Friday, February 16, 2007
Saturday, June 03, 2006
A thousand-and-one ideas (almost) ... on sharing knowledge
When I last ran into Heather Ford, the setting was almost
Paradise. But with a twist. It was scenic part of Africa,
where her roommate encountered a hotel-room theft and some
participants (of AfricaSource2) got badly sick after swimming
in the amazingly beautiful Lake Victoria and battling unseen
mosquitoes. Heather handed across a book which throws up a
thousand-and-one fascinating ideas, and many mixed feelings,
as did my first encounter with Africa.
'The African Digital Commons: A Participant's Guide 2005' is
co-authored by Heather and Chris Armstrong. This 78-page book
comes from the Link Centre at Johannesburg's Wits University,
and is the "collaborative output" of Commons-sense Project
that's online at www.commons-sense.org
Heather explains it thus, in a brief but succinct foreword:
"One of the goals of the Commons-sense Project is to conduct
research that helps equip African activists and
decision-makers with the information they need to develop
cutting-edge, relevant intellectual property policies and
So, they "decided to begin with a map -- a map that hopefully
presents a broad picture of how far we've already come in
Africa towards the goal of achieving a 'digital information
commons', as well as providing some sense of how to grow it
And, like most road-maps, there's much much more on the
ground than you first thought, when you look at it closely.
This slim book has four different sections, plus references
and biographies. It's the third and fourth -- that cover a
little under half of the book -- that are the most
interesting. Section 3 deals with 'African players,
processes, issues' while the fourth focuses on a 'Directory
of African Projects'.
You almost run into an alphabet soup. OAPI, ARIPO, UNECA,
NEPAD, TK, FTA, TRIPS Plus, ccSA, FOSS, IPR, DRM, and more.
But behind these abbreviations are a whole lot of the "good
guys" and the "bad guys". Some who want to share knowledge,
and others who want to use it as a tool to gain every dollar,
rand and shilling of profit out of it.
In the three-page introduction, one gets a good grip of the
issue. Even if this is a rather complex subject, with a whole
lot of potential to get TRIPped over.
It says, "As the writings of Lawrence Lessig and others
cogently argue, the digital revolution is a decidedly
double-edged phenomenon when it comes to openness and
Why so? The internet allows passive 'users' to become
participants and publishers. But, there are also significant
moves "by the handful of traditional 'publishers' to set up
barriers that threaten the potential of the digital realm to
level the playing field and create a truly universal medium
for creative expression and technological transfer".
One can pass over the first two sections speedily; these deal
with global issues, obviously meant to be an introduction to
the African reader. But one does get a set of useful links
and introductions -- to groups like the WIPO, the
Broadcasting Treaty, the Access to Knowledge (A2K) Treaty, UN
agencies, UK's Commission on Intellectual Property Rights ("a
pioneering attempt by a developed country to view
intellectual property through a developmental lens",
librarians, consumer groups, and lawyers.
There's even a one-third page introduction to blogs and
wikis, seen from the context of the digital commons.
Quote: "Many of the people connected to the activist
groupings covered in this Guide -- librarians,
consumer groups, FOSS proponents and lawyers -- are
also 'bloggers' -- keepers of weblogs. These online
blogs, which mix the values of journal-keeping,
journalism, gossip, investigation and a love of
interaction and communication, are a valuable and
entertaining source of information on, among other
things, the information commons. Many blogs are acts
of both form and content; they celebrate the digital
information commons, while at the same time building
it and using it..."
Likewise, issues of open access, open content and the
Creative Commons (cc) are also discussed.
This book's worth comes across through the many URLs and
weblinks it offers. There are also contact names and email
addresses, all of which could be of interest to those who
believe, even if slightly, that knowledge is not just a
'product' to be profited on. But a powerful tool to be shared
for the benefit of humankind.
Take the directory of African projects. It points to research
and advocacy groups that range from university-based computer
science networks, to policy monitors,
access-to-learning-material networks (www.access.org.za),
Francophone institutions (www.apsidci.org), the African
Virtual Library and Information Network of Addis Ababa, ICT
policy research or campaign organisations (bridges.org,
catia.ws), the Commonwealth of Learning, Highway Africa News
Agency, other networks (OneWorld Africa of Lusaka, Pambazuka,
SAIDE or the South African Institute for Distance Education)
SANGONeT in Johannesburg is the Southern African
Non-Governmental Organisation Network. Women'sNet is also
based in Johannesburg. And there are others.
