Aaj Ka Roadshow

Liberalisation in India has not only affected humdrum life, but also popular cultural forms. This is palpable in the changing dynamics of the big screen. Indian cinema has become even more 'urbane' now than ever before. No longer can the elite take a 'dekko' at rural India via the silver screen. The movies portray villages that look more like perfect farmhouse retreats, and not spaces where one struggles for the basics of life. Looking at mainstream Hindi films, SOPAN JOSHI finds the 'true' rural settings obliterated from the big screen

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

Aaj Ka Roadshow

-- Back in the 20th century, when India had villages, there were several popular films that showed villages in a contemporary light. Well, somewhat. While Indian cinema was urban from its very beginning, there were several films of immense popularity that were, in many ways, a statement of the presence of the Indian village. In these films, the protagonist was often a villager or a city-bred male who headed out to the village. For the city folk, these films were reminders. Villainising moneylenders that cheated farmers, calling for land reforms and reminding us that agriculture was at the monsoon's mercy, these films told us that there was an India that lived in the villages. There was the image of a Dilip Kumar racing his horse cart with a motorbus to save his livelihood. Of a Nargis personifying the notion of the mother and the motherland. Of a Manoj Kumar, plough on his shoulder, wearing his patriotism on his sleeve. Of a Sunil Dutt galloping on horseback to avenge himself, defiant in the ravines of Chambal. Of a Raj Kapoor driving a bullock cart, singing songs that one associated intrinsically with cart drivers without ever having met one.

Then, sometime close to the turn of the century, the village disappeared from major popular films. Just like that. It now appears in the mandatory dance number in which the youthful lead couple gyrate in rippling fields along with a dance troupe suitably accessorised for an ethnic romp. The pastoral retreat ends with the dance number, and they return to their courtship in college corridors. The last big banner village-set film to achieve commercial success was Lagaan, and it relied heavily on the drama of a very urban device -- a cricket match. The village does appear sometimes as the birthing ground of the protagonist, but even this is not too common now. And then there are the exotic villages -- remember Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge or Raja Babu -- which enact the farmhouse fantasies of the neo-rich. This kind of depiction of villages is nothing new. But now, this is the dominant representation. The village is definitely the Other.

This real Other India also watches films. Films that people in the cities don't see, don't even know about. Pejoratively called B grade films -- on account of subjects addressed, the lack of glamorous stars, low budgets and a small-but-assured recovery of money -- these films are considered too raw. Jagged edges intact, they head straight for the rural market. These include Hindu mythological dramas and soft porn. Ramesh Sippy, director of the 1975 Sholay, perhaps India's the most celebrated film, points out that the rural market has now gone to regional language cinema. Why? Sippy says the big filmmakers, like people in any other business, are gunning for the high-end customer who has the money to pay upwards of Rs 100 at a multiplex cinema hall. "It is easier to recover money from a film if it runs at a multiplex for a few weeks. The ticket rates in small towns and villages are much lower." There are no quality films for the B and C grade market, another director points out.

So you now have a new genre -- the multiplex film. What is it? Taran Adarsh, editor of Trade Guide that keeps a tab on the film industry, gives the examples of Kal Ho Na Ho or Munna Bhaiyya mbbs. "The rural has slowly but surely been weeded out of Bollywood films," says Anupama Chopra, journalist and author who knows the film industry from the inside. "The current generation of young filmmakers are mostly second-generation film guys who have grown up in big cities. For them, the rural is a foreign land and they can only make films about what they know or what they are interested in." One of the darlings of the multiplex box office, Karan Johar, says he has never thought about making a film set in a village. "I started out young as a film maker. I grew up in the city and my favourite filmmakers were Raj Kapoor (his later films like Bobby) and Yash Chopra. I haven't travelled in villages and I don't experiment with what I don't know," says Johar, 30, whose Kuch Kuch Hota Hai became a sensation in 1996. So what is the audience that the new lot has in mind? "People all over, right from the small towns to Manhattan, USA. I can make an entertaining film for all of them," says Shaan Ali, 28, a filmmaker in Mumbai who has just begun his second film. The overseas market has become more important that ever before. Traditionally, Indian films did well in the Soviet Union and the Central Asian states. But now, this has expanded to Northern and Eastern Africa, West Asia, Southeast Asia, Mauritius and even the US and UK markets are very important for the filmmaker. The social profile of the NRI film viewer is the same as that of the multiplex regular in an Indian city.

Sippy says the multiplex has had a positive impact on small budget filmmakers who make films for an urban audience. Ashis Nandy, eminent sociologist with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says that for the first time he is seeing films made primarily for the urban audience: "Look at the films like Kaante and Jhankar Beats. You wouldn't have seen them earlier."

David Dhawan, director, says the subjects depicted in today's films are too shallow. "Village-based subjects had a lot of emotion attached to them. That's where the roots of our identity lie," he says. But he acknowledges that filmmakers are not attempting village settings because they are scared. Taran Adarsh, editor of Trade Guide which keeps a tab on the film industry, says it is much cheaper to make a film in the Mumbai studios than on location. Most Mumbai directors say creating a visual spectacle is very important to succeed commercially. To create a visual spectacle in a village is much more difficult and expensive. But very few directors want to take the risk and deviate from the formula. Legendary actor Naseeruddin Shah is deeply cynical: "To the best of my knowledge, [popular cinema] serves two functions, namely, to keep the audience opiated and to garner vast sums of money for those involved in it. End of discussion. Issues? What the hell are they?"

Flashback

-- Mehboob Khan was a man of contradictions. The emblem of his film company was a hammer and sickle, accompanied by the voiceover that read a popular couplet that proclaimed Allah's will to be final. In 1957, Khan made arguably the most definitive film -- Mother India. It opens with a shot of two larger than life mother symbols -- Nargis and the soil. As the camera zooms out and the credits appear, a combined harvester and a tractor rolls by, followed by a tableau of shots of power supply lines, construction of bridges and roads. A khadi-clad bunch goes up to the old woman and tells her that an irrigation canal has reached the village, and ask her to inaugurate it. The Nehruvian dream -- Mehboob was a great admirer of the first prime minister -- is brought to completion by the image of a dam, an important theme in several films from the 1950s.

