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Issue 17 Issue 7

The trees are dead! Long live the forest!

What does one do about dead trees? The question has been pondered time and again. But before we get into that, it’s important to understand tree death in general. How do trees die? Let us count the ways. Often, a tree dies in situ, standing where it is. Sometimes, its roots weakened by soil erosion, it is felled in a storm. And sometimes, disease takes away a tree, hollowing out its core. A wounded tree falls prey to parasites. Fungus and bacteria, along with insects and worms, eat away the soft living tissue. Fires may singe and scar the bark. Rising water levels often flood tree roots, choking them. Nesting birds like cormorants paint them with copious quantities of caustic guano from their droppings, killing the trees in due course. In the forest, an opportunistic usurper may strangle it. Animals like elephants turn to tree bark when food is scarce, and excessive raids may tear the tree to shreds. Humans may murder it and saw away the wood, leaving nothing but a hole in the ground. 

As we can see, when trees die, they don’t go to heaven. Death itself is a long-drawn-out process, often lasting years. After a lifetime of service, a dead tree is pressed into retirement, but the work doesn’t stop even after death. When left alone in the wilderness and not cleared up by foresters, dead trees serve a vital function. 

Pause to consider the irony of that sentence. 

An Oriental Honey-Buzzard (L) and a Shikra scan their surroundings for prey in a tangle of dead trees.
Image credits : Beej

Life feeds on life. But life thrives on death, too. 

So, what good is a dead tree? Is it a threat to living trees? Is it an eyesore? Should it be removed?

I am part of an enthusiastic community of nature-lovers in eastern Bangalore. Most of us are fascinated by birds and wildlife. Some of us fancy trees. Others spiders and bees. When we are not sharing nuggets on our Signal group, we are hanging out singly, in pairs, or in small and large flocks at our neighbourhood wetlands. One lockdown brought us all together; now we’re enduring another cooped up at home and aching to return to our urban wilderness. 

A few months ago, we began an intense discussion on the utility of dead trees at Saul Kere, one of the lakes that we frequent. Besides offering a variety of wetland habitats that harbour over 150 species of birds, Saul Kere also has a woodland on its eastern flank, so dense that it can without much ado be called a secondary forest.

Working its robust bill like a drill, a White-cheeked Barbet excavates a nest hole in a dead tree trunk. 
Image credits: Saravana S

Bordering this woodland, where the grounds of the lake share a wall with the campus of a well-known information technology company, is a copse of dead trees. How they died one really does not remember, but the sight of them standing there like oversized deer antlers, bare of leaf, their trunks picked clean of bark and cambium, evoked mixed reactions. 

Some people wanted them to be removed. Others – particularly the photographers – thought they made aesthetic backdrops for their pictures. A few pondered if they would fetch any money if they were sold. Most wondered why we were making such a big fuss over a few dead trees. Live and let live; live and let die. 

For many of us, dead trees are just wood. We use the term deadwood metaphorically to describe things or people that no longer have any utility. I learned that foresters have a word for dead trees, too. They call them snags. Not a pretty word, it suggests that dead trees are obstructions to some sort of imagined progress. The truth is that forests and woodlands without dead trees would not be as full of life. In fact, without dead trees, a forest would slowly and surely lose its pluralistic character and die.

How much life can a dead tree support? Often as much, or more, than a living one.

German forester Peter Wohlleben, known for propounding fascinating but controversial ideas about trees talking to each other through a ‘wood-wide web’ in his book The Hidden Life Of Trees, draws attention to the vast underground fungal networks that intertwine among the root systems of trees in a forest. Scientists know these subterranean systems as mycorrhizal networks. The root-tips of living trees have fine, hair-like strands, which are linked by tiny fungal filaments. Trees in a forest, Wohlleben says, share information, water and nutrients through these networks. Fungi thrive on sugar and the trees produce a lot of it through photosynthesis. For the services rendered by the fungi, the living trees pay a tax: up to 30% of the sugar they produce goes to the fungi. A dead tree is prime loot.

Wood-ear mushrooms colonise the bark of a dead tree. 
Image credits: Beej

Fungi are first to know when a tree dies. There’s no mourning, no wake. Instead, it’s a party. A feast.

