Romi Mahajan: Jaideep, you have written several stories about the abject condition of migrant workers in India, being set adrift by the government. Can you give us a sense of what is going on?

JH: Simply put, people are wanting to go home. Millions were stranded, unemployed, without food or money, unable to stay back at the places they migrated to and go back home in the lockdown in the absence of any transport. Modest estimates are 150-200 million people hit the roads or railway tracks to reach home, walk long distances in a phenomenon not seen since the Indian partition. They have been abandoned – abandoned by their employers, the cities, the State. This is inequality at its pristine best. Our honorable Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave four hours’ notice to lockdown this huge nation of 1.4 billion people. I don’t know what he was thinking at that time. The states were not consulted because that’s the PM’s style and his supporters love that arbitrariness, the pain it inflicts on the people, and the anarchy that follows – it seems they derive pleasure out of the suffering and pain of the other. For, the PM did the same thing during the demonetization adventure that cost thousands of jobs and inflicted pain and suffering on the ordinary Indians. He did it this time too. So the only conclusion one could derive is he likes inflicting agony on the unsuspecting masses who are his biggest supporters. My sense is that he took this decision to overcompensate the crucial delay in waking up to the Covid-19 crisis that had already sneaked into the country via the incoming air passengers by mid-March. With that decision of March 24, 2020, we transformed a health exigency into a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented scale, last seen only in the partition of India. Three decades of privatization of health, education, industry, and almost every sphere of life came back to haunt us, and perhaps the world, when the blue eyed babies of the corporate world sat back home and watched people face agony. In India only the state of Kerala stands out, and thanks mainly due to its strong public health system. But elsewhere it is chaos and fear. The third thing that has been happening is unbridled power to the bureaucracy under the different statutes. As if the political class has turned irrelevant

Romi: How have the pandemic and the responses to it made agrarian life harder?

JH: Supply chains have been disrupted. There is less money in the hands of a farmer. The 2020-21 season and beyond augurs into an uncertainty that would complicate his problems. Indian farming is largely rain dependent. And we shall know how monsoon pans out in the coming season. My hunch is that the indebtedness would grow. But I am also optimistic about one thing: That while industrial and service sectors are expected to suffer a recession, it is only the agriculture and rural sector that will pull through the masses for one or two years, because of its inherent resilience. Millions of rural masses won’t migrate at least for the next year or so, given the suffering they underwent in last two months and an uncertainty that lies ahead of us in the urban areas. They will fall back on the land.

Romi: Are the elite using this crisis as an excuse/modality to consolidate and expand their power and if so how?

JH: Those who have capital in their hands will certainly exploit this situation. Like Marx said, capital accumulation will take place from the exploitation of labour. But as Rosa Luxemborg also explained that it would also occur on account of exploitation of cheap raw material unless the State intervenes. The centre has certainly tried to tighten its grip, because the Modi regime has not helped the states, struggling with their finances. Revenues have been severely hit. The burden of spending is on them. So it’s the old dialogue: Heads I win; Tales you lose. Modi gets the credit, States the brickbats.

Romi: There is a strain of opinion that in India, the federal structure will curb the excesses of the Center. How do you feel about this opinion? What are the hopes that Civil Society and the institutions of citizenry will help usher in a better and more equitable time for all Indians?

JH: All over, the Centre’s unbridled authority is growing. Institutional subjugation was on, even before the pandemic hit us. That project will gain momentum now, but would be confronted by the sheer desperation of the masses who are so very crucial to the continuation of that project. This period will test a section of Bahujans and Dalits who trusted and supported the Honorable Prime Minister in the last two general elections, particularly in the cow belt, hoping that he will deliver. We shall know the outcome in a few months. I reckon they will consolidate further behind him, for, there is no creative opposition that could outwit and outdo Modi in theatrics and propaganda. The civil society too needs to come out of its ideas of the 1970s and 1980s; we shall need a more active political engagement – one that goes beyond complaining or protesting and takes part in elections at all levels. Indian civil society shies away from taking a position in elections. It won’t help now.

Romi: How has the pandemic exacerbated the communal issues in India?

JH: The Hindutva project got a setback due to Covid-19. Lockdown is not a great situation for the communal forces. They need people out on the streets, rallying with their cries. Problem is you can’t assemble. So just as the people’s protests and mass movements have suffered, even the communal agenda has suffered a setback, but it will momentary and they will try and use this enormous crisis to flame the communal passions to divert the attention away from all the blunders the government committed. Also, the Central government will try and pin their failures on to the states – including the ones where their party is in power. If you see some polls, all the non-BJP chief ministers are ranking high on popularity while all the BJP chief ministers are ranking low. Modi remains on top of the charts with people still trusting him to deliver. We are now entering second year of Modi2 regime and elections are four years away. No one knows how the economic crisis, social problems, and political vacuum would play out. We are in an uncharted territory. The social democratic and liberal forces need to recalibrate their response, not just politically but also socially and economically. Some old notions are falling apart, for the good. We need a new vision not just for India but for the global co-existence. But my hunch is that it won’t emerge immediately. It will take time. Until then, we are up against a loss of mess. There is a lack of trust within and between the nations.

Romi: Journalism in India- of the investigative type or even regarding depth of analysis- has been eviscerated. How do we all help in its revival?

JH: People have to fund and own good, quality, incisive journalism. We don’t have very many public funded models of journalism in this country. Some models have taken birth – like Pari, but they now need to be supported by the readers, so that they continue to report far and wide from across India. However, I must also insist that even these models need to be driven by more grassroots reporting. Corporate media are shutting their shops in the times of losses, kicking out good journalists who’ve worked for them in the good times and the bad. For some years, we might see a mushrooming of a new collectives or cooperatives of journalists, until some of them stabilize and evolve into long-term commitment to robust journalism. This is a defining moment in a profession I call my calling.

Romi: Jaideep, you work a lot with the Peoples’ Archive for Rural India. Can you help our readers understand the project and its importance?

JH: PARI was born out of P Sainath’s unwavering commitment to reporting on rural India. Some of us, who are his field students, were excited with his idea that we needed to build our own platform to report on the countryside, because most of our media don’t want to. For them, it is neither paying nor revenue generating. Yet it is where most of our country lives. So it is journalism not for profit but for all that the profession stands for. It has no revenue model, no big money, just a commitment to keep reporting on rural India with all the good and bad that plagues this huge mass of people. Readers and supporters pitch in with small donations that help keep our reporting kicking. And strong motivation, which can’t be valued in terms of money. This is our media and it would keep chugging. We don’t have to fear getting fired. We are in it together. Nor do we have to worry about an editor who need to be persuaded to take rural stories. Because it’s what the Editor here (Sainath) loves doing – reporting rural India. The stories are strongly rooted in people’s voices, their experiences. Our frame is to tell their stories in their words, but with strong editorial values. We are mere story tellers, not the story. And much of what Pari does is serious reporting leveraging digital advantage – of convergence of photos, videos, texts, graphics, sound-slides, data…everything.

Romi: Any parting thoughts?

JH: A lot of journalist friends are being fired every day in India, and other countries. It is time reporters came together to build strong cooperatives to do journalism – corporate capital won’t save our jobs and help fund our probing journalism, cooperation and collectives could.

Romi Mahajan is an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist


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