There is a famous Khasi middle class story about selfishness and it goes something like this. There were a number of crabs in a bucket and they were all destined to become dinner at some point in time. The crabs knew about this and they realised that they needed to escape this horrible fate. The story goes on to tell us about how one of the crabs had somehow managed to get a firm grip on the rim of the bucket and was proceeding to pull himself out to the relative safety of the outside world. However, just as he was about to complete his great escape, the other crabs resorted to pulling him back down to the bottom of the bucket. He was, thus, doomed like the rest. The moral that many Khasi people draw from this is that Khasis are like the crabs in that they are inherently selfish and would rather pull other Khasis down rather than raise them up to greater heights or glory (or as the story goes, to freedom). It is one of those stories that Khasi middle class society has learned off by rote and which comes out often during drinking sessions. I have heard it so many times that I instinctively cringe at it when I happen to hear the familiar lines: “Ki briew jong ngi te ki long kum ki tham…”(our people are like crabs…).
So firstly, this story is about as Khasi as sliced bread or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Many people the world over use the same allegory to voice the same complaints within their own particular contexts. The conclusion is usually the same so there is nothing Khasi about this in a strict purist sense. I have heard Bodo people say it, Mizos tell each the same thing, Bengalis as well as the Assamese. Selfishness it can be argued is a universal human feature. Now the other thing is – and this might shock some of you – crabs are not human beings! We may enjoy our Jataka and Panchatantra tales but they are hardly manuals on human behaviour. What do you think is going to happen?
The story of the crabs in the bucket is actually a philosophical experiment. It is easy for the listener to condemn the apparently selfish act of the crabs in the bucket but is it so straightforward? Who is actually being selfish? The singular individual crab or the clawed throng that pulls him back? The way you look at the story depends on the type of person you are. If you are a person who prides individual achievement over collective interests then you’d side with the lone crab hero. Most people would boo and jeer at the throng for their pettiness. However, the other side of the story is this: our hero is, probably, a real selfish bastard.
It is actually unfair that the story unfolds as it does. Does it tell us how many crab heads our hero stepped on to get to the top? It is a story – like many others – about the sacrosanct virtue of individual achievement. It is a nice story and many of us identify with that crab: triumphant, glorious (and undoubtedly) egotistical. We immediately associate crowds with hysteria, violence and viciousness.
When we turn to politics, we see this very clearly. Our politicians stand over us: unassailable, irreproachable, haughty. Many of them actually come from humble settings and humble locales but you wouldn’t know it based on the way they act. These are the crabs who’ve made it to the top but whom no one dared pull down. We forget that they rose to their current heights because of the belief people have invested in them. Upon climbing up high though they have proceeded to defecate upon the same devotees. Only the businessmen and contractor friends are enjoying themselves. The “common” people have nothing but filth on their faces.
If we are going to compare crabs with humans, perhaps, another version of the ‘crabs in the bucket’ story could be as follows: the crabs organise a ‘great escape’, after many sessions of careful planning and coordination, they come up with the idea of using a distraction to fool the humans while one of their best trained crabs climbs over the wall with the help of some others. The said crab would then drop down an escape line and thus everyone could be saved. This is a nicer scenario because it argues for a better, much happier conclusion. Rather than the original story which pits individual survival against collective doom, in this version of the story everyone is saved! This version lays emphasis on the importance of teams and team-work. That the crab-hero could not be triumphant without the aid of others is understood and accepted by everyone including the hero crab.
An interesting tangent that arises from my version of the tale is this: when the crab-hero gets to the top, it has two choices – to either drop the escape line and help rescue the others or to save only its own skin and run away? Based on these two choices, certain economists, politicians and technocrats say that people – being intrinsically selfish and self-involved – would choose the latter option as it is the one that requires the least amount of work and time. It turns out to be the most “profitable”. This was essentially the situation and conclusion proposed by the mathematician John Nash in a game he helped devise called “Fuck You, Buddy!”. Through it he inferred that humans would always try to fulfill their own selfish desires; so our crab-hero must always – according to his rational logic – desert his comrades and leave them to their fate. However, the actual results of Nash’s game showed that people, in fact, did not behave like that. Most people (empirically) tried to help one another and negotiate with each other in order to achieve a collective goal or desire in the game. Can we not apply this to politics and economics as well? Why must we be drawn into false binaries which do not reflect reality and the experience of living together as a society?
