Category Archives: Environment

What if the climate were predictable?

What if the climate were predictable?

Butterflies, and what I do

Guest Post by Ve Balaji

Ve Balaji is a dear old friend. Professionally he works at the intersection of climate change and software. At a personal level, he supplements these with deep social concerns.

This post was presented as a paper at the Oxfam Online Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation, February 2009.

***

A bus queue in the pouring rain, and only one man without an umbrella. He turns to the man in front, and says, “Yes, I work for the Weather Bureau. How did you know?” A classic cartoon of R.K Laxman, whose laconic single-frame still-lifes of modern civilisation reflected in the bemused gaze of the Common Man appeared on the front page of The Times of India for over fifty years, dates from before I entered the weather business, and probably had nothing to do with it. And yes, many people to whom I explain what I do are still amused to trot out some variant of this remark.

Well, why is it so damnably hard to predict the weather? There is in fact an answer, and it’s an illuminating episode of modern science. the clearest answer was given by E.N. Lorenz in 1963, in a classic paper that gave birth to chaos theory. First look at this beautiful image, known as a Lorenz attractor on the right.

Lorenz reduced the equations that govern atmospheric weather to a simple set that nonetheless exhibited unimagined complex behaviour. Let’s imagine that the weather can be represented by a fly buzzing and zooming around in circles, and every point on its trajectory represents some state in the weather, say the temperature and humidity. If you know where the fly starts off, the equations tell you what it will do next. The trajectory may often follow some well-defined cycle, let’s say warm and humid, building up to oppressive heat in the afternoon followed by a thunderstorm and cooling. The fly zooms around and around this cycle as though there were an attractor in the middle, smelling of decay and nutrients. Each cycle will not be exactly like any other, but by and large they stay in the vicinity of the attractor.

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Is there a Dalit Sensibility?

Rama Rao VVB explains why a Dalit sensibility is different, in this issue of Muse India that focusses on Manipuri poetry and Dalit poetry in Telugu.
Is Dalit sensibility different? Isn’t all sensibility the same?

My answer is ‘yes’ for the first question and ‘no’ for the second. Sensibility, among other things, is a product basically of upbringing – dependent on environment and capacity to feel – dependent on exposure and social intercourse. Having answered the basic questions, I come to my own exposure to the genre – yes, genre for it is rightly claimed and rightly acceded, thanks to democratization of at least freedom of poetic expression – of dalit poetry in Telugu with authentic dalit sensibility. Though I cannot write dalit poetry authentically, I can certainly empathize with that as one of the many kinds of poetry and write about it too.

The point worth noting is that dalit poetry or dalit literature does not remain only as the expression of a community or a section for long. With their aspirations and their imaginative fervour and sensibility, they show the tendency of merging into the main stream enriching poetry in a sublime sense.

Purushotham K provides a comprehensive overview of contemporary Telugu Dalit poetry and the diversity within it.

One of the problems of the Dalit thought has been to fight the enemy within resolving the conflict between the caste and class. When it comes to the question of Dalit liberation, certain poets believe in class. For instance, balladeer Gaddar, whose songs and ballets inspired thousands of Dalits, is uncompromising about the class based solution: ‘Having been scorched again and again / Turned into an atom bomb / Having become an atom bomb, / We detonate to reform society in exploitation / We will build another world that would / Treat humans as the humans.’ Another revolutionary poet, Salandhra puts it: ‘What if I am called by whatever name / When I become a drop of tear / Blossomed in the eye of a comrade / When I imagine the goals of the martyrs in my wounds.’

The revolutionary Dalit poets valorize the fighting spirit, sacrifices and immortality of Dalit activists who lose their lives working in the cadre of the underground Left. Contrarily, the Dalit activists question the class based violent struggles in which it is the Dalits who are used as the pawns. U Sambasivarao, a noted activist/writer would question: ‘Those that hack my throat haunting us / Are certainly my tormentors / They keep professing us to / Join the class war / As all the labourers are of one class / They give up Dalitism of uprisings / We may be poor devoid of food / But we are rich by caste.’ Several other Dalit poets denounce that revolution is not a panacea of solution to the Dalit problems. Thinkers like Sivasagar, intellectuals like Kancha Ilaiah and Chandrabhan Prasad would argue that the Dalit problem need Dalit solutions as Shikhamani would satirize the class poetically: ‘I who sang heartfully / The heroic death of revolutionary warriors / Couldn’t be moved by / The mercilessly chopped bodies inflated / Having been stuffed into gunny bags and / Trampled into marshland.’ J. Goutam would critique the class based solution: ‘Sacrifices! Heroic march-pasts! The prisons of the State / Glue them all on the face of this fellow / Let’s surge ahead / ‘Let hundred flowers blossom, and / A thousand thoughts contend’ / Hail Marx, hail Mao and Lenin / Beware of Maoism’.

