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THE CULTURAL DIMENSION OF ECOLOGY
Environment and Education
Damage to the environment is one of the three crucial problems that humankind is facing today. The other two are the threat of war and internal insecurity, and poverty and hunger. The three are interdependent. The problems of security are closely connected with the environment in the sense that the production of arms and nuclear tests create radioactivity; the atmosphere of war is created by the rich nations because they want economic domination over the poor nations, specially over those who possess natural resources — minerals, metals, water and forests — the four pillars of modern economic development. Similarly, within a nation itself the areas having these resources have become the coveted grounds for exploitation by more developed areas. The people resist. This is visible in the opposition to large dams and mining and deforestation projects in Afro-Asian countries. The national governments employ force to suppress the people agitating against these.
Poverty and hunger with plenty is the other problem which humankind is facing today. As the pace of development advances, economic inequalities increase even though economic prosperity as a whole rises. After the first decade of development in 1960 the difference between the income of the richest 20 per cent and the poorest 20 per cent was 30:1, but after three decades, by 1991, whereas it should have decreased, it doubled. It was 61:1. 20 per cent of the world’s people live in industrialised countries. The only difference it has made to the so-called developing countries is that a few from the ruling elite and the business magnates join the 20 per cent of the affluent countries, whereas poverty in the poor countries increases. In India there are 40 per cent people below the poverty line. The impact of economic conditions is clearly seen. There was a saying in India that the food of the poor is dal (lentils) and roti (bread). But now dal — the main source of protein for the poor — has become so costly that they cannot buy it. Poverty leads to the exodus of the poor from healthy rural surroundings to filthy city slums.
I feel that whatever we are doing today to solve environmental problems is pruning the branches and not uprooting the evil. We rely too much on technology, but technology itself is ill. The root cause of environmental problems is consumerism. Consumerism has become a part of our lives since we adopted the mode of development whose indicator is economic growth. This definition of development was given by President Harry Truman, when he in his address to the American Congress after World War II said that poverty was the main problem of humankind and alleviation of poverty was possible by economic growth. To achieve economic growth man became the butcher of nature. Nature was converted into cash. We boast of a 262 per cent rise in foodgrains production during the last four decades, but to achieve this we lost 20 per cent of our forests and 20 per cent of our fertile land. Thus we put a gold ring on the nose at the cost of the nose itself. Soil and water are the basic capital of humankind. The forests, and specially the natural forests, are the factories of soil production and mothers of the rivers. These are the treasures of biodiversity. The four renewable resources, which sustain all life, grasslands, forests, croplands and oceans, have become non-renewable due to over-exploitation and pollution.
The society which we have created is a perverted one. From Nature (prakriti), we have moved to perversion (vikriti). Insecurity, pollution and poverty are the symbols of a perverted society. In such a society, the individual lives in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. His desires (trishna) expand. He never enjoys real peace and happiness. We have bartered peace and happiness for temporary prosperity. For peace, one has to take pills, and for happiness, drugs.
Humankind has been aspiring to achieve the goal of culture (sanskriti). How to move from Nature to culture? The answer is very simple. We have to change our behaviour towards Nature. There are instances in Indian history when people, reminded of the basic principles of the Aryan culture of India, could overcome the crisis. The three basic characteristics of Indian culture are:
One such instance is the emergence of the Vishnoi sect in the fifteenth century, when Lambhoji, a cowherd farmer, laid down 29 principles of good behaviour. Two of these were: not to kill any animal and not to cut any green tree. The Vishnois, whose number is about half a million in India, still follow these. They went to the extent of sacrificing their lives to protect trees and wild animals. The biggest sacrifice they made was in 1730, when under the leadership of Amrita Devi, 363 men, women and children laid down their lives to save acacia tress. The Vishnois are the most prosperous farmers.
The practical way to culture from Nature was shown by Lord Buddha. Buddha was a prince, brought up in the midst of prosperity; but he saw misery (duhkha) all around. He knew that miseries cannot be alleviated from the palace — so he left his father’s palace, became a common man and subjected himself to all sorts of hardships. He undertook a forty-day fast, after which light dawned upon him. The root cause of misery was desire (trishna). The way to end misery was to end desire, the opposite of increasing desires as our consumer society propagates through advertisements. Buddha differentiated between need and desire. Our needs should be fulfilled, but we should not run after our desires. In order to fulfil our needs we have to sublimate Nature with the help of science and technology. Buddha also defined development. His definition of development is relevant even today. E.F. Schumacher, in his famous book Small is Beautiful, has devoted one full chapter to Buddhist economy. Development is a state in the life of the individual and society in which they enjoy permanent peace, happiness and fulfilment. It is in such a society that culture flourishes. Gandhi in our times reached at the same conclusion when he said, ‘Nature has enough to sustain all, but nothing to satisfy the greed of anybody’.
