Category Archives: social justice

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!

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.

The real ‘engines’ of growth

One notices a funny dichotomy when one flits through publications catered toward different sections of society, like India Together and The Times of India (if one can actually call it a ‘news’ paper anymore). One set seems to tell us that everything is going to hell and the other seems to paint an extremely optimistic picture of the whole thing we call liberalisation. Since people usually buy that which they relate to, it follows that both pictures are true: the excruciating poverty and the sleek new capitalism.

Society can never be comprised of watertight compartments. It is more likely to contain personalities who occupy the continuum between the two extremes. Take Bangalore, my favorite example. The slums are a picture of scarcity whereas the IT SEZs are a picture of excess. It is highly unlikely that the lower strata of society will gladly give their scarce resources to a population that already has too much. Someone must be doing it, for a price, of course.

Usually, the technological artifacts of an age represent its zeitgeist. The F-1 car is to me one such symbol of this era. It has all the striking features of our society:

  • High performance
  • Very high levels of organization (in terms of car design)
  • High dependence of the whole on every single part (heard somewhere that the car won’t even start if all components are not working properly)
  • Requirement of relatively ideal conditions (very wide, flat tracks, almost fricitionless profile, specialised tyres, etc ., )

The current financial crisis can be compared to a car crash due to failure to adhere to ideal conditions. Something fails, which brings down everything else. If you read any material on supply-chain management, you’ll understand what I mean. This is why Chinese melamine finds its way to the breakfast tables of half the globe. In comparison, the society of a century ago was like a Kinetic Luna – not very complicated, low performance (in terms of economic output), easily maintained by the owner herself (assuming minimal savviness), and useful in potholed roads.

With such stringent requirements, most modern corporates are willing to pay a high price to ensure that they get the resources they need. It is only when ideal conditions are created will it perform at desired levels. The march of the corporation in India has unfortunately turned into a zero sum game which is also unsustainable, quite like running a Ferrari in Chickpet. You have to break things down to give it room, and make sure nothing comes up later. For the Ferrari owner, life is good, but not for the person whose house was pulled down.

Thus, it is not quite the IT czars who are spearheading ‘growth’ in India or anywhere else, but the people who break things to make way for them. In an era of ever rising populations and decreasing resources, the industrial society requires resource allocation which is quite disproportionate to the number of people it represents.

A few examples are in order. Take the case of land in and around Bangalore. Scare resource, no doubt. But if one saw the number of IT parks coming up before this financial screw-up, one could easily think otherwise. This article (watch the embedded video!) describes the land mafia in Bangalore and the important players, including Muthappa Rai, who was interviewed for the article. It is an open secret that if you need 10 acres for building swanky townships or glass-enclosed IT greenhouses, you go to the mafia, not the government. Pratically everyone in Bangalore, especially in extension areas, lives on illegally occupied land, which later the BBMP is forced to regularise. Those who lose out on land are farmers and who lose out jobs are unskilled locals (due to huge migration), and hence arise organisations like the Kannada Rakshana Vedike which are kept in check by the police. The mafia to disenfranchise, and the police to keep it that way. Neat idea.

Water is probably hitting Bangalore more than any other resource, and the trenches are occupied by the private water tanker operators. Like the article shows, a single operator may deliver 50 – 60 loads of water a day, each of roughly 20,000 liter capacity. This adds up to mind-boggling numbers, and this was more than a year ago. I have myself seen Leela Palace getting atleast 10 – 15 tankers of water at 5 AM in the morning. And the website says:

Ensconced in 9 acres of tranquility that includes an azure lagoon, The Leela Palace mirrors the lushness of the Garden City. Harking back to the royal heritage of the Vijaynagar Dynasty, our hotel earns it name by showcasing gold leaf domes, ornate ceiling and grand arches.

They have a freaking lagoon!! This issue is becoming global. This set of pictures shows what can be, and is not very reassuring. Also, years of industrial farming is taking a toll on land and water, with desertification of erstwhile farmlands becoming a major issue. Farmland drops, food is scarce, starvation and conflict are inevitable.

The recent flare-up in Maharastra has also to do with appropriation of jobs (which are getting scarce nowadays!) by Biharis in the Railways. The fact that railway ministers for the past 12 years have been from Bihar may have something to do with this. The actions of the MNS may not be justified, but the resentment unfortunately is.

