Restoring health and beauty to our relationship with the natural world
Aseem Shrivastava and Aryaman Jain | 11 Sep, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC has left Indian economy and society in tatters. The recovery is a Himalayan challenge and calls for our urgent attention. The familiar, fragmented ways of economistic thinking, unmindful of obvious impasses and cul-de-sacs, will not pull us out of this abyss in any permanent sense. What we need is a fresh vision with which to holistically grasp the complex, interrelated nature of our present crises in order to find pathways to harmonise human society with the terms and limits of the natural world, not to forget or ignore the callings and urgings of the spirit.
We are emerging from a period of epic suffering for our people. Suffering less on account of the pandemic itself, than of the manner in which it has been handled. In particular, the sudden fear generated by the Government, which dragged its feet for seven weeks (after the first Covid-19 case was reported from Kerala on January 30th), had catastrophic consequences for scores of crores of working people around the country. During the panicked, early months of lockdown, lakhs of starving workers, suddenly denied daily wages, abandoned the cities, families in tow. Many walked bleeding-foot, hundreds of miles, to their village homes in desperation; the most vulnerable people were left without shelter, income and work. Even now, in the seventh month of the pandemic, and the economy still in deep disrepair, over 10 crore workers remain unemployed across the country. Unemployment like this has never been seen before.
For a host of reasons, Covid-19 will not be the last of such unforeseen predicaments. Thanks to the remorseless consequences of runaway globalisation leading to increasingly disturbed ecosystems in regions remote from the metropolitan world, more microbial chaos is expected globally. Moreover, we have also already entered the era of chronic climate crises. Devastating hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, rampaging forest fires recently in the Amazon, Canada and Australia, cyclones at unexpected places, droughts and floods in so many parts of the world (including, of course, India) are all linked to the unprecedented disturbance of the earth’s climate. We cannot go back to the old global normal, because that normal is what got us here.
The ecologically fragile, unjust edifice of the globalised economy stands well and truly exposed. In corona times, the world’s billionaires are gathering yet bigger fortunes. The well-off still remain well. And the multitudes absorb the shock—by policies indifferent to their fate. It is significantly (though not only) the poor who have had to bear the collateral damage of the lockdowns across the world.
This is treacherous cowardice. Nobody in office seems to have thought of the poor—across the digital divide. After all, the world is not a shop whose shutters can be dropped down at the beckoning of an emperor—even in a pandemic. If there was no digital and the wealthy could not hoard supplies, would the idea of a lockdown even occur to anyone making policies in any part of the world?
Where do we go from this precarious place we have reached? We can surely do better. But for this, we need an entirely new vision to imagine a future at all. Are we ready to do this? If not, we should prepare for ceaseless catastrophes.
In India, the Covid-19 crisis has brought out in sharp relief the unsustainability of our globalised development model. It is a sad simulacrum of the West which we have blindly chased after since the days of Nehru. This is not just about what has been happening since 2014; nor about what has been happening since 1991 or 1975. This goes all the way back to 1947.
It is turning out that we have been on the wrong road all along. With its predatory industrialisation, routine devastation of landscapes, evisceration of communities and livelihoods, unsustainable urbanisation, forced migration and militarisation of culture, the path was always unsustainable.
But today, as rivers die and pandemics lay siege to the metros, the sword of ecological catastrophe hangs over us all. The situation we find ourselves in today is not an unexpected contingency. It is only a natural outcome of the race we have been running for the last three-quarters of a century.
We find ourselves today in a globally competitive corporate nationalism. Such is our eagerness to be counted among the superpowers that we would rather cut open our stomachs than come second. What we understand as ‘development’ is actually just a polished face of this ugly behemoth. Development has always been a colonial idea. Here, we disagree with liberal advocates of development such as Amartya Sen and suggest that ‘Development as War’ is a more accurate metaphor than ‘Development as Freedom’—which is a lie. ‘Vinash’, not ‘vikas’, is a more truthful description of what the bulk of our people actually have to live to keep pace with the globally galloping desires and aspirations of the more fortunate among us.
For a host of reasons, Covid-19 will not be the last of such unforeseen predicaments. Thanks to the remorseless consequences of runaway globalisation leading to increasingly disturbed ecosystems in regions remote from the metropolitan world, more microbial chaos is expected globally. Moreover, we have also already entered the era of chronic climate crises. We cannot go back to the old global normal, because that normal is what got us here
Development has been a colonial idea since at least the Atlantic Charter of 1941, in which America and Britain set out their common goals, culminating in the setting up of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), today a part of what is known as the World Bank. It was decided by the new imperial powers that certain countries were ‘developed’, while others were ‘underdeveloped’. The latter must learn from the former in order to find a respectful place in the world, never mind that the very premises of development are colonial and uneven in structure. And we in India have uncritically accepted this understanding from our imperial masters, even as, officially, we entertain illusions of sovereignty.
