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Voice of dissent

The Starkness Of It
by Ashok Mitra. Lotus/Roli. Pages 350. Rs 295

The eminent economist and political activist Ashok Mitra has straddled several careers. He also happens to be an essayist in English as well as Bengali, and has received the Sahitya Akademi award for contributions to Bengali literature.

He contributed, off and on for more than three decades, to the widely-read ‘Calcutta Diary’ column in the Economic and Political Weekly, and continues to write a column, ‘Cutting Corners’, for The Telegraph, Calcutta. His Bengali memoirs, recently been made available in English translation as A Prattler’s Tale, and have attracted some attention.

The Starkness of It is a selection culled from the essays which formed the corpus of the now-defunct fortnightly Calcutta Diary’ column in the Economic and Political Weekly; these were written between February 1986, when the author had just vacated one political position, and August 1993, when he took up another.

Some might describe this collection as an exercise in literary archaeology not really worth the effort. They of course would have their reasons. The country and, along with the country, the world, they could argue, have changed beyond recognition in the past decade and a half. Issues occupying centrestage when these essays were written have, it could be suggested, faded into insignificance, and are at best of interest only to those vulnerable to a certain genre of nostalgia.

The more important question that could be posted with respect to The Starkness of It concerns its over-all thematic relevance at this juncture. In many spheres of life and living, changes have been of a breathtaking nature, quantity has moulded into quality, India now stands ramrod against a globalised landscape, with promises of emerging soon as an economic superpower. There is little point going overboard though. The endeavours at liberalising the economy had in fact started in the early 1980s.

Despite the export boom and the accelerated growth of gross domestic product, India remains one of the poorest countries in the world, going by the ranking of nations in terms of per capita income vetted by the United Nations. Income inequalities have aggravated in recent years. Gains derived from the farm strategy inducted four decades ago have petered out; agricultural growth over the past one decade and a half has in fact fallen behind the rate of growth of population; per capita availability of foodgrains too has steadily declined. Land reforms were never considered as a serious item in the nation’s agenda. Trade liberalisation insisted upon by the World Trade Organization has of late further worsened the conditions of a vast majority amongst the peasantry; suicide by farmers in distress is at present an everyday occurrence in many parts of the country. If account is taken of the fact that close to two-thirds of the nation still depend, on farm income for their survival; the contemporary Indian tragedy gets revealed in sharper profile. This is quite an extraordinary situation: gross domestic product is making impressive strides, but it is having no impression on the level of earnings of overwhelming sections of the working class.