A brief position essay on whether, as many believe, poverty is the cause of environmental degradation.
Humans are creatures with a gigantic memory. The evolution of the written word made it possible to store things outside our brains, and hence more safely for very long periods of time. This gradual accumulation has resulted in a memory too large for any single human to remember or grasp. Only collectively do we know a lot.
Sooner or later, the question of what is important and worth passing on, and what can be neglected or lost in the sands of time would have cropped up. This is because even external storage of memory is not costless. Different civilizations came up with different answers to this question. Indians seemed to have thought that lessons from history are more important than history itself, and thus have left us with very little solid historical data, which is why the huge controversies surrounding the ‘construction’ of ancient India. Europeans were more meticulous, and have always had a good tradition of storing away bits of information from life thousands of years ago.
But why is it important to remember? Goethe took a shot at this question, and said
He who cannot draw on 3000 years is living hand to mouth.
which is simply another way of stating what Newton said:
If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
The biggest advantage humans have over other living creatures is our capacity to build cultures, and it is on the basis of this culture that we can ‘move ahead’ without (literally!) reinventing the wheel every generation. This is why we have schools, so that we can remember something, and social institutions, so that something else can do the remembering for us.
But this memory can as easily be a disadvantage in many ways: First, not everyone who draws on 3000 years can rise above it to think for themselves. Knowing too much may kill creativity and the capacity to face a changing world. Second, remembering everything may preclude the possibility of forgiveness and healing. This is what is happening in India and America after 2002 and 2001 respectively. The intention is to ‘never forget what happened’ and the very memory breeds anger and hatred.
Thus, some people try and make a case that forgetfulness is as important to humanity as is remembrance. Thus, even when one is saddened by the news that Muslims in Gujarat are voting for Modi in the name of restoring normalcy, one understands why it is happening. Shiv Vishwanathan believes that people are forgetting what happened due to Modi simply because all of today’s stories are written in the language of economics, which fails to capture the evil Modi represents. In fact, he is made to look like someone who has made Gujarat great if one only looks at the economy side of things. Same with the Bhopal gas tragedy. ‘Victims’ were converted to ‘patients’ and then to ‘vagrants’, simply by changing the language in which memory was constructed.
While this interpretation is undoubtedly true, one must also understand that even if the language changes, the want for people to restore normalcy to their lives will never go away, and that bearing a burden as heavy as the Gujarat riots maybe too much for most.
This brings us to today’s time. Semiconductor and magnetic memories have become so accessible and cheap that I believe that the 21st century will be a watershed for humanity: It is the time from which we forget practically nothing. Forever. The principle of important vs. unimportant memories simply no longer has any relevance. People are clicking photos using their phones and their cameras; recording voices and songs; recording every small detail of their lives on Facebook and blogs. It is no longer sufficient to experience something beautiful (or trivial for that matter), but to capture/record it from every angle and tweet about it, paste it on your wall and upload to Flickr or Picasa. The 21st century is the veritable historian’s nightmare: with nothing forgotten, he has to sift through immense data to try and make any sense of the world he will inherit from us. Undoubtedly, the day is not far when writing history will need the assistance of machines.
The demons of memory will haunt us now more than ever before in history. The issue is that it is not experience that makes us wise, but what we learn from experience. This requires a certain distance from what we experience, a kind of ‘greying out’ or ‘blurring out’ which is no longer possible as our entire lives are recorded in HD quality video. We have become ‘knowledge brokers’, but to rise above mere knowledge and pass onto posterity real lessons of history might no longer be possible.
Does everything really matter? If yes, does it matter to everyone around us, to the rest of the world? Just like Calvin says:
I’ll bet future civilizations find out more about us than we’d like them to know.
I rarely worry about current affairs, since they are not my interest, but the situation in Delhi has some historical precendents that prompted me to add my two bits to the equation.