It is no surprise then that from the blighted lands of Punjab, damaged as they are by chemical pesticides, to the forests of Assam, languishing under oil spills and floods, the practice of development has brought unending socioecological despair. In such a land as ours, where powerful political entrepreneurship rules, small crony elites keep emerging out of those willing to collaborate with the state and the corporate market and control resources. The others are crushed or enslaved. The earth is defaced. Life is smothered. Internationally agile corporations and the politicians are enriched. Region after region has succumbed to the same pattern, and the fate of many more regions of the country—from Kashmir to Kerala—is on the line.
As we enter Ram-Rajya, we must ask our Vikas Purush, which ancient scripture gives him licence to promote such things in the name of ‘development’? How many times does the word ‘development’ appear in the Constitution? Just twice, and that too only when it comes to villages (Article 38) and urban municipalities (Article 243) being able to decide on matters of social justice for themselves. Otherwise, economic development is conspicuous by its absence in the founding text of our republic. As for the term ‘economic growth’, it is missing altogether. If these were the overarching goals of the new republic, surely the Constitution ought to have dwelt awhile on them? Have the goalposts shifted, especially after 1991? From this, we draw the following conclusion: Either our freedom fighters (who sometimes spent long years in jail, unlike today’s leaders) were not patriotic enough, or we have tragically lost our way since their time.
When we are woefully lost in a forest and are unwilling to take radically fresh bearings from reliable stars, nothing we do will come out right. Every move is a wrong move from the wrong place. We should not have been here in the first place. The call of the hour is therefore to subject our whole way of life and thought to dispassionate scrutiny—before conceiving a new path through the woods.
Being in the jungle is not such a bad thing as is made out to be today—if one still has some reverence left for the sacredness of a forest.
Rabindranath Tagore, in book after book, lecture upon lecture, always maintained that there was a fundamental cultural and ecological difference between India and the West. In ‘The Message of the Forest’, for instance, he says that India was always an aranyasanskriti, a culture of the forest. On the other hand, the West has long measured progress in terms of the distance that modern man has travelled from the jungles. In other words, more nearly the opposite of what an aranyasanskriti would think or do.
To Tagore, the two World Wars were ample living proof of the tragic folly of the path of blinding material prosperity that the West had already been on. By the end of his life, he was thoroughly disillusioned with modern Western civilisation. His last recording from August 1941, ’Sabhyatar Sankat’ (‘Crisis in Civilisation’), is a sad acceptance of the great decline of the West, hoping that freedom might still dawn in the East.
In adopting the ways of the West (and now, just America), we have committed worse follies than those who we have tried to emulate. Today we find ourselves in a desperate chase after a gross economic metric originally developed for the purposes of measuring a country’s economic power vis-à-vis an enemy when it is waging war against them.
Are we willing to listen to the quiet wisdom of our own prophets?
A hundred years ago, Mahatma Gandhi wrote in Hind Swaraj, ‘It is my deliberate opinion that India is being ground down, not under the English heel, but under that of modern civilization. It is groaning under the monster’s terrible weight. There is yet time to escape it, but every day makes it more and more difficult.’ It is as though Gandhi knew just what was coming when he wrote in the same text: ‘There are now diseases of which people never dreamt before… .’
Now that the monster has provoked a tiny but invisible and globally ubiquitous enemy which has become the torment of all humanity, perhaps it is time to look at swaraj as a real possibility again? Swaraj is too important for us to allow our politicians to toss it about as a plaything. To be sure, it is not utopia. But nor is it a utopian idea. Gandhi tells his reader, ‘Do not consider this swaraj to be like a dream.’
In India, the Covid-19 crisis has brought out in sharp relief the unsustainability of our globalised development model. It is a sad simulacrum of the West which we have blindly chased since the days of Nehru. This is not just about what has been happening since 2014; nor about what has been happening since 1991 or 1975. This goes all the way back to 1947
Indeed, swaraj is here and around us in the present moment, provided we are willing to see with open eyes and listen with patient ears. In far-flung nooks and crannies of this country, where the state and the corporate market have still not completely torn to shreds the basic substance of a rooted human existence, it breathes quietly. Its silence beckons those who seek it. The people behind Vikalp Sangam have been assiduously documenting stories of such alternatives across India for years now.
This unassuming way of being that allows all people a chance at a normal life the way they wish it, despite its very real existence, seems to some of our policy elites too unrealistic for India to adopt. But this crisis will have awakened others from the impossible dream of development that has been sold in ever new packaging for many decades now.
So now, while the advance of climate change is giving us a small window of time, there is a great public choice to be made between the unrealistic and the impossible.
GIVEN THE ECOLOGICAL imperative of our global predicament, it is necessary that we must begin by addressing our long fractured relationship with Mother Earth herself. Any vision of swaraj would have to be ecological today. It is necessary to point this out explicitly, given how readily it is forgotten. Thus, given how soiled from repeated abuse the word has become today, we should be clear that we are thinking of prakritik swaraj. The qualifying adjective (meaning natural/ecological) is also essential since we are living in an over-politicised world in which nature is, at best, an afterthought in public discussions. In today’s perilously artificial world we cannot persist in such a blunder.
