Exhortation, Memorium

The Call of Harsud: Vikas Chahiye, Vinas Nahin

Baba Amte addressing Harsud Rally Photo by Smitu Kothari.  Photo of Shankar Guha Niyogi by Anand Patwardhan.  Remaining Photos taken from video footage of John D'Souza.

It was at a gathering in 1999 that many of my generation first heard of the Harsud Rally and were present when the 28th of September was declared as Harsud Day which we commemorated along with the people of the Narmada Valley in Domkhedi, in the hamlet called Kuthavani Pada, Akkalkuva Tehsil, District Nandurbar, Maharashtra.

Ten years prior, people of the Narmada Valley along with as many as fifty thousand people from villages and valleys and towns across India had come together to call for a development policy that worked for them, that supported social and environmental justice through the democratic process.  To expose and oppose policies that were made in the name of development but in fact extinguished the very resources that supported people’s lives and livelihoods, as well as the lives of myriad other species.  To stand united for just and equitable development, for the survival of the rivers and forests and all the life and culture they nourish. Continue reading

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Exhortation

Seven Fallacies about Menstruation and Culture

Never have I so acutely felt the weight of Jonathan Swift’s remark, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it” as now, after responding to a “viral” article propagating pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo in connection with menstrual untouchability, which is a crime against women just as untouchability is a crime against humanity. To top it off, this article suggests, in conclusion, that reviving traditional customs may effect social change and greater respect for women. The author is not some cranky old chauvinist male but a woman who works with government schools and health departments to teach girls and women about menstruation.  Girls certainly do need spaces where they can speak freely and ask questions about menstruation, to know it is not shameful and that their bodies are just fine.  How awesome would it be if after a presentation on the subject they could go home and declare, “I am not polluting, I don’t have to sit in the corner or in the shed. I can go where I want, when I want. I am free! Instead we hear that when girls ask questions about why they are not allowed to touch people, pickers, temples, etc, this particular teacher tells them that untouchability is “a personal choice” and that the myths and rituals reinforcing it are rooted in “ancient wisdom” when women were “worshipped.” How many adolescent girls, hearing a teacher in school offer you on the one hand patriarchy masked as “ancient wisdom” and on the other “personal choice” will choose the latter? I hope this response can increase that number:

Ask Amma

Several people have forwarded to me an article, written by an educator, connecting “ancient wisdom” to the practice of menstrual taboo, and pitying the misguided women who expect modern ideas of gender and feminism to empower them.  After cataloguing popular justifications for menstrual untouchability and suggesting that they come from a time when women enjoyed respect, indeed worship, in contrast to the present context of crimes against women, the author concludes that menstrual taboo is a matter of “personal choice.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Would those who condone menstrual untouchability extend their reasoning to untouchability?  Is it also a personal choice for us to connect to the “ancient wisdom” through the practice of untouchability?  With more than enough relatives who would be all too happy to think so, I take this as a wake-up call

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Exhortation

Save Open Schooling

The National Institute for Open Schooling serves millions of children every year, and its programs, including the Open Basic Education program should be recognized and supported under the Right to Education Act.  Instead, some important programs of NIOS are facing cuts.

There are a variety of reasons that children may not attend or may not thrive in a legally recognized, Board-affiliated school and for these children, Open Schooling offers a meaningful path of education and vocational training and certification. In the case where the reasons stem from poverty or injustice, we should certainly address these causes and clear the obstacles for school admission and achievement. Nonetheless the option of open schooling should remain available.  To close the option of open schooling while there are still people who want and need it and are making good use of it, is a disservice to those people, who for the most part are among the poorest and marginalized sections of society.  There are also people who opt for open schooling by choice.  And why not – the freedom and flexibility and respect for the learner that NIOS builds into its learning programs are difficult for any school to match. See for example, this description of the NIOS Open Basic Education program for children aged 6-14:

Like all Academic and Vocational Programmes, the foundation of the OBE programme is based upon openness and flexibility. The registration period is valid for five years thereby not only giving freedom to the learners to choose their subjects but also to study at their own pace. It also provides freedom to select the medium of their choice. A learner has a choice of Hindi, English or any Regional Language as medium of study. Like all academic programmes, OBE programme has no upper age limit for any learner, though children below the age of 6 years are not registered in the programme.

