A Train From Kashmir

A student of journalism called me one day and asked if I knew about Kashmiri migrants coming to Ahmedabad each year. His question instantly took me back to a well-dressed, good-looking Kashmiri couple I saw on the streets in the winter of 2020. I asked about the number of migrants, their location and reasons for migrating. The facts and figures weren’t very clear at that point but one thing was, they should be visible.

I called some social workers who were likely to have an idea about the matter. Some said that Kashmiris have been migrating for more than 4 years, others said 10 and added the need for ration relief. Kashmiri migrants travel by train so settling in areas around the railway station is an obvious choice. A friend was kind enough to share a local contact who helped me navigate and exchange basic introductions. It was a weekday so I reached around 8:00 pm and saw some men and women standing attentively outside their tents. They knew me as someone who wanted to talk to them so their obvious questions were if I’m associated with a newspaper, media house, or an NGO. They looked confused when I said no, so I explained that I am an independent writer with an interest in stories and news from Kashmir. I continued, “This is something local newspapers will never cover so I wanted to understand what leads to this migration and write about it in a safe manner.”

Apparently, he was partly hurt and partly insecure and tried to justify, “As Indian citizens, we can go anywhere in the country. I have been coming here for several years and my wife belongs to Ahmedabad.” Understanding that I had unintentionally upset him, I agreed, encouraged the visit and mentioned that I am also from Uttarakhand and have been living in Gujarat only for a few years. That seemed to work, I believe. He expressed, “Haan shakal se Gujarat ke nahi lagte”. We all laughed and he added, “Hum pahadon ke log shakal se khoobsurat aur dil ke saaf hote hain.” The smiles were warm enough to melt the ice and we had some chai over the daily routine of Kashmiri women and children in Ahmedabad. But one thing he wanted to assure was that they are in no trouble and do not need any assistance from anyone. The whole conversation was formal and less than 30 minutes long. I knew it was not easy to establish trust so proposed to meet the women alone. They didn’t object and asked me to visit any day around 3:00-4:00 pm.

I can’t say that the first visit did not disappoint me, but I also thought that different areas could mean different ways of survival for the migrants and trying all the locations once could give a better direction. Meanwhile, another journalist friend’s Facebook post appropriated the thought and that’s where I went on the following weekend.

I was randomly walking down the streets, stopping every few minutes to ask in which lanes do Kashmiri migrants live. And then the same drill for finding their temporary residences. The first house I went to had a young man listening to something on his phone. His co-residents were his wife and a few months old daughter. My introduction neither confused him nor alerted him except for when he heard my Hindu name and saw my tattoo in Arabic. He patiently heard whatever I said and seemed willing to talk. His wife offered nun chai and to my surprise, the man asked if he could call some of his friends if I wanted a better understanding. I agreed and we talked by the time his friends arrived. For the next one hour, it was four men in their 20s and 30s, a young mother in her 20s, an infant and I in the room.

Why do some Kashmiris migrate? Winters are particularly troublesome for people in the valley as snow makes farming impossible and other occupations like driving come to a standstill. So, seasonal unemployment results in seasonal migration. Some migrants from the villages near Kupwara, Baramulla and Shopian are small farmers. Meaning, the size of the land on which they farm is so small that they mostly consume the yield and hardly anything is left to sell before the arrival of snow. Let alone food, they do not have enough savings to buy fuel to keep themselves warm in the bone-chilling weather. Villagers who work as drivers in towns and cities also have no job during the winter months. The third category of people who migrate is small traders who get Kashmiri embroidered shawls, Kehwa (Kashmiri tea), Zafraan (saffron), and dry fruits to sell till their inventory lasts. The people in the first locality I visited were mostly traders, hence a better financial condition than others. Besides, the police in that area set up tents for the migrants so they don’t have to pay rent. Some rounds of dry ration distribution provided added relief. However, survival was easier for the traders only for the first two months. When their stock was over, they also had to rely on ration assistance.

Other areas have farmers or people employed in seasonal jobs who live with locals, so their savings are spent in paying rent amounting to 3-6k/month for 5 months. They do not get food assistance from the police either and have to often rely on locals to provide for their families.

The men informed that there are no jobs in Kashmir. So the problem exists permanently in the erstwhile Himalayan state and temporarily in their state of residence. Besides, power cuts for days make it very difficult to bear the cold wave. A young mother of three I met later was scared to tell how her husband died. She sews clothes to make ends meet. Her landlady shared that she was struggling to buy cooking gas a few days back. The landlady’s husband who runs a small provision store joined the conversation later. He said, “Bitiya ye log bahut pareshan hain. Inke liye kuch ho paye to karna.” This family of kite-makers also shared their struggle of being able to make kites only in winters as sitting with the fan off is a prerequisite. Another family I met during my visit to the third area said that most families living there have senior citizens, widows and children. So the families with earning members share their income with those without a bread-winner.

Children have a hard time coping in the three months long winter break as mobile connectivity is poor in the hills. Internet shutdowns are normal in Kashmir but the 18 months long internet blockade, curfew, violence and a vengeful state since August 2019 have been particularly hard. How does one attend online classes? Schooling was not normal in Kashmir even before the pandemic hit. To witness such tension at a very young age, to be unable to lead a normal childhood, to lose the opportunity to learn, grow, develop, work, earn, love and be content in life, can create havoc with children’s physical, mental and emotional health. Too many opportunities are taken away to punish them for their birthplace. I’m not even getting into the dehumanizing ways of the army, the burning of the houses and innocent people taken away to never return. What can you tell a woman who lost her husband and two sons in state violence, even though none of them were militants? That should explain the anger! The resistance in Kashmir is political, not religious.

We are often unaware of what happens in our cities, let alone conflict zones like Kashmir or the North-East. The circumstances under which migrants from various parts of the country come, never make it to our newspapers. I was also trying to imagine how ironic it must have been for Kashmiris to seek warmth in Gujarat, the epicenter of the current political dispensation. Kashmiriyat is an amalgamation of different cultures surrounded by art and Sufism. Waging war for a piece of land is the prerogative of governments and armies. Citizens must have a human perspective towards the people of that land. So far, we have been seeing Kashmir the way Delhi wanted us to. It’s only appropriate that we now look at the struggle of Kashmir from the perspective of Kashmiris.

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The White, Black, and Grey of the Farm Laws, 2020

Weeks after farmers arrived in the national capital to have a dialogue with the union government, the Supreme Court gave a keyhole opportunity to both the parties by suggesting a committee of farm law stakeholders. Can it offer a way forward? Is it enough to ensure financial security for the farmers? What can the farmers propose and what should the government change? What are the other concerns on the contentious laws which resulted in the biggest protest the world has witnessed so far?

Constitution and Legislative Powers of The Union and States

Under Article 246 (1) of The Government of India Act 1935, the legislative powers of the union and state governments have been defined. There is an exclusive jurisdiction of 97 items in the union list, 66 items in the state list, and 47 items in the concurrent list for which both the centre and state can make laws. In case of a conflict, however, the doctrine of federal supremacy prevails. According to the list of items within the centre’s purview, parliament has no power to make agriculture laws. So yes, it is unconstitutional for the Modi government to pass these laws when only the state governments have the power to do so. But here’s the catch! In 1954, the then socialist PM Jawahar Lal Nehru realized that land reforms would be difficult to achieve as not all states may work in sync towards agricultural reforms, so he made the third amendment and added agriculture in entry 33 of the concurrent list of Production, Sale, Distribution, Trade and Commerce (PSDTC). Entries 26 and 27 of the state list are ‘subject to’ entry 33, so the laws being ‘unconstitutional’ is a weak defence in the eyes of the Supreme Court.

Procedure of Passing the Laws

Before ending his second term at the end of 2013, Manmohan Singh introduced the National Food Security Act, one of the biggest welfare schemes the world has seen. To prove his mettle in 2014, Narendra Modi promised 1.5 times the MSP to farmers but failed to deliver it until the budget was presented in 2018. To appease farmers for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, they announced a massive reform they didn’t know how to sustain. 2020, the pandemic year, was a golden period to take aggressive measures without facing much backlash as the country was homebound. In case of an emergency, the President of India can pass an ordinance if the parliament is not in session. On June 5, the parliament introduced the three controversial farm laws, which would have been null and void had they not passed within the monsoon session between September 14 and October 1. However, the parliament can re-issue the ordinance (with some humiliation) but with more interference from the Supreme Court in the process.

