The Economic Times
Soumya Aji writes: They have no formal structure and operate in village level groups in Karnataka. The motto for the effort, as of now, is “green socialism”. And they are slowly gathering heft, showing by example and by spreading awareness that there can be an alternative way of living, one that is self-sustaining and satisfying.
Art of living ‘desi cowboy’ style: Group of activists in India talk of going back to the roots
Amid even-odd debates, wooing of corporate bigwigs, swings of the Sensex and the desire to own a Maserati, a group of activists in India is talking of sustainable living and going back to the roots. The GDP, they insist, is not the index of human happiness.
“The boy who herds cows and the girl who spins yarn are also bellwethers for development,” they say. They have no formal structure and operate in village level groups. And they are slowly gathering heft, showing by example and by spreading awareness that there can be an alternative way of living which is self-sustaining and satisfying.
There is no proselytizing or preaching against modernity or city life. They instead choose to demonstrate that machines are not the be-all and end-all of life. They believe that physical effort towards a constructive activity, even if it is sweeping the floor clean, is a better way of living life than gymming for fitness. They talk organic agriculture, eating only what you can grow, propagating the mother tongue, learning eco-friendly trades and building self-sustaining rural units.
“Anyone who talks like this is perceived as a killjoy,” says activist Prasanna, with twinkling eyes. He declines to call himself the leader of this effort, which he also does not want to call a movement. “Movements have a specific target and tend to have an end. Ours is a network, an umbrella organisation, a platform that brings together social innovators who are quietly doing their work in their own social sectors in rural areas. They don’t have to join us, we will work independently. We will exchange ideas, be a support system for each other and together create an awareness that there can be another way of life,” he says.
Idea behind platform
The plan is the ‘hundred flowers bloom’ model. Prasanna and his immediate circle are to contact other individuals and organisations that are working in the socioeconomic-cultural sector. The others take the message forward. Ultimately, the plan is to hold a national convention on sustainable living at the end of 2016, where all these organisations can share ideas, exchange models and try to take forward the concept of self-sustaining agriculture, rural reconstruction, ecology and environment, handloom, women’s empowerment, social and cultural harmony, primary education and related sectors. Though Prasanna does not want to overtly call the effort Gandhian, the convention is planned be held at Sevagram in Maharashtra, where Mahatma Gandhi lived from 1936 to 1948.
Chandan Gowda, professor of sociology at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, told ET, “Prasanna wishes to help create a forum for those concerned with economic equity and ecological sanity to share ideas and work together. In this forum, groups working to secure economic and cultural democracy will present constructive proposals for addressing the challenges facing their specific sectors. Such proposals will serve as constructive policy demands on the government and activist organisations. Non-partisan and without electoral ambition, this forum should help build a valuable institutional space for individuals and groups who care about ecological wellbeing, economic democracy and cultural pluralism.”
The motto for the effort, as of now, is “green socialism”. Prasanna, however, refutes any political implication to the word socialism or for their activism. “Even the Jan Sangh joined the JP Movement. Socialism in this context is not political, but a concept of equality, along with the need to be green. There will be no left or right wing in this, anyone working in the social sector space is welcome,” he contends. In his mind, both DrBinayak Sen, who was arrested for alleged Naxal links and RSS idealogue KN Govindacharya could be part of the effort, as they are both social and environmental activists.
As of now, the network is not looking for well-known activist faces like Anna Hazare or Medha Patkar to be part of it, though they might eventually be involved. Currently, to quote some examples, they are reaching out to people like Prakash Amte, a doctor who works with the Madia Gond tribals in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, CK ‘Bablu’ Ganguly, who works in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh through his Timbaktu Collective for eco-restoration and holistic living, PV Sateesh of Deccan Development Society, an agri-based NGO working in Telangana, and so on.
The logo is representative of what the concept is: a humble rural woman in a green, hand-woven cotton saree spinning the charaka, a representation of the little known goddess Bhimavva, the patron of handloom weavers in North Karnataka. “We are not against anyone or anything. There is no enemy; what we are trying to do is positive activism. We are gaining strength by coming together, doing introspection on a way of life and contributing to an awareness building process through a synergy of organisations working in language, culture, skills and agriculture,” activist GS Jayadev, who runs the Deenabhandhu Ashram, an orphanage for the destitute at Chamarajanagar district, told ET.
For Prasanna, the progression to form such a network is a natural extension of his life’s work. At 64, he has been there, done that, on almost every front. He dropped out of engineering at IIT Kanpur to join the National School of Drama. He set up a theatre movement in Karnataka called ‘Samudaaya’ (society) in 1975, whose performers went on cycles to rural areas and did political street plays against the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. They also sold postcards and booklets to earn their living, sustaining themselves, their art and their political ideology. Prasanna went on to make a name for himself as a theatre director and playwright, working all over the country as well as at NSD.
Post liberalisation and the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, like many Leftist thinkers and intellectuals, he started work in the rural sector, away from the limelight. In 1994, he set up the ‘Kavi Kavya (poet-poetry) Trust’ in the village of Heggodu in Shivamogga district of Karnataka, better known for residential theatre school NINASAM. Kavi Kavya worked with ‘anganwadi’ workers and its members extensively went into how to rejuvenate rural economy in a region where forests were being degraded for agriculture. They set up a rural women’s cooperative, ‘Charaka’, which buys raw yarn, dyes it with local vegetable dyes and uses it to weave distinctive clothes, bags, rajais (thick blankets) and stationary and sells them through outlets set up by the DESI trust in urban areas. The experiment has been so successful that IIM (B) has done a research paper on the model.
After getting Charaka and DESI to stand on their own, Prasanna turned his attention to the plight of handloom workers in the country. In the last five years, he has been working to ensure that the governments — central and state — give handloom workers their due and protect them from the vagaries of the market. He even undertook a hunger strike in December 2014 which he called off only after Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah assured him of action. He did a ‘padayatra’ in north Karnataka to create awareness on the issue.
Badanawalu Satyagraha Gradually, Prasanna says, he realised while working on handloom that several issues were interconnected, like agriculture, ecology, rural reconstruction, migration, cultural and social structures, and so on. So he set up the ‘Badanawalu Satyagraha’ in April 2015 which drew people from different walks of life, like actor Irrfan Khan and Medha Patkar. He lived for 20 days in a dilapidated hut at Badanawalu, a village in backward Chamarajanagar district, living a self-sustaining life. Badanawalu hosts a now-decrepit Khadi centre that was visited by Gandhi. It was also the scene of a murderous inter-caste riot in the 1990s from which it never recovered.
The Satyagraha drew people from all walks of life, who participated in padayatras, held discussions with villagers, carried mud from several places to plant trees at Badanawalu and exchanged seeds to take back to their own places. “It was an inspiring experience. A young man who was working in the IT sector told us that after the Satyagraha, he resigned his job and went back to his village in Mysuru to lead a holistic life. We had a tremendous response from people. Yes, it is an uphill task to take this forward in the present day, but we are hopeful,” says Jayadev. The activists have held more such events at a smaller scale in the last year. And this year, they are preparing for the big leap of faith.