Rightly understood, prakritik swaraj gives us an authentic perspective to propose the necessary alternatives to a bio-totalitarian system that the digitised corporations and the globalised policy elites want for themselves and, by implication, for ‘everyone’. If allowed to prevail, such a global bio-corpocracy will effectively destroy humanity’s chances of surviving climate catastrophes and ecological disasters. Success will be the worst failure.
The founding principles of prakritik swaraj would address the three disturbed ecologies of existence today; they comprise the following:
1) Natural/cosmic ecology: First and foremost, a faithful reverence for all beings alive, including not only animals, but birds and fish, rodents and reptiles, insects and micro-organisms, plants and trees, even oceans and mountains, rivers and rocks, the biosphere and the atmosphere, the sky and the cosmos it represents. To a true Hindu, this is the actual meaning of the Upanisadic maxim ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’. Even ants—and yes, viruses too!—have to be fed. Such has been the message of our seers and rishis. This demands not the chasing of viruses with Covid-19 guns, but an ecological maturity, which presumes ecological balance (impossible under the dispensations of the globalised juggernaut). It demands of all humanity a renewal of a cosmology of anthropo-responsiveness, rather than anthropocentrism: humanity can truly find its freedom not by selfishly appropriating and destroying the natural world, but only by assuming its highest duty, its cosmic responsibility of sustaining the only planet in the solar system capable of hosting life in its uniquely hospitable form. This will entail respectfully turning the vast household of nature into an aesthetically beautiful, spiritually alive and abundant, healing herbarium (not a hospital!). This will happen when we find ways to participate creatively in the cycles of life that Mother Nature has nurtured for millennia on this planet. This is at the heart of prakritik swaraj. This is natural/cosmic ecology: It restores health and beauty to our relationship with the rest of the natural world.
Development has always been a colonial idea. Here, we disagree with liberal advocates of development such as Amartya Sen and suggest that ‘Development as War’ is a more accurate metaphor than ‘Development as Freedom’—which is a lie
2) Cultural ecology: This means respect for the conditions on which life is given to humanity. It implies the reverence referred to above. None of us, after all, asked to be here! But it also implies respect for the imperative of community living. As social animals, we cannot be forced to live atomised lives before insensate screens indefinitely. Social media can never be allowed to take the place of society itself. Digital is not the new gravity. Lockdown is not the new normal. It is, at best, a temporary evil, at worst the dream of bio-totalitarians who thrive on people’s isolation from each other in the shadow of human mass paranoia. The old tactic of ‘divide-and-rule’. This corona cusp between two eras of history must be negotiated—not by building more dazzling airports or ordering more fancy military hardware from wealthy countries (that too, to become ‘self-reliant’!) or mandatory health monitoring through the forced use of mobile apps or sending mining expeditions to the Moon (as US President Trump has recently done). Those are symptoms, not solutions. It has to be negotiated by maturely accepting the terms on which Providence has granted life to humanity. This involves not so much new ‘social contracts’— which ultimately never survive anywhere except on paper. This entails an awakening and renaissance of the conscience of the privileged and the educated, a duty which is at once ecological, cultural and spiritual. Among other things, it implies an embrace of our responsibilities to each other as members of the same human and natural families—without making an enemy even of viruses! Migrant workers—or suicide-prone farmers—cannot be abandoned to the abject misery of their fates in such a world. This is cultural ecology: it restores health and beauty to our relationship to each other and to the wider human family and community.
Swaraj is too important for us to allow our politicians to toss it about as a plaything. To be sure, it is not utopia. Nor is it a utopian idea. Gandhi tells his reader in Hind Swaraj, ‘Do not consider this swaraj to be like a dream’
3) Spiritual ecology: Finally, prakritik swaraj entails a personal spiritual transmutation. It demands a radical change of heart. To Gandhi, the recognition of the responsibility of duty was the very essence of freedom. It was dharma: the unity of the divine and the cosmic orders in the order of the human soul (atman). Dhṛ (the divine order) + Ṛta (the cosmic order) = Dharma (the human order). Our freedom does not lie in expanding our choices at the expense of others. That is power. Our freedom lies in expanding the choices of those beyond ourselves, those of the human community sans any exclusion. Likewise, your freedom consists in expanding the choices of those other than yourself. (Gandhi was no ‘liberal’!) This, to Gandhi, was sarvodaya, the route to swaraj: not the greatest good of the greatest number (as utilitarian economists think), but the shared awakening of one and all. Without this, humanity finds life endlessly meaningless, a blind pursuit of its individual or collective selfish desires—leading ultimately to a world we are familiar with from pre-Covid-19 days, and that has left us now at the mercy of an invisible micro-organism. The way to heal the self is simple: it involves the permanent practice of love, otherwise understood as empathy or compassion. It can no longer be postponed. It only takes an atman, not necessarily a mahatma. This is personal spiritual ecology: it restores health and beauty to our inner relationship to ourselves. We are redeemed by living for many others, and ultimately for everyone. In this we realise ourselves: by realising the One.
Something immeasurably greater than Bharat Mata Ki Jai is Dharti Mata Ki Jai! It is for us to find the heart and soul for such true freedom. For the earth may have dreams for us, just like a mother has for her children. The human spirit can discover this, once free.