The bills were proposed and passed in Lok Sabha with a simple majority. Then came the upper house to work on a Sunday with the opposition in low attendance but NDA in the majority. Out of the 242 MPs present, the Modi government needed a majority of 122 to pass the bills. It is not just the supporters but also the non-voters who can help in doing so. Apart from the 40 odd non-voters, the number was the same on both sides of the bill. Shiv Sena had supported the bills in Lok Sabha so could not be against them in Rajya Sabha, thereby choosing not to vote in the end. NCP, an old ally of INC, could not be against the bills as Congress implemented the same conditions in Maharashtra under the Vilas Rao Deshmukh government. The bills are usually forwarded to a Select Committee by a simple majority to evaluate the terms. But time was running for BJP, so the provision was consciously avoided. Instead of regular voting in which each vote is counted at the press of a button, NDA chose to go for voice votes by arguing that physical voting can only happen if all the members are present on their allotted seats. This was impossible due to social distancing in the upper house. Whether voice vote was in the majority or not can be challenged, but under Article 122, Supreme Court or High Courts do not have that power. Only a Rajya Sabha member can challenge voice vote but not under judicial scrutiny. However, even a single MP or Deputy Chairperson can call for a division. The opposition did not act and the speakers naturally obeyed the ruling party. The constitution has the provision of a joint sitting if Lok Sabha has a majority and Rajya Sabha, minority. A simple majority of both houses can pass the bill. Five hundred forty-three members of the lower house and 242 members of the upper house required a simple majority of 393 members out of the collective strength of 785 members. Even after discrediting Shiv Sena and Akali Dal, NDA had a majority of 333 members in Lok Sabha and another 100 odd votes in Rajya Sabha. In any case, NDA would have easily managed a majority of 400+ MPs. Modi had said during the pandemic, ‘Aapda ko avsar mein badlo’ and so he did.

Content of the Bills

  1. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce Promotion and Facilitation Act, 2020.

Farmers’ produce includes fruits, vegetables, grains, flowers, dairy, fishery and piggery. Earlier, they always struggled with liquidity and borrowed money from zamindars for their daughter’s wedding, death and other contingencies. Sahukars used to charge interest as high as 5% and take away the first yield, leaving the farmers penniless. The union government post-independence formed the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act to curb farmers’ exploitation by creating a mandi where farmers would sell their first yield at an assured price. The mandi is a collection of wholesalers, traders and commission agents.

The act proposes a choice of trade areas to farmers outside APMC, which may constitute farm gates (direct sale outside the farm), factories (say pickle or wafer factories), cold storages, warehouses, etc.

APMC is regulated within state laws that restrict the farmer from selling his crop only in the APMC of his area and not to any other APMC. This may sometimes force him to sell the produce at a lower rate than what he may get in some other city of his state or another state. The trade policies of any other product do not have such geographical boundaries. The act says that the farmer must be able to sell his output wherever he gets the best rate at the national level, following ‘one nation, one market’ philosophy of the Modi government.

The act allows online sale of agri produce directly to other businesses like whole-sellers, cold storage owners, factories or end consumers. Let’s visualize a mobile app that operates like a stock exchange, where each farmer has an ID and enters his produce, quality and rate each morning, including his transportation, mobile application commission and other overheads. The argument given is that the farmer can earn a higher margin in online transactions against the current system in which he only makes Rs 6 out of a kilogram of potatoes sold at Rs. 40.

The power of state governments to charge any tax, cess or fee on the trade areas outside APMC has been taken away through this act.

In case of a dispute, only the SDM of that area can be approached where a conciliation board of equal number of both the parties (1 or 2) will be made to resolve the matter. Once that happens, a Memorandum of Settlement is signed which cannot be altered later. The act permits the SDM court to exercise the powers of a civil court with an argument that poor farmers cannot afford lawyers’ fees and the tiring process of tareekh pe tareekh.

Now, APMC has auction houses that provide benefits. Agents who charge a commission of 2.5% facilitate the sale by offering soil testing, transportation, weighing the yield and everything else a farmer coming from a distance without local contacts needs. Farmers tend to form a cordial relationship with their agents, who also help them at the time of crisis. Bigger and richer farmers may often become agents themselves. End consumers can also buy the produce directly from APMC at a lower rate. The auctions are recorded to be used as information for future disputes, if any, so there’s no risk of a buyer taking away the yield without paying the farmer. APMC provides security as well as additional services to the farmer.

Problems

Anything monopolistic in nature functions like a cartel. All farmers have a fixed agent who may work with other buyers or agents to pay the same amount, like in an oligopoly. Farmers cannot ask for a price higher than MSP, leading to a cascading effect and making the products expensive. Market fee at 3%, Rural Development Cess at 3% (Punjab) and agent’s commission at 2.5% in addition to the MSP increase the price to a large extent. Market Boards regulating APMCs usually are connected with top leaders of the state government. The reforms in APMC began in 2003 during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government. He could not gather the majority to form such a revolutionary bill, so he formulated the Model APMC Act, proposing that at least fruits and vegetables should be freed from APMC, to which 15 states agreed by 2016-2017. Since 2006, APMC stopped existing in Bihar. Maharashtra, under congress rule and Vilas Rao Deshmukh’s leadership, has already been implementing similar amendments. The state brought 18 private markets like APMC and 1100 license holders with the eligibility criteria of owning 5-acre land and creating collection centers. There are direct market licenses like Reliance Fresh. Only 6% of the farmers reach APMC and manage to get MSP because of unimaginable level of corruption at FCIs. Theoretically, the advantages of the bill can be B to B possibilities, innovation, inter-state transactions, fair competition and farmers’ freedom to sell anywhere.

However, A lot is at stake here. Despite the government claiming that APMCs will continue, they will eventually terminate because other trading areas will not have taxes. State governments will not be able to collect tax, making the products at APMC expensive. Every farmer will go to other trading areas to avoid overheads like cess and surcharges. When farmers stop going to APMC, the existence and purpose of APMC will eventually end and so will the security and benefits they bring. Along with farmers, what about the survival of APMC workers who have no judicial support? The biased SDM court intervention is worrisome too. Collectorss are under the government and will act in the interest of the government. The collectors are more likely to side with corporates, take bribes and favor them over farmers. Also, there are no regulations on who can buy the yield according to this act. Anyone with a PAN card can take the yield and flee without paying the farmer. What remains is a new oligopoly that provides no security, support and facilities. So the farmer might just be going from one cartel to another.

The concerns in the first act can be worked upon by making a level playing field for both APMC and private trade areas. Either APMC can be tax-free or trade zones can be taxed. Competition should be fair and liabilities equal. Judicial intervention through a national agriculture tribunal with a branch in every district can ensure a fair redressal to farmers in case of a dispute. The conciliation board can have one representative from the government, an SDM or collecter, who submits a report to the concerned department. The tribunal can have people from both judiciary and agriculture and they must solve the matter within 10-12 days. But the farmer should have the right to appeal to the district court and later to the high court in case of a dispute because corporates will do anything to have the upper hand. To ensure financial security for the farmers, buyers must be registered after document verification to be penalised in case of a default.

  • The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services, 2020

Farmers can make an agreement with the sponsor, unlike APMC, according to the contract farming act. The sponsor will provide farm services like seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, or agriculture science consultation for free or a price. In the case of crops, the contract period can range between the first crop season up to 5 years, and in the case of animal husbandry, the same can be for a breeding cycle.

The act mentions that the union government ‘may’ make a model contract with no hidden implications. The farmer only has to fill variable details like the crop name, rate, quantity and contract period. In another case, the government may issue guidelines to make a model contract. Instead of model contract being an uncertain provision here, it should have been ensured to ease the farmer into entering contracts.

The price-fixing mechanism is questionable when the market conditions offer a higher price than the one decided in the contract. To save the farmer from incurring a loss, a percentage can be fixed while the remaining part can be flexible for the Minimum Assured Price (MAP) to match the rate at APMC or retail markets.

Farmer’s payment is to be made by the sponsor on the same day (within 24 hours) of delivery or 3 days in case of consecutive bank holidays from the time of delivery of goods. 

Farmer’s land cannot be mortgaged or attached by the sponsor. But, if both the parties agree, there can be a permanent structure on the land of which the farmer will have ownership once the contract is over. However, there can still be forceful eviction of the farmer from his land through fraudulent documentation of crony capitalists. It is more likely to happen with farmers from the marginalized communities who hardly have access to authorities and justice even for regular land-related problems. Imagine the plight of Dalit farmers who end up sacrificing their lives for raising their voice even at Panchayat level.

