Speaking of litigation: Anant Maringanti

Guest post by ANANT MARINGANTI

Speaking of successful litigation, one day after what some may call the makings of India’s rainbow coalition celebrated the Delhi High Court’s final verdict in the Naz Foundation case, agricultural workers in Andhra Pradesh celebrated a favorable interim order in the APVVU (AP Agricultural Workers Union) case. Judge N.Ramamohana Rao of AP High Court ignored the Additional Solicitor General’s objections and ordered that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme wage rates be revised up from Rs 80 per day to the prevailing minimum wage of Rs 119 (111 and 112 in some areas) per day set by the Government of Andhra Pradesh. This will remain in force for 8 weeks. Of course, a favorable interim order does not imply that the final verdict will be favorable. But it bolsters the confidence of the contestants. It is a precious gift of time for solidarity building. And in this particular case, it will put an additional amount of a whopping Rs 31-40 per each of the 100 work days in a year in the hands of those availing work under the NREGA. It did not bring tears to the eyes, but in a general clime of judicial unresponsiveness to the claims of the poor it made many heave a sigh of relief.

Behind this petition are two related campaigns of national relevance – Minimum wages and NREGA rules. Minimum wages are to be statutorily revised periodically by state governments. However, in practice state governments often flout their norms. Further, in many cases, government agencies themselves pay less than minimum wages. These are rationalized on several grounds. For example those versed in the lore of the Right to Information Campaign remember that the long march to the RTI began in Rajasthan in the early 90s, when the activists of the nascent Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan discovered to their amazement that the state government refused to pay the statutory minimum wage on the ground that the quantum of developmental funds was limited. By paying less than minimum wage, the government agencies said they were able to spread the goodies to more workers. It took the good offices of a senior civil servant in Delhi to persuade the Rajasthan government that this was sheer folly. In some cases, governments argue that revising minimum wages will result in imbalances in the economy. Often, there is simply no explanation. Changes in governments, transfers of concerned officials, rain, elections… anything can obstruct the movement of files in government offices.

In this particular instance, the Government of Andhra Pradesh delayed revision of the minimum wage by three years for no apparent reason. That is, after the 2002 revision, the next revision was effected on October 17, 2008, instead of in 2005. But quite inexplicably, the NREGS fixed its wage rate in January 2009 at Rs 80 and refused to change it. When the APVVU petitioned the High Court through Advocate Balagopal, the Additional Solicitor General raised an objection – on the ground that to become eligible for the AP revised minimum wage rate of Rs 119; workers would have to work for 9 hours a day with half an hour of break.

This objection, frivolous on first sight, looks bizarre when set against the backdrop of the crisis that has slowly engulfed many rural households in Andhra Pradesh over the last couple of decades. Essentially, in all of the villages, the soft connective tissue of collective life, the seemingly insignificant local practices of cushioning vulnerable households have worn off leaving many individuals exposed to crises and some rapidly wasting away after a household crisis – which could be anything from a medical emergency to the marriage of a daughter. Itenerant activists in rural Andhra Pradesh occasionally come back to the city with doubt gnawing at their minds – may be what they just saw and heard of was a starvation death! But in the absence of a standard definition, local officials interpret starvation quite literally. If on examination the viscera reveal traces of a meal, if the pot in the house contains a few grains, or the unwashed plate in the house has an uneaten morsel in it… it is clearly not a starvation death. Tidbids like these are captured in death certificates, in muttered complaints and entreaties from old men and women, resigned angry gestures of young men. One picks them up along the development trail, they sit among other stories of heroism, outrage, pain, surprise and wonderment in the travel kit. But one has to be always watchful –pulling out one of these half burnt stories is a surefire way to kill a party. So, one puts them away, arranged carefully at the back of one’s mind.

Historically, farm workers in many unirrigated areas in Andhra Pradesh have been able to sustain themselves through multiple strategies. Some of them had access to small patches of land gained either through customary rights or through the land redistribution in the 70s. In these patches, they planted millets which required little water and just a little tending but ensured the bare minimum of nutrition for a few months of the year. This allowed able bodied workers to leave their families behind and go to the city to seek work. Also supporting the families during such times were the small ruminants – goats. It is a standing joke among veterinarians that goats are the mobile ATMs for the poor. Families knew how to pick up edible leaves from fields under cultivation. Occasionally they could collect firewood from some of the common lands. Over the last two decades much of this has disappeared. There is nothing very romantic about any of this. The past was certainly not golden. Just that pain and suffering comes via other routes now.