Another gory example is that of coltan, used extensively for manufacture of computer chips. The unfortunate fact is that a lot of it is available in Congo, which has a war going on to secure these resources, destroying everything in its path. Like this article says:

More profitable than gold or diamonds, and more easy to extract, is the rare substance, colombo tantalite, known as coltan, an essential ingredient for microchips and cell phones. Found almost exclusively in eastern Congo, it can bring in a whopping $400 per kilo in the international market, giving rebel factions and neighboring governments a financial reason to keep the war going indefinitely. Only when the Congolese conflict caused a temporary suspension of coltan mining did the western world feel the reverberations of a war it had all but forgotten: Sony was forced to delay the launch of its popular Play Station 2.

My My. The poor rich kids must have found it intolerable without their PS-2s.

The unfortunate reality is that we have designed a system where comfort and excellence is almost always at the expense of the powerless and weak. There are very few daily activities that we can perform without directly or indirectly grabbing something from someone else. It of course comes packaged in hygenic tetra-paks, but the people driving our ‘development’ be it the State, the crime lords or those who exploit nature are getting their hands dirty enough for all of us. The world is going nuts, as it has been from a long time, but never before has the resource crunch affected us like now. Blame the population problem or WalMart, it is high time we learn to live within our (material, not financial) means.

Yup, word limit reached.

What will we run out of, coal or the atmosphere?

Alternatively phrased, will we run out of sources or sinks?

Before answering the question, it is important to understand why we ask such a question in the first place. It has been a long-standing view of a school of natural philosophy that nature has no intrinsic value, and all value ascribed to it is by humans. In other words, what nature can do for us is the important thing to be considered.

Thus, we take things from nature (say, a rock), convert it to something that is valued by society (say, an iPod) and exchange it for something of equivalent value (say, toilet paper). This process of interaction with other people to determine the value of something and exchanging it for something of equivalent value is what is called the market mechanism. Since exchanging stuff is usually cumbersome, we use a common medium to signify value, and we call this money. Money in itself has no value is indicated that you can find it in so many forms, from solid gold to bits in a database maintained by MasterCard.

To increase the amount of money in circulation, one can do two things: print more money, which makes it lose its value, and this we call inflation (which can happen due to other factors as well), or increase the value of stuff we produce, either by value addition (This instead of this) or simply producing more of it. At the end of the day, the value of an economy (what is called the GDP) reflects the value that society places on the stuff we produce.

Producing things essentially means taking things from a natural source, modifying it to a form useful to humans and then sending it to a sink when its utility is over. Therefore, the throughput of resources from source to sink is what (roughly) determines the size of an economy. The rate of change of this throughput is what is rate of change of GDP (8%, in our case).

A source is a stock of some resource, generated by natural processes, like coal. A sink is what breaks down what we dump into a form that is absorbed by natural processes (like decomposition for organic matter, and oceans for CO2). These processes are not usually under our control, and this puts fundamental physical limits to the throughput of material or equivalently, the size of world GDP. We cannot use a stock of material faster than nature can replenish it, for obvious reasons, neither can we dump stuff  ‘somewhere’ faster than natural processes can break it down. These natural processes are known as biogeochemical cycles. If we do change the throughput to greater that what can be sustained, we get effects like eutrophication and global warming.

Many of  the early environmentalists stressed on the finite sizes of the sources like coal, oil, metals which made up our economy and said that we will run out of it soon. Unfortunately, the were proved wrong. Newer and larger stocks were found, and all environmental concerns were brushed off as alarmism. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that what ever the size of the sources may be, we may actually be running out of sinks to dump our garbage in. Over and above this, many artificially manufactured substances (especially from chemistry, and nuclear waste) have no known natural sink, and therefore they persist in our ecosystems for large amounts of time, gradually increasing in size of stock. The problem lies in the fact that not many toxicology studies have been done on such chemicals, and we have absolutely no idea how they work in conjunction with each other.

Sources of raw materials have developed over millenia, and will in all likelihood last us atleast another century (in case of fossil fuels). Sinks, however, are usually biological systems which have slow rates of flow. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link, material throughput is usually limited by sink flows. Thus, we find the classic sign of sink overflow everywhere: pollution.