Each state government has the right to make an authority to register farming contracts to maintain its legitimacy. The state can decide the details of the registration process.

Force Majeure is a clause that ensures the protection of a party (farmer) from being penalized against absence or delay in delivery due to sickness or natural calamity.

Dispute settlement has the same provision of a SDM Court with a compulsory conciliation board for arbitration and signing a Memorandum of Settlement. The SDM, Collector, or Additional Collector will intervene and settle the matter within 30 days.

In case of dishonoring the contract on behalf of the sponsor, he can be liable to pay up to 1.5 times the damage caused to the farmer, but the provision requires to pay only the amount of expenses incurred by the sponsor if the farmer defaults.

There can be a group of farmers as one party supplying the same crop in large quantities to one sponsor. This group of farmers can collectively decide the terms of the contract through a mediator called the aggregator.

One of the parties can propose identifying a specific seed supplier, fertilizer vendor, or agro scientist as farm service providers in the contract. However, the farmer can be cheated if the sponsor decides everything in case of low output. Imagine the farmer being asked to pay for the quantity he could not produce due to low-quality seeds, fertilizers, or pesticides provided by agencies decided by the sponsor.

Farmers are always unaware of the demand and supply situation after the harvest. The second act claims to provide direct sale opportunities with a higher margin in closer and farther locations. It also promises fair competition and innovation for alternate crops like medicinal, herbal and cosmetic ingredients. Another problem area it aims to solve is groundwater conservation by breaking the crop pattern by focusing less on water-consuming rice and more nutritious grains like barley and millets. Besides, it shows dreams of a model like Amul or co-operative societies by forming farmer collectives to ensure entrepreneurship, rights and security.

Concerns

The denial of access to District Courts and High Courts is a significant reason for the insecurity of entering into a fraudulent contract. The tribunals must ensure a fair settlement to the farmers. Dynamic pricing benefits must be assured by including flexibility to match the ongoing market rates. Model contracts with blank spaces only for necessary details must be provided with no option to change the language. Regulations on buyers should be strengthened by securing an advance amount in proportion to the sales recorded by him and thorough identification and background check of the sponsor.

What is MSP?

Minimum Support Price is the minimum rate at which the government purchases crops like wheat and rice from the farmers while ensuring procurement of the crop in case no sales are made. The minimum support price and procurement price of the government are now the same.

The Commission on Cost and Pricing estimates the MSP for each harvest year and the Cabinet Committee for Economic Affairs decides the MSP before the harvest begins. APMC ensures that no sale or purchase is made at a price lower than MSP. The government only procures wheat and rice through Food Corporation of India (FCI), which stores and trades the crop. Cereals, mainly wheat and rice, five varieties of pulses, oilseeds like groundnut and mustard, and commercial crops like sugarcane and raw jute are 22 + 1 items on the list. Sugarcane does not get MSP but Fair and Remunerative Price (FRP). Fruits, vegetables, flowers, fishery and dairy do not get MSP. Unfortunately, only 6% farmers can avail MSP because of extreme corruption at the warehouses. A farmer may pack his harvest, load it in a truck and get it to a FCI, where an official may ask him to come after 3 days due to lack of storage space and long queues. The farmer cannot repeat the expensive process twice or thrice only to hear the same excuse again. Several farmers do not ever reach FCI for the same reason. Some traders take advantage of the situation and ask the tired, disappointed farmers to sell their harvest at a rate much lower than MSP, let’s say Rs. 1500 a quintal instead of Rs. 1975 a quintal. The traders will take the same truck to the FCI for which they will ‘now’ have space and sell the same at Rs. 1600 a quintal, but it will be recorded in the books at MSP, Rs 1975. Rs. 375 a quintal would be a bribe distributed amongst FCI officials. Outside traders may also exchange bad crops with that of FCI’s good crops for a minimal amount that again goes at MSP and the bad crop goes to ration shops for public distribution, including the army we have high regards for. Most FCIs are in bad shape where crops often rot and are eventually destroyed. This happens at a mass level.

Why was MSP started?

1964-1966 were famine years and Indian economy was suffering after the war with China in 1962. India also went on a war with Pakistan in 1965. There were migrants from Bangladesh who had to be supported as well. We had no food security during those years. America used to provide grains to us under PL 480 scheme and throw tantrums. This hurt the then PM Lal Bahadur Shastri. Indira Gandhi also felt a dire need for India to be self-reliant for food and thus began the green revolution in 1965-1966. An American scientist and M. S. Swaminathan had a significant role in bringing food security by procuring high yielding variety (HYV) of crops from Mexico and encouraging farmers in highly fertile states of Punjab, Haryana and Western UP to cultivate and get good output through premium quality seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. To motivate the farmers, an assurance was given to not worry about the market and grow as much wheat as possible, so no one in India slept hungry. This was done by promising government procurement of wheat. MSP was announced to maximize output by farmers and this resulted in India’s self-reliance in food production by 1980. Distribution was still inefficient. On one hand people were dying of hunger while on the other, crops were rotting in warehouses. Let alone producing, we are also exporting our produce to other countries now.

Why is MSP still required?

We may have food security now, but we still have a Public Distribution System. In 2013, UPA government introduced the world’s biggest social welfare scheme called the National Food Security Act that guarantees food security to more than 80 crore people. Mid-day Meal scheme, Maternity Benefit scheme and Targeted Public Distribution System (for the underprivileged) get their grains under PDS through which a person can get 5kg each of rice, wheat and course grain at Rs 30 a month. Rice and wheat procured by FCI at 19.75 and 18.60 per kg with additional warehousing and collection cost are sold at Rs. 3 and 2 per kg to more than 80 crore people. The government incurs a loss, yes, but mid-day meals, maternity benefits and TPDS are not the provisions the government should ever withdraw.

Concerns regarding MSP

In 2004, National Farmer’s Commission proposed three price fixing methods. A2 only accounts for the cost of seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and transportation cost. A2+FL accounts for the labour of the farmer’s family in addition to the expenses mentioned earlier. C2 also adds to A2+FL the capital gain of land. The amount of rent a farmer could have generated or the interest on investing the same amount, is the opportunity cost for not farming. Swaminathan recommended multiplying C2 by 1.5 to arrive at MSP. Subsidies on agriculture are already high so the government does not like to spend more on MSP. In 2014, PM Narendra Modi had promised to increase the MSP by 1.5 times. The question then was, 1.5 times of which amount? It was decided on A2+FL. MSP cannot be sustainable on other produce like fruits, vegetables, flowers and animals, according to the government.

Poor warehousing and a dearth of cold storage facilities amounts to huge wastage. The degree of corruption at FCI has also damaged the system, reducing its benefits to as low as 6% of the farmers.

The added cost, taxes and fee on MSP leads to an increase in food price.

AS MSP encourages food crops of only a few kind, it causes ecological imbalance by disturbing the level of ground water and restricts innovation in agriculture.

Why Punjab and Haryana started protesting?

Green revolution began in these 2 states and parts of western UP because the farmers there had irrigation facilities and some more resources to invest in equipment. Eventually, they became richer than the farmers in other states. Even those with less land in these areas were richer than farmers with less land in other areas. Hence we can find more medium and higher income farmers in these states. Farmers from Orissa, Bihar, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand cannot come on their tractors in huge numbers and protest outside the national capital. Punjab and Haryana were ahead since Green revolution. These states majorly grow wheat and rice and 88% of rice and 70% of wheat from these areas go to FCI at MSP, meaning, their entire agricultural economy is dependent on MSP. They have more awareness, resources and geographical proximity to Delhi. 35% of rice, 62% of wheat and 50% of India’s total procurement comes from Punjab and Haryana. On the other hand, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh together contribute to 44% of rice and Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh together contibute to 23% of wheat procurement.

Solution

MSP should continue. Farmers are demanding a legislative guarantee and the government is denying it. Judicial intervention through Tribunals must happen in the interest of farmers. Private buyers must be registered and verified.

  • The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020

PM Nehru, in 1955, had included the ECA in the concurrent list to avoid illegal hoarding of essential crops like wheat for profiteering. The entire game is of demand and supply. Hoarding a crop and reducing the supply to increase demand and then selling at a higher price is a criminal offense.

