A conversation on dignity at a refugee home

Human dignity is a very simplistic term that appears in almost very often in discussions around humanity or in day-to-day life. However, when we look at the governments and how our nation states endorse it as an important value for our society, we see it appear as “Article 1 – Human dignity” or the well known Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). It is very clear that everyone understands the concept of worth of a human person naturally, however, we also make a very common mistake of assuming that the world revolves around us, and the “I” is very important. Somehow the “I” is so important that we are constantly fighting to keep the “I” very special, unique and most of the times “better” than the “other” person. It is very easy to give in to our emotional state and fall prey to discrimination, alienation and distance from what is different to us, i.e. the other. Emotions, Identity, Collective worth etc. all matter here.

citation
Forgas, J. P., & Fiedler, K. (1996). Us and them: Mood effects on intergroup discrimination. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 28–40. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.70.1.28

All of this probably makes us conduct a value assessment of “human worth” on the other person as less deserving than the “I”, because the “I” is special, unique, more deserving, more hard working (better, bigger, faster, stronger). As I continue to read on dignity, “Us v/s Them” (refer more academic readings: one, two, three), I am also trying to write on conversations with friends which I find having the same meaning and helps us understand these concepts.

I love my friends who have kids, as there is a lot of simple stuff going in their lives and so much to talk about. The incident involves two moms, each having a daughter (let’s assume they are both of the same age). The local citizen, city living mom (let’s call her Mom A) takes her daughter and visits the local refugee home to give away some of clothes, toys etc. which she does not need or can do away with. After giving away the stuff to the homes, while walking out she bumped into the second mom who was a resident of the refugee home (let’s call her Mom B). Mom B was with her daughter who looked at the other girl wearing a teddy bear school backpack. She (Mom B) asked Mom A if she can have the same backpack for her own daughter or if she can give the one her daughter was carrying to her.

tedd
The bag probably looked something like this.

Mom A, was very reluctant to give away the bag from her daughter and told Mom B that she just dropped off a lot of stuff and maybe there’s something she can use from there. Mom B was insisting that this is a very lovely bag and her daughter will be very happy to have the same one, now that she can see that another little girl like her as something pretty and shiny. Many assumptions can be made here as to what happened in the head of these moms but, our conversation went into the discussion on what is dignified and not, and the idea of “left overs” was a starting point.  Using this as an example of worthiness and humanity in general, simply put, the other person had enough already and it would not hurt much to just give away the bag. Mom B can go and buy a new one, and it would have made the Mom A and her daughter happy, at least for the moment. Maybe even made them feel like normal equally deserving humans for that short time. The question I asked was a simple one, Why do you think the other child wasn’t deserving enough to have been given that bag?

However, I used a simpler and more visible example of how crowded the refugee homes were to further the conversation. In this given society, you have a certain minimum standard of life that is considered as a basic human right. I mentioned that when I had to apply for a German residence permit here and provide proof of accommodation the officer told me that my address had too many people and not enough space for me to be living here, so I was told to find another apartment and re-apply.

Basically, every member of the family over six has to have twelve square meters of living space, members between two and six need ten square meters, members under two years old are exempt from the regulation. In addition they must be able to share kitchen, bathing and other facilities.

A quick search gave me this explanation as it being a “policy recommendation” and not a law. But I used it as an example to support my argument that, if there is a certain standard that is a given here in this society, then the same should be applied to refugee homes? Of course the answer is not simple when we talk about realities like, enough houses, money to build it, infrastructure etc. But we are talking on a moral level right now, and ignoring the realities. Things like justice, dignity etc are all moral concepts which our society constantly deliberates on shaping our realities.

In the example of the girl and the bag, it is very simple to assume that for some reason the refugee mom felt like she wanted to be treated as an equal and her daughter should have the same bag. While the other mom, was probably in a tricky situation to sacrifice her way of living, at the cost of her daughter’s emotional attachment to the bag. Both are very valid human responses and expectations. To which I posit, a little bit of naive idealism, that once everyone has enough of what they need, and we combine the sense of happiness and empathy to that equation, it is very easy for people to “give” away so that others can have the same. Also when we create the inevitable distinction of Us v/s Them, we dehumanise the other and distance ourselves as the better deserving or worthy. Which essentially means, the moment we are using labels like them, others, refugees and move away from our way of referring each other as just humans, we are going away from the concept of dignity at it’s core. What would it take to work towards a “One Of Us” definition rather than the “Us v/s Them” is something I am sure a lot of people think and work towards.