Can humanity conform with natural processes ? Yes. One way is to find technological advances which make it possible to increase value without increasing throughput, which is happening everywhere. The main problems with this approach is how fast will humanity react to physical limits – will it be too little too late ? Another is to reduce consumption, accepting a smaller GDP with more equitable distribution of wealth so that all may live better. The problem with this is that it is politically impossible (well, almost!). Ignoring limits that are put on us will result in devastation, like what is happening to the fisheries of the world today. Hope we can garner enough moral strength to preserve our physical strength.

Point and counterpoint

Finished two books of essentially opposite characters, One was ‘One Straw Revolution’ and the other was ‘In defense of Globalization’ by Jagadish Bhagwati. Was interesting to read one after the other, since it covered the extremes of the globalization spectrum.

To be fair, Fukuoka was not trying to flagellate globalization as much as he was trying to point out an alternate way of life. Bhagwati, OTOH, was quite focused, as the title itself suggests.

One Straw Revolution

The book claims to be an introduction to natural farming, but is definitely far more than that. Though most of the book deals with Fukuoka’s method of ‘do-nothing farming’ (where you let nature take care of most of the work, with minimal intervention from the farmer), it also puts forward a way of life derived from the method of farming itself. Like the author says (paraphrased)

Once I realised that man knows nothing … Instead of talking about my philosophy, I tried to show the same to others by practicing agriculture.

He derives an alternate type of agriculture which uses the variety and complexity of nature to do most of the hard work, like controlling weeds, pests and manuring, with the farmer himself doing very little. Someone who knows a bit of community ecology will be fascinated by the practical usage of the same to make life easier. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, humans spend most of the energy they harvest/mine to modify ecosystems. However, given the complexity of ecosystems, this is usually a ham-handed approach which leads to other issues which need to be patched up, and so on and so forth. Fukuoka essentially tries to observe natural patterns and see how it can be used to his benefit, rather than fighting it. Of course, he builds his method around his philosophy of ‘man knows nothing’, but the method is useful even if you do not agree with his thinking. This book definitely lies in the ‘inspirational’ category and will leave the reader invigorated, if nothing else ;)

However, given modern logic of efficiency, this method is highly inefficient along the time ordinate, since gradually observing and adjusting to natural rhythms is extremely site specific (for obvious reasons) and iterative (Fukuoka himself took close to 2 decades to reach his level of expertise). NPK fertilizers and pesticides win out on this measure while losing out on practically everything else. Natural food is cheaper (those who buy from organic shops in Blore might find this shocking!), easier to grow and maintain while growing, and does not cause farmer riots all the time. Fukuoka also mentions the variety of problems farmers face when growing cash crops for a global market, especially when they are not sophisticated like corporations to hedge against the inherent risks.

In Defense of Globalization

Bhagwati is quite of the opposite character. Man can sufficiently control nature to increase welfare of all, any lapses are just because science is not yet perfected, and this implies the Western nations – given their superior science and technology – must help developing countries to grow faster. His idea to support growth is that

I noticed that the economic profile of all countries, developed or developing is pretty similar. Therefore, the obvious choice is to make the pie bigger.

As opposed to distributing the pie better. One cannot doubt that he is quite concerned with the welfare of all, just like Fukuoka, but supports globalization of trade as the best way out, in direct opposition of Fukuoka’s way out. Judging by the present scenario, Bhagwati has definitely been more influential!

Leaving aside fundamental differences in opinion, I found it quite instructive to read this book since Bhagwati makes a cogent argument about the various faults in the anti-globalization movement, most of which centre around them being more about good intentions rather than solid research. He concedes that globalization does not mean complete deregulation but needs to be ‘managed’ to cope with what he calls its ‘occasional downsides’. The problem that I have seen reading newspapers and such is that these downsides seem to be quite frequently ‘occasional’. One can hardly agree with Bhagwati that culture are environment are not affected, but rather helped by globalization, and that one should eat genetically modified foods because there is not scientific evidence that they cause any problems. There was no evidence that atmospheric pollution was bad in the 1800’s – the only lamenters being poets and artists – but no one disagrees now. Precautionary measures are something that Bhagwati dislikes saying that ‘anything and everything can be disallowed using moral arguments and this is bad for global trade’. If that is the price for precaution, so be it.