There is a good selection of translations of poems in the same issue.

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A Bicycle Diary

Workers and girls
were riding to their
factories,
giving
their eyes
to summer,
their heads to the sky,
sitting on the
hard
beetle backs
of the whirling
bicycles
that whirred
as they rode by
bridges, rosebushes, brambles
and midday.

the bicycle,
stilled,
because
only moving
does it have a soul,
and fallen there
it isn’t
a translucent insect
humming
through summer
but
a cold
skeleton
that will return to
life
only
when it’s needed,
when it’s light,
that is,
with
the
resurrection
of each day.

- An Ode to Bicycles by Pablo Neruda

The bicycle has been given a short shrift in India as it still awaits a dawn and its own resurrection. It is the common man’s mode of transportation, yet the per capita of bicycles in India is a low 0.06 in contrast to China, where it stands at 2.26, which means that even this basic mode of transportation is denied to the vast majority of poor Indians. (The figures are for the years 1992 and 1995 respectively- Source. Since production  increased from 9m to 11m between 1992 and 2000 in India, while in China it increased from 40m to 53m, I doubt that the per capita counts have changed drastically)

The Mao Bicycle (Flickr Source)

To a large extent, this can be attributed to the lack of political support the bicycle has managed to mobilize for itself. The bicycle has been low on the list for politicians and hence on the nation’s priorities. In China, Mao popularized what came to be called the “Mao Bicycle” and set the masses to literally ride the road to liberation. Mahatma Gandhi, however, did nothing of the sort as he did with the charkha. He did not ride the bicycle, preferring, instead the comfort of the Indian Railways, or whatever it was called before independence. The Samajwadi Party carries the bicycle as its election symbol, though you may not recollect ever seeing the portly Mr. Amar Singh ride one. A few years ago, Shiela Dixit, the Delhi Chief Minister, came up with the novel concept of bicycle clubs. It has not exactly created a revolution in the state as yet.

Nor has the Mumbai film industry (or Tamil or the other ollywoods) taken up the cause of the bicycle. There are indeed some old Hindi film songs picturized on the heroine and her friends riding the bicycle. But the hero invariably would ride at least a two wheeler, even the old Lambretta was preferable to the lowly bicycle. On the other hand, sometimes the villain and his cohorts paid a tribute of sorts by beating the good guys with bicycle chains. There has been a Chinese version of The Bicycle Thief, but no Indian one. Even in Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy which was stylistically inspired by the Italian classic, the bicycle was nowhere to be seen. The only exception that comes to mind is an old Manoj Kumar movie, Shor, in which he wins a cycling challenge by continuously circling for many days, spurred on by an inspiring song on the way.

The decline of the bicycle among the influential middle classes accelerated in the 1980s when the two wheelers started replacing the bicycle in the employees’ parking lot outside the neighbourhood branch of the State Bank of India. Even the milkman switched over to a Rajdoot motorcycle, leaving only the postman whose occasional presence now graces respectable middle class homes with a bicycle. Since a vehicle is as much a symbol of power as of prestige when it comes to the Indian road, anyone riding one is seen with at best a smirk, if not sheer disdain.

My first bicycle–a small blue Hero ‘sports’ cycle was bought in class six, expensive though it was, given my family’s means. I used it to ride to school, a good few miles away, along with my sister, robbing the rickshaw puller of quite a sum over the years. By the time I reached class 8, I bought the standard black Hero bicycle. It was bought by paying for it in instalments of Rs 10 per month through the influence of my grandparents and then transported to my home town on top of a bus. Till the third year of my college, I used the bicycle and then sold it off for one third of the price, switching over to first a Vijay Super and still later the LML Vespa. The gradual transition paralleled the ascending affluence of my family in the late 1980s as it switched from a fourth hand, 1973 Mark II model of the Ambassador car, to a Maruti 800. My cousins, growing up a few years later, would ride to school on a two wheeler.

