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Vinod Raina

The Physicist Who Fights Poverty


Vinod Raina, an Indian grass-roots activist in education and rural development, talks about empowering local communities and building a global network of ordinary people.



The Physicist Who Fights Poverty

By Yin-chuen Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 377 )

In a torrid, crowded Mumbai in July, Vinod Raina’s early morning is as busy as the city’s tide of office-bound workers.

While the talent of India’s high-tech industry has fanned out to pitch battles in markets throughout the world, this physicist who in 1996 won the Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the “alternative Nobel,” has waged a war against poverty instead.

Even though its average per annum economic growth rate is as high as 9 percent, over a quarter of India’s population lives below the poverty line. With a background as a theoretical physicist, Vinod Raina crossed disciplines, becoming a grass-roots activist, mobilizing millions of volunteers on a miniscule budget, and successfully helping tens of millions of people escape a life of illiteracy.

In this exclusive interview with CommonWealth Magazine, he tirelessly speaks of how to compete with the enormous global economic order using limited resources, reviving local economies and protecting natural resources.

Q: As you may be aware, Taiwan has recently been troubled by conflicting demands between industrialization and conservation in the allocation of water resources. Government policy is tilted toward a big local petrochemical conglomerate, because we are concerned about severe competition from China. According to your articles, India has been experiencing the same kind of difficult conflicting demands over the past 50 years. What would be your suggestion for solving the developmental dilemma we are facing right now?

A: Water is a limited and precious resource. It has to be conserved and used judiciously. It cannot be a commodity for profit; otherwise, future generations will be jeopardised. So even if corporations provide technical support, water systems must remain in the public domain and ought not to be privatised. This is the battle we are fighting in India.

Q: Please educate our readers (who tend to come from the most health-conscious, consumer-oriented, affluent segment of Taiwanese society) about today’s global water crisis, and what kinds of water trade we should avoid in accordance with conservation ethics?

A: Since fresh water is a very precious and finite resource, its use demands utmost care. World over, 65 percent of water is used for producing food – as irrigation for agriculture – 25 percent for industry, and about 10 percent for domestic and personal use. Though domestic use is minimal, it is also very critical, since it is vital for life itself. That is why water needs to be treated as a “heritage” resource, whose use for making profit needs to be legally prohibited. Also it needs to be made into a human right, since no human being can live without it. Accordingly, about 200 litres of free water per day ought to be made as a basic human right of every human being. People who use more than that, or waste it, must be made to pay heavily for that. It is criminal that some people in the world have only 10 litres of water a day, and some wash their cars everyday! Toilet flushes unnecessarily waste precious water. Optimum use of water at home and work must form a part of our general education. If there isn’t enough water available for irrigation, it will finally affect our food security! People must be made aware of that fact.

Q: What is your view on the recent “rise” of India in the global economic system? When we talk about national “competitiveness” in the global economic system, we are conscious of the national independence that we all dreamt of after World War II. How do we pursue “economic independence” in a world that is more and more interdependent?

A: By retaining National Sovereignty! India might be growing at over 9 percent economically as a whole, but that doesn’t mean the benefits are trickling down to each Indian. In fact, the rich are getting richer and the poor somewhat poorer! Internationalism and globalisation are fine, [as long as] they do not affect the most marginalised badly. Therefore, the Indian and other governments have to have political autonomy to craft laws and systems that protect the interests of the marginalised, simultaneously with global competitiveness. After all, the US provides subsidies worth $40 billion to its farmers so that they can remain globally competitive. That is not exactly a globalised “free market”! Other countries too need to have the autonomy to protect their interests, while they try and integrate into global competitiveness.

Q: How do we preserve local communities (provincial townships and villages) in the globally intertwined economic system? What do you do to create more jobs and livelihoods for those who are left behind in the efficiency-conscious global economic system? How do you promote community participation? What has been your biggest frustration? How did you overcome these problems?

A: That is the biggest challenge! In India, since 1994, the Constitution was amended to provide for elected local bodies (called Panchayats) at the community level. Three levels of governance were added to the National and Provincial governments. In many provinces, the local governments have been given a lot of powers, and they have performed in a manner to protect the interests of the marginalised. Women have played a key role in this, since 33 percent of positions in these elected bodies are reserved for women. In short, local governance and local production of essentials of life, the vision that Mahatma Gandhi had for India, has guided the system of Panchayats in an otherwise globally active Indian economy. Putting this into practice has been the biggest challenge the People’s Science Movement has tried to engage in, with some successes, like People’s Development Planning with local budgets in Kerala.

Q: In today’s “knowledge economy,” how should we perceive the “asset” of knowledge? How do you define knowledge, and the sharing of knowledge? How should we calculate the price of knowledge?

A: First of all we need to recognize that knowledge is not just information. When you analyze information, and embellish it with values and goals, you begin to get close to knowledge – the word knowledge subsumes wisdom. Knowledge has many forms – modern, university- and laboratory-based, and also folk, empirical and traditional. Farmers have accumulated empirical knowledge about growing food and other items uninterruptedly for over 10,000 years. Knowledge is cumulative over generations. Though some individuals may contribute innovatively from time to time – like a Newton or an Einstein – they do so, as Einstein said, by standing on the shoulders of others before them. Hence knowledge ought not to be commodified for profit or privatized through a system of patents – knowledge must remain in the common public domain. Those who contribute significantly to its advance must be given recognition and awarded – like the Nobel Prize – but should not be conferred with monopoly rights of knowledge, which patents do.

Q: What is your view on the bestselling book The World Is Flat by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, which praised the enormous success of India as the epic example that should be emulated by the Islamic world? Do you think today’s world is actually “flat” (contrary to the dependency theory that there is a hierarchical imperial “world system”)? Of what kinds of imperialistic maneuvers should we be cautious?

A: The world is perhaps flat in the sense that satellite communication ensures information availability all over the global at the same time. That has not flattened class, caste, gender and ethnic divides! No, the world is not flat as far as these divisions are concerned. What we have as a global system today could be characterized as “Imperialistic Globalisation.” It has mainly three dimensions – flattening national laws to allow for free flow of finance, goods and capital; global extension of war and military; and hegemonic flow of information, culture and entertainment through media and other forms. We need to recognize these three dimensions in each of our countries, and their impacts, and then craft methods to counteract them.

What is missing in the present form of globalization is the internationalization of ordinary people and their resistances – of the farmer, the worker, and women. We need to vigourously work towards trans-border alliances of such kind; that is the minimum we can do to counteract the processes of imperialist globalization.

Chinese Version: 文諾 印度公民運動鬥士