Category Archives: environment

Links between poverty and the environment

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

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.

Field Trip to Kaggalipura

For some unknown reason, was invited by the Regional Museum of Natural History, Mysore to conduct a field trip for the children who were attending their annual summer camp. I was to speak about ‘pollution in a water body’, but thankfully was able to do more than just that.

Morning sky
Thank you water vapor!!

The day was perfect for a field trip, overcast from the morning. The plan was to make the children take a hike around the (almost dry) lake and make a list of what animals/birds/plants/trees/insects they see. We then used the data that they collected to try and make some sense of it from an ecology framework.

Insect hunters!


They found that there were far more small organisms (plants, insects) than large ones (birds, trees). We tried to figure out why this was so, and this led to the concept of survival of the one able to reproduce fastest. They saw birds near the lake had different beaks and legs compared to the ones in the field, and this led to the concept of adaptation.

We then had a discussion about the food web, and why the nutrients in the soil never get over even though plants keep consuming them. This led to the concept of a nutrient cycle, and the importance of decomposers in any ecosystem (and the importance of sweepers and housekeeping (as compared to the IT crowd) in any city!).

Fortunately, the discussions stopped before the children were bored, and then we were off the Somanathapura for lunch and then headed back.

Can't get enough of it!
Intricate, beautiful...
Curiosity has no favorite subject!
The gang at state of least entropy!!

Seems like the best way to teach children anything is to actually take them to where the action is. Since they have enough energy to burn, unlike me, they need to work on some activity which keeps them both mentally and physically busy. Then, rather than shoving concepts down their throats, it is best to ask questions so that they come up with the concepts themselves, or suddenly understand what their textbooks had mentioned. Thankfully, this theory worked well with this bunch of kids, since they were actively answering and participating in the discussions. It never works with older people. Guess questioning is now only a bastion of the child!!

Life at 8 kmph – A Walker’s Manifesto

Whether on four limbs or two, we and our ancestors have been walking for millenia. It is in our DNA, and we still rely on it from time to time when our cars break down, just like our ancestors relied on it when their donkeys suddenly died. In fact, we have been walking for longer than we have been thinking, which explains why the average human walks far better the she can think – If everybody walked as well as they thought, the world would be a very dizzy place for most of us.

Here, no attempt is made to outline the physical importance of walking – This every IT professional or MBA knows and no farmer or street vendor needs to know – this is an attempt to delineate the cosmology of the walker. Also, it is an attempt to understand how man’s relationship with his walk changed after cataclysms like the invention of the wheel and the iPod. However, technical questions like how much to walk, at what intensity, with whom, how can one associate a real number with a certain kind of walk and other publishable questions are left to future theoreticians from some Institutes of Science.

A walker is a peaceful animal. She knows that she cannot walk faster than some 10 kmph regardless of what happens, therefore is content with her lot. Running is possible, but not for long distances – walking is the only way to ensure that one can transport oneself daily from point A to B without dying at a very early age. A walker is also a very careful animal. He is at his most vulnerable when not protected by his home and family. Thorns, predators, snakes, stones, pretty much everything in his path is potentially fatal. For example, if people only knew how to walk, then people would not have such a problem with night traffic being banned in Bandipur. Instead, they would request that such a ban be enforced in the interest of the walking public. For the walker, time is not composed of discrete intervals determined by some cesium atom. One does not have to reach some place at some time, one reaches a place when one reaches the place (preferably before sunset, when we are even more vulnerable).

A walker is learning and playing all the time, unlike those who need specialized locations for both. Learning about what to eat, where to stop, how much to talk are all part of the curriculum. At the same time, listening to the wind rustling through the leaves, the robin announcing the arrival of spring with interesting lectures from the tree tops, watching the trees burst into bloom and the grass drying out are all part of the small pleasures that come by the walker’s way. A walker can stand and stare for as long as she wants, an ability that is slowly dying out. Staring is a very important part of both the intellectual and aesthetic development of the walker, though nowadays she would be accused of sexual harassment or mental illness for doing the same.

A walker does not go visit point B alone, but an infinite number of places along the way. People coming to Mysore complain that they only have around 10 places to visit, boring place. Maybe a walk around will change their mind. Thus, for a walker space is not composed of finite points connected by finite curves, but a continuum of points from here to everywhere. It is therefore not surprising that walkers know more about a place than anyone else. Nothing is boring because nothing is static, space in a walker’s view is always fluid, just like time, and both are in consonance – more the space in front of you, the more the time you will have.

And then comes the wheel. Nowadays, everybody wants their own wheels, depending on what they can afford. Thus, an American rides a Harley, an Indian rides a Hero Honda and an IIScian rides a cycle. For some strange reasons not well understood, from where they come (point A) and where they go (point B) suddenly are given undue importance. Another strange concept called ‘saving time’ also gets introduced, which justifies riding wheels that rotate faster than ever. Time cannot be stored for a rainy day, nor does it need saving from anything, thus this saving business seems to be mere wordplay rather than a concrete concept. Space and time are now quantities that are opposed to each other – farther means you ‘save less time’. The harmony between space and time is destroyed in this process.