Although the RTE Act states that schools cannot deny admission, and aims to enroll every child in school, there are many who are unable to go, who go and find conditions intolerable, or who are, in violation of the law, denied admission. There are also children attending schools that are not legally recognized as schools. There are trusts, co-operatives and other organizations running schools under a variety of circumstances and conditions that are not recognized within the purview of the RTE Act – for example, they may be teaching in a local language, with staff that does not have B.Ed degrees, or teaching in a refugee camp or in a region zoned for displacement and therefore not allotted any schools or other government services.   They may be teaching children with different learning styles or abilities in a way that is customized to the special needs and abilities of each learner.

After attending such a school a child may appear for the Secondary exam through NIOS, and possibly continue in a mainstream college or other course afterwards.  NIOS also offers the Senior Secondary exam.    The service is available to all out-of-school learners regardless of reason for not enrolling in school. In 2011- 2012, 2.5 lakh students passed the Secondary (10th standard) and Senior Secondary (12th Standard) NIOS exams.

At the National Institute of Open Schooling’s 25th Anniversary celebrations at Chennai, a student spoke about the importance of NIOS and the need to make more people aware of the educational options it offers: There are so many people like us who do not thrive in the conventional system, but do not know that they have another option. And it is for this reason that each of us must become personal ambassadors of NIOS. Whenever I explain the concept of NIOS to anybody, more often than not, they say, ”Wow, I didn’t even know that such a great framework exists!”

– Aditi Parekh, “The Power of Open Schooling

If you read the 2010-2011 Annual Report of the NIOS, you will see an institute that is functioning well, whose leadership takes seriously its mission to reach those in need, and works wholeheartedly to extend and improve its services, in the public interest and without profit. The inspiring letter from the chairman, S.S. Jena concludes, “The ever-increasing student enrollment and collaboration with premier institutions indicate the confidence of the society and Government in the multifarious activities of the NIOS.” In a climate of growing privatization and commercialisation of education and weakening government support for public education it is very important to support an institution whose stated goals are “universalisation of education, greater equity and justice in society, and the evolution of a learning society1.”

Therefore it is alarming to read, later in the same NIOS Report, that although the institute is doing so well and serving so many across the country, it is being curtailed or discontinued in the name of Right to Education. I quote: “However, in the light of the RTE Act, NIOS will have to discontinue catering to children [up to] 14 years of age after 20132.” In July 2012 the government extended this deadline to March 2015. but the Twelfth Plan (2012-2017) does not mention the Open Basic Education program and focuses on NIOS services for secondary education and vocational training3.  The main program serving children up to age 14 is the Open Basic Education (OBE). With the future beyond 2015 looking bleak, many of the OBE study centers have already begun to close, leaving millions of children with no other route towards mainstream education.

This is the wrong direction to take.  The Open Basic Education program should be strengthened and supported with individual and online registration facilities.  In fact, schools can learn from the OBE model, including allowing children to learn at their own pace with no upper age limit.   

What will happen to the millions of children who depend on the NIOS?

At a meeting held in November 2013 at Gujarat Vidyapith, a number of educators from various institutes including Nai Talim Samiti, Azim Premji Univ, Vigyan Ashram and Multiversity’s Taleemnet, endorsed a letter to the Prime Minister calling for strengthening of State Boards of Secondary Education as well as the NIOS. Nyla Coelho of Taleemnet made a similar appeal during the Right to Education session at the India Homeschoolers’ Conference held in March 2014.

Homeschooled children in India who need a certificate for admission into any stream of their choice after the tenth standard, have been able to meet this need through the NIOS. While there are private services and international boards, these are expensive and have no commitment to the public, as NIOS does. Homeschoolers who have taken the exams through NIOS have also identified needs for improving the way the examination is administered. For example, recently a child in Maharashtra taking the 10th standard exam through the NIOS was shocked to find that when he asked for additional paper to continue his answers, he was not allowed, as the rules state that only one sheet is to be provided per student. The family has filed a case to change this policy. Perhaps other students suffered because of this unfair rule but did not have the means to file a case; if the rule is changed and students are allowed enough answer sheets to complete all the questions, this will benefit all who take the exam. If the reason that students are allowed only one answer sheet has to do with staffing limitations of the NIOS, then we must advocate for the NIOS get the required budget to hire additional staff and see that students are empowered to do their best.

Currently no body has announced or proposed closure of the NIOS, but many parents are worried, after seeing the cuts to the OBE program.   Cuts to NIOS would create problems for millions of students who depend on this institute and cannot afford other means as well as those who opt for the NIOS by choice. Even if the RTE is fully implemented and schools are available, people who are affected by displacement, migration, unemployment, sub-minimal wages, ill-health and other issues may not be able to complete 10th standard through the school system and need the option of appearing for the exam through NIOS. Even if they day dawns when people enjoy land rights, sustainable livelihoods, living wages, health security and accessible schools, the NIOS is part of the educational safety net and serves those within as well as outside of the formal school system.

