Sunday, April 19, 2015

Walls as a metaphor for the downfall of democracy

Main Theme: Sustainable Livelihood and Poverty Alleviation
Sub-Theme: Right-based and sustainable livelihood approach to the eradication of poverty
Title: Walls as a metaphor for the downfall of democracy
Type: Socio-Political Analysis

Arundhati Roy in her book, Listening to Grasshoppers, field notes on democracy, mentions, “Today, words like ‘progress’ and ‘development’ have become interchangeable with economic reforms, deregulation and privatization. ‘Freedom’ has come to mean ‘choice’. It has less to do with human spirit than with different brands of deodorant. ‘Market’ no longer means a place where you buy provisions. The ‘Market’ is a de-territorialized place where faceless corporations do business, including buying and selling ‘futures’. ‘Justice’ has come to mean ‘human rights’. This theft of language, the technique of usurping words and deploying them like weapons, of using them to mask intent and to mean exactly the opposite of what they have traditionally meant, has been one of the most brilliant strategic victories of the Tsars of dispensation. It has allowed them to marginalize their detractors, deprive them of a language to voice their critique and dismiss them as being ‘anti-progress’, ‘anti-development’, ‘anti-reform’ and of course ‘anti-national’. Talk about saving a river or protecting a forest and they say, “Don’t you believe in progress?” To people whose land is being submerged by dam reservoirs and whose homes are being bulldozed, they ask, “Do you have an alternative development model?’’[1]
This paper titled, “Walls as a metaphor for the downfall of democracy” aims to highlight the submerging trend of people’s voices along with their rights in the contemporary scenario. Taking into account the case of establishment of a nuclear power plant in Koodankulam and the chronological detailing of how a sustainable livelihood for poverty alleviation model that once pre-existed in the past, depleted under the pretext of bringing forth a futuristic, progressive, development plan; even if it meant by using brute force to trample upon voices of protests of pressure groups that tried to hold the fort for almost two decades and a half. Well, of course, using the rhythm in which walls are raised, as a metaphor, in an attempt to make the otherwise unpalatable digestible.  
Keywords: Democracy, Sustainable Development, Poverty Alleviation, Koodankulam, Nuclear Power, Pressure Group, Human Rights, Politics, Democracy
Note: Paper presented at the National Conference on ‘Sustainable Livelihood and Poverty Alleviation’ held at Tumkur Univeristy in March, 2015 and published in a book titled 'Sustainable Livelihood and Poverty Alleviation' (ISBN: 978-93-82694-21-2)

The Metaphor
There was a story once told of a young dreamer, a wonderer and a wanderer who lived his life like a complete stranger. They say, he, above anyone else, knew that he was just a visitor, a passerby on Earth who had nothing to take away with him no matter how hard he tried. Hence he lived; lived a life like life was meant to be lived; sans any trouble or fear to bother him. As he closed his eyes, he still saw light filled with sights of wonder of how the rain fell, grass grew and the dew drops remained; the doe pranced, volcanoes erupted and the fields nourished; the wind blew, flowers pollinated and the bees made their honey… everything under God’s plan was worth a wonder; everything made perfect and fell right into its place in the natural world. His eyes shone as he looked at the mesmerizing sight that lay in front of him… the world was whole and open; everything great and beautiful and he could not wait to share it. He didn’t have a name; perhaps he didn’t need one. He neither had an identity nor any imaginary boundaries nor friends to separate him from others and as far as he knew, he was part of the world and the world was a part of him. He stretched as far as his hands could reach and the winds flowing across the fields, mountains, trees and every passing stream seemed to blow the gentle breeze of freedom through.
Meanwhile, The genesis of the struggle to prevent the commissioning of a nuclear power plant in Koodankulam, a small hamlet in Tirunelveli District of Tamil Nadu, began when an Indo-Russian nuclear power project deal signed on the 20th of November, 1988 took just 29 days for people to understand the gloom that awaited them and triggered a series of protests, marches and rallies and everything possible within the limited legal permit for citizens, living in a right-based era, in a country that claims to run on the fuel of democracy, to rise up in resistance. Further, the hypocrisy of Communism of the Soviet Union was exposed as they explored the corporate corridors of other countries to expand their profit-churning bases. By the turn of that decade between 1989 and 1991, Soviet Union collapsed and as for the leaders who signed the pact, one lost power and the other his life. Eventually, it would only prove to be a curse for anyone whose name, title, corporate or country was named to be associated with the promotion of this project; an act of (pro-natural) God, which perhaps insurance companies wisely took note of and have refused to include the tag ‘death due to nuclear disasters’ under their liabilities to avoid payment of any compensation in the event of such a (t)error occurring.
By 1991, India opened up its economy under the visionary rule of Prime Minister Narashima Rao who in the name of ‘globalization’ stretched red carpets to the very doormats of corporate globally opening the very gateway of India for them to enter. Corporate culture was the name of the game and soon, the profit-oriented corporate world became a visibly-hideous transparent cloak that covered every throne of the political system regardless of what it was named.
Soon, more of our people’s representatives who would later come to power were quick to prove that the power that they got was only a means to an end to fuel their tanks with arson to condone people’s rights and shut voices of dissent (… Just as they give a ‘’V’’ sign in other parts of India to commission projects by mining corporates who get away with establishing hospitals to treat cancer under the pretext of their CSR initiatives which wouldn’t have been needed if mining was not done in the first place besides labelling and marking those who attempt to protect India’s ecology and geography as ‘’grave internal threats’’ as the easiest way to get rid of them. Amongst many other things, I wonder who the actual ‘’grave internal threat’’ are (?!)). Supplementary agreements to the nuclear deal like the one made on the 25th of March, 1997 by D. V Deve Gowda, the then Prime Minister of India and Russian President, Boris Yelsin were signed to commission a project report to just push forth the project.
By 1997, close to a decade past the initial agreement that was signed, the only notable change that seemed to have been made was an alarming increase from the initial estimated cost of INR 6000 crores to a re-estimated INR 17000 crores as the end-cost for the completion of the nuclear power project. Further, over the years, the elected babus in charge of our treasury would also agree to pay an interest to this mega sum for the delay caused due to the resistance of the people and soon, the nuclear power project which would shell a 20000 megawatt nuclear energy, was envisaged into the ‘Vision 2020’ chartered plan of India. Thus was ready a plan for the people, by the people, of the people, to the people… just that it did not take into account ‘the people’ whose life revolved around the ocean that would be immediately affected.

