Touring the Indian countryside

Several months back I wrote about a road trip I took to the countryside, spending time in farms and talking with rural folk. The essay, “In random conversations with farmers”, received a lot of positive feedback for reasons that still elude me. However, since I went on a similar trip earlier this month, I thought it would be a pleasant idea to share my experiences once again.

To me, calling it the “Indian countryside” has often seemed redundant. Most of this country qualifies under that term. Urbanity is the minority here, so perhaps this essay should have been titled “A trip away from urbanity”. Nonetheless, I was out a little late in the morning, heading northwest. The roads were free from traffic, but the potholes made sure I had no other conveniences whatsoever. The occasional bus shuttling from village to village was all that I came across. These busses are often painted bright red, and are dear to the villagers — unless the driver happens to run over some cattle — to the point where they deck it with thousands of flower garlands covering the windshield.


This part of the district is yet to see any development. This has two consequences: the people are nicer, not nouveau-riche, and there are still dedicated farmers with beautiful farmlands. The problem, however, due to fragmentation over generations is that farms in India are now mostly minuscule by comparison to those in Europe or America. This, in turn, means lower likelihood of even partially good yield, which means most farmers end up earning extremely little over the year — something no government seems to understand or even talk about.


Things are about to change, though. A minor highway is scheduled to be built this year (read, this decade — given the snail’s pace at which the government works). A lot of villagers seem excited about the prospects. This means more money, as their relatives further east have narrated to them: tales of the government taking away parts of their land to build roads, paying huge compensatory fees in return, which sordidly prompted a lot of farmers to sell the remainder of their land as well for even more cash, and they are rich. For now.

A farmer ploughs his land, overlooked by a lone, young tree.

A farmer ploughs his land, overlooked by a lone, young tree.

Starkly missing are trees. Talking to a few locals about them, I got similar replies. “These trees,” says one, pointing at some teak, “fetch good money. You can sell them, but they actually give us a lot of savings when used in our own houses.” Transporting wood from the city works out to be expensive, they tell me. The alternative is to chop off two of the branches and they’ll have enough wood for all the windows at home, and one of the fatter branches will make a nice door. The rest of the tree gets sold. Today, spotting a tree that is not either pitifully young or uselessly thorny is rare.

Guess where all that wood came from.

Guess where all that wood came from.

It is not only problems in vegetation or cultivation that have held them back. Most families here are broken up, not least because some relative struck it rich because his land was smack dab in the middle of where a highway should have been. Now he shows off. Consider the case of a farmer whom I will refer to anonymously, out of dignity, as X. He arranged his son’s marriage a few years back with a lot of pomp — wholly funded by a section of farmland that he sold for this purpose — and the whole village was around his house, feasting, celebrating, congratulating. Last year the lady, his daughter-in-law, eloped with another man.

Not X.

Not X.

Now a pot-bellied habitual drunk, X shuffles around his 20 acre coconut and areca palm plantation, lush green, with ample water supply (something other farmers, including his neighbours, envy him for) desperately waiting for a buyer. He has had enough, he says, all thanks to his sorry family and the disgrace his daughter-in-law brought him — although you will find almost no other villager in the region looks at it as anything other than tough luck — and he wants to sell his land and settle down elsewhere. He reckons he will earn enough to last him his lifetime. Careful calculation (or even gross approximation for that matter) will quickly show this is a delusion. Selling all his land will fetch him neither a suburban home nor a flat in the city. But he remains close-minded.

Fertilisers being diluted before being sprayed on crops.

Fertilisers being diluted before being sprayed on crops.

Further west, towards the river Kabini, the same villagers who pray for one form of development also celebrate how they stopped another form of it. “This land is safe”, one of them tells me, clearly having no bearing on how bureaucracy works, “the government had a hydel project planned here, but we protested and got it cancelled and moved it to Raichur”. He is referring to another underdeveloped city in the northeastern part of the state, home district of the former chief minister of Karnataka, who, in all likelihood, moved it there to secure votes, not to please locals here. The protest movement these villagers speak of went unreported in the news because a shift in leadership was taking place at that time, with the state in political turmoil; and almost anything that happened during those months — it is both safe to assume and readily apparent with one look at the events leading up to the last elections — had ulterior political motives completely unrelated to any protest by any farmer in this region.

A river that has dried up for the season. When full again, the electric poles will partly be submerged and often result in a blackout. And it still takes everyone here, and the government, by surprise.

A river that has dried up for the season. When full again, the electric poles will partly be submerged and often result in a blackout. And it still takes everyone here, and the government, by surprise.