There are other questions, to be written at another time, on the approach to integration, aid in the context of refugees that come to my mind. If you remove the word “refugees” from its technical, legal definition, we are all migrants, immigrants of some form looking for “safe havens” and have a “better life”. Even an academic looking for that tenure position will have to move to a different city or country is looking for something better, stable and secure to have a good and meaningful life. The alienation and distancing here is real, and at times the refugee homes are mainly located outside of the normal civilisation even in regular cities. There are enough empathetic and willing local citizens and communities who are willing to help and support and work should be done in allowing the locals to accept and invite people into their localities to help integrate well. Most of the refugee aid work done by agencies is in “containment” mode and keeps them away as the “other” and a lot of integration efforts needs to be done right.

 

 

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We need plastic bans in villages to protect our agricultural infrastructure

During one of my fieldwork visits last year, I was doing a daylong interactive discussion with NGO staff and community representatives. At some point we had a tea break, and the tea arrived in plastic cups. Obviously, I was not an expert in how plastic can damage our environment and all the ill effects of having that around us so prominently, because as an Indian, I was accustomed to seeing plastic being used for everything. From protecting our TV remotes, to covering anything possible with plastic as a mechanism to protect it from dust. Then it hit me that, this is a sacred land. India is what it is today, primarily because of our agricultural revolution in part. The land is also sacred, because it is where our food comes from. Moreover, the farmers are the protectors of these lands and the caregivers, not just the caretakers, of our land. These lands are also the main source of income and livelihoods for our farmers, either who own these lands or are just working as labourers to feed their families on a daily basis.

The fact is that plastic waste is a known hazardous material not only for the health of humans and wildlife, but also nature in general; that includes our land, rivers, air etc. When I go out to buy food, vegetables or just have a cup of tea at the local tea-shop in the village, I see plastic everywhere. It is cheap, I get it, which is why it is very popular and the supporting industry around it goes well for the same reason. Local shop owners find it cheap to buy it and give it to their customers, and customers find it easy to dispose. Because you can just throw it anywhere and it automatically disappears. Maybe that is why India decided to ban plastics in its capital city of Delhi. However, my concern is to draw attention to the villages, and especially those agricultural lands that feed not just the people in the region but the whole nature. Then go a step further, in incorporating behavioural change in the use, disposal of plastic waste in the villages. When I walked around the people settled around the rivers that come down from Nepal to India, one could see disposed of plastic bottles or bags here and there. The amount of waste obviously increased the moment you went to the more populated areas, which was a bigger hub for everything from markets, to local bus stops to doctors. However, even in the remotest part of our civilisation, plastic made its way. I felt that our modern and developed lifestyle of the cities is corrupting the innocence and vitality of the villages. In addition, the recent ban in Delhi makes one applaud the move as it is a problem in the most polluted city of India, but what about the villages?

Earlier I was attending state of Bihar’s attempt of formalising the United Nation’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction into its state DRR strategy i.e. the DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 endorsed and formalised by the state government. If you look at the document, the section on “WASH & Waste Management” probably fits for the problem I am talking about. Also the recent national campaign for clean India drive i.e. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan compliments the commitment top this problem and raise awareness across the country talking about issues like open defecation which speaks to rural India too. So it was really nice to see the inclusion of this strategy in the DRR Roadmap of the state talking about implementing it down to the village (Gram Panchayat) level.

“Include the WASH and waste management related actions in the GP planning through the Standing Committee, Village Health Nutrition and Sanitation Committee and partnership with civil society organizations.” (DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 pp. 78)

What I wanted to understand is that, “Can we consider agricultural land, rivers or our natural resources as part of critical infrastructure?”

Going back to one of the targets of the Sendai Framework,

“Substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and educational facilities, including through developing their resilience by 2030. ” (Sendai Framework – Targets)

and connecting it to the DRR Roadmap’s 10 point commitment #7:

“Resilience of critical infrastructure and delivery of essential services will be ensured, including restoration of functionality and continuity, in case of disruptions.” (DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 pp. 10)

I understand that conceptually the mention of critical infrastructure is not used in the same sense and context that I am proposing. What I am merely suggesting is that, maybe there is a need to address adequate attention to our natural resources as something critical, especially when it concerns with a multitude of problems that are man made. And when our government can take such measures like banning plastic in Delhi or other bold moves like banning currency or internet censorship, it shouldn’t be difficult for the government to make a blanket ban on plastics in villages too, to protect agricultural land? In disaster prone areas, especially in chronically flood prone areas like Bihar (multi hazardous pp. 47); havoc of nature can cause damages in a flash. Probably a small change like a plastic ban, would have large scale impact or at least not add to creating more hazards (Ref: Chennai Floods). Maybe this requires more thinking on my part.