The other great directors of the era are also remembered for some memorable depictions of village life. Bimal Roy's 1953 Do Bigha Zameen had the protagonist coming to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to earn enough to secure the release of his land mortgaged to the landlord, and losing everything in the bargain. This ran counter to the 1955 Shree 420, which had Raj Kapoor as a young villager come to the city to try his luck. He, unlike Bimal Roy's protagonist, returns successfully to the village. Both the films showed the protagonist battling it out in the slums of the big city. The portrayal of the slums was, however, quite complex. It was a rough space where the innocence of the villager was tested against the rough-and-tumble of city life. But it was also a space where fellow migrants formed a community, a village that defied the city in its very core and maintained its sense of community. The protagonist invariably gets help in these slums, help which is not forthcoming from the large bungalows behind tall walls, where the heroine often lived with her family. The name of the hero in the films of this era was very rural -- there was Raju, Shyamu, Krishna, Shankar and Birju, among others. Naya Daur, though not set in a village, is a film about a small settlement with a very rural character. Its residents run into a problem when their employer begins to mechanise, making them jobless. The film ends with the hope of reconciliation labour and capital.

The heroes of these films had certain distinct qualities that made them larger than life. He was also the doctor or the engineer who went to the village to help build a new India. The nation-building imagery was so intrinsic to cinema that one can easily assume that popular cinema was an offshoot of the freedom struggle.

Leanings to the left
The reasons for this large number of films with rural themes are not difficult to trace. For one, a lot of the people writing these films -- the likes of Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailedra and Kaifi Azmi -- had Marxist leanings. The country had recently got freed from British control, and the desire to create a new nation was very much alive. Some of these writers came from well-to-do families and were rebelling against the status quo that the older generation represented. Kaifi Azmi, for instance, was from a feudal family in Uttar Pradesh. He was a member of the Communist Party and the Indian People's Theatre Association. He lived in a commune established by the party, and began writing scripts to help run the commune. No wonder the rebel son of a feudal family was a common hero. The films they wrote reflected their ideological leanings. Besides, the Bengal famine of the 1940s had brought a large number of villagers to Calcutta, drawing the city's attention to the plight of the villages. Migrants in cities
The cities themselves were flush with migrants from rural areas. Though they were urbanising fast and were lapping up the fashionably urbane Dev Anand and the sophisticated Dilip Kumar, they could relate to issues of the villages. Most filmmakers, too, were first generation migrants to Mumbai. Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Delhi-based filmmaker/writer, cautions against any notions that popular cinema truly reflected rural India in the mid-20th century. He says a lot of the rural representation was ideological.

The man who came to symbolise ideological representation of the true Indian villager, however, was Manoj Kumar. The overpowering theme of Manoj Kumar's films was patriotism, whether it was set in the village (Upkaar) or in the transboundary experience of NRIs (Purab Aur Paschim). In fact, in large parts of the country he was known as Bharat Kumar, the name of the character he plays in Upkaar. The films borrowed a lot from Bimal Roy's realistic depiction of the villages, but a major point of departure was the patriotic baggage and the intermittent messages of family planning. Manoj Kumar became the celluloid avatar of the Green Revolution that began in the 1960s. It was the image of the self-sacrificing farmer who was producing bumper crops to wipe out the national shame of C Subramaniam being sent to the US beg for food. Another reason for the young nation's pride taking a beating was the confrontation with China. Manoj Kumar took it upon himself to restore that pride. He became synonymous with Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri's call of 'Jai Jawan Jai Kisan'. The song Manoj Kumar is most readily associated with, 'Mere desh ki dharti...', was a renewal of faith in the productivity of our soil and our farmer. The idea of the farmer who could speak English but still dressed in khadi was internationally reassuring. This farmer didn't sell his crop to the village moneylender and fought with fellow farmers who hoarded foodgrain so that there were no food shortages in the city. In the 1960s, all the food grown on the country's soil belonged to the country.

Enter the dacoit
A variant theme of the village drama that went on to become a genre of its own was the dacoity film. Mother India had dealt with the dacoity issue at length, establishing Sunil Dutt as the archetypal rebel from Chambal. But one of the earliest films to deal with the subject at length was Raj Kapoor's Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai. It posed the Hindu Vaishnav ethic of Raju, a well-meaning, idealistic member of a singing community, against a trigger-happy bunch of dacoits. Coming at the time of a campaign influenced by Vinoba Bhave to get dacoits to surrender, the film opens with tough men looting a village, and the next sequence takes us to the dwellings of the dacoits, where they live just like any other villager with their wives and children. The hero of the film is a scared young man who has the courage of conviction to save the police from the dacoits and the dacoits from the police -- and both from themselves. The climax has the hero managing to get the dacoits to surrender to save the lives of their womenfolk and children.

The film attacked a lot of clichs about dacoits. But the dacoit film developed along the lines of revenge. Here were the inklings of the anti-hero that would so dominate later day popular cinema. Sunil Dutt, the personification of this genre, had such durability that his son Sanjay Dutt has also made a career out of the anti-hero. 1975
But the most prominent dacoit film came in 1975. Sholay by Ramesh Sippy was one of the watersheds of Indian cinema. Here was a story set in the village with several larger than life characters. The lead duo of two petty criminals, Jai and Veeru, take the viewer through the experience of living in a village to capture a dacoit. In the process, we see two petty criminals develop a desire to become farmers and stay back in the village. Today's filmmakers recognise that the writers of Sholay, Javed Akhtar and Saleem Khan, were again people who had travelled in villages. In fact, one of the biggest phenomena of Sholay was the creation of a new kind of villain in Gabbar Singh, who was much more rustic than his 'smooth' predecessors -- Pran, Ajit, Kanhaiyalal, K N Singh. The way Gabbar enjoyed violence took the viewer to another plane. In fact, in the first two weeks of its release, Sholay was labelled a flop because there was no reaction to the film. Only later did people realise that the silence was due to the audience not having seen anything like that before.

The love of violence and mistreatment of women became hallmarks of the hero in the 1970s, especially with regard to the phenomenon that became Amitabh Bachchan. The rural names of the hero had changed to the more urban Vijay and Ravi. By this time there was a clear shift in the filmmakers, too: the interest in villages was waning.

