I have been sitting on this article for a few weeks now and have been using Manto’s retort that the story will write itself as a valid excuse to not write. In reality, I have not known where to start, but I found inspiration while watching Newton. For the uninitiated, the film is about an idealistic election monitoring officer who volunteers to go into the heartland of Naxal Chattisgarh in order to defend the democratic right of 70 odd adivasis. Just as he fails to return from these jungles unscathed by reality, we leave the theatre tussling with our notions of democracy and republicanism.
To me, the film is a reflection of what I saw in Odisha just a few weeks ago. I visited 6 villages in 2 districts of Odisha as part of my work. One of the districts, Malkangiri, is the gateway for Naxal activity between Andhra Pradesh and Chattisgarh. As we travelled into the villages, our 50 something year old Odiya companion pointed out the various points along our journey where a land mine had been planted, the BSFs had confronted Naxals in an armed conflict, and a collector had been kidnapped.
As we spent days in these communities, I started to question what development means. For some of these tribes, the Indian state continues to be as alien as the British Raj. The Bonda tribe, for example, stays in the hills, is self-sufficient, and continues traditional practices such as roaming in the nude. Juxtapose this with our office in Bangalore, and I realise that they couldn’t care less about our SDGs. We may want to push our development agenda, but enforcing it on peoples who do not want it is arbitrary.
When we do talk about our MDGs, SDGs, and other such acronyms, our top-down approach continues to fail us. To illustrate, one of the most ludicrous things we heard was that foreign funders wanted the local NGOs to involve the Naxals in their training programme and get them to attend community meetings. This basic lack of understanding of our audience and their context fails us, and more importantly our audience, on a monumental level, regardless of how sincere our intentions are. This became evident in the implementation of Swacch Bharat Abhiyan as well. Across the two districts, Malkangiri and Kandhamal, we saw those little blue rectangle structures, making us believe that we are on our way to being open defecation free. But when we spoke to the women in these villages, it was unanimously acknowledged that they do not use it. Why, you may ask? 2 syllables: Wa-ter. Scarcity of H₂O has led to these latrines being used as anything from a storage space for grains to a room for the poultry. The one thing it usually isn’t is a toilet. When we are still battling issues as basic as access to water, how can we imagine having any real conversations on other complex issues.
I felt like Newton as I watch my idealism falter. In a village in Kandhamal, the lack of access to a pukka road isolates them from the rest of the world. Deep in the hills, the women we met told us stories about how they have had to carry pregnant women for kilometres because the road would not allow for vehicles to come into the hamlets. I, with my western literate mind, told them that there are schemes that can get them an all-weather road. They looked at me like the educated fool I am and told me that the local representatives do not even visit these areas since the number of votes from these hamlets is less than 100. If I have ever felt the real insignificance of what one vote can mean (or not mean), it was in that moment. What do you do when there is such systemic apathy?
As I listened to the audience burst into laughter while they watched Newton beaten (literally and figuratively) down by reality, I felt a rush of melancholy. To me, Newton’s idealism, as naïve as it is, is a reflection of mine. And watching the privileged world laugh as the real world tries to knock his idealism out of him, I am left wondering where I stand.
Article by Roshini Suparna Diwakar