Knowledge sharing: forever a future prospect?

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IS knowledge sharing a utopia, the international community’s new ‘buzz word’? We do not think so. A few examples are more telling than a dozen analyses. In 1965, Singapore was overrun with shanty towns and its economy was underdeveloped. Since then, the authorities have pursued resolute policies aimed at investing in education, improving skills and productivity and attracting high-added-value industries. The per capita GDP of Singapore has today overtaken that of many countries of the North.

An economy based on the sharing and spread of knowledge is an opportunity for the emerging countries and for the wellbeing of their populations. Thus, despite its poverty, the Indian state of Kerala now boasts a level of human development close to that of the countries of the North: life expectancy has risen to 73 years and rates of schooling are in excess of 90%. Kerala contributes significantly to making India the 8th nation in the world in terms of scientific publications.

In 1971, a few thousand migrants settled in an empty plain 20 km from Lima and created Villa El Salvador. Practising self-reliance, its inhabitants set up education centres and formed associations. A courageous endeavour of participatory community development, relying on women, transformed this shanty area into an organized town. Recognized in 1983 as a municipality, Villa El Salvador established its university in 1987. Today, 98% of its children attend school and the rate of adult illiteracy (4.5%) is the lowest in the country. The town now has 400,000 inhabitants, including 15,000 students. The municipality provides computer access points for its citizens, who express their opinions on issues under discussion within the community.

Shared knowledge is thus a powerful lever in the fight against poverty. It is also today the key to wealth production. Finland, which suffered a severe economic crisis following the break-up of the Soviet Union, is currently cited as a model: it invests almost 4% of its GDP in research, its education system is rated highest among the industrialized countries by OECD, and the variation in performance between pupils and educational institutions is astonishingly low, demonstrating that success on the scale of knowledge societies can very well be combined with equity.

These are far from being isolated examples. In all parts of the world, different countries are in the process of inventing new styles of development based on knowledge and intelligence, for a society’s development potential will in future depend less on its natural wealth than on its capacity to create, spread and utilize knowledge. Does this mean that the 21st century will see the rise of societies based on shared knowledge? Since this is a public good that ought to be accessible to all, none should find themselves excluded in a knowledge society. But the sharing of knowledge cannot be reduced to the dividing up of knowledge or the exchange of a scarce resource to which nations, societies and individuals lay competing claim.

In network societies, creativity and the possibilities of exchange or sharing are greatly increased. These societies create an environment particularly favourable to knowledge, innovation, training and research. The new forms of network sociability that are developing on the internet are horizontal and not hierarchical, encouraging cooperation as illustrated by the models of the research ‘collaboratory’ or ‘open source’ computer software.

The emergence of network societies and the concomitant reduction of transaction costs encourage the rise of new forms of productive organization founded on exchange and collaboration within a sharing community. This is particularly vital set against the temptation of economic warfare: these new practices hold out the hope that we shall be able to arrive at a fair balance between the protection of intellectual property rights, necessary for innovation, and the promotion of knowledge belonging to the public domain.

The sharing of knowledge cannot, however, be confined to the creation of new knowledge, the promotion of knowledge belonging to the public domain or the narrowing of the cognitive divide. It implies not only universal access to knowledge, but also the active participation of everyone. It will therefore be a key to the democracies of the future, which should be based on a new type of public space, in which genuine democratic encounters and deliberations involving civil society will make it possible to address social problems conceived in prospective terms. ‘Hybrid forums’ and citizens’ conferences prefigure this development in some respects.

The obstacles that stand in the way of knowledge sharing are admittedly numerous. Like the solutions we are putting forward, they are at the heart of the Unesco World Report Towards Knowledge Societies directed by Jérôme Bindé and published a few months ago. The 21st Century Talk that we have just organized at Unesco on the topic of knowledge sharing has doubtless helped to identify them more clearly: polarization, the digital divide and, even more serious, the knowledge fracture and gender inequality – these are the main impediments to the sharing of knowledge. To overcome these obstacles, societies will have to invest massively in lifelong education for all, research, info-development and the growth of ‘learning societies’ and to cultivate greater respect for the diversity of cognitive cultures and for local, traditional and indigenous knowledge. Knowledge sharing will not forever be a future prospect: for it is not the problem but the solution. The sharing of knowledge does not divide knowledge: it causes it to grow and multiply.

Koïchiro Matsuura


What about the land-dependant?

PUBLIC discourse on the Singur imbroglio by and large revolves around how many landholders have handed over, or not handed over, their land to the government for the proposed Tata motorcar factory. It is as if the number of landowners is the sole indicator of the extent of ‘development’ or ‘devastation’, whichever way one looks at it, that the so-called industrial project and the land acquisition preceding it may bring about. The fate of the landless land-dependent does not enter into any calculation, either in working out the compensation and rehabilitation packages or in ensuring alternative livelihoods.

