News Update 04/12/2004

Rising aspirations

The advent of coalition politics at the Centre has enabled regional
parties to move centre stage from the peripheries of the political
system. Some of them have traditionally represented regional
aspirations, s ome are shrunken forms of erstwhile national parties,
and some others bank on caste or communal sentiments. On the eve of
Elections 2004, a look at their records and prospects.

Growth beyond a caste base

THE one development that changed the political discourse in the
country and threw up caste-based outfits in the process was the
unleashing of the Mandal Commission Report giving 27 per cent
reservation to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) by former Prime
Minister V.P. Singh in 1990. Its implementation, it can justifiably
be said, changed the shape of the polity from a two-party system to a
multi-dimensional structure in which every caste and sub-caste pushed
and shoved for its own share of the political space. This led to the
emergence of caste-specific parties.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), viewed as "Yadav-
centric" when it was formed in October 1992, along with the Bahujan
Samaj Party (BSP), stood politics in the State on its head, thereby
reversing in the process the earlier brahminical order promoted by
the Congress culture. The focus shifted from the traditional
hierarchy to one based on numerical strength. Share in power as per
numerical strength became the norm.

The fact that the S.P., which fought its first Lok Sabha elections in
1996, could thwart the Congress(I) from coming to power in 1999
speaks for the changed political dynamics of the country. The
emergence of regional parties brought about this change and these
parties and their leaders have increasingly dominated the country's
politics since then. V.P. Singh saw nothing wrong in this and said
the polity only came to "reflect society in actuality".

According to him, the pre-Mandal political system was based on the
domination by upper-caste Hindus of OBCs and all that he did was to
end that. "Once the OBCs realised the power of their vote, the
dynamics changed. But the idea was not to stop at this but to bring
about change in society as well," he said, adding that the agenda is
still incomplete. "Politics can have two purposes: power and change.
Right now everyone is bothered only about power. A time will come
when there will be somebody who will bring about change," he says.

Interestingly, the rise of the S.P. is inversely proportional to the
fall of the Congress(I) in Uttar Pradesh. In the 1996 Lok Sabha
elections, the S.P. captured 20.83 per cent of the vote, which was
wholly at the cost of the Congress(I). The Congress(I) could manage
only 8.14 per cent of the vote and five seats. This was the same
number of seats it bagged in 1991, but with a vote share of 18.3 per
cent. Its performance remained equally dismal in the 1996 and 2002
Assembly elections, with a vote share of 8.35 per cent and 8.96 per
cent respectively, while that of S.P. got 21.80 per cent and 25.37
per cent respectively.

In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the S.P. secured 24.86 per cent of
the vote. The BSP got 22.08 per the BJP 27.64 per cent and the
Congress(I) 14.72 per cent. One reason for this voting pattern was
that OBC voters moved to the S.P. and the BJP from the Congress(I)
and Dalits went to the BSP. Even the minorities deserted the Congress
(I). Upper-caste Hindus had already shifted base to the BJP. This
left the Congress(I) with no vote base.

Looking at the caste-based support, the minorities too started voting
tactically and that was one of the reasons for the success of the
S.P. and the BSP. While the S.P. commanded the support of the
numerically strong Yadavs, the BSP had the consolidated support of
Dalits. The same trend has continued since then, with each caste
group voting along expected lines.

But do these parties, which enjoy a dominant role in politics, have a
national vision at all? For the record, while the BSP's national
vision is sarvjan ka hit (welfare of all), the S.P. dreams of an
India "with the N-bomb so that it has the strategic balance in its
favour" and a "global government and a world without boundaries",
says the S.P. president and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam
Singh Yadav. It was a measure of its increasing political importance
that with its tally of 16 seats in 1996, the S.P. got to occupy
crucial ministerial portfolios such as Defence and Telecommunications
in the United Front government. But no matter how much Mulayam Singh
speaks of his "socialist world view", his imprint on national
politics has remained as that of the man who foiled Congress(I)
president Sonia Gandhi's attempt to become Prime Minister in 1999.
"The Samajwadi Party is the largest party from the State which sends
the largest number of MPs. Its political intervention cannot be
ignored. But it is difficult to say whether it has left any imprint
on national politics yet," said Communist Party of India (Marxist)
general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet. According to Surjeet, the
S.P.'s activities have remained confined to the State so far. But he
concedes that every party playing a role at the national level has
to "operate within a certain framework, which nobody can break".

