The cross seems heavy to bear


A hyper modern museum space (Astrup Fearnley) right on the old harbour in Oslo. The landscape continues to change with high intensity construction activity.

In Oct – Nov, 2016 I spent six weeks in Scandinavia (Norway mostly) and in countries of Western Europe. This was to be my roving introduction to the region. To a traveler, the time he visits always appear as an interesting time. Likewise with me! It was to do with Brexit, immigration crisis and the rise of nationalistic fervour above the super-nationalistic identity that EU tried to drive in all these decades.

In Norway, the human-nature relationship is said to be special (vs. other part of the world). The fact that Norwegians enjoy a very high standard of living and at the same time have managed to achieve a high degree of environmental conservation is always foregrounded in discussions. Norwegian values and its landscapes are also said to be a part of the inspiration that led Arne Naess to articulate his ideas in deep ecology. This meant that while I moved around Oslo and its suburbs, I was quite consciously looking for evidence of such a relationship. Oslo’s high number of electric cars and ubiquitous charging pods for these cars for sure was one. However, I wanted to know what kind of discourse on environment, nature and human relationship went on here. This is what I was after. And then perhaps, having identified it, contrast it with the Asian context. Is it some kind of enlightened thinking going on in other parts of the world that is amiss in the Asians or Indians in particular?

The intent is to talk of environmental thinking and the contemporary discourse on environment. Climate change negotiations at those high profile and widely televised COP meetings to me smack of a doublethink on the OECD nations’ part. It seems unfair ( coming from a region which loves ending its sentences with “… in all fairness.” & “To be fair…”) that the burden of environmental concern and therefore reduction in carbon footprint should fall on countries in Asia, primarily India and China.

To complete this twisted picture of an environmental values of the OECD countries, we have the activists in Indian metropolitan cities whose action and thought go as far as the city’s parks and town halls where they can either light candles or hold placards or arrange public talks against the latest proposed infrastructure ( a steel flyover lately, in Bengaluru). It appears incomplete – their variety of action.

The Cross Seems Heavy to Bear

There appears to be an undue burden placed on an average man on the streets of India, to think about environmental impact and the impending crises. What is she to do about it? Everyone seems to have a prescription. But is that practicable or should the action start with an individual first (followed by systemic measures) is a question which needs a thought. This has been a continuing frustration with the arguments and reasoning that the activists and some of the policy makers push forth.

An ecological consciousness which drives conduct from a mere instrumental relationship to a blend of altruistic and instrumental behaviour with nature has undergone a re-discovery in twenty-first century. India seemed to have locked up its ecological consciousness away in a chest which would later on be broken into by recurrent environmental crises – year on year drought, floods, loss of soil fertility etc. During the decades of Nehruvian push towards modernization of India through its modern ‘temples’ – industries, damns, power plants etc, ecology formed neither a consideration in public policy nor in scientific planning a worthy factor. Note that it was the modern Indian state making that decision. The citizenry followed along – some gained from the benefits that the projects had to offer, some who stood in the path of the big projects were relocated and some others found careers of a lifetime in those enterprises. What agency if any could have an individual exercised if she felt not in favour of these large projects of modernization?

Also, this was well within the paradigm of the times, wherein the countries of the West took the same path to development – by dispensing with considerations of ecological impact and pushing up the exploitation of natural resources to the advancement as well as fulfillment of human needs. Soon enough, the impacts of ecological recklessness were to be felt across countries, with each one facing consequences proportionate to their extent of exploitation. The cross of environmental degradation and resultant loss seems heavy to bear. What are the options then, that a way back to an ecologically sustainable way of life can be found? With whom and where must it start from?

A look at the current ecological discourse shows a resurgence of themes like ecological processes and their relationship with development. This was identified by thinkers like Arne Naess, Rachel Carson, E F Schumacher and within India, by Gandhi with his ideas of sustainability and self-reliance. Besides these, anthropologists have written about man and nature relationship in earlier societies which embodied this form of behaviour.[1] Among these, an idea which perhaps hold potential to provide a philosophical foundation to the thought on way ahead is Naess’ exhortation for an ‘enlargement of the ego-self to eco-self’. This, he argued, might result in environmentally responsible behaviour as a form of self-interest. While Naess’ gaze appears to be directed at the individual, I argue that the same thought must be first applied to nations and their governments. It is with the state’s apparatus which should move towards an eco-self – an ‘eco-self of the state’. A state’s eco-self is a better suited site of action than an individual who as a citizen may not have the same influence and power to negotiate with the state vis-à-vis other citizens. Partha Chatterjee’s distinction of the civil society and political society identifies this differential power equation and how the state deals with the two groups in accordance with their status.

The climate change negotiations at the Climate Change summits are unlikely to work with technological and monetary interventions which are forever sharpened as though someday it would reach a state of perfection where the inter-nation differences over environmental impact and conservation would suddenly cease to exist. It needs a combination of these approaches with a direction for governments which face the crisis of venturing forth into imagining an ecological-self that does not call upon them to sacrifice their lifestyles and neither impinges on their future desires of consumption, material comfort and aspiration. This is the real challenge that domestic as well as global public policy is set against. These might manifest as conflict of interests, however, the underlying cause is a deadlock in being able to think about how one might conceptualize a path which lessens the human impact on environment and at the same time makes the inevitable cross a bit easier to bear.

[1] See Martinez Alier on Environmentalism of the Poor, Jared Diamond on collapse of societies and Rev John Malthus on overpopulation.

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.

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.