This is a useful book, with a lot of links.
It traces copyright law to the so-called 'Statute of Anne'.
As Wikipedia informs: "The Statute replaced the monopoly
enjoyed by the Stationer's Company granted in 1556 during the
reign of Mary I which after several renewals expired in 1695.
Under this regime, company members would buy manuscripts from
authors but once purchased, would have a perpetual monopoly
on the printing of the work. Authors themselves were excluded
from membership in the company and could not therefore
legally self-publish, nor were they given royalties for books
that sold well.
"The statute of 1709 [or, Statute of Anne] vests authors
rather than printers with the monopoly on the reproduction of
their works. It created a 21 year term for all works already
in print at the time of its enactment and a 14 year term for
all works published subsequently. It also required that
printers provide nine copies to the Stationer's Company for
distribution to (official libraries)...."
Enlightenment values tried to balance off the economic
interests of England's booksellers, with the interests of the
reading public. But copyright terms have kept getting
extended. In the US, for instance, copyrights extend to the
author's life plus 70 years. Or a term of between 75 and 95
years, in the case of works by more than one author.
As Indian laywer Lawrence Liang from Bangalore comments,
"with global capitalism, control over copyrighted works
became centered in the hands of media corporations instead of
authors and artists."
But have the authors seen things a bit too pessimistically?
Maybe one should turn-around their statement, and instead
say: for every digital-rights-management-isation there's a
Napsterisation. For every Microsoft, there's a GNU/Linux. For
every giant multinational Bertelsmann publishing firm,
there's a Microsoft.
Why be gloomy and see things the other way round? Power is
with the people. They're just beginning to see the potency of
alternative content-sharing models. Challenges are
increasingly beginning to come up, in the form of
alternatives. And, the fun has just begun....
The African Digital Commons
A Participant's Guide: 2005
Chris Armstrong & Heather Ford
IDRC/CDRI Link Centre
The Commons-sense Project
Pp 78. Price not mentioned.
Available as Open Content from:
Sunday, May 14, 2006
A reader to 'the Other India'...
It was at one of those artificially-busy importance-assuming
conferences that actually change little in the real world
where an old friend thrust a copy of the 'Struggle India
Reader' into my distracted hands. Welcome relief it was. From
air-conditioned halls and mindless chatter.
Here are indeed some issues deep from the grassroots. Issues
that most of us might be hardly even aware of. If there are
two clear messages that emerge from this 185-page book it's
simply that, firstly, there's a lot happening in today's
India which is simply invisible to the average eye. And,
secondly, that alternative publishing is quickly finding its
own feet here. If only we're willing to sit up and take note.
Slickly yet inexpensively produced, this title was published
by the New Delhi-based PEACE (Popular Education and Action
Centre) group some time back. Reviews for it are overdue; but
then does the media take note of books not churned out via
the mainstream, commercial setup?
As made clear by its preface, the goal is to question the
impact of so-called "development" happening across India
since economic liberalisation, privatisation and
globalisation was "unleashed" on India since the mid-eighties.
This fairly slim volume tries to introduce the reader to the
'other India', as it were. It focuses on people fighting for
their resources, a fair deal and their right to life. It is
divided into five sections, showing how the simple (and often
poor) Indian citizen has fought back, valiantly if sometimes
unsuccessfully, on various issues.
Sub-sections of this book deal with land struggles, workers'
struggles, forest struggles, struggles for water, and
struggles against displacement. For those of us who live in
contemporary India, these faces of the 21st century
superpower-wannabee are not alien or unreal.
We've all encountered this harsh face of the Indian state and
its capitalist class at one time or another. A face which can
be harshly efficient, if only it chooses to so be, or if the
stakes (financial that is, people don't matter) are high
enough for the business-politician-bureaucrat class nexus to
move into overdrive.
This book explains the logic behind land struggles thus:
"(India's) highly unequal distribution of land leads to, and
is maintained by, various forms of oppression and violence in
rural society. The caste system provides an ideological
justification for this exploitative structure. Caste
hierarchy bears a close resemblance to the land-owning
patterns; on the one end, the landlords are predominantly
from the upper castes, whereas, on the other, the Dalits are
There's an interesting story of land struggles from central
Bihar -- a state today mocked by the rest of India, but which
was once the home of knowledge and enlightenment and the land
of the admirable philosophy of the Buddha centuries ago.
