Dr Parameswara Rao’s talk at the 1999 AID conference
BHAGAVATULA PARAMESWAR RAO has pioneered grassroots efforts in education, wasteland reclamation, and savings programs in 40 villages of Visakha district.(bio from 1999 proceedings)
WHY DID I COME TO INDIA? I was just sitting there thinking about this. I took my PhD in metallurgy in 1967 from Pennsylvania State University. The day my PhD was accepted, that evening I came back to India, to my ancestral village, and I have been sitting there ever since.
Why was it that a country like India which had uninterrupted 5000 years of civilization, could produce so many great things, why is this India begging now? Most of you are now in the US every day you will see some form of begging. Doctors who passed their MBBS in India were working for $300 as interns, not allowed to test patients themselves. They were just dying to come to US. What is this? What happened to India?
Is the genius that was India all dead and gone? Are we still going this way?
So I decided to find out myself. Of course I have no inclination of political thinking etc. But I decided to see what I can learn by being in India, especially the village since 70-80% of the population is in the villages. So I went there. I was involved in various projects. Now people talk of BCT but I had the opportunity to start various organisations. First was a village high school. I specifically mention this because I was unlearning the western ways of doing things and learning the Indian way. We try to look at the people through our glasses. We try to adopt our ideas and ideologies on the people. But they have been living there for centuries, they have evolved different systems.
He was talking about the tribal huts in the morning. You can go anywhere, architects will come and take pictures of the huts. The huts in Vizag district! Why? All of this technology, all of this living with nature have been there for generations.
After the school, I went on to a farmer’s cooperative, then a sugar factory, then a salt factory. Why a salt factory? People living in that 200 acre area were hardly having one square meal a week. Even today 40% of the people are living below the poverty line. So that was bothering me. So I thought I will go and live with them, talk with them, find out the problems.
So then of course finally there was Bhagavatula Charitable Trust. Through that we have had a few other trusts. So I was sitting here in the morning and also contemplating. These 31 years have given me exceptional opportunities. I have been able to live with the poorest of the poor, shepherds in their huts. I have seen the scintillating common sense and age old wisdom of the shepherds.
We had a veterinary doctor, she went to the sheds to treat the sheep, then she said, “ayyo!” The shepherd said, what happened? She said, I forgot my wristwatch. Oh, what do you want a watch for? To know the time? He looked at the sky and said it is 10:15. She went to verify this and found that it was 10:15. She went inside and did her work. Then the boy said, I am going to tie the sheep. She said, why? He said, it is going to rain. Not even a speck of cloud was in the sky, but surely it did rain that evening.
A district veterinary officer came. We were training illiterate women to become paramedics. This gentleman came and said you are doing a great disservice to veterinary science. We study this for 5 years, and you are training illiterate women! You are going to kill them. So I said I don’t think they are killing any more animals than you. Why don’t you come and see whether our women are really killing the animals. So he went to meet a woman and said, I want to talk to you. She said, OK, please wait I am treating the animal, I will come. He thought she would come running to talk to him.
He asked her, how much have you studied? She said, no I have not studied, I cannot read. Then how do you read the thermometer? She said, Sir, why do you need a thermometer. To know if the animal has a fever. Sir, to know that the animal has a fever do you need a thermometer?? Just stand here and clap, a normal animal will flap its ears. If it does not, then you know that it has a fever. She was giving such answers. Their lifestyle is different, their knowledge is different. They are in communion with nature.
So this is how we see the survival systems the poor people have adopted to withstand the neglect of the system.
All the programs in the country are pro rich and pro urban. If these people are surviving it is because of their own common sense. That day when I was sleeping in the shed with the shepherd he was telling me about so many things. Scintillating.
Why is that such wonderful people are being neglected from the mainstream of life?
Tribals always carry the pick axe with them. There will always be some accident or other. If the hand has been cut in two the tribal can reset the bone within one month. It will be 100% normal. But now if we have a fracture we come to Apollo hospital stay for six months spend few thousand rupees.