According to the third act, supply of foodstuff will be considered essential commodities only under extraordinary circumstances like war, famine and natural calamity. So, processing units can now hoard the produce under normal circumstances. India has more supply than demand, is exporting food, so we can accumulate to innovate and experiment, is the argument. Only in case of an extraordinary price rise by 100% in fruits, vegetables and horticulture and 50% in non-perishable produce like cereal and oilseeds will be such commodities considered essential. The two exceptions are for food processing units to hoard in proportion to their installed capacity and for export houses to meet the demands of a product for orders already received.

The concerns regarding this act are artificial demand and manipulation of rates.

Conclusion

The government must assure that the farmers will continue to get MSP, APMCs will not dilute, private markets will be regulated and the judicial process would be fairer. The acts were suspiciously passed at possibly the worst time. The government did not talk to the farmers for days. The treatment was worse in Haryana near the border because both the state and union governments are of BJP. There should be regulations on APMC as well as trade areas and a security deposit from the buyers. There should be distributive justice within the farmers in which state governments must play a better role to empower them equally. A more sustainable way of subsidies must be considered.

Principles of a contract say that both parties must have equal rights, but corporates will any day be more assertive in dealing with farmers. Private players buying directly from the farmers will certainly fluctuate the price of food products. 94% of farmers cannot buy at MSP even when it exists; imagine the consequences if it is eliminated. A single MP or deputy chairman can order a division in the passing of a bill. Why were parliamentary conventions not followed? India is a union of states, not unitary states. States’ powers must not be snatched by the union altogether.  Farming is an occupation and not a business, so farmers exercise their right to life and livelihood by protesting. Article 19 permits citizens to assemble peacefully without arms. There have been protests by educated people for pension schemes, OROP by armed forces. So why can the farmers not protest for their financial security? It is the hypocrisy of the privileged to deny the lesser privileged the same right to protest. Can you fire a teacher from a government school and tell her to avail private tuition opportunities as they pay more? If farmers in Punjab start growing some other crop to save groundwater, will the state or union government compensate for the losses incurred, if any? Repealing a law should not be a matter of humiliation for the government as it can always pass a new bill with revisions. The same can be done by consulting and taking on board farmer groups, state governments and corporate federations. Even the British consulted interest groups before making laws. Banaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University were asked to draft their own set of policies. Here, the real stakeholders should at least be consulted before rebelliously changing the way they work. When the stakeholders participate in the process of making a law, it is not just a better law but also a more enforceable law. Lawmaking is a serious business; it should not be rushed into when the country is homebound due to a pandemic. NO one denies that APMC needs reforms, but such revolutionary changes should be made after public debates and risk assessment.

If farmers fear that buying and selling of crops may function like a stock market and feel insecure, you cant disregard their concerns by calling them ignorant. They are aware of the risks. What is the rate of digital literacy in India anyway? Can our parents shop online, pay bills, fill forms and upload documents? The very definition of a farmer in the act excludes croppers, tiller and laborers. The whole chain is essential. It is a family occupation. The third-party can refuse to buy the crop without giving reasons. The quality of the produce must be mutually agreeable. What are the safeguards on a third party quality check? A farmer and a corporate must be equal in a market or court. Not having the right to civil judiciary is a grave warning in itself. Even a highly educated software engineer ends up agreeing to the contract given by the MNC he/she works for. The deliberate confusion around MSP must be pointed out by courts before there is a consensus between farmers and the union.

There could have been a possibility of revising the act instead of repealing them, but the government has given ample reasons for distrust. Smaller farmers who own less than 5 acres of land are more than 80% of the whole community and cannot take the risk of being cheated. Farmers feel that they are being treated like laborers on their farms. If the government intends to continue providing MSP, why is it so difficult for them to add such a clause in the law to that effect that no matter who buys the produce (government or private entities), the farmer must be given a MSP? The APMCs help build link roads that private players can never manage to do. The variety of wheat grown in the ‘food bowl’ states of Punjab, Haryana and Western UP contain 11% protein than 7% protein grown elsewhere. Crop diversification can be encouraged by purchasing crops other than wheat and rice on MSP to conserve the dwindling supply of groundwater. There need to be better storage and distribution facilities for perishable goods like fruits and vegetables for the produce to be sold at an appropriate time. The same can give more staying power to the farmers, who must represent Niti Aayog to share their inputs for policy formation. The way this government restricted the supply of perishable produce during the lockdown when the farmers were already struggling is unforgettable. The visuals of men in uniform toppling vegetable carts on the streets in the home state of Modi, harming not just the farmers but the entire supply chain only to see onions being sold at Rs 100 a kg clearly speaks of where the government’s interest lies. The news of migrant workers walking 100s of miles and starving, cannot in any human capacity make them trust the government. They still remember the promise in 2014, the blunder that was demonetization and everything ever since.

Kashmiriyat se Insaniyat tak…

“बोल कि लब आज़ाद हैं तेरे
बोल ज़बां अब तक तेरी है
तेरा सुतवां जिस्म है तेरा
बोल कि जां अब तक तेरी है

बोल ये थोड़ा वक़्त बहोत है
जिस्म-ओ-ज़बां की मौत से पहले
बोल कि सच ज़िंदा है अब तक
बोल जो कुछ कहना है कह ले” – Faiz Ahmed Faiz

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It has almost been two months of questioning. Questioning the invisible tension you see around, the retorts you get from people, the leftover hope you see crumbling down, the same downfall turning into a celebration, different meaning words can carry and the way their weight changes in disparate contexts. But most importantly, questioning, why is it so difficult to question in the first place.

I am imagining sitting on a blood-stained pashmina carpet, looking out of a window at the silhouette of an old man rowing a shikara. He, who knows that his son isn’t coming back yet he keeps his photograph in his pocket, just in case! The setting sun is adding a vermillion hue to the sky. There are no birds flying back to their nests, they are all hiding. The sky has turned from a soothing blue to saffron, suggesting the end of an era of hope. Our Bollywood visualisation of Kashmir was the Dal lake, the Himalayas, kahwa, beautiful people, misty winters and a few bomb blasts here and there. They just got the ratio wrong. Now broken houses, smoke, uniformed guns, closed doors, questioning eyes, photographs of missing or dead people, wailing survivors is all that is left in the valley we have always fantasised about. That, and loss… the loss of innocence, the loss of dignity, the loss of opportunities and dreams and the loss of a distant belief that somewhere, someone must be watching and listening. And while Kashmir lost all this, we failed Kashmir itself. Failure for us, failure for humanity!

Human beings probably best reveal themselves in how they regard fellow humans. Kashmir’s decision was not the choice of Kashmiris but the pride and obsession of the rest of India. The question, ‘do you agree with the idea of an independent Kashmir or its merger with Pakistan’ itself screams privilege. The privilege we think we have or we can snatch from Kashmiris to decide their fate. Processes can be contestable, so can be the constitution, law and history. But how can morality be contestable? We have all the freedom to debate while the thin line between surviving and suffering diminished days ago for the people wanted only for their land and women. ‘End mirrors the beginning. In the end, its a woman and a city’, said Shantaram, an outsider like the rest of us.

My only wish for my birthday month this year was to curate something that could partially heal the social turmoil within and initiate a constructive dialogue with those around. While I almost had a clear picture of what it could be, August changed things in a way that made everything else a distraction. I was still not sure of my capacity to do justice to what I was thinking to attempt on ‘the land of victims and no victories’. There was no way I could have! I just wanted to do it, ‘how’ was the big question.

I randomly started stalking, messaging, emailing and calling acquaintances and strangers. I was looking for people who either belonged to Kashmir or knew and understood Kashmir. The initial phase was as directionless and disheartening as possible. The only answers I had received from the endless questions surrounding me were learning to unlearn, rejecting a good thought for a better one and throwing away work of sleepless nights for something that can make more sense to others. My eyes had never been so heavy and my fingers had never been so tired of typing for non-commissioned work. I then shifted my focus from popular voices to personal voices. I talked to a different set of people. From listening to ‘you will not find Kashmiris in Ahmedabad except a few scared students’ to ‘I can connect you with many’.