Beginning late 80s, a variety of wasteland development programs transformed the rural landscape, gradually supplanting collective (if somewhat differentiated by caste hierarchies) usufruct rights with individual commercial rights. In many villages dalits who had summer cropping rights to lakebeds saw a gradual divestment of these. Open forest patches turned into community forest groups which were delimited by user group or self help group formations and excluded non members. (User groups are those who have access to some means of production. Self Help Groups are those with none. ) Complicating the story further, although not exclusively, user group and self help group categories often mapped on to caste groupings. With donor organizations’ fixation with more bang for the buck, development agencies usually concentrated on the relatively resourceful caste groups which stood a better chance of showing results in terms of resource accumulation at the end of a project cycle.

Overall, although the actual composition varies from district to district, the rural agricultural worker category everywhere comprises some of the most vulnerable social groups. For such groups, an upward revision of minimum wage can mean the difference between starvation and malnutrition. By no stretch of imagination can an interim order that puts some money in the hands of the poor can be made comparable with the Naz Foundation’s victory. The AP High Court judge’s comments are not even particularly profound. He merely cautioned the Addl. Solicitor General in the most pedantic of words. “ A 7-hour workschedule is the yardstick for earning a minimum wage in a day. If the wages paid are less than proportionate it can lead to later day claims which can be very difficult to verify.” Yet, he put 30 rupees more at the end of a 7 hour long work day in the hands of agricultural workers. At least for eight weeks when it will be reviewed in light of fresh objections by the state and central governments. I feel like echoing sentiment of the day: yay! Time to celebrate. But to be honest, words are inadequate to describe what I feel.

Disclaimer: There is no other motive to setting the APVVU in juxtaposition to the Naz Foundation, save grabbing a little preordered attention value. I am as baffled as anyone else by the apparent incommensurality of the worlds inhabited by the two. I toyed with the idea of prefacing this story with something like – “I share the joy of the Naz Foundation victory, but …” OR “while we celebrate the joy of the Naz Foundation victory, let us also cheer for …” Both conjunctives ‘But’ and ‘Also’ sound dishonest. If there is a thread in the constitution through which I can connect the Naz Foundation verdict to the APVVU interim verdict, it is so thin that I cannot quite see it. I need that thread to fall in love with the Constitution again.

10 thoughts on “Speaking of litigation: Anant Maringanti”

  1. Anant,

    If only more eyes would see it the way you see it………. Thank you for eloquently drawing the difference between a robust physiology doing a day’s work and ones that have been wasting in so many ways. That there would be diseased, sickly, or temporarily unhealthy people incapable of a day’s job, does not figure, does it? How does one count those? Starvation deaths or too lazy to work? Even to have a stone breaking, ditch digging job that pays this princely sum, one has to be in the possession of a life supported by healthy food intake for most of it and in an environment with no pathogens or with healthcare accessible.

    7 hours day, uninsured, no health care, no benefits, no cushions whatsoever and a raise of 30 rupees, maybe for 8 weeks…. I share your indescribable feelings.

  2. Thanks Anant, for this complex linking of apparently unrelated issues without trivializing either. And for reminding us in our momentary euphoria about the Constitution that it has to work much much harder to make us love it! There certainly is “magic” in those matter-of-fact words of the AP High Court judge that put 30 rupees more in the hands of the agricultural labourer after a 7 hour work day.
    What a moment for the APVVU. My salaam to the activists and lawyers whose work brought about this judgement.

  3. Loved this.

    I can only think of this order in the rhythm of hundreds of other ‘displacement and rehabilitation’ orders- some directing the the PWD, some the Land Revenue official, some the Labour Department to ensure people stay alive. Give them so much rice, tarpaulin, so much water, and save the state’s name. And not to overlook that in this battle of words, someone ensures that their body and soul are stitched together. To hell with the highbrowness of the state. Who cares?

    Judgments like Naz Foundation, or Visakha are meant in conversation with ‘citizens’. They occupy, I believe, a place where citizens enact themselves and coevally enact a constitution, state etc. Then there are judgments which are meant in parental enactment of the state’s arm (muscular or caressing) towards infantilised lives. I know it’s hackneyed, but i can’t help but think of Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the modern state being invested in continuous production of ‘bare life’ at this point. The court as one of the state machineries is constantly invested in picturing, mapping, measuring, succouring, punishing what is a key focus of their governance- ‘bare life’. But then, what the heck, why would i care for the discourse in which i am being given 30 bucks, if the 30 bucks keep me going.

