Learning Farsi (1) – Nastaliq Style

Nastaliq style of writing farsi (persian). The line reads “bar akarin sayeat dakhil bastam”

I have been learning persian or farsi for over 3 weeks now. Today’s class is one of the high moments as I get to observe and appreciate the nastaliq style of writing persian. This aesthetically rich and elegant style has fascinated me since the time I saw it on the walls of old Indian monuments.

My persian teacher Shahin, wrote the first line of her poem for me in nastaliq style. I couldn’t help but start a persian thread here. The line in the image reads “Bar Akarin Sayeat Dakhil Bastam”. The story behind this is worth sharing. Early last month I was untying a metal rod from a fixture in the building foyer. This was supporting a string on which I had hung a series of posters from my field study. As I folded it up and untied the poles, this young lady who was an acquaintance until that moment happened to walk past and we exchanged smiles. She says, “to me it looks like you had tied a prayer on to that fixture which you now are untying.” In persian culture “dakhil” is an act of tying a piece of cloth with a prayer by a believer, who supplicates his God to fulfil his wish by doing this. In Hindu culture this is equivalent to a “mannat”. So, back to this conversation. This young lady in a flow speaks these words (in the pic) to me, saying what I was doing appeared to her like a “dakhil”.

This sets us talking persian culture, poetry, faith, Iran and the usual cascade of ideas that two people from different cultures would talk about in their first meet.

The line written in the image reads as “Bar Akarin Sayeat Dakhil Bastam” in persian. This is the first line of Shahin’s (my persian teacher. She blogs here) poem which means – the last time I saw you when you were leaving, I tied your receding shadow with a dakhil. The poet wishes that her love doesn’t leave her and as an act of desire she ties his shadow with a dakhil which to her is a sort of prayer that she wishes is fulfilled.

Persian poetry has always been so stirring to me, as much as their culture. As I get on this journey of learning this language, I can’t help but celebrate this richness.


Ecological context & identifying it


A lake in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh (Field study site)

This post examines the ecological context of a field study conducted in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh. I have written about it on the field notes page

In a preface to his booklet “Economy of Permanence” published in August 1945, J.C. Kumarappa refers to his work as a ‘positive outlook that will suit the genius of the people of our land’. This reference to Indian genius was perhaps a rare one. Our work in Kuppam has a strand of such positive frame of reference towards the people we chose to study and the society of which we became a part of for two weeks. Our enquiry into the life and work of hawkers was propelled with a curiosity to understand a form of livelihood which appears to be an intelligent combination of the resource opportunities that the region presents. By this we mean that the region is known for horticulture production, it is well located on a major national highway and on the main north-south rail link and that it is nearer to a big metropolis which generates a huge demand for fresh vegetables. All these factors are taken advantage of by this group of hawkers who have found an interesting opportunity in hawking vegetables to the commuter population on the trains that pass through this town. Also that this sort of trade has a very low barrier of entry in terms of upfront investment and licenses, thus making it a trade of choice for individuals who have been excluded from job opportunities for various reasons.

This paper examines such emergent pattern of livelihood which is not confined to this town we studied but is a common phenomenon across the country. Every region which has a rail route cutting through has hawkers of various sorts selling fresh vegetables, fruits and other natural products (like groundnuts, tender coconut) to the passengers travelling on the trains in the region. This implies that these livelihoods are set in a clear ecological context as much as they are political in nature. We explored the hawkers’ trade from a political context and social context. There wasn’t a well identified ecological framework within which we could have located the hawkers. The hypothesis of our work too doesn’t reflect an ecological context to the subject we explored.

However, during the field study and with the cumulative experience of observing the entire chain from production to selling of horticulture produce an interesting ecological context emerges. This context is not about the typical human-production system relationship alone. That could have been said even when the study was being thought about. The relationship here as we begin to understand is that of the ecological endowment functioning as an enabler of a rapid and remunerative form of livelihood with very low barrier to entry. As our field notes indicate, such an endowment apart from supporting the consumption demand of a nearby urban center (Bangalore) also helps to kickstart livelihood for individuals who have been otherwise void of opportunities in the regular market. For instance, we found that there was a higher number of single women (divorced, widowed) working as hawkers. These would either not venture out of town as migrant labourers to Bangalore or have ventured out and found living in the town much better than living in a big city like Bangalore. Apart from this, the hawkers earn a significant amount of money per month considering the average wages that they would have earned as a casual labourer.