One consistent strain throughout the book is North-South relationship and how developing countries must learn from the big boys how the game is played (technology, management practices, financial aid, the whole nine yards!). USA uses 30% of the world’s energy. If everyone in India consumes like the average American, we would need to mine not only Mars but the Asteroid belt near Jupiter as well. If we concede that all cannot be Americans, then why should we follow the path of development that they did is not very clear. Our 9% growth is essentially creating brown-skinned Americans within a sea of poverty. India, like what we did with NAM, needs to chart its own path of development which is not infinitely optimistic about mining asteroids but takes a more realistic and cautious approach which increases the welfare of all.

Timbaktu again

After nearly 5 months of postponement and conflicting schedules, managed to make my visit to Timbaktu last week. This was again with regards to the demo of my (ever!) prototype lighting system, which has somewhat matured now. As always, the takeback from Timbaktu is more than what one expects.

I was accompanied by Arun from the company I work with on this lighting project. He and I share common interests in education, especially at the primary levels and there are few places in the world where one can learn better about this than Timbaktu. This trip had two main takeaways: one in education and another in technology.

A view from the top
A view from the top

EDUCATION:

The Timbaktu school takes in only those children who are from an underprivileged background and those that the Government school rejects as failures. These children, from what I saw manage to do pretty well, atleast getting their 7th standard certificates which is definitely better than having none at all. Subba Raju, who has been in charge of the school program for more than a decade enumerates the following guidelines for providing children with a happy childhood:

  • Good Nutrition is something he seems completely convinced about. On analysis, this seems obvious, but I have not seen many educators speak as passionately about it as Subba Raju.
  • No-fear environment is another stress here. The children are rarely chided or restricted to things that they want to. It is usually difficult to find teachers in the classroom since they are with the children on the floor ! The children easily approach strangers like us and speak to us with what little English they have picked up (The medium of instruction is Telugu). It embarasses me sometimes to notice that small children have picked up English while I have not been able to learn any rudimentary Telugu. Their curiosity levels are extremely high and they will buzz around like bees if you are carrying any interesting looking gadget. Girls play cricket with the boys and are not ridiculed but treated with patience uncharacteristic of children their age. We witnessed a practice for a play which was written by the kids themselves with a little help, complete with songs set to popular tunes. They had been practicing it for 5 days, and one cannot but develop an inferiority complex looking at their proficiency within such a short span of time. Such observations strengthen my belief in the futility of externally imposed discipline and the power of autonomous learning. Remember, these are kids in the age 5-15!
  • Non competitive learning is another interesting feature of this place. One may balk at the idea, but at then end of the day, it is similar to eating wholesome food, whereas competitive learning is like a body-builder’s diet supplement. Picking a few ‘desirable’ traits and encouraging only these is doing a great injustice to our posterity. Such practices are sometimes supported by simple-minded appeals to evolution, but are undoubtedly harmful given our lack of understanding of a phenomenon as complex as human development. One can ask how such children do in the outside world, and unsurprisingly, given their fearless attitude they adapt extremely well. Contrary to conventional wisdom, non-competitive learning creates more creative and committed individuals, since they usually converge to a discipline they are most suited to. Children are given ample choices to occupy themselves with, and choice available to individuals (not only economic) is increasingly being accepted as a metric of how developed a society is. Timbaktu no doubt qualifies as an extremely developed community.

The Timbaktu school is a must-visit pilgrimage for those interested in education of children and also for those who think starting their children on a IIT coaching class in 10th std is the best thing they can do.

TECHNOLOGY:

My association with Timbaktu and Ashok Rao’s lectures have gradually moulded my perspective on technology and its purpose. Technology is undoubtedly shaped by the cultural milieu it is surrounded by, and this is apparent if you listen to technical proposals from different cultural universes. IITB’s business plan competition awarded a 1 crore prize to a group which came up with an idea to make a more realistic simulator for automotive video games. The people in Timbaktu are more enthusiastic about a system that will help detect wild boar intrusions into fields. Like I had mentioned in a previous post,  Liberal thought left purpose for individuals to define for themselves. This sounds good in theory, but ground realities makes social purpose identical to what those with the most money think it should be. Which is why a video game simulator is more valuable than a boar detection system. Since technology has a high correlation to social purpose, it is hardly surprising that HDTVs, iPods, Mobile phones (or whatever they are calling it nowadays) generate a lot more interest, since the reigning social purpose is to pander to consumer preferences. Like a friend puts it “One rupee, one vote”.