  4. Thanks all for the thought provoking comments. Quickly —

    Anu- there is a dimension to this which i find very difficult to talk about. Hunger, like other bodily experiences is a private business – in a deeply emotional sort of way. We can talk about nutrition in an impersonal sort of way – just as Sinhal can talk about the mechanics of sex. But how does one talk about and respond to other people’s hunger with the dignity demanded by all the cultural codings through which it is expressed …? When somuch of it is implicit, felt at the same level as any other affective experience? People go to great lengths – some times even hang themselves rather than admit that they have been deprived of food! Likewise people can stop eating because they empathize with other’s deprivation.

    I think the difficulty in talking about this which largely goes unacknowledged is what also makes it difficult to see the connections between the Naz Foundation case and the APVVU case. One is about dignity and aspiration and the other is about material deprivation- and the two in our imaginations remain separate.

    Atreyee- thats an interesting thought – the constitution as a janus faced creature – one face coeval and coevolving in conversation; and the other that enacts the logics of the mai-baap sarkar. But I find the bare life part a bit limiting. How about drawing the connecting line through the myriad ways in which we ourselves feel compelled to engage with the two faces ?

    Also, I can see what you mean by “why would I care”. But one can also imagine a point when you stop and wonder – why has it been so bloody difficult to get this 30 rupees! At that point, the discourse which orders the indignities and uncertainties does begin to matter. The tricky part is that something about the way our lives are ordered that keeps preventing us from reaching that point and persisting with that question in a useful way.

  5. Anant, thanks for sharing this, I am slowly learning, looking at other cultures, that hunger is NOT a private business. And dignity is not compromised while this emotion is being addressed.

    As a child I lived in a coastal town in Karnataka for a short period. The town went through two cycles for fishermen; season of plenty and progressive starvation for the rest. When the Bangde was harvested, life bloomed -people, crows, cats, and happy colors, jatras everything reflected that hunger was forgotten. Boys boasted of the number of bangde they could eat at one go. As seasons moved on, servings of fresh fish progressively reduced, got replaced with dry fish, and finally to a point where only one dry fish was in the curry as mothers started to ration the amounts, followed by a time of just rice gruel, children refusing to eat without fish and mothers being reluctant to admit that there was no fish are etched on my mind.

    The towns surrounding the one I now live in (US), are rural, still bravely fighting off big corporation take over of farms. There are no homeless people but veterans, the aged and hikers are a plenty. Every little town has charities that run community kitchens, no identification is asked, you walk in on the days they are open, a meal is a given. The Churches, veteran’s societies, Salvation Army and local clubs all have their own kitchens serving people. All activity is voluntary. Round the year people have food collection camps, a small note will appear in public spaces, saying, please donate a can of food and a box is left for collection. Volunteers to drive and distribute could be college students, professors, businessmen or families. All of this is done so unobtrusively with utmost regard for the dignity of that emotion -hunger. I believe it is from Christian beliefs –to give and share.

    Thinking back, and if I compare these two experiences of small towns the coastal town had high proportion of Christians and Hindus, religious and social institutions were there, I cannot understand why such a system failed to develop. The culture of providing at least some relief for people, even though starvation was an annual phenomenon, simply did not happen, leaving hunger as a personal and not a public emotion.

    Maybe we can say we don’t share because there never was excess for most people, maybe we can say that hunger is far more personal in India. Or thinkers-givers are not able to find ways to separate the notion of begging from sharing. I refuse to believe that we are inherently callous.

    Since the current recession started to set in and jobs were being lost, food and clothes collection campaigns began with renewed force, there are messages on TV and radio constantly reminding people about the number of American children going hungry to bed and how others can help.

    So, there was an anticipation of hunger and mechanisms that run routinely simply got more fine-tuned for the changed circumstance. This is not to say that suicides may be completely prevented but it will be reduced.

    Our government and its institutions are ready to deny deaths due to starvation. Will they acknowledge hunger?

    Voluntarism, dignified treatment, a network of organizations, a society with a history of a powerful civil rights movement -all of which seems like it is too difficult a model to reproduce, even in parts. I don’t know, except that it does not have to be this way, others have found ways out to handle this basic emotion with sensitivity and care.

    In these two litigations, as far as the poor in LGBT community are concerned; dignity, aspiration AND material deprivation, the two remain completely connected in my head. How many eunuchs will be able to get a NREGA job? I wonder.

    1. Anu – you may have seen the report -“Iowa is not far from Telangana…” it is dated but a version of it is here…Vijay Prashad followed it up with some more articles on farm households….some of which were published in Frontline.

      Click to access vPrashad2.1.pdf

      I will respond over time… the points you raise are all very important and need careful thought.

