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Class, Caste and Gender


In the last decade a new and disturbing trend has emerged in dealing with the contradictions involving class, caste and gender. They are no longer dealt directly. An easy way has been found, namely, to dump it on the environment.

Class Struggle verses Encroachment on Forest Lands

Let us take class first. For more than seventy years all left and centrist parties have talked of land to the tiller. There have been some glorious struggles and some notable victories. This has helped these parties to come to power one after another. But the problem largely remains unsolved. Majority of people working on land don’t own them, semi feudal/capitalist exploitation goes on and rural poverty and misery remains.

Today, in many parts of the country, this issue is being dealt with by encroaching on the forestland. Many political parties, NGOs and sometimes government too are involved in this. This is contributing to already decreasing forest cover to dangerous levels. These very organizations in other places cry hoarse about decreasing forest cover and related environmental issues such as water crisis. Environmentalists are split on the issue. Some oppose any encroachment on forests whereas some others take the stand that it is livelihood problem of the poor and should be resolved in a sustainable manner, whatever that means. Meanwhile, class struggle has taken a back seat and environment continues to get degraded.

The Glass War

In many parts of rural Andhra Pradesh a glass war has been going on. This refers to the struggle against keeping a separate glass outside a teashop for the scheduled caste customers. They are expected to wash it themselves and tea is poured into the glass from a distance. This is practicing untouchability, which is unconstitutional and unacceptable to the members of the scheduled castes as well as to many progressives including the Naxalites. There have been violent incidents and some victories. But the problem has remained. Recently this has sought to be resolved by the miracle of technology. You have guessed it right- by introducing use, destroy and throw plastic glasses! Its impact on environment need not be spelt out. Surprisingly, the environmentalists themselves have not created much noise. Maybe they think it is a small issue or maybe they themselves use a lot of plastic! Meanwhile, yet another ‘win-win’ solution has been achieved at the cost of environment.

Gender and Tap Water

In many villages in India tap water is introduced. This is done by pumping water from a village pond or river into an overhead tank and supplying to the village households through pipelines and taps. Sometimes some chlorination is also done.

This has replaced the earlier practice of villagers going to the village pond or riverfront. There they used bathe, wash clothes and utensils and carry some water back essentially for drinking and cooking. This also used to keep the pond/riverfront relatively clean.

With the introduction of tap water, the amount of water used in the rural household has increased at least fivefold. Obviously a very small portion of it goes back to the pond and over a period of time the pond starts drying up. The pond and the riverfront get filthy and the pumped water requires to be ‘purified’. The impact and load on environment is obvious. When this was articulated one feminist response was ‘But you males don’t think of the reduction in drudgery of women!’ Thus a gender issue is sought to be resolved through dumping it on the environment rather than tackling it head on.

There is no denying that privacy for women in the use of bathroom and toilets is important particularly in the face of population pressure. However, this need not be done only through pumping water and supplying through tap water. Proper rainwater harvesting and a hand pump will meet the need in most difficult situations where the source of water is far. What is actually happening is that with the tap water easily available even wells –both private and community- are not in use and are getting filthy and unusable. We must remember that India is actually very rich in water resources and present water scarcity is a creation of the technology.

Rural Development

Rural development assumes that rural people need roads, schools, agricultural extension Programme, Green Revolution (HYV- High Yielding Variety seeds, Fertilizers, and Pesticides), irrigation, tap water, latrines, elimination of child labour, women’s development and so on. The underlying assumption is that rural people are backward and need to be developed. There is no appreciation of the fact that they have been living for a very long time in an environment friendly sustainable/subsistence existence. The aim seems to be that rural people should ‘enjoy’ all the benefits that urban people do.

The net results of most of these efforts are:

The ‘wealth’ in rural area increases.
The rich become richer and poor become poorer.
There is an environmental disaster. The water table is falling every year. Drought and failure of crops occur every second or third year.
In the long term, productivity falls and rural people migrate to urban areas. And who pays for all this? The environment and health and lives of poor people! Reports of farmers committing suicide are coming from al these rurally ‘developed’ areas!

What needs to be done is also well known. Water is scarce because it is being over used and its source, the forests, is getting denuded. So the forests need to be protected and the water guzzling green revolution technology should be replaced by organic farming. The rural economy can be sustainable only if it is close to a subsistence economy. This will eliminate most of these rural development programmes and villagers can live in peace.

But who will let them live in peace? It is the urban economy that is looting the forests and land resources. It is the urban people who need to change their outlook and life style. They and their life style are responsible for the degradation of the environment. They have to reduce the load on the environment. This can be done by reducing conspicuous consumption, reducing waste, productive waste management by recycling waste (metal and paper) composting the green waste, water conservation and improving and better utilization of public transport system. In fact there is whole tradition of urban planning known as the ‘Garden City’ movement. A lot can be learnt from this movement. So what we need is urban ‘de-development’ like ‘de-schooling’.

The Environmentalists’ Response

Today probably there are more environmentalists than Marxists. In fact there are Eco-Marxists, Eco - Feminists and there are people who take trouble to show that Marx, Phule, Ambedkar and Gandhi were also environmentally conscious. Then there are people who will find environmental consciousness in Buddha, Vedanta, Islam, and Christianity and among Tribals. So everybody is an environmentalist! Then why is there so little success?

I think most of these people are anthropocentric. So it is easy to dump the issues on environment.

There is much talk about sustainability. Well, capitalism or even anthropocentrism and sustainability don’t go together. Only a subsistence economy is sustainable economy. This implies that much of the way that the human society is organized today is not sustainable. This includes most of the ‘military- industrial complex’ most of the state organs such as police and jails, many industries and agribusiness such as tobacco, alcohol, cosmetics, such bizarre industries as fortune telling, pornography and so on.

How to combine contemporary human sensibility and subsistence economy is the question. Obviously the answer has to be evolved by practice. This means learning from various ‘Anarchists’ kind of practices. These include Primitivists Anarchist Groups, Quakers, Tolostoy and Gandhian Groups and many Tribal Groups. None may have a full answer. Maybe each group has to evolve its own answers. But some basic premises may be spelt out.

1 The world belongs to all. Human beings have no primacy.

2 Within human society no authoritarianism – State, Family, Gender etc.

3 Human society has to be organised on the principle of ‘Free Association of Free People’.

4 Technology has to be as primitive as possible. Appropriate technology-mainly to undo the damage caused by the last few thousand years of human history and to preserve, restore and celebrate the environment.

13 .Dec. 2004

Email: vijayendrat@yahoo.com

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Published in Frontier, Kolkata, Jan. 2-8, 2005.