The Metaphor (Contd.)
Meanwhile in the story we started with, one day, our man woke up from a slumber. For the first time in his life, his heart squeezed deep and pounded hard against his chest… he knew something was out of place. He saw a few strange people in strange clothes circle around him like a wild beast circles its prey. But the new people seemed kind; they recognized the man’s reaction as ‘fear’ and reassured him mentioning once in a while that they were there only for his good and they cared about him. They promised they were well guided by some giant book called a ‘’constitution’’ that they had just come up with and it even had a concept called ‘development’ no one could refuse. ‘’It was after all for everyone’s good,’’ they said.
Soon there were machines that reached the meadows, trampling on the pristine grass. More people joined the few and they called themselves ‘the work force’. Bricks, cement, iron and sand were mixed and soon the work force forced itself to work. As our man panicked at the sight of the structure taking shape around him, people said that there was nothing to fear and it was just a wall. A wall for his safety and for his own good. Very soon, the walls covered all four corners and trapped everything within. Nothing more of what once he saw was in sight and all he could see were walls and nothing more than him trapped within.
Says Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in his book, The Discovery of India, “The Indian peasant in India more than anyone else, it is on his progress and betterment that India’s progress will depend.”[2]

Despite voices lifted by world leaders and technical experts, every sound made against the nuclear project or against the dangers of nuclear energy, proved to be only as unheard as the voices of the people from the ground. Simple and humble fishermen and those involved in fishing-allied occupation who were living an otherwise traditionally accepted, culturally admired life, recently termed ‘’sustainable livelihood’’ became silenced witnesses of an agony unfold in front of their eyes as the nuclear power plant at Koodankulam took form and took a venomous shape.
As others who neither cared nor bothered, pretended to be ignorant and apathetic, the people of Koodankulam and its surrounding area were perplexed with the idea of a nuclear power plant for various reasons that include:
1.      The reactor being set up without sharing the safety and evaluation reports made up experts with the public
2.      The know-not about what will happen to the people who would be displaced from around the ‘sterilization zone’
3.      The safety precautions and disaster management measures that were yet to be brought in place to protect the people living in close proximity to the reactor, who would have to be evacuated in case of an emergency
4.      The precautions taken for emission control
5.      The quality of the material used for construction which were said to be substandard by the very workers and contractors building the plant
6.      The durability of the plant built close to the ocean in case of a natural disaster like the tsunami or its likes that is not uncommon in those parts
7.      The ability of the our national security force especially the navy who find it difficult to protect our fishermen who might have to protect this structure in case of a terrorist threat
The ‘right to fear’ seems to be the only right left, sanctioned and accepted, that remains with the people. And as far as that right might stretch, the people concerned about the existence of a nuclear power plant around civilian population wondered why at a time when the US of A and Russia have refrained from building a single nuclear plant for over 2-3 decades, having learnt their lessons from the Three Mile Island tragedy, the tragedy at Chernobyl and the recent tragedy from Fukushima, isn’t it interestingly strange that in India alone, everything outdated-product, idea and people included-phased out from the rest of the world, is always seen as a new entrant into the market. Are we just an emerging junkyard of the West?! Again, with India just limping back from the Bhopal tragedy to even arrive at a judgement that took a jolly good 3 decades, by the time during which the main accused himself lived a decent life and died a natural death, leaving us with no one left to judge, would we need a better illustration than this to demonstrate how swift our justice system is to handle a situation if it happens again?
With many questions left unanswered (still), by the turn of the century, with the phantom of the most feared Y2K bug gone, a new bug called the Year 2000 Koodankulam (Y2K) bug was approved by the Centre and money was released to begin the excavation work for the nuclear project on the 23rd of June, 2001. Thus began our excavation of a pit big enough to contain people and their rights along with their pleas, tears and anything else left in them to shed; thus began in parallel, the excavation to dig a giant grave for democracy.