Therefore in solidarity with all out-of-school learners, including millions of open learners already registered with the NIOS, and with the hardworking staff of the NIOS, all of us who care about education in India and about keeping educational options open for our children must stand together in support of the National Institute for Open Schooling. We need to urge the Ministry of Human Resource Development to recognize the role of the NIOS and all of its programs including the Open Basic Education program in fulfilling the mission of the Right to Education and to support the multiple paths of learning that children in India are following. We must demand that the NIOS remain open and receive greater support to improve the quality and reach of its services.


Notes

1 NIOS, “What is NIOS?”  Source:  http://oer.nios.ac.in/wiki/index.php/About_NIOS  accessed March 2014.

2 From the NIOS 2010-11 Annual Report.  The NIOS website states:  “The MHRD letter vide no. DO 10-4/2009-EE-4 dated 7th April 2010 has permitted NIOS to continue its OBE programme for 6-14 age group for a period of three years wef 1st April, 2010.”  Source:  http://www.nios.ac.in/study-centre(aiaviobe)-corner/obe-programme.aspx accessed March 2014.

3 “The Twelfth Plan will strengthen the infrastructure facilities for NIOS and 16 State Open Schools (SOS) under RMSA in order to improve the outreach of open schooling programmes with special focus on skill development and vocationalisation, particularly in the educationally backward districts of the country.”

Source: http://planningcommission.gov.in/plans/planrel/12thplan/pdf/12fyp_vol3.pdf accessed March 2014.

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Exhortation

Keep industrial food out of ICDS

Three years ago we campaigned in these villages for accountability in ICDS services.  Villagers filed RTI Applications, met the Collector, held inquiries and saw services improve measurably, from the measuring cups used to the frequency and equality of service in centers where these were lacking previously.

Now we visited the anganwadi to see how things were going. I was shocked to find that in lieu of the bimonthly ration of wheat, rice, dal and oil that the ICDS distributed to pregnant women and mothers of children up to age 3,  they were now distributing packaged powder!  Packaged in a glossy plastic bag with a drawing of a mother and baby and a table of nutritional information, the powder, made of refined flour, sugar oil and nut powder, is a “Ready to Eat Theraputic Food” or RUTF.  RUTF is recommended only in emergency relief situations where fresh food is difficult to procure or prepare, or other special circumstances.  For regular nutrition, fresh local food is the priority – it is more nutritious, costs less, sustains local agriculture and is better in the long term for producer and consumer alike.  

Instead they are distributing these:

icds kurkure3 icds kurkure2 RUTF Balamrutam

In the name of “nutritional supplement,” Packaged Snack Food being distributed by the ICDS. Appalagraharam, Nov 2013

I talked to local women and asked them what they thought about this.  Some said that the powder did not suit their children.  Others said that they thought it was nutritious and that they were supposed to give it.   They said, “It is approved by the National Institute of Nutrition.”   This is the same institute whose deputy director Veena Shatrugna stated that packaged food was not nutritious (“ICDS gets packaged food,” Down to Earth, March 15 2008).

We have in fact been hearing about the proposal to push packaged food into the ICDS for many years, and seen this idea criticized by Amartya Sen and other respected economists,   Recently when it came into Jharkhand, the Ministry of women and child development, in a strongly-worded letter, has asked the Jharkhand department of social welfare to stop.  (Times of India 17 Oct 2013).

Apart from violating the norms and indeed the purpose of the ICDS, the “Balamrutam” supplied to mothers of children under 3 threatens to reduce breastfeeding.  Complimentary food starting after 6 months of age should be made of family food and not powdered food from a package.

The ingredients are:  wheat, chana, sugar, refined palm olien oil, skim milk powder, calcium, iron, and B vitamins.    Preservatives are not required to be listed on the package.   Added vitamins and minerals are not well absorbed and the dried wheat and chana would not have the nutritional value that the child could have obtained from wheat (or better yet local millet) and chana prepared at home.   Oil that is processed for including in dry powders can never have the value of oil in its own liquid form.  Sugar is included to disguise the stale taste of the packaged food and take advantage of the taste for sweet food.  For young children just learning about the diverse flavors and textures of foods, a homogenized sweetened powder will only orient them to the taste of packaged food.

