livelihoods of millions of Indians, it is time to re-visit the values of self-reliance advocated by the father of the nation. And the slogan-shouting on the bus touches something in my heart:

“Jal, Jangal, Bheej, Zameen, Ho kisanon ke aadheen”
“Bheej hamara, hak tumhara, nahin chalega, nahin chalega”
“Jago kisan, panee bachao, bheej bachao, khet bachao, desh bachao”

(reproduced with permission from www.umasudhir.wordpress.com)