For the second time in recent Indian history, an honest, practically saintly man is threatening to bring down an Empire (for that is what Indian Governments for the past few decades have been) by simply refusing to eat. Indians, emotional as ever, suddenly are consumed by a nationalist frenzy that should be scary even for a hardened dictator, let alone an economist-politician.
Is it a creation of the media? in part, without doubt. But there simply is no other way of mobilising so many people that I’m aware of. But the recent spate of politicians gettting too stupid to get caught contributed to this, without doubt. Also, the new generation of Indians, growing in self confidence that comes from world-wide admiration for our IT sweatshops, who think they have analyzed the situation perfectly and know best what is good for the country, have also added fuel to the fire.
On the side of the muted minority, a few who are wary of such frenzies occluding the real issues, whatever they may be, are criticizing the new Great Indian Show as shallow and ignorant of ground realities. They believe that it simply exposes the shallowness of Indian democracy and worry that the democratic process will be hijacked by the coercion of a few capable of moving millions.
Whatever may be the case, it is undeniable that this fast has fired the imagination of the country like very few events over the past few decades, including winning the World Cup and the Godhra mess. The reason for this seems simple — people can relate to and understand the anger against corruption, since they face it in their everyday lives, all the time. Though it may seem desirable, but worrying about Irom Sharmila and the AFSPA, or what conspired in Gujarat early in the 21st century or the inhuman treatment of tribals in Jharkhand or Orissa can hardly be part of their daily exertion to make ends meet. When someone raises their voice in support to Anna Hazare’s fast, they have that clerk in that department in mind, not Ratan Tata paying off the UPA government or the Birlas buying out tribals in Orissa.
If not word for word, but in spirit, the exact same debate had been carried out between Gandhi and Tagore some 90 years ago. I had described it, though with a more abstract focus, for a term paper last year. When Gandhi roused the people to join the non-cooperation movement in the 1920s, Tagore took exception to his methods, which to him depended heavily on the presence of a strong personality like Gandhi to be around to work. It would not ‘deepen democracy’, he said (though not in the same words), as some journalists have been murmuring about the Anna Hazare movement. It had the potential to degenerate into empty flag waving and slogan raising and to smother genuine criticisms and concerns, according to Tagore. For more details, have a look at the above pdf.
90 years on, Tagore’s fears did pan out, and India still requires a saintly figure to stop eating to rouse them against the Empire. The methods are still fundamentally anti-democratic, like Gandhi’s fast against separate electorates which spawned the Dalit movement of today (which hates him for it), or his throwing out of Subhash Chandra Bose from the post of Congress President. Gandhi’s political proteges chafed against the tight leash with which he held them back, to advance his ideas of a non-violent nation which they neither understood nor appreciated until the horror of the Partition. They would have gladly ignored him if it was politically feasible, and this happened during the final talks with the British before they left India.
That this debate continues in present day India is significant in atleast two ways: One, the question of how to involve the mass of the Indian population in the governance of the nation has not been solved satisfactorily. Two, the intellectual and moral legacies of those great Indians, Gandhi and Tagore live on to this day.
What model of governance would suit a country where the ‘Northie’ and the ‘Madarasi’ still cannot see eye to eye, and the Brahmin and the Dalit still cannot sit at the same table? The easier way would be to try and homogenize the people by means of an imaginary past, like the RSS actively are doing all over, or rouse people based on issues close to their hearts, however temporarily, like Anna Hazare is doing. The harder way, which Tagore espoused and which Gandhi implicitly agreed to later in his life when he resigned from the Congress and plunged head on into the Constructive Movement to help villages become self sufficient and the centre of any economic organisation in India, is to ‘deepen democracy’ so that people can in some sense rule themselves (which is after all what ‘Swa – raj’ means), and exert control over their lives.
This, however, would require a very different kind of socioeconomic organisation from the one bequeathed to us by Ricardo, J. S. Mill, Marx and Manmohan Singh, in chronological order. The British legacy in India was to fundamentally alter the material lives of people in some respects, and as I have mentioned before, to change it requires a lot of time or a lot of violence. So too for the society and economy which derive from it.