The ICDS is in a position to provide grains, dal and oil to people’s homes and should not use its offices to provide packaged, sugared food instead.

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Exhortation, Tour, Volunteers

AID Connections 2

AID Connections 2

In visits to several AID  chapters we met people engaged in issues deeply connected to AID but not necessarily at the forefront of AID’s currently visible and audible activity.

In almost every chapter there is at least one volunteer who shows interest in working full time on the cause of sustainable development and social justice in with AID India or an AID Partner in India.  Some people choose to work on an agenda complementary to AID or through similar issues through alternate means. Either way, during the years that the volunteer is in the US, AID has the opportunity to help such volunteers better understand the synergy of sangharsh, nirman and seva in such a way that they can meaningfully utilize their talents.  In the case of those planning to move to full time community-based work, particularly in India and to help them plan their transition to grassroots community work
Irrespective of future plans to work in India, while in the US, there are volunteers in every chapter who want to connect deeply with project partners, understand the work and the issues people are dealing with on the ground level, and their connections to national and global policy. It takes time and courage to study and discuss these issues, confront their implications, apply them to our lives and engage with partners who are working from perspectives of sustainable development that take human rights, empowerment, social and environmental justice seriously. Why

AID must be a place that facilitates study and discussion of these issues. This will build our capacity to recognize and support high quality projects.  Such projects are often complex and we need to explain these in greater detail to convince people to support them, morally as well as financially.

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Exhortation

Beware of disaster capitalism hitting the Himalayas

Don’t sell out local food traditions with packaged food in the name of rehabilitation and development.

In the immediate rescue-and-relief scenario, packaged foods may play a role in ensuring that people do not go hungry in the aftermath of a disaster. However every packaged food company wants its product to be considered ‘normal’ and everyday food, not just for emergency. The food industry has managed to convert huge populations in Western and urban Indian areas to their ways, accepting packaged food as an ordinary everyday item. When these industries and the people they have converted are in charge of disaster aid, then there is a likelihood that the packaged foods and nutri-powders that are heavily marketed on front pages and prime time television will be considered not only as emergency relief material but a part of ongoing rehabilitation assistance packages.

As Naomi Klein reports in Disaster Capitalism: How to Make Money out of Misery, “‘Where has all the money gone?’ ask desperate people from Baghdad to New Orleans, from Kabul to tsunami-struck Sri Lanka.” The answer, she explains, is to those who already had money.

Klein and other journalists have reported on this after Hurricane Katrina, Sandy, and other disasters in the United States. I have seen this happen after the earthquake in Gujarat and the tsunami in Tamil Nadu. Lakhs of rupees are budgeted for something like a feeding center, but if spent on packaged food, those lakhs end up in the hands of Britannia, GlaxoSmithKline, Parle, and Nestle. What ends up in the people’s hands are biscuits and powders.  What ends up in their lands is the packaging. The brands get recognition.  The biscuits and powders boast nutrients on their labels but in reality offer little value compared to  foods prepared locally from fresh ingredients. Though this may seem obvious, the relentless push of the food industry to make packaged food normal and indeed preferable to homemade food tends to extend its use beyond the period of relief, into the phase of rehabilitation and eventually into the normal diet.

Commenting on the inappropriate use of the emergency food “Plumpy Nut” made by Nutriset, World Health Organization officer Zita Weise-Prinzo says, “Donors like seeing a product.   They like being able to say they have distributed so many tonnes of this magic pill or whatever and it was distributed to so many thousands or millions of children.” (Sophie Arie, “Hungry for Profit,”  BMJ 2010;341:c5221, )

Local Food Sovereignty

When we recognize the local food that people have traditionally grown and eaten in an area, we can look for ways to rebuild the supply through diverse channels, sustainable agricultural practices, and thus build local food sovereignty rather than bringing food and food-like substances from remote locations through centralized routes.

Millets grown in Uttarakhand

Millets grown in Uttarakhand.  Source:  Biju Negi, Beej Bachao Andolan

We must also guard against the role agribusiness plays in pushing government policy in their favour, as Biju Negi of Beej Bachao Andolan has written today in “Deceptive Intervention for Millets.” He warns that government intervention will destroy traditional millet farming in the Himalayan region.

In the same state or district where a disaster has struck, there may be farmers who can supply food required for rehabilitation. If not immediately, then some time after, especially if building their capacity is part of the rehabilitation plan. It is important to link with and procure from these suppliers, sustaining local livelihoods as well as food traditions. This requires us, after the initial relief phase, to look beyond “feeding the disaster-affected” to approaching community rehabilitation in a holistic way, drawing on the strengths and resources of disaster-affected and non-disaster affected people.