Raj Kapoor had moved away from his Nehruvian phase to the image of being the showman who made the likes of Bobby and Satyam Shivam Sundaram. The children of the first generation migrants to the city had grown up. While the village was not as potent a presence as it had been a generation ago, it was still there, lurking in the background. But now there was little talk of the hero going back to the village. Also, the nature of his heroism had changed from two decades ago. Gone was the submissive, innocent stereotype of the 1950s or the self-sacrifice of the 1960s. The 1970s hero had forgotten most of that -- except what he needed to remember to take revenge. It is not that films were not set in villages. But the major banners were regularly looking elsewhere.

Bollywood Westerns
The 1970s and the 1980s saw a peculiar morphed village in the films featuring Feroze Khan. It was inspired by the Hollywood Western. In fact, the rustic scene in Satte Pe Satta was also from the Western. Another variation of the village in films was seen in the films featuring Sachin (Nadiya Ke Paar and Geet Gata Chal). But the most ridiculous depiction is reserved for tribals and nomads in popular cinema. The tribal song sequence is a favourite set-piece, allowing the filmmaker to show skin and outlandish attires. In fact, the tribals are often used to convey provide images of savagery and fear. The 1976 Kabeela shows a Feroze Khan dressed like John Wayne. The film opens with an introduction of tribes, depicting them as incomplete strands in the chart of human evolution.

The consciousness of village issues also came in films not set expressly in the village. Saagar is a very engaging confrontation between large fishing trawlers and small fisherfolk. Kala Patthar, inspired by a major mining accident, became a statement in justification of nationalisation of coalmines. In both the cases, the hero was somebody who fought for the rights of the vulnerable. In several ways, these films touched upon issues of economic policy without resorting to the burden of the established norms of representation of villages.

For forests' sake
The late 1970s saw the inclusion of forest in the concurrent list, paving the way for the Forest Conservation Act. 1979 saw the release of Kartavya, which showed Dharmendra as an honest divisional forest officer who fights with a tiger to save a little girl. The film opens with an elaborate speech by Ashok Kumar on the importance of the ecological balance and the need to conserve wildlife and forests.

By the time Manmohan Singh's economic reforms started to roll in the early 1990s, Govinda had become a sensation, especially in the films of David Dhawan. The 1990s also saw films made in southern India storming the northern markets as well as Hindi dubs of Hollywood films like Jurassic Park. The market was changing faster than ever. This period also saw the success of a mix of romantic-social drama, beginning with the success of the 1994 Hum Apke hain Kaun, a very long marriage video on 70 mm. Two of the most important films to build on this were Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). With the NRI becoming more important than ever before due to the foreign exchange they brought with them, the multiplex film was born.

NRI mentality
Dilwale... is a very interesting study in the NRI mentality that today's filmmaker is so desperate to capture. It opens with a middle aged Indian migrant in London describing how out of place he is. He craves to get back to his land of origin. On receiving a letter from his friend in Punjab, he announces that the family will go back and marry his daughter (played by Kajol) to his friend's son. He announces pride at the fact that his daughter has meekly submitted to his will, a mark of Indian culture. Against this is the character of the young man (played by Shahrukh Khan), also a migrant, who plays rugby, drives fast cars, and has blended in. His claim to the role of the protagonist is that he is cool, that he has attitude. His name: Raj Malhotra. In fact, the protagonist of the multiplex film often has names like Raj, Rohit and Rahul, a clear shift away from the Vijays and Ravis of the 1970s and the Shankars and Rajus of the 1950s. Of course, Kajol's father -- him with the dream of returning to the fields of Punjab -- does not think he is eligible for her. The girl on her part is totally submissive to the will of her father. As the father returns to his roots in Punjab, these contradictions are presented as part and parcel of 'Indian culture'.

Some other recent depictions of villages in popular films worth noting are in Mahesh Manjrekar's Jis Desh Mein Ganga Rehta Hai and Apoorva Lakhia's Mumbai Se Aya Mera Dost. The former has Govinda playing Ganga, a rich man's son brought up by a shepherd couple because he has to be kept away from his blood relations (and close to sheep) till the age of 25. A major part of the film is set in the village, but there is very little of village to see. Its presence is very iconic. We see only one house other than Ganga's, and that belongs to Sanwali, his love interest, played by Sonali Bendre. The rest is merely real estate for the all-too-familiar dance numbers that make the Govinda version of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

Mumbai... is a standard masala film with some interesting cinematic twists in the narrative. You see the protagonist and his friend watching people of a Rajasthani village who are watching The Matrix on cable television. The plot revolves around a love affair set in conflicting urban and rural sensibilities. The urban protagonist Kanji, played by Abhishek Bachchan, stays back in the village in the end. His introduction of cable television has left a deep impact on the village. The villagers you see are very believable, and yet fantastically comic because one is too used to seeing idealised notions of a village in popular cinema.

Popular figures

-- "...the medium of film. Of course, as a cultural product is not rooted in the villages; it is clearly an urban phenomenon. In the popular Hindi film, village life is depicted as the world 'outside' or the world where 'our roots lie'. But this is an urban reflection. It does not reproduce the villagers' needs, neither emotional nor aesthetic. For them, the medium of film represents the 'outside world' which has no relationship to their own social and psychic world."

-- Anthropologists Beatrix Pfleiderer and Lothar Lutze, in The Hindi Film, Manohar, Delhi, 1985

Migrants have occupied centrestage in popular Indian cinema from its early days. From Balraj Sahni in Do Bigha Zameen, to Amrish Puri in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. But the division of the B grade rural market and the upmarket multiplex is ominous. Earlier, the same films were seen across the country. "When I came to the film industry in the late 1960s, the mantra was that a film would be successful if it did well in the small towns. That's where the money was. The big cities didn't matter," says Javed Akhtar, poet, writer and lyricist of numerous films. "Today's films are mostly set in a Neverland or the Underworld. This train has no other stations. The big producers think only of the upper middle class and NRIs. These people don't want to see that which pricks their conscience." This demand for the consumption of urban culture is rising fast in the villages, a trend that satellite television is encouraging. Major directors acknowledge the TV as a very important marketing tool for the villages, and say that they do not feel it competes at all with cinema.