So many examples. A tribal doctor said he can cure sterility. We asked, how many cases have you treated? Only 52 sir. 52 women have conceived.
So why is it that we look upon the Indian in such derogatory manner? Because we lack self confidence. We do not trust ourselves.
All our problems come from people fighting against each other. This has come from the British government, in all their genius they set Indians fighting Indians. Thanks to Macaulay we had a western education system where people were brown, Indian in blood, but thought process was British.
Take any government procedure. It is there to subjugate or to nip in the bud every progress that is being made. For every rule there is another rule blocking it.
The beautiful system they developed was that every officer was given unbridled power to say no. Only the viceroy had the power to say yes. Therefore, even with independence we are using the system in a much more complex manner. All our genius is used to make the system more complex.
We were talking of corruption. Corruption has been deliberately put into the system by the British. Let us accept it. They were interested only in money. They wanted to collect every paise from India and take it to their country. The first system was land revenue system. They made such a wonderful pakka system. Every paise collected went to their account. The beautiful missing link was that the people employed to collect the revenue were not paid. You collect whatever is to be collected. We don’t care how you do it. Give us our revenue and keep the rest.
Second point: The genius that made the system also came into power by beating the system. For every yes rule there is a no rule. If you bribe the fellow he will quote the yes rule, if not, the no rule. So unless the system is for you, for you Indians, nothing will change.
We were talking of ENRON 60% of the power is being stolen or going elsewhere. Only 40% is coming to us.
Education – we have been working in the field for so long, but we still have so many dropouts.
What are we trying to do as voluntary agencies? What is our personal contribution? It took us 50 years to come to this point. Are we going to wait 50 years more to do something positive? Do you think the youth will keep quiet? So many unemployed, will they keep quiet? Their aspirations have been raised, thanks to the TV. Poor people’s aspirations definitely will also come up, they also want to raise their children, have a roof over their heads.
They are not going to keep quiet.
I would like to request you to think whether something more radical, more fast, can be done. How does it matter if I say that we have been able to create opportunities for self employment for 5000 people or reclaim 20,000 acres of wasteland. It may sound very interesting for you but what does this mean nationally? 10% of our land today is now covered with forest, whereas the minimum requirement is 30%. You go to forests anywhere now, they are being deforested day and night thanks to contractors, political parties and government officers. When I was young I used to see an old man every day after his bath taking a small lota of water and pouring water to the huge banian tree. I would laugh – does it really matter? But it does matter. I see that he was inculcating a good habit right from childhood that we have to protect the tree.
Vrksha rakshati rakshatah (protect the tree; it will protect you). Go to Bhadrachalam you will see an entire stretch of land deforested and we are struggling there.
What we have done or what we are doing through various programs does not matter at all. You people are all highly educated and most importantly young and motivated.
Please do not be happy with doing just a little there and a little here. You can educate thousand, but 100,000,000 youth are waiting for employment. Well there is no point in quoting statistics. Do you know what Gandhi said so long ago: The statistics may fool the people, but not the skeletons which present themselves in the villages.
The government may claim anything, but the skeletons in the villages are really presenting the naked facts.
So what is it that we seek? I can put it in a few points.
Self reliance, self confidence, and self sustenance.
Education for all
Health for all
Livelihood for all
Equal dharma – social justice for all
Unity amongst all
My feeling is that we lack three things.
