Friday, June 25, 2010

Groundwater and Equality

Author:- Anurag Behar

As a schoolboy I spent many of my summer vacations in the searing heat of Sarangarh. In this small town (“kasba” describes it best) in Chhattisgarh, bordering Orissa, I saw multiple instances of the practice of “untouchability”. Not perhaps in its most heinous form, but visible and clear to a child’s eyes; for example, someone merely touching the water pot made the water immediately undrinkable, impure. This was the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In hindsight, what intrigues me most is how this practice was conducted. It was open, yet it was hidden. People seemed to know clearly that this was ethically unacceptable, besides being legally unacceptable, but they just had to do it. It was a bit like the newly corrupt taking bribes.

My own revulsion with this practice was not shaped by the law, but by my reading in school of MunshiPremchand’s "Sadgati”- one of the many telling blows on social injustice by the great writer. There were other things that shaped my feelings, but 'Sadgati" stood out.

'Sadgati" was not the only piece in my school education that was about untouchability. In fact, it was just one instance of how the whole curriculum, from Class I to XII, was infused with the notion of 'human equality' as an "axiomatic good". The point to note is that this notion of axiomatic goodness of human equality was a not just a "chapter" in one “subject”, but was infused in the entire curriculum. Not just mine, but in the entire country.

I would conjecture that this also had some role to play in the consciousness of the ethical unacceptability of untouchability in Sarangarh, despite the low levels of efficacy of our education system.

"Human equality" is work-in-progress in our society, but infusing education with this notion has certainly helped in the task of changing.

Upper Wainganga, which few of us may have heard of, is apparently the largest surface water reservoir in India. In the period between 2002 and 2008, in Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, the groundwater depletion was equivalent to a net loss of 109 cubic km of water, which is double the capacity of Upper Wainganga. This water is gone, vanished in 6 years, pumped out by millions of bore-wells. And this vanishing continues at an accelerating pace. What would happen in 10, 20, 30 years is merely a matter of simple numbers – unless we do something directly about the vanishing.

Whichever part of the ideological spectrum we reside, our rational mind should not let some of these numbers escape us. Other such numbers are about human population. About 7 billion humans are consuming, at a growing pace, the ecological capital of the Earth. At the beginning of the 20th century, the world’s population was about 1.6 billion, not to talk of the dramatically different consumption footprint of humans then. In 30-40 years, there will be 9-10 billion of us.

One doesn’t have to be the proverbial Malthus to know that in some ways, probably in very significant ways, these numbers matter. Whether we are believers or non-believers of anthropogenic climate change and its effects, of increasing severity of water scarcity, of the impact of bio-diversity loss, and a host of other such things, these numbers should matter. This is simply about (staggeringly) more of us being dependent on the same capital stock (of nature), and it tells us that action must lie in the direction of changing our relationship with this capital stock.

How can we use groundwater such that it doesn’t vanish? Or, the larger question, how does society move towards redefining its relationship with nature, with ecology? Obviously, this will be a complex, non-linear, systemic process. One element that could help is infusing education with the notion of “ecological sensitivity” as an axiomatic good, much like “human equality”.

This is not merely about teaching children "EVS" (Environmental Sciences) as a subject. It is about infusing education with this axiomatic good in a deep, fundamental manner — across the curriculum and through practices. It would find expression in stories in Languages, conceptually in Economics, integrated in History, explored in Engineering, and so on. Education needs many kinds of reforms and changes; this is perhaps one kind.

Ecology infused in education cannot, in itself, guarantee a shift towards redefining our relationship with ecology, with the natural capital stock, but it will indeed be a significant force. The shift will happen slowly, as it has with human equality.

The question worth dwelling on is, can we afford the same slow shift on this issue as has been happening with human equality? The issue of ecology is not just an ethical one, it is also about humanity’s survival. A few centuries of slow progress towards equality has been too slow, but a few centuries of slow progress on ecology may be too late.

(This piece was published as a part of Anurag’s fortnightly column,"Other Sphere", in Mint on June 17, 2010.)