So, what is the socio-political significance of this class-based cultural breakdown? Sociologist Ashis Nandy uses the example of the West, which has two types of culture: the classical and popular. India, however, has a third category: the folk, he says. "Culture assumes a certain rootedness in the folk. But the folk culture we see in popular films is severed from its sense of community. So what is happening in India is that the folk culture is receding into the popular culture."

What does this mean in terms of economics? "Well, larger markets. More homogenisation. Siphoning of folk talent and resources to popular forms." And what does it mean in terms of politics? "This means more political inter-linking and the assimilation. Those on the peripheries of society will become more accessible to city dwellers. So, a political whizkid sitting in the Delhi party office with a cell-phone and a laptop computer will be able to control things in a faraway place. Centralised campaigns of politics and marketing would be more successful." Can India take in rapid urbanisation of this kind? How will such a large population urbanise so rapidly? Aren't we looking at more slums in Indian towns and cities?

"The dominant view of slums is that of the middle class, which sees them as a problem. Slums of developing countries are not the same as those in industrialised countries -- they are interesting places where the underclass can dissent with the middle class. Cities have gained immensely from slums, from their sense of defiance of the dominant culture, from their sense of community." Nandy says a poor migrant can find shelter only in the slum, not the organised parts of the city.

Limited

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our public sector water providers in cities are bankrupt and cannot augment water resources nor extend networks to the periphery. This is because the rich are subsidised and unaccounted for water is high. Bangalore has been able to get a water augmentation scheme only because the Japanese Development Bank has been generous enough to give its water authority a loan.

What is the way out then? Do we privatise water supplies then? If so, how?

There should be a regulatory framework in place first. The regulator must be fully empowered to balance social justice requirements with efficiency and cost considerations. Look at the privatisation models in Cochabamba, Bolivia and Manila, Phillipines. They have failed. It is critical we learn the right lessons from these experiences and not reject the model outright. I do not avocate concessions to the private sector in the water sector. At the same time, the sector's participation in areas such as billing, new technology and design are essential.

I think that the citizen vs consumer and public good vs private good issue will be debates of the future. Governments will need to dedicate a part of their budget as capital subsidies for the poor. This should be routed through efficient public service providers. The 74th amendment to the Constitution demands handing water over to local authorities. Today, local authorities such as municipalities clearly lack capacity to manage water efficiently. They should be given guidance in this respect. Also, state bodies must be more accountable.

S Vishwanath runs Rainwater Club, a Bangalore-based non-governmental organisation

It's often a disaster

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i would like to disagree with the idea, stated in Down To Earth, that the "private sector can also be asked to set the price and recover dues."

Our experience in South Africa has shown that when tariff-setting is left to private companies, there is a tendency to 'cherry-pick' wealthier households and underserve the poor who cannot pay market-related rates. The World Bank -- the brain behind global privatisation -- advised us in 1995 to avoid subsidies for the poor because that "may limit options with respect to tertiary providers". Instead the bank insisted on pricing water and establishing a "credible threat of cutting service". The bank's advice was crucial in privatising water supplies in Johannesburg and other South African cities. Elsewhere in Africa, the bank has instructed its staff that "work is still needed to persuade political leaders to move away from the concept of free water for all". " Ensure 100 per cent recovery of operation and maintenance costs, are the bank's instructions.

In pushing cost recovery and privatisation, the bank ignores factors such as public health (tackling water-borne diseases), gender equity and environmental protection. It fails to acknowledge that only the state/society has an interest in such public and merit goods such as water. The bank blames repressed tariffs for Africa's water sector crises, while paying short shrift to real causes such as the fallouts of the 1980s and 1990s structural adjustment programmes, corrupt state bureaucrats, weak trade unions and disempowered consumers/ communities.

Following the bank's directives, South African municipalities have thrown open water supplies to firms from London and Paris. In the wake of privatisation, many connections have been terminated -- mostly in localities of the poor. There has been an unprecedented rise in cholera and diarrhoea epidemics and water resources have been subjected to rampant abuse by agribusiness, commercial timber plantations and mines.

This situation has precipitated revolts by progressive and mass-democratic community organisations (mainly led by women at grassroots levels), with support from local trade unions and international organisations. South Africa's debt-cancellation movement and our grassroots activist groups have called for reparations of damages.

Privatisation has clearly not worked in our country. I propose that access to water be made a human right. Those fighting against its privatisation have much to unite in the run-up to the 2004 World Social Forum and beyond.

Patrick Bond is with the Municipal Services Project, Johannesburg, South Africa

Be cautious

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public services, like water supplies, have collapsed in India under a double burden: the rich do not want pay for them and a corrupt bureaucracy ensures supplies hardly reach the poor. So, is privatisation a way out?

Before answering this question, we need to distinguish between water rights and its management being transferred from the state to collective entities of users or communities, or to profit-seeking enterprises. This distinction is often very conveniently ignored by most proponents of privatisation. We argue that while user/community control of water resources should be encouraged, the government should be very careful when privatising water supplies -- this measure has to be resorted only as a necessary evil.

As a way out we propose a two-tier tariff system which first assures that basic needs of all are met and then leaves demand over this to market mechanisms. There are two caveats to this: firstly, volumetric supply and metering is imperative; secondly, exposing water supplies to market mechanisms should not cause long-term damage to the well spring of life that water is -- in terms of both quantity and quality. A proper regulatory mechanism can ensure this. However, the model that has been proposed for water supplies in India seems to be based on the pattern of electricity. It ignores the fundamental fact that electricity is a centrally-supplied utility while water is a natural resource with widely dispersed and differential availabilities and uses.

Therefore, regulatory mechanisms for water utilities must provide adequate space to the concerns of different kinds of users and also address issues of sharing surpluses and shortages across time and space. It should rely on a transparent process of informed negotiation and dialogue. This process should work in a bottom-up manner. The imposition of a centralised regulatory body on the lines of electricity regulatory commissions -- and that too without a wider consensual process -- would do much more harm than good. Privatisation must proceed very cautiously.