As fungi and bacteria get to work digesting and decomposing the tissue, insects colonise the fallen wood, attracting insectivorous mammals, birds and reptiles. Beetles, which relish tree tissues even while they are alive, lay eggs that hatch and live within the innards as grubs, which are a great source of food for questing woodpeckers. The hollow innards of a dead tree are highly prized real estate. Hole-nesting birds stake their claim, but they are careful to let the heavy lifters make the first move.

This pair of Rose-ringed Parakeets have occupied a nest hole vacated by a barbet
Image Credits: Saravana S

Woodpeckers and barbets are the builders of the woodland. They have a knack for seeking out the ideal nesting sites. Woodpeckers are often seen clambering up and down the length of a branch, probing intently for chinks in the tree’s armour. Tapping and drumming against the bark, they listen for the sound the wood makes. A hollow echo may be the cavity made by a burrowing beetle larva. The bird’s probing bill morphs into a power tool. In goes the drill, boring through the bark to get at the morsel. In due course, some of these excavations result in permanent hollows, offering an access point for moisture and fungal growth. The tree may fight back, but repeated attacks leave it vulnerable. On live trees, wounds may heal and scar over time, but in dead trees, they present opportunities to be exploited.

A male Oriental Magpie-Robin explores a nest-hole in a dead tree
Image Credits: Beej

At Saul Kere, Black-rumped Flamebacks and White-naped Woodpeckers have been observed on occasion, but it is the White-cheeked Barbets and their smaller cousins, the Coppersmith Barbets, that are the most prolific builders. Over time, the holes they make in the deadwood are taken over by Rose-ringed Parakeets, Oriental Magpie-Robins, Common Mynas and Jungle Mynas. Dead coconut palms, beheaded by lightning strikes or disease, offer attractive short-term co-living accommodations. The hollowed-out core of the palm allows for multiple apartments with separate entrances and often, shared common areas. Privacy may be a concern, but good behaviour and tolerance are essential for coexistence. We have observed parakeets and barbets coexisting quite harmoniously with large families of Spotted Owlets.

Rose-ringed Parakeet on a dead tree, tidying up a claimed nest hole.
Image credits: Saravana S

Hoopoes, White-throated kingfishers, Spotted Doves and Green Bee-eaters favour the bare branches as perches. Sometimes, the odd Shikra or Oriental Honey-Buzzard can be seen in the woodland, scanning the surroundings while perched atop a dead tree stump. 

Eventually, completely eviscerated and eaten out hollow by termites and other insects, the trees collapse. The space they vacate in the woodland is occupied over time by shrubs and grasses, even other saplings. The remnants nourish the soil, creating fertile beds for wind-blown seeds to plunge roots. From death, the forest springs to life.

In late March, before the second wave of the pandemic drove us indoors, I stood in the woodland at Saul Kere, watching a pair of parakeets engaged in studious home inspection. They had picked out the used nest of a White-cheeked Barbet, which had raised a brood recently. Patiently, and with great diligence, they scoured out the hole and took out the previous occupants’ garbage. This went on for hours, even days, and eventually the pair moved in to raise their own brood.

Green Bee-eaters favour open perches on dead trees as they offer little obstruction while making sallying flights to capture insect prey
Image Credits: Beej

As I watched them, ignoring the squabbling Jungle Mynas behind me, a party of green bee-eaters sailed through the air like oversize butterflies and alighted on the deadest, barest bough, trilling the very words that were music to my ears: Tree-tree-tree-tree

Feature image credits: Saravana S

This article first appeared in the Green Ogre India and has been republished with their permission. You can see more of their work here.

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Issue 15 Issue 7

Connecting culture to climate change: The many WIPs of Vinod Nambiar

The 2nd Edition of the Nila International Folklore Film Festival of India (NIFFFI 2021) is on. Hosted by Vinod Nambiar and his folk culturist group, Vayali, you can join a conversation with culture revivalists from across the globe and see documentaries on vanishing cultures. These films are made by, among others, India’s own adivasi filmmakers.