Even a day’s visit to the now-frenzied Singur villages in West Bengal’s Hooghly district will make the observer replace the looking glass. Landowners one will certainly meet, and in hundreds, but those holding more than two bighas (approx. 0.66 acres) will be few and far between. The big landholders are absentees with regular jobs or doing business elsewhere. It is they who have sold off their lands for the Tata project, sharing nothing with the labourers who worked this land till yesterday, and leaving them with no means of sustenance. The Left Front government so far has not disclosed if it has any compensatory package for the landless wage-labourers and sharecroppers working in the 997 acre tract earmarked for the Tatas. A one-time solacium was bandied about some time ago but was quickly forgotten. If the Tata factory does come up and farming in Singur goes into oblivion, the landless will be the worst hit.

Little wonder then that the landless labourers working others’ fields are the lifeblood of the Singur farmers’ struggle against the acquisition of their land. Even those unwilling to part with their land and spearheading the six-month old farmers’ movement admit that the landless will be the core of resistance when the government’s land-acquisition push comes to shove.

Interestingly, the landless bargadars in Singur, recorded and unrecorded, will easily be outnumbered by the number of landed farmers. This is because the fertile land is highly fragmented and a majority of the small landholders work others’ fields, either on lease or for wages in cash or kind. These small and marginal farmers, despite owning land, are quasi-bargadar, although they are not recognised as such. As is the case with the totally landless, there is no special compensatory offer from the Left Front government for this marginal landholding section.

The army of daily migrant labourers, also among the land-dependants, never even creeps into any deliberation on Singur. The urban elite just doesn’t know about them. If the babu dreaming of riding the cheap Tata car manages to reach Kamarkundu, Madhusudanpur or Singur railway stations before sunrise, the cold, mist-laden backdrop will hold out an unforgettable sight – trainloads of men and women carrying sickles and axes on their shoulders, some with children in their arms, detraining and hurriedly disappearing into the still dark village pathways. In some seasons, they cannot be seen even at high noon, hidden as they are from view behind the tall paddy plants. The only time they become visible, if the babu has the patience to hang on till then, is the twilight hour but there is no time for a tête-à-tête as they will be in a hurry to catch the return train. The daily migrants are mostly adivasis and come from the remote villages in Purulia, Bankura, Bardhaman and other parts of Hooghly district. No one, particularly the ‘government of the poor’, has bothered to think about the fate of these poor once the brand new Tata factory rolls out its shining cars and the cultivation of paddy and potato becomes a distant memory.

The livelihood of the seasonal and permanent migrants too will evaporate when Singur’s lush farmland is swallowed up by the Tata enterprise. The former, usually forest-dwelling adivasis, arrive from Jharkhand as well as Purulia and Bankura districts and stay in the villages for six to nine months, making just about enough to feed their families back home for the whole year. The latter, on the other hand, arrived a decade or two back and have settled down in the villages with their families. Both these migrant groups do the heavy work in the fields like digging for irrigation channels, tilling the land, threshing harvested crops, driving tractors and, so on and eke out an existence from the meagre payments received. No thought has been spared for these communities in drawing up plans for the new industrial venture. They do not possess voter-cards and, therefore, the vote-obsessed Left parties couldn’t really be concerned about them.

Then, there are those who do not directly work the land but earn their livelihood from land-related occupations. Among them are the 2000 odd cycle-cart drivers transporting crop from the fields to the cold storage or the wholesalers, the sweat-dripping coolies slogging it out at these storage points, the rice and vegetable sellers in the local and city markets, carpenters and blacksmiths who make or repair farm implements, the goatherds, the milk vendors, the basket-makers – the list is endless. The lives of all these people will be ruined with the end of farming in Singur. The ‘community development project’ the Tatas are flaunting has absolutely nothing for this massive section of the affected population.

The ruling clique in the Left Front and the mainstream media are shouting from the rooftop that most of the landholders (80-90 per cent) have on their own volition given their land for the Tata project. This is a blatant lie and it just requires talking to the landholders in Singur’s affected moujas to call the bluff. More importantly, why is the government and the media talking about the landholders alone and not the non-landholding but land-dependent masses? Because they are trying to soften up the real, all-embracing impact of the project and conceal the devastation it will wreak on Singur’s entire economy and the lives of everyone living there, landholding or not. Singur’s economy and social life revolves wholly around land and the loss of even a fraction of that can spell unmitigated disaster.

