Thursday, March 30, 2017

On the road, a watermelon

There's a photograph I love to think of. A moustachioed farmer, dressed in a white shirt and a dhoti, is running down the highway with a giant watermelon, twice as large as his head. It was taken by the photographer accompanying me on a reporting assignment in Madhya Pradesh. We were driving towards a village and just ahead of us was a truck loaded with watermelons and a few farmers.

A sudden brake and some of the watermelons rolled off. The truck stopped, the farmer got off to retrieve his watermelons. In the photograph, the farmer is grinning. He must be on his way to the market to sell his crop. He must be looking forward to getting a good price for those giant melons.

I was reminded of this photograph last week when I heard about another set of farmers who grow potato. In some parts of the country, there are farmers who are getting as little as one or two rupees for a quintal of potatoes. That's right. One or two rupees.

At first I thought, this must be a misprint. It seemed impossible. Clearly, it seemed impossible to the farmers too. In Punjab, some of the farmers reportedly offloaded their stock on the roadside. Threw it all away. And who can blame them? It must cost thousands of rupees to get the crop to the mandi and then to come away with so little that they can't even buy a bus ticket back home!

I picture those potatoes rolling down the highway. Or perhaps, not rolling but just sitting there, glaring at the traffic with tiny, fertile eyes: ineffectual speed-bumps for a nation that's getting ahead of itself.

It would be a very different scene, of course, if the farmers started sitting on the highway. Or perhaps they will come into big cities and block the major roads. There was a time, in 1988, when farmers did just that. They came in their tractors and with their cattle. They slept there and shat there for a few days. The bureaucrats and the politicians were quite displeased but also thoroughly shaken. In an essay about the history of Jantar Mantar as a site of perpetual protest, Neha Dixit has written that it was this grand event that led our rulers to confine all protests to one particular spot, Jantar Mantar.

This is, of course, an effective way to destroy the spirit of public protest. To be tucked away in one little corner of the capital, surrounded by dozens of other citizens with serious grievances, is to be rendered invisible. It is the very opposite of what people had set out to do.

I also recall the World Social Forum of 2004, in Mumbai. It was very colourful and, for a young journalist like me, quite an educative experience. Yet political activists – many of whom had been organizing people's movements for decades – looked on with a sort of indulgent amusement. By the time the forum ended, I understood why. All the causes, the slogans, the singing and dancing, the shows of solidarity were confined to a couple of square kilometeres in Goregaon. None of those voices reached even as far as the main road, just outside the venue. It did not lead to any heated debates in Parliament about the urgency of policy change.

Mumbai also has another of those carefully curated sites of perpetual protest – Azad Maidan – where residents, office-goers, children don't really notice the grief and rage of those who come to protest, and nothing gets disrupted. The city doesn't so much as blink, not until a few roads get blocked.

Naturally, keeping people off the road is crucial so cities – and the powers that be – go on functioning as they did before. So all governments use the police to control them. They enact laws which require us to take permission from the police before hitting the road. Oddly enough, the state rarely bothers to ensure that people are actually not on the road. The difference between the phrase 'sadak pe aa jaana' (to be reduced to living on the road) and 'sadak pe utar aana' (to descend upon the road) is the difference between the fears of ordinary citizens and the fears that govern our rulers.

The former is a universal, yet deeply lonely fear. It is the fear of the potato farmer who may have no option except to move to a big city, and sleep, squat, beg on the road or sit there trying to sell whatever strength he still has. He could, of course, descend upon the road, claiming it with his feet, his voice, and demand that the traffic stop and confront him with human eyes and ears. He could, but will he?

First published in TheHindu

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