Vinod, for the past eighteen years, has been exploring every medium that gets youth up close with folk art, tradition and a knowledge system in touch with nature. A software engineer by training, he grew up by the river Nila in Kerala and saw first-hand how a living culture can begin to end, if another generation does not connect with its land. A creative response was an all bamboo instrument music band who engage the young to play, perform and experiment away.   Another is to have an ongoing cultural calendar, where the local flavour of dance and pottery, weaving and drama, bring a once dying river’s bedside, alive. Determined to be creative in tackling the cultural loss caused by climate change and migration, he shares the challenges in a video chat with Anushree Pratap.

Part of  Open Axis, Issue 15 focuses on interviews with path-breaking Indians, responding to climate change challenges.

Video: 15 min.

Cover image is taken from Vinod Nambiar’s Facebook page.

Anushree Pratap is a second-year student at Ashoka University pursuing Political Science and Environmental Studies. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

Someone Great

Directed by Jennifer Robinson and starring Jane The Virgin star Gina Rodriguez, Someone Great is a 2019 film that at once encompasses humour, friendship and love in a breezy 90-minute movie. It is set in New York City, the home of three girlfriends in their late-20s, navigating their careers and loves, all the while holding on to their cherished friendship. The movie revolves around the protagonist Jenny Young’s (Gina Rodriguez) recent breakup with her long-term boyfriend. While at first sight, the movie might seem like another light break-up watch filled with peppy songs and quippy one-liners, it touches upon the less-talked-about aspects of heartbreak and moving on.

Instead of going the conventional way by focusing solely on the protagonist’s broken heart, it attempts to explain the nuances of a complicated long-term relationship, the troubles of emotional attachment and the pain of moving on. Through the film, the protagonist is shown as actively coming to terms with the break-up, moving from blaming her boyfriend to admitting her own faults. It ends on a bittersweet note, with Jenny realising that while her time in the relationship was beautiful, the ending was also justified and all she can do is look forward and wish her ex-boyfriend future happiness. This attempt at understanding and achieving closure is perhaps the highlight of the film

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis)..

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Issue 7

From the Screen to your Couch: Here’s to Binging with Babish

Courtesy: Youtube, Babish Culinary Universe

There’s just something about food in movies, TV shows and anime: it looks unachievable-y better. Yes, it’s the colour-grading, the impeccable cinematography and the breathtaking animation but I would go as far as to say: it’s also the story and what it means to you. I feel an odd attachment to Ratatouille that has little to do with the dish and everything to do with the movie. So, the Youtube algorithm inevitably caught on and presented me with Binging with Babish— a channel where cinematic food is serious business.

Andrew Rea cooks all of this food better than you ever could but it truly is more about the journey—filled with witty quips, shiny kitchen equipment and fancy camera angles—than the “destination” (not least because we can’t eat the food). Watching Babish whip-up food from Seinfeld or Friends not only leaves me giddy with childish nostalgia, but also with a little too much faith in my own culinary abilities. That’s really not too bad given the times we find ourselves in. We could do with a restful break from all the stress—whether it ends in great food or just a “huh, so Homer Simpson really wasn’t kidding around with those waffles”.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

NPR Tiny Desk Concert: Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals

Courtesy: YouTube, NPR Music

It’s no surprise that Anderson .Paak’s concert is the most viewed video of the NPR Tiny Desk Concert Series. Backed by long-time collaborators, Free Nationals, .Paak offers stripped down versions of songs from his then released record, Malibu. Intimate, informal and ingenious, the band offers an unmatched dynamism as an R&B four-piece outfit. What stands apart is .Paak’s performance as a singer-drummer. Switching between effortless rap and flowing vocal melodies, .Paak never loses hold of his tight drum groove that is accentuated throughout by Kelsey Gonzales’ bass playing.

Over these laid-back grooves is the perfect coalescence of hip hop and soul music, offering a perfect entry point into rap music for those who tend to drift away from hip hop’s usual associations with old-school gangsta rap, or trap music. Even if the music doesn’t strike a chord with your musical inclinations on first listen, .Paak’s charming smile, the band’s chemistry and humorous banter in between songs will leave you captivated. Throughout the performance, look out for the band member wearing shades, he is undoubtedly the one who stands out from the rest.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

The Beginner’s Guide

Conventional notions of the intentional meaning behind creativity is challenged in The Beginner’s Guide. An interactive, narrative-based game developed and narrated by Davey Wreden, it follows the player exploring a series of short games developed by an individual named Coda. However, it isn’t Coda who introduces the player to their creations, but a narrator, named ‘Wreden’ after the game’s developer, who was once Coda’s close friend. The game follows the tumultuous journey of Coda’s creativity, depicted in the games they built before their sudden disappearance from Wreden’s life. 