India has grown in confidence, no doubt, but it is a result of the arm twisting tactics of the World Bank and IMF (who first forced the Indira Gandhi government to asymmetrically distribute agricultural inputs to usher in the Green Revolution, and then forced the P. V. Narasimha government to implement what has come to be known as ‘Manmohanomics’) rather than any innate genius of the Indian people. Our so called ‘gifts to the world’ that Swami Vivekananda was so proud about, are only inheritances from our ancestors, which only goes to show that as a civilisation, we are stagnant in the 16th or 17th century. Like Tagore, my hope is that India can show the world that a Northie and Madarasi need not see eye to eye to build a prosperous nation, that a Hindu and a Muslim need not dissolve their individual identities to forge a strong country. That will be her greatest contribution, a mark of her genius.
Social situations suffer from problems of interpretation, as much as any literary work or puzzling movie. The dynamics which make a situation what it is are very widely spread, both in time and space. From the immediate spark to historical wounds, from neighborhood feuds to global markets, all play their part in shaping interesting situations.
For this reason, much like in the natural sciences, social thinkers have tried to find the ‘essence’ of the situation — Marx saw class war as the dominant dynamic, others see markets as playing this role, Nationalists see it as an ‘us vs. them’ logic, and so on. The problem does not lie in an analysis for personal clarity, but in drumming it around as the way to look at things. Since forceful views feed back into popular perception, the analysis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For example, tribal communities have always been handed the short end of the bargain for a long time. So also the Dalit community all over India. However, there are many facets of tribal or dalit life that is simply inaccessible to the external analyst (who is normally urban and middle class), their daily lives, routines, modes of resistance, their culture, songs, Gods and loves. If an external analyst tries to learn about everything he/she can no longer be ‘external’. However, given the respect such a person normally accords, normally due to eloquence of speech and unsubstantiated self-assurance, the way these people view the world and themselves changes. Dalit writers themselves have documented this change, with Dalit leaders despising their own roots in the villages, consistent with Ambedkar’s analysis. The loss of a world view has to be replaced, and modern, Western thinking and contempt for non-European thinking set in, with an intensity that only occurs in new converts to a way of thinking or a religion.
Another example is that of the current trend of acquisition of rural land for personal gain by the BJP government. It is being seen as a farmer vs. corporate/politician nexus. This, however, does not explain why quite a few farmers (always with large amounts of land) seem to be willing to sell. Rural Karnataka has had to my mind three major changes over the past few decades.
One, with laying of roads everywhere due to the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana (started by Vajpayee), transport to the nearest city/town centre has become very easy. With urban wages and a rural lifestyle both being within reach, most of the labor force prefers to work on construction sites. Farmers with lands larger than they can till (not just absentee landlords) are consequently finding it impossible to find farm hands. This was something I noticed in Bihar as well on a recent trip. The advent of television and the boom in rural telephony due to cellphones is also facilitating wider awareness of options beyond the rural economy, driving people out.
Two, the trend of waiving away farm loans was started in Karnataka and is now there everywhere in India. This is not a very new idea, with landlords historically having done this during bad years. However, now neither the fine grained differentiation between deserving and otherwise is no longer possible, with the latter gaining more, nor is there accountability, with farmers taking loans from the local bank and waiting for the Government to waive it off. Access to credit at low interest rates has also enabled over borrowing, say borrowing 3 lakh when all you need is 1 lakh. An interesting case was of a woman setting up a shop using microcredit and using it to buy a TV and refrigerator (even though her roof still remained a thatched one) in an urban slum which was documented by one of my classmates. Oh, and she defaulted on the loan as well.
Third, NREGS work is highly attractive wherever it is working even half well, and there have been cases of laborers not working and simply paying off the contractor to get wages, which in the case of men inevitably goes to the nearest toddy shop-owner. Farmers growing time sensitive crops like rice, which simply have to have certain things done at certain times, are unable to find workers and this forces them to shift to horticulture or other alternatives. Ironically, the proper working of NREGS seems to be putting people out of work in such cases — there are many farmers who are simply giving up cultivating more than what is necessary for personal consumption.
