The Middle Path to Development: Lessons from Bhutan’s environment policy

Paro valley as seen from Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan

Paro valley as seen from Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan

If there is a place which can make a traveler feel intimate with it in the shortest time since her arrival, Paro would be it. A gushing river of clear water and a fort marks the entrance to the town. The air is an invitation to inhale deep and a reminder that this is not usual for a traveler from any other part of the world – to breathe deep! Two main thoroughfares encompass the town- its houses, shops, parks and public spaces. Sitting on a ledge at the Taktsang Monastery waiting for the monastery to re-open after lunch break, a chance conversation with an officer of Bhutan’s Forest Services served as the early hints of ‘the middle path’. The place couldn’t have been any more momentous. The ‘middle path’ in Buddhism is described as the path of moderation. To Buddhists, it signifies a path of wisdom which strikes a balance between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. The Middle Path is also how the environmental policy of Bhutan articulates the way forward.
High in these mountains of Eastern Himalayas, the remarkability lies in the relationship between the people and environment. Does it hit the sweet spot of ‘sustainability’? Not quite. Yet, there is something of great value that the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan offers in thinking about the environment. The National Environment Commission of Bhutan was born in this town after the 1990 Paro Workshop on Environment and Sustainable Development. The NEC’s responsibility was to draw up a ‘national strategy to ensure that environmental concerns become an integral part of the development agenda’. The ultimate goal of the National Environment Strategy (NES), a report of the Commission explains, is to ‘minimise or mitigate the impacts that are likely to result from the development process’. This is where Bhutan’s remarkability lies. The NES, which is a policy document, articulates, with remarkable honesty, the kind of challenge the country is likely to face in the future.
The following quotes from the NES document of 1998 illustrate the environmental potential of a political system. Formally, this system is a constitutional monarchy currently, although at the time NES document of 1998 was written Bhutan was a monarchy. The democratic reforms are of very recent origin. The members of the National Assembly have mandated the country to maintain a forest cover of more than 60% (National Forest Policy, 1974) at all times. Forest cover stands at more than 72.5% of the country. The document on NES, 1998 states,

The Middle Path-National Environment Strategy for Bhutan aims to highlight issues, potential problems and constraints, and choices that our country has to make in order to ensure the conservation of our natural resources while pursuing economic development.

There is a certain kind of policy thinking that this statement reflects – one in which problems are articulated and acknowledged in the barest form of honesty. Problem recognition in policy making is regarded as the first step towards effective policy making. Further, examine the questions that the NES, 1998 posits to itself and seeks to remedy,

Can we adopt modern development while still maintaining our traditional values?
Can we accept the need to develop industries, social infrastructure and markets, while still recognising that development is not material development alone, but the enhancement of knowledge, spiritual and cultural development? Can we maintain our traditional values and sustainable livelihoods in a changing global environment? Can we raise the living standards of the present population without compromising the country’s cultural integrity, historical heritage or the quality of life for future generations?

These questions reflect a searching intent in the policy thinking of Bhutan’s political system. Another instance is use of the word ‘spiritual’ in a policy document which stands at odds with the positivist and objective traditions of policy science. This is the variety of progressiveness which is yet to be seen as a norm in policy thinking. The intent of this piece has been to highlight how political systems do hold potential for environmental consciousness and factor in sustainability in their development process. Does Bhutan have these answers? Why don’t we see political contestations in Bhutan over different interests as one might see in India? Ethnic homogeneity in the Bhutanese society seems to be advantageous on this front. In addition to it, democracy is nascent in Bhutan and this perhaps explains the absence of dissenting voices.

In 2012, Bhutan announced its decision to become a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The country has been known as a model for proactive conservation initiatives and has received international acclaim for its commitment to its biodiversity. This is a testimony to the fact that Bhutan’s policy thinking is in a direction that other countries can take a leaf from.

Holy cow, armchair anthropology & attraction of the ‘exotic’

Cows_JamuiA paper I recently read and which I had never known about (although some argue that it has been one of the most well known papers on culture & ecology) amazes me in its method and for the art of stating the obvious.

