Thursday, 9 March 2017

Let’s Be Honest About Genetically Modified Crops

More than twenty years after they were first introduced, genetically modified (GM) crops are reported to be grown on approximately 3.7% of the world's total agricultural land, by less than 1% of the world's farmers[i]. In India, only GM cotton (commonly known as Bt cotton) is allowed to be grown for commercial cultivation, whereas several GM food crop trials have been under way for a few years. That these genetically modified food crops are being trialled at all is opposed on agricultural, environmental and economic grounds, and that they should move beyond trials and into widespread cultivation is being proposed, often by citing food security and climate change reasons.
Photo Credit Rahul Goswami
Photo Credit Rahul Goswami
To understand whether GM seed and food should be permitted in India, it is important to understand what GM technology is. Simply put, a GM seed is the result of a laboratory process where genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially forced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans. In other words, genetic modification brings about alterations in genetic makeup and in the properties of the organism developed. The World Health Organization defines a GM organism (GMO) as one "in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally". In simple language, genetic engineers tinker with and recombine genes of completely unrelated species in the laboratory, creating new DNA not found in nature, and therefore new organisms that would not be found in nature.
This is one aspect of the idea of an unnatural organism that leads to a most fundamental question. Are food crops derived from such a method safe for human (or animal) consumption?

There are two ways to seek answers. One is to consider the more deleterious effects of any sort of progress against a time-line of that progress - while individual mobility (the automobile) may be considered a boon the effects of many people practicing such mobility is not (urban traffic, the rise of suburbia, pollution, increased and unsustainable use of raw material, wastefulness, etc.), while some modern drugs may help us deal with certain diseases (tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, etc.) the unregulated and profit-maximising tendencies of the pharmaceutical industry has pushed many families into debt and has contributed to weakening human immune responses.

Thus there is for every kind of progress a blowback, which may be technical, economic, environmental or combination of these. With some kinds of progress, we now have time-lines several generations long to examine, such as with automobiles and medicinal drugs. With others, we have a very much shorter time-line to examine. GM is one such, and it’s already short time-line is full of high promise but questionable practice.
Because of its short existence as an idea and as a still very limited practice (GM seed and food are outlawed in 15 countries of the European Union)[ii] it is always only ever experimental. And for that reason the strenuous attempts of the bio-technology, industrial agriculture and commercial seed industries worldwide to have it called 'safe' have failed scientific scrutiny and have also failed public trust. For example, more than 15 years ago in 2001 a report from an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada said it was "scientifically unjustifiable" to presume that GM foods are safe.[iii] What irked the examiners was the outright assertion that GM is safe - little has changed since. A year later in 2002 a report by the UK's Royal Society said that genetic modification "could lead to unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional state of foods," and recommended that potential health effects of GM foods be rigorously researched before being fed to pregnant or breast-feeding women, elderly people, those suffering from chronic disease, and babies.

At the time, such cautions were both necessary and widely considered necessary. When conscientious scientists like geneticist David Suzuki, said, "Any politician or scientist who tells you these products are safe is either very stupid or lying", it was considered vindication of the need for caution. Contrast that view, no more than 15 years ago, with the opposition to any caution today when those who advocate it are called anti-science and Luddites.

Notwithstanding the efforts of the biotech industry, the commercial seed industry and the retail food industry to paint GM seed and crop as the answer to all problems existing and to come, opposition to GM and GE (genetically engineered seed and crop) continued to grow, with farmers' groups, leading scientists and civil society all calling for at least abundant caution if not a moratorium or ban. In view of the diversity of opinion on GM and GE seed and crop, the Government of India constituted a Parliamentary Standing Committee on GM crops in 2011-12[iv]. After a lengthy and exhaustive process that gathered evidence of practice from cultivators, from experts, from the public and from stakeholder groups, the Committee issued its report, which was hard-hitting and damning in a way few Parliamentary reports are.
That the present government was a part of this report - a landmark in the use of checks and balances by our democratic system of governance - is now overlooked and ignored. The report noted abuses in conducting adequate safety trials, the grossly inadequate and antiquated regulatory mechanism for assessment and approval of transgenics in food crops, the serious conflict of interest of various stakeholders involved in the regulatory mechanism, the total lack of post-commercialization monitoring of GM crops. It also cautioned the Union Government on the effects of GM crops on agricultural exports when considering whether to approve them. The report observed that cultivating GM crops leads to contamination and presents an inherent risk for farmers and Indian agriculture, and that contamination by GM crops can lead to countries banning imports of Indian agricultural produce. Given the growing demand for chemical-free, pesticide-free food worldwide, the risk of contamination by GM seed and crop of traditional and hybrid crop staples is one of the several risks that this technology carries and which our country cannot afford.