K J Joy and Suhas Paranjape are with the Society For Promotion of Participatory Eco-system Management, a Pune-based non-governmental organisation

Make it different

APOORVA OZA
privatisation of drinking water is in full swing in both urban and rural areas of Gujarat. The water industry here is worth about Rs 1,500 crores and is amongst the fastest-growing. And now the water of the Narmada river is going to be supplied to urban areas at a far higher cost than municipal supply. The municipal authorities can now focus on the lower middle class and slum dwellers.

But when it comes to rural areas, privatisation assumes totally different ramifications. In Gujarat, tanker operators thrive at the cost of poor villagers. There is an urgent need for state intervention in infrastructure development. Once this is done, water installations should be managed and maintained by the community. In fact in many areas in the state, communities have shown great skill in managing water in drought years. The private sector will never be interested in extending operations to rural areas because the poor here do not have any purchasing power. So, the state cannot not wash its hands off.

A lot of interesting work is done in rural areas, in many parts of the country, on drinking water systems. Much of it has not been analysed adequately. Non-governmental organisations tend to over-romanticise traditional systems without rigorously documenting them. There are also many examples of viable water supply systems in urban and semi-urban areas. Popularising these and putting them into practice requires policy changes. But the government response has been lukewarm.

Apoorva Oza is with the Agha Khan Rural Support Programme in Gujarat

A partial success

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subsidies have clearly worked to the detriment of equitable water supplies in the country. And now, studies across the country have shown that people are willing to pay for safe drinking water. This is true of many rural areas as well. But are local governments competent enough to provide this service efficiently?

The panchayats are hamstrung by paucity of finances and unskilled manpower. An effective alternative has been created, in many parts of the country, by collaborations between local communities and the private sector. In such programmes, the community participates in constructing as well as in operating and maintaining installations. Local village water and sanitation committees (vwsc) carry out these functions. The community shares some of the capital costs by mobilising contribution from individual households. The vwsc charges users to operate and maintain water supply installations. All this creates a sense of ownership among users and also ensures the system is cost-effective. The private operator is merely a facilitator.

However, in many cases the vwscs fall by the wayside after a project is implemented and ultimately the task of operation and maintenance falls on village panchayats. Villagers very often lack the technical skills needed for this. The government gives them no help. This is where non-governmental organisations must step in and provide guidance to villagers. Only then can the collaboration between communities and the private sector succeed.

Veerashekharappa is with the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore

Check wastage

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water for both agricultural and domestic uses should be priced. This will curb wastage and ensure scientific management. Water wastage is sometimes as high as 200 per cent in canal irrigation. Since governments do not have the political resolve to increase the rates of irrigation water, they are encouraging participatory irrigation management systems and water-user societies. This has curbed wastage to some extent and has also ensured a semblance of equality in distribution.

Another related issue is that electricity for extracting groundwater is heavily subsidised. In fact, some states do not charge the electricity used to extract irrigation water. All this has caused scarce groundwater to be over-exploited.

The Bangalore municipality has tried to rationalise prices of domestic water supply. From January 2003, the rates vary as follows:

Upto 15 kilolitres (kl): Rs 6

15- 25 kl: Rs 8

25-50 kl: Rs 12

50-75 kl: Rs 30

75-100 kl Rs 36

100 kl and above: Rs 38

Though there was some resentment against raising prices initially, people are now paying without any grudge. Raising tariffs has checked the wastage of water and the water department has been able to ensure good supplies.

Now the Karnataka Government intends granting water distribution rights of Bangalore Metro to a private foreign agency. This will bring in the latest technology to prevent wastage (pilferage) and ensure equitable and sure supplies. Privatisation will also guarantee good revenue collection.

Since Bangalore is fast becoming an important centre of the software industry, the city requires an efficient water supply system. The government does not have the financial wherewithal to provide this. Therefore the service should be leased out to the private sector. After the expiry of the lease, the local corporation can take the utility back. By then people would have realised the importance of paying for good services and also learnt to avoid wastages for which they pay extra.

K C B RAJU is former regional director, Sadashivpur, ministry of water resources, Karnataka

Let people do it

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the current water situation in the country calls for immediate remedies. Down To Earth has hit the nail on its head by suggesting that "[the] rights of communities to control and manage their water must be safeguarded."

In fact the National Water Policy (nwp) can become an effective instrument to ensure distribution of water in an equitable and ecologically sustainable manner. For that, it must first make sure that primary needs -- drinking, cultivation and other livelihood needs, and recharging aquifers -- acquire clear precedence over all other requirements. Once this is done, a central coordinating agency (ca) should allocate water to each village in the country according to its primary needs. Of course the agro-climatic zone of a village would also determine the amount of water it receives. Thus certain pockets in the country might be allocated far less water than others. This where the ca has to step in and ensure the primary needs of all villages are adequately met. It should also provide effective guidance to water-deficient villages about appropriate agricultural practices. All this should be done in a bottom-up manner. The water allocated to each village should be left to the charge of communities.

Today, government policies provide very little space for communities to manage their water resources. The nwp should legally empower communities in this respect. Water rights, similar to usufruct rights as provided by forest policies, can be devolved to communities. Also, water conservation should be made a popular movement in which communities, panchayati raj institutions and people's representatives should play a decisive role. All this will help manage water much better than privatising it.

Krishna Gopal Vyas is with the Rajiv Gandhi Mission for Watershed Management, Madhya Pradesh

There's a way

PRAKASH GOLE
i believe that rising consumerism and our technology-driven economic development are to be blamed for the country's water scarcity. The truth is that all of us have for long been guilty of neglecting the managing of our natural resources, water in particular. It is of little importance whether water resources are privatised, socialised or left to local communities so long as only technology-based solutions are proposed to address scarcity. I firmly believe that only ecological solutions can bring economy, equity and purity to water supply.

After all, our streams and rivers are living entities and we must treat them as such. They exhibit a living continuum from the source to where they merge with the sea. Human beings must adapt their requirements to the physical and biological rhythm of streams -- this includes recharge and discharge of groundwater. Our ancient wisdom says that all water that falls from the sky should be divided into twelve parts: 6 parts must flow to the sea; 4 should go for the use of non-human nature; and only the remaining 2 are to be used by human beings!