In the admission that the study did not explore ecological aspect during the hypothesis formation state should not make one believe that the ecological relationship in hawking as a livelihood is being deliberately attempted. The admission is made with an intention to highlight how ecological relationships are not often evident in a system to begin with but on a rigorous exploration appears to be a major determinant of the dynamics of the system. For instance, if Kuppam town did not have such a significant production of horticulture it is unlikely that such a form of livelihood would have emerged.

The production system of the town appears to have been undergoing a shift from agricultural crops to horticulture. The state government’s agriculture department too has had a focus on promoting cultivation of fruits and vegetables. The town was a pilot site for implementation of a horticulture production experiment in early 1990s which gave encouraging results. Andhra Pradesh state government termed this experiment successful and this was known as the Kuppam model. This program is responsible for adoption of horticulture crops by the small farmers in the region. The duration of study was inadequate for us to figure out the current agriculture patterns and how has it impacted the region economically and socially. The town traditionally has been an agrarian one until the large scale quarrying of granite stone in the 1980s. Since then the labour force of the town is constituted of people working in stone quarrying-cutting industry and agriculture.

The form of production system observed in Kuppam appears to be a transient one and is likely to change again if the current agriculture labour force finds more remunerative job in the nearby cities or if the industrial zone on the outskirts of the town has more factories opening up. It is also interesting to see that the town and adjoining region does not have any surface water irrigation system servicing its irrigation needs. It is likely that much of the irrigational water use is supported by groundwater. This in the long run could impact the region’s groundwater level and even more if the scale of production increases from the current levels. We find that not only the hawkers but a larger number of people in the town itself are engaged in some form of agriculture related livelihood. We noticed that a majority of the vendors in the town market too were selling goods which originated or related to agriculture in some manner.

While agriculture forms one aspect of ecology, the landscapes and biodiversity of the town appeared to be homogeneous in its composition. Quarries and large stretches of eucalyptus plantations dot the landscape as one travels from Bangarapet to Kuppam and further down to Jolarpettai. It appears that people’s relationship with the environment is instrumental in nature.

This study exhibited human-nature relationship as it actually unfolds in a small town. It is revealing to note that ecology here is functioning as a leveller of economic inequality in terms of the livelihood opportunity that the hawkers did not have in the formal economy. This role already is a determinant in the welfare schemes that the state government extends to the farmers here, but a systems thinking applied from production to its various forms of use as well as the input resources that it consumes could help striking a balance in the human-nature relationship that we have understood to be purely instrumental.

Kikkli Kaleer Di : On cultural revival

A procession commemorating Dr Rakumar, a kannada filmstar in Bangalore

This is a hasty thought, as I listen to this latest bollywood song Kikkli Kaleer Di . This is from Punjabi folklore sung in jest (probably) by children who play this game of holding hands together and swirl around. Kikkli refers to the game and kaleer means ‘a little girl’. The next line goes as pag mere veer di meaning ‘the turban of my brother’. The song in the bollywood film changes this line but retains the lovely traditional flavour of the song. What surprises me is the manner in which this little song with a very specific regional identity comes back to people via the entertainment industry. It is very little known outside Punjab state and perhaps within Punjab too there would be differences in what people understand of it and regions where kids still play this game and sing this song.

Two observations fascinate me about this process:

1. Not all is wrong with the entertainment industry as an agent of cultural standardization: The belief that a standardization of experience and culture is happening in modern societies around the world including Indian society needs further exploration. It appears to be an impression not accounting for processes like this song which brings back diverse folk traditions – songs, dance forms, poems, costumes, etc back to the current times much in a sense of revival. How else would a specific regional folk song like this one be known to a listener in Bangalore? Many such instances from films can be drawn like this song Navrai Majhi from a recent film English Vinglish. This is a marathi folk song pulled out from the marathi heartland and presented in the film. It may not be complete or even retain its original flavour but it certainly succeeds in bring the forms of usage (words & thought) back into modern forms of use. So in a way, entertainment industry contributes to cultural revival. The manner in which it does so appears to be known yet not acknowledged. Isn’t this similar to how arts and culture flourished in the past as well? That there are centres and public forums which promoted and encouraged performances. In our times films is an institutional equivalent of such centres of performing arts of the old times. I’d like to think that way as it holds promise of a constructive exploration of emergent forms of cultural representation and how it contributes to our idea of modernity.