Considering the flaws and shortcomings noted by the Committee and the still unclear ramifications of transgenic crops on bio-diversity, environment, human and livestock health and sustainability, the Committee demanded that the ongoing field trials in all states be discontinued. The members of the Standing Committee on Agriculture, across political parties, were unanimous in their report. The report stands as a comprehensive indictment - and indeed a signal authoritative rebuttal to the claims of the GM/GE/biotech industry and its attempts to wrest control of India's food grain and commercial crops production. That such a comprehensive report is, a scant few years after its release, not even referred to by either Union government, state governments or the food and commercial crops industry speaks volumes about transparency and information, both prerequisites in a democratic system.

Besides, three more high-level reports advising against the adoption of these crops in India have likewise been ignored. These are the 'Jairam Ramesh Report' of February 2010 - which set a new standard for public consultation on an ecological and ethical issue - that imposed an indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal; the 'Sopory Committee Report' set up by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, of August 2012, on the attempt to develop through GM means a variety of desi cotton and which exposed both scientific deception and regulatory oversight; the Supreme Court of India's Technical Expert Committee which was formed for the Aruna Rodrigues petition concerning GM field trials, whose final report released in July 2013 has recommendations that are yet to be acted on by our regulatory agencies.

The Technical Expert Committee, in its interim report (of October 2012) had favoured abundant caution on the matter of biological safety and genetically engineered seeds and crops. It had recommended a ten-year moratorium on field trials of GM food crops. There was then and remains a very good reason for making such a recommendation: contamination of relative strains that are native to the crop growing region, by GM crops under trial, may be detected only after years, and such contamination is irreversible. For a country like India, which is a centre of origin for several food crops and oilseeds and a centre of biological diversity, the first responsibility is to protect this biological diversity from contamination.
The path of extreme caution has also been recommended to avoid the likelihood of serious ecological and health (human and animal) problems caused by the use of unnatural GM and GE seed and crop, as also to avoid economic stress to growers and the loss of seed sovereignty. As explained by Colin Todhunter[v], a push for genetically modified seeds is to sanction the exploiting of the farmer, in favour of profits for the commercial seed industry, and the ruin of traditional agriculture.
Among the benefits claimed by the adoption of GM technology in seed and crop is that of greater yield. This is an attractive inducement for farmers who would certainly like their half acre or acre of land to produce more weight in crop per square unit of land. Just as attractive is the claim that GM seeds require smaller applications of chemical fertiliser and pesticides, both of which are expensive. These assumptions however have crumbled under examination.
Data from the USA - a country that has grown GM crops for well over two decades - gives us a picture very different from the claims loudly made. In the most extensive and rigorous study, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analysed 20 years' returns and costs of GM crops, to conclude that contrary to myths about the superiority of GE crop yields, most yield gains in recent years are due to traditional breeding or improvements in other agricultural practices. UCS expert scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman unequivocally stated, "Traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down."[vi]

India's experience with Bt cotton has been tragic. A new study published by California-based agricultural scientists in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe directly links the suicides among Indian farmers (more than two lakh cumulatively, from the National Crime Records Bureau) to Bt cotton adoption in rain-fed farming areas, where most of India's cotton is grown. This appalling record has shown to the world how GM methods ruthlessly exercise patents to force farmers to buy costly seeds every year, sending their families into debt, how such crops have left behind degraded soil and polluted water bodies, and how desi cotton has all but disappeared from India, which is a starting setback to the revival of the khadi-based village and rural hubs intended.
The environmental soundness and health benefits of our traditional agricultural methods, free of chemicals and pesticides and based on our seed diversity, can enable India to choose diversified agro-ecological farming instead of the industrial, energy-intensive and monoculture-based mode that GM fully represents.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Hindu roots of modern ‘ecology’