The last interesting thought that I want to extract from this scenario is perhaps the most realistic. Let me repeat the query again: when the crab-hero gets to the top, it has two choices – to rescue the others or to save its own skin. In a political sense, for its own future power, the crab-hero should save the others. Their gratitude and appreciation would guarantee the hero-crab the fruits of a secure and prosperous life. The other crabs would deify him for his apparent selfishness. This is perhaps the most Machiavellian (or Chanakyan if you prefer). It is also the most ‘true-to-life’ scenario which mirrors our political world today.
There is scope for a lot of abuse of power based on this outcome. Individuals could abuse the privilege of their office to gain and accrue wealth as we see it today in Meghalaya. The key to thwarting this must surely lie in the public realising its own power. The public will have to realise that the individual desire for power is real but so too is its own power to shape and control it. Unless this happens, only doom awaits us
How can you think about the future on a day like this?
How can you study inside the house for a promotion?
When the warm air wants to lull away your memories and your sense of time;
I am listening to the Present present its case
In the blue jacaranda, the slow skin-breeze, drops of water.
I can’t remember the taste of bitterness, the cries of people in the bazaar, pain.
I know my father will teach me to swim in the black shining waters one day
I’ll forget the faces of Shillong, the words of poets I adore, I’ll forget my English;
When I resurface, father will row me across to the waiting grounds
There to quietly recite this prayer :
I want to give up human speech for the language of trees speaking love to the wind
I want to never be seen again as a man but a protruding rock on a hill
I invented a soul and may it always swirl in the skies over me
I pray the lichens and fungi accept me as their kin
May I never be grander than the moss on pine bark or the wiry orchids in the canopy
May I learn to be as capable as khasiana nepenthes
When I tire of the world of men,
May the green maiden embrace me
Scratch, bite, prick, and sting me
So that I may know myself;
Let the bamboo slivers have a drop of me
Let the thorn vines have a drop of me
Let my blood be familiar to all in the menagerie
Let it thaw into something warmer, kinder
Sister, when you hurt me,
Also fill me with the spirit to pull on,
Fill me with the air of your lungs,
The resolve of your stone
These I ask in your name.
How can Industry survive incompetent policies? The answer is ‘not very well’. In the case of Meghalaya we see this very clearly. Industry has never been a thrust area for this (and hardly any preceding) government. This is probably down to the fact that massive profiteering is easier when industry is unorganized and unarmed. If the industrial policy were ‘proper’, industrial organization would have to be proper. The result as things stand has been a ‘doomscape’ of inconsistent production and subsidy pilfering. No “planner” in the Meghalaya government talks about industry but rather individual capability, that is, an individual person or firm’s ability to raise capital, invest, generate income, and occasionally (very rarely) give employment to the local population. The truth is a wealthy individual or company does not constitute an industry.
Industry involves both Management AND Labour. Today when one talks about industry in the popular press, it is usually along the dictats of the management cadre. This cuts across public and private sectors. MNC management, IAS and PSU officers can often be seen together on TV deliberating upon industry, pointing to stats and speculating about growth and trajectory. They are at home in each other’s company in spite of the alleged animosity PSUs have with private undertakings. In fact, it appears, management within many PSUs seems hell-bent on capitulating and acquiescing towards private sector desires. Divestment, for instance, looks set to be a high priority agenda for this government at the Centre. I have heard all the arguments for divestment a thousand times before. There are just a few compelling ones. However, that aside, my main point for contention in all of this is simple: where does Labour figure in any of these plans?
