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

Saturday, 30 August 2014

By trashing the Gadgil report recommendations, did we just kill the Western Ghats?

Older than the Himalaya, the Western Ghats, 1,600 km long stretch, makes its way through 6 states. Its ecosystem plays a critical role in influencing the monsoon and weather patterns in the subcontinent. Known for its exceptionally high biodiversity and endemism, unique only to this part of the world, it is home to Tiger Reserves, National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries, and Reserved Forests. It is the source of thousands of medicinal plants. What makes the Western Ghats special is that while its total area is less than 6 % of the land area of India, the Western Ghats contains more than 30%  of all plant, fish, bird, and mammal species found in India. It contains genetic resources of numerous spices, grains and fruits. More importantly, the Ghats and its forests sustain the livelihoods of approximately 245 million people who live in the Indian states that receive most of their water supply from rivers originating in the region.

When Jairam Ramesh was the Minister for Environment and Forest, he commissioned renowned ecologist Madhav Gadgil to study the Western Ghats and offer recommendations for its conservation. The report, when ready, was neither shared and nor made public for over a year.

After PILs were filed, the Court ordered the MoEF to put the report in the public domain -  Gadgil called for the highest protection to the Ghats and marked the entire Ghats as eco sensitive. He classified the entire area into three zones, depending on how fragile it was. He also recommended a gradual phasing out of all existing mining activities over five years and no new licenses to be issued.

The then UPA Government squashed the report which was found to be inconvenient to the wants of industry. The Kerala government was the first to strongly oppose it claiming it is impractical and will come in the way of its “development”. Other states chanted the same mantra prompted by the mining and real estate lobbies.

Ramesh’s successor , Jayanti Natarajan, dismissed the report and sought a second opinion - that in itself was wrong and caused some amount of confusion .She commissioned  K Kasturirangan to do another study. When complete this study found that only 37% of the Western Ghats is eco-sensitive and that mining, construction, dam-building and other destructive activities can be allowed in the rest of the area of the Ghats. Kasturirangan diluted the Gadgil report to favour industry and appease the crony capitalists in all the states through which the Ghats and its spurs run. Till now no decision has been taken in favour of either report.

Madhav Gadgil is better placed than Kasturirangan to recommend to the MoEFCC about  protecting the Western Ghats - one is an ecologist who knows the Western Ghats better than anyone else, the other a scientist, and ex planning commission member.

Sadly the decision to reject the report was communicated on August 27 by the NDA government to the National Green Tribunal. Once again, the debate is cast as a split: if you support Gadgil, you are called anti-development, anti-growth, regressive etc. But the evidence has been gathering all along the Ghats for decades - in an era of climate instability, fast-changing monsoon patterns and the pressures of urbanisation and resource extraction, the destruction of the Western Ghats as is now being sanctioned by the BJP-led NDA government will dangerously affect the climate of peninsular India and further endanger the livelihoods and well-being of millions in the river basins whose streams originate in these lush hills.

Those who support full and non-negotiable protection of the entire Western Ghats are not idealists; they are amongst those Indians who keep our connection with nature current, a connection that goes back to the Vedas. It is capitalist forces and growth-obsessed policies that will, if unchecked, brutally destroy that relationship – a relationship that was celebrated in the hymns of the Rig Vedas.

It is in our long-term interest to protect every hillside and valley and stream of the Western Ghats and not open up the fragile region to senseless "development". If we do not, generations to come will pay a huge price.

This article first appeared in DNA on 29th August 2014

Friday, 1 August 2014

GM crops debate needs Swadeshi voice

By the end of the active stage of the ‘Green Revolution’, the result of the long campaign had been to take away from Bharat’s farmers their legitimate claims to being scientists, innovators, natural resource stewards, seed savers and hybridisation experts.