This personal story, I believe, is more or less also the story of the decline of the bicycle in middle class families.

But there are more significant bicycles that come to mind. There was one that belonged to an old bearded Sikh man who could be seen on the roads of Chandigarh carrying a bag full of books. The man was a well known figure in the city, especially among the poor students. He would lend them books free of charge and deliver them right at their doorsteps, come rain or wind. There must have been some personal story, or tragedy behind such an act that we never bothered to find out. What stood out on his bicycle was the over-sized carrier at the back that he would place his bag on, it had a small wooden plank on top of the carrier and the large canvas bag with its books was tied on top of it.

Another memorable one is one one that belonged to the creator of the Rock Garden, Nek Chand. Somewhere in the eighties, the Haryana Chief Minister, Bhajan Lal, gifted him an Ambassodor car at a glittering function. After everyone had left, Nek Chand took out his old bicycle and rode back home- the next day, the local newspapers carried his picture riding a bicycle with the brand new Ambassador car in the backdrop. Perhaps he did not have the money to bear the cost of fuel, or more likely did not know how to drive a car. But above all, it was this bicycle that he had used to carry the refuse and broken ware to his then secret abode that later became the Rock Garden- an imposing counter as it were to Nehru’s modernist dreams.

This dream would have been impossible, Chand says, without his bicycle. He and his two-wheeled friend roamed the hillsides in search of materials. On some days, they traveled more than 20 kilometers, seeking out stones and debris that Chand would later transform into shapes of his imagination. Describing the conditions in which he worked, by cover of darkness, fighting off clouds of biting mosquitoes and snakes, Chand says, “I used to work alone in the jungle and my bicycle was the only means for me to get out safely.” Source

Nek Chand’s old bicycle is now part of the Rock Garden and  prominently displayed there.

Nek Chand migrated to India from the Pakistani part of Punjab during the partition. I do not know how he traversed the distance, but many migrants used bicycles to scamper across the border. A friend in Chandigarh always used to ride a bicycle that was, to say the least, in a pretty ramshackle condition. The reason for his attachment, he remarked with similar sentimentality as Chand, was that his father rode from Lahore to the Indian side of the border on that bicycle. I also do not know if the owners of bicycle companies that forms the backbone of the economy of the industry in Ludhiana too crossed the border on bicycles, but it is a well known fact that it was mainly the refugees who contributed to the setting up of the industry in some of smaller towns and cities after independence/partition.

Some of them, like the Hero group have switched over to the manufacture of the lucrative two wheeler segment, symbol of the youthful entrants to the middle classes and on which Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan sang their best numbers.

The legendary Nek Chand, the master of recycling the broken pieces of material that build our modern cities, however, can still be seen riding a bicycle in Chandigarh.

And that holds out hope to the otherwise unfashionable mode of transportation of the working classes.

(See Rahul Banerjee’s post Cycling to Environmental Glory that spurred this Proustian excursion)

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Ramar Sethu and Common Sense

One does not have to be a Marxist to see common sense.

Romila Thapar writes on the Ramar Sethu controversy.

Some detailed discussion is necessary as to what would be the economic benefits of such a scheme in enhancing communication and exchange. Such benefits should also be seen in terms of the future of local livelihoods in case they are negatively affected. Are there plans for the occupational relocation of local communities that may at the end be at a disadvantage?  We have become a society so impressed with figures and graphs that we tend to forget that each number is actually a human being.

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Scavenging the Sticky Glue

What struck me in this story about scavenger children using improvised boats and magnets to collect coins from the Yamuna river in Delhi, was this comment by Dr Shreekant Gupta, professor at the Delhi School of Economics:

According to Dr. Shreekant Gupta, a professor at the Delhi School of Economics specializing in the environment, factoring in the cost of environmental damage in India would shave 4 percent off of the country’s gross domestic product. Lost productivity from death and disease (water-borne diseases are India’s leading cause of child mortality) are the primary culprits.

