Literary debates

JLF Southbank: By ignoring boycott call, writers may have missed out on powerful stories of dissent

Refusing to associate with a dubious sponsor could have sent out a strong message.

Should writers care who sponsors the literary events they are invited to? Is the question of sponsorship merely a minor detail, an irritant that derails the larger goals of free speech? Or is it something that needs to be considered in the wider realm of freedoms as such, where speech is merely one of its manifestations?

The protests against Vedanta’s sponsorship of Jaipur Literary Festival Southbank last weekend have opened up this key debate. For writers, these questions boil down to a personal dilemma that needs to be resolved every once in a while. Ruth Padel, the British poet and novelist who attended the Southbank event, posed it as following, while speaking to The Guardian.

“Sponsorship, and its potential taint, is a global issue," she said. "Do you pull out or speak out? Boycott, or bear witness?”

Given Padel’s long commitment to environmental concerns and her literary curiosity about the relationship between nature and the human, the disclosure of Vedanta’s sponsorship of JLF Southbank must be deeply conflicting.

Vedanta is a global mining company with a seemingly disturbing track record of environmental damage and human rights violations in the regions in which it operates. The damage is serious enough for some financial investors to have pulled out of the company altogether. Padel chose to attend despite her initial horror and shock on finding out the JLF-Vedanta connection. She writes that she decided to use the occasion to speak out.

The complex workings of sponsorships

The question of sponsorship is at the heart of this debate. Sponsorship is usually taken to be a gift bestowed by a benevolent patron upon a chosen individual, event or cause. The language of hospitality, of giving and receiving, and of hosts and guests displaces the language of financial contracts that advertising otherwise deploys.

Yet, sponsorship remains a form of advertising – in fact, a more potent form, since it allows an intimate relationship than mere financial contracts can ever harvest. So who is giving and to whom? And what precisely is being exchanged here in the garb of hospitality and gift? This is where the seemingly contradictory logic of sponsorship comes into play. And this is where the messy materiality of the intellectual enterprise is revealed too.

What Vedanta, a corporation fighting accusations that it lacks integrity, desires most is to share space with those who possess integrity. This is how advertising works – often, film stars who endorse perfumed soaps need not say a word. All they have to do is be framed in the same photographic moment – film star and the soap unified in one image. The image tells the viewers that the star quality is now shared by the soap too.

This possibility of unlikely connections is what JLF Southbank enables Vedanta by accepting its sponsorship. Vedanta can now mine the integrity and reputation of its guests and benefactors. It can possess what it sorely lacks. The gift, then, in this equation, is not what Vedanta is giving, but what writers are giving through their mere presence.

The untold stories

This brings us back to Padel’s question – boycott, or bear witness? The writers can choose to rationalise their presence at an event as an act of bearing witness, of seeing and telling the world of injuries, injustices and wounds inflicted upon the humankind.

But in this case, the notion of bearing witness seems to be an afterthought. Vedanta and the struggle of the adivasis in Niyamgiri was not on the agenda. Discussions at the event were not about the allegedly unethical practices of Vedanta, but, for instance, about the form of reparation that the British Empire might owe its former colony.

The Twitter feed #JLFSouthbank was not littered with tweets about the protests. If at all, the protesters figured as unwelcome disturbances that were ruining the festive atmosphere. We were told that the protesters were disruptive. Some writers even interpreted the protesters’ refusal to engage in dialogue as their failure to make their case. Yet, it is precisely through their refusal to celebrate literature and writing that was at odds with its materiality that the protesters were able to challenge the logic of sponsorship.

So, might we ask the writers to listen, to pause their storytelling for a moment, and pay attention to what they take as noise around them? Perhaps those stories will leave a mark greater than what any discussion at a literary event could ever do. The refusal to accept the hospitality of a dubious sponsor, as some participants did, is itself a powerful form of storytelling and a form of bearing witness, worthy of experimentation.

Ravinder Kaur is a historian currently working on the history of economic reforms in India.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.