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Livelihood Struggles or Civil Society Activism? Ethnographic Reflections on the People Living on the Edge

Studies in forced migration have started focusing on such factors as resource crisis, climate change and environmental disasters only in recent years. When Representative of the UN Secretary-General Francis Deng and his legal team finalized the definition of the IDPs contained in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, there was a good deal of debate over whether or not the people displaced by these factors should be considered as IDPs. The majority opinion among the experts consulted in the drafting of the Principles, as Roberta Cohen tells us, favoured a broader definition, inclusive not only of those fleeing from armed conflict, generalized violence and violations of human rights but those uprooted by natural and human made disasters. There are however experts who continue to oppose this broader definition as much as there are governments which do not consider persons uprooted by natural disasters as IDPs; they prefer to describe them as ‘evacuees’ or ‘disaster victims’ presumably keeping them outside the ambit of protection. Nevertheless, a wider consensus has by now emerged that those displaced by resource crisis, environmental degradation and natural disasters are also IDPs and therefore merit attention. Walter Kalin, the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of the IDPs, after visiting the tsunami-affected countries in 2005, concluded that “it is no less important in the context of natural disasters, than it is in cases of displacement by conflict, to examine and address situations of displacement and to use a ‘protection lens’”. He has since developed Operational Guidelines for Human Rights and Natural Disasters.  

In our understanding of displacement induced by such factors as resource crisis, climate change and environmental degradation, it is very important that we take into account the fact that those who are affected are not necessarily seen as affected through what is called the ‘protection lens’ in the same way – if at all as in some cases - meaning thereby that there are grades of vulnerability and most importantly protection gaze through the extension of relief and rehabilitation is distributed highly unevenly often to the point of ignoring many at least in some cases. Hence what I am going to present is neither a study of simple vulnerability for it seeks to delve into the most vulnerable amongst the vulnerable or whom Gandhi would have called ‘the last man’ albeit in a an altogether different context; nor a study of how we can address their concerns - given that the present modalities of governing and administering relief and rehabilitation are not only inadequate but are paradigmatically incapable of bringing the most vulnerable into the web of governance. In the process, I will contest the commonplace hypothesis that such phenomena as resource crisis, environmental degradation and climate change are a great leveller and do not discriminate between the high and the low, the rich and the poor and therefore have the potential of cutting across the people who are affected by them. The paper at the end seeks to focus on new modes of livelihood struggles in contemporary India beyond the instituted arenas of governance.

Besides referring to the commonly available studies conducted by such eminent organizations as CRG, Indian Social Institute, TISS and a few others, my address makes an ethnographic study of three cases in parts of Malda and Murshidabad (in West Bengal), Nayagarh and Keonjhar (both in Orissa) in which people have been left without any livelihood options due to ecological disaster in the first case, reservation of forests in the second and rapid industrialization and mining in the third case. While the first study is being conducted intermittently since 2006, the second and the third were conducted back in 2000 as part of an evaluation of the performance of the development NGOs funded by the Dutch Core Financing Agencies (CFA).

Governmentalizing Relief and Rehabilitation

CRG’s study on a sample of 528 IDPs dispersed over such South Asian countries as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and India show that those displaced due to natural disasters have greater hope of being rehabilitated within one year than those who are displaced by development or conflicts. 156 of them displaced by armed conflicts are in the state of displacement for more than five years, while 60 of them displaced by development projects remain as IDPs for more than five years (CRG 2006:14). The relative efficiency and speed in providing relief and rehabilitation to the victims displaced by natural disasters is commonly attributed to the non-controversial nature of such displacement. Both development and conflict more often than not - if not necessarily - raise controversies.     

The apparently non-controversial nature of displacement induced by such phenomena as climate change, environmental degradation and disasters helps in bringing the otherwise warring parties together. The Tsunami of 26 December 2004 that hit large parts South and South East Asia reportedly brought LTTE and the Sri Lankan state aid agencies together so much so that they had acted in tandem. The earthquake of Bhuj and Kutch on 26 January 2001 was successful in bringing India and Pakistan together. Pakistan did not take time to allow Indian relief airplanes to take off from and land in the bordering airstrip at a time when India had withdrawn the overflight facilities hitherto given to her. Once the initial impact could be warded off, such cooperation proved to be highly temporary. Tsunami might have provided an opportunity for mending fences between LTTE and the Sri Lankan state; but the gains registered by the cooperation, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu regrets, were short-lived and could not be consolidated.   

It will be wrong to think that the non-controversial nature of natural disasters sparks off quick and efficient humanitarian interventions. Man-nature relations, as our studies point out, are predominantly shaped and influenced by man-man relations. Amites Mukhopadhyay’s recent study on Cyclone Aila of 2009 gives us a clue to understand how extension of relief and rehabilitation to the cyclone-affected victims was only subservient to the ruling Left’s objective of ‘salvaging lost popular support base’ in the Sunderbans and the Opposition’s finding of faults with the ruling parties and in effect how the victims are turned into mere ‘objects’ of political mobilization and support (Mukhopadhyay 2009: 19). Besides, the idea of the Sunderbans as a world heritage site rids it of any human habitation and makes the issue of human suffering completely redundant. CRG’s studies in the people displaced by the Tsunami in the coasts of South India, the Nicobar group of Islands and Sri Lanka point out how governmentalization of relief and rehabilitation operations eventually made the poor poorer and contributed to further marginalization of the already marginalized people. Similarly, Saravanamutttu suggests that the humanitarian relief by international agencies to the Tsunami-affected people of Sri Lanka came to the Sri Lankan government as one of the crucial means of overcoming one of the worst ever foreign exchange crises that Sri Lanka had experienced during the early years of the current millennium.[1]

Compared to these, the one in Malda and Murshidabad is slow although an inevitable disaster. According to an unofficial estimate, the number of victims affected by erosion of riverbanks in these districts so far must have crossed the one million mark. Now about 3 million people are facing the threat of losing their homes and agricultural land in the two districts. In course of my field visits, I have witnessed victims who have lost their homes 4-16 times in their lifetime. It is as if the river has been constantly chasing after them. Government assistance in Malda has been in the nature of providing temporary dry rations and tarpaulins to the victims for about 20 days and to provide Rs.5000 as compensation and two cottahs of land. Identification of such land will have to be done by the victims themselves. There is hardly any land within the affordable range of the victims. Only 1956 plots of land could be identified – of which only 850 have been registered till August 2004. In most cases, kickbacks and cut money were paid to the middlemen for expediting the deal.        

It is not true to say that the Government has done nothing regarding erosion. The problem was not viewed as a human problem affecting living human beings, rendering them homeless and depriving them of the crucial means of livelihood. It was always viewed as a structural problem involving feats of civil engineering and complex hydraulic technology. During the last three decades, it has spent approximately Rs.2500 millions while implementing various anti-erosion measures. But the money earmarked for preventing and managing erosion too got eroded as a result of rampant corruption and rent-seeking by the bureaucrats, engineers, politicians and contractors. Two of my respondents described it as ‘loot’; while a document of the Ganga Bhangon Pratirodh Action Nagarik Committee (Citizens’ Action Committee for Resisting Erosion of the Ganges) – a local voluntary group working with the victims - refers to it as ‘an industry of self-aggrandizement’. In terms of their viability, Rudra describes these measures of constructing spurs and embankments as ‘farce’ (1999:3). Tanay Mishra in his syndicated column in Malda Samachar, for example, carried the story of embezzlement of funds while contracting out the tender of laying of boulders for more than a couple of years.

The examples of people’s resistance to these ‘anti-erosion measures’ and the police opening fire on the irate mob organizing demonstrations in front of the politicians and government offices are by no means rare. In one such incident, a person was killed in police firing while demonstrating against the alleged embezzlement of government money on 17 July (2000) in Murshidabad. The voluntary group referred to above calls for greater transparency and ‘guarantee’ of the durability of the civil work done and demands that the schedules of all contractual work will have to be put up in the work sites and written in a language intelligible to the villagers.        

While the Government still insists on looking for engineering solutions and scientific truths, all this has lost much of its gloss in the eye of the people. Indian Science is no longer a spectacle - a ‘Taj Mahal’ as Ashis Nandy once described it, it is increasingly being viewed as an all-devouring monster. My field visits to different erosion-affected areas of Malda and Murshidabad suggest that people gradually have come to realize the unstoppable nature of erosion and the mockery of anti-erosion measures. Instead, they want Government policies to focus on people and the concrete human beings who are affected by it. We have evidences to suggest that even as late as in 1999, the Ganga-Bhangon Pratirodh Nagarik Action Committee was asking for engineering measures that would prevent and manage floods and erosion.  It is only in 2007, it asks for compensation for those who have been victimized by erosion between 1965 and 2007.

Civil Society Activism versus Everyday Struggles

Now that the States have been retreating from their welfare activities while vigorously pursuing the neo-liberal agenda of development, civil society activism is viewed as perhaps the only means that can not only compensate for the loss of livelihood of those who live as surplus and therefore are constantly on the edge but protect the rights of the displaced in times of resource crisis, environmental degradation and natural disasters. The state and civil society are supposed to complement each other and form a unified whole. In the words of Chakrabarty and Bhattacharya, “The ‘rollback’ concept of the state coincided with the emergence of another idea of ‘bringing the civil society back in’” (2008:48).    

In contemporary writings on environment too, the emphasis is laid on civil society activism often termed ‘public action’ meant for (a) preparing the ground for government’s intervention and (b) making a public audit of government’s policies and practices. The UNDP Human Development Report 2007/2008 entitled Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World for example argues:

An informed public understanding of why climate change is such an urgent priority can create the political space for governments to introduce radical energy reforms. As in many other areas, public scrutiny of government policies is also critical. In the absence of scrutiny, there is a danger that high-sounding declarations of intent will substitute for meaningful public action … (UNDP 2007:65).


A comparative study of the three cases gives us some clues to further unpacking of the patently neo-liberal equivalence between civil society activism as compensation and the loss that the forces and process of globalization inflict on the victims. In both Nayagarh and Keonjhar, livelihood struggles and civil society activism have taken on two completely divergent trajectories. The people who have lost their livelihood are so deeply tied up with their everyday struggle for survival that these have seldom contributed to the generation of ‘civic consciousness, democratic leadership and a general sense of social and political responsibility in order to enhance citizens’ participation and consolidate civil society strength’.

It may be helpful in this context to make a distinction between people’s everyday concern for livelihood and what is commonly described as the realm of “civic consciousness, democratic leadership and a general sense of social and political responsibility in order to enhance citizen participation and to consolidate civil society strength”. The theories of civil society however tell us that there should not be any conflict between them. Indeed, one can take the point a step further and argue that the latter is a prerequisite of the former. Civic consciousness, democratic leadership and a general sense of social and political responsibility are inseparably connected with the question of earning one’s livelihood. But what we find from the case studies conducted in parts of Nayagarh and Keonjhar is that these two realms take on two completely divergent courses.

The daily lives of the poor are so overwhelmingly occupied by the concern for earning a livelihood that at the end of the day, they just feel physically exhausted and do not find time to interact amongst themselves and build up a civic consciousness on their own. The development of civic consciousness is a product of such daily interactions with the community. Surprising but true, many of the villagers simply could not give us time when we visited their areas because they went out for cultivation (incidentally this happened to be the sowing time) or gathering of firewood or such other activities.


Not all villages however are equally poorly placed insofar as the information on and knowledge of citizens’ rights and obligations, policies and procedures are concerned. In some of the villages, the level of such information and knowledge is moderately high. I will come back to this question a little later. Gopinathapur and Karadabani of Nayagarh cannot respond in the same manner to the same set of interventionist strategies. The Secretary of the SHG (viz. Siddheswari Mahila Mandal) in Gopinathapur for instance, pointed out: “Our association with the SHG may not have increased our wealth (dhan) but it has certainly improved (unnati) our mentality (mon)”.

People’s transcendence into the higher realm of civic consciousness demands from them a somewhat longer-term perspective in which more than the questions of today, people are keen on ‘improving their minds’. They start feeling that they just do not live only for today, that their living today is not the be-all-and-end-all of their life-world and that they also live for tomorrow. The members of Karadabani Mahila Mandal and Raghunatha Krushak Club of Karadabani for instance, know pretty well that their dependence on the forest produce illegally collected from nearby forests cannot be a permanent solution to their problems of daily living. They also know that the forests that make them earn their living today, cannot continue to do so for an indefinite time. Moreover such acts amount to pilferage. But, they do not have any other alternative. “How will we live now (Chalibe)?” – is the only single-word answer in Oriya that I could elicit when I asked them the most obvious question of what would happen tomorrow. They do not have any agricultural land. They do not have any traditionally inherited skills (like the brass and bell metal artisans of Khandapara or the carpet-makers of Nayagarh). Their jobs as day wage labourers in the construction sites are highly irregular. What will they do today?  Not surprisingly, the voluntary group’s advocacy for immediately stopping collection of logs from the forests falls on deaf ears in this village. The question of today eternally postpones the question of tomorrow. Even when they know that during the last eight years at least six villagers have been shot dead by the forest guards. What used to be a common property resource for everyone’s use and therefore not the exclusive property of anyone - became a state property only with the reservation of the forest. And state forces protect it against any encroachment thereby preventing entry of common men and women into it. ‘Raw power’, as Boyce et al argue, by way of drawing from historical experiences of the Indians in America and the African slaves serving as indentured labour elsewhere ‘is the midwife of property’ (Boyce et al 2007:8). This is the only village where the people asked for doles and financial support (sahaya) from me. This again reflects their attitude.

Their obsession with the question of today at the same time does not enable them to think and act from a ‘Common Good’ perspective. Everyday struggles for livelihood are so pressing that sometimes peoples belonging to adjacent villages fight between them for acquiring control over vital means of survival thereby jeopardising the whole perspective of ‘Common Good’. We were informed of a clash that took place between two villages of Mahipur and Paradhipi of Nuagaon Block of Nayagarh district in 1996-97. Ultimately, it could not come to a head thanks to the timely interventions of a voluntary group working with them and the administration. The people of Paradhipi did not allow the villagers of Mahipur to gather firewood from the forests adjacent to their village for they feared that any depletion of the nearby forest would immediately cut into their livelihood more than those of the latter that is situated at a distance. The sense of ‘Common Good’ is yet to be articulated in the minds of the poor and the marginalised sections of the people.

The argument is anchored in the theory of civil society as propounded by Adam Ferguson. Ferguson - widely considered as one of the leading lights of Scottish Enlightenment – was perhaps the first to have understood the incompatibility of civility with the everyday question of livelihood and pointed out:


In (a) polished society, (man’s) desire to avoid the character of sordid, makes him conceal his regard for what relates merely to his preservation or his livelihood. In his estimation, the beggar, who depends on charity, the laborer, who toils that he may eat; the mechanic, whose art requires no exertion of genius, are degraded by the object they pursue, and by the means they employ to attain it. Professions requiring more knowledge and study; proceeding on the exercise of fancy and the love of perfection, leading to applause as well as to profit, place the artist in a superior class, and bring him nearer to that station in which men are supposed to be highest; because in it they are bound to no task; because they are left to follow the disposition of the mind, and to take that part in society, to which they are led by the sentiments of the heart, or by the calls of the public (Ferguson 2003:43).   


Governance and Bathing

Rabindra Sarovar – a vast water body of 77.62 hectares in South Calcutta was dug in the 1930s. The earth removed for this purpose was utilized to raise the lowlands and Calcutta could stretch towards the south only thanks to it. A survey conducted by Vasundhara found out that about 500,000 Calcuttans use water bodies like this for taking bath and washing their clothes. It goes without saying that 90 percent of those who use them are poor. The water bodies of the city serve as the only water resource for the poor. Rabindra Sarovar is the largest of all. About 10,000 families with approximately 30,000 people live along the railway tracks connecting Ballyganj with Budge Budge. The area is known as Gobindapur rail colony. A good majority of them were the erstwhile Hindu refugees from East Pakistan in 1971. They would take bath regularly in the Sarovar along with many others from the neighbouring localities. According to an estimate, about 9000 people bathe on an everyday basis in the Sarovar.

In 1997, a group of ‘environment-lovers’ filed a suit before the higher court in the name of protecting the environment. Bathing, according to the petition, becomes a ‘crime’ and all bathers accordingly turn into ‘criminals’. In 1998, Indian Railways entered into the picture by way of accusing them of having encroached on railway land in an unauthorized manner. This, according to the Railways, was slowing down and disrupting the flow of railway traffic and jeopardizing the safety of the passengers. They were asking for the eviction of these people. In 1998, the residents of Gobindapur rail colony came to know that the higher court comprising Justices Ranajit Mitra and Bhagabati Prasad Banerjee had asked them to vacate railway land. In another verdict delivered on 18 June 1999, the court held that the Government of West Bengal and the Railways would have to provide for latrines on a cost-sharing basis to the people living in the slums. The Calcutta Corporation and the Railways would jointly ensure that no fresh encroachment occurred on the side of Rabindra Sarovar. The bathrooms and latrines would have cost them Rs.7800, 000, which neither the Government nor the Railways was willing to pay. They made a fresh appeal to the court for eviction. Meanwhile the Central Government had declared the Sarovar as a lake of ‘national importance’. The court in a series of verdicts ordered for their eviction within a stipulated period. On 17 April 2003, the Supreme Court comprising Justices Santosh Hegde and B. P. Singh reiterated the high court order of eviction – if necessary by force with the help of police within a stipulated time. The Supreme Court further held that provision of any kind of bathroom and latrines would only encourage the encroachers to remain settled in an unauthorized manner. The order was referred back and forth between different courts and finally Justices V. R. Sirpurkar and Barin Ghosh ordered for the completion of the eviction process within 10 December, 2005.           

The above example shows that the victims find it impossible to couch their everyday practices in the language of rights. The encroachment by the state agencies on the people’s hitherto enjoyed access to common water resources is done either in the name of environmental protection that blatantly fails in protecting their rights or in the name of national property that ironically banishes them from its ambit. This is a nation that is constituted without them. Common property resources per se cannot generate common rights claims. Besides, the commonness of property resources does not necessarily imply their equal distribution. Community access will contain the same asymmetries and inequalities that otherwise mark a community’s internal structure.     

Preexisting Endowments and Civil Society Activism

People who do not have the wherewithal to migrate stay put in their homes – even when they have to do without the resources that are necessary for their survival. Sohrab Ali – whom I happened to have met on one of the embankments of the Padma in Murshidabad on a sultry, summer afternoon and who earns his living by supplying live chickens to the nearby haats (weekly or bi-weekly bazaars) significantly comparers them with the husks that have been isolated from paddy. Husks have no use for us. These are ‘useless’ people left as surplus in areas starving under resource crisis. In one of our earlier writings, we described them as ‘potentially displaced persons’. But those who have the choice of moving to towns and cities in search of livelihood are no better for they are unlikely to live longer - compared to others who remain in their homes, notwithstanding the resource crisis that they have to suffer from. Kumar Rana spent more than a year in an adivasi-inhabited village called Alopahari (not the real name) situated on the Bengal-Bihar border. As they migrate they become increasingly isolated from their village and kinship ties that always serve as support systems in times of distress. In an anonymous urban world, they live a life without a ‘society’ (samaj). As Rana argues: “Leave aside air and water, men require a ‘society’ in order to live – for persons like Rajen, it may not be at all easy to find a ‘society’ in Patna-Bokaro-Kolkata-Delhi” (Rana n. d.:160). Unmediated by community and kinship networks, they remain directly exposed to the vagaries of market economy and die early. Pierre Bourdieu argues that ‘symbolic capital’ gets formed through this mediation – through ‘the labour required to conceal the functions of the exchanges’ that characterize an economy (Bourdieu 1977:171) and to erase the appearance of the economy as economy with its complex processes of circulation, competition and exploitation.

Even in the remotest of corners of the programme villages of Orissa, people cast their votes with fanfare.  In most cases, rural voting is cent percent. Indeed, there is reason to believe that election comes as a moment of carnival-like celebration in the otherwise drab and dreary lives of the poor and the marginalised sections of rural people. The problem is that they do not seem to look upon elections as instruments through which they can hold the representatives of the people and the public agencies accountable to them. The people of Karadabani requested Mr. Bhagabat Behera, who later became the local MLA as well as the Minister of Mass Education, Orissa for establishing a Primary School in the village on the eve of the last election. In spite of his assurances, nothing was done in this regard.


Their helplessness in defending the civic space vis-à-vis the highhandedness of the public officials is nowhere more sharply illustrated in course of our field visits than in adivasi-dominated Sayabali village of Bhadrasahi Gram Panchayat of the Joda Block in the district of Keonjhar. This has now been nominated as the model village under the Education for all (EFA) project. There is only one Primary school in the village and at present there is only one teacher who comes from outside the village. He is highly irregular. While the school timing is from 10.00 A.M. to 4.00 P.M., he usually comes (if at all) late and leaves at 2.00 P.M. every day. The teacher is an old man who is on the verge of retirement. Despite Village Education Committee’s (VEC) persistent persuasions, he continues to be irregular. As the Secretary of the VEC observed: “We have done everything. Yet, he has not changed his behaviour. He has actually thrown to us a challenge saying ‘you do whatever you can’.” The members went to the local Block Development Officer (BDO) and made a written representation before him. No step has so far been taken. In course of our interviews, we could very well sense the helplessness of the poor villagers. Even if their actions are imbued with a heightened sense of responsibility, they feel too powerless to get things done.

Villages that are socially homogeneous have shown a greater sense of social auditing than the villages that are mixed and consist of peoples belonging to various castes and adivasis. While the Scheduled Caste people accuse the adivasis of being callous of their social responsibilities, the latter accuse the former of taking a discriminatory attitude against them. One of the common accusations against the adivasis is that they are basically miners; after a hard day’s work from the early morning in the manganese mines, they drink the local brew (called handiya) and lose their head. They are so addicted to it that they are not in a state to take care of their children’s studies. On the other hand, an adivasi villager told us that after so much of spending on a private tutor (he bought a kerosene lantern for his child and had to pay Rs.30 per month as the tuition fee) for his little child, he discovered that the tutor was not very particular in his job precisely because he did not (as our interviewee feels) want the adivasis to be educated. In a somewhat masochistic vein, he says: “We are adivasis and it is certain that we will remain for ever uneducated (murkha)”. This refers to the same village of Sayabali. The village solidarity and tolerance are still things that one does not easily come across in the socially mixed villages. Moreover, the formation of too many Committees (like the Self-Help Groups or SHGs, the VECs, the Gram Sabhas, Mothers’ Committees, Anganwadi SHGs etc.) in one single village is likely to produce frictions amongst them. Sometimes, the same individual acts as the member of many Committees. It often leads to role confusion and a certain blurring of his or her sense of responsibility.

Governance and the Politics of the Ungovernable

In short, they are the most vulnerable amongst the vulnerable left with no symbolic capital to invest, kinship or community network to fall back on, no sources of livelihood to thrive on, no water bodies to bathe, no trace of citizenship to establish their legal-juridical personality. They are the ones who at one level are continuously pushed out of the visible realm of governance while at another mark the limits to it. Relief and rehabilitation do not reach them.  They are the ungovernable - who cannot be governed. 

The Irulas are a semi-nomadic adivasi community spread over Northern Tamil Nadu and Southern Andhra Pradesh. The tsunami affected over 57 villages along Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh coasts displacing over 1800 families. In the tsunami, according to statistics put together by several agencies working with the Irulas in Tirvallur, Kancheepuram, Villupuram and Cuddalore, 27 people lost their lives, 124 were injured, 300 houses were lost, and 90 percent of their livelihoods came to a standstill. Only 12-13 families got any form of compensation, as these had deaths that were reported to the nearest police stations. Relief packages reached the Irulas only in the second phase of relief operations. Those who managed to escape to relief camps experienced discrimination, with fish worker communities asking them to move out on the grounds that their losses were much lesser – it must be noted that the poor Irula families had rarely have possession worth more than Rs.10,000, all of which were lost in many cases. In addition, fish worker panchayats have refused to add Irula fishing boat labourers to the lists of affected people that they were asked to furnish before the government. The TISS study explains:

When one tries to understand why the Irulas are facing such a situation, one sees that the answer lies in their lack of visibility. The Irulas have long been invisible community given their nomadic habits and scattered, sparsely populated settlements, and rarely possess proofs of citizenship such as ration cards, community certificates, voters’ identification cards etc. Many of the households do not even feature in the census as the Irula  settlements are located far from the main roads, and people are usually not available at home during the day (TISS 2005:27).  

Article 11, Clause 2 of the West Bengal Land Revenue Act 1955 in its original form enabled the owners who lost their land to restore ownership provided that land emerged on the river within 20 years’ time from erosion. This provision that appears to be in keeping with what the people perceive as naturally sequenced processes of submergence and emergence of land (shikhosthi and payosthi) within a river was abolished in 2000 and now any land emerging on the river, according to the new amendment, automatically becomes a vested property of the government. As a result, the law permanently rules out the claims of those who lose their lands as a result of erosion. While occasionally visiting many of these river islands, I have seen hordes of people showing their erstwhile deeds of conveyance, which have no value to them. Thus they have deeds which hardly convey any title, ration cards for which rations are unavailable, voter identity cards against which there are no votes. The government refuses to collect tax from them although they are prepared for paying it. In one of my earlier papers, I preferred to describe them as ‘people without shadows’.

They are the ungovernable and here we are referring to the politics - not of the governed as the title of a book famously suggests - but that of the ungovernable. The ungovernable by setting forth the limits of what is or can be governed seeks power to be contained within a measure, while state acting in complementarity with the civil society architecture and as the ‘superpower’ always tries to overwhelm it. As Alain Badiou puts it:

Politics puts the State at a distance, in the distance of its measure. The resignation that characterizes a time without politics feeds on the fact that the State is not at a distance, because its power is errant. People are held hostage by its unassignable errancy. It exhibits a measure for statist power. This is the sense in which politics is ‘freedom’. The State is in fact the measureless enslavement of the parts of the situation, an enslavement whose secret is precisely the errancy of superpower, its absence of measure. Freedom here consists in putting the State at a distance through the collective establishment of a measure for its excess. And if the excess if measured, it is because the collective can measure up to it (Badiou 2005:205).   

I will conclude this presentation by way of referring to an experience that I will never forget that happened on 8 December 2007. I was accompanied by some of my old contacts and spent the whole day with the villagers in Khasmahal Char - one of the newly emerged islands. It was a pleasant winter day and good escape for us. The sun was about to set in, in the silhouette of over 14-kilometer meandering belt of the river. As darkness was slowly setting in, we were about to take leave from the villagers – whose hospitality we thoroughly enjoyed for the whole day. The boat fitted with a motor presumably discarded from a bike started roaring and as all of us leapt one by one into the narrow keel, we looked back one last time towards the villagers including the elderly women and little children who flocked in their tens in the ghat. Have they come, we wondered, for seeing us off? None of them – even the child of 3 years - was wearing any woolen in that punishing cold, but to our utter surprise, we discovered that each of them was armed with whatever they had – lathis, machetes, spears and sickles etc. The eldest amongst them – a lean, shadowy skeleton of a man with only one hateful eye came forward and slowly became audible. He seemed to speak on behalf of the villagers and bluntly wanted to know the purpose of our visit. We were clutching for words for we had no real answer. Research was like a mumbo-jumbo for them. Thankfully, he himself broke the eerie silence that was becoming unbearable for all of us: “You (aapnera) come and go. But our life remains unchanged. We are yet to figure out why outsiders come to visit us.” It already became dark. The boat started inching forward. We felt relieved. After a while, the faces turned into what they look like from the mainland – ghostly pale shadows.               

            All of them were insisting on distance whether from the state or from the civil society and refuse resolutely to be investigated upon and counted as mute objects. Certainly they do not want to remain objects of outsiders’ gaze. As they remain distant they probably bask in their being out of focus for that is how they seek to contain the state or the civil society within a measure.



Badiou, Alain (2005): Metaplitics, translated with an introduction by Jason Barker. London: Verso.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1977): Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boyce, James K. Sunita Narain & Elizabeth A. Stanton (2007): ‘Introduction’ to James K. Boyce, Sunita Narain & Elizabeth A. Stanton (eds.), Reclaiming Nature: Environmental Justice and Ecological Restoration. London: Anthem Press.

Chakrabarty, Bidyut & Mohit Bhattacharya (2008): ‘Introduction’ to Bidyut Chakrabarty & Mohit Bhattacharya (eds.), The Governance Discourse: A Reader. New Delhi: OUP.

Ferguson, Adam (2003): ‘An Essay on the History of Civil Society’ in Virginia A Hodgkinson & Michael W. Foley eds., The Civil Society Reader. New Hampshire: Tufts University Press.

Mukhopadhyay, Amites (2009): ‘Cyclone Aila & the Sundarbans: An Enquiry into the Disaster and Politics of Aid and relief’, Policies and Practices 26, December. Kolkata: Calcutta Research Group.

Rana, Kumar (n. d.): Gharchharader Grame (in Bengali), [In the village of those who leave their homes]. Kolkata: Camp.

TISS [Tata Institute of Social Sciences] (2005): The State and Civil Society in Disaster Response: An Analysis of the Tamil Nadu Experience. Mumbai: TISS.

UNDP (2007): Human Development Report 2007/2008: Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World. New York: Palgave Macmillan.

[1] Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu’s intervention in the Roundtable on ‘Cyclones, Natural Disasters, and the Issue of relief and Disaster Management: Experiences of Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka’ organized by the Calcutta Research Group in Kolkata on 5 December 2009 as part of Seventh Annual Winter Course (1-15 December 2009).