We are reminded that in a region with an extremely low level
of industrialization, agriculture forms the basis of
livelihood of nearly 82% of the population. That's about 60%
in Patna and around 90% in the other districts.
So there are many complex issues: land is a source of
conflict, land-reforms and other state interventions, tenancy
reforms, minimum wages, feudal power today, movements
fighting back since the late 'seventies, and more. This acts
as a good primer for anyone wanting an understanding of a
In the case of workers, the focus of this book goes to
struggles in Hindustan Lever (one of India's largest
companies, a subsidiary of Unilever the giant multinational,
which runs over 60 plants all over the country) and a
resource paper on "globalisation and workers' rights".
Hindustan Lever today has a product range from tea and coffee
beverages to ice creams, processed foods, soaps, detergents
and shampoo, to thermometers and industrial products. It
acquired Indian subsidiaries such as Kwality Food and the
erstwhile public sector company Modern Foods.
Over 9000 men are employed by the corporate. But the
treatment of workers comes out sharply in this text.
"When you bite into a burger at McDonalds, you probably
don't realise where some of it comes from: an obscure
factory in Sahibabad in Uttar Pradesh. Workers there
process and package sesame seeds ('til'). But they put
in 12-hour shifts, don't get any overtime allowances and
earn just about Rs 1800 to 2400 (around $50) per month!"
By offering case-studies of diverse 'globalised' factories
with 'localised' working conditions, this section gives a
good insight into the realities of the modern 'global
village'. PUDR, the rights' group, also gives an insight into
the politics of outsourcing, the contractualization of
labour, 'lean' production, mobility of capital, mechanization
and jobless growth, and more.
For the issue of forest struggles, we need to shift to the
southern Indian state of Kerala, and its north-eastern pocket
called Wayanad. If you go there as a tourist, this looks like
some scenic land out of God's Own Country. But a closer look
would throw up the harsh face of class- and caste-based
But don't forget the context: over 200 million Indians are
partially or wholly dependent on forest resources for their
livelihood. This includes seven percent of the country's
population, comprising the forest-dwelling 'adivasi'
(aboriginal) communities, whose very existence is intricately
linked to the forests.
In this book, we have a useful recounting of the history of
the all-India situation, and also a zoom-in to the current
reality of Wayanad.
Also from Kerala comes the story of Plachimada, a name which
has become synonymous with the anti-Coca Cola struggle there.
To get the setting, we are reminded: "There was a time when
rivers, streams and lakes were full to the brim and water
nurtured the people of the earth. But over the centuries, the
overuse and misuse of water has made it a scarce resource."
So one could well imagine, or read up, on what happens when a
multinational giant bottling a soft-drink gets sited on 40
acres of "what used to be multi-cropped paddy growing lands"
in Palakkad, Kerala.
But the people have fought on, even if this issue doesn't get
the coverage it deserves in much of the rest of India.
Displacement is a huge issue for the weak and powerless in
today's India. Naturally, a significant section is devoted to
this -- covering bauxite mining in Kashipur in southern
Orissa, the Koel Karo dam in Jharkhand, the lower Sukhtel
project in Orissa, the Mansi Wakal dam in Udaipur, the Tehri
dam project which is one of the most controversial
hydro-power projects in India and the second-largest dam
project in Asia in the new state of Uttaranchal, the giant
Tipaimukh high dam on the Manipur-Mizoram border.
Some figures: since 1947, development projects have uprooted
nearly 500,000 persons each year. At least 40 million people
have been already forced out of their lands and homes, many
of them more than once. Most were not even relocated in
planned resettlement, let alone "rehabilitated". This book
says one estimate puts dams alone as having displaced 21.6
million people in India.
"We believe that the capitalist media allow little space for
information and pro-people analyses on people's struggles.
Professional journalists often feel they have done their duty
by merely touching the surface of a few well-known movements
in occasional news stories," say the StruggleIndia team which
compiled this work.
Obviously, they have a point.