Forget about the fact that robots can now do the work of a hundred men, forget about mass production and cost effectiveness for a second. Those are not too much of a factor at the moment in Meghalaya where statistically most employment is in the area of non-mechanised, intensive agriculture. What efforts has the government made in this sector at this current junction? It sends officers, engineers and ministers on ‘exposure tours’, ‘technical workshops’, ‘seminars’ etc. These in turn have a gala time clicking selfies and visiting (ahem, ahem) interesting “districts”. All this would be fine if they actually brought knowledge back and didn’t waste government money i.e. my money, your money. Now I am sure to a European, our Meghalaya officers, engineers and ministers might seem like the lumpen ignorant mass of savages they were told to expect but we, the ones from within the state, know their true nature and privilege. We know very well that our farmers, orchardists, artisans etc should be the ones going on these “tours”. After all, these are the people who actually work and struggle within these sectors. They are not a bunch of salaried, unprofessional louts who have been mismanaging the resources and futures of this state’s people.
I am not saying everyone within administration is like that, there are many hard-working people within the government. However the striking thing is how easily it is to become de-motivated within such a system. But that being said, I am hopeful that young energy shall eventually surge its way through the depressing, greyish, banal corridors of the Secretariat. These too have a role to play as an important cog within the wheel of Labour.
Up to a few years ago, employees of the government did not feel the need to worry about organizing themselves. After all, the task had already been done for them especially within Central government offices. They perhaps thought of themselves as separate from the various trade union and labour movements that were underway in different industrial sectors throughout the country. Now, I think it is safe to say, there can be no illusions. They might have felt safe at one point in time but their type of employment is under threat; the younger employees especially are increasingly drawn from the huge contract/casual reservoir and many no longer have any of the protections that their seniors enjoy. On the other hand, Management i.e. IAS, IPS, MCS, MPS etc have been gaining more and more benefits and perks at great expense to the Exchequer. A progressive government must redress this and narrow the income and benefits gap.
Eventually, a lot of jobs might become redundant. But again, perhaps this depends on the system of production and consumerism that we choose as a society. In Meghalaya, it is unclear what sort of economic development model the administration is aiming for. Will it be large scale and mechanised? Or maybe artisanal and sustainable? The government lazily waits around for some tycoon or firm to approach them and it is he/they who set the terms and conditions for investment. It is, clearly, management that is calling the shots at that stage. Between government and investor, management is speaking to management. The work force have no say in the process. And that is where shifts have to be made. Re-schooling labour and assigning more managerial roles to them should be the top priority of any progressive government. Major threats to trade unions come from within, from the complacency and reactionary attitude many have towards their own industry. Most of the time, negotiations happen after an event has been initiated by management, but who says that should be the case? Labour always needs re-skilling.
Meghalaya is suffering because Labour is suffering. The attitudes and world-views of our work-force have been shaped by years of anti-labour policy and departmental inactivity. Instead of organizing within their respective sectors, our employees and workers have had to outsource their grievance redressal to outfits like the various pressure groups. Instead of coal miners organising, we call the KSU; instead of cement plant workers coming together, we call FKJGP. These outfits have never empowered the sectors from within by instructing Labour to organize itself. Instead, they have assisted them just enough so that a dependency is created. Thus labour unions have never really taken the stage for themselves in this place. They have simply become part of the noise.
The greed of the management cadre coupled with their inefficiency stemming out of their ignorance has been disastrous for the state economy. Officers might sanction the creation of a farmer’s market place for example but will not pursue plans for marketing of the products there. The chain between farm and fridge is never realised and the project ultimately ends in a quagmire. As a manager shouldn’t one seek the organization of Labour for the sake of smooth functioning and efficient production? But that is where it gets interesting. I personally don’t think just organizing labour into unions is such a great idea. We need the unions to think along the lines of the managerial cadre as well. Simply organizing worker into a union might not always be such a great idea. They are not automatons after all. But in no small measure, the future seems to be headed towards making them as such. Intervening now and infusing new ideas into them would be a crucial task.