In the process of researching for the event, finding relevant speakers, exhibitors and anyone who genuinely felt for Kashmir revealed the magnitude of the pain that surrounds the valley, in a human, compassionate way. Famous people, who I thought would be too unapproachable, disconnected or unresponsive because of their brilliant work, powerful voices or courageous decisions were in fact so warm and welcoming towards the idea of a humble initiative by an unknown person. As emotional were these weeks before the event, stronger became my belief in ‘asking’. The humility with which Ramneek Singh, Kannan Gopinathan, Siva Sai Jeevanantham and Avani Rai responded had a balming effect on my whirlpool of disbelief. Also, artist, lawyer and journalist friends in and outside Ahmedabad who offered to be of help in any capacity was a much-needed act of individual and collective kindness. No wonder creative people make great activists! ‘Grief is a demanding companion’, is a line from a dear friend’s poem. ‘Grief can also be a bonding companion’ is my latest discovery. This was a stark contrast to some close friends getting offended to an irreparable extent during our passionate discussions on political issues. Somewhere I had read that you don’t lose friends over politics, you lose them over morals. The only loss our privileged class can relate to, perhaps!

In my search for and conversations with some Kashmiris, I heard multiple perspectives, as expected. The most haunting one was with a man who had to flee overnight with his family in 1990. He described how a Kashmiri Muslim friend had helped them to escape and arranged everything. How from a palatial house with 35 rooms in Kashmir, 25 people lived in 3 rooms for months in Agra. How his father had turned into a right-wing thinker and his son felt it was time for him to move on. Stuck between the hatred of his father and detachment of his son, the empathy remains intact in the man who also understands how escaping was a privilege. Life is smooth for him except for craving to live in a better Kashmir sometime. He does, however, choke while talking to a friend in Kashmir whose daughter in 3rd grade has not been to school for a year. While mentioning others I could meet, he admitted that the reason he could talk to me for two hours without breaking down is that he always attempts to be a man of reason. And that is possible because he had the opportunity to heal himself. Beyond the binaries of right and wrong is the fact that Kashmiris have always been deprived of the right to heal and a collective wish, an honest attempt on our part for them to heal. If we do not let them heal now, the valley will turn into a graveyard of Kashmiris and India’s conscience.

Neither was he in a position to say something after that nor was I in the state to hear anything else. The moment I came out of his office building, heavy rains started unexpectedly. I rushed to my car parked far away, sat inside and tried to look through the windscreen. Loud, heavy raindrops had barely left any visibility. I turned the wipers on yet the screen remained opaque. It has been one of the most melancholic rainy drives of my life. As Siva Sai Jeevanantham rightly says, ‘the struggle in Kashmir is of memory against forgetting‘.

It is land and women in the end…

catholic-nun
A protest march after a nun was burnt alive and another was gang-raped by Hindu extremists in Odisha in 2008 

“What makes men fight on, and die, and keep dying, year after year, is the will to protect the land and the women. You know that’s true when you listen to them, in the hours before the battle. They talk about home, and they talk about the women they love. The end mirrors the beginning. In the end, it’s a woman, and a city.” – Gregory David Roberts in Shantaram

These lines have stayed with me ever since I read the book 9 years ago. But not as much in the same context as its juxtaposition. The patriarchal culture encourages the view that men protect women from harm, thus giving the impression that women are largely incapable of defending themselves. Yet, in case of communal riots or wars, these men use the same self-proclaimed capacity to violate women who ‘belong’ to ‘others’.

History stands tall as a witness to several such instances. Beginning from our mythology where princess Draupadi was stripped in front of an entire assembly because Yudhishthir, one of her husbands, had the right to mortgage her while the others sat and watched silently. Only Draupadi had no right to react. Even Krishna, her best friend and the God who knew everything, intervened much later to not let her strip. Jauhar was a practice historically renowned as mass suicide by women to protect their honour after their king lost to another. No communal or cross border war has fought its way through without establishing the authority of its race over the women of another. Partitions and riots unveil a dark past our daughters shall question forever!

Culture plays a significant role in how certain populations and societies perceive and process sexual acts and violence. It has been observed that sexual offences are higher in some Asian countries where virginity is highly valued, and a woman’s modesty is of utmost importance in retaining the respect of her family and community. Whether the nature of rape is personal or social, the woman is persecuted either by a man or a gang but persecuted just the same. Sexual violence can have widespread consequences not only by violating its immediate victims but also the broader meaning of freedom and fundamental human rights. It is a message you give to a community, to not raise their voice, else their women shall be robbed of their dignity forever.

My first encounter with such violence was in 1995 when the Uttarakhand Movement was at its peak of statehood activism. Gunshots were fired right in front of my house in Rishikesh. I remember spending part of my curfewed days hiding on the terrace or peeking through the windows to get a glimpse of what was happening outside. Activists and several other women were raped by cops, yet the then UP government led by Mulayam Singh Yadav kept denying the same. Neighbouring the age-old Hindu girl-Muslim boy rumours, beheaded cow gossip that supposedly resulted in Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013 were followed by my introduction to the Gandhian Gujarat, a state born out of a linguistic battle. A state that had for decades taken pride in its peaceful co-existence of different communities. Cut open bellies of pregnant women and slit vaginas is how their pride looked then. Now it looks like the Sabarmati riverfront that has washed away the conflict into invisible lanes and ghettos. Most rivers we claim to protect but fail to, including Ganga, Sabarmati and Jhelum have feminine names. The first moment of pride for some NDA leaders after the abrogation of Article 370 came with their lust for fair Kashmiri women and the picturesque land. Strange are the minds of men!

The society has been losing its collective consciousness in the greed of masculinity that is hyper enough. Its further rise will only lead to more destruction. Just like an adverse sex ratio increases sexual violence by making men sexually jealous and competitive, additional manliness will make the existing muscle power more hegemonic. What we really need is feminity to strike a balance in no woman’s land.

Crime and Social Tagging- What’s Common and Dangerous?

The Culture We Spread!

I recently saw the first season of ‘Delhi Crime’ on Netflix. The series has been inspired by the brutal gang rape of ‘Nirbhaya’ that shook the nation in December 2012. It was not the first gang rape the news channels talked about and we had prayed it should be the last, but what followed was a trend and how! It gave future rapists ‘ideas’. Broken beer bottles and lit cigarettes were used while raping girls as young as three years old. The monstrous mishap opens in front of us multi-dimensions of what can be termed as a linear crime. Economic disparity, sexual restrictions, lack of healthy interpersonal relationships, the more open culture they witness but cannot replicate and the silence at incidents of adultery, domestic violence, substance abuse etc. But who bore the brunt eventually? The innocent Nirbhaya!

The kind of language we use breeds the culture we thrive in.  Our generation looks for a congenial work environment because employment is something we can choose. Can we choose our social culture? Not really! The first influence is our home and family. With due respect to our forefathers, those generations have been open about their bigotry and labelling the communities they did not like as ‘inferior’. I remember I was asked not to touch the sweeper or her bin while disposing off trash. Two of my uncles say that they like Narendra Modi because he is cleaning the nation, and no, they were not referring to the ‘Swachha Bharat Abhiyan’. What they were really doing was to label certain communities as ‘dirty’. The self-proclaimed upper castes and upper middle class believe they have the privilege to do so and exploit the same unapologetically. Children observe and catch the same phrases, and sadly, they use them without understanding or reasoning their foundation held on a fake sense of supremacy. If the current generation of the British comes to dictate us again because of our history, would it be acceptable to us? Taking individual and social responsibility for public behaviour should be higher on our priority. Family dynamics still dominate collective decisions. The whole family votes for the same party just like it shares the same meal. And it doesn’t take one’s own children to realise the repercussions. Our digital communication is open to the whole world.

We have in our circle people who tag anyone with opposing views as ‘terrorist’ and ‘naxal’. A respectable, second generation lawyer and social activist Prashant Bhushan fights seventy-five per cent of his cases pro-bono yet is labelled as ‘Naxal’ on receiving some foreign funds like many other credible NGOs. Now let’s look at how this thing gets bigger and national. Narendra Modi’s campaign is all about the language. Many of his followers do not even bother to match the proposed manifesto with the actual achievements. They are high on the language of nationalism leading to jingoes like ‘anti-national’ for anyone with contradictory opinions. On the contrary, how the New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern dealt with Christchurch Mosque shooting is much more humane. She is certainly not going to spare the perpetrators, the Intelligence Minister is using intrusive spy agencies to catch them. She addressed a press conference soon after and changed the whole narrative to ‘solidarity’ by wearing a burqa, a symbol of oppression otherwise. And many other women followed. As an Indian I feel proud of the gesture, imagine the culture of empathy she must have sparked in her own country. Back at home, we were either tagging the harassment of Kashmiri students in Dehradun after Pulwama attack as fake or justifying it because of the beliefs we inherited as children. Such an irony!