2.Films engineering social thought: This comes from a frame of reference that films reflect a certain possibility of how relationships, social set-up and context might look like. Also that often films are built on ideas or events that have already taken place within that society and these are reflected back as a film to the very same people. This makes an interesting process to examine as this mechanism is subtly shaping social behaviour. In that sense it would be worth exploring how the recent set of films in India have shaped behaviour as well as opinion. For instance, Chakravyuh a recent release, is based on the Maoist insurgency in the central states of India. It brings forth the oddity of State- people relationship and situations in which the oppressed end up taking arms and fight the State, which in their opinion has already taken sides with the market (elites?). Here is a failure of social contract which appears to have gone past resurrection unless the State undergoes a massive transformation in the way it sees the people. Now, this could get a little vague in direction. The engineering part in the film comes out as a non-direct position that the film takes on this issue. Similarly, the language and dance forms in the songs too tend to effect a mild change which in some cases ends up becoming a major force. For instance, the tamil number Why this kolaveri di. The language and construct of reasoning (if the content can be called as that) has permeated conduct of the younger lot in Tamil Nadu in curious ways.

While I find a meta-narrative to this obvious ‘films have a social impact’ sort of theory, I think it can be said that it would be hasty to reject films as just another source of entertainment which has had a rather ruining effect on Indian society. I sure do not subscribe to that school of thought or the critics in the ‘films have had a corrosive effect on the society’ camp.

Scientific Knowledge explored through Theory of Evolution

The following is a paper I wrote on the nature of scientific knowledge examined through Theory of Evolution. This was a paper developed as a part of a course in evolution that I signed up for this year. 

On nature of scientific knowledge

Theory of evolution from its formative stages to the current is a classic demonstration of how scientific knowledge tends to be tentative and a product of human inference, reasoning, imagination and creativity. Scientific knowledge in every age is embedded deeply in social and cultural ideas of that age. Hence, it is not surprising that quite often scientific reasoning and knowledge came in conflict with the prevalent ideas of the times it was proposed in. From Galileo to Hypatia and to late 20th century ‘monkey trial’, we see instances of science standing in direct conflict with religion. People’s ideas it is seen are often shaped by their religion and religious institutions. This was true to a great extent in the pre-modern times and is partially applicable in the 21st century as well, where we see some countries making it rather compulsory to devote equal time (and emphasis) in classroom teaching of evolution and religion.

The process of science and nature of science overlap with each other and are not clearly demarcated. Yet it is necessary to distinguish between the two.1 Scientific knowledge historically has undergone a shift from being absolute truth (Ptolemy, 323 B.C) to being progressive and perhaps in our times it has been liberal in many ways. However, it must be noted that being liberal and progressive is relative to a moment in time. When the moment changes the view undergoes a change too. This might be referred to as the inherent nature of scientific knowledge. Studies in evolution are often described with a pre-Darwinian and post-Darwinian reference. If anything, this indicates the impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution which for the first time proposed a most convincing explanation of evolution. The theories before that bore a characteristic human imagination and creativity which remained unconfirmed in nature. There are other characteristics of scientific knowledge as demonstrated by the theory of evolution, which this article proposes to discuss.

Lamarck and his ‘truths’

In his Zoological Philosophy, Lamarck theorizes that “environment affects the shape and organization of animals” based on his observations and reasoning of observed phenomenon. He then asserts that “Nothing of all this can be considered as a hypothesis or private opinion; on the contrary, they are truths which, in order to be made clear, only require attention and the observation of facts.” His hypothesis was that frequent use of any organ, when confirmed with habit, increases the functions of that organ, leads to its development and extinguishes the lesser used ones. In course of time this modification is passed on to the offspring of that organism. He explained this by citing long necks and limb size of giraffes. Taller necks he reasoned are due to an attempt by the animal to constantly reach out to foliage on taller trees. This reasoning when applied to other animals would have fallen inconsistent, but Lamarck takes a confirmed position on his observations and the reasoning derived thereof. The conviction that his observations are ‘truths’ stand thin on reasoning and logic (as any scientific method should have) and neither any empirical studies support his claim, yet he asserts them to be true. He also adds that to establish this one only requires attention and observation.

