Thursday, September 11, 2008

Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land

Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land: Dignity of Labour in Our Times
By Kancha Ilaiah.
Illustrations: Durgabai Vyam.

Navayana catalog entry is here.

work, pay, an older entry somewhat related to the topic of the book.

the book foreword ...

Teaching Dignity of Labour in Our Times
In March 2006, when the Union government announced 27 percent reservation in central education institutions for communities designated as Other Backward Classes, the privileged castes and the media reacted as if the OBCs are essentially a stupid people who were trying to become doctors, engineers and managers along with 'their own youth'. A particular aspect of the anti-reservation stir shocked me most. It ought to have shocked the entire nation.

Students belonging to privileged castes who were studying medicine in central institutions, engineering in Indian Institutes of Technology and management courses in Indian Institutes of Management staged rallies and sat on dharnas. This in itself was not a problem. What was strange and distributing was that they began sweeping roads, polishing shoes and selling vegetables as a form of protest. They did in these globalised times. Of course, they did not make shoes, they do not make pots on the roads, or put together brooms. They are incapable of making shoes, pots or brooms. Neither did they remove the carcasses if the cattle that might have died in Delhi during the period. Since Delhi has many cows,buffaloes, goats and pigs, certainly some of them must have died during the time of the anti-reservation agitation. The protesting students could have removed these carcasses as well. But they did not do so. The symbolic protests also did not take the shape of tilling the land on the outskirts of Delhi---in Haryana or Uttar Pradesh. Had they indeed attempted such an act, the agitating students would have failed. Not one of them could have handled a plough. They have never interacted with such a mode of science.

By resorting to the tokenist work of appearing to sweep roads, appearing to polish shoes and appearing to sell vegetables, the students were demonstrating the fact they did not associate dignity with labour. They seemed to be driven merely by the fear that a day would dawn when they would be required to sweep roads, hone shoes, turn pots and graze cattle. They would be forced to perform labours that they deeply resented.

A mode of protest, where the basic productive occupations are despised and humiliated, would not be witnessed in a truly democratic society. This happens in India because our children have never been taught to regard labour with dignity. There are no textbooks in the curriculum, or books outside it, that deal with the issue of dignity of labour.

Our society suffers from lack of dignity because in the framework of the caste system any process that involves labour is projects as undignified. This is reflected in the India education system as well. As Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had said, the caste system is not just a division of labour, but a division of labourers. The caste hierarchy draws a clear line between physical and mental labour. Unfortunately, this thinking continues to shape the curriculum of modern school education as well.

The more India children move into higher education, the more they develop an antipathy towards basic, productive labour processes. Every school-going child's attitude towards everyday domestic work (sweeping and swabbing the house, cleaning the dishes, disposing garbage and washing clothes) is negative. Such tasks are either seen as a mother's job; or, if the family can afford it, as the job of a domestic help who invariably is a woman of a subordinated caste. Any woman who does domestic labour is also assigned the status of a 'lower caste' labourer (of a potter, barber, leatherworker or farmer) in our society. Such work bestows neither dignity nor a respectable wage. Thus, indignity of labour is both caste based and gender based. These ideas get indoctrinated at home, at school and through our cultural and social value systems inherited over centuries.

If we have to rectify the situation, the question of dignity of labour needs to be addressed in the school curriculum and within the home. A first step is to develop the basic textual material that can be used by young students (classes 7 to 10), teachers and parents. This books is such an attempt. It discusses the relationship between dignity of labour and the historical development of basic science by the productive communities of the India. These communities were slotted into castes and their labours were treated as lowly and undignified.

Of the eleven lessons in this book, eight deal with the science, art and skills of adivasis, cattles-rearers, leatherworkers, potters, farmers, weavers, dhobis and barbers. The development of each science is traced historically and placed in a universal context. Three lessons outline a general theory of dignity of labour in relation to life, gender and religion. I hope this book contributes towards inculcating dignity of labour and in building a rational, scientific, democratic India.

Kancha Illaiah


g2 said...

It is so true. I am so shocked that I was also brought up the same way but never realized. I did realize the importance of division of labor when I started to live away from home.

anu said...

good one :)

Anonymous said...

Excellent insight.