Sometimes protest become a spectacle, something dismissed or forgotten quickly. People in Delhi drive past Jantar Mantar gazing at political processions with an indifferent shrug. Jantar Mantar is the “official” site for protest, a spectacle of grievances that democracy tolerates as long as it can contain it.
The French sociologist Luc Boltanski coined the term “Disaster Fatigue” to explain the indifference of spectator to the genocides and disaster of the 20th century.
I must confess not all protests carry the same air of poignancy, not all of them present the message with equal effectiveness. Sometime more than words it is the pathos of silence that moves one. The recent protest by more than 150 farmers from Tamil Nadu evoked that heart-breaking quality. The protest almost had a sense of a sacrifice or a religious ritual as farmers sat in dharna carrying the skulls of comrades who had died earlier.
There was a constant sense of the macabre which added a deeper message. It was the indifference of society and the regime that was being protested to. The drought in Tamil Nadu has been devastating and yet the silence and indifference has been intriguing.
The protesters claim that this has been the worst drought in Tamil Nadu in 140 years. Over a hundred farmers have committed suicide. Each faced a vicious cycle of debt to the private money lender as the money provided by the government as relief was not enough. The farmers have sought Rs 40,000 crore as drought relief but the government has been slow in responding. Somehow the drying up of the Kaveri has been looked upon with indifference.
The protestors claim that this has been the worst drought in Tamil Nadu in 140 years.
In fact, the spectacle of protest raises an interesting comparison. The Uttarakhand High Court in a judgment last week ruled that the Ganges and Yamuna as sacred rivers would henceforth be treated as persons. In fact, they would be represented by senior functionaries.
Oddly the judgment did not extend the right of rivers to Kaveri, Godavari or Brahmaputra. They are as sacred and as life-giving to the ecology of their areas. It is almost as if a dried-up Kaveri is no longer treated as a river. Worse, drought has become so habitual, so everyday, that it no longer generates the sense of scandal that disasters should.
In fact, in India, a drought is not merely a natural event. A drought becomes a drought only when it is officially defined as a drought. Without official recognition, there is no official response and the drought and its sufferers fade into anonymity. As always, it is the nature of the governmental response that has become problematic. The assurances have remained empty rituals of lip service.
The former chief minister, Jayalalithaa had written off some of the loans before she died. But loan waivers come in different classificatory grids. Loans from cooperative banks have been written off but loans from nationalised banks are awaiting central clearance.
The protestors met Arun Jaitley, the finance minister has promised to look into it but they are still waiting. Strangely the banks have been ruthless or bureaucratic to a default. Mahadevan, one of the protestors, talked about notices served by the bank threatening to take over his property if he defaults on the loan. Mahadevan adds that his wife received the notice while he was away and died of a heart attack.
One need not multiply these anecdotes to sentimentalise the situation. It has already become an epic tragedy with government enacting its rituals of delay and indifference. One senses from the protestors that many are middle age farmers with medical problems, where hunger or fasting might create its own network of complications.
Fortunately, the chorus of sympathisers present persuaded them to take some food. Yet the sadness of drought is not endemic to Tamil Nadu alone. Drought, a certain commercialisation of crops, the systems of loan management create a cycle of debt to which suicide has become an option.
Yet even the hope that suicide in a family would trigger concern and compensation is often futile. The ministry of home affairs indicated that 300 farmers have committed suicide in Gujarat. There is an abstraction to numbers which does not capture the tragedy.
Albert Camus, the French novelist, once said that statistics do not bleed. The experience of India shows that drought statistics bleed even less.
Unfortunately, there is also stereotyping of narrative where the victim is often confronted as a different species rather than a fellow citizen to whom we owe care and responsibility. Today India has no leaders like JP Narayan who can step in and provide an ethical resonance to the problems of drought and starvation. The clerk and the economist file their pathologist reports before the ethicist or civil society can step in.
In fact, a quick check on the authenticity of response is to see how long issues and narratives of drought are pursued. There is little that is systematic in the response and the dole as relief is the government signature signing off from the problem. The question of drought is no longer episodic. It has become structural. It needs more than policy palliatives as what we are facing is a crisis of ecology and agriculture.
A government preening itself over its policy on the Ganges has little to say about the drying up of the Cauvery. There is a surreal power to the protest. The body language of the protestors, the tiredness of the faces and the desperation of the farmer climbing a tree to hang himself here becomes standard tropes.
The deeper question is — can society, not just government, respond? Does one have to wait for the centrality of the PM’s relief fund to respond? Cannot civil society, newspapers produce responses which can make governance move?
The Tamil Nadu drought has become a challenge to the imagination of India as a caring democracy.