Monday, April 7, 2008

India's poor could turn violent: analyst

While the world celebrates India's recent economic resurgence, P.V. Rajagopal, a Gandhian activist who is devoted to mobilizing the marginalized, warns that nearly 70% of its population remain landless and in poverty.

"Such conditions breed violence," he said. "The kind of prosperity you see in cities like Bombay, Delhi and Chennai now is being bought at the cost of the poor people."

Forty per cent of Indians are landless and 23% live in abject poverty, the vice-chairman of the Gandhi Peace Foundation and founder of the social activist group Ekta Parishad, said this week during a Toronto stopover on a Canadian speaking tour.

Yet 15 years of dramatic economic growth that has seen India sprout more than 300 new special economic zones, complete with industrial parks, gleaming high-tech office complexes and shopping malls, have not touched the 770 million who eke out a living as subsistence farmers or unorganized rural labourers.

"What is happening, is there is a division between 'India' and what we call 'Bharat' [the Hindi word for India]," Mr. Rajagopal said.

"India is an English word and its Indians are English-speaking, highly educated, articulate politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen who are making wealth and comfort for themselves and their families at the cost of 70% of the Indians from Bharat.

"On one side, you see massive industrialization, steel factories are coming up, mining is happening, the airports are getting bigger and bigger and the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans are all travelling in to invest. But on the other side, there is ancient poverty and mothers selling their children and growing violence."

He argues a development policy that promotes industry over agriculture leads to marginalization. In turn, acute marginalization is leading to large-scale migration, which is creating huge new slums that fuel yet more cycles of destitution, hopelessness and violence.

For the last 43 years, the 61-year-old activist has been trying to find a Gandhian solution to his country's vicious contradictions.

He has spent 18 years building a non-violent people's movement among low-caste Hindus and untouchables and adivasis (tribal people), helping them give voice to demands for land, livelihoods and dignity.

Before that, he was the Indian Supreme Court's special commissioner on bonded labour for 10 years, travelling the country inspecting quarries and workshops where families laboured in illegal bonded servitude.

He estimates his investigations resulted in the courts freeing more than 12,000 indentured labourers.

But it is his work as Gandhian activist, devoted to nonviolent social protest, that he feels is essential to a rapidly changing India.

"When India gained its freedom, people came to [Mahatma] Gandhi and asked him what should be the direction of the country," Mr. Rajagopal said.

"He told them, 'Every time you contemplate an action or make a plan, think of the poorest person you have seen in your life. If your schemes are going to empower this person, this project is going in the right direction. Otherwise drop it.'

"One of Gandhi's talismans was the claim there is enough for everyone's need, but not enough for their greed," he added. "If you look at our development lately, it is greed-based."

To try to change that, Mr. Rajagopal and Ekta Parishad have launched intense community leadership training programs and work-sharing camps to teach thousands of young people the strategies of non-violent protest and community development.

A typical camp could bring as many as 4,000 of them together to dredge and rehabilitate a region's irrigation canals, while building their solidarity, confidence and negotiating skills, and teaching them their rights.

"We're trying to train young people to stand up for themselves," he said.

"We're telling them that it isn't their karma to be poor. We are saying let's strengthen rural India but let's do it by going back to Mahatma Gandhi's attempts to create a non-violent society."

The alternative may inevitably be violence, which could easily lead to terrorism.

"We're not speaking of the terrorism of [Osama] bin Laden, but we are speaking of the terrorism of the village, where you can find poverty and destitution right outside your door."


Population: 1,129,866,154

GDP per capita: $2,700

Unemployment rate: 7.2%

Percentage of population below the poverty line: 25%

Number of people living in the countryside: 700 million

Number living on less than $1 a day: 390 million

Source: CIA World Factbook

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