Category Archives: development

Links between poverty and the environment

A brief position essay on whether, as many believe, poverty is the cause of environmental degradation.


View from the outside – reality or caricature?

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.

This Fissured Land – Review

My second book by these two authors – Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, ‘This Fissured Land’ is as much an exercise in understanding systemic biases against those who rely on their local ecology for sustenance as it is a history of India from an ecological point of view. It also makes clear the ecological roots of the various tribal/peasant vs. forest department conflicts that continue to plague India to this day, nowadays very much in the news due to the Naxalite problem.

The agenda of the book is to understand usage of resources by various types of communities, which are classified from lowest impact (hunter/gatherer, pastoralist) to the highest (Industrial/urban dweller), and the conflict that these usage patterns have caused and who eventually won. It also examines the belief systems, technological capabilities that made each type of community what it is. In short, the hardware and software of coexistence and conflict of very different human communities are examined here.

Books such as these are as important now as when they were written, just to give some historical perspective on what seems extremely ‘odd’ or ‘natural’ in our society today. For example, shifting cultivation terrifies ecologists as much as wildlife sanctuaries reassures them. While shifting cultivation may no longer be a sustainable practice nowadays and wildflife sanctuaries may have no alternate, it is instructive to understand under what circumstances this has come to be the case. Most opinions about tribal poaching and Naxalism are held without any historical context, and thus the actual problem is never identified. This leads to strange prescriptions like ‘kick the tribals out of the sanctuaries’ and ‘send in the army to wipe out Naxalism’, which are not assured of positive results but will definitely increase the suffering of those who are already at the brink.

The book  starts off interpreting prehistorical societies in India as being shaped by their environment and technologies, and given ecological explanations for the rise of the heterodox traditions of Buddhism and Jainism, and finally an interesting explanation of caste as a system to prevent resource conflicts. It then comes to the Colonial Era and outlines the major changes in the belief systems especially with respect to the utility of forests, whom they belong to, and the inevitable clashes when traditional users of the forests were excluded from them in the name of British interests.

It then outlines how a change in administration did nothing to change the forest policy of the State, with British interests being replaced by State and industrial ones. The subversive acts of those who were denied what their ancestors assumed to belong to them are then highlighted and this seems to be the only thing that people outside seem to care about.

Reading this should ensure no one ever blames tribals for the present state of the environment in India. Its strong focus on equity and its insights into understanding how conservation is not a value-independent notion, but stems from a certain world-view are useful take aways from the book.

Bahuguna in Melkote

Was pleasantly surprised by the news that Bahuguna was passing by Mysore and will be in Hosajeevana daari in Melkote (look in the map next to this post). An informal meeting was arranged and a few of us from Mysore were there.

The Bahugunas with Surendra Kaulagi

Bahuguna spoke for sometime and then there was a discussion with  the people, with questions ranging from the serious like his advice for the handling of the people’s movement in Chamalapura (the power plant nearby Mysore that was recently shelved) to the idiotic like ‘have you been threatened’, ‘why do you wear a turban’.

Sunderlal Bahuguna

One thing that immediately strikes you is how peaceful the man seems to be. The intensity and fire of a man who led what is probably the largest peoples movement in the Himalayas are not immediately seen in his calm, composed demeanour. He seems slow to irritation, considering how patiently and properly he handled even the most idiotic of questions. Vimla Ben, though she did not speak (atleast not into the mike) always had something to say to Sunderlal which he relayed to us. This in some ways confirms a long standing hunch, that activism that is grounded in inner strength, non-violence and compassion seems to be the only sustainable way to go about things as opposed to action based on anger, fear or insecurity which is the current, heavily glorified trend.

He understandably has no faith in the Government, which like every institution is primarily concerned with its own survival and hence favors the status quo. Thus, change can only be brought about by a concerted peoples movement along with ‘Eternal vigilance, the price of liberty’ (to paraphrase Bahuguna). He also made an interesting point about ‘replacing high learning with good behavior’, which I think should ring true for anyone who has observed the ‘well educated’ engineers and kind in Bangalore. Education, rather than acting as a liberating force, simply increases divisiveness and parochialism as people get more confident (arrongant?) due to academic and professional success, something that IISc has shown me since I joined.

Vimla Ben

He is never sarcastic during his speaking, something that I admire about most Gandhian leaders. Sarcasm seems to be a very useful device to show your intellect and attract attention and one can see plenty of this in Dawkins’ `The God Delusion’, which irritated me to no end. There seems to be some intrinsic problem with differentiating things as right or wrong with logic and condescension (which to me is what sarcasm is all about), as opposed to a the peaceful alternative of holding something as the Truth, backed by strong personal conviction and action. People like Bahuguna and Vimla Ben seem to be driven by a strong sense of Truth rather than a simplistic true/false logic. Truth, backed with a very strong ethical system derived from Gandhi can be a very strong force indeed as this couple has shown.

