Editorial: Condescending Arrogance

Of Misdirected Good Intentions

Special occasions, events and schemes usually see newspaper desks inundated with a swarm of press releases, each making similar claims albeit from different locations, and all professing similar stands and ideologies, absent nuance or any hint of uniqueness. Some communiqués could actually qualify to be called cute had the talking-down condescension not been so worryingly common in how “local people” are supposedly being engaged or being made “aware”. A majority of the press releases are about awareness programmes on a plethora of issues and missions with the “beti bachao, beti padhao” campaign being the obsession which has for the time being replaced the Swachh Bharat campaign. Some press releases are also from political groups claiming to be speaking for the “poor, gullible and innocent” Sikkimese. From NGO cells of hydel project developers claiming to have delivered exceptional services from their CSR kitty, to obviously registered-for-specific-project ‘service providers’ becoming enlightened saviours and managers of the ignorant natives, there is no dearth of agents claiming to be delivering virtuous service. Among the self-projected benefits of such sponsored projects are claims of traditional farmers being taught organic farming or a people among whom female infanticide has never been reported, being made aware about the need to “beti bachao” or instances when such camps have supposedly brought about “greater conservation awareness among the local communities.” Such comments are made often and rarely contested, but in the condescension with which they are thrown about lies the reason why policy interventions which appear grand on paper, end up delivering only very shallow results. The problem, in most cases, is not with the intent because these are obviously very earnest undertakings, but in the ignorance and superficiality with which they are executed. The problem areas are always accurately identified, but it is in claims like making local communities aware of what is good for them that the intent gets misdirected because they suggest, for instance, that environment and biodiversity are being rescued from the stakeholders. Examples of such bureaucratic arrogance abound. Look at the manner in which organic farming was promoted in Sikkim. A good idea in itself, the consultants, at their patronising best, hold up farmers adopting organic practises as “progressive farmers”! No one asks who gave them the authority to dispense such titles. Who introduced the water-leaching carcinogens to farming in the first place? Similarly, local communities everywhere have evolved very refined sustainable usage patterns for their ecological resources, until protection and ownership was usurped by the State. Nowhere in the world have “local communities” ravaged local environment or destabilized biodiversity; it has always been urban greed that has wiped out rural environment and lifestyle. Hence, if any genuine interventions need to be made to save the environment in Sikkim, they have to be held in Gangtok, Namchi, Jorethang, Mangan, Singtam or other similarly urbanized locations, not Kitam, Hee-Gyathang, Khaniserbong which would do well for themselves and their local ecology should the urban areas keep their hands to themselves. It is ironic that urban consultants should return as do-gooders telling the basti-wallahs on how to mend their ways. Some realisation is however dawning that conservation is not possible without endorsement of the “local communities”, but even in such agencies as the JFMCs, the “officers” refuse to hand over any real power to the stakeholders. The attitudes that underline these interventions are flawed, not in what they seek to achieve or deliver, but because they neither trust nor recognise rural pragmatism. There are few “awareness programmes” more ironic than those on the importance of panchayati raj for Panchayat members themselves; they are already aware of it, these sessions should be for government officers who still appear confused about what “public servant” means, and how that is a rung lower than “public representative”. This piece, even though it might not appear to be so, is not about babu-bashing, but a condemnation of the education system that creates such disconnected minds and then places executive power in their hands. What is required is not “greater conservation awareness”, because that is already in place, but more awareness about global realities which are intruding into rural spaces. The forest resources are not under threat from local communities, but are imperiled by the greed manifesting in places further away. Sikkim’s medicinal herbs are not being over-harvested by local stakeholders for kitchen-cures, but, if at all, for the pharma-mafia. Stakeholders need awareness about these threats that have developed beyond their line of sight, they will devise their own checks and balances for them. Ditto for the Panchayats; tell them where they fit into the State-level scheme of things, and they will stand up to the roles. Say sorry to the farmers and tell them they can revert to organic farming and they will adapt well. Just recognise the traditional knowledge base and respect rural pragmatism and factor these into all planning and most of the glitches and superficiality that compromise development planning will be taken care of.