While several inconsistencies can be pointed out about the theory Lamarck formulated, we can do so only in retrospect. For the information about natural processes and systems available at that time his theory offered another way of reasoning.

Evolution’s age of reason – an intrepid explorer and a young voyager

Every successive theory that was proposed, to explain evolution appeared to have built upon the reasoning of the earlier. The newer theories either advanced the earlier thought, or disputed them and took an opposite position in offering a credible reason to the phenomenon. In addition to this, the rigour of observation, reasoning and confirmation of observed phenomenon by extremely large scale observations led to a more agreeable and logical explanation of evolution. For instance, Alfred Russel Wallace collected 126,000 specimens on a 8 year collecting trip to the Malay archipelago.

Scientific knowledge then can also be seen as a continuum of information and understanding that every age builds that the next age inherits. In his letter to Robert Hooke on February 5, 1675 Issac Newton wrote,

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

This affirms that prior body of knowledge, however satisfactory or unsatisfactory, accepted or contested, adds to the understanding of the problem under study. In a similar vein, Lamarck’s observations furthered the scientific knowledge on evolution.

Fifty years later, Alfred Russel Wallace, an intrepid explorer and naturalist wrote the following in his paper titled On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type:

“The life of wild animals is a struggle for existence. The full exertion of all their faculties and all their energies is required to preserve their own existence and provide for that of their infant offspring.”

With this Wallace was proposing a theory of evolution based on natural selection. This paper illustrates well, the manner in which natural selection as an explanation to evolution came to Wallace. At the time of writing this paper he was recovering from a bout of malaria in the Isle of Ternate, located in the Dutch East Indies. He recalled Malthus’s Principle of Population which talked about the effective agent in evolution of organic species. The idea of struggle for existence as suggested by Malthus’s work offered a seed to Wallace’s theory of natural selection.

Wallace refers to Malthus’s work in his memoir My Life: A record of events and opinions:

“I thought of [Malthus’s] clear exposition of the ‘positive checks to increase’ – disease, accidents, wars, famine – which keep down the population… It then occurred to me that the same causes, or their equivalents, are continually acting in the case of animals also… Why do some die and some live? And the answer came clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live… Then it suddenly flashed upon me, that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race…”

This reveals the gradual manner in which Wallace’s ideas about evolution took shape. The body of scientific knowledge that he built upon and was himself adding on to, in his case was extensive sampling studies on insects, birds, fishes and animals across the world.

Darwin started out as a young voyager, who undertook several expeditions across the world to study natural diversity and geographies. Darwin’s work on natural selection is a fine example of how scientific knowledge is built empirically and is rooted in firm scientific enquiry process. His works, exhibit a high degree of methodical observation and scientific process. Confirmation of observation by rigorous reasoning and more observation is evident in this fascinating paragraph from his book On the Origin of Species:

“When on board H.M.S Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seem to throw some light on the origin of species- that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837 that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years of work, I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions, which then seemed to me probable; from that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.”

Darwin by this time (1859) had already received Wallace’s paper and was surprised to realize that someone else has discovered the same theory that he has, years back. Darwin was working on gathering enough evidence for his theory of evolution by natural selection for over twenty years after having first formulated it on one of his voyages. The intensity of studies is also evident in his own submission that ‘I have not been hasty in coming to a decision’.

‘Survival of the fittest’ and ‘extinction of the unfit’

Wallace and Darwin, both discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time, and even co-published their findings together to the Linnaean Society of London in 1858. But later works suggest that there was a fundamental difference in the way Wallace and Darwin saw natural selection. While Darwin meant ‘survival of the fittest’, Wallace’s view was that natural selection operated by ‘weeding out the unfit at every stage of existence’.2

The intention of indicating this difference is to argue that scientific knowledge is rooted in facts yet can have numerous interpretations. On manner in which one interprets these facts rests further progress of the field of study. Interpretations can either make one believe in creation of diversity by God or a supernatural force. It could also make one see it as a logical consequence of interaction between organisms and the environment.

Scientific knowledge and gymnastics of reasoning

A highly contested part of Darwin’s theory in later years has been about human origins from a common ancestor. That man evolved from apes at one time was a preposterous reasoning. No amount of confirmed, systematic and rigorously built scientific knowledge could help this situation. And in some ways, it stands as a debate even in the present times. I cite two brief instances of this.