Gujarat is a state with relatively lesser crime, allegedly. The existent rate of crime is openly and unapologetically blamed upon migrants from UP and Bihar, especially for rape cases. I have heard that all fingers point North based on the statistics from the police department. Now, the record police has is of ‘reported crime’, not ‘total crime’. Secondly, the junior staff is sometimes not even interested in filing a FIR. I have personally experienced the difficulty a woman feels to communicate with them in multiple police stations. More than half the rape cases are not even reported because the family is ashamed to, the girl does not have the energy to, they have been threatened, they belong to a community which is never taken seriously as victims (for example Dalits) or the culprit is a relative. Add to that a rape reporters’ first-hand information confirming that the majority of rapists are local.

Some of us may have had extremely unfortunate incidents with our forefathers during communal tensions or with immediate family as children. We subconsciously put Muslims, Kashmiris, Pakistanis and terrorists, all under the same tag and desire revenge. We rarely mention those memories as the reason behind liking a certain leader who supports that ideology because we know the moment we do that, every other reason will fail. We also start name-calling those who are against that leader on social media because expressing and convincing while hiding the core takes extra and often baseless effort. We are good people, but we forget the language we spread, its implications that have sometimes turned into rumours and killed people, innocent people. But they are strangers, so we don’t care. Also, we love to assume that the culprit we have always hated must be from a specific clan, did we check their Adhaar cards while the mishap occurred? Political groups have been known to kill some of their own people to spread rumours against others, it serves their purpose. Does it serve yours? Whatever happens in the Lok Sabha election this year is not in our hand, but our language certainly is!

 

Politics, Powerful Women and their Problem Partners

The second month of the jittery twenty nineteen is ringing anxious bells all over the country. While this year has been colder than usual, even for dehydrated states like Gujarat, the political heatwave has been burning the minds of leaders, followers and the opposing masses who do not like the previous two.

January took everyone by surprise with the announcement of Priyanka Gandhi finally taking the much-awaited leap of faith. It is an exciting phase for INC members and supporters, but a pendulum alert for BJP, SP and BSP as the enchantress decided to take the caste-oriented parties head-on from UP East. The years of Lok Sabha elections are the only years in which people from UP earn some neutral attention and importance. Otherwise, they are only labelled as illiterate criminals who shift the local crime graph of the provinces they migrate to in the guise of earning a livelihood. Who cares about the vast labour force, duh!

Valentine’s week has just begun and Modi’s army couldn’t get more romantic with their favourite Robert Vadra. Don’t be surprised if he is also blamed for relatively newer issues like the controversial credits of the movie ‘Manikarnika’. Indira Gandhi has sometimes been referred to as ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’, and they share the same date of birth, after all! ‘It’s all in the name’, will say the wounded BJP that keeps crying foul for nepotism like Kangana Ranaut.

Ms Gandhi has not even given her first official speech yet watching news has become more glamorous, with some men leering at her and wondering how on earth could Vadra woo her. But how did they end up marrying anyway? Priyanka and Robert were childhood friends. Robert also provided great support when Priyanka was dealing with grief after suddenly losing her father in 1991. Gone are the days of Sardar Patel’s honesty, Vadra took the son-in-law advantage to launder money and acquire land illegally. The courts have been dying to see him but like a shy bride he just doesn’t want to unveil his ‘Chaand sa mukhda’. BJP has been acting like a groom doomed with functional disorders on his first night.

Let’s think about our neighbour in the same context. Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority nation and an enthusiastic economist who encouraged privatisation, entered into an arranged marriage with a businessman, Asif Ali Zardari. Her friends from Harvard and Oxford were shocked to know this, given her modern attitude and interest in two men during her education at Ivy League Universities. Her liberal approach in personal life could not fight the political pressure from the conservative Islamists. Publicly, she always supported her husband. Benazir was loyal to Zardari throughout the many accusations and periods of imprisonment he faced despite not considering him to be an equal partner in the marriage. Multiple charges of corruption against him influenced her political image to the extent that a Pakistan Muslim League leader once expressed that the fate of PPP would have been entirely different had she married someone else. While their marriage was on the rocks, Benazir was assassinated soon after and Asif went on to become the President of Pakistan. Men always have it easy!

Moving our focus to a country so powerful that power-wastage is the last thing on their mind, Hillary Clinton has suffered in more ways than one. Bill Clinton’s own presidency survived the Monika Lewinsky scandal but Hillary Clinton had to lose on multiple fronts. Ironically, she continued her relationship with the unfaithful husband, perhaps to image herself as a family woman in front of the eyes of a pseudo-modernist America. But in reality, her beloved country is not so cool with a woman President even in the twenty-first century (political reasons aside). What’s worse? She lost to an orange piece of crap! Society has always been unforgiving and insensitive to women who unlike them, chose to forgive the cheating husband. Opposing campaigns were tracking down Bill’s womanising spree and to no one’s surprise, in the midst of Hillary’s historic campaign, Bill was involved with other women. He never really apologised or felt sorry like Amitabh Bachchan, but Monica was ridiculed like Rekha and later wrote about ‘Shame and Survival’ in a Vanity Fair article. Jacqueline Kennedy was rumoured to have known at least about two of John’s affairs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, however, tried to play smart by leaving the governor’s office in 2011 and announcing separation from wife Maria shortly before the news of his illegitimate child broke.

Priyanka has had a happy marriage for 22 years but Benazir, Hillary, Jacqueline or Maria weren’t that fortunate. Relationships are always volatile and much beyond the scope of human understanding, but what’s worrisome is the pattern of guilt-free erring by men yet suffering for men’s actions by women. Keeping the political angle aside, I feel extremely sorry for how ironic and unfair life has been for Hillary and many women like her who choose to remain in unfaithful and abusive marriages for the sake of children, career or pressure from family and society.

The expectation to hold her family together at a moment of crisis and to provide future political viability for the spouse solely rests on the tired shoulders of a woman. We never even expect men to take responsibility for a mistake or adultery, forget not committing them in the first place. Women go through so much personally, and then such harsh assumptions create a second level of humiliation. Cheaters do not look that bad if their wives still stand next to them. So the responsibility is ultimately on women. Isn’t it time for us to let such unjust ideologies go? Men will be men, agreed; but let women be more human than just wives!

Butterfly, Despair, and Mozzarella.

I was floating in the sea of hope
With waves gushing into my ears
Deafening me to the screeching crows
Hungry fishes nibbling through my skin
I knew when I 'd open my eyes, 
The sky would have turned from scarlet to blue
Blue, also a colour of despair
For a world that limits the one above between 6 walls of glass
This world is at the mercy of us humans
For it to look colourful and alive
Surviving on its worst and the best day
With nothing more than balls of wheat

Wheat, an ingredient so dynamic
It turns farmers into ‘breadwinners’
Defeat may look like bread without butter
Victory could be pizza on a fancy table
Tomato sauce becomes the weaker sex
Mozarella is the only value addition
Mozzarella, the alcohol for modern world problems
That people share to treat their vices
In a world confused between trees and buildings
Is the boulevard of misguided faiths and dusted empathy
How I wish the greys could be greener
And like a child I could chase butterflies.

Blind Choices..

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Last night, I saw this image and the colour red got to me like a bullet piercing right into my heart.
The child you see was not crying for an ice-cream, an expensive toy, or over a sibling fight.

Developed powers are trying to win a race without looking at what’s happening behind.
Or maybe they are and this is what they want; victory must look like blood and tears to them,
Shining like stars in the night-sky, without having any more little fingers pointing towards them.

There are humans in some random global corners crying over pictures from Syria,
But mind you, it is not the over-exploited word ‘genocide’, the victims are not from a specific community like Rohingyas.

We may sometimes not like a neighbour because of who he is born as; as if it was his choice!
It is a legacy that comes easiest to a human, without doing anything to wear the badge of honour.

How good or bad a power is, depends on who talks about it, someone who has the time and medium to do so.
Because a suicidal farmer, a poor mother, a starving child or a Dalit rape victim don’t talk…
They suffer!

Humans fear, fear leads to religion, religion creates a divide, the divide is to rule and rules are policies.
The world has countries, countries have borders, borders need security, security means weapons, weapons is money and money is power.

We discuss politics not to find solutions but to prove ourselves right,
If only we knew the context in which the word ‘right’ should be used, and who should it be used for!

