Friday, 5 January 2007

Community Participation

Community Participation: Paddy farming in Konkan | Image by Pooja Rani

‘ZOLE’ IS A WORD FOR ‘COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION' in local Marathi dialect, just across the creek from Mumbai on the mainland of coastal district Riagad: So near yet so far!

Community participation at its tail end is there in the mega city, evident from the public festivals of Lord Ganesha. B. G. Tilak started the public festival to reinforce the Independence Movement. The citizens managed it by community participation. Even after the political independence, they celebrated it with the same zest for some time. Now it has turned into ‘commercial participation’ with sponsorships coming from trading houses of consumer goods etc. No more Bhajan* – Keertan*, no more Zimma – Fugadi*, instead the audio music packages of devotional / pop songs blast on the public address system.

After the independence, the governments, which took over the rule from the British, ignored the millennia-old tradition of community participation. Independence Day – 15th August 1947 – was indeed a memorable occasion. I was then in the primary school at my native village. The government distributed packets of sweets on that day to us, all the school-going children. The ‘other’ children outside did not get any. Tilak was no more. Gopal Krisha Gokhale, who fought for free primary education for all, was no more.

Gandhiji, the Father of the Nation, may not have heard of this evil discrimination, a petty event. He was struggling somewhere; and the fractured communities had turned to ‘communal’ riots. We hear that in the backyard of Mumbai there are children affected by malnutrition; even die, while the governments plan ‘mid-day meals’ for the schoolchildren. One is silently corrupting the mind like cancer; the other comes with a bang. Which one is the worst than the other?

Few elites and the learned have picked up an imported idea of ‘public participation’ in recent times. There are volumes written about it, yet it remains at lip service, or “I decide, you follow” idea. If people of certain class have lost their roots due to colonization, and in the wave of modernization, it is no wonder.

But there are people who have lost their roots because of persecution, displacement, development, marginalization, deforestation, conversions, exploitation and oppression. One computer displaces 100 persons. One TV set colonizes a thousand persons. These assaults have left them dazzled, stunned; they cannot even cry. If an earthquake, or a cyclone or tsunami destroys everything – life and property, the survived ones can at least cry, and help each other.

Otherwise, after the politically induced Ganesha Public Festival, the next on the agenda could have been ‘Water and Sanitation’ or ‘Hygiene and Civic sense’ festivals through community participation, for not only the mega-cities, but also the towns and villages. Indeed, we Indians love festivals. Even some god could have been associated with it. Moreover the industrial and commercial houses and corporate sector could have had contributed the lion’s share; perhaps that could have had washed away, or absolved them of, some of their sins of polluting the natural, social, political and economic environment of the country.

The traditional community participation touches almost all aspects, may it be education, farming, house building, water management, local fairs and festivals, and much more, of individual and the collective living wherever a community still does exist. For example, Warlis at Dahanu taluka in the backyard of Mumbai, we noticed, build indigenous dams / weirs of stones collected from the riverbed, tied and held with bamboos, bullies and vines, at the end of every monsoon. Warli paintings are famous among the elite of Mumbai; hardly anyone mentions about their dams! Some time back we had another revealing experience in Tamilanadu.

With ten of my students, I was attending the second Congress of Traditional Sciences and Technologies of India (1995) at Chennai. We took some time off to look into the backyard of the city. We visited Kanchipuram, a historical city, a seat of Sri Shankaracharya and famous for silk sarees. We went around the neighbourhoods, temple complexes and silk saree shops, and spoke to people. The following day we visited one of the villages that produce silk sarees, about ten kilometers away. We remained there from dawn to dusk.

It is a small hamlet of families belonging to one of the castes in the village. They receive silk yarn from the cooperative societies at Kanchipuram. Every member of the family works in various operations in the production of the sarees. Even the children work; it’s not ‘child labour’; it is education by ‘experiential learning’, which many of the elite often miss. The operations such as sizing, where quick working is necessary, 10 or more people from other families come to help. Sometime two weavers work on one loom. They use simple bamboo and wooden tools other than loom. One or many, they work with amazing coordination through all operations, marginally literate as they may be. They were working through the day combined with other household activities.

Some of them have farms, but they do not produce silk. It comes from outside. If they learn the skills, they too could produce it as others do. They are paid rupees five hundred for each saree. (Perhaps, it may have increased now!) What is the ecological–environmental–energy cost and ‘currency-cost’ of this produce compared to industrial product? We leave it to the experts. To witness such actions helps to define ‘community’ better than by dictionary or discourse.

I obviously remember my primary school days when I learnt spinning and weaving for three years under ‘basic education’, and practiced in spare time: now no more. The cotton was brought from outside as it doesn’t grow in Konkan. The spinning and weaving education was soon discontinued. Academic bureaucrats failed to see there were other local venues for basic education other than Khadi, which they blindly followed. In any case, what is the role of the British-made formal education to disintegrate ‘community’? What will be the avatar of ‘Panchayati Raj’ in the 21st century?

The essence, the first and the foremost, of this community participation is ‘sharing of the work, place and space’. The most vital, though silent, element is ‘decentralization of power’. Would it be palatable to the hierarchies / bureaucracies? It also is a ground for collective decision and collective creativity. The industrial societies ruled by capitalist economy may not even know it. Their members face the crisis of individuality and identity. Some of them, however, have been campaigning and fighting for 30/40, or even less, working hours a week, of course, within the social-economic-political structure they follow. But those who are compelled to work for more than 80 hours a week, either in the first world or third-world, may not be ready to share it with their fellow citizens; they may prefer hoarding it! Even IT industry, though its trait is fast – faster – fastest work-speed, is not an exception. More the speed, more are the working hours!

The events mentioned above are out of the millions that are taking place daily across the country. We do not know how long it will last. Because we, while aping the so-called advanced societies, are out to destroy, by whatever means – legal, religious, political, or developmental or any other – the ‘community’ and ‘community participation’: A World Heritage for Conservation.

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* Bhajan: devotional songs mostly composed by the saints, performed individually or collectively, with or without musical instruments.
* Keertan: discourse with devotional songs and commentaries on religious / social issues before a congregation.
* Zimma, Fugadi: women folk dances combined with folk songs; people believe Lord Ganesha loves them.

(This article was published in Janata, vol. 64 no. 4, March 5, 2006, Mumbai.)

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© Remigius de Souza. All Rights Reserved

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