This Godavari river is mad dirty, but people are still playing in it. It’s a metaphor, not a recommendation.
I met a chap who said he worked at Google from 9 to 5, but that his full-time job was environmental activism. I don’t really get it but that’s cool. His organization was holding an environmental workshop at a bookstore owned by the Deccan Chronicle, which ran a misquoted and mangled story on it the next day. But still, that was fast. More impressively, the workshop was full of kids ranging from like 12 to, uh, I guess me at 27, all active and smart. I was quite impressed.
In Sri Lanka one tries to put their hands around any kind of spark, but India seems like it’s on fire. That is also a function of number. They also have way bigger problems than Sri Lanka, and the scope of activism may not actually be enough. But I think it is. This is one tiny event in a very big country, but India seems, like, active.
For one thing, the media is (relative to Sri Lanka) free and profitable. As I mentioned in my last Leader column, when you say journalist people are actually impressed. They don’t ask you when you’re going to die. Which is refreshing. Random chaps are like ‘power of the pen’ and I’m like ‘What? You mean the power to end up in the pen?’ But that concept is entirely alien here. Not that journalist don’t get thwacked, but it’s not the norm.
Plus these guys have money. The Deccan Chronicle is, IMHO, one of the shoddier papers but they own other businesses and a cricket team. The newspaper business, unlike in the west, is booming and respected. It’s not always the best work, but some of it is damn excellent.
Furthermore, NGO isn’t a bad word either. It doesn’t mean Norwegian Government Overthrow. I admit that a lot of NGO stuff is bullshit, but I think Sri Lanka has thrown out a nascent civil society with the bathwater. In India NGO type work can go on without being branded as treason. I guess some people are driving Pajeros and writing useless grant proposals, but a lot are working with the poor, dispossessed, women (a serious issue in India), etc.
I mean, the environmental group that organized this workshop would technically be an NGO, or something like it. And they can operate without fear. This means that civil society groups can spring up so people can make changes in their environment and population within the funding and functioning apparatus of NGOs. Not that this is the best, but it is an existing structure within which to ‘do good’ and still put food on the table.
In Sri Lanka it’s been demonized to the point where I’m reluctant to work with any NGO as you’ll get thrashed for it. Not that there are NGOs lining up to work with me or anything, but I’ve been perversely proud of not dealing with NGOs, which I realize now is somewhat dumb. I mean, there are good NGOs, there is good work that people can do in the non-government, and Indians are doing it without shame.
Of course, I’m talking about India based on one experience in one city, so feel free to lambast me in the comments. But things seem freer up here. Their problems are way bigger, but they at least have their hands out to work with them. Sri Lanka has smaller problems, but our hands are tied, by which I mean our hobbled and terrorized civil society.
Even I have internalized the anti-media and anti-NGO campaign to the point that I’ve seen those forces as weaklings, but then where does that leave the country? I mean, am I so trusting of the politicians? Perhaps a weak civil society is not their weakness and loss but ours as a nation.
I was watching that Arun Krishnamurthy of Tree Rocks and Shoots India going on about turtles getting their flippers cut off and stuff and I was like, ‘what the fuck happened to me?’ He was so passionate and uncompromising and all I could think was how unpragmatic it all was, and how he should maybe tone it down for the status quo. But why? If we all keep toning it down then how’s anything really going to change? I’m all about the middle, but without an extreme to push the debate, how does the line ever move? I’ve been pragmatic ostensibly because that’s the way to get things done, but I’m also just afraid. I think that’s got to change.