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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Lessons from Cola Wars and Others that will follow...

What does the current debate on the pesticide contamination in the soft drinks hold for all of us?
Looking at what is going in the developed nations, every issue where activists from civil society are involved, particularly against corporate houses, the press and the PR mill dubs it as yet another contest between the two and depending on whose side each press person sees himself / herself and who pays the PR person, they decide to cast their opinions and through that shape the public opinion. The actual victims are part of the scenery. A Cindy Sheenan, Laibow or Mae-Wan Ho is a rarity and if not for their ability to articulate will not be able to make it as campaigners.

It is sad that we seem to going that way. The way the press has handled the cola exposure issue as though it is a war between the 'green' activist represented by CSE and the corporate (CSE itself is a victim of such a mindset, it got carried away so much that it thought it worth to waste a page in its Down To Earth magazine to carry a rare movie review of a film titled Corporate which seemed to have a fight between a cola corporate and activist group as its storyline, sad).

Unfortunately India has fewer masses, particularly in the case of farmers, tribals and the most deprived classes who can articulate fluently in the language of the dominant news media, which is English. This means, whether it is the oustees of a dam across Narmada river or victims of a large scale pesticide usage as in Kasargode or the current Cola trial or the longest running Corporate saga, Bhopal, unless some activist group or individuals take it to their heart and follow-up the victims are often unable to sustain the struggle, they are so far pushed that often their very survival is threatened if they continue with the struggle. Not that there are activists groups with large pockets either, most of them too survive from public donations and a few benevolent philanthropists.

But, with the isolation of the political space from issues of common masses and most political parties reserving themselves stereotyped and straight jacketed opinions in most issues (often seem to be written by the powers of the day, both international and local), there doesn't seem to be a possibility of a politician or a political party taking interest in any local issues like activists do. A rare Achuthanandan too may have to bow before his party high command as a humble cadre at times. A rarer Laloo Yadav by the time he makes it to where it matters has been ridiculed, tutored and co-opted so much that he is no longer the 'rustic bihari laloo' except in a bollywood fashion.

So it is the activists with their passion, ingenuity, little resources who have to on the one side articulate for victims of so many issues and on the other saddled with the responsibility of keeping the motivation of the victims high in their fight. Many of these too get caught in the trap of institutionalizing loosing their way in the myriad details of building institutions and getting involved in development debates that are fodder to keep the NGO sector occupied from the international development sector machines.

And if they manage to go on (and not get beaten up like the Green Peace activists involved in the HLL Kodaikanal Mercury contamination issue did), then, they get type cast into the dichotomous role, particularly against the corporate houses. The corporate houses and their PR machines stand to benefit in such cases. Fewer enemies make easier targets and more concentrated campaigns from them.

So, what do we do, as citizens in this country? Does it mean we all jump into every campaign in the neighborhood? Where does one find time for that? I would think many of my city friends would raise this question. City life is busy, one needs to do mindless socializing to keep oneself in the circuit, one needs to be in the circuit to be noticed and in most city based professions it is important where one is noticed (apart from the obvious performance) is important for career advancement. But when is the last time anyone who feels serious about an issue even uttered a word in solidarity? or sent an encouraging word as an email or sms or even the much celebrated city hobby of 'letters to the editor'? I have not seen any friends who are sympathizers with certain campaigns turn up even as a gesture of solidarity. It is the inertia that people allow to set into themselves. Responsibility is a rare quality and many cannot act on it beyond their professional duties or family obligations. Some rare individuals exist, the silent contributors who keep the campaigners going. But, that won't do if we need to step aside from the path taken by 'developed' countries. We need to necessarily stand up as small communities, groups, neighborhood associations, professional groups, functional groups of any nature in the society - indeed the comment from a dentist in Punjab (apart from many bloggers including self) is the only representative of the functional society who has visibly come against the Cola giants.

Ultimately, this will lead to a wider stake holder participation in all these debates, that is the only way in India. We are too diverse a society and polarisation of debates particularly those that will be implemented across the country cannot be restrictive. It needs to involve a wider audience or it can involve a localised system of decision making on all aspects. A panchayat in a village makes for a tough opponent for a Corporate, leave alone, 80 odd panchayats in that many districts in different parts of India which will have to set the standards if the setting of clean environment standards was left to the place where bottling plants are located.

Yes, that is role our Parliament was supposed to play, but, it is a 'talk shop' and a 'Prostitute' in he words of Gandhiji. So, we need to bring in a much more active civil society, where each one of us can count by every once in a while by merely standing up for a cause we feel. Is it too much to do?

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