This text reminds us of the harsh realities that many in
India face in their daily struggles to exist. While it might
seem depressing, the optimism flows from the fact that people
are willing to stand up and make their voices heard. It is a
useful contribution to the understanding of the 'other
India', one which urban dwellers and those having it good
often forget in their haste to make the second-largest country
of the planet a not-so-underdeveloped one.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Struggle India Reader is published by the
Popular Education and Action Centre (PEACE), F93 Katwaria
Sarai, New Delhi 110016. http://www.struggleindia.com Pp 185.
Price not mentioned.
Saturday, May 13, 2006
India: the gap between rhetoric and reality...
[By Frederick Noronha] India, with its aspirations of being a global
super-power in the 21st century, has a long way to go if one takes the
rankings of the United Nations Development Programme which places this
country at 127th among countries worldwide in terms of the human
development index (HDI). India also ranks only 118th among all
countries in terms of its gross domestic product per head.
UNDP calls India (along with China) some of the most "highly
visible globalization success stories". But it argues that
that both are "failing to convert wealth creation and rising
incomes into a more rapid decline in child mortality". It
says that deep-rooted human development inequality is "at the
heart of the problem".
Some more stark home-truths come out from the UNDP's Human
Development Report 2005. For instance: India alone accounts
for one in five child deaths in the world, amounting to 2.5
child deaths annually.
India also has an income per capita similar to Honduras and
Viet Nam, but a far higher neonatal mortality rate in 2003.
Only 42% of Indian children are immunised. Someone born in
India can expect to live 14 fewer years than somebody born in
the United States!
Likewise, girls born in south Indian state of Kerala, which
is known for its better social indices, are five times more
likely to reach their fifth birthday, are twice likely to
become literate and are likely to live 20 years longer than
girls born in Uttar Pradesh.
Other shocking figures: In Tamil Nadu, for instance, HIV
prevalence rates higher than 50% have been found among female
South Asia, incidentally, has lower levels of poverty and
higher average incomes than Sub-Saharan Africa, but the
percentage of underweight women is four times higher in South
Asia and the child malnutrition rate is 20% higher.
Eliminating gender inequality in South Asia could reduce the
underweight rate among children less than three years old by
13 per centage points, and this translates into 13.4 million
fewer malnourished children, says the UNDP.
One survey in Rajasthan's poorest districts found that over
half of health centres were closed during periods when they
were supposed to be open. Another survey based on unannounced
visits to health clincis found that across India, 40% of
clinics lacked a trained person on site at the time of the
Mortality rates among children aged one to five is 50% higher
for girls than boys in India. "If India closed the gender gap
in mortality between girls and boys aged 1-5, the country
would save an estimated 130,000 lives, reducing the overall
child mortality rate by five percent," says the UNDP. As the
UNDP puts it, these young lives are lost each year "because
of the disadvantage associated with being born with two X
Here is cause for concern too: "India's capacity to
redistribute the benefits of higher growth through the fiscal
system is constrained by a tax-to-revenue ratio of only 10%.
After two decades of growth, that ratio has not increased."
Then, there's the harsh truth, even if it goes against the
current neo-liberal orthodoxy: "Market protection has helped
India emerge as a global force in the automobile components
sector, with output at $4.2 billion in 2001 and exports worth
$800 million. High import barriers created an incentive for
foreign investors to locate in India and build alliances with
local firms. These barriers were reduced slowly, in start
contrast to Latin America."
What more: India combined deep tariff cuts with an improved
growth performance in the 1990's. But, the higher growth path
predates import liberalization by a decade, and tariffs
remain relatively high. So is an 'open' economy necessarily
good for growth and human development? This, says the UNDP,
remains a "deeply ingrained" idea.
Since 1990, India has reduced its average tariff from more
than 80% to 20%, enabling firms to obtain the imports needed
to sustain an "increasingly dynamic growth process". "One of
the problems in India may be that import liberalization has
not gone far enough in some areas. Tariffs on inputs for
manufacturing are far higher than the world average,
hindering the competitiveness of products that rely on
imported inputs," adds the UNDP HRD2005.
India's software sector accounts for 16% of exports and
provides jobs to half a million people. Two-thirds of exports
go to the US, and another quarter to Europe. Almost half of
these exports -- valued at over $3 billion in 2002 -- are
delivered on site by professional staff.