Political observers, however, agree that Mulayam Singh redefined the
concept of secularism by his vigorous protection of the Babri Masjid
in 1990 even at the risk of earning the wrath of the majority
community. In fact, it was his active espousal of secularism, as
opposed to the Congress(I)'s passive approach that allowed the
unlocking of the Babri Masjid and the performance of shilanyas, which
resulted in Muslims shifting loyalty to the S.P.

At the State level, the S.P. has remained a major player since the
1993 Assembly elections, but the fact that it could rule only
briefly, from 1993 to 1995, that too together with the BSP, has meant
that the S.P. has still to make its presence felt. Numerically, the
S.P. has arrived, but it still has to go a long way to establish
itself as a party espousing a particular ideology, championing the
cause of the State taking advantage of its vantage position at the
national level.

As far as the BSP is concerned, it has been so fickle-minded about
its alliances that its role as an interventionary power at the
national level has remained limited. The party came into prominence
in 1993 when it joined hands with the S.P. But the two fell out in

The BSP joined hands with the BJP in 1995 but this arrangement did
not last even for a year. In the 1996 Lok Sabha and Assembly
elections the BSP joined hands with the Congress(I). It improved its
vote share from 8.7 per cent and no seats in the 1991 elections to
20.40 per cent with six seats in 1996. But because its tally remained
the same in the Assembly (67) and it could not form the government,
this alliance broke. The BSP then joined hands with the BJP yet again
in the by-now infamous "six-monthly rotational chief ministership"
arrangement. Even this did not last long. After the 2002 Assembly
elections, the party joined hands yet again with the BJP, but the
government fell again after a year.

The BSP's guiding principle so far has been to pursue the policy that
takes it to power somehow or the other. This, however, has ensured
that the party is reduced to just a pressure group at the national


Bamboo and a bitter struggle


Shrinking markets, cheaper substitutes for bamboo, and government
policies of the past few decades have driven traditional bamboo-
weavers of Kerala to poverty and deprivation.

BAMBOO is nature's steel. But traditional bamboo workers are now
close to breaking. The onslaught of substitute materials and
government policies of the past decades, among other things, have
driven bamboo weavers to poverty and starvation.

For hundreds of years, Dalit and Adivasi communities (Parayas,
Pulayas, Kuravas, Mavilas and Vetuvas) of Kerala have transformed
bamboo reeds (Ochlandra travancorica and O.scriptoria) into a variety
of products with functional and ornamental uses. Their creativity and
ability to adapt to changing demands saw the weavers making varieties
of baskets and mats, winnowers, window screens, bags and what not.

Whole families and in many areas even entire villages were involved
in the vocation of bamboo-weaving. In the 1970s, there were 3.5 lakh
traditional bamboo workers, earning at least 50 per cent more than
farm labourers. In fact, the economic advantage of bamboo-weaving
attracted people from other communities, such as Ezhavas, to this
profession. By the 1960s, it became a lucrative business with the
weavers selling bamboo products on a large scale to the farm and
fisheries sectors.

Today, traditional bamboo-weaving in Kerala is in a pitiable state
with falling incomes, shrinking markets and no access to raw
materials. How did this happen? The answer seems to lie largely in
the structure of the enterprise, its characteristics and the socio-
economic conditions of the workers.
Traditional bamboo-weaving is characterised by low capital and simple
production techniques. It requires such simple tools as a billhook
and a knife, which cost less than Rs.100. It is a labour-intensive,
household-based rural enterprise, run mostly by women.

While diverse products are made, the real constraint is that
historically this has been the occupation of people belonging to the
lower end of the socio-economic scale who have limited access to
markets, raw materials, finance and technology, and hence poor
managerial, entrepreneurial and organisational skills. The highly
scattered nature of the enterprise, the disaggregated production
structure, and the lack of assistance from support agencies provided
the ideal climate for exploitation by intermediaries.

In the 1900s, mats and baskets were made for agricultural uses from
reed collected from forests by people belonging to the Scheduled
Castes (S.C.s), such as Sambavas and Parayas, mainly as a feudal
obligation to their masters. The mats and baskets not used on the
landlord's farms were bartered within the village. At that time, it
was largely a part-time activity.