Thus, it is not as if the rural population is a passive, mute spectator to emerging trends, but very aware, discerning and looking at how to profit from change. The only difference is that they don’t use excel sheets.
When a community listens to an outsider describing it, there can be two reactions, both flowing from an awareness of what is important and what is convenient. Most would go with a path that makes things more convenient, like developing a victim complex, which is present in Muslims, Brahmins, Dalits, Christians, rural and urban communities if one cares to look closely. Any ideological stand that facilitates a way to not do inconvenient things and gain political power is preferred, even though it may have no internal coherency. The second, harder way of actually learning what is relevant from an external analysis without losing self identity is rarely taken, and such attempts are celebrated for very good reasons. From being a real, living community that had its own way of looking at the world, we get a community that sees a caricature of itself, which focuses only on some aspect of their life, as reality.
The motivations that drive individuals to perform certain tasks, which pattern the society in certain ways are normally difficult to gauge. Economic data is limited to analysis using primitive regression kind of techniques, and results interpreted using more primitive models of human behavior. Interviews may disclose what the person would like to think his motivations are, which makes it easier to live with himself. However, if you engineer a change, however small, that strikes at the heart of their motivations, they are exposed to plain sight.
The recently announced CBSE results were an interesting psycho/social experiment, whose results give us some insight into what our schooling system has become. Consider the statement in this article:
Mehak Arora, a student of Kundan Vidya Mandir, who scored 9.8 CGPA, said, “I think the percentage system was better. I scored more than 95 per cent in four subjects and between 80-90 per cent in one. If the percentage was to be calculated, I would have topped in my school.”
few things show up immediately – the student does not seem to care much about what he studied – If all I care about is English or Physics, the ‘overall marks’ would not really matter. Here, subjects are simply a means to acquiring marks. Secondly, the ultra-competitive nature, no doubt nurtured by parents and teachers, which drives him to get only a certain symbol on a piece of paper. Thirdly, the student is more worried about his performance relative to others rather than upto his own standards (if he has any).
Of the three, only the third is even remotely justifiable, and that too only if you assume that everyone ought to study only one of few things (Engineering, Medicine, blah) and only at certain places (IIT, IISc or (god forbid!) IIM). The students, especially the 98% variety, somehow seem to find it hard to accept that they cannot assert their superiority over others in an unambiguous manner. What is worse, if this crazy notion of success based on superiority succeeds in burning out a child or making her an insufferable snob, the society is poorer by one brilliant mind. Thus, in education as in almost every other field, the society as a whole shows suicidal tendencies.
This problem is nothing new: people have probably written about similar behavior since time immemorial. The solution is also obvious: people don’t ask ‘why’, but only ‘how’ – not why do I need a car, but how can I get one. Not why should I get married, but how to choose my bride (‘Net arranged, broker arranged, family arranged, ‘net romance, college romance, office romance, among other permutation-combinations). Ironically, if the ‘why’ is answered, the ‘how’ normally answers itself, and the headless chicken-existential angst-Sri Sri Ravishankar routine can be avoided.
While one can claim adults make the choice themselves, burdening children with such problems is truly the symptom of a sick society. While anyone older than 25-26 and lives in a city would have had an exposure to a different way of life from what they presently lead, present day children are led to believe that there is not much beyond books, a cricket bat and a Lego kit. The nation requires x number of engineers by 2020, so childhood is spent on an assembly line to meet that requirement. Large scale organisation of this kind requires high degree of structuring, which is antithetical to a happy childhood, which is highly unstructured and exploratory.
Thus, children must not only be encouraged to ask questions, but also the right kind. One has more pessimism as to whether adults can do so, and whether it is worth the effort. Children, OTOH, are open to ideas, can be corrected, bear no prejudice that their parents have not unloaded upon them, and thus every society’s greatest experiment and perfect reflection.