Wreden walks the player through a variety of Coda’s games, highlighting signs of Coda’s deteriorating mental health due to doubts about their abilities and dissatisfaction with their ideas through recurring symbols and subtle allusions. Coda’s games provide elusive messages to the player to piece together the cause of their disappearance. The games represent Coda’s creative range and usage of his games as a means of communication with others. Through inescapable prison sequences, endless staircases that becomes progressively difficult to climb, and a cabin in the middle of nowhere that requires repeated cleaning with no sight in end, it becomes apparent that Coda’s games mean more than just creative expression to him. 

Davey Wreden’s games are best experienced without much explanation–they are always more than what they seem. At its core, The Beginner’s Guide effectively makes its players reevaluate what creativity truly entails, and understand the consequences of an insatiable desire for searching for meaning in creative products, even when there isn’t any. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

This One Summer

This One Summer, by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is a gorgeously illustrated graphic novel that tells a coming-of-age of two ordinary friends. The book explores the ups and downs of adolescence in this sweet summer novel, set in a lazy beachside town. What really captured my attention was the art style that exquisitely revives the bittersweet nostalgia of summer, heightened by the monochromatic moody blue color palate used throughout. 

The prose that accompanied the illustration is warm enough to bring out all the little things that happen over the summer. The story of this graphic novel follows a young girl Rose, who goes to a beach town for a summer break with her parents and befriends another girl from the town named Windy. As the story progresses, we see Rose go through struggles of growing up as a girl and keeping up with the changes in her life that this vacation brings in the form of troubles in her parents’ marriage, and her own life.  The language used in the book is rather interesting as it very well captures the dilemma through the eyes of Rose, who is old enough to understand what is going around her but not mature enough to care or significantly contribute or even comprehend the troubles and trauma she is going through. 

The attention to detail in the illustrations, coupled with the delicate prose makes this combination of panels a beautiful story that weaves together a story of two girls who try to navigate their way through a repulsive adult world filled with domestic drama with teenage troubles, in what is an otherwise languid summer. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

Godspeed, Miya Bhai

The recently concluded test match series between India and Australia in Australia bears testimony to the fact that statistics and results are intended to capture final outcomes, but seldom represent the stories that bring them about. The visitors emerged victorious, and in doing so managed to retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy while defeating Australia at the Gabba, their unconquered fortress of 32 years. 

From the horrendous start, a reclaim to victory, a staunch defensive save to absolute heroics leading to a resounding triumph, there was no dearth of stories in the series. None of these, however, managed to capture the popular imagination of our country as well as the story of Mohammad Siraj.   

A late bloomer according to Indian cricketing standards, Siraj guided his home-team Hyderabad to a quarter-final spot in the 2017 Ranji season. He debuted for India in the game’s shortest format the same year, and in ODIs in 2019. He has also been an IPL mainstay over the last few seasons, his last assignment being his role as the strike bowler for the Royal Challengers Bangalore team. He came to face severe flak under this role, due to poor results from the team. However, it was only during the boxing day match last year that Siraj would don India’s test cap for the first time. Siraj scalped 5 wickets over the two innings at Melbourne, showing the world that he could bowl with immaculate discipline, capitalizing on his first-class experience. 

Mohammad Siraj is a Muslim from Hyderabad, a city with a rich history of Nizami culture that continues to permeate life there. Hyderabad has a high percentage of Muslim population, with 44% of its residents following Islam. Among his teammates, Siraj is referred to as Miya Bhai. This term of endearment is often used to refer to one’s friends, especially in Hyderabad. A glance through Siraj’s social media shows us a man doing the Mujra, a dance form central to Nawabi culture. Along with a host of cricketing awards, Siraj is still unvarnished and unapologetic to be himself, staying authentic to himself and his culture. An unfiltered stance like this takes bravery in these times, as India and Hyderabad witness changes antithetic to their multicultural, secular character. 