The latest advances in hydrology provide a scientific basis to our ancient wisdom. Unfortunately these developments have not reached our scientists, engineers, administrators and politicians. Both supporters of the elite and champions of the poor in India remain ignorant of the science of ecology!

For the last 12 years, I have been disseminating the rudiments of ecological water management to irrigation and public works engineers. They understand the importance of the concept but are unable to introduce the desired changes within the iron frame of government and due to the rigid mindset of our bureaucrats. Ecological illiteracy is destroying the very foundations of our existence.

Prakash Gole is with the Ecological Society, Pune, Maharashtra

US of Arrogance

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These are tough times to be a 'good' American. After the attacks of 9/11, the us got the sympathies of the world. Unfortunately, due to arrogance and recklessness, it squandered the good feelings and today stands alone, with its attitude towards world politics. Since the country has predominant military and economic power, it sees no reason to accept any limitations on its activities. It will work with others when its interests are at stake; it will strike out when it can't get others to follow along. This was apparent when the Bush administration formed the so-called 'coalition of the willing' to fight the Iraq war, where 'will' was defined as willingness to tow the us line. It was also evident when the us walked out of the climate change convention. The conceited attitude of the us was, most recently, evident in the way it bullied the wto to continue subsidies given to us farmers and other producers. Discontinuation of the subsidies would bring a modicum of fairness and equity to the world trade arrangements.

While it is certainly difficult to witness this from outside the us, I assure you that it is also painful to watch it from within the country. It is embarrassing to see the us ride roughshod over international laws. It is distressing to see the Bush administration strip off civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism, roll back environmental laws to suit the interests of the industry, reward the rich for being rich through huge tax breaks and rob the future of the country by building the largest deficit in the us history. It is difficult being an American these days because the Right has so outmaneuvered the Left that many of us have given up mounting political opposition, having chosen wait out the present administration. Environmental and other progressive groups have been so systematically shut out of policy circles that there seems to be no room to shift or even engage in setting the country's agenda. Tragically, the Democrats have proved spineless. Where can the Americans turn for help?

For a while, some European nations and Russia provided a ray of hope. Their almost uniform opposition to the Iraq war undermined the legitimacy of the us actions. Unfortunately, their stand failed to translate into a long-term political pressure. European nations and Russia are now lining up behind the us to win back favour. At Cancun, the eu supported Washington's programme to pursue bilateral trade agreements and keep unfair subsidies. It even tried to force the South to follow suit. Russia is now bowing to the us pressure and is, therefore, hesitant about ratifying the climate convention. Europe and Russia are certainly unwilling to confront the us now. One wonders if they ever will.

Thus the 'burden of countering' the us and pursuing global equity and justice, falls yet again on the South. Cancun saw the emergence of the solidarity between the governments of the South and the people of the world. The union -- a coalition of the willing but not the able -- is important if not promising. The world order is not only dependent on economic and military strength but also on legitimacy. This solidarity can and must grow. The Bush administration, ironically, is doing much to help this happen. Its domestic and foreign policies reek of selfishness and increasingly blind power. As people, both in the us and the rest of the nations, continue to bear the brunt of these policies, they will be looking for forces that are able to provide political vehicles for resistance. Southern governments and global civil society can play a crucial role in providing a home for these people and enlisting them in the battle to undermine us legitimacy.

Paul Wapner is the director of the School of International Service, American University, USA

Bush's fire

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The destructive strategy of the Bush administration is neutering the eu. It is also threatening the underpinnings of multilateralism that have held sway over global politics since the formation of the United Nations. Within the us, the Bush strategy is apparent in the administration's successful efforts to dramatically shrink the role of the government in every domestic arena (except for issues related to the military and police). The unprecedented tax cut is undermining the ability of the 50 states to meet basic public needs. The move has already turned people against their own local governments.

The withdrawal of the us from the Kyoto Protocol is the latest in a series of relentless assaults on international agreements. Since the appointment of president Bush, the us has refused to join the International Criminal Court, the convention on landmines and a host of other international agreements. Most recently, it was found guilty of attempting to undermine even the most neo-liberal international establishments -- wto. Bush wraps his policies in the rhetoric of political conservatism. His anti- un positions panders to the infantile fear of a world government that desires to enslave the us.

By undermining the Kyoto Protocol through a series of bilateral agreements with India, Chile, Italy and other countries, Bush is helping the coal and oil industries. He is attempting to bribe the Russian president to withhold his country's support to the Kyoto Protocol. This is more than just a passing political aberration because of the 'gathering gravity' of a number of global threats, including the collapse of fisheries and dying forests. By ignoring the escalating pace of climatic instability, the Bush administration is leading the world into climate hell. By ignoring the wto, it is protecting the obscene profits of the agribusiness community at the expense of struggling farmers in Mexico and elsewhere. In denying Iraqis the right to compete for contracts to rebuild their country's infrastructure, it is enforcing a veiled form of 'corporate imperialism'.

For a long time, those who felt trapped in Bush's America looked up to the eu. They considered eu as a rational, if not progressive, counterbalance to the political fundamentalism of the us. But now, the Europeans seem to have adapted the us strategy of handing over the reins of many policies to interested corporations and industries. Ironically, even eu is affected by the us policies. Not long ago, a Canadian official suggested that the eu could file a lawsuit against the us in the wto for the carbon subsidies it accords to all its exports. The logic of this argument is that while the eu -- the main trade partner of the us -- reduces carbon emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, the us, by ignoring those constraints, is actually subsidising its goods, making them more competitive. Unfortunately this idea has not gained much attention in the diplomatic arena.

While the planet is crying out for a new stage of social evolution, the Bush administration is forging a future that will be much more combative, tribalised and degraded. With the eu not insisting that the us should adhere to international agreements, the world might witness something mind-boggling -- the annexation of Europe as America's 51st state.

Ross Gelbspan is a former journalist with The Philadelphia Bulletin, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe.

An obstruction called EU

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The stance of the eu has certainly changed with regard to environmental negotiations. Ten years ago, Europe counterbalanced the us in the global environmental/developmental parley.