There seem to be a huge number of politicians going on fasts nowadays, preferably a fast-unto-death (with glucose being fed intravenously, just to be sure). Keeping in with a new trend in trying to split up states with the ostensible aim of improved governance in backward areas, our political babas are nobly taking up this burden using ‘peaceful, non-violent, Gandhian’ methods, to quote one of them.
Whether such actions are aimed at better governance or creating new political posts for those who have been sidelined for decades is probably apparent to everyone but the most partisan of people. Invoking Gandhi to justify this displays not only a lack of understanding of Gandhi’s views on fasting, but also how Gandhi is now a political expedient rather than a political ideal.
Gandhi fasted very regularly as he considered it a form of self purification and penance. If one looks at the many times that he has fasted, most of them were aimed at performing penance for the violence that was happening elsewhere, perpetrated by someone else, particularly communal violence. His aim was to bring about a moral awakening (he believed in the ‘inherent goodness’ of people). The effect of such fasts was nowhere more dramatic than in Bengal during the Partition, where he single-handedly stopped communal violence simply by refusing to eat, whereas the armies of Mountbatten could not control a similar situation in the Punjab. His most famous fast against the Government was in opposition to the decision to have separate electorates for the Dalits. Ironically, present day politicians invoke Gandhi and fast for the exact opposite purpose, it seems. Aware of the fact that he had a huge following throughout India, he rarely fasted against the British, but mainly against the atrocities his own people committed (as penance).
One of the first political fasts against the Government in Free India resulted in the death of the person fasting (named Potti Sriramulu) and the formation of a Telugu state (Andhra Pradesh) and paved the way for linguistic division of India. Again, the Andhra region seems to have taken the lead in further divisions based on regional identity. Without doubt, in a country as diverse as India the smaller the unit of administration, the better. Greater autonomy at a smaller scale can atleast give people the chance of a more accountable Government.
A more apt question to ask, however, is what effect will division along regional identities engender, de facto : removal of corruption ? speedier justice ? equitable resource distribution ? Political division merely results in replication of the older State machinery at a smaller scale, and will carry all its deficiencies forward. Like they say, it is easier to take a person out of a slum than taking the slum out of a person. As long as the reliance on a corrupt bureaucracy driven by powermongers in Parliament remains, no amount of division will result in any good, but result in deepening the already huge divides within the country.
Present day politics, from tribal agitations to farcical climate change negotiations, seem to be guided by a single principle : dominate or be dominated, leading to a very unfortunate Hobbesian conception of society and polity. There seems to be very little place for mutual respect, understanding and compromise. As long as life is seen as an endless competition, cooperation and trust can never be important. Without trust there is no understanding, without understanding no empathy nor peace.
Nice trees. Very nice trees. That is the first thing you notice when you come to IISc. It is an island of green in a sea of gray concrete, beautiful and soothing at the same time.
The second thing you notice is relaxed the place is. Nothing of the ‘publish or perish’ problems that seem to plague friends studying in US universities. Consequently, the number of papers that IISc outputs in a year is not very high and I frankly think nobody should give a damn about it.
Another thing one notices is the number of people from Karnataka here, which is close to despairingly low. But our lunch table has enough interesting people, so not really too much of an issue from my perspective. The profs are really good, atleast in our department, students are quite capable with some exceptions.
The high point of the last month has been two talks, one by Ramaswamy Iyer and another by Uzramma, both questioning what is defined as ‘development’ today – the former in the context of big dams and the latter on the cotton cloth industry. IISc and its neighbors are able to get some really good people for talks, which is an advantage of being a famous institution and all that. However, one thing that immediately comes into focus is that the world of the people in IISc is completely cut-off from the real world, with people living in their own private wonderlands. Thus, Uzramma was given suggestions to do HRD, improve efficiency using solar power and such things when her talk focused mainly on generating a livelihood, which was being denied to many in India today. Iyer’s call for academic institutions to focus on water science will probably be lost on professors and students intent on keeping up with the latest topics in vogue in the West.