One of the first lessons a student of ecology is taught is that this science is relatively new, that the term ‘ecology’ was only first defined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel. Among the sciences, it has become sought after from the latter half of the 20th century, largely due to widespread environmental degradation and pollution.
What the western discourse in general and the western academia and its textbooks in particular forget to inform us is that the roots of ecology lie in Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism and no other religion pays as much attention to environment and environmental ethics, and to the understanding of the role and value of nature. Hinduism is inherently an ecological religion.  It can quite easily be said that Hinduism is the world’s largest nature-based religion that recognises and seeks the Divine in nature and acknowledges everything as sacred. It views the earth as our Mother, and hence, advocates that it should not be exploited. A loss of this understanding that earth is our mother, or rather a deliberate ignorance of this, has resulted in the abuse, and the exploitation of the earth and its resources.
Centuries before the appearance of the likes of Greenpeace, World Environment Day, and what is known as the environmental movement, the shruti (Vedas, Upanishads) and smruti (Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, other scriptures) instructed us that the animals and plants found in the land of Bharatavarsha are sacred; that like humans, our fellow creatures, including plants have consciousness; and therefore all aspects of nature are to be revered. This understanding, care and reverence towards the environment is common to all Indic religious and spiritual systems: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Thus, there is ample evidence to show that the earliest messages of the importance of the environment and the need for ecological balance and harmony can be found in ancient Indic texts. After all the Upanishads say,”Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma“(everything is Brahman). Hinduism, thus, has always had a deep understanding of ecology and the relationship between man and nature.
While there is no formal environmental movement (inasmuch as it is defined by the West) in India, except in recent times, or no category of “environmentalism” in Hindu tradition, it is our Dharmic tradition that has helped sustain our ecology for centuries. Hinduism teaches us to worship the earth as our Divine Mother. In fact, a very conspicuous aspect of Hindu culture and tradition is the strong love and respect for nature. It honours the Earth as the mother goddess (Bhūmī-Devī) and promotes a worship of the rivers, streams, trees, mountain peaks, plants, animals, birds, forests, and every kind of flora and fauna. In the Atharva Veda’s “Hymn to the Earth “(Bhumi Suktha), the earth is adored and respected: “The Earth is our mother and we are all her children”. Our oldest texts, the Vedas, contain 1028 hymns, almost all of which are redolent with love for nature. The Vedic deities are connected with deep symbolism and have many layers of existence. One such association is with ecology. Thus, Surya is associated with the Sun, the source of heat and light that nourishes everyone; Indra is associated with rain, crops, and abundance; and Agni is the deity of fire and transformation and controls all changes. The Vedic hymns are filled with many simple, but universal messages, such as:
Plants are mothers and Goddesses. (Rig Veda Samhita x-97-4)
Trees are homes and mansions. (Rig Veda Samhita x-97-5)
Sacred grass has to be protected from man’s exploitation (Rig Veda Samhita vii-75-8)
Plants and waters are treasures for generations. (Rig Veda Samhita vii-70-4)
We invoke all supporting Earth on which trees, lords of forests, stand ever firm (Atharva Veda 12:1:27)
“Do not cut trees because they remove pollution.” (Rig Veda 6:48:17)
“One should not destroy the trees.” (Rig Veda Samhita vi-48-17)
The Western religions, especially the Christians viewed this nature worship as Paganism, failing to recognise the scientific and spiritual basis of the relationship between man and nature and how this is the only way to sustain ecological balance. While all ancient religions and cultures ascribed some powers and divinity to nature, with the birth of Christianity, this ended. Christians were made to turn all their love and adoration for nature towards their One and only God, who was a jealous God. The elements of nature, then became devoid of all divinity, and were left to be conquered by man.
Even today, Bharat is blessed with a rich biodiversity, because of the spiritual connectedness that Hindus have with nature. That there exists sthala vriksham shows that trees were intimately associated with spiritual tradition (In Sanskrit, sthala is a place, especially a sacred place, and vriksh is tree). Every temple is associated with a tree and every tree is associated with a deity and a story. The more well-known examples of sthala vriksham include the Kadamba at the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple in Madurai and the vanni tree (khejri in Hindi) at the Magudeshwara Temple at Kodumudi. The famous mango tree at the Ekambereshwara Temple at Kancheepuram is believed to be more than 3,000 years old! The presiding deity Shiva is worshipped as Prithivi Linga – earth linga. The four branches are said to represent the four Vedas. Some trees are sacred to the place and some to the individual deity.
