In many forested areas of India, the wealth of natural resources contrasts sharply with the poverty of the inhabitants, who are mainly adivasi (Scheduled Tribes) and dalit (Scheduled Castes) small farmers and labourers. The rich forests and mineral deposits are state property and their ‘development’ means that lands used by local people are compulsorily acquired by the state for a pittance. While a handful of local residents may get secure jobs on the lower rungs of the industrial sector, most are impoverished even further and survive on the edge of starvation as wage-labourers. Displacement not only worsens the economic situation of a community, it often spells their social and cultural death. Villages are scattered, families broken up, the fabric of social being is destroyed.
For a majority of poor Indians, survival directly depends on access to land, water and forest resources. Where communities have had long-term rights to these resources, they have often regulated their use to prevent over-exploitation and abuse, ensuring their own subsistence while conserving nature. However, this relationship between local people and their natural environment has been ruptured by government policies that extract resources for industrial and urban use. Accelerated exploitation has deprived village communities of their right to subsistence and has destroyed the natural base on which all life depends.
A fundamental principle of democracy is that people should have control over the crucial decisions affecting their lives. In the past, such political, economic and social decisions were entrusted to elected representatives. Now it is believed that people need to themselves participate in the workings of government, making elected officials and bureaucrats more accountable, and exercising power in a decentralized way to create direct democracy.
For a majority of Indians, life is still ruled by the dictates of caste society. With whom one eats, lives and marries is determined by the caste to which one belongs. The hierarchy of purity and pollution assigns each caste a rank, and gives each individual a fixed identity at birth. Trying to break out of that assigned place invites opposition, even violence.
Education ideally, can lead to freedom; empowering individuals and communities to realize their fullest potential. It can not only enable better capacities in individuals, but also prepare minds to process information effectively – generating critical thought and perspective. It therefore not only offers the opportunity for hard-working people to lead enriched lives - transcending social contexts - but also deepens awareness and accountability in society. It helps facilitate informed choice, teaching people to think, question, change and grow.
For the first time in India’s history, there are more people living in towns and cities than in villages. Many of these urban residents have migrated from rural areas in search of a better life. However, while they may find work and other opportunities in urban areas, most of them join the ranks of the poor. They are forced to live in illegal and squalid slum settlements from where they can be evicted at any time. As migrants, they are stigmatized by their ethnic, regional and religious identity and are constantly reminded of their second-class status.
For the 407 million Indians who survive on less than $1.25 a day—42 per cent of the population—hunger, insecurity and ill health overshadow every aspect of life. Most of these people are born into poverty and deprivation; others join their ranks because their meagre resources are depleted by debt, displacement by development projects, and the deepening failure of agriculture. The scale and intensity of poverty make it the single biggest challenge confronting India as a nation.