The BJP’s Hindu Nationalist agenda is contingent on the ability to identify and censure a fictive Muslim bogeyman. The party has leveraged this notion, seeming to work against “appeasement” politics. In Hyderabad, it has tried to rebrand the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), a major political party as one that protects Pakistanis and Rohingyas, the villains of the current nationalistic discourse. In the search for pan-India Hindu support, BJP has reformulated local body politics in the city, by attempting to sideline the ruling TRS party and the AIMIM. Much of its campaign for the municipal corporation was centered around Hindu nationalism, rather than local issues. This method of majoritarian politics was effective in its success in December 2020, where it racked up 44 out of 150 seats.

At the same time, in Australia, Siraj with his heroics managed to win hearts all over the world. Playing on after losing his father just a few days before the series, it was evident how important cricket was after capturing his first wicket. He dismissed Marnus Labuschagne and pointed his hands towards heaven, knowing abba would be proud of him. 

After an Indian win in the second match, the opening ceremony of the third caught India’s collective attention. As the National Anthem played, Mohammad Siraj’s eyes teared up, prompting a widespread flow of both adoration and adulation for him. Amidst all this, to a certain few, this incident seemed to serve a point to further the “Good Muslim” idealogue that has become rampant. It seeks to present a caricature of accepted, even ideal behavior of the minority, to further strengthen control over the popular narrative. For Siraj, however, all it represented was a reminder of how far he’d come, and the joy that would have been all too evident for his father.

In this match, Siraj saw yet another challenge as he had to face racial abuse at the hand of spectators when he was fielding near the ropes of the Sydney Cricket Ground. This abuse started on the third day and continued over to the fourth day of the Test match. Certain sections of the ground were cleared, and an investigation remains underway. Following a hard-fought draw in this match, India were matched 1-1 with Australia on the scorecard. India’s squad was sodden with injuries to key players. Consequently,  Siraj, with all the experience of two matches, now had to lead a fresh bowling attack, one that had a combined total of 13 wickets, compared to 1033 for the Australians. 

Despite the obvious chasm between the two sides in experience and results, the Indians were resolute throughout the five days of play. On the fourth day, Siraj and Shardul Thakur fought hard to be the first Indian bowlers in the series to produce a five-wicket haul. This contest ended rather fittingly with Hazelwood getting caught by Shardul at third man off of Siraj’s bowling. On the last day of the series, Cheteshwar Pujara copped eleven blows to the body in order to shield the Indian team’s chances of fighting. The star of the show, however, was Rishabh Pant, whose intent and aggression sealed the match in India’s favor three overs before play ended. As soon as the winning runs were recorded, the first person to rush to the field was Siraj, embracing the day’s star before uprooting a stump to mark the end of a remarkable match and series. 

At the end of the tournament, India had made use of 20 players over their matches. It was the story of one of them, however, that will be talked about in the years to come. As soon as he landed in India, Mohammad Siraj visited his father’s grave, knowing that his trip was complete only then. Despite the “good other” comments that he attracts, or the vitriol that he has to face on social media, the identity of Mohammad Siraj, Miya Bhai is one that he wears proudly, defiantly, and effortlessly, one that is expressly similar to his bowling action.

Aditya Burra is an Economics and Finance major at Ashoka University. He enjoys hiking, and is particularly interested in understanding how right-wing online spaces function.

Picture Credits: Fox Sports

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

Regional Rap for a National Cause

“Rap is basically poetry with rhythm”, Imbachi reveals, in an attempt to explain what rap/hip-hop is to a middle-aged man who is curious about this newly emerging music genre in India’s regional music scene. In an excerpt posted on Instagram from one of his interviews, the Kerala-based rapper is seen opening up about his knowledge of the genre and his approach towards his rap.

“I don’t see myself being too politically associated, but my politics is whatever I see in front of me, and if I think it is wrong, I talk about it”, Imbachi asserts, when asked about hip-hop’s emergence as a genre that speaks up about socio-political issues. It’s just that simple.

As self-assigned torch-bearers of the movement, these rappers will rise up against injustice, write verses that reflect the struggles of the people, and bring the revolution home through music we can stream from our devices. Human struggles have always shared an innate relationship with the representation that they seek in forms of art, and poetry placed over hip-hop beats has become synonymous with the voices of protests in India lately.