The situation began to change in the 1930s, when the British started
to use the cheap and strong bamboo mats for tents on the warfront.
The hostilities in Burma (Myanmar) gave rise to a phenomenal demand
for bamboo mats. Mat-weaving became a full-time vocation. Seeing an
opportunity, several people, largely from the forward communities,
entered the lucrative business as weavers or as middlemen and
traders. They would supply reeds to the weavers and purchase the
finished products. Thus, a new class of merchant-wholesalers willing
to make large investments was drawn into the business.

The enterprise was concentrated in the Angamaly-Kaladi area of
Ernakulam district and in the Nedumangad-Aryanad area of
Thiruvananthapuram district because of the easy availability of raw
material from the forests nearby and the presence of a well-developed
transport system.

But after the war, the demand for mats fell and those who had
invested in the enterprise began to look for newer markets. Sugar
mills in Maharashtra emerged as the new buyers. The mats were used as
dunnage (wedge between material) in the sugar factories and for the
construction of temporary sheds to store sugarcane. But mat prices
began to decline with over-supply. The merchants passed on the burden
of falling prices to the weavers. However, when the market became
buoyant and mat prices improved, they did not pass on the benefits to
the weavers.

In the meantime, basket-weaving picked up mainly to cater to the
agricultural sector - to store and transport grain, vegetables,
copra, pepper and so on. This happened primarily because the seasonal
nature of agricultural employment enabled the landless S.C. labourers
to take to weaving during off-season.

Most types of baskets were produced only seasonally. For example, the
sturdy vallom or chendakooda were in great demand during the harvest
season (between December and March). The seasonality of demand led to
high fluctuations in product prices.

Slowly, there emerged a demand from neighbouring States as the bamboo
baskets were found to be cheap and strong and useful to transport
perishable and non-perishable produce. This attracted more
intermediaries and soon there was a chain of agents between the
primary producers and the final users. Each area began to be
controlled by a set of agents, who also kept the weavers under their
control, providing them with a cash advance. The largely illiterate
basket weavers were exploited mercilessly; they put in 12-15 hours of
work a day but their economic conditions declined despite the sharp
increase in basket sales.

Slowly, the weavers got segmented by the markets to which they
catered, such as agriculture, fisheries, the cashew industry and
homes. Their fortunes became tied to the sector to which they

THE growing bamboo enterprise led the State government to set up a
committee in 1959 to study its status. The committee pointed to the
exploitation of weavers by intermediaries and suggested the setting
up of a corporation to coordinate the various activities of bamboo-
weaving, particularly marketing.

The Kerala State Bamboo Corporation was established in 1971 (first
under the Ministry of Handicrafts and later as an independent body)
to free the weavers from middlemen and to help them market their
products. In 1977, it took over the right to collect bamboo from the
forests and distribute reeds to traditional weavers and other bona
fide consumers. The corporation did everything for mat weavers. It
supplied reeds at a subsidised rates (on a credit basis), and bought
the mats from them for marketing, primarily to the Central
Warehousing Corporation and large sugar mills. The corporation's more
than 100 reed-distribution and mat collection centres, mostly located
in the central and southern Kerala, cover over 15,000 mat-weaving
families, 2,500 reed-cutters and employ over 1,000 loaders. Workers
associated with the corporation came to be known as "registered

However, the traditional weavers who mainly made baskets and
comprised largely the Sambava and Paraya communities were left out of
the corporation's purview. Left to fend for themselves, they became
more vulnerable to exploitation.

Where the corporation did not function (particularly in the areas
dominated by traditional weavers), cooperatives were encouraged to be
set up with share capital contributed by individuals and institutions
and further funded by loans, grants and deposits from government and
other institutions. Most cooperatives failed for several reasons,
mainly inefficient management and pressure from traders, who were
largely hand in glove with the middlemen. Many of the cooperatives
became defunct.

The traditional weavers suffered a further blow with the Forest
Department denying them access to the jungles to collect reeds. Only
weavers issued passes by the Forest Department on payment of
a "seigniorage" rate could collect reeds. The pass, which costs
Rs.12 - over 20 per cent of the market price of reed - allows weavers
to collect 20-25 reeds (one headload). Getting the pass, generally
issued for a day, is a cumbersome process. It can take two or three
days to collect a pass from the Forest Department office, often
located many kilometres away from the weaver colonies. Thus, given
the high cost of the pass and the difficulty to obtain it, many
weavers either buy reeds from middlemen or collect them from the
forests without a pass. Although collecting bamboo from the forest
without a pass is an offence, officials generally seem to let the
weavers off realising their deplorable situation. This has given rise
to a new class of sub-traders who arrange "a kutta pass" (basket
pass) for a price.

