Sunday, August 3, 2008

Our Last Day in India

Today, our last full formal day in India, was devoted to a wrap-up mini-conference organized around a series of speakers, all of whom are trying to find ways to incorporate Gandhian principles into solutions for 21st century problems. Our first speaker, Ramasubramanian, Chief Consultant for Samanvaya here in Chennai, is a young activist working primarily with villages to help support their traditional governing and social structures. He explained that he is committed to the position that Gandhi did not idealize the village, that many villages here in Tamil Nadu in fact operate in just the kind of decentralized, non-hierarchical, self-sustaining ways Gandhi envisioned. Ramasubramanian is a self-described “field worker,” not an academic. Indeed, he was careful to explain that he wasn’t in the habit of speaking to academics and that academia often produces a different version of Gandhi that the one he embraces. His background is in information technologies (he was a consultant for information planning) but the more he worked with social activists the more he became attracted to the kind of work they do, which he decided had the potential to make a larger impact than the IT work he was doing. This of course fits a pattern I’ve observed throughout the trip and have already commented on, for many of our speakers started out with very traditional careers in academia, business, or information technology and left those fields to work as social activists and/or to start alternative institutions like Navdanaya or Navadarshanam.

Ramasubramanian presented a fascinating overview of how a particular village in Tamil Nadu functions, with a particular focus on the panchayat, or village council, that directs the village's affairs (civic, judicial, and commercial). He called these "caste" panchyats to distinguish them from the formal ones authorized by the national government. The caste panchayats are elected by the villagers, are part of a much older tradition, and take precedence over the government-designated ones. As he presented these panchayats and the villages they oversee, he highlighted the logic and elegance of their operation and the extent to which they function pretty smoothly and logically to take care of village affairs. When he concluded by praising these village structures as an example of how "Indian society" can function I asked him about urban India and how it fits into his larger vision of "Indian society," since as he used the phrase it seemed to only refer to village society. His answer was intriguing. He reminded us that India has a very long and rich tradition of urban centers, and that it makes sense to think of India's contemporary cities in terms of this tradition, not just as products of westernization. This suggested to me that there may be specifically Indian approaches to thinking about the city and its problems and the solutions they require. Traditional forms of "town planning," he insisted, are too western in their orientation, and Indians don't have to tackle the problems of urbanization by drawing on approaches from the west. He also had some interesting things to say about the urban slums we've seen. Many of the people who live in these slums work as servants for the burgeoning middle class and are therefore a product of the economic boom we keep reading about. They need to live near where they work, and so these slums develop adjacent to the middle class neighborhoods their population services (although many of the inhabitants of these slums have small commercial businesses they are running). According to Ramasubramanian the slums function a bit like villages, with some kind of organizational structure that helps keep them working in an orderly way.

It seems to me that both the villages and the slums in India are linked to problems that have their origins in the west as well as in India itself. The history of colonialism is partly to blame, certainly, but so too are the explosive forces of globalization which are draining the population of villages, transforming old patterns of farming in ways that ruin the land and run farmers into debt buying hybrid seeds and the pesticides they need, and at the same time are creating a boom among the expanding middle class, people who are buying into the marketing of western modernity in a big way that drives a deepening wedge between their economic status and that of the slum dwellers who service them. The Gandhians tend to focus overwhelmingly on the village because that's where Gandhi put his emphasis and because his critique of western civilization takes aim at the city specifically and at urbanization in particular as monsters created by modernity. But as I've been writing all along, it seems to me the problem of the city needs a solution, and that what these young 21st century Gandhians are struggling to work out is a particularly Indian solution for them. I'm struck by how the world I live in and enjoy is inextricably tied to the problems I've been exposed to in India. That's pretty sobering.

I've got more I'd like to write about all of this, but my online time has run out at the hotel. But check back if you're interested.

1 comment:

Admin said...

It's the world's largest Democracy. It's the world's second most populous country. A fascinating place were people bathe in the rivers...where beggars stand along streets choked with motor cars and cattle carts.

India is a land where some things haven't changed for a thousand years. It's also a land where Americans travel for scientifically miraculous medical procedures at world class hospitals, and pay a fraction of what they'd pay at home.