 At the start of 2020, the women-led anti-CAA-NRC protests at Shaheen Bagh were invigorated by popular hip-hop acts from India’s independent music scene, such as Prabh Deep and Ahmer. They performed in solidarity with the movement on a stage at the protest site. The distinguishing trait about rappers such as Prabh Deep, Ahmer and Imbachi is that they can rap in their regional languages, Punjabi, Kashmiri and Malayali. While the growth of hip hop culture in India is similar to how it originated in 1970’s New York, these Indian rappers are pushing boundaries with regional and often multilingual rap. By rapping in the vernacular, these artists build a platform for oppressed, marginalised communities to be heard, stepping outside the more common English or Hindi rap which has been popularised by Bollywood. Turning a Western import into something of their own, these rappers have begun to embrace the expressive medium that rap originated as. Gradually, an entire nation is now waking up to the stories that are usually not covered on mainstream media through independent rap music.

Elaan, a multilingual track from Ahmer’s debut record, is a compelling collection of verses that reveal the harsh realities of growing up in the Kashmir valley. These verses placed over a gripping beat will leave you terrified, as Ahmer raps:

Kahan se aata mein?

 sab se darrawni jagah se

Insaaf hi mana hai, gunegaari mein mazza hai yahan

Tu talve chaate toh bada hai, sach paale toh saza hai

(You wanna know where I come from?)

(The most dangerous place on the planet)

(Justice, they deny it, violations bring them joy here)

(If you lick their boots, you stay relevant, otherwise you’re a criminal)

         Straightforward, without filters or fear is the style with which Ahmer fiercely delivers his verses. Making the listener aware about the grave, repressive conditions he grew up in, he portrays what life in Kashmir is like. The central government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and Article 35A gave this song more relevance. Ahmer became Kashmir’s new, rising spokesperson in the independent music scene. Even though Ahmer raps in Hindi here, ad-libs such as “Asli Koshur Hip-Hop”, which translates to “Real Kashmiri Hip Hop”, are intended to create a regional imprint.

Prabh Deep, who features on the same track, delivers a bold verse in his quintessential, casually outspoken Punjabi style. The verse culminates at the hook,

“Jedde border ni tappe

Karan jung da Elaan.”

(those who have never crossed the border)

 (are the ones declaring war),

proving to be highly relevant since most of the opinions being circulated across India after Kashmir’s special status was revoked, were coming from self-proclaimed experts who have never actually witnessed the situation in Kashmir. Prabh Deep highlights the irony in this case, claiming that the decision-makers are always the least affected. As a consequence they fail to take into consideration what is actually being demanded by the people.

         Not only do Prabh Deep and Ahmer raise awareness about what they have personally witnessed, they provide an anthem that resonates with every affected individual who is part of the movement. They help a crowd mobilise and rise together, and provide a universal symbol of unity through their music. Ahmer’s narration of his personal experiences, and Prabh Deep’s call for action complement each other perfectly, validating the views of the protesters and the need to voice their neglected opinions.

This growing independent hip hop culture in India is incredibly encouraging in the sense that the movement is not restricted to individuals who have personally experienced gruesome circumstances. Multiple rappers have taken the initiative to raise awareness about socio-political issues that do not directly affect them. In a song titled Atithi Devo Bhava, Imbachi speaks up against the Modi government’s ideologies and attempts to expose the general demeanour with which they conduct themselves. In reaction to the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, he raps,

Hindu rashtriya malla yilla mulkul

onna bharathanadada

atithi devo bhava

(Not a Hindu State)

(But one that includes everyone our India)

(Atithi Devo Bhava)

Nammal kanda Bharatham maani pogumo kanmunbilnilna

Secularism ennula vakyala veendam beleyilla inna

atithi devo bhava

(Will we see our India fade away right in front of our eyes)

(There’s no value for the word secularism anymore)

(Atithi Devo Bhava)

By constantly invoking India’s supposedly core value of “Atithi Devo Bhava”, Imbachi brings out the bigoted manner in which the government is acting on their agenda to turn a secular state into a Hindu rashtra.