The reed-cutters usually walk four or five kilometres into the forest
to collect reeds. Culms (grass or sedge stem) are selectively cut
from trees that are about one-to-two years old. They are then cut
into pieces 10-12 feet long and bundled into headloads of 15-25
pieces each. The whole process takes about 10 hours. The cutters
either sell the reeds to the weavers or keep them for their own use.

The strong middlemen-wholesaler-retailer link usually dissuades the
weavers from selling in the market as they are offered very low
prices for their products - generally 20-30 per cent lower than the
prices they would get from the middlemen. Thus, willy-nilly, the
traditional weavers are bound to the middlemen. Studies show that if
weaving is to be as remunerative as other types of casual labour,
middlemen would need to increase the prices of the products by at
least 480 per cent. Ironically, though the Bamboo Corporation was set
up to save traditional weavers from the clutches of middlemen, the
weavers seem to have slid down the economic ladder even further.

The situation turned really bad for traditional weavers after the
early 1990s with the introduction of products made of plastics,
synthetic fibres and so on, which cut deeply into the market for
bamboo products. Fishermen, farmers and households moved to the
substitutes in a big way, as they are cheaper, more durable and easy
to maintain.

To make matters worse, the government in the mid-1990s leased large
bamboo tracts to Hindustan Newsprint Limited at a subsidised price -
while a tonne of bamboo reeds is allegedly priced at Rs.500-800 for
the industry, it is about Rs.2,000 in the open market for the
traditional weavers. Apart from depriving the traditional weavers of
their raw material, this also led to the depletion of bamboo forests.
For, while the weavers would cut only two-year-old bamboo culms, it
is alleged (by the Bamboo Corporation) that the newsprint industry
cut culms that were hardly two-three months old.

Unable to cope, many weaver families started to supplement their
income by taking up casual work. Many bamboo weavers, in their prime,
migrated (largely seasonally) to nearby towns to work at construction
sites and so on. The traders, however, filled their slot by getting
migrant labour families (whose primary occupation is bamboo-weaving)
from Tamil Nadu (mostly from areas adjoining Madurai district) by
advancing them money. As good as bonded labour, most migrants work
for 12-15 hours a day for low wages. The marginalisation of the
Kerala bamboo weaver was complete.

The Kerala Bamboo Workers Union, set up in 2000 to end the
marginalisation of traditional bamboo workers, is sceptical about
their inclusion in the National Bamboo Mission, a programme launched
by the Union government in 2003 (see separate story). Says union
president Raghu Eraviperur: "We have been cheated by the corporation,
which we thought would help us revive our livelihood systems.
Instead, it divided us by supporting only a small section of bamboo
workers who make mats. Further, it aggravated our condition by
cutting off our access to raw material."
Says union vice-president Sasi Janakala: "As we are spread across the
State and are tied up with our own local issues depending on which
sector - agriculture, fishing, cashew industry and so on - we cater
to, for long we had not been able to organise ourselves. But now, we
have forged an alliance to bring to the fore common issues, which are
deep-rooted, complex and widespread."

Explains union secretary A.A. Chandran: "Our issues are complex
because we are not only geographically spread, but also divided on
political and caste bases."

But now, left resourceless and marketless by the corporation, the
weavers are anxious that they are not kept out of the Bamboo Mission
as well. In a proactive measure, they have come out with
recommendations, which include allowing access to raw material, a
training programme for weavers to make value-added and marketable
products, provision of land to cultivate bamboo, festival rebates to
cooperative societies and training and research centres to upgrade

Says Raghu: "We hope the Bamboo Mission will address the problems of
traditional weavers before it is too late."

This report was prepared after a visit to the districts of
Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Alappuzha, Ernakulam and Thrissur.

The bikhu effect
The Buddhist clergy feels it must rise to the rescue of the country
whenever the rulers fail in their duty of 'defending' the faith, says
Nirupama Subramanian.

OF ALL the stories in the Mahavamsa, a sixth century chronicle about
Sri Lanka, the most beloved of Sinhala-Buddhists is that of King
Duttugemunu who slew a rival monarch in the island's north after a
bloody campaign and established his writ over a united Lanka. His aim
was to "bring glory to the (Buddhist) doctrine."