As I said already we lack self confidence. We also lack education. And lack of trust in other Indians. Indians do not believe Indians. Somehow. We have to get over that. I come back to one fundamental point. Over generations we had a patriarchal society, later on came the kings etc. Later the British government, never were we a republic. In 1947 we became independent, and in 1952 we became a republic. Are we really behaving like citizens. Please think about this. All the points you were making this morning. Ravi also was talking about rights. We are conscious of our rights, not our responsibilities. Are we carrying out our civic responsibilities? The worst culprits are the educated. The educated in India are the most selfish. They are getting the best education at highly subsidized rights, and what is it that they are returning to society? Particularly for maintaining democracy in the country? They are not even casting their votes! Only 40-50% are casting. The president of India went on record to say that I have the honour of not casting my vote even once in my lifetime. Is that democracy? Democracy is where people vote, and people get a government that they deserve.
Are we really working for it? We sit in our armchairs or in a railway bogie and talk anything and everything about how things should be done, and not try to do anything whatsoever. Please understand that we have to exercise our rights and also carry out our responsibilities. As I already said, teachers do not teach, no one to question them, they have their unions. If you go to the doctor he will ask you to come to his private office to collect both salary from government and fees from people.
85% of the budget goes just for establishment. Where is the money for development?
Education and health get 3% of budget each, Human resource development, 3%
Servicing the loans – 26%.
We have 6 lakh crores– of foreign debt – 26-29% is servicing the interest on these loans
Someone was asking, don’t we have a role in the government? We have a role in the government, if we have the will. We are the only people that can change it. Cast our vote.
We have to educate the educated about the responsibility. Not all of us can be selfless, not all of us can be Gandhis. But every one of us is a chota gandhi. 95% let us be selfish, but at least 5% let us think of the community. I am paid by the community as a teacher, let me do my job.
So many dharnas (demonstrations) completely wrecking the public life. If even a small tehsildar has done something wrong, rasta roko. Poor passenger travelling from Madras to Calcultta. He is being held in a local railway station because some other officer did something wrong. How unjust we are. Are we really responsible citizens?
So let us not worry about all the things that are going wrong. Even everything maybe going wrong, but we have to start at the beginning. We have to shoulder the responsibility as you people are doing. Let us start doing by ourselves what we can. Some other people are also willing to participate.
Do you know what kind of people are contesting elections? 25% of those contesting UP elections are confirmed criminals. So what other government are you going to get?
Otherwise it will just be government trying to impose, we try to oppose. I am not saying that everything will be honey and cream. But at least 80% of problems will be taken care of. The country should be taken care of primarily by the government because it is elected by us and we are paying our taxes for it. So we have the duty to make it function well and function for us. There are so many things that need to be done, if we can take up a massive education campaign. Number one, to say, this is our country, this is our government, we are the people who can make it function as a secular socialist democracy, being conscious of our rights and our responsibilities. That ours should be an enlightened self interest. To provide food first to all people, not 6 lane highways. Why should we borrow so heavily from the World Bank? Another wonderful thing for India is that all the money coming from World Bank is called “assistance.” But it is a loan, we are paying through our nose the interest on money coming from the World Bank.
80% of rainfall is not utilized in India. Rivers like Godavari, so much is going into the sea. Why not a massive employment program for desilting the tanks. Our forefathers were so wise, everywhere there were rain harvesting systems. Every village had a rain harvesting system. But now they are getting silted, or some rich man has abrogated it.
So let us create a massive employment program for rain harvesting, linking waters.
People have to be tapped to utilize their creativity. Panchayat Raj and Municipal acts (73rd and 74th amendments) have been passed but not implemented. These will enable people to take care of their local problems. Who else will take care of education better than parents. So put primary education in the hands of the people.
In 50 years of independence there were 5000 alterations to our constitution. Whereas British in their 90-100 years amended 50 times. US in all its 200 years, amended 25 times. In other words constitution is also not that of people. 75% of the constitution is borrowed from government of India in 1935.
What we need is a constitution that will get people into confidence. What we need is for amendments like Panchayat act to be implemented in toto. Give them power, the opportunity, the authority to mend their lives, they will take care of themselves, because the genius of India is in the villages.
Ravi: Parameswara Rao can take some questions now. He has not talked much about his own work, but more of an overall view. Also, I would like to read the petition we have drafted to send to the railway board based on the last session. [reads petition].