Our ancient, majestic trees, some that are many centuries old are part of our rich ecological inheritance. Today, the sthala vriksham is considered the single genetic resource for the conservation of species diversity. Unlike the west, where trees are merely natural objects, India is filled with magnificent sacred trees: peepal, neem, bel, banyan, asoka, amla, arjuna to name, but a few –and most deities have their favourites. For Shiva, his favourites are Rudraksh and Bel, for Vishnu it is Peepal and tulsi, for Hanuman it is Mango. In fact, first came the tree and then the mandir. No ritual is complete without the leaf of a bilva, or neem or tulsi. The use of these leaves reminds us of our connection with the earth and the unity of man and nature.
Since, rituals are incomplete without trees and their flowers, leaves, and fruits, they had to be preserved and protected. So much importance was given to trees, that there was also Vrikshayurveda an ancient Sanskrit text on the science of plants and trees. Written by Acharya Surapala, around the 10th century, this is a complete manuscript for the management plants and trees. This starts with the glorification and praise for trees and tree planting, and provides details about management and care of seeds, plants and trees. It contains details from soil conservation, planting, sowing, treatment, propagating, how to deal with pests, diseases, etc. Further, the Vrikshayurveda is complete with details, such as when to plant, where to plant the sacred trees. For example, the bel and peepal should be planted to the west side of a dwelling, mango and amla to the south side.
Ancient India knew and understood the role of ecology, trees and forest in making life on this earth possible. In fact, tree planting and tree worship was not just confined to those involved in forest management. Tree worship was undertaken by all. The Banyan tree (ficus benghalensis), the most venerated of all trees, known as aal in Tamil, vat in Hindi and Nyagrodha in Sanskrit, got its name Banyan from the British, who observed that the merchants/traders (banias) carried out all their business under this tree – hence from Bania, they coined the word banyan. The Banyan tree is the kalpavriksh, the wish fulfilling tree. Likewise, this tree is sacred for the Jains. All through the Vedas , the Puranas, and in the Mahabharata, this tree finds mention and its planting considered auspicious. Nyagrodha also played important role in various Samskaras and ceremonies performed by the Hindus. A tradition that still holds good.
The Peepal tree or asvatta (ficus religiosa) has had a conspicuous position in the cultural landscape of Bharat for at least as long as there has been shruti and smruti. It was depicted even on the seals found at the sites of Mohenjodaro. Buddha found enlightenment under a Peepal tree (also bodhi or bo tree) born in a sacred grove, Lumbinivana that was full of sal trees. The love and respect for trees is as old as our ancient civilisation. Hence, trees like the venerable Peepal are amongst the most easily identifiable and recognisable all across Bharat, and can be found in almost every village. It is considered sacred as it is believed to be the dwelling place of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. The Atharva Veda (V.4.3) refers to the Peepal as the permanent seat of God.
On the other hand, the Abrahamic faiths in their scriptures like the Old Testament, for example, perceive man as the Supreme Being, the supreme species, who “rules all over other creatures”. In fact nature worship is so abhorred and derided by the Church, it is almost iniquitous to worship rivers, to revere mountains and trees as these are considered soulless objects to be conquered by man. The elements of nature are devoid of any form of divinity.
This is in complete contrast to the Hindu’s love, understanding and respect for nature, which shows that Hinduism understood the invaluable role of trees and forests in ecosystem services like purifying the air, hydrological services, as a provider of food and material, climate, rain, and soil.
In fact, in any reading of the Bible (both the old and new testaments), there is not a single reference to the earth being sacred, or being looked upon as mother-like or divine. Nature and all its elements are soulless and the only one, who is worthy of worship is the Abrahamic God. Unlike the Hindu, who nurtures a great sense of sanctity towards all elements of nature and perceives Divinity in the sky, in the water, in the fire, and in the snow-capped mountain peaks. All Indic traditions have respect for all forms of life and does not differentiate between the soul of man and that of an animal. Whereas the Christian belief is that nature is destructive and therefore has to be conquered, the Dharmic view propagates conservation of the nature and advices man to live in harmony with nature without indulging in exploitation.
For Hindus, nature is a manifestation of the Divine. Brahman exists as the innermost Self (Atman) of not only humans, but also of all forms and beings in nature. Hence, a large number of pilgrim centres in India, are the sacred rivers, mountains, trees, forests and groves themselves. Whether it is the Kailash Mansarovar, the Char Dham, the Gangotri in the north or the deep forests of Sabarimala, Hindus have continued to worship the elements of nature. This is in such contrast from the Abrahamic religions, where sacred spots are largely anthropomorphic that are linked to a human form – (Lourdes In France is a popular pilgrim site for Christians as Mother Mary appeared there, the Wailing Wall, the Temple Mount for Jews in Jerusalem, the Al Aqsa Mosque, etc.) – none of these religion associate spirituality for anything in its natural form.