This legend and the belief, also arising from the Mahavamsa, that Sri
Lanka was Buddha's chosen land, "the place where his doctrine should
shine," are at the heart of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. It fuses
faith with country, demanding of present-day rulers a Duttugemunu-
like commitment to protect one for the other.

When the rulers "defenders of the faith" are seen as failing in
this duty, the Buddhist clergy must rise to the rescue. So say the
monks who contested the recent parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka,
winning nine seats in the new Parliament as members of the Jathika
Hela Urumaya, or Sinhala Heritage.

"How can I sit and meditate when my house is on fire," Omalpe
Sobitha, a senior monk and member of the JHU, asked while speaking to
The Hindu a few days before the election.

The JHU came together in the weeks just prior to the election. The
driving force behind it was the perception that the United National
Front Government of Ranil Wickremesinghe had endangered the
territorial integrity of the country and therefore the future of
Buddhism itself by granting too many concessions to the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the peace process.

This is not the first time that monks are playing a role in Sri
Lanka's politics. Since a contingent of bikhus (Buddhist monks)
marched with Duttugemunu's army at his request to provide "blessing
and protection", and later consoled him as he wept at the bloodshed,
telling him he had to do it for Buddhism, the clergy has always seen
itself as providing guidance to the country's rulers. The monks view
this role not as contradictory, but entirely in keeping with their
status as custodians of the faith.

But this is the first time bikhus have sought to influence the
affairs of the country in such a direct manner. Thilak Karunaratne,
the founder of the party who is not a monk himself and until three
years ago was a member of the Wickremesinghe-led United National
Party (UNP), said the bikhus believed entering Parliament was now the
only way to influence a government that had stopped listening to

"The rulers consult them but just to satisfy them and keep them
happy, not for anything constructive. There is no point in giving
advice that is not heeded. So the clergy thought it is time to grab
the bull by the horns," Mr. Karunaratne told The Hindu before the

But even a less conciliatory approach to the LTTE such as the one
the new Freedom Alliance (F.A.) Government might be expected to
adopt that would nevertheless plan for federalism and substantial
devolution to the North-East Tamils as part of an eventual political
settlement would be unacceptable to the JHU. It militates against the
Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist logic of faith and country as co-

Monks led the street protests against a draft new Constitution with
devolution proposals that President Chandrika Kumaratunga presented
in Parliament in 2000, one of the reasons the document had to be
pulled. They even opposed the limited devolution the Sri Lankan
Government implemented in 1987 after the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.

While the peace process with the LTTE is an immediate reason, the
JHU's impressive performance speaks of a much deeper crisis of
confidence within the Sinhala-Buddhist community. This is the crisis
that gave rise to innumerable conspiracy theories about the sudden
death from a heart attack of a popular Sri Lankan monk while on a
tour abroad last year, and led to a rash of attacks on churches in
the country.

And it is directly linked to the growing participation and importance
of the two main minorities in Sri Lanka Tamil and Muslim in
mainstream democratic politics.

Tamil and Muslim parties have consistently played a role in
government formation after Sri Lanka adopted the proportional
representation system of elections through a new Constitution in

It has created the impression that the Sinhalese do not form
governments any more and that traditional parties the UNP and also
Ms. Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom Party can no longer represent
the best interests of the Sinhala-Buddhists. This is why the F.A.
could not farm a larger share of the protest vote against the UNP,
losing it to the JHU. By joining hands with the SLFP in the F.A.
coalition, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which in earlier elections
benefited from the hardline Sinhala-Buddhist vote, also stood
disqualified from such support this time.

The JHU's declared agenda is to "cleanse" Parliament and establish a
dharmarajya, or a state based on the teachings of Buddha, in which
minority parties of Tamils and Muslims will not dictate terms to the

The nine monks in Parliament have said they will provide conditional
support to the next government. Their influence will be determined on
how much the new government, without a majority of its own, has to
depend upon them for support.

It will also be determined by the extent of support for the JHU from
the rest of the 35,000-strong clergy. Sri Lanka's monks are
politically divided along party lines. Many important priests did not
support the decision of the JHU monks to contest the elections.

But without doubt, the impact of the JHU is bound to be felt in the
long term, particularly when the main parties the UNP, SLFP and
JVP begin the task of regaining lost ground among the Sinhala-

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