Parameswara Rao: May I make a suggestion. We should petition for one thing at a time. Different departments deal with each thing. If you make a separate petition for each item then each will go to the proper department and be attended to.
Prasanna: I have been moved by your comments. If I want to volunteer, can I?
Parameswara Rao: Straightaway. For convenience I still use BCT. The place is Yelamanchili, pin code is 531 055
Prasanna: can I have a list of the things that can be done.
Parameswara Rao: You come, we will sit down together and plan something.
In India we need food first. The simplest, surest way of providing employment and providing food is water harvesting and desilting of tanks. Second thing is planting. Plant indiscriminately, doesn’t matter where. These two things will really save the country. One banyan tree will produce 2000 tonnes of oxygen.
Kiran: I want to ask about the petition you were writing about primary education in India
Ravi: Parameswara Rao has analysed the Indian budget and compared the urban and rural and found huge discrimination.
Parameswara Rao: 95% of budget for labs and playgrounds go for urban areas. 30% of schools do not have blackboards. We talk of future, but we are shying away from investing in education for children who are the future citizens of the country. Where are we? We are so enamoured of the English education. Industry gets 9% of the budget. It is a shame. If this is the state of affairs after 50 years of independence, if we educated people are apathetic about these things, then who will do?
Ravi: [explains petition: seeks public interest litigation based on the constitutional guarantee of equal opportunity of education for all]
Parameswara Rao: In our village school, one woman teaches 120 students. You must know how hard it is to handle even 30 students.
Ramani: Are AID and other organisations starting from where you started 30 years ago, reinventing the wheel?
Parameswara Rao: We are a committed audience. Would it be possible for everyone of us here to utilize 30 people or 100 people and work together? We need to increase our efforts 100 fold or 1000 fold. How that will be possible I don’t know
Question: In this age of info technology, the children are already more aware than the teacher. Parents’ and teachers’ influence on the child is minimal. The divide between the rural and urban is widening. You must take it in a much larger perspective.
Deeptha: Probably if you address this letter to more people than only the Chief Justice maybe it would get attention.
Parameswara Rao: If you write to the chief minister, it will get passed on to assistants, etc finally on to the lowest rung and they will reply saying the matter is being attended to.
Ramani: Have you sent any petitions previously that the government has responded to, and do you think there is any advantage in sending through an organization which has a body of volunteers behind it.
Parameswara Rao: let it be individual basis.
Vidhi: Regarding the approach, You see the need for a more activist role in this change …
Parameswara Rao: Remember what we heard in the morning, we were asked not to mention activists. Whom we are calling activists are the very committed people. Please do not expect everyone to be this much committed. In order to rope in the other people, let me illustrate. This is our population: [draws graph]
76% rural, 24% urban
40% below poverty line
40% of the people are inert
next layer of 10% are slowly amenable
if we come to urbanites. Out of 24%, 4% are intransigent. Who are these people, they are the intellectuals, contractors, they sit on easy chairs and talk for hours and hours, write books, do nothing. 10% are poor. 8% are slowly amenable. We are left with 3-4% who we can work with. How do we find these people? There are any number of people, in the meeting if you ask them to raise hands, they raise. 50% will drop out.
The system is so much, so camaflouging, so overpowering. If we are able to influence even 2% — our national movement only had that much percentage. In a 100 crore people, 2% is 2 crores. Not a small number. We can really make India great, we can really lead the world.
Even now India is the richest country in the world. Yes! Really, who has so much gold in the country? Half our women, that is 25 crores, have at least ½ tula of gold on their person. Look at the mineral wealth. Even manganese, we have in such abundance. 10 months of production season, which country in the world has? Even if only 50 districts out of 540 districts produce food grains and we take 50% of the food production we will have a huge surplus. That is why I am saying it is only a genius that can keep India poor.