“Some of this feeling of euphoria gets a bit dampened thinking of environmental degradation,” says Gupta. After environmental corrections, he puts India’s rocketing 9 percent annual growth rate at a mediocre 4.5 percent.(link)

Lack of regulations, and a still worse record in implementing them is one side to the story, a change in paradigm going away from centralised form of disposing the effluents is another. It is amazing that while governments display excessive triumphalism in inviting FDI, neither the multinationals nor the international agencies prescribe any sort of regulations on environment.

The story in India is not unique, as more and more production moves offshore to countries like China and India, the exploitation of natural resources pushes more and more people in these countries to the brink. A recent World bank report has suggested that close to 500,000 people in China die because of air and water pollution.

In a recent inspection of 529 firms along the Yellow, Yangtze and other major rivers and lakes, 44% had violated environmental laws, while almost half of the 75 waste water treatment facilities underperformed or did not work. Zhou said some waterways resembled “sticky glue”.(link)

But this is not too bad if compared with the conditions in Africa which bears the brunt of environmental change.

Despite contributing under 5% of the global amount of the six key greenhouses gases, Africa is one of the continents most vulnerable to climate change, a recent United Nations report on climate change found.Between 75 and 250-million people in Africa are expected to face even greater water shortages by 2020 as a result of climate change, the report said.

“It’s not enough to stop pollution now,” Worthington told Deutsche Presse-Agentur. (link)

Cross posted at How the Other Half Lives

Resisting Globalization with Stones and Potato Sacks

It is very clear which side the dice is loaded on- there are about 16,000 policemen in full gear protecting the Kempinski hotel, that anyway 10,000 protesters have managed to infiltrate upto 20 meters of the barricade. Kempinsiki hotel is where the the leaders of the G-8- the group of 8 industrial countries that account for 65% of the world’s economy, are meeting to confabulate over issues ranging from global climate change, to a follow up on the $50b aid to Africa to subtle messages from President Putin about the re- emergence of a a new Cold War. 

The protests have become almost as ritualistic as Mr Bush’s statements on a techno- miracle to fight the environmental challenge. The protests are marked by near primitive methods of resistance even as they are highly planned and deliberately so. In Bad Dobean, for example, around 10,000 protesters entered the zone Wednesday morning by avoiding “police roadblocks by simply walking through fields and woods“, and then bombarded the police with stones. Also interesting were the other methods of resistance.

As they were being dragged away, the months of training many anti-globalization activists had participated in was obvious. It is not advised, many demonstrators said, to lock arms during such blockades as it just gives the police an excuse to take out their batons. Balling up and being carried away is the safest alternative. The “potato sack” method is also a possibility, though not guaranteed to be free of pain — police drag protesters away and don’t pay much attention to what part of the body is scraping along the asphalt. There is little defense against the disabling neck and nose grips often used by the police.

The protesters come from diverse backgrounds:

Groups range from the “Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army,” with its colorful rubber noses, to relatively established anti-globalization movements like Attac, to radical far-left anarchists. In the building’s 55 rooms, a myriad of different strategies for forms of action are debated. With so many divergent approaches under one roof, organizers have decided to call the school the “Convergence Center” — a place to meet and find common ground.

Why are these people protesting? The answer is very simple- even as globalization creates islands of the first world in the malls in Shanghai and Banglore, it is also creating a Third World-like underclass in the developed world. The BBC explains it in a much nicer way with this graph that shows a continuous decline in the share of workers’ wages as a percentage of total national income.

Source

There is little expected from this meeting, most likely it will end with some declaration of the promised $50b aid to Africa- no one is demanding more than what was promised, and it is a mere fraction of the G-8’s economic might. Other issues, like climate change are likely to be pushed under the carpet, and form the topic for the next ritualistic meeting, slated to be in Toyako, Hokkaido in Japan in 2008.

A video on the riots in Rostok.

Cross Posted at How the Other Half Lives

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A Romantic Among the Bhils

An IITian’s Success Story among the Poorest in India

Rahul Banerjee did not make his millions in the Silicon Valley. In fact, he has never been to the Silicon Valley. He hasn’t made his millions either.

Instead he has written a book- and the book has not found a publisher. So he did not make his millions this way either.

But Rahul Banerjee found a wealth of experience and inner satisfaction of having spent a life among the poorest of the poor in the country. He represents that diminishing tribe of middle- class young men and women fired with an empathy for the downtrodden, forsake what could have been more comfortable lives, to work for, and with what Dostoevsky’s called the ‘insulted and the humiliated’.

