February 21, 2020
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Alternative Paradigm

A rethink on development is needed to tackle ecological omnivores

Alternative Paradigm
Ecology And Equity
By Madhav Gadgil By Ramachandra Guha
Penguin Rs:150;Pages:222
WHAT Happened in History is the name of V. Gordon's path breaking work on archaeology. And every time a historian sits down to write, he must address the same question and attempt an answer. Our republic is almost half a century old—which is but a brief moment in time—and if we consider the span of 5,000 years of our proto history and history, future generations must also pose the question: what happened?

In this context, Gadgil and Guha's Equality and Equity is thought-provoking. And, as the sub-title suggests, it is concerned with how the State has treated nature in post-Independence India. The book is divided into two parts. The first is an overview of our society and its relationship with nature. Upon attaining Independence, the purpose of the State itself underwent a change—from maintenance of law and order and as supplier of raw materials to the mother country, it addressed itself to development for its own people. A commendable and natural outcome of freedom. But, the trouble starts when one looks at who controls the State and for whose ben-efit the development is taking place.

Following F.R. Dasmann's approach, the authors divide our society into ecosystem people (those who meet their needs from their immediate surroundings), ecological refugees (who can't be supported by local ecosystems as a result of development and are displaced from their original habitat to urban slums and elsewhere) and the omnivores (whose needs span the resources of the entire country and beyond, who live in urban areas or in rural pockets of affluence). The State, as it is organised, is of the omnivores, for the omnivores and by the omnivores and operated by them through an iron triangle of decision-makers (politicians, administrators, bureaucrats) and beneficiaries (the urban population, industry and large holders of irrigated land).

The work is replete with examples of how the benefits are conferred and passed on to the beneficiaries, the omnivores, at the cost of the ecosystem people and the ecological refugees. Besides, this period of continuous development has left large sections of the population assetless and the State itself has lost its legitimacy as conflicts—the authors give a masterly overview of the Chipko movement, Narmada agitation, Jharkhand movement—between the ecosystem people and the omnivores become more and more common and aggressive.

Coming back to the question, what happened in our republic and to its patrimony, the authors provide vivid answers. It is the kind of work which ought to find a place in a time capsule, but is not likely to. However, the work is not a cry of "to the barricades citizens" led by the authors.

The second half of the work gives a view of "the India that might be" with possible solutions. The authors analyse and differentiate the major approaches of political ideologies—Gandhian, Marxism and liberal capitalism—to the development process in general. Through a careful selection of the best in each to bring about a synthesis of approach to conservation of the environment and equitable benefits, they propose an alternative. The working synthesis is brought about by decentralisation and empowerment of village communities along with a moderation in appetite of resource consumption from the Gandhian approach; equity and empowerment of the weaker sections from Marxism; and encouragement of private enterprise coupled with public accountability in an open, democratic system from liberal capitalism.

Further, they propose an agenda for action for the republic: the "alternative development paradigm", which centres around a genuine grassroots democracy. The agenda is vast and may appear utopian. The point is that the existing set-up has not worked as it should have and unless the proposed changes are attempted, there is no reason to believe that our march towards inevitable calamity will not continue inexorably.

The fact that State control of forests and natural resources has not resulted in preserving them is well known. The authors describe how vast chunks of forests were cleared to plant teak to serve the needs of the British empire; and in turn further damage was done by planting eucalyptus by our own government in our times. The solution, therefore, is to empower local people who have a stake in their biodiversity to protect the forest and use its produce.

In West Bengal, the communist government recognised its failure in reviving degraded sal forests and decided to share the responsibility and benefits with the local communities and set up forest protection committees. In return for helping protect the forest, the villagers were given employment in both silviculture and harvesting operations, 25 per cent of the final harvest and permission for fuelwood and fodder collection on a nominal fee. The forests of Arabari, where the experiment was started, underwent a remarkable change. Today, there are 1,611 forest protection councils covering 191,756 hectares, primarily of degraded sal coppice forests, in the districts of Midnap-ore, Bankura and Purulia which account for 47 per cent of the forest areas here. And without additional funds, the forests thrive, the benefits having gone across ethnic and political boundaries.

This is an alternate route to revive forests and the experiments indicate that determined efforts can help preserve our ecology. The task of tackling the omnivores is not easy, however, as it would threaten their lifestyles. There have been many instances of success in the field but they remain beacons rather than the norm. Yet the need for change is paramount and the authors have made a commendable effort to define the problems and suggest solutions. The book is a must for every concerned omnivore.

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