BARRIERS, GLOBALLY: But globally, there is the reality of
access barriers including some immigration-related issues,
and "onerous" visa eligibility. For instance, would-be
importers of Indian professional services are required to
conduct prior searches in domestic labour markets to prove
that no alternative labour supply is available.
They also have to meet wage parity requirements. This means
that employers have to pay the wage prevailing in the host
country (thus negating cost advantages), while foreign
workers have to contribut to social security schemes (to
whose benefits they are not entitled).
Software engineers are also required to meet minimum
experience requirements -- five years in the UK and three in
the US -- to pass through cumbersome procedures for work
permits. In addition, there are quota restrictions on how
many workers can enter, and complex "economic needs" tests to
India is one of the world's fastest growing export economies.
Its exports are rising at more than 10% a year since 1990.
But it still accounts for just 0.7% of world exports.
Likewise, India's strengthened "intelletual property" rules
will delay the entry of generic drugs, driving up prices. One
estimate for India suggests that costs to households
associated with higher prices for medicine will increase by
some $670 million, almost double the current spending on all
New threats emerging include serious epidemics breaking out
in "several Indian states". India is rated as being "in the
front rank of high-growth globalizing countries" but only to
a more modest degree when compared with China.
"India is widely off-track for the child mortality target.
The annual rate of decline in child mortality fell from 2.9%
in the 1980s to 2.3% since 1990 -- a slowdown of almost
one-fifth.... Developments in India and China have global
implications. India alone accounts for 2.5 million child
deaths annually, one in five of the world total," says the
Bangladesh has overtaken India in terms of child-mortality
rate reduction. If India had matched Bangaldesh's rate of
reductio in child mortality over the past decade, some
732,000 fewer children would die this year. Clearly, the UNDP
argues, there is still a "huge scope" for the rapid
reductions in child deaths in India (besides China).
There are other statistics too lending cause for concern.
Female mortality rates remain higher than male upto the age
of 30, reversing the typical demographic pattern. These
gender differences reflect a widespread preference for sons,
particularly in the north Indian states. Girls are valued
less than their brothers, and are often brought to health
facilities in more advanced stages of their illness, taken to
less qualified doctors, and have less money spent on their
healthcare, says the UNDP.
"Gender inequality is one of the most powerful brakes on
human development. Women's education matters in its own
right, but it is also closely associated with child
mortality," cautions the UNDP. "Apart from being less prone
to undernutrition, better educated mothers are more likely to
use basic health services, have fewer children at an older
age and are more lilely to space the births -- all factors
positively associated with child survival. As well as
depriving girls of a basic right, education inequalities in
India translated into more child deaths."
Four Indian states account for more than half of child
deaths. These are: Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar
Pradesh. By contrast, states like Kerala have a wholly
differing gender record.
"Translating economic suceess into human development advances
will require public policies aimed explicitly at broadening
the distribution of benefits from growth and global
integration, increased public investment in rural areas and
services, and above all political leadership to end poor
governance and address the underlying causes of gender
equality," adds the UNDP.
It sees encouraging signs "that this leadership may be
starting to emerge".
It points to the 2005-launched $1.5 billion National Rural
Health Mission, targetting some 300,000 villages with a focus
on the poorest states of the north and north-east.
Commitments have come to hike public spending from 0.9% of
the national income to 2.3%.
Spending on education has also been increased. States like
Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have notched up rapid
progress in education, sometimes by increasing incentives,
such as free school meals, scholarships and free textbooks --
aimed at increasing the participation of poor households.
In Maharashtra, a three-year pilot project covering 39
villages extending basic ante-natal care programmes through
home-based care provisions and simple clinical interventions
cost just $5 per person covered. Infant mortality fell from
75 deaths per 1,000 live births from 1993-95 to 39 deaths
three years later. Morality in an adjacent district had
meanwhile declined from 77 deaths per 1,000 live births to
only 75 only over the same period.
It's not a question of how much is spent and what services
are available. Even where public health services are
available, they are often not used by the poor. For instance,
in India, a large share of demand s direccted towards
"poorly-qualified private providers".
One survey in Rajasthan's poorest districts found poor
households used private health providers even when nominally
free public services were available. One reason: over half of
all health centres were closed during period when they were
supposed to be open. When facilities are open, they often
lack a trained staff member on site. For India as a whole, a
survey found that 40% of the clinics lack a trained person on
site at the time of unannounced visits.