As far as shoddy governance goes, there is one example too many. Electric wires in the middle of nowhere, electric poles rooted through rivers, waiting to be overturned, metal hooks that most villagers illegally attach onto wires to draw current from, vandalised street lamps, and, like a blessing for nobody, uncannily strong 3G connectivity. Most people here do not even own smartphones.

Perhaps the only pleasant thing about the countryside is the countryside itself. The rich greens, the blue skies slowly desaturating as the monsoon clouds near, a musical little brook, the constant song of birds competing against the incessant chirp of crickets make for an unforgettable day. When you get back to the city, you find yourself wishing to overlook all its problems and disappear in the lap of nature, as, at least every now and then, you probably should.

Visit my Flickr for more photographs, besides the ones accompanying this essay. And goats.

Munnar

This is not so much a travelogue as it is a bunch of random thoughts penned in conclusion to my recent trip across the Switzerland of the East. I have always loved clouds and fog and coniferous trees, and I was surrounded by all these for the past few days. (This article only has a few photographs; you can find others on my VSCO journal which I will soon publish my VSCO journal entry.)

Continue…

Telangana etc.: why the Andhra Pradesh statehood movement is a hornet’s nest

Smaller states have generally been richer. The World Bank’s list of top countries by GDP put Luxembourg, Macau, Qatar, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland right at the top five, in that order. They are some of the smallest countries on Earth; in fact, the largest, Norway, is only the 61st largest, and most others fall around the 140th-160th mark.

Smaller states are also easier to govern. The population density is lower, the government can juggle funds better, generally everything becomes more transparent and understandable when we speak in millions rather than billion-trillions.

Conversely, larger states are easier to ignore. Larger land area means a greater risk of some regions being better looked after for no apparent reason other than proximity, geographic location, climate and such — none of which local residents have control over.

Enter KCR

One calm day of early December 2009, a 55-year-old Mehboobnagar MP, Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao, decided to go on a fast and take the country down with him. His fast was a weapon to etch the state of Telangana occupying 10 of Andhra Pradesh’s 23 districts. He also made sure that his hometown of Hyderabad would be included in the proposed state.

The main reasons given to justify the creation of a separate state were historic circumstances — Telangana spoke Telugu in times of Hyderabad state (1724-1948) — and the alleged suppression of Northern Hyderabad. KCR, as Mr K. Chandrashekhar Rao is popularly known, previously resigned from the Teugu Desam Party to form his Telangana Rashtra Samithi citing suppression as a reason.

Aren’t there other factors?

Although the Telangana movement started in 1969, and pulsated from 2004 to 2009, it was not until KCR stepped in that people began taking things seriously. The man is currently eyeing the chair of Telangana’s first Chief Minister and looking for complete credit for the formation of the state. The Andhra Pradesh reorganisation bill having been passed in both houses, all that remains is a mere formality — the president’s signature.

In spite of its several years of existence, the formation of Telangana seems more personal and emotional than carefully thought out. For instance, Telangana has opted to give up a coastline. It has lost power plants and three out of Andhra Pradesh’s four electricity distribution utilities. But supporters of Telangana should have learnt a thing or two from the exact opposite incident that happened with Chattisgarh: the newly formed state took home all of Madhya Pradesh’s major power plants and let the parent state lying with a need of literal rejuvenation.

Look around

Dire as it may seem, with Prime Minister, Mr Manmohan Singh’s, special package of tax concessions and extra funds for underdeveloped parts of Seemandhra, finding a new capital and developing it in ten years will be easier than many think, simply because Seemandhra is not starting anew. Vishakhapatnam is an extremely suitable capital for the Southern Andhra Pradesh state, what with it being a major seaport and a fairly well developed city, infrastructure- and education-wise.

Ironically, Telangana is putting itself in a worse position, opting to start off with hardly any power sources, absolutely no sea port, landlocked between Chattisgarh, Orrissa, Seemandhra, Maharashtra and Karnataka — states with a combined population bigger than the United States; states with problems of their own that will be in no mood to assist Telangana’s growth.

If neighbour Chattisgarh or the mountaneous northern state of Uttarakhand at all inspired Telangana’s formation, it must be quickly realised that Telangana itself is really more akin to Jarkhand — once part of Bihar and now a struggling economy, while Bihar itself is growing pretty impressively (the state grew 12% in the last seven years).