There is no dearth of a feeling that IISc is doing the country a great favor by its existence, though such a notion can be very easily questioned. The main contribution of IISc seems to be the material enrichment of its alumni, all getting huge salaries by virtue of their ‘brand name’. And absorbing lot of CO2 and dust, thank you very much. It does not seem too interested in the material basis of its own existence, with lights and computers running 24/7 and not a single building that I have noticed implementing rain water harvesting, and all this with a Centre for Sustainable Technologies (CST) on campus!!
There are places which are supposed to do interesting work, like the Divecha Centre for Climate Change and CiSTUP, but the imperative for the scientists here to deliver information and insight that empowers society as a whole seems to be missing. Science appropriate to our local context seems to have taken a back seat to cutting edge science which has no relevance to the hawker on the street. Is it possible to create science which is both cutting edge and socially relevant ? yes. One does not start out trying to be socially relevant, since that restricts the mindset of the scientist, but a complete lack of knowledge of problems facing our society which could lead to interesting science does not seem to faze the people here.
Not that the people lack awareness – there are amateur theoreticians and activists in every field here, be it politics, culture or linguistics. In that sense, IISc is a typical intellectual institution – people supporting Hindutva and Marxism and every other ism exist side by side, staying away from each other and looking down at everyone else who obviously have an ideology inferior to the one they hold dear. There are grand theoretical discussions and debates, but obviously none of that matters to the kid who had to leave school to work in the xerox centre, copying books he cannot even hope to understand. The fact that students and faculty of a centrally funded institution have a strong social obligation seems lost here. There may be people justifying that their social obligation is to produce original reasearch, i.e, publish papers, but Amulya Reddy might beg to disagree.
Like someone said, the poor have only the truth to fight with. Scientists, as seekers of the same truth must use their skills to help the cause of those who do not have anyone to look upto for help. Whether each student of IISc is doing her bit to work towards this end, is upto her and her conscience.
Once you start hearing papers say such things, you know something is seriously wrong. The motivation behind such a statement is that apparently cows belch too much, and their burps contain methane and this is a very potent greenhouse gas, and therefore we must breed new cows which burp less, so that they don’t contribute to climate change!
I have been trying to wrap my head around the concept of an environmentally friendly cow for almost a day now, just not happening. Maybe scientists nowadays are too advanced for us mere mortals to understand. But wait, just due to their sheer numbers, termites probably emit more methane than cows overall. Therefore, we must also try and breed new termites, and ban people from keeping termite farms. While we are at it, we should also breed new set of humans who do not eat junk food (especially peanuts!), since that is a huge cause for methane emissions as well. Looking at what junk gets done in the name of science these days, funding should not be too much of a problem.
Why is it that cows, that have peacefully belched their way through a couple of million years without causing too much climate change suddenly the enemy ? Obviously, the problem is not with the cows themselves, but the rate at which beef is being consumed makes their number quite formidable. So what is the answer to this ? according to the previous link, control the number of people, so that they can eat lesser number of cows!! Beef is not the staple food in most countries, and the population increase happens in classes which cannot normally afford too much beef, so wonder who is eating such a large amount of it.
This insane and ludicrous issue brings to the fore the contradictions of a civilization that cannot accept that its way of life is completely off track. It wants to keep thinking that the way it has progressed is viable, and only few minor issues arise that can be solved by ‘scientific innovation’. This blame-the-cow attitude has been with us for a long time: blame the poor, blame the corporation, blame the Muslim – as long as we are not blamed. Wonder when people will grow up!
As a compensation for writing ridiculously bad exams like GATE, will be moving to the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (ominously called CAOS!) in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. One hopes Bangalore is far more tolerable inside one of its greenest areas. The next couple of months will be spent preparing for another interview in the same department for another program, so expect fundas from fluid mechanics and miscellaneous boring things to dominate this space.