Review : Ecology and Equity

Ecology and Equity is a book by renowned non-fiction writer Ramachandra Guha and even more renowned ecologist Madhav Gadgil. This was written in the early 90’s, when liberalization was just setting in, and the faults of centralized planning were beginning to be glaringly obvious. Thus, it is but natural that this book has certain ‘Bash the Babus’ overtones, but even these are quite justified in retrospect.

Both authors are capable of writing this on their own steam, with Guha involved in ecological history of India from quite a long time before the book was written, and Gadgil’s resume need not even be mentioned. The extremely readable writing style was no doubt Guha’s contribution to the most part, and the empirical grounding of the book, the numerous case studies on which the argument of the book is based is mostly Gadgil, IMO. Overall, this a highly readable (and short!) book, but one which captures the overall ecological state of India at that juncture well. Some of the concerns raised by the authors have been addressed as of now, albeit in a lukewarm fashion, but there are many others which are still hurting India, like a thorn in the flesh.

The authors present a new analytic framework from which to interpret the state of present India, one which is based on an ecological perspective. They argue that this better explains the troubles of the Indian people better than the notions of class and caste. The three categories that they divide contemporary Indian society into are :

  • Omnivores, those that have the money to get resources from any possible part of the planet, and in fact, do so. Most people reading this blog would therefore fall in this category.
  • Ecosystem people, those that depend on the surrounding forests, lakes, rivers, flora, fauna to meet their subsistence need.
  • Ecological refugees, those ecosystem people who have been uprooted from their natural ecosystem due to exploitative behaviour of the omnivores and thus have to live on the fringes of the omnivore habitat to eke out a living.

Analytical frameworks and fancy labels apart, these three categories do in fact help in a good interpretation from an ecological perspective. That they are better than class and caste is something that could be debatable, but if supplemented with caste and class analysis, it could lead to a more rounded picture.

The book has two main divisions : The India that was and The India that might be. One discusses the present state of conflict and tensions, and the myriad reasons for the same. The other proposes practical(?) policy alternatives to the present ways of the Government. The alternatives are neither the ‘Get back to the village, let’s all till the land’ kind, nor ‘let’s go out there and make some serious money, fellas’ kind. It balances both and though the authors themselves never mention it, internalizes frugality, which being a subjective norm, is really really difficult to imbibe into practical policies.

The authors have an understandably serious grouse against the centralized, planned Government of the yesteryears, and show with a large number of case studies show how this socialist kind of Government which was adopted by the creators of the modern Indian State, has failed miserably in its objectives of equity, and went on to commit wholesale destruction of the ecology as well. Any centrally planned Government needs a strong ‘centre’, and after Nehru, there has been no politician worth mention who has been able to provide such a strong centre. Almost all the other Governments have been shaky, (except for the Indira Gandhi regime), and the present state of politics is known to all. Centralized planning, as in Soviet Russia and China work because of the lack of political democracy in these places, which cause very strong Governments that do not fear public opinion while doing what they think is right. Whether such a Government is justifiable is highly doubtful, but it has become clear that it does not work in an open democracy like India.

Chocolates from Switzerland, beer from Germany, wine from France, music players from Korea, apples from Spain. This is what one would see if one entered an omnivore household. However, this in itself is not a bad thing, but the authors show the many ways how omnivores have been given resources, heavily subsidized by the Government, at the cost of ecosystem people. Good examples are :

  • Big dams, which have displaced as many people as the entire population of Australia since Independence.
  • Deforestation and monoculture forests to supply cheap raw material to paper, rayon and other industries.
  • Untreated industrial effluents, which destroy the means of subsistence of people downstream.
  • Diverting water for many many kilometers to supply in urban areas, at the cost of local inhabitants, who have no gain from them.

The list can go on. 14 Sep, Economic Times reports that oil marketing companies make a loss of more than 50,000 crore for selling oil products at lower than cost price, which is then subsidised by the Government. We get electricity at a pittance compared to what it costs the Government to produce and distribute. Water is pumped up almost 1000 feet to Bangalore city at tens of crores per month, and most of it goes unaccounted for anyways. Chamalapura threatens to destroy the local ecosystem to produce huge amount of power, for which there is no demand nearby, but only in distant urban centres. Thus, villagers become ecological refugees. The beneficiaries ? You and I, of course. Forests are increasingly becoming recreational areas for the urban population while the people who have lived for ages there are being thrown out saying that they are degrading the forests. But one can pose the question as to how those who have being living sustainably with the forests for centuries suddenly become poachers, smugglers and so on. The book tries to give a solid answer.

After a survey of the India that is, they propose a future India that might be, based on decentralization of power (difficult, but happening), community based resource control (very difficult, delicate) and removal of subsidies for those who can afford to pay (won’t happen, since these are also the ones that control the Government).

One can give this book a decent read, small as it is, and understand why the things that we take for granted are exactly the things that keep backward people backward, and not their laziness or ignorance, which plays a part, but not as significant as the Government would have us believe.


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