“Untouchability is much more than the ‘social evil’ it is comfortably reduced to”
P Sainath

“Untouchability is much more than the ‘social evil’ it is comfortably reduced to”

Vishnu Harikumar, a first-year student at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) emailed P.Sainath with a request – a short piece of writing for their college magazine, Terra Firma, which translates to firm or solid ground. You can read the heartening e-mail exchange below.

Dear sir,

I am a PRM38 first-year student at IRMA, Anand and also a member of the magazine committee here. Me and all of us here have been avid followers of PARI’s activities through your website and YouTube. Many of us here keep ‘Everybody loves a good drought’ as our Bible to return to for consolation and solace at moments of doubt. We have held multiple reading sessions reading chapters out at midnight in our small circles. We have watched ‘Nero’s guests’ a million times and each viewing induces pangs of guilt at being the banal guests over and over again in life.

We are trying this year to reach out to a wider audience through our college magazine ‘Terra Firma’. It’d be an honour and a privilege if you could write something for us. We don’t expect a full article or something from you. We know that you’re busy and this is too much of a demand ( bordering on irreverence) but we would be eternally grateful if you could give us a small piece or just a  message that would enlighten our pathways. We would be delighted if you could talk about the relevance of barefoot managers( if you still find any) or any topic related to rural India.
We apologise for taking your valid time and looking forward to hearing from you.
Thanking you
With regards
Dear Vishnu,
Thanks you very much for your mail and kind words. It is heartening to realise time and again that my work has the kind of impact you mention  – this is an important reassurance for me.
For your magazine:
It’s good to know your magazine is called Terra firma, as being on solid, firm ground. Sadly, much of the world of the last four hundred years has been established on the doctrine of terra nullius, ‘nobody’s land,’  and that principle justified the most barbaric chapters of genocide as in north America and Australia. (do read the powerful book by the People of terra nullius by Boyce Richardson on  how this unfolded in Canada). The coloniser simply held that the land they were occupying belonged to nobody  –  so they were the first claimants – and no humans were settled there, placing the native and aboriginal people in the ranks of sub-human or non-human. It’s worth remembering this as you explore your pathways as a magazine.
In a sense, the doctrine of terra nullius still persists, albeit in newer forms. We displaced millions of people from their homes each decade in independent India –  always poor, weak, marginalised and defenceless humans. The understanding was that this was possible, justifiable and, above all, they were too weak to strike back, too unseen and shut out in the media – and who gives a damn, anyway? That was and remains the attitude of the strongest sections of the Indian elite. Adivasis form only around 8.2 percent of the population in the Census of India 2011, that is close to 85 million human beings. But they make up more than 45 percent of those uprooted by the country’s major projects.
Likewise, our society itself has deeply embedded inequalities: of class, caste and gender. We often consciously disable and actively discriminate against our own fellow citizens. Nowhere in the world, for instance, does a system like Untouchability exist and persist on such a gigantic scale, used to exclude and demoralise nearly 170 million fellow human beings. Untouchability is much more than the ‘social evil’ it is comfortably reduced to. It is an incredibly cruel and sophisticated form of exploitation that seeks to create a permanent and perpetual gene pool of cheap, demoralised labour.
Or take the inequalities relating to women. Most of the work in agriculture (sowing, transplantation, harvesting, threshing, crop transportation from field to home, food processing and also dairying) is done by women. But  – against the legal position  – we deny women ownership rights in land and do not accept them as farmers. And where great movements that fight against poverty and for gender justice arise, as with the Kudumbashree movement in Kerala, we ignore their success and importance.
Yes, taking managerial skills to rural communities is essential  –  and I am sure all of you will do that with the greatest enthusiasm. But what you do has to be developed with, built upon their own genius, context, and experience. It has to blend in with that.
I think you will find the most important pathways are those searching for justice and equality. I hope your exploration of them will be for and with the peoples of the new terra nullius in their battles against inequality and injustice.
warm regards