Sacred groves were found in abundance in Bharat, which were protected by local communities and which goes to show that forest resources were precious. Our ancestors did not require any law to protect these groves, which, like the kavus of Kerala, are sacred places, where trees and plants were allowed to grow undisturbed and where reptiles, birds and animals could have free living without fear of poaching or interference by man. Such groves may be close to settlements, attached to households or near them, and usually have the serpent or Durga as deities. The existence of forests today in India can be credited to this practice, which still survives in India today.
Hindus strongly believe in the tenet vasudev kutumbakam (the world is one family) and hence, the divine is also seen in animals and are protected. The deification of animals, therefore, has led to the protection of many species of animal. Hinduism in its belief that all living creatures are subject to the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, never distinguishes between the soul of man and a soul of an animal. Apart from this, the recognition that every animal played a role in creating an ecological balance, allowed us to live in harmony with animals.
Animals are also vahanas or vehicles of the Gods and Goddesses and are equally worshipped as their riders.  Some vahanas were treated equal to their Gods, some were their companions and some friend! Garuda (Eagle) is the vehicle of Vishnu, the Bull that of Shiva, the mouse that of Ganapati. At times, the vahana is the only way to recognise the deity, which shows the closeness or connectedness between the divine and the animal. The Yajur Veda  (13.47) says service to animals leads to heaven: “No person should kill animals helpful to all and persons serving them obtains heaven.” According to the Atharva Veda (12.115), the earth was created for the enjoyment of not only human beings, but also for bipeds and quadrupeds, birds, animals and all other creatures. This reverence of animals and protection of forest allowed Bharat to be a land of great faunal and floral diversity.
The period of the Moghuls, followed by the British colonial rule saw a continuous period of large-scale hunting. The British arrival in India saw the decline of the wildlife population. Conferring no divine status on the tiger or any other wildlife, hunting was a favourite pastime of the Englishman. They indulged in reckless hunting and by 1947 the last cheetah in India was killed. According to Mahesh Rangarajan, researcher and historian, “over 80,000 tigers were slaughtered in 50 years from 1875 to 1925”. Tigers were considered ‘Villains of Indian Jungles’ and to follow the biblical injunction, man had to dominate over his natural environment. By the early 1950s the cheetah was declared extinct in India, the only large animal to have been declared extinct in our recorded history. Likewise, other animals like the tiger, leopard and lion were brought to near extinction.
That India today is home to 70% of the world’s tigers – our country has some 2,500 tigers in the wild – is because the tiger is considered divine, a vahana of the Durga and present in any form of Durga iconography. Tigers have been wiped out in Java and Sumatra, the great islands of Indonesia across which, the majestic big cat once roamed freely, for Indonesia was once Hindu.
Nothing better explains Hinduism approach to animals than this:
brahmane gavi hastini
suni caiva sva-pake ca
panditah sama-darsinah
Those who are wise and humble treat equally, the Brahmin, the cow, elephant, dog and dog-eater. (Bhagavad Gita 5.1)
Why does the Hindu psyche intuitively respect nature and all its forms?
The concept of karma, or the cosmic law of cause and effect, which is at the heart of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, demonstrates the interconnectedness or the web of life of humans, not just with other humans, but with non-humans too. Every action, however miniscule creates its own set of reactions, which then has a cascading effect. Today, under the principles of the Chaos Theory, the commonly known as the Butterfly Effect – where a creature as delicate as the butterfly, by flapping its wings, sets up a series of reactions, by first causing some changes in the atmosphere, can end up causing a storm. This is nothing, but the Hindu understanding of karma, that all actions are connected and are part of the universe and that our actions affect not just other humans, but also nature, of which we are a part. That even a small act can have great consequences is intuitive to every Hindu. It follows that every action we take has a planetary and cosmic effect – and this is what scientists today call ‘footprint’.
Today’s environmental crisis demands a response. The world is grappling to find solutions to multiple crises of the environment. Technology is considered the panacea. Global conventions on biodiversity and climate change are signed by 190-odd countries, earth summits keeps taking place, activism by international environmental NGOs is at its peak. But, it is very unlikely that the ecology would be saved by this Western approach, which is characterized by activism and relies solely on science and the scientific community. For ecology to be truly saved and revived, we have to return to the meanings and practices that infuse sacredness and reverence towards nature as in Hindu traditions, re-awaken our relationship with nature and not view religion and ecology as separate. For Hindus, the environment is not protected because of the selfish urgency to save biodiversity and hence save human future, but because it is the Dharmic way of life and hence a righteous duty that all humans are obliged to perform.