The Metaphor Ends
Moments after he realized what had just happened around him, he stunned himself awake and arose to let out a scream… a scream of despair, a scream of helplessness and a scream to be heard. Again, the people he had met at first came along with some more special people, dressed in special robes to tell him that everything was alright. Unconvinced, he said that nothing was and insisted that his freedom be returned to him; the freedom especially from the structures they now called ‘’walls’’. The others had now planned their laced and coached speech perfectly and had learnt to deliver it even better; they said he was a barrier to development and it was not civilized of him to reject movement in the path of building a future ahead of him right now. They said it was too late for him to ask for anything and were ready to sacrifice him for the sake of the wall. When he asked one more time for his freedom, they said that ‘’freedom,’’ was a concept. They urged him to dream beyond the walls; dream of the meadows and the high mountains and the stream that flows; they asked him not to stop dreaming… ‘’That is where freedom lies,’’ they said. It didn’t take long for the man to wonder… what was it that he was experiencing for real before the walls were built around him then?!
Rabindranath Tagore in his speech delivered in the US of A in 1925 mentioned, “India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that idolatry of the nation is almost better than reverence to God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.’’[3]
Today, in this land of the Gandhi-the magical barrister who once returned from the West to gain our long lost freedom, who is seen not more occasionally than once less too often on the silver screen of a movie theatre managing to give us a blockbuster and perhaps nothing more, Gandhian values and views of ahimsa and non-violence are seen more as one’s vulnerability to be cornered, harassed and abused when followed just as the protestors of Koodankulam realized two and a half decades later since they began their fight for right and justice. Right from the 1st of May, 1989 when a transport bus was driven into a crowd of protestors in an attempt to disperse them to the 10th of September, 2012 when police lathi-charged and opened fire on the protestors, people have relentlessly tried every other way to withstand the brutal force of the brutes to sustain their livelihood. Yet, it moves. The High Court on the 31st of August, 2012 gave a ‘go-ahead’ sign to the nuclear power project to operate which incidentally seemed to be a clear sign enough to signal the ‘go-to-hell’ to democracy.
Says Amartya Sen in his book, The Idea of Justice, “The force of a claim for a human right would indeed be seriously undermined if it were possible to show that it is unlikely to survive open public scrutiny. However, contrary to a commonly offered reason for scepticism and rejection of the idea of human rights, the case for it cannot be discarded simply by pointing to the fact-a much invoked fact- that in repressive regimes across the globe, which do not allow open public discussion, or do not permit free access to information about the world outside the country, many of these human rights do not acquire serious public standing. The fact that monitoring of violations of human rights and the procedure of ‘naming and shaming’ can be so effective is some indication of the reach of public reasoning when information becomes available and the ethical arguments are allowed rather than suppressed. Uncurbed critical scrutiny is essential for dismissal as well as for justification.’’[4]                                                                                    

To Conclude, let me just take this opportunity to make it loud, clear and in bold that the road of oppressive development where ‘’democracy’’ is nothing more than a word used to cover a repressive monster, ‘sustainable livelihood’ and ’poverty alleviation’ will remain nothing more than a mere mockery of additional words spelt right at the face of the human spirit. Especially those faces that once had it all, and lived a life not knowing what freedom was until it was taken away from them in the name of bringing in ‘’development’’ and in the name of ‘’democracy’’-the meaning of those words that only a few who control it seem to know. Has ‘’freedom’’ then, become a rationed commodity for a few to own or could they that claim to know, explain the concept of freedom and its detachment from democracy to them that stand lost, searching for the same within those hovering walls of development please?..    

Reference: [i], [ii], [iii]            

[1] Arundhati Roy, 2009, Listening to Grasshoppers, field notes on democracy, New Delhi, Penguin Books
[2] The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, 1969, Bombay, Asia Publishing House
[3] The World’s Greatest Speeches, Nationalism in India by Rabindranath Tagore, 1999, Mineola, New York, Dover Publications
[4] Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, 2009, New Delhi, Penguin Books

[i] Dr. S. P. Udayakumar, The Koodankulam Handbook, 2004, Tamil Nadu, Transcend South Asia
[ii] Newzfirstbureau, The Koodankulam timeline: 24 years of struggle, 9th December, 2012 retrieved from as on 12th March, 2015
[iii] Reasons against Koodankula nuclear power project, Dr. S. P. Udayakumar, as on 10th March, 2015 retrieved from

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