Marvin Harris’ paper The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle ‘attempts’ to talks of the ecological role of bovine cattle in India. (JSTOR link, gated & I don’t like these folks anymore for the world lost a brilliant young man, Aaron Scwartz, due to their deathly lawsuit.)  By his own admission he bases his argument on’ intensive reading’ and that he has ‘never seen a sacred cow, nor been to India’. This is amazing! Such erudition that he exhibits in the successive pages of the article are all based on having not seen the subject of his article at all. Leave alone that the reference ‘sacred cow’ itself is laughable if you were to ask an Indian. Cows in the hindu belief are sacred aren’t referred to as sacred cow. That which he attempts to do i.e. an ethnographic account is logic defying, for his language itself exudes ignorance of the place and relevance of cows – a) for Hindus and b) in India .

Numbers on cattle production, fodder consumption, efficiency variables etc are relatively easy to access, easier to crunch and layer interpretation on them. So the ecological arguments of the paper form the information bulk. But the rest is banal and not quite about the ‘puzzling inconsistencies’ that he thinks it is. So, the fact that the author has not seen, leave alone experience the sight of watching cows in Indian setting, his subject makes this paper’s assertions very thin. I have a serious problem with this. The second problem is that why on earth is this sort of stuff a part of sociology readings particularly in graduate programs in India. I do not quite care about outside India because some of it can be informative for others to know and that the paper comes out of the western institutions which have encouraged such armchair anthropology in the first place.

He writes,

“Mismanagement of India’s agricultural resources as a result of the Hindu doctrine of ahimsa  especially as it applies to beef cattle, is frequently noted by Indianists and others concerned with the relation between values and behavior. Although different anti-rational, dysfunctional and inutile aspects of the cattle complex are stressed by different authors, many agree that ahimsa is a prime example of how men will diminish their material welfare to obtain spiritual satisfaction in obedience to nonrational or frankly irrational belief.”

With this he identifies the tensions between beliefs and rational thought that characterizes a society’s relationship with production systems. When ecology is seen as a relationship between man and environment mediated by culture, the dynamics of resource use and inter dependencies become evident. The idea of “ahimsa” and cow as a sacred animal evolve from Rig Veda, a Hindu religious text. The practice of not killing cows irrespective of their utility as a resource that is practiced by Hindus then becomes irrational yet necessary as a religious practice. Harris argues that it is not as irrational as it appears. There is a logical sense in such a practice. I admit that such a reasoning is valid and his argument that culture too has a logic and reason behind it. It isn’t quite exotic and strange as it may seem to an outsider. The underlying thought that ideas – how they are formed and how they evolve, have much to do with the way relationships are framed and perceived is a reasonable one.

But, Harris’ opinion that “ahimsa” is an example of how men will diminish their material welfare may not necessarily be subscribed to (and I feel strongly about the haste in coming to this conclusion) because:

  1. Teleologically speaking, material well-being is not how many societies (including the Hindu) see their ultimate goal in life.
  2. The role of cow in the Indian belief system and in the agricultural production system is more complex than the simplistic, instrumental relation that Harris’ frames it as. I mean, he really ought to have traveled to India and experienced a city road with stray cows, a rural farm life, a town life with many well employed families still maintaining a cow shed and things like that. That would sure have made a deeper and richer study. For instance, much of what he says about cows utility Indian children grow up seeing it all around. And consequently they too are able to reason out the utility value of cows and much more than what his paper tries to illuminate. I remember my Grandma explaining me the practices and all that she would do to maintain her stock of 4 cows. It ain’t rocket science, it is deeply rooted in cultural practices which we sure understand better by the mere fact that we are a part of it and live within it.

Flight Plan: Lessons from Insects , Cafe Scientifique Bangalore, Talk-2

Cafe Scientifique Bangalore is a new venture by a group of researchers in the city. This evening, I attended the second talk since its beginning. It aims to be a hub bridging science and public perception in its own small way of facilitating public lectures and discussions by scientists/researchers from a wide range of disciplines.

Sanjay Sane presenting on Insect Behaviour at #csblr, NCBS, Bangalore

Sanjay Sane presenting on Insect Behaviour at #csblr, NCBS, Bangalore

Sanjay Sane, a researcher at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore presented his work on studying insect behaviour and their flight in particular. I was fascinated by the extent to which this simple question of how do insects fly has been explored by his team and other scientists worldwide. Cafe Scientifique as a venture sure appears to be serving a purpose to a generalist like me who is pursuing an arts program and has lost touch with whatever little biology that was done in undergraduate degree. I was particularly happy to see a 12/13 year old kid putting up a question to Sanjay.

I tweeted some of the questions & ideas that he talked about. Here is a storify collection of them.

Storify page for tweets from #csblr

Storify page for tweets from #csblr

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.