"Political leadership of a high order will be needed to
address these challenges. Failure to provide it and to extend
health and education opportunities to all, regardless of
wealth and gender, will ultimately act as a constraint on
India's future prospects in the global economy," says the
On the positive side, South Asia has generally "much lower
levels of inequality" than Latin America and Sub-Saharan
Africa. It also notes that India continues to be a "thriving
democracy".Integration into global markets has enhanced
wealth creation, generated economic dynamism and raised
living standards for "many millions" in India, apart from
India's Kerala state has an urban death rate lower than that
for African Americans in Washington DC. UNDP also praises
Maharashtra's Employment Guarantee Scheme. It says: "Since
the mid-1970's, it has provided agricultuwral labourers and
small farmers with up to 100 days in paid employment on rural
works programs. Women account for just under half the
beneficiaries. Extending the program to the whole of India
would cost an estimated 0.5% to 1% of national income in
transfers to 40 million rural labourers and smallholders. If
effectively targetd, this would lift most of the recipients
above the poverty line."
UNDP also notes that in West Bengal, the agricultural incomes
rose following tenancy reforms and the recongition of the
land-rights of the poor.
Is there cause for hope? At the 4% annual per capita growth
rate achieved since 1980, incomes double every 17 years. With
the 1% per capita growth rate India experienced in the two
decades before 1980, it took 66 years for incomes to double.
Says the UNDP: "Because incomes have been growting more
rapidly in China and (less spectacularly) in India than in
high-income countries over the past two-decades, the average
gap has been closing in relative terms. This reverses a trend
towards increased global inequality that started in the 1820s
and continued until 1992." But on 2000-05 growth trends, it
will still take India until 2106 to catch up with high-income
Over the past two decades, India has moved into the "premier
league" of world economic growth. High technology exports are
booming and India's emerging middle-class consumers have
become a magnet for foreign investors. But the pick-up growth
has not translated into a commensurate decline in poverty.
Improvements in child and infant mortality are slowing. India
is now off-track for these millenium development goals
Some of India's southern cities may be "in the midst of a
technology boom". But one out of every 11 Indian children
dies in the first five years of his or her life, due to a
lack of low-technology, low-cost interventions. Malnutrition
has hardly improved in the past decade. It affects half of
India's children. About one in four girls and one in ten boys
do not attend primary school. Extreme poverty is concentrated
in rural areas of the northern poverty-belt states -- Bihar,
MP, UP and West Bengal. Income growth has been most dynamic
in other states, urban areas and the service sectors. Rural
poverty has fallen in some states like Gujarat and Tamil
Nadu. But nationally, rural unemployment is rising,
agricultural input is increasing at least than two percent a
year, agricultural wages are stagnating and the growth is
But there's also bad news globally for the fight against
poverty. UNDP admits that as government prepare for the 2005
UN summit, the overall report card on progress "makes for
depressing reading". It adds, "The promise to the world's
poor is being broken." (ENDS)
Saturday, November 26, 2005
In the campaign, a few scraggly lines can pack a powerful punch
fred at bytesforall.org
For Leif Packalen (59) it all started when his Finnish friend in Tanzania wrote in to ask if Leif had anyway of transferring useful dairy-cattle ideas from Ethiopia to the poor who so badly needed it. Leif's romance with the scraggly line has gone strong for over a decade-and-half. Now, he's spreading the message across parts of Africa and South Asia.
For Leif, and his New Delhi-based pen-and-ink friend colleague Sharad Sharma, comics are not just something trivial that entertain kids. These drawings say much more than the proverbial thousand words of the picture -- more so when large sections of people still can't read or are sticken by poverty, illiteracy and a crying need for information that reflects their reality.
Leif Packalen started World Comics and Sharad Sharma picked up and extended the idea via worldcomicsindia.com. While Leif -- a former commercial attache in Africa for the Embassy of Finland -- has held training camps in half-a-dozen African countries, Sharad has been spreading the idea across half-a-dozen Indian states in this sub-continent sized country, and other parts of South Asia.
In end-November 2005, both teamed up in Goa's sleepy Madkai village, to host a training-for-trainers camp, which they hope will spread the idea, to more of those who can use it.