A life- long activist among the Adivasis in Madhya Pradesh, Rahul was at one time associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, among others.

Recovery of the Lost Tongue is Rahul Banerjee’s mid- life autobiographical reflection on his life spent working with and organizing the adivasis in Madhya Pradesh. It is written in the manner of a well read and well- engaged activist, his range of reading is mind boggling, and his experiences as a foot- soldier organizer among the people he chose to work with, fascinating.

But the most exhilarating aspect of the book is is the harmony between thought and action, a constant dialectic between theory and action. Small is the tribe of such people, and fewer still are those who have documented their experience and engagement with some of the poorest of the poor in the country.

The result of this dynamic praxis is very evident in every chapter of the book, with its insights into the life of the poorest- adivasis, women and the Dalits. There are occasional flashes of flamboyance (Love is all you need) and humour. Some of the chapters are treatises in themselves, and each could spawn a book by itself.

What remains in the mind at the end is the constant effervescence of ideas and wisdom gleaned over a quarter of a century.

The themes that the book deals with are the author’s own urge that led him to give up a what could have been a comfortable middle class existence after he completed his engineering from IIT, Kharagpur in 1983 (A Mission Found ), his discovery of the life and struggles of the adivasis, his romance with his future wife and via her insights into Dalit life, the double exploitation of adivasi and Dalit women and the travails of organizing the poorest of the poor.

Some of the chapters written with an exceptional sense of adventure are those about the involvement with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and its sad marginalization that continues (Reliving the Myth of Sisyphus). On Aruna Roy’s struggle for the RTI, he observes:

 

Unlike Medha who has directly challenged the state to repeal unjust laws and policies and implement fully its just laws, Aruna has remained content with coaxing it to just formulating good laws and implementing them in fits and starts and so has tasted a little more success. When the National Advisory Council was formed under the chairpersonship of the President of the Congress party Sonia Gandhi to act as a super think tank for the Congress led coalition government at the centre in 2004, Aruna was chosen to be a member of this powerful body. She used this opportunity to make two very good interventions resulting in the passage of the Right to Information Act 2005 and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005. (Casting Pearls Before Swine)

Parallel to this is his ideological evolution- from Marxism to interactions with Lohiate socialists and to the advocation of what he calls anarcho- environmentalism. One can differ with him on these, indeed as I do, but what is unquestionable is his extreme sincerity to the ideas that he has believed in at various times during the last quarter of a century and the ‘confident restlessness’ that the poet of the reawakening of Asia, Mohammad Iqbal spoke of.

 

In a very perceptive chapter Reliving the Myth of Siyphus, he analyses the objective conditions that requires Gandhiji’s techniques of Satyagraha to succeed:

What price satyagraha then as an action strategy for bringing the modern state to heel. Satyagraha has some chance of succeeding in crunch situations only when those practising it are in very large numbers and so convinced about their cause and the philosophy of Gandhism as to be able to exert moral pressure and bring about a change of heart in the oppressor. The Gandhian philosophy relies heavily on Hindu ascetism and mysticism as we have seen, and is far removed from the lives of common everyday people and even more so from that of the Bhil adivasis. Arundhati Roy, who has pitched in lyrically in support of hedonism in her Booker Prize winning novel “The God of Small Things” (Roy, 1998), has admitted in the monograph ‘Greater Common Good’ that the theory and practice of Gandhism requires a very strong moral fibre, especially when it comes to renouncing sex and shopping, which most ordinary mortals cannot do without

Sisyphus was such a daredevil that on one occasion he even kidnapped the God of Death and kept him chained in his palace. Pluto had to send the God of War to free him. We in the environmental mass movements in India too have been trying to chain the God of Ecological Death and like Pluto the high priests of the God of Modern Development have continually sent their God of War to stymie us. It looks as if we are similarly doomed to eternally rolling the rock of mass mobilisation up against the mountain of state obduracy only to see it go crashing down time and again. What can be more punishing than such futile and hopeless labour? But according to the French philosopher, author and Nobel laureate Albert Camus, Sisyphus is in fact at his glorious best when he is back at the foot of the mountain because then he is not bemoaning his fate but pondering over its inevitability given his rebelliousness against the Gods).

He considers the environmental challenge- to which even the adivasis have now fallen prey- to the “prisoners’ paradox” in which both the beneficiaries and the victims try to outdo each other devouring up increasingly scarce resource of Mother earth.