      In the meantime, let me just say that the first thought that crossed my mind on reading your portrayal of the different small town contexts was this: This could very well be beginning of the centennial update on the novel – The Mainstreet…if you havent read it…here is the link to some info.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Street_(novel)

      The book is online http://publicliterature.org/books/main_street/xaa.php

      but it should be available in most libraries.

  6. Ananth,
    I agree with your view that the judgement is very partial and its effect is momentary.But as an activist very much rooted on the ground dayin and day out, I keep on noticing the agony of the people and the apathy of the beuracracy.I had to go to a village in Parkal(Waranagal), just to enquire why a farmer’s family,in which a suicide took place three yers ago, could not get a death certificate from the MRO and had to represent the matter to District Collector.Last month young farmers who brought thier paddy to market had to wait for more than 14 days in the market yard for the Civil Supply Dept. to procure.The indifference of the officials is so much that they failed to order sufficient number of gunny bags and failed to get lorries to market to take the grain.Failure of such little tasks brought on misery on the peasantry.No plotical party nor any Farmers’ Association showed concer till our group went and brought it to the notice of the Collector.We,many a time feel disgusted doing same thing, raising the same questions again and again.It is as simple as a question of governance.One should understand this.For an activist like me it is a little ray of hope to further my work in the deep labarynth of despair.

  7. Ashley Tellis has commented elsewhere
    ”..This is a middle-class judgement for middle class gay boys who run NGOs and fancy alternative law outfits, all funded and ready to party. Hence, all the talk about privacy and individuality, not community and the publicness of lives..’

    In the present post, Anant Maringatti expresses loud jubilation over an equally important judgment by the AP HC enhancing the daily wage for the agricultural worker by Rs 30/= ,which in turn had come after a pretty long course of litigation. But, you (Anant) were certainly not showing a cold shoulder to the Sec 377 Judgement of the Delhi HC.
    These two different verdicts on different issues could certainly be put in perspective, even while we juxtapose them.

    Today I came across another blog by Cynthia Stephen who apparently makes some effort to put these responses from two prominent thinkers-cum activists in a plane that would further raise as well as settle questions about prioritization of Moralities- Which kind of Morality the Constitution should prioritize, in a case of clash ? Which Morality is more important? The Public Morality or the Constitutional Morality?

    The proposition by Ambedkar for Constitutional Morality to prevail over a concept of Public Morality shows the extraordinary diligence and sharpness with which our Constitution has been drafted by him.

    Hence , it virtually serves a warning bell signifying the limits of fanciful interpretations of the constitution. Probably Ambedkar knew that the future judges of independent India were more likely to equate Public Morality with a Manu-ite sense of Morality given the predominantly Brahmanical background of the native jurisprudence. Through his writings which were the result of painstaking research on Hinduism coupled with formidable challenges in real life situations, of many of the the inhuman assumptions of caste Hindus, Ambedkar kept on flashing the basic element of his insight- in a land dominated by oft repeated discourses on the twin concepts of dharma and adharma, breach of caste was considered the greatest of all sins, the biggest adharma even graver than murder.

    Therefore, it is certainly refreshing that the Honourable Judges in delivering their verdict related to Sec 377, IPC quoted Ambedkar on his point that Constitutional Morality should take precedence over Public Morality.

    As Kalpana Kannabiran has pointed out in a similar discussion, the definition of the term Sex in Article 15 now gets a new dimension to include sexual orientation as well, apart from gender or biological Sex of individuals. Thus, constitutional guarantee against discrimination on the basis of sex ( along with discriminations on the basis of religion, language or place of birth) means protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as well, and this is what makes the judgment a landmark.

    Even though the case was filed by (an NGO? ) NAS and the jubilations were mainly done by a section of the middle class and NGOs, that might not belittle its importance, as Anant also has acknowledged. Besides, the learned judges have rightly invoked the proposition of Ambedkar in resolving the clash between Constitutional Morality and the Public Morality.

    The AP HC judgement in favour of enhancement of wages for agricultural workers certainly deserves loud applause and publicity though, I doubt whether it could be called a landmark in the sense mentioned above.
    The long pending imperative of changing a highly consequential and negative societal attitude gets a big push thanks to the HC judgment on Sec 377; again, Ambedkarian agenda of social reform and true modernity is seen honoured here by the Hon HC Judges in in letter and spirit, and this is most important than anything else.

  8. anant, thanks for sharing this. i like the connection between constitutionalisms that you draw. the common theme for the poor, dalits and the gays is indeed personal autonomy – the ability to author your life yourself. in this opinion piece, i have argued that the legal innovations in naz foundation are good for all vulnerable groups, including dalits, muslims and women. nakul krishna makes a similar argument here, responding to ashley tellis’s argument that there are no bridges between naz and dalits.

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