Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Its about power

Writing in the wake of the terror attack on Mumbai, Ramachandra Guha, in an article in the Wall Street Journal, argues:

… Since the reasons for the poverty (and the anger) are so complex, a successful compact between Indian Muslims and modernity will require patient and many-sided work. … It would help … if … there was a more forthright assertion of Muslim liberalism within India. But perhaps the greatest burden falls on India's major political parties. The Congress must actively promote the modernization of Muslim society.

In an entirely different context, commenting on an article by Harish Damodaran on how rural India’s economy is, my friend Aromar Revi, a systems thinker, wrote:

... We still have a narrow window of transforming our rural biomass economy into a 21st century green and productive one, before we are locked into the Chinese/North American trap of a fossil-fuel run agrarian economy and then the post-Bali trap of decarbonisation, denitrification etc.

Large swathes of India’s people co-exist with their fellow citizens while living predominantly in a pre-modern domain. And different people would view this in different ways. For instance, someone like Singapore’s t Lee Kuan Yew would be provoked to impose modernisation, by force if necessary, upon these hapless folk. On the other hand, some westerners may see in this pre-modern existence a pointer to a future in an age of climate change.

But the fact is that the pre-modern co-exists with the modern, and it is the latter that rules the roost. The nature of even the chance encounter between the pre-modern and the modern illustrates this. I am reminded of something the celebrated anthropologist Claude Lévi-Straus wrote, that astounding human accomplishments like the Neolithic revolution and the formation of cities had taken place in pre-literate times, and that if there was one thing that literacy was really vital to, that was power. People who are illiterate, in an age of literacy, are not in the same situation as people in pre-literate times. And fortunately, many of those supposedly illiterate, such as farmers or craftsmen, are not ignorant, and their knowledge about their work is often far greater than that of university-educated specialists. But, the crucial issue here is power.

Pre-moderns in a modern age, or partakers of the bio-mass economy in a fossil fuel age, or illiterates in a literate world – are all disempowered folk. And what is called for is their empowerment. The full participation of Muslims in India’s national life, the conservation of sustainable resource use by India’s rural folk, or the advancement of the knowledge of traditional farmers – all call for their empowerment. Conversely, whatever else might be done in terms of modernisation or sustainability or literacy, if empowerment is not at the core of this, it can only fail, or what’s worse, result in bizarre outcomes.

Long ago, I was fortunate to read an article by the celebrated urban planner, Prof John Friedmann, on this subject of poverty and the empowerment of the poor. Friedmann defined poverty as a state of disempowerment, where power means access to the social bases of life. The article included a diagram depicting a state of poverty and the process of emerging out of poverty through getting organised and thus gaining control. Over the years, I have used this diagram in several contexts. I reproduce here an elaboration of Friedmann's diagram that I prepared during a public policy project.

If there is any wholesome intention regarding people, nothing positive can be done to them or for them. It can only be done with them, and ultimately by the people themselves.

And disempowerment, power and empowerment – are all political matters, not literary or technocratic ones. Which brings us back to the work, writing and philosophy of Brazilian educator, Paulo Friere. In particular, his vision of "culture". The very titles of his books are pregnant mnemonics of that politics, powerful tools of iteration: Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Education as the Practice of Freedom, Cultural Action for Freedom ...

(This post calls for two further posts, one on external and internal power, and another on Paulo Friere. I hope I will get around to doing that.)

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