Thoughts on the Right to Food Convention (Rourkela) – Part I

Last week, I went to the Right to Food Convention in Rourkela, Orissa. Large “movement” conferences are often hit or miss – one, because given the primary aim to mobilize people, and the large number of attendees, the actual discussions/talks tend to be rudimentary (but long) – and personally speaking, I find the large numbers claustrophobic. Another issue is the prevalent level of agreement – with some issues (e.g., RTI) there’s an overriding political compulsion to be in overt agreement, which makes the whole discussion quite repetitive. However the RTF Campaign is an ongoing exercise in democracy, with a dynamic scope shaped by its diverse constituents – and extremely interesting to observe. Some thoughts – partly with the aim of clarifying my own thinking (a much misused benefit of a personal blog where editorial constraints don’t apply), and partly because I think this has some wider relevance. I’m going to break this into two parts – travel and the RTF Campaign (and Convention).

Part I: Travel

The Convention was in Rourkela, a small town of Orissa. The only direct train from Delhi took 28 hours to get there (when I first checked travel options, “28” leapt out at me in bold flashing red letters). Other routes were flights/faster trains to Calcutta or Ranchi, and then connecting trains from there. I cast about to find someone to travel with, with some vague notion of safety in numbers (concretely to watch my bag if I went to the loo) but everyone seemed to be leaving either too early or too late. Anyway intimidated by solo travel to Jharkhand (nearer Rourkela than Calcutta), I reserved my train for Calcutta (which in my mind has gentle (though politically and factually incorrect) imagery of soothing roshogollas and pusillanimous Bengali romances by Sarat Chandra. However as the travel date loomed closer and thoughts of stopped trains and blasted tracks crowded in my head, I switched to a flight wasting a couple extra thousand on last minute booking. As I changed my ticket, I thought of two things – what does the notion of a unified country (India) and its democratic governance mean when individual perception of vast swathes of people is shaped by arguably biased reporting many steps removed. Journalists don’t even speak the language of some of these areas, so what is reported, how is it interpreted and what is being broadcast? Democracy is essentially the collective decision making of a populace to allocate shared resources, but who decides on the equity of these decisions with a populace so disparate and disconnected? And on a more personal note, what is the relevance of good intentions if one’s scared to even go to certain areas?

Onward from Calcutta, in deference to my destination, I booked the sleeper class and climbed on to my upper berth and fell asleep. As we passed stations, we steadily accumulated people until our eight berths (3,3,2) had fourteen people with more standing in the corridor. I climbed down after a couple hours, and promptly lost my berth to a man who nimbly climbed aboard. Across from me, a fat mustachioed Chhattisgarh policeman sat complacently returning my baleful stare. Irritated at losing my berth, I demanded to know who was without a ticket. Not a peep. After some back and forth, I gathered that of the extra six, four had tickets and two didn’t. Chhattisgarh policeman and his young sidekick were without a ticket but others were waitlisted. Since the government has cancelled night trains in the area, the overflow had come into the sleeper section of day trains. This overflow is not allowed in AC compartments. This situation raises multiple questions: first, when the railway authorities know that the trains are running over capacity, why isn’t the overflow distributed uniformly across all compartments and classes? Second, why aren’t ticket prices being reduced with the consequent decrease in quality of service? It’s wrong to make more money through extra passengers from the poorest while reducing their already meager service standards. Finally, if free movement is an important civil liberty – how can state utilities be suspended ad hoc for an indefinite period? So many people traveling to the Convention were stranded halfway, with hugely delayed trains, or stuck on stopped trains. It’s not as if the danger of blasted tracks will dissipate in the next month or even as if the state is taking any concerted action to address rail security (other than the ill-advised and unconscionable Operation Greenhunt). So how can free movement for the residents of the area be curtailed so callously? In fact given that the State is battling both deep discontent and widespread distrust, extra effort should be made to improve access (for transparency, mediation and reportage) if the administration is truly intent on democratic means of resolution.

My berth group had two types of armed forces: Chhattisgarh police and Railway Force. The two ticket-less interlopers, Chhattisgarh policeman and his companion, a tall young man smartly dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, who had apparently recently taken an inspector’s exam and was going to join the District Force as a sub-inspector. There was some talk of a High Court case regarding the results, which were apparently manipulated. There was also a Railway Force policeman who came to sit in our section as a passenger disembarked at a stop after Tatanagar. A tall young man wearing a nicely creased uniform and a vest with extra bullets, carrying a rifle. Smiling around at us, he sat on alert on the edge of the berth. A young kid from a village in Karnataka, in this job ‘cause of lack of other opportunities (and he is one of the better-off with ten-acres of farmland on which his elder brother grows onions and a sister posted as a school teacher). Part of a contingent from Mumbai, posted here for three months to man the trains between stations. His face so young and innocent – I asked if he’d ever actually shot at anyone, and he said no – but maybe to reassure/assert his competence – said that he had done target practice. How can we as a society justify the inevitable loss of innocence that will come by throwing young innocent people in combat positions simply cause they have no other opportunities? Or the extreme cynicism of pitting the poor against the poor (against their long-term interest) by selectively promoting short-term individual gains to advance the interests of the rich?

The young Chhattisgarhi initiate wasn’t necessarily hardened but his conversation was instructive in how ideology and spurious competition can be used to guide behavior. Talking about the Amit Shah case, he said that the Center resents the District Force doing anything of its own volition. Moreover given that Sohrabuddin was undoubtedly a terrorist, of what consequence was the manner of his death. Someone took a complex political situation and boiled it down to a framework where this young man could seek relevance; and the added aggrandizement of moral carte blanche to mete out justice as deemed fit. Lack of opportunity; lack of training; unlimited power and search for relevance at the cost of another – is it any wonder the widespread human rights violations at the hands of armed forces?

Fortunately my train reached Rourkela almost on time and I got off. On the station I saw some women sitting on the platform with tendu leaves. Outside the station I asked a rickshaw guy to take me to Mira Bhawan. He quoted Rs. 20. I agreed. I sat down – he pedaled out the station, turned right and literally ten seconds later, Mira Bhawan. Stupid city kids. :)

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