Now everybody has ‘saved’ time, and therefore has plenty of time to ‘spare’. Since it cannot be lent to others, it must be used by its owner in the best manner possible – parties, philosophy, defence policy, business expansion and the like. Unfortunately, as was noted before, man does not think as well as he walks. Thus, it is not surprising that most of the problems in the world today are caused by the ‘savers’ – animals with too much time and too little brains. If they only had less time to plot jihads or search for cheap labor markets, we might have been better off. Simply put, walking naturally leads to world peace!

Earplugs which deliver music right to your eardrum is another invention that is killing the pleasure of walking. Like all good earplugs, they cutoff the walker from his surroundings, surrounding him with badly composed notes which are not even infinite like the ones he is cutoff from. Thus, his concept of space and time are completely dictated by another person (sometimes rightly called the ‘conductor’). Since the walker no longer pays attention to his surroundings, all the dangers that he faces are thus to be paved over by roads, killed or put into National Parks. Thus, not only does he affect himself, but everything around him as well.

These and other pernicious inventions have relegated the walker from being the centre of her universe to a small, sometimes irritating, part of someone else’s universe. It is high time we discover the walker in ourselves, before we evolve to a stage where we do not know what to do when our donkey dies.

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!

IISc – first impressions

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.

Society and Ecology – courtship and conflict

The variety of disciplines and specializations that have proliferated sometimes hinders larger understanding of any phenomenon, especially one that involves anything more than (an arbitrarily selected number!) 3 variables of different types. Then someone comes along and sees things happening that cannot be explained through any existing theory, and hence we have ‘inter-disciplinary’ studies. So, we can have, for example, economics, mathematical economics, ecological mathematical economics and so on, as long as we are comfortable with unwieldy (but cool sounding!) names.

So is the study of relationships between collections of humans and collections of everything else, living and non-living. Sometimes called human geography or social ecology, the main aim is the same: to study how man and nature are intertwined in a circle of courtship and conflict. The separation of man from nature itself is quite arbitrary, and has roots in religion rather than in any sensible thinking. Study of people interacting with each other, which is commonly studied under the banners of economics, sociology and anthropology (and all combinations of the three) has very rarely touched upon our interactions with plants, animals, trees, mountains and rivers, assuming a mutual independence between the material and social worlds (which is again quite arbitrary).

This separation of man from nature is extremely well reflected in products of present culture like TV series and novels. Take for example, the latest hit shows (which I religiously follow) in the US, House M.D. and Heroes. The absence of nature from the studio sets unless it is absolutely required (i.e, it is an outdoor shot) is quite remarkable. This is even more so in our very own Saas-Bahu soaps, which don’t seem to be shot outside a single set. New generation ‘Multiplex movies’ by film makers like Rahul Bose also show how little nature has a role to play in the lives of residents in metropolises. Traditional movies aimed for the less cultured masses still have a role for nature in them, since their audiences may still interact with it on a daily basis.

Take another example of the latest NDTV campaign to spread environmental awareness. As usual, NDTV got a lot of celebrities to support their campaign. A sampling of their comments leads to interesting conclusions : They articulate their concerns in abstract terms like climate change, aesthetics (beautiful/green city = good), energy. The only true down-to-earth concern is that of dwindling water supply, since that is what each and every city dweller is really constrained of. Citizens of the city have really very little understanding of what it means to be part of an ecosystem that does not contain only asphalt and concrete, and typical gathering grounds for them like malls, movie theatres, pubs, nightclubs are indicative of this epistemic void.

But we seem to have evolved to also like being among living beings which do not wear spaghetti tops or rippling abs, and hence the urbanite’s courtship with nature. Nature is an abstract entity that manifests itself in regular trips to National sanctuaries and mountain treks. Not something one needs for daily life (Spencer’s Daily is there for such things), but something that has some nebulous link to our aesthetic and moral sense.

This understanding is quite inaccurate and unfortunate, since it hides from us our means of sustenance. This is where the conflict between different people and people and animals arises. The environmental movements in India started mainly because of these conflicts between man-man and man-beast for natural resources (Chipko Andolan, Narmada Bachao), whereas those in the West derive from the urbanite view of Nature. In fact, the first few to articulate environmental concerns in Europe were artists and poets.

The bitter irony of the matter is that the same people who seem to court nature with their concern towards it are locked in a huge conflict with other people over the same nature, albeit unwittingly. The conflict has been ‘outsourced’ to their creations, the State and the Corporation, and so they can feel purged of moral obligation by buying village handicrafts and tie-dye clothes. Does our obligation stop here ? Are there ways by which one can indulge in ‘high’ culture and still live in harmony with other people and animals?

As always, the questions are easy to ask, the answers may not follow as easily.