Human society makes a fascinating study in reasoning. When does reasonable become unreasonable and the unreasonable turn reasonable, is beyond any order or form. This is the tragedy of scientific knowledge too, that it has been subjected to myriad interpretations which are governed by the cultural or religious ideas of the times they are held in. While this may not be a problem as such, the hard lining views which lead to distortion of facts and in many cases a complete abhorrence of science has been very damaging. Therefore, restraint and certain caution must to be exercised with scientific knowledge.

Seven months after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, the famous 1860 Oxford Evolution Debate happened. The debate is best remembered today for a heated exchange in which Wilberforce supposedly asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.3 Huxley is said to have replied that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.4 The debate occurred after a presentation on intellectual development of Europe with relation to Darwin’s theory, that the progression of organisms is determined by law.

In another relatively recent case, commonly known as Scopes Monkey Trial, the conflicted nature and interpretation of scientific knowledge is well illustrated. Scientific knowledge built upon logical reasoning and rigorous observations, only intends to further mankind’s understanding of the world it lives in and operates. Yet, it has the potential to against the grain of religious institutions and belief systems. Scopes monkey trial was a case between The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes in 1925. Scopes, a school teacher was accused of teaching evolution in classroom, which was unlawful under the state’s law. The case was argued by a famous biblical scholar who also represented the public opinion that origin of man from apes is absolutely absurd. To argue the case for Scopes was a well-known lawyer and an atheist. The arguments went long and the judge apparently was compromised in his position as he was inclined with the church’s view. At all points in the trial, any evidence from scientists were overruled and prevented from being presented in the court. The trial ends in the judge being convinced that the act of teaching evolution in classroom may not be a sacrilege but nevertheless invites punishment. Scopes is awarded a small punishment by the way of paying a fine and let off. At the same time the public opinion though not formally changed nor attempted by the court, had fairly shifted to science and Darwin’s theory.


  1.  The Nature of Science and Instructional Practice: Making the Unnatural Natural, Abd-el_Khalick  et.al. http://dahsm.medschool.ucsf.edu/history/medical_tech_course/med_tech_pdf/khalicknature_of_science.pdf
  2. Alfred Russel Wallace and the elimination of the unfit www.ias.ac.in/jbiosci/jun2012/203.pdf
  3. 1860 Oxford evolution debate, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1860_Oxford_evolution_debate
  4. 1860 Oxford evolution debate, Wikipedia  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1860_Oxford_evoluion_debate

From Development Economics to Beat Generation

Here is an economist (and sociologist) describing his journey from economics (of the Chicago school) to immersing himself in the Kerouac-Ginsberg inspired Beat Generation. This in a way is amusing for the intense disillusion (or disgust?) that economic thought can bring about and how apparent outlandish, esoteric forms of literature serve as the final refuge. I am amazed at the distance between these two disciplines and the effortless travel that it is for the disenchanted!

Andre Gunder Frank was a prolific thinker and author. This excerpt is from his autobiographical piece and illustrates the journey of a development economist through the political-economic landscape of the world in 1950s. This is how he puts it (Source: The Underdevelopment of Development) :

In 1950, not knowing what I was letting myself in for, I started a Ph D in economics at the University of Chicago. I took Milton Friedman’s economic theory course and passed my PhD exams in economic theory and public finance with flying colors. Despite that, I received a letter from the Chicago Economics Department advising me to leave, because of my unsuitability or our incompatibility.

I went on to the University of Michigan and studied for a semester with Kenneth Boulding and Richard Musgrave. I wrote a paper on welfare economics for Boulding, which proved that it is impossible to separate efficiency in resource allocation from equity in income distribution. [Later Ian Little would become famous for doing the same thing. Now (Little 1982) also pontificates on Economic Development and dismisses my writings on the same as unpersuasive]. I took the paper, for which Boulding had given me an A+, back to Chicago to get at least an MA out of them. First they made me cut the heart of the argument out of my paper, and then they gave me a C for it. Then I dropped out altogether. I became a member of the beat generation at the Vesuvius cafe in San Francisco’s North Beach before Jack Keruac arrived there On the Road.

And there begins a beat generation Gunder Frank. This guy was too prolific and his works make tremendous sense. An official archive rests here.

