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The Hindu on indiaserver.com : A fistful of salt

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Wednesday, August 11, 1999


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A fistful of salt

By Devaki Jain

WHEN HE picked up a fistful of salt from the beaches of Gujarat, Gandhiji was not trying to give free salt to the people of India. It was a symbol, an idiom of political assertion, but in a language, a vocabulary which represented the masses, not the elite. When Mr. Nelson Mandela said in his inaugural speech after assuming office as the South African President, `we want bread, water and salt' it was not that he wanted to limit the lifestyle of his people to bread with salt and water: it was to signal the aspirations of the masses, again a vocabulary which was representative of both political assertion and identification with the deprived. Imagine if these actions and words had been interpreted literally? That Gandhiji wanted to give free salt or that Mr. Mandela wanted only bread with salt and water for his people? How absurd it would have been? Imagine that the salt satyagraha had not fired up the imagination of Indians and opened the floodgates of the movement for freedom? What a loss to the grammar and method of politics and most of all to democratic processes which attempt to move the state towards justice?

The struggle now going on in the Narmada Valley is a similar satyagraha. It has a potential which is close to Gandhi's fistful of salt. It has to succeed as it represents in its process and alliances more than a struggle against big dams or for better rehabilitation of the displaced persons. To interpret it thus would be as absurd as seeing the salt satyagraha as giving free salt. To miss its point of using spaces in a democracy for negotiating justice through public action would do more than submerge people. It would throw a dark shroud on democratic spaces; the use of such spaces through a diffusion of knowledge, the institutional framework, dialogue, consensus building across the divides of occupation, location, class and caste. It would break and perhaps even kill the will to seek justice from the state and the centres of power through informed negotiations.

This struggle must be enabled to succeed so that many more doors and corridor that lie behind its purpose, which today are choked and in turn are choking India's journey to a just society, to an environmentally secure land, to a representative democracy are opened.

Yesterday's workers movements and their collective voice are today people's movements. Workers movements have had to take a back seat as much because in economies like India the trade- unionised labour represents less than 10 per cent of the labour force, as because the structure of production and trade systems worldwide have blurred as well as dampened working class culture. As the space for trade unions and cooperatives is protected as part of the institutional machinery for bringing the strength and opinion of the less privileged or the larger masses, people's movements must be seen as the institutional vehicles for carrying the voices of the masses into public debate and policymaking.

The left movements have been marginalised by world events as well as by the emergence of the assertion and affirmation of injustice, a critique from within, as for example by women, the Dalits and the minorities.

The space for the voices of the oppressed once occupied by the left and the unions then is available, unfilled - and in the last decade or two has been filled by people's movements all over the world - North and South.

But people's movements by definition do not have the institutional structure that political parties and trade unions have. They do not have a space in the state's institutional framework, nor do they come under any legal framework. They are fluid and this enables them to be inclusive as well as broadbased and massive in numbers. But it also demands from them unity of purpose, single-minded thrusts, which in turn requires shared knowledge, clarity of purpose - attributes of efficiency. They need to be taken seriously by agencies of the state and society as the most vital safeguards of democracy and for sustaining the democratic spaces outside the conventional structures, which are often suffocated, crippled. Treatises have been written, and here we can draw on our own Nobel laureate, Prof. Amartya Kumar Sen - apart from other stalwarts of the Indian political economy such as the late Prof. Raj Krishna and the late Prof. Krishna Bharadwaj - who repeatedly emphasised that unless the voices and strength of collective public action were included as an element in economic models, there would be no way of generating equity with growth. This is the political element in economics - the space for a negotiated settlement in making the choices at the macro-level.

Where this space is not encouraged, where it is snuffed out, there will be the danger of mishandling of economic policy - information which is crucial to the design and management of public policy is denied to the system. This particular public action - the Narmada Andolan story, its historical course, its method of informed negotiations, broadening the issues from oustees to science and technology, to educating the state with good humour and seriousness, with a view to influencing policy, - is perhaps the most elegant case study - to illustrate one of Prof. Sen's political points - that public policy needs the intervention of public action, the transformation of a lobby into a participant in policy.

The viewpoint of emphasising the role of democratic spaces where information is available to the state through both the press and collective public action, as crucial for justice, for enabling the state to put forth what could be called a rational approach is illustrated by Prof. Sen in his comparison of the responses of India and China to famines. He argues that the impact of famine was less in India due to the information channels available to a democratic society.

The Narmada struggle is one brilliant example of a course of action which systematically has tried to do this, but after so much review and court debates, has gone back all the way, as if these 15 years of discussion and exchange of information are of no value. This rolling back should not be allowed to happen. It will once and for all nullify the kind of approach, the kind of analysis and prescription that provide for justice in the political economy.

If it fails, then more than itself fails. If it wins, it can begin the rollback in the other direction, namely give hope and muscle to rational, informed, slow and honest public action for justice. It could be the beginning of revival of spirit for those of us who want to broaden the scope and improve the quality of representation in a democratic structure. It could be the beginning of broader based coalitions which will raise the political voice of the discriminated against, such as women. Its failure will be a blow to all this.

However for it to win, we need to ally ourselves with its larger purpose. We need to win this particular resistance. We need to make it the modern-day salt march - a symbolic fist to show that we are a state and society that can feed on information and can be bent to justice.

(The writer is a development economist based in Bangalore.)


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