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The Nightmare of the Chaavunilam and the Illusions of Well-Meaning Scholars

August 8, 2012


Chaavunilam (“Dead Land”)is the title of one of Sarah Joseph’s well-known short-stories in Malayalam. In it she relates a myth of devastation and revival — it describes a scene of terrible devastation through the eyes of the last woman left there, the Mother — who witnesses the terrible violence between her children which leaves the earth shattered, verdure destroyed, and which ends in the death of all the combatants. This is the tale of her immense suffering — she is torn apart by birthing-pains, at the same time as she is devastated by the death of all her children.

How can one not remember the nightmarish chaavunilam as one struggles to live in Kerala today? Just the other day, a 2500-strong police force was brought together to march on Vilappilsala in Trivandrum to reopen works on the waste-treatment plant there which had been closed after massive protests by local people. And this, to cover up the sheer ineptitude of the Trivandrum City Corporation, which is still groping in the dark with solid-waste management in the city. Clearly, the Corporation seems to have no clue whatsoever about what ‘governance’ means. It has made no real attempt to bring together the many different interests in the city which contribute to, and suffer from, the waste-management crisis. It has failed to persuade commercial interests to reduce the generation of plastic waste; it has also failed to initiate a campaign among citizens against those interests that continue to indulge in insanitary waste disposal with near-total impunity. But it had no qualms at all about the deployment of a police force of this size against the people of Vilappilsala, who appeared to be determined to resist the police. The buzz was that this was a mock-war, staged to convince the judiciary which insisted on the reopening of the plan, that this was well-nigh impossible.

While this may be true, two things appear unimpeachable: first,  people in Vilappilsala do not trust the state’s developmental intentions anymore and not surprisingly. None of the Corporation’s actions in the period between the closure of the waste plant and now give the impression that they are serious about decentralization of waste-disposal or waste-reduction. Second, the fact that a democratically-elected government, which had failed the people in the first instance, was willing to convey the impression to the judiciary that it was ready to wage war on the resisting people is itself quite disturbing. That it was a mock-war being staged there brings no consolation. Maybe many more ‘mock wars’ are on. I wouldn’t be surprised if even the prompt action against eateries here whose unsafe storage practices and insanitary maintenance  of kitchens have apparently caused an alarming — and rather sudden — spurt in food-poisoning cases is part of some proxy war against precisely the prime suspects in the continuing crime of open waste dumping — the hotels,restaurants, and abattoirs — despite strong threats of punishment issued against it by the Corporation. If so, it only provides further evidence of the helplessness of local governments in the face of powerful commercial interests.

And as this tug-of-war continues, one also witness persistent efforts on behalf of predatory capital — at Nelliampathy, where estate-owners who are eager to swallow public wealth have actually found righteous advocates, at the coast of Kerala where predatory capitalists are eyeing the mineral sands, in the education sector where self-financing colleges have been quite shameless in their response to the High Court’s highly critical observations. It is our great good luck, though, that the Congress is not a cadre-party and not fully united in evil — indeed, thanks to leaders like v M Sudheeran, there is at least a tinge of resistance in the field of organized politics to open plunder of natural resources.

But besides putting up with the abandonment of governance and the ever-widening space for predatory capital, we have also had to bear the brunt of a political party’s transition into nothing less than an anti-political force. Last week’s hartal called by the CPM against the arrest of their leader in connection with the infamous Shukkoor murder case proved beyond a doubt that the CPM’s hegemony in Kerala has ended — and they are now determined to rule by force, irrespective of whether they are in power or not. Such was the determination that some of their activists showed in perpetrating violence against ordinary people who were out on the hartal day and the destruction they wreaked at the opposition-party offices,against the media, and public property. That we are at the brink of several crises — including impending water- and power-shortages, massive rise in prices of essential items, drought-conditions — seem to be the last thing that those who swear by the ‘people’s interests’ are least bothered about. About social justice , much of the struggles in its name have become reduced to mere rituals — in Wayanad, the adivasis occupy land only to be evicted with a distressingly regularity.

This is why Reetika Khera’s recent well-meaning piece in The Hindu disturbed me so much despite the fact that I am utterly convinced about her good intentions (‘Putting Kerala to Work’, 1 August 2012 : The Hindu, 1 August, 2012, ).