Micro-managing the odds

Image Courtesy: The Hindu

Micro-managing the odds” an Op-Ed piece in The Hindu by Srikrishna Ayyangar a Professor in Politics at APU. It looks at the this year’s Magsaysay Award winner IVDP’s work and relates it to the larger political process in Tamil Nadu. It is simple and clear in argument. However, I do not quite agree with the idea that scaled-up organizations like IVDP actually participate or even effect political processes in any measure.

I think in that sense IVDP is an exception and the article too indicates this towards the end. The ‘scaled up’ organizations (like IVDP) do not stand up, in spite of having a fair degree of capability and social strength to do so as we have seen in our work in Tamil Nadu. They ensure that they are at a safe distance from the political dynamics and maintaining that distance they drive their agenda, whatever that may be- health, education, livelihood etc. It is only the activist, ‘people’s struggle’ sort of groups like PMANE who tend to take things head on. May be that this too is a generalization, but a fertile ground to explore how civil society-politics relationships can bring about positive social outcomes in an informed manner, not just as unintended consequences. In my experience, I have found larger NGOs (by this I mean NGOs with an annual budget of Rs 5 crore and upwards) only maintain a minimal interaction with the political end-points, just the amount that can let them go their way.

It will be a while before I can line up substantial observations towards this.

On Post-Colonial Politics in India & Development’s Refugees

One of the most satisfying moment for me lately has been about doing a field study and then returning to the desk to rigorously engage with the subject, in a way that the field observations actually test the theory. In this case, I return from an exploration of hawkers’ livelihoods to the political framework that Partha Chatterjee proposes – of a ‘civil society  and a ‘political society’ in a nation-state.

The following is a presentation which draws a theoretical parallel between Partha Chatterjee’s work and  our field observations.

Footloose Livelihoods: Living with hawkers of Kuppam

Our last field study on vegetable hawkers of Kuppam comes to a close with a presentation and a small poster exhibition that was put up in the university. This one shares the presentation that includes a synthesis of our observations, as well as some highlights as posters.

For a look at Field Notes from our field site read this and this.

And thanks to @alongarun and @praveenasridhar for working on the posters.


A view of the posters displayed in the university foyer

We had the following posters up as an exhibition to communicate the outcomes of our experience in Kuppam. And the process in itself was interesting, considering that Indian academia generally lacks a sense of effective communication and presentation of their studies. The review for this small exhibition ranged from ‘needless’, ‘overdone’ to ‘very good work’.

Field Notes from Kuppam- II


The field study on vegetable hawkers from Kuppam has been an interesting experience on several fronts. From a traveller who went a little beyond what he saw to an anthropology enthusiast who wanted to explore how Clifford Geertz’s ant’s eye view of development can be effectively employed in multi-layered study like this one, it has been a valuable experience.

The second set of field notes (first set here) reflect the sort of titration point that we reached in striking relationship with the hawkers. The rapidity that sets from day 5 onwards is a pattern that I have seen in our earlier works as well. A lesson that comes home again is that in field studies and investigations where several factors are not known or are uncertain, one must still persevere. It is important not to get disheartened or drop out of interest in the first week of a field study because the difficulties of the first days are the very same which at first look insurmountable challenge but later become a key theme in the study. And surviving that first week sets you free. For example, in our study it got very difficult for us to gain a sense of physical and social spread of the town we were living in. Adding to this was the fact that we did not know if there are a sizeable number of hawkers from this town. Both these unknowns in the later part of the study reveal themselves in a manner that it strengthens the study in terms of insights. Once this sets in the disjoint observations from earlier days suddenly start making sense and we have multiple layers of the entire study taking shape.

So, here is the second set with which we ended our study. Back in the university, we set up a small poster exhibition which highlights some parts of our study.

Studying Environmental Law in India

We had an interesting discussion this afternoon on approaches to study environmental law. We lead into this subject from ecology and development perspective. It does not examine environmental law as an area of practice in law but as an exploration of ecological, environmental issues from the legal perspective. The difference must be noted upfront.

In a recent study on vegetable hawkers on Indian railways, we explored the lives of the hawkers and examined how railways as a public space is contested for, by the hawkers and the Indian railways as the owner of the property. While the property is state owned, the rules assert the right to property in a manner that it excludes the interest of those who earn their living by hawking goods on the trains. Right to livelihood of the hawkers in this case is trumped by the right to property of the Indian railways. The Indian Railway Act of 1987 considers hawking of goods by any person other than licensed vendors on the trains illegal. And for the kind of goods sold by the hawkers in this case have no licenses to be applied for. This becomes a complex issue due to the layers of conflicts and interests involved.