But now the global climate has changed, and so has the political mood within the eu. A few reasons for the trend are easy to figure out. Green politics played a significant role in Europe around the Rio Summit (1992). Environment is still high on its political agenda, but other issues have become equally important. These are: growing unemployment, the penchant for racism, and apprehensions about the impacts of immigration and the resulting right-wing tendencies.

The expansion of the eu will also adversely impact global negotiations. The inclusion of new members meant difficult negotiations, especially in the context of the eu's protectionist non-liberal common agricultural policy. A deal was struck with the promise that new members will have a share in the 'public support' extended to agricultural production, including protectionism. It is a confirmation of the wrong policies. It has made it even more difficult to make the eu less protectionist and more open towards import from developing countries. eu governments have no common progressive stand and this may be why European negotiators act as "clerks and bookkeepers" instead of winning friends during the negotiations.

The so-called us war against terrorism has also transformed the eu attitude. The war cry has been "either you are with us or you are against us", and the eu leaders have been listening. The Danish government, for instance, has become obedient to the us, and one consequence is that the Danish progressive international stands and initiatives in many areas are being compromised. The situation may differ from country to country, but the fundamental split makes it difficult to see European common positions opposing the us standpoint.

One of the worst consequences is an increase in bilateralism. The wto is by no way perfect. It was important at Cancun to tell both the us and the eu that no outcome can be the 'best choice' if the alternative is to accept the unacceptable. The only possible way out for the entire world is "to engage" more. A multilateral approach is needed. Developing countries need to unite to give global organisations a better and bigger role. They can give it more power, more credibility. It will unfortunately take time. There is a lot of soul-searching happening in the eu at the moment, at least after the invasion of Iraq. This provides some solace, as the eu today has become even more important for global negotiations than before. The Socialist Peoples Party of Denmark -- which was one of the most sceptical parties the eu -- is gradually becoming more convinced that although it is extremely difficult for Europeans to play a role within and through the eu, it is impossible to do so outside it.

Kund Vilby is a development writer. He is the chairperson of Danish Writers Association.

It's a selfish world

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The us is not giving preference to bilateralism but to unilateralism, as bilateralism means two more or less equal partners and mutual respect. The changing (deteriorating) position of the eu is the result of a combination of factors. The environmental movement has not lost its strength in Europe. But other issues have come up more strongly, like unemployment due to a 'small' economic crisis and insecurity due to global tensions.

Moreover, some European business enterprises have now adapted a more reactionary strategy. A good example is the scaremongering and nihilistic campaign of the chemicals industry against the European Commission's intentions to formulate a new chemicals policy. The rules are aimed at putting Europe in the front line for public health and environmental protection. Ironically, when the commission recently put out its draft proposal, it was found to be heavily watered down.

A major problem for the eu is the nature of its political leadership right now. Berlusconi is no less than a disaster, and so is Aznar. Blair is obsessed by his role on the global theatre and has little attention for the eu. Schroeder has a major economic and political crisis at home. The Netherlands has completely stopped being a vanguard. Sweden is a disappointment -- while it had a good reputation before it joined the eu, it has now become shy. In several eu countries, conservative governments have replaced progressive governments during the last few years. This is the result of not more than 10 per cent of the electorate swinging from left to right. They might swing back as we have seen in the past. But the most worrying trend is in the uk, where the government (that was supposed to be progressive) has turned into a conservative force.

Another important concern is the enlargement of the eu with effect from May 1, 2004. None of the 10 new members, with the exception of Poland and Hungary, are ambitious to leave their mark on the global theatre. All 10 want accelerated economic development -- to catch up with the much richer 15 existing countries. This might prove problematic, considering the following statistics: eu will have some 25 per cent more members, but its gross domestic product (gdp) will increase by only six per cent. The enlargement will make the eu as a whole more conservative. It already has.

It was very good that a coalition of strong developing countries finally came into action during Cancun talks. The eu was shocked, and such a shock was necessary. The eu should take the coalition seriously and consider it as a discussion partner, or perhaps as an ally. But it should also realise that this group is not representing the interests of the poorest countries. There is no reason to believe that Brazil, China and India are less selfish than the eu. They will not fight harder for the interests of people in Africa.

John Hontelez, secretary general, European Environmental Bureau

A victory for the poor? No

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The failure of Cancun is not a victory for the world's poor. It is a triumph insofar it indicates a shake-up of the global power imbalances. The failure, if truth be told, suits the agenda of the us. It enables the 'us squad' to walk away from multilateralism and merely pursue national interests.

The g-21 countries are bound together against the 'indefensible' North as long as it suits their national interests. Whether the 'Don Quixotes' of the South make it a principle to work towards the inclusion of the interests of many is a question yet to be answered. Only by doing so can multilateral free trade be transformed into fair trade multilateralism. Brazil in the past did not compromise where its interests in the sugar sector were concerned, even though its approach hit the small developing nations hard. So it would not be wise to expect miracles. One has to look beyond the choice between multilateralism and bilateralism, and focus attention on the quality of whatever particular "-ism" is on offer.

It is not helpful to regard the us as a culprit whenever trade negotiations prove detrimental to the interests of the poorest nations. By doing so, one fails to take into consideration an analysis of the interests of emerging powers such as Brazil, China or even India. The us is merciless when it comes to the pursuit of its own agenda and interests. But playing the card of bilateralism in trade is neither new nor does it represent a complete turn away from the multicultural trade system. The us along with other powerful economies operate with duplicity and play both cards, but they still need the wto to pursue their interests. It is certainly not in the interest of the us to denounce the wto, while it has an openly declared policy to undermine and disable the Kyoto Protocol.

In trade negotiations, the eu also tends to travel on the 'ego road' and is not seriously committed to the Doha Development Round. But in climate negotiations it has a firm commitment to implement the Kyoto Protocol. The eu has always demanded the us provide alternatives to Kyoto. But so far, there has been no real opportunity to insist upon and secure a definite contribution from the us. Criticism about the advertisement of such a 'marriage' is appropriate, but an engagement should not be dismissed.