Contrary to the angst that postmodern thinkers seem to display when they worry about cultural relativism and ‘many Truths’, Bahuguna is supremely confident in his understanding of the same, of which there is only one to him. The Indian notion ‘One Truth with many faces’ seems to be a far more effective platform on which to build discussion and mutual understanding and action. Activism driven by Satya and Ahimsa seem to me to be the only kind in which there is no ‘collateral damage’.

Overall, it was a great learning experience and an inspirational one too. Below are some photographs taken along the way.

Fields along the way
Tree in Memory
View along the way
Random tree in full bloom
End of an interesting Day!

Education from the bottom up

Just finished Ela Bhatt’s book ‘We are poor but so many’, which is quite a strong reminder as to how radically different the outlook, needs, tastes of the invisible 70% of our country is when compared to our own.

Benchmark for the entire planet!!
Benchmark for the entire planet!!

Bhatt recounts her experiences with women of various trades in and around Ahmedabad and around Gujarat, notably ragpickers, vegetable sellers, rural embroiderers who see that their strength against exploitation by the middlemen serving people like us is in their collective bargaining power, in their numbers. SEWA is an trade union of, for and by women in the lowest strata of society.

Bhatt tries to make the reader understand the various dangers and difficulties a poor woman has to face and how things change when their confidence (almost synonymous with financial independence) rises. As a source of both information and inspiration, this book is very useful.

In the same vein, one can envision of an education that suits the needs of those that recieve it, rather than a one-size-fits-all package shoved down children’s throats nowadays.

There have been many people who have thought hard about children’s education, but probably none could put it in stronger terms than Ivan Illich in ‘Deschooling Society‘:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.

Another interesting person is Krishna Kumar, whom I have already written about. Both, albeit in very different tones, make the same basic point – Education no longer helps children to relate to and understand their surroundings, but rather encourages them to insulate themselves from it, preferably by getting onto the middle class bandwagon. This strategy worked spectacularly for the British, who managed to create a small group in India who admired European civilization as much as they despised their own. This group helped the British administer India, and is nowadays known as the Indian Administrative Service. The middle class in present day India (you and I) have also taken excellent advantage of such an education to insulate themselves from vagaries of nature and the economy.

However well this may work for a small part of India, it is almost irrelevant to someone who does not earn more than, say, 3-4000 rupees a month. They cannot insulate themselves from nature or Chidambaram, and therefore cannot afford not to understand the environment in which they live – their survival depends on their understanding of their environment. This can easily be substantiated – Those who die of swine flu have never travelled outside their city, those who die in communal riots are not the ones who instigate it, those who have access to money will not die during a drought, if you cannot differentiate between edible and poisonous plants  or between potable and unpotable water there is no way you can survive. For those with access to money, however, all these details are taken care of by the Consumer Affairs or Health or Home Ministry.

The reason why this point is being made is that there is tremendous interest being generated in the field of education, with innumerable well-meaning volunteers from comfortable backgrounds spending time with kids in slums and villages. Times of India has a huge program, someone wants to start something called Reach and Teach in IISc for the kids of employees here, and almost every corporate has some fancy corporate social responsibilty program attending to such a need. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions – hard facts and insight into the magnitude of the task of teaching children from a milieu fundamentally different from your own is normally missing.

Since school is of no use other than to provide midday meals and the company of other children, all the required life-skills are learnt through informal channels or worse, from vested interests. Being street-smart is necessary for survival, but it also perpetuates certain modes of thinking and behavior which keep the poor away from the mainstream. The case of poor Muslims in India makes this very clear. Ela Bhatt and SEWA Bank also sought to bring certain skills into women’s lives like financial planning and spending on consumption versus production, which helped them make better decisions for themselves. Ultimately, it is their life to lead – education must help in making people autonomous and confident about their own decisions. This kind of education, especially to children just beginning to observe and understand their environment (6th – 12th grades, maybe), is crucial in my opinion. For children younger than this, it is probably more important to ensure they play a lot and generally have a good time.