We are curious to see who takes pride in singing our national anthem at a cinema hall,
Without bothering if the pride being sung goes to trash with every empty bucket of popcorn.

As long as it’s done by the stronger, the whiter, the saffron, the celebrities.. crime is OK!
Cos humans, you see, think war is a solution. Solution to a problem that was purposely created.

We choose, we choose people at the top just like we choose to close our eyes
Eyes that can filter the news it wants to read and the colour it wants to see.

Why is the right power merging with the darkness failing our sight?

Is the proof of victory in silent suffering?

New Girl in the City

‘Khaman’ was how Gujarat was introduced to me before I knew where it was on the political map of India. This popular Gujarati snack justifies the taste of Gujarat, ‘khatta-meetha’ (tangy and sweet). Needless to mention, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel also played their significant roles in my formative years.

My roots and relatives are from western Uttar Pradesh but I was brought up in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand (yes it was the northern and better part of UP, thankfully only till the year 2000). There are diverse reasons for which I dislike UP as a state, as a culture. The biggest yet non-progressive state boasts of casteism, patriarchy, illiteracy, crime, no infrastructure, corrupt authorities, open sewers and closed minds. My ancestors said and I do believe them that we are Brahmins. Most Brahmins are extremely proud of their caste and used to look down upon others. Whether it has any bearing on their political choices or not, I can’t recall a single government in UP that made sense to me. I loved the Ganges, mountains, winters and the fusion of adventure and spirituality in Rishikesh yet I wanted to move out of North India. In all likelihood for better career prospects and growth, a new perspective, self-reliance or something more in life.

One not-so-fine day in 2007, I was searching for a topic to write about for a college magazine article. While reading and watching the news, I heard a sting audio clip from Gujarat riots. It was a telephonic conversation where the executor was describing to his senior how he cut across the womb of a heavily pregnant woman with his sword. To my utter disgust, there was a monstrous pride and content in his voice. Pride, an emotion that led to the ‘Gaurav Yatra’. I decided to research and write about incidents of communal violence in India and that audio stuck with me forever, so did the Gujarat Riots. At that time, khakhra, dhokla, Narendra Modi, Zahira Sheikh, Hindu-Muslim, Sabarmati, Babri, Sohrabuddin were the new words in my Gujarati dictionary. It was 2012 when I was in a distance relationship with a man from Gujarat and was confused about our future in 2013. These two were also decisive years for the socio-political shape of India. A part of every state, other than Gujarat, was screaming for ‘change’. Gujarat was rather cheerleading its then CM for PM candidacy. There wasn’t just one but millions of proud, swollen chests. I had heard about the good roads, uninterrupted power supply, ‘chaniya’ (traditional long and flowy skirts) clad girls roaming freely at night as definitions of developed Gujarat. Irrespective, I had a picture in mind far better than the realities of my region. The primary elements being a good job and an open-minded society. 2012 was also when the heart-wrenching Nirbhaya case happened and the evil Asharam was exposed. Narendra Modi visited him in jail to get his blessings for Lok Sabha elections. Not many may know that Asharam was close to Modi and had also funded Gujarat riots. In 2013, the intuitive Uttarakhand was left miserable by the fierce rains and Modi ji promised Ma Ganga to nurture it if he became the country’s chief. I was destined to begin my journey in Gujarat in the same year.

I liked the touristy nonchalance I felt on the roads, no one recognised me. Unfamiliarity, just like ignorance, is more comfortable at times. I had presumed language would be an issue but all the sabjiwalas, autowalas and kirana store kakas could communicate in Hindi. Of course, they did! What was I thinking! We are a proud Hindu Rashtra, aren’t we! I found strangers helpful and respectful. A notable consolation was no eve-teasing, cheap comments or bikes following in outdoor life. I also don’t remember seeing incidents of road rage, Gujaratis are not hostile. Perhaps they save their aggression for business and bargaining. My first Ganpati Pujan and I had a chance to mingle with other residents of our society. Food, extramarital, late night visitors with details of cars and clothes were the favourite topics. Some days later I was added to the society WhatsApp group and so started the Pro-Hindu, Anti-Muslim forwards, messages on why girls should dress up in a certain way etc. Summer of 2014 was lucky for Modi just like 2002 was lucky for him and Salman Khan. They both flew kites and discussed potential life partners on Uttarayan, months before Salman Khan’s innocent verdict. While searching for a new apartment in developed parts of Ahmedabad, we faced more questions about our caste, marital status, F&B habits and late night parties than financial status. I had expected Ahmedabad to offer great job opportunities after hearing much ado about development and foreign investments, but I hardly found MNCs here. My second job in the city was with a Real Estate broking firm and my profile required me to meet builders often. The conversations sometimes began with the communities they would not sell their properties to. It’s then I realised that builders are not just greedy but also casteist. 

People dislike Delhi here but love to see their beloved Modi sitting in Delhi; he’s never in Delhi is a different story altogether. Coming back, AAP may be at the receiving side of criticism for air pollution in Delhi, but this problem is not recent in the first place. Delhi air has been polluted since the late 90s, it has just worsened now like every other problem in India. It is not a phenomenon that can happen overnight right? Secondly, Ahmedabad is a highly polluted city itself. What’s more, the water here is much worse than that of Delhi. I faced several health issues during my first year here, thanks to air and water pollution. Two Climate Change Summits have already been attended by our homegrown PM and third is in the sewer-line. Higher GST on diesel cars and a liberal tax on petrol cars would have been more sensible than 12% GST on sanitary napkins. The little water poor Sabarmati has is dangerous to drink and Narmada water is the only saviour. Having said that, 65 per cent incompletion in Narmada Project is a fiasco in itself. The power supply is regular only in Ahmedabad because of privatisation. Many other parts of Gujarat face power cuts on a regular basis, along with the shortage of water. Remember ‘Toilets before Temples’? It has been four years, I still struggle on Ahmedabad roads, let alone other Indian cities and states. Contrary to my pre-wed beliefs, Gujarat has serious education issues, much worse than many other states in India. No wonder half of them take solace in the US. Other than countable exceptions, schools here can be well classified as bad schools, brat schools and international board Schools. The state government has had 22 glorious years to make a difference yet it believes 6 per cent of the total budget is sufficient allocation for education. Out of this only 3 per cent was actually put to use and the remaining 3 was probably donated to paid trolls. Recently I attended an event on macro and microstate of education in Gujarat and what I learnt was disturbing beyond imagination. Forget the poor infrastructure, shortage of teachers, senseless curriculum and exorbitantly high fee in private schools; there’s caste discrimination even in Anganwadis. Yes, in 2017! Dalit kids from many regions of Gujarat do not get glasses to drink water, they have to use hands. The plates for Anganwadis are numbered for kids of socially acceptable communities. The government may bluff many by screaming the number of girl enrolments and teachers recruited, but are they talking about a much higher rate of retiring teachers or girls dropping out at puberty? All the 8 speakers seemed highly frustrated with the current state. One of them made an observation, “People in Gujarat may be enterprising and risk takers, but they never protest. They sit in their living rooms and blabber but they never walk on roads and make their voices heard.”   

When I visit doctors here, my full name, age, marital status etc are taken for a record. I haven’t changed my surname after marriage, given a chance I wouldn’t use it at all. Forget just the surname, the receptionists would ask for a middle name too. When I tell them I don’t have any, they would still ask for my husband’s name and put it as my middle name. Why? I mean what business do doctors, nurses or anyone for that matter should have in adding names to my name? What are existing names for? Speaking of doctors, the lower, middle and upper middle class hardly has options for an affordable healthcare. Despite Ahmedabad being the hub of medical tourism, the masses have to either spend a bomb or suffer because of extortionate health care.

Whenever someone asks how I like Ahmedabad, my first reaction is that I find it balanced. It does look and feel like a tier-2 Indian city yet is not as maddening as Delhi or Mumbai. It may not have nightlife but late nights are safer. People may be communal but not criminal. Education is not good but people are enterprising. Ahmedabad is not cosmopolitan but cultured. What especially interests me is the small yet genuinely concerned, creative, intellectual and open-minded beings I have had the chance to know through work, events, interests or ideologies. These people are the only relief amidst an otherwise rigid and confused urban population. The fearless people who think and protest through art.