It is dismaying to note the 'myopia' and 'stupidity' that key negotiators of eu displayed both during cop-8 and the Cancun talks. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge reality -- the eu is more a federation of states than a federal state. Strategy games in negotiations are features that can be attributed to the us administration, not the eu. Therefore, if we do not want to lose more, we need to stop lamenting and self-pitying, and engage in informed pragmatic solutions to help develop, maintain and improve international governance mechanisms that ensure more justice for the less powerful and influential nations.

Heike Loeschmann is the director, South Asia Regional Office, Heinrich Boll Foundation.

Bittersweet for the South

FRANCESCO SINDICO, FRANK BIERMANN

The results of the fifth ministerial conference of the wto have been described in many ways. Some consider the meeting as a total failure, while others maintain that it has only been an impasse; some hail it as a victory of their interests, while others look at it as a useful wake-up call. Quite unusually, national governments view the conference as a setback -- this is the claim of the final ministerial statement adapted at the conference.

The conference was undeniably a setback. It is important to ask, and understand: why couldn't an agreement be reached? There were three interrelated factors that determined the outcome: the failure to level the playing field, the controversial nature of the issues that were being negotiated, and the developing countries' alliance.

What are the implications of the Cancun failure for the future of the developing countries? At a glance, it may seem to be victory of the developing countries; but a comprehensive analysis shows that their success is rather bittersweet. Not to have reached a multilateral agreement will most likely foster bilateral negotiations on many sensitive issues that have been discussed in Cancun. Bilateral agreements are risky for developing countries, because it is difficult for them to reach an equitable compromise between taking and giving. The level playing field, which is a delicate problem within the wto, will turn out to be an even bigger problem in bilateral negotiations. The setback will be positive only if the developing countries manage to strengthen their alliances and not become the hostages of the industrialised countries in bilateral trade agreements.

Hence, developing countries now have two options. Firstly, they could reinitiate negotiations within the wto. Cancun has demonstrated that the developing nations can work together, as they have a common negotiation strategy. Now they need to shift from their obstructive tactic, which has fulfilled its goal by stopping wto negotiations, to a more positive, proposal-oriented negotiation strategy. After Cancun, leading regional countries such as Brazil and India have the chance to finally sit at the same table with industrialised countries.

The second option is a more disruptive one. If the wto has failed to deliver and if the Doha principles (incorporated to ensure global development) will not be followed, then it is time to shift negotiations from the wto to new forums. Why should environmental or social concerns be dealt with within a trading system? The argument that the wto is already there and that it has a strong dispute-settlement system is clearly not strong enough to completely disregard an alternative establishment. The wto is what its member states want it to be. Therefore, its failure is related to political will.

It seems that in the long-term, the second option is the most desirable one for developing countries to adopt. But realistically speaking, the first option will be the best for the short-term. Cancun has shown the world that developing countries can play an active, positive and powerful role in the international community. Now it is important for them to show that they can really, and willingly, form a coalition to negotiate together.

Frank Biermann is the head of the Department of Environmental Policy Analysis, Institute for Environmental Studies, the Vrije Universiteit, the Netherlands. Francesco Sindico is a fellow there

India, and not Bharat

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)
Why are the largest-circulated newspapers and magazines and the most widely-viewed television channels so focused on what is happening first in the metros and then in the larger cities, to the almost near-exclusion of developments that impact rural areas? There has to be a major natural calamity (flood, famine or fire) or some unspeakable atrocity (gang rape, stripping of a woman in public, a couple getting lynched for having a relationship outside their caste and so on) before Bharat enters the antenna of our media organizations.

At a superficial level, this city-centric insularity among media personnel -- including senior journalists and the bosses of the marketing departments in publications and television companies -- can be easily explained. There are many individuals in media organizations who sincerely believe (rightly or wrongly) that their constituents (readers and viewers) are located in cities and are, therefore, more concerned about what is happening at their backdoor and not in some remote village. Thus, the prominence given in the media to dumbed-down accounts of fashion shows, new boutiques and parties thrown by the glitterati. If, on occasions, stories on bijli, sarak and pani are given prominence, it is simply because these too directly concern urban elites though it affects the poor in cities much more.

Reports on how irrigation systems are working, or not, corruption in government-run rural development programmes, women seeking empowerment through better education and health-care and the struggles of the underprivileged are just not considered interesting enough in comparison to stories on pornography and spam on the internet or the latest range of wines offered by five-star hotels. The reality of the countryside -- hard, harsh and even pathetic -- can be conveniently ignored in favour of a fancy freak-out, fast cars and even faster females. The short point simply is that the mainstream media tends to reflect what it thinks its audience wants. So if the urban elites of this country are insensitive to the under-privileged, this callousness gets reflected in the priorities of the media.

Foolish to believe
This argument is, however, valid only up to a point. It would be foolish to believe that most of those who live in India's urban areas are completely impervious to what happens in the rural hinterland. It is common knowledge that while agriculture accounts for a fourth of the country's gross domestic product, it directly or indirectly provides livelihood to 60 per cent of the population. If executives in multinationals manufacturing fast-moving consumer goods understand this basic fact about India, why indeed should editors downplay stories on agriculture? Unless, that is, one is talking about a cretinous bunch of journos and their employers.

Consider telecommunications, often lauded as a shining example of a sector where the entry of private players has worked wonders for the consumer. Call charges are down, telephone connections are available on demand and a mobile will soon no longer remain an accessory of the well-off. That's one side of the story. What is not so well publicized is that out of the 6,07,491 villages in the country, close to one lakh (to be precise, 99,339) villages did not have a single phone till the end of 2002. Whereas private providers of basic telephone services had committed themselves to installing as many as 98,000 phones in villages by March 2002 (that is, one out of ten phones installed), they instead preferred to pay paltry fines instead of setting up phones in rural areas.

Yet this story is not considered as "sexy" as an article on the special features of the latest hand-held gizmo. A Sony Ericsson P-900 mobile phone is priced at around Rs 45,000. This is equal to the amount one-fourth of Indians (or not less than 250 million) have to survive on for at least three months. India lives in her villages. Right. So said the "father of the nation" Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Though it is still fairly fashionable to quote him, most in the media frankly don't give a damn.

Paranjay Guhathakurta is Director, School of Convergence, International Management Institute, New Delhi

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