Aftermaths the government ought to fear

What few fail to see is that doing practically anything with Andhrapradesh — now Telangana and Seemandhra — will inevitably provide a lease of life to nearly twenty-five statehood movements patiently waiting to erupt. A green light for Telangana will also be a green light for them to start making demands, fasting, dying (supposedly as martyrs) etc. Here is a map:

Statehood movements in India. Courtesy, Maps of India

Statehood movements in India. Courtesy, Maps of India

That would be like stirring a hornet’s nest. India will soon go from having 29 states to mothering over 35, should all uprisings have their way. This is definitely a hard matter to deal with, but only so long as political parties have vote shares in mind. Every state broken will leave a party with one supporting and one opposing state. A much better solution is to provide temporary funds exclusively to those parts who believe they are suppressed and then ensure better administration.

Statehoods are really quick and dirty solutions with short-term profit to the states themselves, that ultimately weigh down national economy on the  long run. With India’s population growth rate, Telangana’s current 35 million number will increase dramatically by the 2050s and the governing troubles that it faces today will return to haunt it.

The Economist suggests a “a new commission to decide how to reorganise states, for it would be a mistake to leave it to politicians always thinking about the next election.” If such reorganisation is indeed left to executive bodies, perhaps more promising puzzle pieces may be cut out of India, paying attention to resources and geography rather than personal trivialities. It is time everybody thought of the country as a whole, or risk sinking India into an abyss.

The sorry state of Indian politics: AAP v BJP

Aam Admi Party’s (AAP) attention-seeking has taken to new heights. When protests followed a 30 min detention of the party leader and then reverberated across three states, one was left wondering what all the fuss was really about. Mr Kejriwal’s breaking the election code of conduct, Mr Modi’s attempt at suppressing his political rival, or Mr Kejriwal’s desperate attempt to make people believe Mr Modi was trying to put him down?

Digging up the past

It seems any movement against Mr Kejriwal’s brief detention was uncalled for simply because the man has bigger problems: there are at least five well-documented cases against him, somehow happily ducking out of any court’s view.

And Mr Kejriwal’s over-ambitious plans to rake in all voters at all costs is proving increasingly irritable. Fellow leader, Yogendra Yadav’s, words sound almost silly, if not staged:

“Kejriwal was going and he had no flags or wasn’t with any candidate. He was not even doing any type of campaigning for polls. Police stopped him and took him to police station… If this kind of behaviour is given by Gujarat to a former Chief Minister of a state, I don’t know how Gujarat government is flaunting about the law and order of their state”

This all comes down to the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Mr Kejriwal may have had no flags or candidates on his side, but the “aam admi” that he is, he was traveling in a motorcade (which he probably reckons is a perfectly normal thing for a common man to do) and for somebody whose face is arguably quite familiar — even in Mr Modi’s home state — moving about so and stopping every now and then may be easily mistaken for political campaigning.

That also explains the cops’ 30 minutes long detention: (although purely conjecture at this point) it is not unlikely that they were merely clearing up matters.

Modi’s fear

It would not seem far fetched that conveniently being arrested in an arch rival’s state was benifical to Mr Kejriwal in more ways than one. He could, for instance, heroically tweet the following statement:

(His twitter account famously claims that a “political revolution in India has begun.”) Now, I would completely understand if Mr Kejriwal’s defense was that he was unaware of the election code of conduct. It was, instead, more a placement of blame than clarification of anything. Throwing stones and apologising rarely undoes the damage to BJP’s offices and the AAP itself, one of which is fast gathering a violent, anarchist-driven image for itself that it will soon find hard to shed.

Following this, Rupashree Nanda, a CNN IBN correspondent made the following tweet:

Firstly, the police has no political adversary. Secondly, being a former CM does not count under any law related to this matter. Thirdly, AAP has not presented any substantial evidence of BJP’s (or exclusively Mr Modi’s) involvement in what is a police decision. But AAP is not a stranger to such outrageous, unsubstantiated claims. Here, for example, is party member Manish Sisodia, who suffers from what those who did not know better might call identity crisis (he says he is not sure if he is “a politician, activist, reader, writer, journalist, or..” but is a follower of Gandhi):

Mr Sisodia is not the only follower of Gandhi in AAP. In fact, at some point or other, the whole party has probably made that claim. But they all seem to have dramatically mis-read Mohandas K Gandhi’s intention and approach. Also, having M.K. Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, in the party is not the same as having M.K. Gandhi’s support, but the “Gandhi” brand name is a trump card in AAP’s hand, most likely waiting to be dealt against Congress in the coming days.