With technological virtuosity being the order of the day, it is natural to think of villages as a primitive society where nothing ‘happens’. However, if one cosiders a hypothetical society where conserving the environment or promoting an equitable society was considered good, many of the technological artifacts that we consider as ‘cool’ turn out to be exactly the opposite. Timbaktu may be considered a ‘poor’ place, but will be exemplary in this hypothetical society. Technological development will take place in such a society, but in a direction that does not make too much sense in our present culture. It is my hope to further the technological boundaries of such a society.

Melkote: again!

We had been to Melkote again, but on a different mission, to discuss ways and means to rejuvenate Hosa Jeevana Dhari. For a brief introduction of the place and its people, see here. HJD had been embroiled in some internal issues and had reduced its activities to a minimal level. Now, the Koulagi family is back at the helm, and hope to do interesting things here again.

The meet was attended by around 10 people, all very experienced and focused to make life more tolerable for those that society ignores or worse, no longer tolerates. The agenda was this: HJD, started in the ’70s with a firm commitment to Sarvodaya, is now facing far stronger historical and social forces that define development and progress today. What can be its role in such a situation ?

The opening statements by everyone were concerned with issues of quantitative vs. qualitative work. Should the scale of the solution be large, or is it important to do something small, but in a more focused way was an issue which was grappled with, and a consensus was reached on the latter, given both the dominance of the present mainstream thinking as well as logistical difficulties. Considering that there are crises in all aspects of society – education, healthcare, agriculture, governance, equity, so on – Hosa Jeevana Dhari should literally try and show a hosa jeevana dhari (new way of life).

Another issue that concerned most present was the lack of examples for the younger generation to follow. If anyone reading this points toward Mukesh Ambani or Ratan Tata, please kill him (on rare occasions, her) on my behalf. Lack of role models both at home and outside at school/anywhere is making the idiot box more influential than it should be. A lack of a world view in children seems to be resulting in adults who are taught to pander their own whims without viewing their behavior from a broader perspective. For example, a liberal society today essentially means one with an unfettered market, without any qualifications or justifications. It is, therefore it is good. The moral implications are largely ignored. This is usually the case with philosophies which are administered by a clique of ‘high priests’, with a great incentive to keep people uncritical and ignorant.

HJD has had a long association with (organic) farming, and the agrarian crisis, reasons and experiences on the ground were discussed. Since it is well known that ideas have a greater chance of percolating when there is great change in society,  the participants saw the present situation as a premonition to times where alternatives will be actively sought for. Therefore, exemplars in HJD for a way of life that rests on principles radically different from the present modernity will serve the society well. All agreed that at present, intervention at a large scale is not possible, but ‘keeping the flame alive’ is what is essential. If someone comes looking for solutions, how confidently can HJD propose alternatives ? The answer lies in conviction and commitment to do the necessary groundwork to be able to propose realisitic, replicable and extant solutions, rather than just normative proposals with no material existence. The Gandhian allusion to ‘oceanic circles’ was used here (who used it in a different way), to visualise an exemplary HJD influencing melkote, and so on like ripples in the water.

Active propagation of the message of a sustainable life – one that is equitable, gender sensitive, harmonious with nature – was another aspect of the discussion. Many suggestions, including weekend workshops for urbanites, especially children and youth, Audio/Video material, books were put forward. Ideas about awareness campaigns among farmers were also thrown about. Many related their own experiences in the field, relating the difficulties they faced, and the opinion of the farmer or the urbanite which makes the present situation both difficult to change and difficult to sustain. People change their ways if they see a need for it and it helps them better their life.

Summarizing, one cannot but admit there is a crisis: people have been reduced to ‘essentially greedy’ individuals by our present system of economic organization, nature has become ‘capital’, life has boiled down to a chase for satisfying wants without any other purpose. Like one of the participants mentioned, until the European enlightenment, all civilizations had some purpose to life. Afterward, Evolution tells us that we are the product of years of random mutations of genes with no actual purpose, Bertrand Russell calls us bunch of atoms. Neither has ever been able to explain humans in their entirety, and the ‘high priest’ syndrome makes the people accept doctrines such as these uncritically.

