Sunday, May 12, 2013

Communication and the politics of inequality: Notes from Jangalmahal

The fieldwork in May 2013 focused on developing frameworks around the key problems faced by community members in the villages and the corresponding solutions the community members envisioned.

This round of culture-centered fieldwork worked on the scope of the problems that the community would begin its work on. The community had already decided the broad scope of problems.

Our role, my role, as a researcher and the role of the community organizer, are tied to developing the scope of solutions to be implemented in the community as identified by community members.

In this round of conversations, the community members identified the problem of water for irrigation as the key problem facing the community. This was also identified through the in-depth interviews and earlier ethnographic work as the primary problem in the community, connected to the experiences of food insecurity and the struggles with poverty. Community members identified the need to build (a) deep tube well, and (b) a localized high dam (বড় বাঁধ)  in the community as solutions to the problem of water scarcity.

As we worked on identifying solutions, the local community organizers suggested the need to engage the Block Development Officer. They felt that having a dialogue with the BDO would be very helpful, especially in my presence.

One of them noted, "Babu, you go and talk, and things will happen." That my speaking position is tied to securing entry points into discursive spaces is something that I am deeply aware of from past fieldwork. And this experience was another example of culture-centered fieldwork that must grapple the privilege that is tied to the politics of re-presentation, thus becoming aware of the politics that is tied to representation and voice.

The question of authority that is connected with my presence in the field is something that came up in our conversation, and our community organizers suggested that we ought to leverage this authority, as a way to get things moving.

So after the community dialogues, we travelled to the office of the BDO.

After sitting on a bench in front of the BDO Office to wait our turn, we finally had a meeting with the BDO. We had sent in my NUS business card, and the card worked as a resource for us. It symbolically turned into a material enabler, fostering access to a discursive space that is otherwise in the words of community members, "difficult to reach."

It turns out the BDO was very helpful throughout our conversation.

He wanted to collaborate in whatever way possible and also pointed out that most of the questions related to irrigation are handled by the Irrigation Department. He pointed us toward appropriate resources in the Irrigation Department to converse with. During our conversation, he picked up the phone and made a number of calls.

I was glad that being there with community members in the office of the BDO pointed us toward directions of engagement as we move further toward implementation. We will continue next our exploration with the irrigation department and in the meanwhile write up a brief white paper that outlines the question of lack of access to water in the community.

My presence enabled our community-academic partnership with communicative access. I could communicate in the language of the BDO, converse about possible funding sources, and discuss granting mechanisms.

My access here is tied to my position of privilege as an academic, trained in the US, with a PhD, and coming from a leading University in Singapore. Most importantly, my privilege is tied to the bourgeoisie middle class requirements of participation and literacy that hold the gateways of communicative access.

Reflecting on this question of communicative access, I remember how after walking into the BDO Office, as if by some un-spelt rule, when I sat in the front row, Indranil (community organizer) and Sunil (Santali community organizer) took the second row seats. As and when I continued to ask them questions in response to questions asked to me by the BDO, they looked perplexed. In multiple occasions, Sunil's voice was muffled, silenced by the sound of the AC.

When I asked this question about voice and silence to them, I was told that this is possibly the first time, Sunil is sitting in front of the BDO in a Chair to explain the problems and to discuss solutions.

Even as this interaction was powerful in fostering access, it also replicated the patterns of inequality that we inherently bring to our relationships, constituted amid power and material access to resources. Even as I work on projects that work to foster access to material resources among the poor and the disenfranchised, I do so from a position of privilege and I benefit from a power relationship that operates on this inequality.



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