Similarly, there are many issues in which legal aspects tend to become key determinants of finding or even attempting a reasonable solution or alternative. How does one approach the problem from the legal aspect? Environmental Law, Governance and Policy in India is a fairly wide field to study. For beginners in this area finding a coherent and structured approach becomes the first hurdle. This post outlines various ways to study environmental law.

What is law?

Some questions that today’s lecture raised are the following. These are likely to become separate posts in themselves as I go exploring this subject in the coming weeks. The question in many ways is central to the understanding, interpretation and practice of law because it is in the manner that we see it, that determines how we bring it to our use. For instance, if it is a means of social engineering then the emphasis on construction, outcomes and interests (of the state?) are bound to be critical. For instance, the government of India’s position on LGBT issues. So-

  • is law social engineering?
  • is it a command and must be followed?
  • is it a bridge to an imagined future? (this I find interesting for the way it is articulated)

Law as violence is another critical lens to explore its practice in India. What distinguishes law from other subjects is ‘violence’, says Abhayraj. This is an interesting way for the manner in which the contest of interest and space is interpreted in terms of violence. I remember reading a noted judge who considered a judge’s pronouncement too as an act of violence. It at some level affects the fate of a claimant in a manner that harms or violates his rightful interests.

Laws are derived from various aspects of human society and organization. An origin based exploration of law offers vital information about the development, progression and current practice of the law. Based on this, the ways in which environmental law can be explored are-

  1. Positive Law: This is about the standard ‘law in the books’ approach. It is often historical and narrative  in its examination of the law under study. For instance, when the Forest Rights Act, 2006 of India is can be examined from the traditional relationships that the people dwelling in them and dependent on them have enjoyed.
  2. Customary Law: Traditions and customs of society are another source of law. According to Hindu customs, a man and a woman are considered married only after they take seven rounds of a holy fire (called saptapati). The Hindu Marriage Act regards this custom as mandatory under the Hindu Marriages Act. Another interesting instance is the Constitution of Equador which gives the idea of “Mother Earth” a legal validity.
  3. Constitutional Law: The constitution of a nation guarantees fundamental rights to its citizens. These rights are a source of law, where the law ensures that such rights are safeguarded and ensured to every citizen. Similarly, the duties of a citizen that are listed in the constitution also make are a source of law. Such laws are called constitutional laws.
  4. International Law: Nations do not exist in isolation. Numerous essential relationships bind them together-trade, culture, traditions etc. These constitute international law. From an environmental perspective, consider rivers which flow through many countries like Nile and Ganges. The sharing of such a water resource involves trans-boundary co-operation and mutual agreement.
  5. Common Law: History and legal precedence are yet another source from which law derives itself. In some cases the courts take a certain position based on an earlier judgement given by the court. This legal precedence in this case is serving as the source of law for the new judgement. Such a source pertains to common law.

Environmental law in India has been a domain of common law, says another professor who has been studying pastoralism and common property resources for over three decades. Common law is the main vehicle for most environment related judgements in India. The dominant legitimizing language earlier has been that of egalitarianism. In contemporary India, it is essential to examine the kind of environmentalism that comes through by the way of courts and their judgements. For instance, Supreme Court constructs a dam by Shiv Visvanathan illustrates this point about how the Supreme Court envisions environment and the manner in which it articulates it.

There are two other themes in environmental law in India and the numerous cases of environmental degradation that have emerged:

That of ‘intergenerational equity’. This is the core argument in a paper by Amartya Sen titled Why we should preserve the spotted owl.

Precautionary Principle– this states that in cases where a clear understanding of the consequences of undertaking an activity is unknown, then that activity must not be undertaken.

Finally, as it appears most of the cases in environmental law in India tend to regard environment as a ‘resource’ and the arguments lean towards an instrumental utility of environment. Amartya Sen argues that environment need not be saved only because they are essential today or in the future but because we might also want to leave the freedom of experience and quality of environment to the next generation, as that which we are enjoying. This to me appears a powerful idea, but how do the courts reason this out in the wake of tremendous development challenges that India faces?