Business and economic planning in Meghalaya is arguably the most neglected area of governance by past and present policymakers. Now, there are a number of problems within the entire topic. There is immense wastage of energy and time, inefficiency, corruption on a sinful scale. The officers are drowned in oft-times pointless paperwork and become indifferent while the MLAs use the misery and poverty of people as an excuse to accentuate their supposed nobility and generosity, when they deliver umbrellas and blankets to the constituency. It is a cyclic nightmare. None of the people will escape poverty and the rich will continue to dominate elections.
No one wants to give serious thoughts to creating a Meghalaya which is self-sustainable and economically independent. Forget the pre-election rhetoric, the policies do not reflect it. To actually initiate such a task would require work, will power and actual thinking! A Meghalaya that stands on its own two feet is a Meghalaya where the citizens stand on their own two feet, and that my friends, is dangerous for the dominant power structure. An economically confident citizen is not going to simply follow what is ordered from above without questions. Such a citizen would have the means to critique Power. This is why an economically feeble state is such a danger to the democratic ideal. I am aware that there are a number of other threats. After all, even economically powerful states and countries have to deal with other dangers to their democratic apparatuses. Europe is a good example currently. However, as any good Wiki Marxist comes to realise: in the last instance, it is the economy.
Going back to the broad topic of economic planning, I would like to talk about a single but crucial issue that keeps coming up: capital, or the lack of it. I would like to build upon this with an example. There is a shop in Laitumkhrah which initially opened up as a retailer of specialty baked goods (in this case, cookies). Their products were priced along the lines of similar establishments in the major cities like Delhi. Needless to say, the shop didn’t flourish. After all, there are a number of other local purveyors of baked goods which have been selling their wares for half the price that the shop was offering. It was forced to shut down after a while. This would have been the end of the story – had the proprietors been Khasi/tribal. I know how that last sentence sounds but please read on. The same shop space later transitioned into a boutique (if I remember correctly) which also failed to attract customers. Finally in its last and latest avatar it came out as a cafe and since then it has become a popular eatery frequented by tourists and college goers.
Now as I said earlier had it been a Khasi/tribal business, in all probability it would have rolled down its shutters forever and a new tenant would have taken up the space. The lesson we must learn from this story of the trans-mutating store is this: when people have capital, they can afford to innovate. Or it can also be argued that a conducive environment allows for experimentation, but I want to look specifically at the issue of capital and its availability.
The cafe in my story is owned and operated by a Marwari businessman. The ability that the businessman had to continue paying rent in spite of bad sales indicates his financial capacity. A capacity that few tribal businesses can compete with. There are many sad instances that I have personally seen where the promise, excitement (and perhaps naivete) of a new undertaking quickly gives way to dejection and finally abandonment. Many Khasi parents are quick to further their children’s dream of being financially independent by shelling out the cash needed to set up a business. These are usually out of their own savings. Now, one must be very practical with money: can the business survive in the marketplace against constant competitors and toughened veterans? Would it be money well spent? Business literacy seems to be the need of the hour. The cafe in Laitumkhrah, for the Marwari businessman, is probably a diversification of money he has made from the ‘unglamourous’ and ‘uncool’ shop he keeps which sells dal and chini in Iewduh. It is based on risks which he can afford to take.
One must also keep in mind that the Marwari community like many successful trading communities has traditional institutions that aid it. Their community can ‘move’ money from project to project in an informal but highly efficient “banking system” which was honed over hundreds of years. This makes it extremely easy for them to access capital from anywhere, provided that the proposal is sound. How do tribal businesses compete with years of such experience (and money) if there is no helping hand from the government? Government intervention in economic affairs must surely extend into areas beyond infrastructural development! A policy of ‘positive discrimination’ would ensure that the current economic state of affairs does not spin wildly out of control. Measures like rent allowances (or control) for young start-ups, orders guaranteeing floor and shelf space for local produce are just some of the ways that a smart and progressive government would take.