The agro-ecological farming systems of Bharat have been placed under modern threat from the time that the ‘Green Revolution’ was planned. This planning became manifest through the direct policy support given to the public finance and sanction given to the creation of ‘command areas’ which were fed by the water collected behind new large dams. But it also became manifest through the connections that were being created between our national agricultural research system and the West, in particular the agricultural universities of the USA.
That threat took form from the early 1960s, and one of its results was to lead a generation of crop scientists, agricultural administrators and State and Central Governments to accept ‘high yielding’ and ‘productivity’ and ‘hybrids’ as the only dimensions of the relationship between staple crops and the provision of food to Bharat’s people. These views were successfully marketed, thanks to sustained and continuous support by the Government machinery, to the consuming public, and even found place in school textbooks in all major languages. In this way, the idea that a ‘scientific’ approach to new ways of growing our staple crops was projected to our society as being the only modern way.
When this happened, for over a generation of younger citizens who became adults in the early 2000s, the idea that agriculture is equal to well-applied doses of science was one that went largely unquestioned. Meanwhile, the role of the kisan was deliberately diminished. By the end of the active stage of the ‘Green Revolution’, the result of the long campaign had been to take away from Bharat’s farmers their legitimate claims to being scientists, innovators, natural resource stewards, seed savers and hybridisation experts. Instead, they were reduced to becoming recipients of technical fixes and consumers of the poisonous products of a growing agricultural inputs industry.
It is against such a background – which is a chapter of the overall transformation of the cultivation of food in Bharat – that the opposition to genetically-modified crops and food is to be viewed. The steadfast opposition to this technology is grounded in the recognition that our country’s immense biodiversity of seeds, plants and life forms is our collective heritage, which has evolved through the cumulative innovations, adaptations and selections of many generations of indigenous farming communities, for whom these seeds and life forms are sacred.
When this position is understood, then the reason why genetically modified organisms – uncontrollable and irreversible when let into the agro-ecological environment – and their produce is so despised, becomes plain. It is not a matter of science alone, as the geneticists and their financiers claim, but has as much, if not more, to do with culture, independence and self-reliance. These are essential aspects of the GM discussion which the proponents and advocates cannot employ, because none of these aspects favours their position.
Articles such as ‘GM crops debate can do without Swadeshi paranoia’ (by Surajit Dasgupta in Niticentral, 30 July 2014) follow a pattern of advocacy. They treat technology of GM as being by itself the silver bullet that can solve all crop problems, they elevate GM scientists over all other science related to the practice of agriculture, they denigrate shamefully and belittle the farmer and her knowledge, they cast slurs on all those who are critical of GM and seek to discredit them by citing academic papers and other material that advocates GM. This is the pattern that we are seeing not only in Bharat, but wherever there is opposition to GM and to the policies that the technology depends on to enter a country.
The growing of our crop staples, of vegetables and fruit has to do with a great deal more than the adoption of a particular technology. On everything other than the need (always framed as urgent) to accept GM, the proponents and advocates of this technology can join no discussion, for that is the limit of their argument. For a generation, farmers’ groups and unions have been protesting the neglect that farm livelihoods have been subjected to. They have protested (and continue to) policy impacts that have caused the displacement of farmers in huge numbers because smallholder farming earns them nothing, or because their farms are swallowed up by racing urbanisation; they have been demanding a minimum living income as a guarantee to all farm households, which must be their due as food growers.
Who are they and what do they have? They have 85 per cent of the total holdings in Bharat (117.60 million marginal and small holdings of the total of 138.34 million) which account for 44.5 per cent of the land area under agriculture (71.15 million hectares of the total of 159.59 million hectares). It is this large section of our people, the providers of Bharat’s food on that 85 per cent of all farm holdings, whom we are accustomed to call ‘annadaata‘, that is represented by organisations like the Bhartiya Kisan Union, the largest farmers’ union in the country, which has opposed GM crops (and field trials) from the outset. “We are concerned about farm community’s and nation’s seed and food sovereignty which will certainly be eroded when GMOs are pursued as a technology,” was the BKU statement, which powerfully shows us why GM is a socio-economic, ecological and cultural question, none of which are subordinated to science.
This is what worries the growers of Bharat’s food. Technological and market fixes have not shortened this list of worries but have done the opposite. The subject for us is the growing of crop staples, or crop choice, the methods used to cultivate, the support that the ‘kisan’ finds, and the environmental and cultural links between crop grower and food consumer. When considering this multi-dimensional nature of food and farming, it is important to note (which the GM advocates and proponents omit) that conventional crop breeding continues to meet important challenges like improving drought tolerance, improving nitrogen fertiliser efficiency, and increasing yields according to the contexts of the different agro-ecological regions in our country. When we reached self-sufficiency in food staples, we did so by relying on crop breeding together with providing support (erratic as it was, prone to politically manipulation) to our ‘kisans’. Where then is the place for GM?
There is none. That is why proponents have resorted to quoting papers that are designed by institutions outside Bharat which have a great interest in facilitating the grabbing of Bharat’s genetic commons and bio-cultural heritage to be privatised and monopolised. The Bharat Beej Swaraj Manch had stated their opposition to GM most forcefully in a statement (released in New Delhi earlier this year): “We assert our sovereign rights to freely plant, use, reproduce, select, improve, adapt, save, share, exchange or sell our seeds – without restriction or hindrance – as we have done for past millennia.” GM has no place in this assertion, by a countrywide seed savers’ network, of the rights of kisans.
There is no place for GM under any of the scenarios presented by the proponents (climate change in particular). As an indication of our enormous agro-diversity, the National Gene Bank of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources has said that its base collections total 402,894 accessions of 1,586 crop species. These include 159,569 cereals, 57,523 millets, 58,756 pulses or grain legumes, 58,477 oilseeds, 25,330 vegetables, 6,872 medicinal and aromatic plants, and 3,847 spices and condiments. There is in this astonishing collection (and the kisans’ own collections) all that our country needs to find staples that will deal, as Surajit Dasgupta has mentioned, with “increasing temperatures, decreased water availability in some places and flooding in others, rising salinity, and changing pathogen and insect threats”.
The methods to deal with these have been practiced by the cultivating households (of which there are many within our 167 million rural households) in the 20 agro-ecological regions of Bharat and their 60 sub-regions over which are roughly apportioned the diversities of soil, climate, physiography, the availability periods of conducive moisture (which determines the length of growing seasons). They had perfected crop rotations (largely abandoned by industrial agriculture) and which can increase yields by even 20 per cent, the water holding capacity of soils (woefully under-studied) had been improved, they lowered susceptibility to drought by planting cover crops that increase soil organic matter, they had saved themselves from water pollution by nitrogen and the need for pesticides.
This is a small glimpse of the wider context in which the GM advocates and proponents work, but they do so outside the dimension of cognitive justice that ties us together – acknowledging the right for different knowledge systems to exist with their associated practices, livelihoods, ways of being, and ecologies to coexist. It is organisations like Anchalika Krushak Sanghatan of Odisha, Bhu Adhikar Abhiyan of Madhya Pradesh, Ekta Parishad, Gujarat Khedut Samaj, Bharat Swabhimaan Andolan Lucknow, Shetkari Sanghatan of Maharastra that are rearticulating this wider context in which GM and the techno-capital domination is represents. These are a few amongst the many organisations that have created diverse spaces which democratise food, its research and its provision, and whose hundreds of thousands of members practice bio-diverse ecological agriculture free from the narrow issues of technology and its overlords.

Authored jointly by Rahul Goswami and Viva Kermani
First appeared in Niti Central