Updated: July 13, 2010 15:14 IST

Essays on social movements

A. S. Padmanabhan
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The ardour and passion for freedom had cooled since Independence. In the vacuum, a number of institutions and individuals championing different causes emerged. Some of them share their thoughts in these two volumes, the first on “issues of identity” and the second on “concerns of equity and security.”

For any movement or campaign to succeed, one of the two conditions should exist. There must be seething discontent about the prevailing situation, or there must be a charismatic leader. There have been many instances of religious movements fading out once the inspiring head disappeared from the scene.

Dravidian movement

In the Dravidian movement, there were serious differences over the timing of Independence. The South Indian People's Association was not in favour of undermining the influence and authority of the British rulers. The South Indian Liberal Federation was founded in 1917. Robert Hardgraves' analysis stops with this. There have been momentous developments over the past five decades, with such dividing lines getting blurred progressively. These later developments are not covered.

Both Bhoodan and Naxalbari movements were directed against the concentration of land in the hands of a few and aimed at distributing the excess land among the landless farmers. Bhoodan was based entirely on voluntariness and it did not, obviously, achieve much. With Vinobha Bhave no more around, little is heard of it. Mindless violence marred the Naxalbari movement. Neither total absence of regulation nor violent means would help reach the goal. While violence needs to be curbed ruthlessly, some legitimacy should also be ensured for such transfer of land.

The anti-dowry movement made a splash in Delhi, and its sustained campaign resulted in the Supreme Court reversing the High Court's acquittal order in the Sudha Goel case in 1983. But the Delhi initiative did not percolate down to villages. Nor did the Delhi movement continue thereafter.

Concerns of ecology

On the face of it, concerns of ecology and economic development are irreconcilable. The British freely exploited the forests in India for shipbuilding and making railway sleepers, denying the locals of their livelihood. The Forest Act of 1927 added to their woes by limiting the access. Vandana Shiva points out that scientific forestry, as practised, ignores the vital linkages between plant life, soil, and water. As the frequency and intensity of floods, landslides, and soil erosion increased, the hapless villagers and Adivasis started protesting.

The floods in Alaknanda and two other disasters — Tawaghat tragedy and the blockade of the Ganga by a landslide — proved the last straw, and the ‘Chipko' (hug the tree) movement took firm roots. The Silent Valley Project in Kerala was an exception where, in spite of the State government being keen on flaunting it as one of its feats, the Centre intervened and stalled it in the 1970s. Surely, there can be any number of viable forest-related development projects without undermining the ecological system.

Houses for poor

What started as a lobby for securing houses to the textile workers in Ahmedabad gradually enlaraged its target group to cover such disadvantaged sections as rag-pickers, street vendors, and head-loaders.

The organisation, Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), founded by Ela Bhatt, played a key part in the drafting of the International Declaration of Street Vendors and its subsequent passing at the Bellagio (Italy) conference. This calls for action at four levels: by individual traders, by traders' associations, by city governments and international bodies like the U.N., the ILO, and the World Bank. However, the benefits envisaged under it are yet to translate into reality for want of follow up action.

Partha Mukherji highlights the fact that the Siliguri subdivision, where Naxalbari is situated, came under a non-regulation area during the British days and, as a consequence, it did not get fully integrated with the rest of the State until Independence. This, perhaps, is one of the reasons why it spawned social unrest.

Of all the essays, only two were written after 2000, and so a reader will not find updated information about the various movements. But the two volumes will be useful as a valuable source of reference for students and academics.

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