Firstly, here are we, almost in the shadow of the  chaavunilam; and there, eager scholars continue to talk of ‘Kerala’ from whatever bits and pieces she or he may find interesting in their own ways. Like many who have set up Kerala as their own development-heterotopia, she too breezily passes by the critiques that those of us who have been concerned with persisting inequalities and the new anomie  have raised. And like many others, she notes the presence of these critiques as “difficult questions’, but which do not deter these devotees from accessing their favorite rosy picture. I am sad that often,development studies scholars, for all their good intentions, forget that their writing feeds into, and is read within, a larger discourse which projects a generalized rose-tinted image of Kerala – which has become an unbearable burden, a formidable obstacle, in the way of our efforts to end our own hypocrisy and get a grip on the political reality looming at us.

To stay in this mode is to essentially offer a sanctimonious consolation: it is to ignore the massive plunder that is on, taking relief in the fact that charity is still alive in the world, and people are still smart enough to avail of that charity! In Kerala where wages are substantially higher than MNREGS payments, this programme is perceived within the terms of the politically-ambivalent notion of sarkaar aanukoolyam — the ‘government benefit’ — which easily tips into the idea of a dole. The times when this used to be read as ‘people’s right’ are in the past for large parts of Kerala and even where it persists, as in the north Kerala village that the author visited, it is no longer a simple thing, for ‘people’ here do not clearly include everyone — and indeed, the Shukkoor and the T P Chandrasekharan murder cases raise precisely ‘difficult questions’  about the ‘people’ in North Kerala which cannot be ignored even if one stays within the safe territiories of development.

And some of the fieldwork done in Kerala’s panchayats here, however, has taught me that at least very few women panchayat presidents have the illusion that the context can be ignored. We interviewed nearly one-fifth of all women panchayat presidents in the last term, and the vast majority of them mentioned three problems which they felt, were undermining the very viability of not just panchayati raj, but the very possibility of shared and peaceful social life in their areas: the plunder of natural resources, especially river sand and granite; the unbridled pace of construction and a host of problems it spawned; the crisis of waste management. Now, quite clearly, the first two are hefty components in what, to many, constitute Kerala’s ‘growth story’ in the present, and the last too, but in a different way.The admiration for the panchayats in Kerala voiced in many places is certainly not misplaced, but how long can they continue to be complimented for efficient administration of welfare when the larger picture is truly frightening? Indeed, we are witnessing a time when the
constitutional authority of the panchayats is either ignored or simply bypassed when it comes to the resources most crucial to the survival of life on this tiny sliver of land by the sea, which we  call ‘Kerala’.

But even about the MNREGS, even though there would be agreement that some aspects (and not all) are much better fructified in Kerala, development researchers from here would raise “difficult questions” —  they would surely question  the article’s (admittedly tentative) claims on several things, including its statements about the quality of assets created, the planning processes,the kind of democracy at work, and most certainly the evident ignorance of the equations between politics and bureaucracy in the villages the author visited (especially in north Kerala villages ). Many aspects of the working of the MNREGS in Kerala may be excellent compared to many other states in India, but such a comparison, again, typical of much development studies, serves only to obscure the emerging problems at hand and leave us with an impression that everything is fine and we are on top.I do think it is important for development researchers to take seriously the claim that Kerala is indeed a post-development society in many ways ( and therefore the crude power hierarchies that the author has found elsewhere may be less prevalent in Kerala). And to say that while predatory capitalism is all over the country, while  Kerala at least has welfare being distributed in fairly proper, if not flawless, ways is small consolation, in my view. It is of course true, but the risk of too much attention on  the latter is that too little attention tends to fall on workings of the former in Kerala, and this surely has grievous consequences. Especially if the latter is not discussed in the light of the former.

And I also found amusing how ‘literacy’ emerges, eternally, as the magic key to everything good! Well, if it were all literacy, then many other things would have worked excellently too! In the case of the MNREGS, the role of the women
mobilized in the Kudumbasree self-help-group network has been crucial in enduring its limited successes, but in the dazzling light of ‘literacy’, it can only appear subordinate!

How one longs not for scholarship but for some really good travel writing that makes no pretense of being fieldwork! Let us not be too scared of the shallowness of travel-writers. If, despite their best efforts, development scholars sometimes end up writing like tourists, it may also be the case that some scathingly honest travel-writing might actually rid us of our hypocrisy.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Dinakaran permalink
    August 10, 2012 6:01 PM

    “If, despite their best efforts, development scholars sometimes end up writing like tourists, it may also be the case that some scathingly honest travel-writing might actually rid us of our hypocrisy.”

    Well said. But it bites both ways. The tourist sees only the pleasure points of the body of Kerala, while the inmate feels intensely the pain generated from periodic bouts of malefic pulsations emanating from it ! Truth lies somewhere in between. One can get tired of the paeans sung to the cent-percent-literacy story, but one should also remember that this has indeed empowered millions who have never believed they had a right to dignified citizenship, even (as recently as !) fifty years back.

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