A case of immaturity

The recent protests have highlighted the lack of differences between AAP and their so-called ideological rival, BJP. Mr Kejriwal’s apology does not strengthen his case. He previously rose to fame as a result of Gish galloping (as other parties claim) — or spreading, to use the more formal debating term — and now that that strategy has turned stale, the AAP, like any infant organisation, believes having the limelight on itself will help it race ahead in the coming election — particularly in Gujrath.

Mr Kejriwal had better times in places like Haryana, where his speeches were met with praise and applause. But Gujrath was always pro-Modi for whatever reason, and the fact that Mr Kejriwal was greeted with black flags on four separate occasions in four cities in Gujrath probably made him feel a lot more like Simon than Gandhi.

Many AAP members are acting as popularists, tweeting pictures and thoughts about places they visit rather than do anything about it. True, with 33 million users, India has the second largest presence on Twitter; but that would be painting a wrong picture. In earnest, 33 million is a mere 32% of India’s population. Now, remember that not all 33 million are active, and fewer still devoutly follow AAP, making the party’s reach a lot lesser than they believe.

But this is only one of many such trips and falls AAP is trying to veil with baseless accusations. As the party itself told the Daily Bhaskar of Gujrath, “During his first visit to the state, Kejriwal is likely to travel extensively in Gujarat for the first three days and on the fourth day address a public meeting in the city.”

I doubt addressing public gatherings would fall under any category other than campaigning.

Photographic grittiness: justifying what we leave out of the frame

This is one of those Ah, I’ve figured it out! moments you get when you think you stumbled upon the key to a secret treasure. Only, there are so many of them that this becomes just another I think this is how it’s done… maybe? moments.

It is alright if you followed none of that, because that flowed unchecked from the back of my mind. But I think what I have come to realise in framing a photograph today will cause me to make a pretty huge turn in my photographic endeavours.

Oftentimes I am guilty (as I am sure you are too) of leaving out certain things from my frame for whatever reason. But I think only about 60% of the time or thereabouts we do this for a real cause: composition, light, the whole assortment of technical reasons.

And then, the rest of the time, we leave it out because we just do not like it. A hanging wire, a cracked wall, a broken pane, a stray leaf, and the list can go on. These have come to be subconscious decisions of cleanliness rather than aesthetic. A cracked wall, many of us believe, will somehow wreck out photograph; that it will somehow make our photograph look like it stemmed from a poorer locale. The same with a broken window pane, for instance.

What I notice about many people shooting a country like India, is that they attempt to make it look better than it is. Indeed there are parts of the country’s urban belts that are no less modern, high in tech or global than a so-called first-world metropolis. But the other side of India — the one National Geographic is so fond of showcasing — is something many photographers shy away from.

The best illustration I can think of is when I made the photograph below. I decided to make the place look alive more than photogenic. But then I went ahead and made this photograph of the same place anyway, as a more artistic twist. (You can always see more on my portfolio. Also, the large building here is an oriental carpets store — wow!)

To make it look good or to make it look alive

To make it look good, or to make it look alive

I am just as guilty of this as the next fellow. In fact, I have seen far too many people who decided not to shoot a doorway because it was so common, so mundane. Or a wrecked old tonga because — what’s interesting about a wrecked old tonga? I think this is answered in much the same way as why Mr N!xau’s character from The Gods must be crazy was so taken aback by a Coke bottle and why you and I are not.

However, what interests a global audience (such as the one your photographs are subject to when uploaded to the internet) is precisely that which we think is commonplace. A metropolitan skyscraper, except for its geometric identity, is far less awe-inspiring to a global audience (who have probably seen a skyscraper in their own city, to say the least) than a stray buffalo.

But nobody really up and shoots a stray buffalo on camera, because… buffalo?

Perhaps that was all extreme, but one thing I have learnt from looking at so many legendary photographers make photographs of India is that they showed the country as it was, not as they thought it would be. But, more importantly, India here is only a namesake. In general, in all of photography, I think if we paid a little more attention to what we photograph than what we think we are photographing, the results would surprise us.

Art photography is highly subjective, so I do not expect somebody trying to weave, say, minimalism (myself included) to adapt this approach 24×7. But when we are trying to depict a place (as we do every once in a while) we ought to try to show it as it is, albeit through the magic of our lens and our eyes, being careful not to repaint it altogether. This may seem similar to abusing Photoshop but, trust me, this is far worse.

So I for one will make sure I include that little element I was too quick to judge as a defect because maybe it will enrich my photographs like I never thought before. How ever your edits end up, it’s time your compositions are bold and gritty.

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