Saturday 15 November 2014

Whatever happened to the great debate?

On 6 November 2014 BBC World invited three panellists from different sectors to debate on ‘A New India: Free, Fair and Prosperous’ as part of the World Economic Forum. Issues of content and objectivity apart, one still has high expectations of a group like BBC when it comes to setting high standards of form. But this ‘debate’ fell flat on its face on all counts.
No rules of the game
One would think that in a discussion like this all three panellists would bring in varied viewpoints due to their specialization in their individual sectors. However, if one wants to quote either the minister or the corporate voice in the debate, it would require constant rechecking to distinguish who said what. Of course businesses and governments need not always be in conflict with each other. But this smooth overlapping can be dangerous if those who are to be at the receiving end of this coalition between corporate bodies and governing bodies get completely left out. So for all practical purposes, instead of having three distinct voices, the format of the session (to keep calling it a debate would be to perpetuate technical erroneousness) was two against one. The yesmanship resulting out of this format naturally dulled the sparkling energy any debate worth its salt should have.
In terms of an outline, the talk failed to meet its own description. The issues to be discussed had been listed on the website as:
- Balancing growth with development to reduce inequality 
- Improving governance and transparency 
- Upholding political and religious rights 
Hardly any time or importance was given to the last point. Even with regard to the first two, when questions were raised by the activist, they were dismissed as non-existent issues. For instance, in response to the activist’s question about religious tensions, the minister said there is no such thing in the country, despite the very recent incidents of communal violence in Trilokpuri, Delhi. He also insisted that ‘Dalit’ is an unnecessary adjective and that the government will remove all caste divisions, at the same time refusing to recognize them. One can go on picking up several such superficial statements and proving how they do not hold water. But to question unbacked claims and probe deeper during the debate, if only through pointing the already raised rebuttals in the right direction, was the moderator’s job and he chose not to do it, except in passing.
Have we forgotten to listen as an audience?
As members of the audience, we have our task cut out for us: to listen, and when we are sure we have heard it right, to ask relevant questions. Look before you leap, think before you speak. Someone had put it that simply for us. But we manage to screw up even this simple task. The worst crime scene exhibiting the murder of articulated thought is Twitter. Stomach this excerpt from the debate and a corresponding tweet:
Aruna Roy (in the debate): ‘The other India is unhappy . . . distressed with a whole spate of promises which are being retracted . . . beginning with a promise of keeping the works programme [NREGA] . . . putting back labour laws . . .
Tweet: Nikhil Pahwa ‏@nixxin hypocritical of Aruna Roy to complain about lack of jobs & then complain about the current governments [sic] business focus.
Apples and oranges? Since when did ‘government’s business focus’ start meaning the same thing as ‘jobs for the rural poor and safeguarding of labour laws’? In fact, a ‘business focus’ means exactly the opposite.
Then there are columns where the writer gushes about how the poor of this country do not need ‘schemes’ like NREGA. But all this concern for the underprivileged is not motivation enough for her to find out the difference between a scheme and an Act in her years of writing and tweeting on the same subject while making the same point, before deciding to deprive its beneficiaries, presumably for their own good.
Stigmatization of dissent
The debate was in English for a global audience. Rural India was being discussed by a platform in which they could not participate. On an occasion like this representation of their voices becomes as important as the person in office. (With regard to the government’s work in rural India, the minister could only mention the Jan Dhan Yojna, which, one hears, isn't really in the pink.) No one activist or civil society group can claim to solely represent all of India’s poor. But those who have worked in rural India for a substantial period of time on particular issues are a more direct source of information than others.
This lack of accessibility and representation also applies to minorities or dissenting groups, increasingly being targeted. Yet if an activist working with these groups or if a member of any such group speaks out, they are instantly branded as the perpetual malcontent. The debate was a mere microcosm of how constructive critique is being illogically refuted using reductionist stereotypes. This notion of dissent as being something obstructive, as minister Piyush Goyal called it, cannot further the cause of any government that truly intends to cater to the interests of all of India. It was said that merely pointing out the problems is not enough. But legislations like RTI and NREGA were solutions envisaged by the people suffering from the lack of information and employment themselves, processes that the civil society has been an active and long-standing part of. Laws hard won after years of dialogue and persuasion cannot be sacrificed in a democracy to the caprice of changing governments. It is not a matter of changing the curtains of a newly acquired office.
This deliberate dismissal of strong factual and on-ground evidence, much of which often comes from the government’s own records, is irrational and prejudiced. The concern of grassroots workers is conveniently dismissed as emotion and rhetoric, though to be completely dispassionate about the issues you are invested in shouldn't really add to your credibility. If representation is an issue, the government is welcome to take the debate to ground zero: to the rural workers who fear unemployment; to the victims of riots; to the villages whose land was forcibly acquired; to the women forcibly separated from their interreligious partners.
India did not get independent for a section of the people. These voices being snuffed out will lead to extreme distress and its consequences. If we go on dismissing their pleas, and demand a sacrifice of their lives, even the so-called development would not take place. We need a peaceful society for progress. The persistence that they must pay the cost of ‘development’, whose rewards others reap, cannot be heard in passivity in the era of mobile phones and TVs. People hear election promises and read manifestos. Their articulation is vital. They should be able to decide how much time they want to give to the government, to articulate whether these five months of governance have been too short or too long for them.
Deprivation and injustice are suffered, not taught. Hunger, unemployment, displacement, unfair indictment, communal, casteist and gender-based violence are felt and lived by people everyday. The repeated accusation that civil society is stirring discontent underestimates the power of these unheard voices. It is a negation of the ordinary Indian’s intelligence and sensitivity.

First published in Kafila, 14 November 2014.


probe said...

Very well written. Will this year end on a dry spell ?

ankita said...

:). It didn't. Been having some formatting issues with blogspot that I hope to fix in the coming days.

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