The adivasi mass organisations reviewing the situation found that the only way in which things could be improved was for the government to take action under the various laws at its disposal against the sahukars. Since this was unlikely given the political power of the sahukars plans were finalised for launching a mass action programme pressing for punitive action against them. This campaign was to piggy-back on the other ongoing campaigns for access to and control over the main natural resources of forests and water that were already underway. Given the persistent drought conditions the pressure on these resources had increased and so had the confrontation with the agencies of the state regarding their proper utilisation. In the Udainagar area the Gram Sabhas stopped the logging of timber by the Forest Department saying that if the government could not find resources to provide them with relief works to tide them over their livelihood crisis then it had no right to take resources out of the area to finance its other activities.

This decision of the Sangathan brought it into direct conflict with the deep-rooted resource extractive character not only of the Indian state but also of global capital. The state through the forest department has continually tried to increase the extraction from forests and the first major new initiative in the post independence era was the setting up of the MP Forest Development Corporation in 1975 to encourage industrial forestry, which would yield high returns in a short time, both in terms of timber output and revenue. But whereas bamboo was supplied to industry by the Corporation at 54 paise per 4 meters of bamboo the rate for the villagers was Rs 2. (Sundar et al, 2001). After this at the behest of the World Bank a social forestry programme was then implemented between 1981 and 1985 but this too was unsuccessful in meeting people’s needs for fuel wood and fodder because of the lack of sincerity on the part of the forest department. (Cry, My Beloved Mehendikhera)

The Myth of SisyphusHow mammoth and pointlessly excruciating the task is, is expressed in some of the more cynical chapters like The Exasperating Anarchist and increasingly becomes shrill towards the later chapters. The author has made repeated references to the myth of Sisyphus- made memorable by the Albert Camus, though at places, the experiences of the writer in fighting for justice for the adivasis recall to mind Kafka’s Joseph K- in the novel The Trial.

Two of the most passionately written chapters are Time for a Sabbatical and The Treasure of Terra Madre. The former is based on the experience of his wife, Subhadra, who coming from a Dalit family found the distance learning course from Indira Gandhi University to be a challenge. The author’s own attempts to get access to get data under the Right to Information Act from a university whose professed goal is ‘knowledge … dissemination through sustainable open and distance learning systems seamlessly accessible to all’. Instead, he discovers that:.

A total of 35,844 students enrolled in 2002 of whom 63.4 % were females and 36.6% were males. The Scheduled Castes constituted only 6.2 % whereas their percentage in the population as a whole is 15%. Their female to male ratio was about the same as that for the total students enrolled. The Scheduled Tribes constituted 5.9 % whereas their proportion in the population as a whole is 7%….

The most striking feature of the results is that of the considerably fewer number of female students passing as compared to male students. Thus in 1996 even though females constituted 67.1% of those enrolling their proportion in those passing out was just 29.5%. Similarly in 2002 while females constituted 63.4% of those enrolling their proportion in those passing out was just 31.6%.

Despite the harsh experiences, the author concludes with the following words in the last chapter The Obsolescence of the Art of Daydreaming:

Given the likes of the World Bank the task of recovering lost tongues is always fraught with a danger that is quaintly termed by Bengalis as the cool wind from the River Ganges blowing on one’s back. Whenever a mass movement reaches its peak there are a lot of people lending their active support to it. However, as state repression gradually intensifies, most of the supporters melt away preferring to watch birds instead. So the cool wind from the Ganges, which earlier had been kept at bay by their once numerous supporters, begins to uncomfortably caress the backs of the activist leaders and deters them from fighting on! That is why the shining example of the practical naturalist Ambedkar should act like a beacon for all those committed to freeing the human race from the destructive myth of modern industrial development. This “Mook Nayak”, or heroic leader of the dumb, right up to the day of his death single-mindedly pursued the goal of recovering the lost tongue for the dalits regardless of the support he may be getting. Like for him our battle cry should be “The battle to me is a matter of joy, for ours is not a battle for wealth or power, it is a battle for freedom.”

Rahul Banerjee has not been able to give back the tongue to the adivasis. But he has learnt their language and spoken for them. And in the process, has etched the ideas and struggles that have defined the sensitivities of our age.

