My brain is capable of storing and then crunching large amounts of information in a relatively short amount of time. I think I must have been equipped with one of those experimental hard drives at birth, and while it has its own blips and idiosyncrasies, it seems to have stood me in reasonably good stead over the years. It has to, especially when I try to make sense of the local politics here.
First of all: by most accounts, the Indian economy, and especially that of Tamil Nadu, is booming. You can see it in the large, glass-covered office buildings, shops with grand entrances, and three-story houses painted light green and canary, deep orange with purple accents, or my favorite fuschia. The roads are ever-more crowded, but there are new “fly-ways” and fly-leafs, overpasses, underpasses, and in-between passes designed to take the pressure off. Krishnammal says each government minister has a new mansion, their underlings new apartments, and the price of real estate has soared. They are already outgrowing the new airport. And there are no cows until one reaches the outskirts, where the new shacks of the poor, the surplus labor force necessary to build a great city, are multiplying. Krishnammal notes there are fewer cows, as there is money to be made in sending cows to Kerala for slaughter, with the meat shipped to Dubai. And when the last cow is gone, the people lose a vital link with the land.
As you drive out of Chennai towards Chengelput, the new gas stations gleam. As always, there are frames of thin wood, building platforms surrounding new buildings. But also, as always, one can’t tell whether more things are going up or coming down. The buses are jammed. But there is a new innovation over the past two decades. There used to be “ladies seats” at the front of the bus. Now, perhaps because there are so many women in the commuting workforce, the “ladies” have the left side of the buses, the men the right side. (Sathya says there is an expression: “Life is short and insecure. It is like a man seated in the ladies’ seats. One doesn’t know when a lady will appear, and he will have to vacate.”) It would be a very interesting ethnographic study to chart this change.
All is not so rosy, though, or at least not uniformly. When I was last here, a bag of rice was 13-20 rupees (the higher price being in the area of the tsunami, where the aid agencies have brought their own brand of poverty with them); now it is 31 rupees, or more. Milk has doubled, from 12 to 24 rupees per kilo. Same is true for pulses (lentils). Wages of the rural poor haven’t come close to keeping pace, and rates of malnutrition are soaring. The middlemen, but not the farmers, are the beneficiaries; the annual number of suicides among farmers now numbers in the tens of thousands (though fewer in Tamil Nadu). The price of basic building materials (cement, etc.) is soaring – I think the true total cost of a LAFTI house (granted, they are now to be larger – 450 square feet, with a bathroom and biosand filter in each) is likely around $4,100 each. I will be checking this out more carefully when I get to Kuthur.
The state government, with its 86-year-old chief minister, is very popular. They are very adept at buying votes (ethically close to neutral, as this is, for better or worse, one way people can universally benefit from their government): a vote can be worth about 1,000 rupees ($23), a sari, and cheap rice. And since at least in theory all votes are worth the same, it is highly democratic. But the chief minister’s heart is at least in a better place than that of those who preceded him.
His election manifesto for the poor was two acres of land for each landless family, a color tv set, and gas connections. (Also, cheap liquor, through which the government is making a fortune!) The tv sets were easy: his nephew (or grand nephew) runs the largest tv manufacturing company in the state. Liqour was pretty easy, too. Krishnammal says the poor spend a lot of time sitting around drunk in front of tv sets, except on Sundays, when the Pentacostal churches herd them up and pay them 30 rupees (75 cents) and a good meal to get them on a bus to find their new religion. (Let me not sound too negative on this score: the Dalits were denied entry into the Hindu temples for a thousand years, and so if they want the Dalits to become Hindus, let them pay 40 rupees!) Gas connections are not happening for people who can’t even access clean water.
As for the two acres? Well, that’s where the LAFTI scheme came from. Krishnammal negotiates the price of the land from the landlords, the government pays half, the people themselves take out a loan for the other half (and they are, to everyone’s shock, actually paying it back and quickly), and the state development corporation helps with seed, etc. We all understand that this won’t last forever, but we ride the wave as far as it will take us.
Now the government has decreed that over the course of the next several years, they will undertake to build 2.1 million houses for the poor. It sounds great, until one gets to the details. The amount allocated per house is RS. 55,000 (roughly $1,200), “enough for doors and windows”, I heard someone quip. Worse, the planned “houses” are 10’ x 10’ (the same area allocated for prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions), this for a family of five, six, seven, or more. The houses are to be made of cement with metal roofs – the temperatures in the summer will rise inside to 130 degrees Fahrenheit – people won’t even keep their goats in them. Each house is allocated 36 bags of cement. But eight bags will go to the engineer, eight bags to the local political party chief, and eight bags to the village chief. You can quickly see what will be left.
So Krishnammal is on a campaign to get the government to allocate 5,000 houses annually to LAFTI, in their two districts. Or the money for these houses which, together with the contribution of the people themselves in building the foundations, the Oil and National Gas Board donating the roofs, and you – dear friends – the cement (which has gone up from 52 rupees a bag to 250 rupees, thanks, in part, to the international aid agencies who have to build big houses for themselves.)
Oh, and while I am in beggar mode, WE NEED A LORRY (a truck, in American parlance).. We have an open-topped one, but we need a closed one to carry the fly-ash to the brickmaking site. So I am visualizing one of you out there donating the money for one. (We’ll even put your name on it!) Krishnammal has just sat down next to me. She says if that is too much, we need $1 a day for a villager to live on while s/he makes bricks.
We can do so much with so little. Visit us at www.friendsoflafti.org