With independent hip-hop gradually cutting across India’s regional and linguistic lines and finding its comfort zone at the heart of the revolution, the movement only promises to grow bigger. While the government can censor the narratives being broadcasted or published in mainstream media, the growth of the independent hip hop movement shows how the people’s voices can never be silenced. With Indian rappers carving out their own niches by choosing to represent and reach out to their people with regional vernacular, they provide a voice to the communities that were never heard before, while also instilling a sense of belonging to the larger community of India. It is not long before the movement spreads across the entire country, and gives birth to newer voices who take inspiration from the likes of Prabh Deep, Ahmer and Imbachi.

Rohan Pai is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In his free time, you’ll find him singing for a band, producing music and video content.

Picture Credits: Jamun, YouTube

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

Decoding the Union Budget 2021: Q&A with Professor Nishant Chadha

Q: There are a lot of worries about the Fiscal deficit for this financial year. Could you tell us the concerns around it and how the government plans to fund it? 

A: Very loosely put, the fiscal deficit is the difference between the government’s expenditure and its receipts. The concern that surrounds it is how do you fill up the gap between your spendings and receipts? Or if you borrow today, how do you repay it tomorrow, and will you have enough to repay it? 

And if we don’t borrow today, then how will we finance what we want to do? That is the same decision that any business or economic entity faces. Your borrowings are contingent on your belief that you can generate more income and pay off the debt later. Granted your activities are productive enough to cover the costs of borrowing. It’s the same logic that works for the government, but it can get a lot more complicated sometimes. 

The fiscal deficit is higher owing to the huge shock to the economy last year that resulted in low receipts and businesses shutting down.. So, where does the government get its revenue from? Now, since the government does not do any productive activity (like run businesses or earn profits from them), it essentially taxes other productive work, its citizens, businesses, etc. That is how it raises its revenue. Now, when you have an economic shock, especially one as large as the COVID-19 pandemic, your productive activity slows down as businesses aren’t creating much since they are not profitable. So, their tax revenues, which are the proportion of what they produce go down.

So that’s the reason why you have a higher fiscal deficit. Now, the question about concern is really about how optimistic we are about our future and about our ability to meet the government’s increased debt burdens. 

So the last part of the question you asked was how do you finance the fiscal deficit. One way is to disinvest. So you have wealth which you sell off and use the assets to finance expenditure.

The second way is that you go to people and borrow. So that’s the debt market. Typically, that’s the way the government fills the gap.

And the third way is by monetizing the fiscal deficit, which is essentially printing money. This is done by the RBI buying the government bonds and printing more money against that. So, it’s essentially just increasing the money supply. 

Q: Could you tell us something about the expenditure for the agriculture sector. A lot of reports mention that there isn’t a lot being done for the farmers, even against the backdrop of the protests. Can we observe an emerging pattern of inequality here? 

A: Yeah, I have an unpopular view about this. I think the only thing the government or the society can do for the farmers, is to ensure that we have fewer farmers. That is the only way out. 

So I think that agriculture adds about 14-15% to our GDP and employs about 45-48% of the people. That is where you have inequality. At the upper end, you have people who are in productive sectors like services but on the lower hand, people are tied to agriculture.

Increase in productivity with so many farmers is bad for the farmers, it is good for the consumers. So the only thing the government can do is, therefore, focus on moving people away from farming into value-added activities. Typically it would involve people moving to cities and into manufacturing or services. Our problem has been that we don’t have a manufacturing sector, so we have been unable to implement this transition. And it is a very difficult transition as services typically require the kind of skills and human capital that people in rural India don’t have. So now what happens? This is a structural feature and the government has two choices: either people’s income increases itself so that they are no longer poor and reliant on you or if they remain poor, you will have to pay to support them. And that is the essence of this distinction between growth and inequality discussion.

If you don’t do anything in terms of investing in people, if the skills don’t improve, if they don’t engage with other jobs, there’s nothing you can do. None of them are leaving agriculture or moving away from social security schemes. So where do you bring the money from? So to me, this expenditure needs to be balanced. This choice needs to be made. And the only way to have to be able to manage this is to invest in growth.

Q: So does the government have to invest in education training or similar programs to encourage having fewer farmers in the agriculture industry to increase labour productivity?  

A: See that is unfair. We all blame the government, but it is a difficult job to do. As I said, the government doesn’t engage in productive activities, but what it can do is enable the right kind of environment to generate productive activity. The bottom line is that businesses need to grow.