Put briefly, their idea is remarkably simple -- yet effective. You don't need to be an artist to express yourself in drawing. "If you have a good story, you can manage with less skillful drawings. But if you have a lousy story, there's no drawing that can rescue it," Leif told a dozen-and-half trainers-in-the-making at Goa.
On simple A4-sized paper worked, non-profit groups and tribal young men and women find an alternative to searching for that elusive access to the media. Leif's message is: wall-poster comics can be put up anywhere. Wall-poster comics create local debate. Wall-poster comics are simple to make, and inexpensive.
"The idea is to enable people who have something to say, to convert their ideas into comic-format. This can then be transferred into a wall-poster or a brochure," he explains.
Sharad says that "anyone from eight to eighty" can work on this idea. And, he has the creative work of Lakhindra Nayak of Jharkhand, Deepak from Uttaranchal, Champalal of MP, Sujata in Orissa, Noel from Tamil Nadu, Zuala of Mizoram and Rina of Nagaland to make his point.
In largely-literate Finland itself, this media is being harnessed largely for marginalised groups. Immigrants, refugees, minorities. "But I must say, our international work takes most of our time," adds Leif, who incidentally studied business administration and international marketing. He also worked in a development cooperation project in Tanzania, after being an embassy official in Nigeria and Sudan.
So, he's not an artist?
"I've trained myself," he corrects you speedily. "On realising the power of comics, I went to a comic-making course. Then, to drawing classes. In fact, I started drawing only at the age of 42, and had not drawn anything before that. Adult (continuing) education is very good in Finland."
Drawing, he believes, is a skill you acquire only by drawing. "It's not a gift from god. I took a degree in commercial art in 1998, at the age of 52."
Sharad Sharma, an artist who has worked with Indian mainstream television, has been extending Leif's idea, and his slogan of 'comics power'. But he's been not just stopping where Leif left off, and invites keep coming across South Asia for him to conduct trainings. "This is my 25th workshop in one year. We have been busy (and can only manage (to spread the idea) by) training more trainers," says Sharad.
Leif adds: "I've been quite many times to India. But WorldComicsIndia has become very strong. So, now, I mostly come here to learn. My vision is to see this method of grass root communication being exported from India to other places."
"We develop pictorals on parenting issues," says Rina Nath of Kolkata. From the poor urban quarters of Manchester (UK) come two community workers Kezia Lavan and Kath Taylor who say: "We hope to use this idea in building more community participation (among those marginalised in an affluent society). We had a wonderful workshop with World Comics in May this year."
Meanwhile, in Mizoram, the idea is being moulded to preserve almost-forgotten folk tales, and pass these onto local children, in the more-than-catchy comics form. In Tamil Nadu, some of the victims of the December 2004 tsunami were also encouraged to use the comic form to get an alternative media voice for themselves.
"Most of the time when the word 'comics' is uttered, people think it's for kids. But anyone from eight to 80 can participate (in the training). It's not even necessary to be an artist," reassures Sharad. Involving women is important, he stresses. Men take to comics more easily, but women hold the key in development.
Sharad encourages trainers to get neophytes to write a story, break it into manageable parts, translate words into visuals, place the text on a rough draft, boldly knock out all but the bare-minumum of wordage, and so on....
For their work, they already have something to show. It's an 28-page booklet subtitled 'Wall-poster Comics: A Great Campaign Tool'. It carries cartoons in the Mizo language, tips of how to get your message out, and suggestions on how to 'text' your drawings. Then, there also are stories of afforestation in Jharkhand, the neighbour's pig from the North East, drug-addiction issues, the story of an eye-doctor from Madhya Pradesh, and a Jharkhandi story of elections... from a people's perspective. You wouldn't think a line-form more associated with entertaining affluent and middle-class kids could actually talk all these issue.
Villagers can surely pick up the rudimentary elements of drawing. They do need some tips on how to reflect the moods in an egg-shaped face. Or how to depict people and motion. Drawing movement, sound and other effects is also briefly explained.
The end-message is simple: this simple idea works. If only more could get down to try it out. 'Adivasis neh jeeti ladayee' (Tribals won the battle) is the title of one theme about the story of the Tawa Dam project in Madhya Pradesh. "When you're using comics in this way, there should be an insider element in it," says Leif. And the voice does come across. ###