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