Looking at the past and present, I have realised that the rural population has more clarity than its urban counterpart. City dwellers may crib about issues but do nothing to solve it. Stagnation is comfortable. It makes me wonder at the impact of leadership or that of worshipping the wrong leader. 2002 is done and dusted, but Muslims can still not buy or rent properties in any developing/developed part of Ahmedabad. There have been murders of Muslims carrying beef despite having a good chunk of Hindu beef eaters around. No matter how much it is portrayed as a predominantly vegetarian state, at least 60 per cent of Gujarat’s population is non-vegetarian. Why should food, clothes, opinions and beliefs of common man bother the government? Don’t they have other problems to take care of? On one hand, they are silent at mob lynching and on the other, political babas advise people on the number of kids they should have. The violence against Dalits hasn’t moved the urban millennials. When Gujarat government makes double the revenue through prohibition in the name of Mahatma Gandhi or uses it to appease minorities for votes, then why should Jawahar Lal Nehru be blamed alone? Why not discuss the cronyism and protected corporate interests of Adanis? A Sardar statue worth three hundred crores against his own ideologies or a bullet train is the pseudo development that can compensate well for basic and real development. 

Let alone Gujarat, ever since Narendra Modi has come to power in Union government, there has been more of decline than development in India in ways more than one. Disregard for recognition of human rights, controlled mass media, paid trolls, caste politics, disdain for arts and intellectualism, fraudulent elections, suppression of labour, pseudo nationalism and Hindutva have fabricated a delusional democracy. Give me one speech that seemed like a PM’s speech from NaMo. Other than that of Philippines who joked about wanting to be the first to rape a woman who was gang-raped and killed during a campaign. He was after Congress and Rahul Gandhi as Gujarat’s CM and so is he as India’s PM. What went wrong in the past 70 years has been his discussion since 2012 when Rahul Gandhi has never even been the PM. Complete negligence of Parliament in desperation of Gujarat Elections is a grave matter. The whole country cannot be ignored for their home state. Whether it is for Vidhan Sabha or Lok Sabha elections, BJP never gives a mandate till the 11th hour. But visiting temples, talking communalism, crying and bragging about his poverty is always high on his agenda. Don’t people think before voting? The government has nothing to say about what it promises to do on winning yet public should vote for it. We are not badgered with the failures of this term for union or of past 22 years in the home state, are we even thinking about what we want now? Or we have accepted their dictatorship and ceased to want at all?

Just like the political Babas in India, Modi government is trying to become a cult and is sadly succeeding. Indians don’t like him, they worship him. That is his win! The illogical, poisonous devotion; like that for Ram Raheem and Asharam. The difference between Hinduism and Hindutva is the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Forget the country, there is no democracy left in WhatsApp groups with radical Hindus. Venom spitting BJP devotees are welcomed in a family group but there was intolerance towards my factual articles barring personal biases. Not just that, I was also given a call next morning asking why I hate Modi. When I asked my uncle why he worships him instead, he had no logical answer. First, he said what ‘ever’ he is doing is for the good of this country and because Rahul Gandhi is dumb. Then followed the wrongs done by Muslims. There is a big chunk that elects BJP only because it hates Muslims or Dalits, they will just never confess. I am not a Rahul Gandhi fan but I find it injudicious when people say that they vote for Modi because RaGa is stupid. Were these people his classmates? How can they judge him when he has never even been a CM or the PM? More importantly, even if the option is as simple as choosing between a party that’s corrupt & a party that’s both corrupt and murderous, isn’t the answer obvious? The reason UP could never develop despite its size and resources is this casteism. Now that BJP is in-charge of the entire nation and insecure in Modi’s home state, are things going to change in 2019? Will demonetization, miscalculated GST and 2G Scam verdict have any influence? Or are we happy becoming a country where the government is shameless enough to decide which castes should not marry, which movie should not release, which esteemed university should discontinue or which tribes should die? People who re-elect Yogi Adityanath in UP will be silent supporters of the dead children in Gorakhpur. People who re-elect BJP in India in 2019 will be supporters of killing people born to a faith they never chose.

There is no justice, only conquest for this government. They don’t fight to win, they fight not to lose. And here we are, working at OUR cost for the presumptions and privileges of their victory. This madman leading the blind is not obliged to convince but overpower, control and leave us at his mercy. We don’t have to lose to make him win. Absolute power is an end in itself. The urge to prevail, even more destructive! Questions on lips of the haunted have been sealed while the loudest voices have been hunted to graves, their whispers still echo. Resolutions are nothing more than failed decisions. 2018 is important because 2019 will follow. Will we shield it this time or will we become spectators to a monster dancing on the skeletons of our democracy?

Idiosyncrasies of the Temple Generation

Unlike the generations I am hereby referring to, I would avoid shooting in the dark and be more focused in my approach. Millennials born in the 1970s and 1980s have had grandparents contributing their bit to the national population between 1930s-1950s. Those were the years when couples easily had 7-10 children on an average. And those were also the years when a major part of the adult population was poor, or lower middle class. Without trying to underline a classic ‘hen and egg’ case here, I would like to highlight the miseries these baby boomers welcomed with open arms.

Women kept bearing children till their 50s so men were the only bread earners. The amount of money earned and food procured was distributed between so many members that food consumed per person was insufficient. Irrespective of the difficulties, we never compromised on our traditions. Women fed the elders, the males and the children first and ate only at last, whatever little food was left for them. This, along with a high fertility rate (total number of births per woman) resulted in undernourished, overworked, weak women and society tagged them as ‘the weaker sex’. Some first wives died while giving birth and the men had a chance to bear more children with their second wives. While China is taking strict measures to control their population, we have some political babas lecturing Hindus to have at least 6 children per couple to outgrow the Muslim population in India. Ever wonder why? Because population obviously has nothing to do with other social/physical evils like poverty, hunger, pollution, crime, illiteracy, unemployment and global warming.

The children of these couples, our parents, are people obsessed with temples. The concept of tourism in India would have seen the dawn much later, had it not been for thousands of temples we have in every jungle of the country. Our government feels no need to develop an infrastructure for tourism, temples have given them enough monopolistic assurance! Raise your hand if you were denied a toy to avoid unnecessary expenditure, only to see a generous amount going to a God in the same family outing.

Our temples have been wealthy since the age of monarchs, i.e., before the birth of independent India. That was also the time when only the kings were rich and their people were poor; farmers, peasants, masons, artisans, soldiers. So it isn’t incorrect to conclude that the tax collected by kings (‘kar’) mostly went to their treasury and temples when it could have been utilised to provide basic education, nutrition and sanitation for the people. Not surprisingly, the wealth of our temples invited multiple invasions and that left India as a slave for centuries. Despite being the fifth largest economy, India is still struggling for foreign investment and currency appreciation.

The total amount of wealth our temples have can easily exceed the total amount of tax collected by the central and state governments. It has the potential to combat poverty, hunger, sanitation and make basic social reforms for the entire nation. The donation index is still soaring high with people either trying to hide their black money, fulfil wishes, empower their community or religion, or feel empowered themselves! Some corporate tycoons donate huge sums to their favourite places of worship; for example, Ambanis, Goenkas and Nira Radia regularly make donations at Badrinath temple in Uttarakhand. There are 10-15 kinds of aartis that pilgrims can book between 4k-21k every single day, with most days being houseful. This means that the poor do not have the privilege of witnessing these aartis, and the elderly, underprivileged will be pushed and hurt by the common, aggressive crowd. So much for religious justice!

Now, out of all the rich temples, there are very few with big kitchens/big hearts or the intentions to feed the starving and shelter the needy. So what happens to the wealth? The trustees, temple committee members and staff become rich, corrupt and insensitive. Insensitive to the basic duties they have towards visitors from all over the country; potable water, restrooms, comfortable spaces for long waiting queues, first aid or basic medical aid for senior citizens etc. Most of them have no information counters or signages and the most impolite staff possible. There are temples on narrow, hilly roads, tiny enough to restrict even an infant to enter. Built on blind curves, if you stop there for darshan, you will be hit by a vehicle and go down the valley for sure. I have always failed to understand how donations and gold crowns please Gods, if there are any. Pardon my usage of plurals, there are too many Gods to be addressed as one!

This year, within 2 months, there were around 35 casualties during Char Dham Yatra in Uttarakhand alone. Vrindavan, the Krishna- Nagari of India, has the maximum number of widows living in destitute.

Being religious and visiting temples is fine, but the huge donations to temples doing nothing are so not justified! We can always use that money for a more sustainable purpose. It’s not a sin to reason with commercially or politically inclined religion, its the need of the hour, a dire one! Prayers over profitable propaganda, Amen!