“The Indian mind believes in karma…”

It’s been a busy week back in Chennai and the cool mountain drizzle of Kodaikanal is a distant memory.  My hardworking interpreter has helped me to complete 76 household surveys in Kannagi Nagar.  I haven’t analysed the data yet but from listening to people’s answers, it was clear that many of the resettled people have had no education at all.  These people struggled to formulate an opinion about their situation and knew very little about how was responsible for which public services or who the influential people in the area might be.  People often complained about the lack of public services but said that they were afraid to protest in case they got into problems with the police or the slum clearance board.  Those who do approach the slum board to complain about problems in the area say that the slum board just tells them to wait.  There’s a strong sense that protesting or complaining is simply pointless.

In terms of the politics of the resettlement site, this proved to be a very sensitive issue and people were very reluctant to reveal which party they support.  Local politicians were generally said to be powerful and to have a high social status.  Although some people were sceptical, saying politicians only work around election time, the majority of people still felt that politicians were the people who could solve the problems in Kannagi Nagar.  In fact, in Tamil Nadu the state political leaders are revered as icons.  There is a tradition of film stars becoming political leaders and their faces are painted on walls all over the city.  So while in Kannagi Nagar people consider the local politicians to be powerful, they also often said that the Chief Minister, the leader of the party in power in the state, would be the one who could fix all their problems.  Aside from believing that the political leaders will bring improvements to Kannagi Nagar, I have found that in general people are too busy looking for work to campaign for basic public services.  People often don’t know what they are entitled to nor how to form a campaign and many people are afraid to speak out.  The community is also divided politically and anti-social problems make people suspicious of each another which prevents them from uniting to demand solutions to their problems.

Last week I also has an interview with a politics professor and one of the interesting things which he told me was that it is not in Indian culture to demand anything from the government.  In his opinion, this is a very Western concept which simply does not enter the mind of many Indians.  Instead, he told me, the Indian mind believes in karma and so people accept their situation and do not demand that others change it.  The Indian mind is taught to be content and so this is why poor people in India do not fight the government for better living conditions.  This is also why the government does not make more effort to improve the lives of the poor.  It’s an interesting explanation but I don’t think that belief in karma is the only reason for the lack of mobilisation among the poor.  It does seem true, however, that many people in Kannagi Nagar do not aspire to have a much higher standard of living and many are fairly satisfied once they have found work and have basic facilities.

As well as working on my survey, I’ve had a cultural week in India too.  Thursday was the start of a Hindu festival for Ganesh, a Hindu elephant-like god so on Thursday morning I was invited to join the pooja (worship) ceremony for Ganesh which my hostel had organised.  I was really pleased to be invited and it was intriguing to watch the priest offer bananas, coconuts, curd, chickpeas and sweets to the statue of Ganesh.  I am often surprised by the mixture of formality and informality in India.  This seemed to be a particularly special and holy ceremony and yet people would answer their mobiles in the middle of a chant and no-one seemed to mind.  The festival will end in about week when the statue of Ganesh will be carried to the beach and given to the sea.  I’m imagining the coast of Chennai to be lined with Ganesh statues.  I will take some photos…


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