So, what is the responsibility that rests on the teacher ? It certainly is non-trivial – it would atleast require a basic understanding of the background of the children, learning from their observations and interpretation, a strong sense of history and ethics and huge number of interesting stories. Nobody can learn all of this at one shot – the teacher must approach the children she is supposed to teach with humility and a desire to learn rather than teach. Reading books like the one mentioned above will not hurt either. Then the background required will slowly evolve within oneself and will benefit all involved (probably the teacher benefits more!). It also brings about a new respect for the modes of behavior and thinking of a people completely different from oneself. Indians like to travel the world to meet new people and learn about new cultures. All you need to do is step into your neighborhood slum.

Design as if people mattered: A report

Settling down into the madness that is IISc, but had to complete a (somewhat tiny) report for my final semester here in JSS college, Mysore. It is an account of theoretical and practical issues and experiences that one should consider while trying to design something which has to be used by others. It’s main focus is on rural areas and LED lighting, but I believe that the principles are quite general in nature. The interplay of science with everything else is quite obvious in this report, if somewhat implicit since that was not the main focus. You can find the report here and the slides here, or check out the documentation section.

Review: Russell’s Education and the Social order, Aiyar’s Smoke and Mirrors

The problem with long breaks in between writing blog posts is that too many things happen and recounting everything is usually tedious.

Finished Russel’s interesting views on education, which is put forth in his inimitable style. His main purpose in

Brick in the wall!
Brick in the wall!

the book is to analyse the function that education plays in the modern nation-state. He also analyses its aims and what it actually ends up achieving. The range of topics covered is large, ranging from the effects of education on individualism, on how topics like religion, nationalism, sex, class feeling, competition are put forth in an educational institution to the big debate on home vs. school and how education is handled in Communist Russia.

For a logician, he is surprisingly forgiving about facets of our personality which are not governed by reason, like emotions and the subconscious. I have not read Russell in such a forgiving, pragmatic mood!! He seems to accept the tradeoff between individualism and stability, and between control and freedom of children. He is also quite happy and expectant of the results of the ‘Communist experiment’ going on in Russia, which was common to all the left-leaning intellectuals of that time.

The book tears apart the rigid, dogmatic system of education which he himself was probably subjected to, pointing out that it expects children to accept things that are patently incorrect (like the fact that his/her own country is the best in the world, and glorifying wars) and false on the pretext that they are ‘too young’ or their ‘minds must not be sullied’. He correctly understands that the education is built to consolidate the system which it represents.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, there are always two kinds of people: the ones who believe that people need to be saved from themselves and others that believe that people can be at their best if encouraged. The educational system is built by the former and Russell is obviously from the latter category, which leads to quite a clash. (Jefferson used this quote in the context of American political parties. No prizes for guessing which is which!) Russell supports an education system which is quite opposite to the one which is followed even to this day: one that encourages independent thinking and asking difficult questions. He understands the needs of social stability which is fostered by the experiences that a child has in school (i.e, socialization) but discourages moral codes being propagated by falsehoods, knowing that one, it does not really work, and two, finding out that something he/she believes in is false is not really good for morality.

Overall, excellent read. This is obviously not the place to discuss the book out, but I do recommend it!

The other book that I’m almost done with is Smoke and Mirrors by journalist Pallavi Aiyar.

The whys and hows of China
The whys and hows of China

One thing good about books written by journalists is that they are heavy on data and reflections and light on philosophy. Thomas Friedman is an unfortunate exception to this category. Like the title of the book says, this is about the author’s experiences in a new, foreign world and how many of the things that she believed in like democracy and freedom of expresssion were put to the test in this paradox of a nation-state. I fortunately got the last copy from Sapna in Mysore, and it is turning out to be a very interesting and highly readable buy.

Some of the major themes that the book deals with are paradox of free market liberalism in the economy and communist repression in the political arena, the pervasiveness of the State in all facets of the country, from the psychology of the individual to the running of the Shaolin temple. The success of the Communist Party in entering the minds and imaginations of the common people is quite amazingly put out in this book. She also writes with amusement about the assumptions made by the Indians and Chinese about each other and the cultural faux pas which happen when one visits a banquet hosted by the other.

Grudingly, she also acknowledges the amazing efficiency of the State in building infrastructure (one hospital in seven days, yes SEVEN days), and although economic disparities are large, the abject poverty that one finds in India is not present. The excellent social infrastructure that China possesses has even been appreciated by Amartya Sen. But she notes the underlying tensions that an oppressive regime is bound to generate which is kept in check by the Party by stupendous economic growth and new found love for religious tolerance and Confucianism (which promotes social harmony, they say! Mostly lip service, but anything to keep the people from, ironically, revolting).

She stays in a part of Beijing that has not yet been bulldozed to make way for skyscrapers and notes the huge difference in the perceptions, lifestyles of the people here.

All in all, two good additions :)