We need more of the right kinds of businesses and entrepreneurs, and more formality in our labour markets. The government’s job is to worry about why jobs are not being created. Now what they can do to resolve this is to encourage entrepreneurship and increased business activity so that people can start or grow businesses and hire more people. 

Now, what is the challenge here? Consider how in a lot of banks that you deal with, look at what has happened with the call centres. They’ve all been replaced by chatbots. Call centres are not really skilled jobs. You just have to talk to people. But they were a huge boost to India in some sense, because they moved a lot of people out of lower-middle-class backgrounds into a sort of middle class, but now they’ll all go away. Just like how mobile phones ran out the STD booths. This is a reality that we are going to run into very soon. So what should the government do now? Well, at the micro-level, they should essentially invest people with enough skills and create an environment which encourages business activity. 

So when we think about what the government can do in terms of job creation, I think over the long term, we need to be cognizant of the fact that by its own admission, this government is spending huge amounts of political capital on digitization but aren’t spending anything on creating it. The question is who will work in those areas? So if I look at the education of the labour force today in India, 28 to 30% or one-third of our labour force is illiterate. We don’t have the labour composition that can be a part of this economy that we are talking about. For example, mobile phone penetration in India is high, but only in absolute numbers. So it is a huge market for people. However, the government’s job is not to create huge markets, but to figure out what is happening to those people who don’t have mobile phones. How will they survive? 

The digital divide in this country is huge. So, what technology 4.0 we are talking about? We don’t even have automation of the basic kind right now. Most businesses in this country don’t have computers. We really need to understand the reality in which we exist.

We have this challenge in the long-term that we need to start acknowledging and addressing now, and then you hope that there is enough creativity and innovativeness in your country’s population, which will take care of itself. And I believe there is. The government’s job is just to create and keep creating the right environment and then hope for the best. 

There are things that they do in terms of job creation, for example, investing in infrastructure will create jobs, but they’ll create construction jobs. The whole world is moving towards, you know, having AI, ML and robots in construction and moving people away to more productive work. We are trying to create jobs where we have people moving from agriculture to construction. This is okay for now, but is this really what we want for the future? These are some hard questions that we need to answer.

Q: We also wanted to ask you about your expectations from the budget and whether or not they were met? 

A: Honestly, I think this is a fair budget and I’m quite okay with it. 

One of the things that I do like about the budget is asset monetization. There’s a lot of land that is lying around, which is not the government’s job to hold anyway. So, releasing productive assets and transferring them to other people in the economy who can use it better is a great idea. I would also like the Indian government to have a national social infrastructure pipeline at some point. 

And I really would like them to have a plan, (like the one that they have for capital expenditure they’re making on infrastructure, for example; in which they give a plan for three, five or 10 years) for education and health. I think now is the time to make commitments. India needs to start thinking about how they’re going to tackle this problem of a low level of education and skilling and increasing enrollment ratios in secondary education.

There is all this discussion around technology 4.0, but how are we going to do it? Our kids don’t even finish school. So what are they going to do? They just want to use YouTube. They become a market for others. Agreed, the mobile phone penetration is high in India, but that just increases the size of the market for somebody else, because the technology is not in the hands of producers or entrepreneurs, that technology is in the hands of consumers. So yes, we’re consuming technology a lot, but what are we doing with it? Or we are basically giving a huge market to Google and Facebook and YouTube.

And yes, we can replace TikTok with Tik Kik and PUBG with FAU-G. But that is not what we need to do. If you want to harness this technology, you need to turn these to as many people as possible, especially to producers and entrepreneurs.

We really need to have a plan for education and health, just like we do for other forms of investment because human capital is a form of investment, not expenditure. We really need to get our act together there.

Q: There’s a lot of information available about the budget. What would you recommend as a good, informative source for somebody who just wants to understand it? 

A: I would suggest that you just look at the budget documents, they are annotated along with footnotes explaining everything. You can just go to the website (www.indiabudget.gov.in).The best way to learn for yourself is to spend time on it and make your own judgments, that is what I would advise. 

Nishant Chadha is a Fellow and Head of Projects at the India Development Foundation, and a visiting associate professor of Economics at Ashoka University.