When I met the Koya tribal people who had been displaced from Chhattisgarh by Salwa Judum, I saw that they carried with them their seeds of sama, korra and other varieties of millets and were growing them in whatever small space they could make in the forest, processing them at home and eating them.

From the government as well as the local NGO, however their relief package consisted of white rice, nutritionally inferior to millet.  Even though in the very same Khammam district, there were farmers growing the very same grains that these people were used to eating. Why hadn’t the NGO bought those grains to use in the feeding centre?  Throughout India farmers and social organizations are fighting an uphill battle to sustain local grains.  Yet they are neither included in the public distribution system (PDS) of the government nor through the private suppliers who have the infrastructure to work with large donor agencies.  In this case, the donor agency had  stipulated that the food should be procured through specified routes that conformed to their supply and billing systems. This meant that rice coming from some other part of the state or even other states could be used in the program, but not the millets growing in the same district.  After eating white rice, would the next generation remember how to recover their diverse food traditions?

Even if the NGO had found a way to include diverse and local grains in the relief package, they would have been more expensive since they aren’t part of the public distribution system and don’t receive the subsidies that white rice does. The question is, can the donor agency recognize the value of the local food traditions, biodiversity, local economy and community health that are part of that grain, above and beyond its weight in kilograms?  This calls for  strengthening local distribution routes as well as local capacity, and commitment to existing Acts such as the Forest Rights Act and to the policy of land to the tiller, which would guard against further insecurity and in fact would have helped people resist this displacement in the first place.

Global Economic Policy

Disaster capitalism goes beyond industrial food, Big Ag, Big Aid and Big Box, to the heart of economic policy. As United States secretary of state, Hilary Clinton declared openly that the pillars of American foreign policy were development, defense and diplomacy and these would be used to ensure America’s (meaning corporate America’s) access to global markets. Read, for example, Hilary Clinton, America’s Pacific Century.

Commenting on Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, economics professor and former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz writes about “the political machinations required to force unsavory economic policies on resisting countries (Stiglitz, “Bleakonomics,” New York Times, September 30, 2007).   These policies include privatisation of natural resources including water and land (or as Luke Erikson puts it, “Land from the Tiller”), public utilities such as electricity, and even public services such as health, education, and transport.  Though touted as the solution to poverty, these policies further deprive the poor, by defining development and progress in a way that discounts their own strengths and resources.

Consider the case of water. The Ministry of Water Resources’ draft water policy (2012), encourages the private sector and cuts agricultural and domestic subsidies, in line with World Bank recommendations.   It states as a basic principle: “evolving an agricultural system which economizes on water use and maximizes value from water.”  Unfortunately the history of water policy in India shows that maximizing value is not counted according to the numbers of people who have secured food and water, but rather the monetary value of that water and the goods it is used to produce. This serves the needs of the food (and beverage) industry.

The hundreds of dams that are part of the drive to privatize have also aggravated the present floods in Uttarakhand which in the past week have claimed thousands of lives and rendered more than one lakh people homeless.  India Climate Justice has called for a halt to construction of dams in the Himalayas pending review, and has noted that the Comptroller and Auditor General warned that this series of dams and hydropower projects could be environmentally damaging. Himanshu Upadhyay has detailed the failure to heed these and other crucial CAG warnings in  Uttarakhand: Ignoring the writing on the wall.  Apart from potential to aggravate floods, the series of dams diverts water to power houses and away from traditional irrigation systems, serving small local farms.

Everyday Disaster

In situations of chronic hunger, the food industry need not wait for any specific disaster to strike before bidding to introduce their products.  Since the hunger is chronic, the contracts will be long-term. Consider this ominous title of a UNDP Report: The Roles and Opportunities for the Private Sector in Africa’s Agro-Food Industry. The author of the report is “UNDP Africa Facility for Inclusive Markets.” Its stated focus – namely, ”development and expansion of regional value chains in job creating sectors such as agribusiness…” – works against the goal of local food sovereignty towards privatization and globalization.

Think Locally

Industrially packaged food that enters as an emergency measure must not come to be regarded as the new normal. Those involved in supporting rehabilitation programs should take care to guard against the push of this industry to reach new consumers, particularly in vulnerable times, and thus move more people away from the local, diverse, whole and home- made food that is the foundation of health, livelihood,community and food security.

Note:  India Together has published this as “Beware of disaster profiteering” on 2 July 2013 .

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