Undoubtedly, there is a better way of looking at life. To know who we are and where we should go, we should always know where we came from. One can do worse than look at the thoughts of Gandhi and Kumarappa towards this end. Western notions of progress has lead to the highest rates of divorce and suicide in the so-called developed nations, and probably the highest density of god(con?)-men. Somehow, satisfying material wants ad infinitum does not seem to work. People somehow seem to want meaning/purpose, which modernity is not gracious with. To understand and translate and preserve for posterity alternative visions of what a civilization should be like is what HJD aims to do. To essentially create mentors and be one to society in a time when it is needed most. One wishes good luck and godspeed.

Finally!!

After months of exams, bad health and miscellaneous distractions, was able to steal some time off to continue my rants. Too many things to write about, and fortunately I have forgotten most of them. Was planning to write this post after my next visit to Timbaktu, which is next week, but got carried away anyways.

The last time time I had discussed the concept of harvesting , be it in energy or any other resource. Energy is something that I no longer need to talk about, since the effects are there for all to see. People always find interest in something only when it matters directly (in terms of Rupees/Litre here), but that is a peripheral issue. Mining is another concept that is more directly relevant to urban patterns of resource consumption. Mining is not just something that happens in Orissa and Jharkhand, but something that occurs in each and every household. Remembering the stock, flow, flux terminologies, we regarded as harvesting that usually taps fluxes. It is therefore highly sustainable as well as unreliable. Mining is the exact opposite: tapping stocks and disregarding fluxes. Think of our urban resource bases – LPG, petrol, diesel, water (from dam projects or underground aquifers), food (intensive agriculture), shelter (glass fronted buildings with AC !) – all these directly tap into existing stocks of resources without much regard to their continuing availability. In other words, we mine water, energy and food.

The direct implication of such a tradition is the necessity for large stocks of resources to be available at any given time. If one looks at energy as a sector, one finds research into new battery technologies, ultracapacitors, carbon nanotubes, with ‘high energy density’ being the key word. Agriculture, high-yielding varieties, storage and processing facilities; water, the ubiquitous deep borewells and water tankers which dot Bangalore’s roads, apartment complexes and IT parks and all contemporary agricultural lands. While it is pragmatic to maintain reasonable amounts of resource stocks so that we can stop worrying about tomorrow, the ways in which we treat and maintain them is completely shocking. The measure of affluence has unfortunately become the rate at which we vaporize large amounts of resources (money, bath-tubs, food, cricket floodlights). Optimists have predicted that our civilization will find ways to do more with less, but it seems to me that this is more of a cultural than technological issue. Even if we forget the matter of energy (we have enough coal to burn for a few thousand years), water, land, food are still being replenished by harvesting technologies and exploited by mining technologies. It is only a sign of desperation or craziness, depending on your point of view, that we need to look at solutions like tapping icebergs for water and using satellites to capture solar energy. All these `solutions’ have the same recurring theme : Find large stocks of resources!

If one examines the situation from a saner point of view, it is not that there is insufficient resources. The problem is of equity. MIT students recently ran a study about the `Footprint of The Man‘, which tried to calculate the energy consumption of the least resource consuming American (A Buddhist Monk), and this came upto 120GigaJoules. India would barely scratch 50. This ranking table should give you some indication.  Mining civilizations like Western Europe and USA required large stocks of resources to fuel their rise, leading to colonization. Once ‘primitive’ countries realized that they should be independent and went on to become so, they realized affluence can only comy by exploiting someone else, and so started internal colonization. Orissa and Bihar are good examples, so is Chamarajanagar right in my backyard. Not satisfied, ‘booming economies’ like India started going global with their ambitions and now Indians beat their chest with pride saying we are doing to the West what they did to us, which is the most childish way to react to the situation. India has absolutely no claim to such titles, considering half of the children in India are still undernourished and female mortality rate during childbirth is obscenely high.

Coming to demographics, mining is the reason cities are preferred to villages – A large and expendable stock of labor that is willing to get vaporized in a short time (retire at 45, remember ?). Another buzzword that betrays our obsession with mining is Data Mining. Information Technology is the perfect tool in the hands of the miners; but its very structure makes it equally powerful in the hands of the people, unlike so many other technologies. Which is why you will hear calls for strict regulation, prevention of piracy and all such things.