One hopes that he continues to carry forward as a crusading public intellectual of the other India.

(This post appeared earlier last week at How the Other Half Lives.)

Image Acknowledgments : Rahul Banejee’s picture, Sisyphus

Above all, thanks to Rama for the link to Rahul’s book.

Nuclear Power and Environment

Environmental guru James Lovelock, who created a flutter in the 1970s with his researches on the ozone-consuming fluorochlorohydrocarbons (FCHC) believes that sustainable development is nonsense and the world cannot do without nuclear power.

Lovelock has nothing but ridicule for environmentalists’ favorite issues, such as “sustainable development” and “renewable energy,” calling them “well-meaning nonsense.” He is convinced that wind and solar energy will never be even remotely capable of meeting worldwide energy needs. In China alone, for example, a new large coal power plant is put into operation every five days, imposing additional burdens on the atmosphere. The only solution, according to Lovelock, is the massive expansion of nuclear energy worldwide.

A reliable supply of electricity, says Lovelock, is the key issue when it comes to survival on a warmer planet. He loses no sleep over the risks of nuclear power.

“Show me the mass graves of Chernobyl,” he demands provocatively. No more than a few thousand people died after the 1986 meltdown — a small price to pay, he says, compared to the millions who could fall victim to CO2. He adds that compact nuclear waste is vastly easier to control than the close to 30 billion tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere each year by the burning of fossil fuels.

Adivasis and the Environmentalism of the Rich

Indian Tribals …and…the environmentalism of the rich

Guest post by Ishwar Singh Dost

Whatever I say here, is born of three decades of day-to-day experience of India’s poor. And, amongst them, India’s tribals share a worse fate. Theirs is a faceless existence. They are in India from ancient times, for thousands of years, yet the mainstream India has continually refused to recognise them. In the tribal society there is no caste division, no dowry system, divorce and widow remarriage is socially sanctioned. They are, after centuries of oppression and neglect, still so civilized! Yet we have simply refused to recognise their worth, have made them bonded slaves in the unorganised sectors, have evicted them from land wherever we have founded industries, or built dams.

Having been denied fundamental human rights, they have joined the floating population of the other poor who follow the contractors and go anywhere for a pittance. The mighty tribal culture, their fantastic dances, music, painting and wood cuttings are lifted by middlemen for a handful of coins and sold at high prices at home and abroad. The artisans receive next to nothing.

– Indian author Mahashweta Devi on the Indian tribals, aka adivasis

In comparison with other sections of Indian poor, the adivasis or the tribals are at the lowest rank of the Human Development Index, much below the Dalits. 50% of the adivasis live below the poverty line- a figure twice of the other rural poor. The Below Poverty Line (BPL) percent for all agricultural labourers is 45% but 61% of the adivasi agricultural labourers live below the poverty line. The number of adivasi cultivators declined from 68% in 1993- 94 to 45% in 1999-2000. Poverty increased by 5% among the rural adivasis and by 30% among the urban adivasis between 1993-94 to 1999-2000.

The Scheduled Tribes are the only strata of Indian population whose number of poor went up during this period- when other vulnerable sections of the population, the scheduled castes, agricultural labourers and urban casual workers have shown some decline in poverty.

Historically, the tribals have been pushed farther and farther into the interiors of the forests and away from cultivable lands- it is no coincidence that they occupy the land rich in minerals, since such land tends to be poor in terms of cultivation.

But it was British rule that dramatically altered the patterns of land and forest use forever. By 1860, Britain had become a world champion of deforestation. Besides denuding forests in its own country, it also ravaged the jungles in its colonies the world over, using the timber in shipbuilding, railways, smelting iron and so on.

The colonial state declared the forests as state property and the dispossession of the adivasis from their own land bagan. While the Forest Department established in 1865 was assigned the role of a revenue generating organ, the Indian Forest Act of 1927 gave arbitrary powers to the forest officers.

Post independence experience of marginalisation and subjugation continued- laws like the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 and the India Forest Act of 1927 are still in force. The pattern of industrialisation reinforced processes introduced by the British, the same laws were retained post 1947 while ensuring that “development” was achieved via internal colonialisation.