Danino, Michel. Indian Culture and India’s Future. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 2011.
Frawley, David. Hinduism: The Eternal Tradition (Sanatana Dharma). New Delhi: Voice of India, 2008.
Krishna, Nanditha, and M. Amirthalingam. Sacred Plants of India. Gurgaon: Penguin India, 2014.
Krishna, Nanditha. Sacred Animals of India. New Delhi: Penguin India, 2010.
Agrawal, D.P, Surapala’s Vrikshayurveda: an Introduction []

This article first appeared on IndiaFacts  on September 21, 2016

Friday, 4 December 2015

Ancient wisdom for a contemporary problem

World leaders gathered  in Paris, France, on 30 November 2015 for the fortnight-long deliberations on climate change. This is the COP-21, the Conference of Parties summit, called by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) whose responsibility it is to find ways that contain temperature rise.

The science is clear. For the first time in recorded history, climate change has been caused by human actions largely due to the increased level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuel whose origin coincided with the start of the industrial revolution around 1750. The advent of large scale industrialisation, deforestation, intensive commercial agriculture, changing food habits, increasing consumption patterns which are the characteristics of developed countries, all contribute to the deteriorating health of our planet.

This is what is now called the anthropogenic impact (and one of the popular terms for this era of climate change caused by human activities is 'anthropocene'). The terms describe planetary effects of collective action or behaviour. Such scales are often difficult to convey to households or even city and town wards. Yet at the local level it is individuals, households, communities and village panchayats which must also act responsibly so that environmental degradation is halted and for climate change to be addressed.

The problem appears too large and too daunting, more so for India, as it strives to meet its development challenges. Yet our government has announced an ambitious climate change action plan which will work only when citizens collaborate fully with government, at all levels. And if we want our government to be successful in its endeavour, citizens must find solutions because these exist. One of the strengths of our Indian society (in its many forms) is its ability to be sustainable, to use and re-use wisely, where values are placed on recycling, on conserving and protecting our trees and forests and existing in harmony with nature.

Earth science tells us (indeed earth systems scientists have been making this warning for at least a decade) that we must respond quickly to the climate crisis. While there are national and state-level responses and plans, there is equally a need for awareness and action at the most basic of local units: the household. It is here that following traditional values and tapping into our collective memory can make that difference - the lived stories and accounts of our grand-parents' generation are often enough to point out the way.

Consider the sacred botany of India, for such trees and plants are a part of our environmental heritage and of our cultural consciousness. Evidence of tree worship goes back to the Indus-Saraswati civilisation - these are seen on ancient seals with the peepal (ficus religiosa) being the most frequent. In the Vedas, trees are referred to as 'vansapati' (lord of the forest) and invoked as deities, just as rivers are invoked. The Vedas, the most ancient of all Hindu texts, pay tribute to nature and consider the earth as mother. Within the precincts of the home, however humble or grand, a tulsi plant is often present, cared for by the household.

Choice of food - not only what is consumed every day by the household but also what is cultivated - has a direct impact on the health of our local ecosystem and on the planet. In October 2015, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that the livestock industry accounts for 18.5% of the worldwide greenhouse gas emission, even more than the transport industry! According to the UN Environment Program (UNEP), cattle raised to provide animal protein is one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and is acutely energy intensive (the global meat industry is a disproportionate user of water and land resources). Here too, it is our traditional values that have prevailed for the vegetarian diet has proven to be the most ecologically sound (according to a UNEP study in 2012, Indians consume 12 grams of meat per person per day, very much under the world average of 115 grams). There is today a mass of evidence to show that a vegetarian diet is not only for the planet but good for health, and such a diet plays a positive role in the mitigation of the effects of climate change.

