Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Dog in the Night-time

Last night, the wind was not very active, and for one reason or another, I knew that something was not exactly as it should be at the basketball court. There was something going on there. The area is actually very difficult to see. Usually, it passes off, in the morning, as a makeshift place for people to meet. The dhaba nearby preempts hangers-on. The Science block makes hanging-on permissible. There are other things that come up – cavil, and college gripes and tribulations. The usual diatribe, as canvassing, during student elections. Then, of course, there is the inescapable college date.

These things keep the court occupied. The ‘court’ actually reminds me of bigger things, too. It reminds me of the Inns of Court – the Inner Temple, in such a big warren of buildings, where mounds of paper stay on as many years go by, making no one the better for anything; just insurmountable mounds of paper that live on. The Temple Church nearby that is never open. The timings are never correct and the caretakers are so willful. But the ‘court’ here, where such things do not count, makes an ideal place for evening strolls.

Last night, a dog was lying there. The dog was in terrible pain. Its legs were misshapen and it kept removing almost non-existent fur from his body. He looked terribly weak. He was writhing in a pained way, and the way it cavorted limply, because he couldn’t walk...

At night, when you return from places, like Kamala Nagar, you come in walking urgently. The lights go off at ten o’ clock and the doors shut subsequently. You need to be inside and you need to sign into a register. This is about adherence and following rules.

Sometimes, you see and hear some animals around the blocks. The squirrels can’t be seen in the nighttime but you can hear them. They squirrel around, perambulating trees, till the morning. The monkeys border the fences, but at night, they hardly monkey anymore. The birds riotously awaken to new life in the morning. At night, they sleep. At night, the only sounds of life are caterwauling sounds that somewhat die out sometime past midnight.

The dogs slink around the roads. When you see them, you feel bad. You have a bed and a room that await you. You have the keys and you keep it possessively.

The dog at the court lay there as a mound of scraggly skin, waiting patiently for posthumous notice. That night, when the wind wasn’t active, I noticed. He was asleep but he kept moving. His eyes were shut. They kept opening because the skin didn’t hold fully. His lids looked heavy with pain. Many hours later, a security guard with a long pole in his hand walked by. The pole was a metallic one and had a loop at one end. He kept the contraption safely ahead of him. The dog, of course, with its pallid eyes, could not see. The man moved behind it and stayed there for a quiet while. Then, he put the loop around the dog’s neck. He fastened the loop tightly. The man moved desperately. He knew the dog would suddenly whelp and writhe. But the dog didn’t whelp. It was already dead. All I heard were sibilant whispers from the block nearby.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Older, Longer Way

The sun continued to beat down and the people went on doing the things they liked doing. When I first got here, the list was up on the notice board. Everyone was looking at it very quickly. They were thinking of rooms and people in them, the way things would work. Large bags and suitcases lined the entrance to blocks. People came in looking lost, looking for rooms with letters and numbers overhead. When I came in, I looked in through the end of the corridor. The dark air was somehow warmer, more heated, than the sunny outside. The corridor looked shadowy and empty, the rooms were unopened. For the first time in years, I was looking for a new place to stay in. Maybe school had been accessible; a place that remained as it was no matter how many times you came to look. I never felt that things ever changed there – the bedrooms were draped in the same unsavoury linen, the doors were always white with deep gashes. The floors were always wet with muddy puddles in places. The paint was always flaking off in places and the door knobs had to be prised out of their sockets. Then, here, nothing felt familiar. The whole place seemed empty, of everything; the most austere I had ever seen.

The trees outside were somehow not the trees that looked like they belonged. Even the trees had a faraway look about them. The walls made the place itself - not lifeless, but just that – walled.

I knew what my parents were thinking. They easily slipped into worry and that worry worsened. The time came for admissions and I knew I wouldn’t be alone in what I did. There was complicity in every thought. I knew that if I had to think of urgent things, the thoughts would not go unnoticed. If I wanted to say something in favour of a course, I would have to say aloud. If I had to say anything, I had to say aloud. It was an unbridled need to hear what was being thought. But thoughts are usually silent, and quiet. They come about inside and preclude voice. That is when I knew my thoughts stopped coming to me. They are like voluntary voices that stop speaking when you demean them. It was unreasonable in some tenuous way, in some individualistic way. The building afterwards became part of the heat and cloistered-ness. I briefly met the person I would soon be sharing quarters with and felt slightly lonelier. It was as if I knew the foreground was terribly unimportant.