If you look carefully you might notice that most protests in the state are, at the core, economic agitations. The ILP imbroglio, the predicament with the hawkers and many others are all economic issues. The government CANNOT absorb every single resident of the state into its service. It would be ludicrous for it to try. It must promote and regulate private enterprises. Especially the small and medium scale enterprises which are usually (I might be terribly wrong) tribal enterprises. Easy access to capital is one of the most important ways to ensure that these businesses are nurtured and reared properly. Right now, government policy with regards to banking sector practices more or less ensures that only the already wealthy tribal elites get their hands on capital. It is very hard for the people who need investment to get their hands on it. Instead of judging a proposal based on its merits and demerits, the only thing that seems to matter to banks is that one must have heavy-weight ”guarantors” for everything. What happens to those who don’t have any guarantors? The current manner of running financial institutions within the state is creating an inequality which we have never before seen in our tribal society. It will tear this society apart and I don’t think it is hyperbolic to imagine such things. The government has been impotent for too long in planning out poverty, in addressing unemployment, in mitigating income gaps. Ensuring the proper dispersal of capital investment into crucial areas would surely be a major step in righting the wrongs.
The jungle is a torture chamber. Anyone who goes on rigorous nature walks will tell you. Within it you can be stung, pricked, cut, torn, stabbed, injected, bitten. It is humid and asphyxiating. Everything is fighting everything else and you soon join battle yourself as you slash along. Creepers smother smaller plants, the tall trees refuse to share light, the floor is covered by rotting leaves and mutilated insects. The jungle thrives because of these struggles for life.
Yet in spite of its brutality, I am full of affection for the jungle.
“I love it, I love it very much but I love it against my better judgement” says Herzog in Burden of Dreams. I also love the jungle.
For me, being in the jungle, has nothing to do with “being a man” but more about seeking out the human being under the layers of modernity. Being in the jungle, one is confronted with the reality of existence. It is a reality that is about diurnal calculations, signs of the river, hints at a passing, smells on the wind and knowing one’s own limits. The jungle makes you aware of how heavy you have become, how ungraceful and unbalanced, how tar-filled your lungs are. It will smash your teeth on a rock if you are too quick, it will smash your elbow in if you overreach. It is a critical mother who does not care for us, and somehow we are driven forward by her sneering. We love her like a hostage loves his captor.
We become more appreciative of company within the jungle. It reminds us of how terrible, isolation can be and how sweet the companionship of other people is. It is misery – ineluctable and embedded – that brings us together. Within the woods, our deadliest phobias – of fangs, spikes and claws – rush at us and we are forced towards a camaraderie.
Clutched together, against this maddening orgy of thorns, vines and webs, is it any wonder that our first ancestors were troglodytes? They must have sought out the dark because the jungle could not grow there. They sought out the cold, black void of the caves to shelter them from the chaos of the jungle.
The jungle is the greatest experimental lab in the world. It is the direct and violent opponent of the garden. To quote Herzog again, in the jungle, “Creation is unfinished”. This is true, Creation – Biblical and grand – could only take place in the garden. Paradise – derived from the Persian word pardesu – that is a ‘walled enclosure’, that is, a garden, cannot dream up the monstrosities of the mad jungle. But it is a monstrosity borne out of necessity. The garden, paradise, in comparison, is a control set – an enclosure designed to hold its in-mates – with the hope of erasing any traces of savagery. But the jungle stays on inside.
In his poem, The Common Life, W H Auden reminds us that the life we have today is only possible by the presence of “… the very latest engines, for keeping Nature at bay”. The only way Men may control the jungle is to slash at it, to burn it into the ground. You cannot control the jungle while it’s transpiring. You must kill it if you want some respite.
Even then, its agents – the mosquitoes, flies and snakes – sneak over the parched earth into human habitation on an hourly basis. Every day the jungle is at war with us trying to reclaim the spaces we have won from it. The old buildings of Calcutta know this all too well. Like a parasitic cordycep, ficus plants perch atop these buildings whilst their tendrils rip into the brick-and-mortar flesh. The struggle continues.This is how the jungle makes us humble.
Man cannot triumph over the jungle because we are not separate and distinct from one another. The jungle is part of us and we – though we fear to admit this – are a part of it.