Even so, it is not enough to have an evening walk in the park nearby (if there is still one that the builders and property developers have spared) or a weekend with the family at a forest reserve. Everyday mindfulness is needed, for as many actions that can be recognised as helping re-green India. The difference is made at the level of the household - reducing and finally halting altogether the use of plastics, being sparing (whether it is monsoon season or not) with the use of water, consuming only what is needed and not making purchases based on the household's ability to store or its ability to pay in instalments. These are the ways in which every household can contribute.

While today we are wont to connect such behaviours and practices with relatively recent concepts and ideas that we have come to accept, such as sustainable development, the substance of such ideas was being considered and discussed in the decades preceding our Independence. In 1909 Sri Aurobindo wrote, "The mould is broken; we must remould in larger outlines and with a richer content". He was writing in the context of the need for an intellectual and cultural reawakening (this was over a century ago, and is needed as much now as it was then). Aurobindo was describing how the spirit and ideals of India has become confined to the old mould (imposed by colonialism) which had to be broken.

In the same way, it is useful to see that there are 'moulds' which India must protect and defend as a part of the inter-government and multi-lateral structures now concerned about climate change and the environment, but this does not mean we are not free to create larger and richer moulds that are better suited to describing the needs and imperatives of our polity. For this reason, while being cognisant of the measures used by inter-governmental political and scientific fora (such as the UNFCCC), we need also to step beyond the 'per capita', the 'energy intensity' and the 'emissions' group of concepts. This is especially important when considering what the average household, whether rural or urban, can contribute through its behaviour and practice.

We are not unused to dealing with several frames of reference at the same time. During the first efforts at central planning in India, in 1939 the sub-committee on Cottage Industries met at Wardha, Maharashtra. As documented by the historian Dharampal, Mohandas Gandhi is said to have consented to a programme of industrialisation, provided it was accompanied by an equal effort given to the promotion and extension of the cottage industry. It is of interest that at that time too, the question of what standard of living this was to help achieve was being discussed.

And so today we continue to speak, in the context of climate change and of our responsibilities, of what is an acceptable standard of living and what is not. We know that the primary sources of energy in India are what we call traditional (fuelwood, agricultural residue and animal dung) and commercial (fossil fuels and renewable - biogas, solar, wind and off-grid micro and mini hydroelectric). The percentage of poor households has been decreasing, but their number continues to rise and therefore the use of non-commercial biomass has also continued to rise - according to the 2011 census, 67% of households still cook using firewood, crop residues, cow dung cakes or coal.

This is among the truths about which we acknowledge that India is part of the problem. What has been somewhat obscured is that India has also been an active and constructive participant in the search for solutions, which the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) document submitted to the UNFCCC states unequivocally. Thus overall, when the per capita emissions of many developed countries vary between 7 to 15 metric tons, in India it is about 1.56 metric tons (in 2010). Likewise, the average annual energy consumption in India in 2011 was 0.6 tons of oil equivalent per capita as compared to global average of 1.88 tons per capita, while per capita annual electricity consumption stands at 917 kWh, which is about a third of the world's average. These ratios have been, in contemporary analysis of economics and energy, been linked to where on the Human Development Index our country lies, and where it must travel to.

Courtesy : Zenrainman
Just as there are simple, everyday actions based on traditional values possible (and practiced) at the household level, so too there are community and ward-level activities that contribute to lowering our collective harmful impacts on the environment and thereby lowering our carbon footprint. Our cities and towns are struggling with refuse, garbage and household waste. For large cities (with populations of 4 million and above) the daily waste produced is recorded as being upwards of 1,000 tons (for large metros the quantities are more than 4,000 tons). When such quantities are consigned to landfills, apart from endangering the health of those in nearby settlements, the methane adds to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (and methane is more potent than carbon).

Once again, the easy and time-tested solution lies in our memory of what was common practice. What is today called wet waste (the cut and inedible portions of vegetables and fruit), when supplemented with leaf litter and garden trimmings, with only a little care and attention transforms over time into rich and nourishing dark compost that when added to soil rejuvenates the fertility of land (or potted plants), dramatically increases the amount of water the soil can retain, and is indispensible for organic cultivation.

It is with such a holistic view that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (clean India campaign) and the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (organic farming campaign) have been conceived. By themselves these (and other initiatives that promote renewable energy at the community and household level) are effective but it is together that they become powerfully transformative. The climate crisis and the current state of our planet demands responses that go beyond technology and finance. A reorientation and a renewed consciousness is required, in every Indian household, which rest upon our ancient values and also employ the tools of the present.

This  article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of Yojana, published by GOI