Gandhi was a practical visionary. He had a vision of a cultural society. He showed a practical way himself by practising austerity, finding viable alternatives to energy, industry and other activities which are responsible for the pollution and wanton exploitation of Nature, and advocating afforestation, i.e. tree farming for food, fodder, fibre, etc. One of the eleven disciplines of life (ekadasha vrata) was non-accumulation (asamgraha) of things. One who accumulates more than his needs, steals the share of others. This creates differences in society — ditches of poverty and mountains of prosperity. The use of centralised energy — atomic, thermal and hydel from big dams, is creating environmental problems. Our energy priorities should be human, animal, bio, solar, wind, tidal, geothermal and hydel from the run of the river. Technology to lessen human drudgery and increase efficiency should be developed. Production of essential commodities should be decentralised, as the centralised system of production gives birth to an army of unproductive persons — managers, bankers, brokers, advertisers and transporters. They take the major share. The burden is ultimately borne by silent Nature and the consumer. The procurement of oxygen, pure and clean water, nutritious food, healthy shelter and clothing, etc., should be from the surroundings in an ideal society.
What is role of education in the creation of a cultural society? We often lay stress on the education of children, specially on the development of their minds. As a result of this we have created a society in which we have big minds, feeble hands and no hearts. Personalities are unbalanced. The best period for learning is childhood and boyhood. Today children see differences between what their parents practise at home and what they preach to them, and what they read in the books and see in real life. This is responsible for the development of a dual personality. Gandhiji’s latest fad was the idea of basic education (buniyadi shiksha), in which education was imparted through crafts for the development of head and hands simultaneously. Service of the poor and needy as a part of daily prayers was an integral part of the way of life he advocated. He prayed:
Children do what they see older people and specially the parents doing. I have practical experience of this. My younger son Pradeep, when he was only six-years-old, went to prison with his mother in connection with the prohibition movement. My elder son still complains that he was not allowed by the teachers to participate in picketing the liquor shop and court arrest. Similarly in the Chipko movement the young children participated with great enthusiasm with their mothers.
There is an urgent need for educating grown-up people, specially the politicians, policy-makers and technocrats. They are the people who decide the destinies of millions. Once you give arguments in favour of your stand, immediately your opponents, who are mostly men with vast resources, will counteract these. The establishment has two strong weapons: fear and greed.
Those who revolt against the wrong policies have to devise better and more sophisticated weapons. The greatest contribution of Mahatma Gandhi is that he devised the weapons of fearlessness and selflessness. These are the weapons of non-violent struggles. The method adopted silent processions, sit-ins (dharanas) and fasting — all aiming at a change of heart along with a change of mind. The effect of this is more lasting. All the great teachers of humankind have tried to change hearts. They, through their preaching in simple language, supplemented with the practice of what they preached, had a permanent effect. They live in the hearts of the people even after many countries.
In the Chipko movement women, by hugging trees marked for felling, offered themselves to the axe instead. They said, ‘Axe us, not the trees’. They felt the heartbeats of the trees. For this action they courted arrest and gladly accepted suffering. The message was spread through folk songs and education through stories from the scriptures (Bhagavatkathas). There were foot-marches, the longest of which was 4,870 km from Kashmir to Kohima. It took 300 days, but the message was taken even to remote villages.
We are engaged in a bigger struggle — the struggle to save the Himalaya, which is dying due to the onslaughts of aggressive development in the form of damming the rivers, deforestation, mining and luxury tourism. We are educating the people to press the demand for a Himalayan policy in eight countries in and around the Himalaya. The objective of this policy should be to heal the wounds of the Himalaya, keep it as a place to live for the local inhabitants and accessible to nature lovers and spiritual seekers, use natural resources in a sustainable manner to achieve regional self-sufficiency, keep the landscape intact, protect biodiversity and establish local autonomy for the advancement of culture. This will save both the nature and culture of these great mountains, a source of varied inspiration to humankind.
A practical programme for this is the agitation against the construction of the 260.5-metre high Tehri Dam over the Bhagirathi, the main stream of the Ganga, in a seismic zone. We have been camping in a hut for last four years near the dam site in non-violent protest and have been able to stop the work twice. Twice I fasted to make the government realise the need for a review of the technical, social, economic, cultural, ecological and spiritual aspects of the project. To reach hearts of the people, we popularise the hymn to Ganga:
©1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi