April 24, 2009

The Legacy of Malthus and Something Like a War

Man’s vocation, according to the essay, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, has two real alternatives—humanization and dehumanization. However, while humanization is an ‘inescapable concern’, those who are economically and socially powerful, usually take to exploiting, oppressing and debasing those who are in a weaker position. Dehumanization therefore, manifests itself in an oppressor-oppressed equation, where the oppressed seldom speak out or voice against their ruthless abuse.

The relationship of the oppressed-oppressor can be identified between the first-world countries to the third-world countries (America waging a war with Iraq, purely for the greed of oil), master-servant, and employee-employer, of man-woman, student-teacher and landlord-peasant.

Deepa Dhanraj in her film, The Legacy of Malthus depicts how the landlords (rich) victimize the meager-waged farmers of Rajasthan. She draws parallels of their predicament, with the ruthless exploitation of the peasants in Scotland, by the landowners during the 1800s.

The film is woven by narrative voices of women peasants, narrating how through ages, the rich Jats and Thakurs have lived on the grains produced by the farmers, while the farmers themselves, have starved. In the entire village, there are 20 rich houses belonging to the landlords, while 400 huts are below poverty-line—their wells remain dry throughout the year.

  The system of oppression becomes more haunting when Gora Bai (peasant), describes how the landlord pulled out the seeds the government gave her, from the land and forcibly argued that it was his land. When she revolted, he threatened to shove her head into the ground. Two levels of oppression come into being here, first, of the master and servant (due to economical disparity) and the second, of man and woman.

Gora Bai however, introduces a new element to the lineage of oppression: “We live in fear of both the shopkeeper and the government.”  Under Indira Gandhi’s government, India accepted a loan from the International Monetary Fund, which demanded, among other things (like increase in exports), control over population. Shortly thereafter, the United States intervened by trying to ‘help’ India reduce her population. The relationship established between America and India then, become one of the oppressor and the oppressed, where the former’s behaviour showed elements of ‘false generosity’.  

In 1974, America relied a lot on the 3rd World countries’ resources. For this reason, the United States was interested in the social, political and economic stability of these countries, which was invertly related to population. Population stability of countries like India, then became of important concern for the U.S.—it therefore encouraged the Family Planning Program in India.

Something Like A War, a sequel to The Legacy of Malthus, begins with a group of women villagers talking proudly about menstruation and how giving birth empowers them. In the 1980s, the Family Planning Program was implemented with enthusiastic support from the central government, especially in the rural areas. Indira Gandhi’s government undertook strict methods such as withholding salaries and denying ration to villagers who refused to participate in the program.

Oppression intensified through the game of power, when the jobs of Patwaris and ration-shopkeepers were threatened by the State government if they could not bring ‘cases’ for sterilization. The Patwaris then functioned as ‘government officials’ who promised male farmers money (Rs. 500), loans, land, television sets, if they pressurized their women to get sterilized—none of which, as one woman says, “were incentives which actually benefited the woman”.

 These women became the voiceless, anonymous ‘cases’, identified with numbers pasted on their foreheads during operations, where they were operated in the most unhygienic, fly infested conditions, without anesthesia. Many of them even died after the operation. 

A simple pattern in this legacy of oppression and exploitation can be identified—a Ist world country pressurizes a 3rd world country—the government of the latter pressurizes/oppress the rich landowners, who in turn oppress the male farmers, who oppress their wives—money here, functions as the underlying catalyst to this inhuman domino effect.

 The disconcerting visual and audio elements in the film, jolt the viewers off their seats, since for the first time they are shown the dark side of the Family Planning Program, which was otherwise celebrated by the Indian government as a mark of ‘progress’.

 In The Legacy of Malthus, the underbelly of the Green Revolution is also exposed. While the government corroborated with the U.S. and decided to incorporate chemical fertilizers in its agricultural methods, the only ones who dangled at one end of the rope were the farmers. Gyarsi Bai, a villager states that earlier they were healthier, and now: “we eat vegetables grown from fertilizers, which has made us weak.” The fertilizers destroyed the land and lowered the nutrition value of the crops, adding to the farmers’ plight, since the landowners already gave them arable land.

            Deepa Dhanraj intersperses the film with a scenes from a play enacted by actors who retell the impediment of farmers in Scotland. The ‘commons’ (which was land for all) was infringed upon by proprietors, and arable land was given to the poor peasants. Poverty ensued; the highlanders were starved to submission and forced to immigrate, in hope to find better lands for survival. She does this for two reasons: First, to justify why the poor immigrate to cities, and second, to show that the behaviour of exploitation and oppression is universal and exceeds time and geographical boundaries.

            Something Like A War, throws light on the shocking forcible atrocities the government inflicted on women in order to control the population. The rural women not only boldly discuss how they were forcibly sterilized, but also share how the government, for its selfish interests, was the least concerned for its citizens, especially the women.

National ‘development’ in its most gruesome form is the subject of Dhanraj’s films. Both the documentaries are therefore, told from the perspective of women—one who are the primary victims. Dhanraj gives the women a platform to speak, to voice how they felt during the program and the dilemma they faced between being answerable to their in-laws, who demanded innumerable sons, or to the government, which demanded not to have more than two children. Their own demands however, were never taken into consideration.

            One of the most haunting scenes in the film is that of a woman held down on a bed, while the doctor (with half-concentration) operates on her, while he speaks to the camera. Her mouth is clamped shut and her face contorts with pain and anger as she tries to beg for mercy. Gyarsi Bai leaves us with the most potent message—the government is mercilessly eradicating the poor, not the poverty.

The Legacy of Malthus ends with a teacher in a municipal school making his students repeat the ‘benefits’ of the Family Planning Program: “The country’s population should be reduced so that people can live comfortably and the daily needs of the people are met.”—illustrating how through education alone, the mind of a child is indoctrinated with false ‘truths’. The scene in interposed with a woman villager confessing that she too has begun to believe and internalize what the landlord taunts her with: the villagers are poor because they are illiterate, idiotic and senseless.

The last shot of this film, is the view of the slums from a moving train—it is Dhanraj’s way of stating, that we have become so immune to poverty, that though we see the sight everyday, we remain unaffected. Through this film, Dhanraj successfully counter-argues Thomas Malthus’ Legacy, proving through the exploration of the rituals of the landlords and the government, that the principle reason for poverty is not overpopulation, but the inequitable sharing of land and the ghastly economic disparity between the rich and the poor.


Documentaries by: Deepa Dhanraj