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Story of the country's hoi polloi

Title: Words Like Freedom; The Memoirs of an Impoverished Indian Family: 1947-97
Author : Siddharth Dube
Publishers: Harper Collins Publishers India
Pages :297
Price : Rs 395

What have fifty years of freedom meant for the poor of India? This is the question sought to be answered by Siddharth Dube. The quest for some of the answers took him to the village of Baba ka Gaon in the depths of Uttar Pradesh. There we are introduced to Ram Dass Pasi, age 70, a scheduled caste landless labourer who has lived through it all, and his family, including his children and grandchildren. The family is a microcosm of the Indian poor, and their experiences reflect the changing fortunes of poor families throughout the country. Dube's approach to the subject is refreshing, very different from the standard mass of statistics that usually passes for a commentary on economic development. He chronicles the history of one destitute family, living in the heart of rural Uttar Pradesh. This imparts a human interestto the whole story, while the bits and pieces of social history interwoven into the narrative puts the family's experience in perspective.

Most of what Dubey has to say is not new. The stark, grinding poverty of Ram Dass' early years, the oppression of the landlords, the escape to Bombay to search for a better life, the scrimping and saving to pay for the children's education--as you read on, it becomes increasingly clear that this is not just the story of one family but the story of the masses of the Indian people. Clearly, Siddharth Dube's efforts have borne fruit.

Not that history is neglected. We are taken on a guided tour of all the major social reform movements--the Zamindari abolition, Indira Gandhi's `Garibi Hatao', the green revolution, the rise of Dalit power, and the attitude of the poor towards the resurgence of Hindu nationalism. It scarcely needs to be said that none of these top-down attempts at social reform succeeded. Dube also makes the point that they were not really intended tosucceed, being more rhetoric than substance. Even Nehru, for all his socialist pretensions, could do little about enforcing land reform, given the socio-economic character of the Congress Party.

One striking feature about the story, although not stressed by Dube, is the role of individual initiative in the Pasi family. The Pasi patriarch's work in a railway yard in Bombay enabled him to send money home and educate his son, enabling him to get a government job as a school teacher. It was the remittances from Bombay, more than anything else, which helped raise the family above destitution, helped them buy land, send their grandchildren to college, and build a house. To be sure, working and living conditions in the city are abysmal--the old man speaks of working day and night, covered in ash and soot--but they are preferable to the pittance paid for back-breaking work in the landlords' fields. Every day, migrant labourers from upcountry trek to Bombay and Delhi in search of a better life. Perhaps it is thistrek, rather than any social reform movement, which will ultimately raise the Indian masses out of their poverty.

Dubey doesn't think so. The conclusion he draws from the trials and tribulations of the Pasi family is that none of the benefits of growth will trickle down to the poor without a programme of redistribution. He advocates land reform, good healthcare and schools, and the encouragement of local democracy. Yet, as he himself concedes, the government has not done these things in the past fifty years, and the reasons for not doing them remain unchanged.

The conclusion is inescapable--unless the masses empower themselves, poverty is inescapable.

The book does offer some grounds for hope. One member of the Pasi family says that he will treat the Thakurs the way they treat him. Ram Dass says that with education, people have become more conscious of their rights. The word of the upper castes is no longer law in villages where the lower castes are in large numbers.

After all the drum-beating andchest-thumping which have marked the celebrations of a half-century of independence, the book's very different perspective comes as a breath of fresh air.

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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