The New-ness of The Olde

The first day was the easiest. There was a clandestine sense of purpose moving in the air. All new entrants knew exactly what they wanted. They’d come here after interminable days and months of waiting and of not knowing if they had been admitted. Those months were unendurable. There were days when hours would pass by, food would go uneaten, listening to reportage in the news.
Had they made new rules and new policies for people to play by? Had they changed the precepts of merit? Had people become more qualified than others even though they had measly marks? Had some people become more equal than others – needing uplift, or social justice? Retribution had become so important; people who made life unbearable for people in the past would lose now, would pay by becoming less qualified as against them. Marks suddenly stopped mattering, the sleepless, dreamless nights became the only nights, days stopped meaning much to people and weeks passed by. So, when they came here, they were admitted, the simple fact of admission made people feel different. They were suddenly survivors of a surreptitiously fought battle. They were men of steel who braved the odds and broke them too. They were the new, fortuitous heroes, wearers of the horns of destiny.
For people with such presumptions, it wasn’t easy to make headway. They were all bulls in a china shop - merchandise gathered around them. In their walk and in their talk, they showed the feat of having made it here, this far, further than what others had reached. There was also a complicity in the way the others behaved. Their way of doing things was different, and more simple-minded, than others. The noncommittal sense of being here, made less likeable with time, brought in resentment. People didn’t like the fact that other people of lesser merit were admitted without qualms. People felt justified in indicting these people – calling them names, making them look and feel like feral, unwanted weeds in an otherwise nicely-kept garden. There was a sense that no matter how well people tried to work for their exams, there was always a nameless, faceless mass of under-deserving people who hid behind their merit, people who patiently waited in the wings, the snatchers-away of others’ seats.
At first, the mixing was forced and hard to do. We were scared of saying the wrong things. We were, though, verbose and said whatever occurred to us. It was as if we didn’t want to be told to behave, or speak, in new ways. We were eager and we were willing to announce our arrival. But, as things often become in times of garrulousness, voices became haggard and tired. Voices assumed lesser tones, became less insubordinate than were initially conceived. Even amongst classmates, a growing, bearing, sense of ennui became stronger, more visible. People started talking about things that mattered most to them. People started thinking, speaking more conservatively. Words not only became sparse but more laden with meaning, and intent. It is about the way things look when fashioned masks become less worthwhile to have on.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is ‘ubiquitously interesting’ for its breadth of scope and efficacy. The Act has made a huge difference in many places already. Its clauses are specific and many things prevent it from becoming another gratuitous exercise in eradicating social dependency. When Jean Dreze came to college to speak about it, it seemed worthwhile to think about its wider tenets. He is someone who carries a demeanour of complicity in the lives of the indigent. His research gives him larger credence. He began with the fundamental principles upon which the Act has been founded. The Act postulates: employment on demand, a legal right to work, universal entitlement, the payment of minimum wages, participatory planning, accountability to the Right to Information apparatus, and, crucially, full transparency. The cornerstones seem adequately well founded. It foregrounds the ability of employable people to find suitable work. The question of suitable work seems disputed, but the general munificence of the Act, in terms of generating more income than hitherto done, seems established.

A large part of the research undertaken is in terms of the ‘person’ and concomitant ‘days of work’ generated. Along this barometer, Rajasthan posits an upper limit of 77, and Kerala contrarily 3. Durgapur in Rajasthan has mainly benefited from the work-generation, which Dreze has endorsed from his own recent assessment of the place. The degree of participation of the Act was gauged in all the states. The proportion of participatory workers categorized in the SC/ST ambit is 62%. The proportion of women, likewise, is 40% as national average, which is a redoubtable claim, given that the statutes make mandatory at least a 33% rate of participation of women everywhere. There are certain differences along this parameter in different states. Tamil Nadu has the highest proportion of women’s involvement, slated at 81%, which is formidable, whereas Bihar has 17% and Jammu & Kashmir a low of 4%. An interesting clause in the Act is a proviso enabling child-care facilities in the work-sites. This effectively means that when more than five children, in toto, are brought along by mothers, crèches will be facilitated, and a woman deployed to look after the children collectively.

The wages given to the workers are more or less in close proximity. The average wage-cost per person in Kerala is Rs. 121, Rs. 104 in Maharashtra, and Rs. 51 in Rajasthan, which is ostensibly the lowest, given that a large number of people work under the Act there. The national average wage-rate is Rs. 64. In Tamil Nadu, women who hitherto earned Rs. 35 as agricultural workers have started earning Rs. 80 from work through the Act. The state governments set the rates, and the wages are paid by the central government. The mode of payment, as well, is set by the state government, as the Act does not decree any one agency. Nevertheless, keeping political exigencies in the fray, the central government can supersede the state government and establish a statutory rate of its own accord.

Jean Dreze, among other surveys, worked in one conducted in May-June this year, which looked at two districts – Ranchi and Surguja. In his talk, he focused on the latter and cited the findings therein. In an inimical, positive way, he started off on the trajectory with the apparent gains. Firstly, this legislation has achieved more progress than others. Corruption has large subsided and even the eviction of middle-men and contractors has changed things in this regard. Most of the work is productive, except in certain cases, where tortuous roads leading nowhere were being constructed, which certain students in the discussion pointedly mentioned, having seen instances like these in the course of the survey. Most families have a job-card, which enables them to come into employ, and most of these enumerate their entitlements on the back. This, of course, is part of a larger effort to make aware the workers of what their work entails and what it counts for remuneratively. Some very pertinent questions came up in this part. Some students pointed out that the people did not necessarily know what they would be paid, or if the work is commensurate with the payment. The definition of the ‘household’ in the Act isn’t exacting either.

The other deficiencies include the fact that the work entailed is not ‘demand-driven,’ deferred payment impedes incentive, and a shortage of staff at various levels hinders general efficacy. Mr. Dreze mentioned certain other, more subterranean, problems. He said, and students who worked in the survey corroborated, that one thing afflicting the ‘bureaucracy’ of the Act is the discrepancies in records. There is an official record and a more clandestine ‘real’ record. The official record usually shows a high level of attendance, whereas the other tells another tale. The records are often countermanded in times of payment. However, the Right to Information Act enables people to procure both anyway. In October, 2006 Garhwah had an attendance of 85%, whereas Ranchi a measly 33%. As far as the budgetary concerns go, the proportion of wage to material has been fixed at 60 to 40.

The talk literally drove home the importance of the Act and its modus operandi. It is, hopefully, a sustainable achievement, aided largely by antecedents already put in place by post-independence governments many years ago.