The extent of the colonisation of the forests can be discerned from the following statistics:

Export of wood and forest produce was worth Rs. 4,459 crores, about 15% of the total exports from India in 2000-01 from Rs 95 crores in 1960-61. This is despite the fact that the area under forests has continued to shrink from 40% in 1854 to 22% in 1952 to 10% in the 1980s. The revenue from forest lands rose from Rs 24 crores to Rs. 472 crores in 1980-81.

The count of people displaced from the projects like dams, mines and industries ranges between 20 to 30 million. Almost half of these displaced persons are adivasis. They are only 8 percent of total population of India, but constitute 40% of displaced persons. If we add the numbers of displaced persons after 1990, this would go to 50%.

The Forest Policy of 1988, however, brought about some welcome changes to the country’s approach to the issue, and to some extent reflected the aspirations of popular movements. It introduced elements of conservation- replacing monoculture cultivation with mixed forests- the World Bank funded Pine project in Bastar had by then proved how disastrous monoculture cultivation- specially of pine, can be.

While adivasis continue to be displaced for ostensibly nationalist projects like construction of dams, reserved forests, sanctuaries and national parks are being seen as the new destination for eco- tourists- that is the new mantra of the international aid agencies, governments, environmental lobbyists and agencies like the World Wildlife Fund.

Recent years have also seen the rise of the fashionable “environmentalism of the rich” within India, which is not unlinked to the Western nations’ invocation of conservation- countries that had achieved a degree of progress by destroying the ecology now demanded that the victim countries now help conserve it to save the world from global warming, while evading the question of compensation.

It is also being pushed by a conglomeration of ex- maharajas, ex- shikaris, tourists and other privileged sections.

It is a paradox that while adivasis are being driven out from their habitats, tourist activities are being promoted. The adivasis are being blamed for “encroaching” on their own lands.

A report last year in Down to Earth magazine pointed out:

Tourism is flourishing in Ranthambore, with hotels mushrooming around the tiger in its reserve. Till the mid-1990s, there were just over 10 hotels in and around the forests of the reserve and in the town of Sawai Madhopur some 12 kilometres (km) from the gate of the national park. Now there are 33, of which 26 are prominent. Six new hotels are under construction. Average room rents vary between Rs 400 a night to a staggering Rs 30,000 for a night of ultra-deluxe luxury in the midst of the wild tigers.

Lack of regulation has meant that many hotels have come up on agricultural or charagah (grazing) land, within a 500-metre radius of the park boundary. “The demand for new hotels has led to the sky-rocketing of land prices,” says a local hotelier. Along the Ranthambore road, land prices have gone up from Rs 1.25 lakh to Rs 1.5 lakh per hectare (ha) 10 years back to anywhere from Rs 30 lakh to Rs 40 lakh per ha today, depending on the proximity to the park entrance. “Due to the high prices villagers prefer to sell the land near the park,” says Hemraj Meena, a guide at the tiger reserve.

Among those who own houses and hotels near the (Ranthambore) park are Valmik Thapar, well-known conservationist and member of the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee, and his relatives, and Fateh Singh Rathore, former field director of Ranthambore and now vice-chairman of Tiger Watch, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), and his family. These properties are within 500 meters of the forest boundary. “Hotel Sher Bagh located at a distance of 104 meters from the forest boundary is run by Jaisal Singh, Thapar’s nephew,” says Chandu Sharma, a local journalist. “Sher Bagh is a deluxe tented camp owned by Valmik Thapar’s family,” confirms wildlifeworldwide.com.

The stark truth brought about by the report is: People who direct conservation policies profit from the regulations that promote tourism and park management.

This is just the continuation of the so- called “Panchsheel policy” established during Jawaharlal Nehru’s time. Nehru had himself stated while addressing villagers who were being displaced by the Hirakund dam:

If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country.

Mrs Indira Gandhi wrote in the same vein to Baba Amte in a letter dated 30 August 1984:

I am most unhappy that development projects displace tribal people from their habitat, especially as project authorities do not always take care to properly rehabilitate the affected population. But sometimes there is no alternative and we have to go ahead in the larger interests.

The end of the story has remained the same: whether it is the development of the nation or conservation of the environment, the “somebody” who has to pay the price is the adivasi.

Ishwar Singh Dost is a long time activist, researcher and journalist. His paper “Forests, Adivasi Rights and the State” is due for publication in a book edited by Prof. A.V. Afonso

Picture Acknowledgements

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