One hundred years ago this day, on January 1, 1918, Mohandas K. Gandhi was in Ahmedabad. And — no surprise here — he addressed a meeting of residents in that city. One would imagine the meeting was about the Great War that was coming to an end or the battle for Swaraj which was just beginning under his leadership. But no, it was about – and again no surprise — something entirely different.
It was about securing three basic necessities which he spelt out as: “Air, water and grains.” He spoke in Gujarati and his key sentence was: Hava pani ane anaj e khorakna mukhya tattvo chhe (air, water and grains are essential to human nourishment). If Swaraj, he said, means self-rule, then securing these three khorak means securing Swaraj. Explaining himself with typical concision, Gandhi said: “Air is free to all but if it is polluted it harms our health… Next comes water… From now on we must take up the effort to secure water. Councillors are servants of the people and we have a right to question them.” On the subject of grains, he spoke with action, not just words. In a parallel initiative on the same day, he got the Gujarat Sabha, of which he was president, to write to the Bombay government to exempt in some cases and postpone in some others land revenue assessment due to the failure of crops in Kheda district.
Air, water and grains were the triple khorak of a people in Swaraj. This was the essence of his address.
On this, the first day of 2018, if we were to take, with great difficulty in Delhi and less so elsewhere, a deep breath and look ahead on where we stand on Gandhi’s first khorak point, namely, clean air, or on atmospheric pollution, we would we find, first, that India today is among the world’s largest carbon emitters, following China, the U.S. and the European Union, is hurting itself by the global rise in extreme climate events and water and food crises. Second, that having ratified the non-binding Paris Agreement on climate change, India has undertaken a huge moral responsibility in terms of reducing the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33-35% by 2030 from 2005 levels, changing over from coal-based generation to renewable energy sources and, increasing the annual target of forest cover. Third, and the most stark, with the U.S. pulling out of the treaty, the financial aid for the follow-up expected from developing countries is in jeopardy. This makes default and deficits in follow-up a distinct possibility. We need to ask and need to know how equipped we are to meet our commitment to the Paris Agreement. The outlook, as we enter 2018, for India’s commitment to the Paris treaty is fraught.
The scene on the second khorak , water, is even more worrisome. For millennia India has lived from monsoon to monsoon. But now, the relentless thirst of 1.3 billion Indians for water — domestic, agricultural, industrial, ‘construction’ — has turned our land into one giant groundwater sieve. Technically renewable, our groundwater as a resource is hopelessly overdrawn. Per capita availability of water in India dropped from 6,042 cubic metres in 1947 to about 1,545 cubic metres in 2011. Today the figure should be much lower, and by 2030, India’s water scarcity will have reached alarming proportions. Are we — the peoplehood of India — who form the stakeholders in our water resources really aware of this? We are not. The rock-hard fact is that the National Water Mission’s efforts notwithstanding, we are dangerously water deficient and deplorably water iniquitous. Water-profligacy by a few contrasts with the water-inadequacy of the many. And water, or the lack of it, is the cruellest of these. Scarce water is also about unsafe water, and it is estimated that 21% of communicable diseases in India are caused by poor and un-overseen water supply. A significant percentage of our waste water, it has been estimated, is discharged raw into rivers, lakes. Will this new year, 2018, see someone, anyone, from government or our polity scream a warning about our water peril? Most unlikely.
Gandhi’s third 1918 khorak — grain — is in dire distress. Behind the dispossession caused by the real estate mafia and corporates, the corrosive impact of cash-cropping and shrinking of timely credit lines is a deepening gloom over output costs and minimum support prices (MSPs), of which farmer suicides are chilling testimony. The five reports of the National Commission on Farmers that M.S. Swaminathan chaired consolidated his warnings and his recommendations. It has been deeply disturbing to hear him urge implementation of his recommendation on the MSP. In a plangent comment powerfully reminiscent of Gandhi, he has said, “The future will belong to nations with grains, not guns.” P. Sainath has been speaking of the agrarian crisis with unflagging zeal. Aruna Roy’s Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and Yogendra Yadav’s Swaraj Abhiyan have done likewise. The Kisan Sabha has remained an inspiration for the cause and the energy brought to the farmers’ agitation in Maharashtra by Yashwant Sinha’s espousal of their demands has been salutary. And yet, looking into just the twelve months ahead of us, I cannot see any helpline to India’s lifeline, agriculture.
While these three essential khorak essential for India to ‘simply live’, as Mr. Sainath has put it, struggling for breath, what are we getting instead, and on a priority? Three other khorak : the hava of intolerance, the pani of polarisation and the anaj of uniformity. And why? Because these distract, they divert attention from the real life-and-death crises. Intolerance, blowing strong since 2014, is likely to blow stronger in 2018. Polarisation, tried and tested in the 2014 election, then fielded formally in Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, is likely to be tried with greater impunity in the elections due in 2018. And as for uniformity, the India of many-grained people, all secure in their plurality, is now being dispossessed by an India which believes in codes being uniform rather than civil. To stand in line, sit in postures, speak in chants, sing in tune is to be uniformly patriotic. To make Muslims self-conscious at Eid, Christians nervous at Christmas is to be systematically patriotic. And notwithstanding the lessons of history, to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to be more than patriotic. It is to be mightily patriotic.
The right to question
Gandhi spoke of Swaraj’s three basic khorak . But he also gave, in the same 1918 speech, a fourth khorak for Swaraj. And that lay in his words, “we have a right to question.” This fourth khorak extended to political rights, social and economic rights. And very specifically, it led that year, 1918, to the Kheda peasants satyagraha. Looking ahead in 2018, it seems quite clear that after about four years of cowering, the right to question is reviving in India. The democratic opposition is more confident than before of overcoming the fume of fear that had all but choked it. The emphatic improvement in the Congress’s seats share in Gujarat is a sign that the fourth khorak — the right to question — can make our democracy breathe the hava of Swaraj again. I see 2018 confronting the behemoth of majoritarianism with increasing success.
The PIL (public interest litigation) and RTI (right to information) methods, combining with electoral turnarounds, can well make 2018 lead to 2019 becoming the kind of year 1919 was — a year when India, Hindu and Muslim together, gave the British Raj a taste of India’s Swaraj.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and Governor