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Triennial Day 2 part 4 “You – We”

Milan Rai reports from the WRI Triennial in India

One of the most poignant moments of the conference so far was Samarendra Das’s cry to the audience: “We do not want your research! It is not useful to us. We have simple questions, such as: what should the price of bauxite be?”

The interesting things here are “useful research” and “we – you”. What is that polarity?

Before talking about that, I should explain about the pricing question.

Bauxite is often found on mountain tops; it’s the raw material for aluminium. In India, these mountains are for some reason often in tribal areas, and are sacred mountains. The bauxite has the capacity to retain water and release it gradually (Samarendra told us), so that there are perennial streams even in the hot season. After the bauxite has been mined, this capacity is lost, and whatever water does run in the streams is polluted (I think he mentioned arsenic).

Incidentally, producing one ton of steel requires 44 tons of water. Producing one ton of aluminium requires 1,378 tons of water.

So bauxite mining and aluminium production both contribute, each in their own way, to India’s water shortage.

Samarendra said that in India building sand costs Rupees 1,000 per ton, while bauxite only costs Rs 56 per ton.

The price of bauxite excludes all the harmful impacts on people displaced by mining, water reduction and pollution, and so on. What is needed is a price that adequately reflects the cost of bauxite, and its nature as an unrenewable resource (Samarendra said) – in that it is not possible to return a mined mountain to its previous state, in the way that you can decommission a dam or reafforest a deforested area.

Okay, what about the “useful research” question. No doubt there are many aspects to this, but one aspect is “usability”. I posed this question to a participant from a centre for development studies in an Indian city (a neighbour at lunch). The centre studies participatory grassroots development, with reliance on locally-generated materials for education. I suggested that often such projects are brilliant at speaking in the vernacular, using language that ordinary folk can understand, using people’s own experiences to bring them to a new understanding of themselves and their place in society, but that when these projects are studied and written up, they are described in a language that is no longer accessible to ordinary folk elsewhere, who might benefit from knowing about such things.

My friend said that the fancier language used in academia is known as “Sanskritic” Hindi and that it is indeed inaccessible to most people. I got the impression that the centre did not disseminate materials in ordinary everyday language for people to use for themselves. The method of dispersal often seems to be: middle class person uses participatory techniques with working class/tribal people; the same or another middle class person writes up the experience in a way that is exclusive of the working class/tribal people who were the original “empowered” target group; another middle class person reads the monograph or the paper and applies the techniques again elsewhere.

I confessed to my friend that I am in the same boat. I write books that are not accessible to everyone, and several people have told me that they couldn’t read my books, or found them very hard-going.

I’m running out of energy now, and the afternoon sessions are starting, so a final word on “you, we”.

Samarendra spoke as one of the dispossessed: “We don’t need your research.” Most presentations have been from a privileged perspective. For example, during an excellent presentation today, someone of Ekta Parishad, the Indian land rights group said: “You and me, we cannot be in the forefront of their struggle.” Meaning that the landless must lead their own movements. Which I entirely support. What I found interesting, and this person was only clearer and more transparent than other speakers, was the assumption that “we” in the audience were separate from the oppressed. Largely true, I suppose, but universally so? Was everyone in the audience of a middle-class activist background? Or were there people there who actually are from the affected communities?

On the first evening I was introduced to a long-time Indian activist who mused that most of the speakers were middle class and not actually of the oppressed classes. Interesting questions.

To say: “I am a privileged person, of a class that is insulated from this suffering, and yet I am participating in this struggle” is fine. What I find difficult is the assumption that everyone in the audience was of the insulated classes.