While I consider this feature of modern society to be irreversible even with a WW 3, one must consider and deploy policies which can counter its effects at the frontiers, social and environmental. All said and done, to me the next few decades will be monumental in history, almost as important as the Enlightenment itself. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

The myth of the Self Made (Wo)man

A person who has risen from poverty or obscurity by means of her/his own talents or energies

This seems like a satisfactory definition of a self-made person. The most irritating proponent of this myth is of course Ayn Rand. But one must also understand the social and economic milieu that Rand wrote this stuff in (I had written about it in my review of ‘The Age of Capital’), which definitely shaped her attitudes towards certain behavioral traits.

Is one’s own talents or energies enough to rise from/above anything ? If you use your prodigious reading abilities to gain genius status, you still owe it to those who laid the foundation for your thought. Living in a civilization for the past 5000 years, human efforts are both cumulative and incremental. We would have to quite literally reinvent the wheel every generation if it were not cumulative and we would be having radically new kinds of wheels every generation if it were not incremental (as opposed to disruptive). Like any other organism on this earth, humans can flourish only given certain conditions. These are usually out of the powers of our talents or abilities to create (unless of course, one can prevent drought or volcanic eruptions or desertification). Thus, it has always been that we depend on innumerable things out of our control, like not getting murdered, to achieve what we want to. Thus, any application of talents and energies are contingent upon a large number of unconstrained variables.

Aynd Rand’s characters are also subject to the same rules (even after accounting for literary license), but they are never made explicit anywhere. Her protagonists are ultra-rich or noveau ultra-rich people with unending talents and energies who look to reach pinnacles of whatever they want without regard for others unless they served some purpose (she obviously was not familiar with Paris Hilton or her coterie), and the antagonists
are their dependents who look to waste all the money earned in doing stupid charity, and usually are lacking in talent like their husband/brother/contemporary (she probably ignored Gandhi). Like all bestsellers, things have to be in perfect black and white (no one has time for measured or qualified manifestoes) and appealing to the basest instincts of people, which in Rand’s case is greed.

A more sensible libertarian doctrine is J. S. Mill’s On Liberty. Mill says that men came together for the sole purpose of self-protection (and prostitution somehow insinuated in, I guess) and therefore men should be allowed to do things as they wish as long as they were not breaking the fundamental premise of protection for all. Although in Mill’s time colonizing others was not yet part of the definition of ‘protection for all’, this statement seems pretty ok (read the essay for issues that creep in). However, with the present day knowledge of ecology and earth sciences along with more detailed social analyses, it is hard to think of too many things that one can do without doing something wrong to someone, unless it is meditating under the Bodhi tree. We encourage sweatshops by buying branded clothes, trash the world by going about our normal routine lives (oil, plastic, cement, iron, coal …), there is practically nothing that we do that does not exploit someone and does not destroy the environment. Like I mentioned in my previous post, as long as the unit of analysis is an individual all the time, such matters dont matter. While the ‘rights of man‘ are important, the corresponding ‘duties of man’ has yet to be delineated (maybe because they are far too difficult to imagine!).

All this may seem anti-liberal and left-leaning, but is hardly so. It simply interpreting individualism in a different way. Karl Popper’s utopia consisted of highly individualistic people engaged in abstract transactions which would be studied by the discipline of economics. Unfortunately or otherwise, this has not turned out so be, and people are still inextricably linked by a social web and a food web. If individualism is a celebration of individual differences, they why are we so callous when interacting with others, especially if we consider them our inferiors. Putting the individual in the forefront refuses to recognize that people almost always do the opposite, putting their families, offices, nations, language ahead of themselves. The welfare of the individual must result in the welfare of all concerned, simply because of the conditions for an individual to flourish are not under her control.

Even worse is the confusion that most people seem to have between individualism and egotism. ‘This is a free country, I can do what I want‘ is an egotistic statement, not an individualistic one. ‘This is a free country, I can do what I want when I don’t infringe on another’s right to do the same‘ does not sound as catchy, but is more inline with liberal thinking. ‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you‘ is probably a better formulation of the above.

As if Ayn Rand was not bad enough, they came up with a fan club to promote her views. Atleast she was a good author, these people do bad philosophy in a bad way. Calling environmentalists ‘looters'(even the terminology is from the `30’s) because they do not allow resource exploitation is not going to win too many friends nowadays. Boys will be boys, to put it in a condescending way ;)