By talking incessantly about landholding farmers, the ruling clique is trying to sow seeds of discord within the farmers’ movement. Conflict of interests between landowners and the landless does exist as elsewhere, but in Singur a majority of landowning farmers are semi-landless and are now at one with the landless farmers, along with all those employed in land-related occupations in their opposition to land acquisition for the Tatas. It’s not a class struggle, as happened during the Tebhaga movement, but a struggle of all sections against the forcible occupation of their multi-crop land. The principal contradiction in Singur’s case, as in all cases across the country where farmland is being taken over for SEZs and industrial projects, is between the entire farming community sans the big feudal lords and a section of rich farmers and big capital striving to establish its hegemony.

Such assaults on farmland and farming communities are integral to the historical process of capital accumulation. In 16th, 17th and 18th century Europe, large tracts of church estates and the commons were similarly appropriated by capitalist enterprises. Marx described it vividly: ‘The process of forcible expropriation of the people received in the 16th century a new and frightful impulse from the Reformation, and from the consequent colossal spoliation of the church property… The estates of the church were to a large extent given away to rapacious royal favourites, or sold at a nominal price to speculating farmers and citizens, who drove out, en masse, the hereditary sub-tenants and threw their holdings into one’ (Karl Marx, Capital, Moscow, 1958, Volume 1, Chapter 27, p. 721).

And further, … ‘The Crown lands thus fraudulently appropriated, together with the robbery of the Church estates, as far as these had not been lost again during the republican revolution, form the basis of the to-day princely domains of the English oligarchy. The bourgeois capitalists favoured the operation with the view, among others, to promoting free trade in land, to extend the domain of modern agriculture on the large farm-system, and to increasing their supply of the free agricultural proletarians ready to hand’ (Karl Marx, Capital, Moscow, 1958, Volume 1, Chapter 27, page 724).

The picture one sees in Singur, as well as in the rest of West Bengal and India today, appears to be a mirror image of whatever transpired in the 17th-18th century post-Restoration England that Marx portrayed. Unquestionably, it is ‘to promote free trade in land’ (read ‘real estate business’) that such large-scale and widespread corporate landgrabbing has become the order of the day. And in this shameful, speculative and destructive accumulation process, ‘the hereditary sub-tenant’ (read ‘the landless bargadar, the landed quasi-bargadar and the migrant workforce’) are being driven out, en masse, from their ‘holdings’ and non-holdings. It’s bizarre that the leadership of the main Left party in West Bengal, claiming to be ‘Marxist’ within brackets, is touting shamelessly for the Tatas and other capitalist groups and championing such land-expropriation as ‘development’ and ‘industrialisation.’ History repeats itself, as Marx and Engels wrote, as farce.

Much water has flowed through the Rhine and the Ganga since Marx’s time. The context in today’s third-world India is also far removed from Europe in the age of nascent capitalism and primitive accumulation. ‘Supply of the free agricultural proletarians ready to hand’ had commenced in our country in the ’60s with the onset of the Green Revolution but had to be scuttled midway through. The strong feudal remnants and the Prussian model of Junker capitalism ensured that the classical model was a non-starter. In any case, manufacturing today and real estate do utmost to make ‘the supply of …proletarians’ redundant. The Left Front government and the Tatas may bluff about 10,000 livelihood-generating occupations. Even they know it is bunkum.

Meanwhile, in the past couple of hundred years, capitalism itself has undergone several mammoth transformations. The globalising affinity it demonstrated since its earliest days, superbly narrated by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, reached its final, decaying lap in the post-war period. The overriding centralising tendency and the quest for hegemonic domination of the world market has led capitalism today to a new kind of globalisation in which capital’s territorial identities have coalesced into one whole ‘global’ entity. Indigenous capitalists like the Tatas are no longer in competition or contradiction with imperialists but have become part and parcel of capital’s worldwide empire. The so-called takeover of Tetley, Gluceau, Corus et al reflects more of the company’s integration with global capital rather than the ‘national’ triumph the media and the Indian ruling class are going gaga over. In this sense, the Singur farmers’ struggle to save their land from the marauding capitalists is a struggle against imperialist plunder.

The farmer-women in Singur, if asked why they are willing to sacrifice their lives for the movement, reply, ‘to protect the honour of our matribhoomi.’ In the literal sense, matribhoomi means ‘mother earth’ and, one may argue, refers to the land going over to the Tatas. But a majority of the farmers in Singur are landless, quasi-landless and land-dependent. When they say matribhoomi, they mean the motherland. There is no doubt that patriotism and concern for the country’s sovereignty are the driving force of the Singur farmers’ struggle. And the landless land-dependants are at the forefront of this movement.

Sumit Chowdhury