Sunday, January 30, 2005

When do elections mean democracy?

Elections are a feature of Castro's Cuba, too. So when do elections mean democracy? With the current elections in Iraq, this question is a relevant one.

At least this much is necessary. First, it should be practicable for the incumbents, those in power, to be defeated. Second, the incumbents, defeated, should gracefully accept their defeat, and yield to the new winners.

India's democracy passed a really trying version of this test in 1977. Prior to 1977, the winner of the national elections was always the Congress, the party that had ruled India since Independence in 1947. There had been non-Congress state governments, but the central government had never been put to the test. In 1975, the Allahabad High Court ruled that the then-Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, had misused government apparatus in the previous election campaign and asked her to resign her seat. Faced with civil unrest, Mrs. Gandhi declared a state of emergency, put most of the political opposition in jail, increased government controls over the press, and suspended some civil liberties. However, two years later, she held elections that were free and fair, lost heavily, and stepped down from power.

I remember sitting awake all night, initially with my Hindi textbook in preparation for a test, listening to the radio, listening to the election returns come in. The popular singer Kishore Kumar had annoyed Mrs. Gandhi by refusing to kiss her boots, and so had been off the radio - radio in India was government-owned - for months. As parliament seat after seat fell to the opposition, and it became clear that Indira Gandhi's Congress Party was suffering a rout, Kishore Kumar songs were aired, virtually non-stop, only with interruptions for further results. That was an amazing night. Eventually my body fell asleep, and I couldn't move a finger; but I was awake, listening to the music and the news. That was the night when India proved that its democracy worked.

In the case of Iraq, the incumbent power is the occupying power, the United States. If the newly elected Iraqi assembly does not shy away from offending the US in pursuit of Iraqi interests, and if the US does not use its army to impose its will, then perhaps we can say that the first election has been a success.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The benefits of colonialism, and the way ahead


In the first half of the 19th century, there were seven famines leading to a million and a half deaths. In the second half, there were 24 famines (18 between 1876 and 1900) causing over 20 million deaths (as per official records). W. Digby, noted in "Prosperous British India" in 1901 that "stated roughly, famines and scarcities have been four times as numerous, during the last thirty years of the 19th century as they were one hundred years ago, and four times as widespread." In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis points out that here were 31 (thirty one) serious famines in 120 years of British rule compared to 17 (seventeen) in the 2000 years before British rule.

End quote.

Some of what was behind these famines:


There is another popular belief about British rule: 'The British modernized Indian agriculture by building canals'. But the actual record reveals a somewhat different story. " The roads and tanks and canals," noted an observer in 1838 (G. Thompson, "India and the Colonies," 1838), ''which Hindu or Mussulman Governments constructed for the service of the nations and the good of the country have been suffered to fall into dilapidation; and now the want of the means of irrigation causes famines." Montgomery Martin, in his standard work "The Indian Empire", in 1858, noted that the old East India Company "omitted not only to initiate improvements, but even to keep in repair the old works upon which the revenue depended."

The Report of the Bengal Irrigation Department Committee in 1930 reads: "In every district the Khals (canals) which carry the internal boat traffic become from time to time blocked up with silt. Its Khals and rivers are the roads end highways of Eastern Bengal, and it is impossible to overestimate the importance to the economic life of this part of the province of maintaining these in proper navigable order ....... " "As regards the revival or maintenance of minor routes, ... practically nothing has been done, with the result that, in some parts of the Province at least, channels have been silted up, navigation has become limited to a few months in the year, and crops can only be marketed when the Khals rise high enough in the monsoon to make transport possible".

Sir William Willcock, a distinguished hydraulic engineer, whose name was associated with irrigation enterprises in Egypt and Mesopotamia had made an investigation of conditions in Bengal. He had discovered that innumerable small destructive rivers of the delta region, constantly changing their course, were originally canals which under the English regime were allowed to escape from their channels and run wild. Formerly these canals distributed the flood waters of the Ganges and provided for proper drainage of the land, undoubtedly accounting for that prosperity of Bengal which lured the rapacious East India merchants there in the early days of the eighteenth century.. He wrote" Not only was nothing done to utilize and improve the original canal system, but railway embankments were subsequently thrown up, entirely destroying it. Some areas, cut off from the supply of loam-bearing Ganges water, have gradually become sterile and unproductive, others improperly drained, show an advanced degree of water-logging, with the inevitable accompaniment of malaria. Nor has any attempt been made to construct proper embankments for the Gauges in its low course, to prevent the enormous erosion by which villages and groves and cultivated fields are swallowed up each year."

"Sir William Willcock severely criticizes the modern administrators and officials, who, with every opportunity to call in expert technical assistance, have hitherto done nothing to remedy this disastrous situation, from decade to decade." Thus wrote G. Emerson in "Voiceless Millions," in 1931 quoting the views of Sir William Willcock in his "Lectures on the Ancient System of Irrigation in Bengal and its Application to Modern Problems" (Calcutta University Readership Lectures, University of Calcutta, 1930)


When Tarun Bharat Sangh started, in independent India, to revive some of the traditional water harvesting practices, it turned out that some of the laws introduced by the British that made it illegal for villagers to work on their village ponds and reservoirs were still in the books! The Indian Civil Service, of course, is another British institution, and has its British habits as well.

People can develop by themselves, they just need liberation from the deadening hand of externally imposed so-called progress and civilization.