Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

In the land of air-conditioned cup noodle eaters

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Ever more varieties of snacks from fewer crop staples. The conversion of primary crops into processed food, and the retail chain that drops it into the consumer's basket, all this requires energy. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

Ever more varieties of snacks from fewer crop staples. The conversion of primary crops into processed food, and the retail chain that drops it into the consumer’s basket, all this requires energy. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

We are being misinformed and poorly entertained. There is a great big complex apparatus that tells us, as it has done for most of the last 20 years, that climate change is about science and observation, about technology and finance. This is the international apparatus. Then there is the national bedlam, comprising government, NGOs, think-tanks, research institutes and academia, industry and business, capital markets and finance. The national bedlam on climate change contains many views, some of which are directly related to the international apparatus. Our government, usually in the form of utterances by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, attempts to connect economics to everything else it thinks is important, and present the resulting mess as our climate change policy, which only provokes more bedlam.

Such is the state of affairs in India concerning climate change. Industry and finance, whatever their motivations (profit, market, subsidies, friendly politicians, and so on), are fairly consistent in what they say they want. NGOs and think-tanks – most of which function as localised versions of the international apparatus – are responsible for an outsized share of the bedlam, for they must not only protect the interests of their principals (usually in the West) but at the same time be seen to be informed, authoritative and influential at home. Ordinarily, this renders them schizophrenic, but the hullabaloo surrounding climate change in India is so loud, no-one notices the schizophrenia of the NGOs and think-tanks. Media – that is to say, vapid but noisy television and dull but verbose print commentators – sides with one group or another depending on who’s paying for the junkets.

Property, assembly-line homes and the trope of quick ownership to attract young earners. One more energy sink. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

Property, assembly-line homes and the trope of quick ownership to attract young earners. One more energy sink. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

The punctuations in this long-running and episodic climate change opera that we witness in India are the annual international gatherings, and the erratic policy pronouncements by the central government. For most people, struggling with food price inflation, with urban living environments choked by particulate matter, hounded by creditors and surrounded by useless gadgetry, climate change is a non-subject. And so the middle class stays out of the bedlam, for it is too busy negotiating the storied ‘growth’ of India or breathlessly seeking to profit from it in as many ways as there are flavours of potato chips. Who is left from the 1.275 billion Bharat-vaasis who can cast an appraising eye on the bit players and techno-buskers, and who can judge for themselves the consequences of their actions? We don’t know. And it is such not knowing that balances, with a taut silence, the bedlam of the posturing think-tanks, the technology fetishists, the grasping NGOs, the carbon merchants and their political cronies.

It has helped us not at all to be served, every other week or so, the bland intellectual regurgitations of India’s talking climate heads. It has helped us not at all to be preached at (faithfully reported, accompanied by appropriate editorial cant) by the United Nations whose agency, the UNFCCC, has fostered 20 years of expensive gatherings designed to deceive thinking folk. It has helped us not at all to have to correct, time and again, a government that does nothing about capitalism’s operatives who consistently attack and dismantle efforts to protect our people from environmentally destructive activities. It has helped us not at all to have dealt out to us, from one ruling coalition to the next, from a fattened ’empowered group of ministers’ to a PM’s Council that prefers fiat, missions and programmes that speak ‘renewable’ but which refuse stubbornly to talk consumption.

The balance between settlement and land. Absent entirely in our cities and towns, threatened in our villages. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

The balance between settlement and land. Absent entirely in our cities and towns, threatened in our villages. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

Climate change and Bharat is about none of this and it is about all of this in relation to our behaviour. Ours is the land of air-conditioned youth devouring cup noodles while gesturing with greasy fingers across smartphone screens. It is not the land where their grand-parents tilled fields, tended orchards, walked on pilgrimages and lit lanterns in simple dwellings. But this is now, and here, in urban Coimbatore and Cuttack as much as in rural Darbhanga and Dharwad, the reckoning of the effect of our 1.275 on climate has to do with the buying of cars (bigger and two per family) and the widening of roads.

It has to do with the building of housing ‘complexes’ (modern amenities and 24×7 power, but naturally), the contrived convenience factor of retail food markets whose demands deepen the monoculturing of our land mosaics, once so very diverse with coarse cereals, the myth-making of jobs and employment by cramming vast buildings with directionless migrant youth, and attaching to them (costs calculated by the second) the electronic machinery that makes online retail possible, the imagery of the flick of the switch or click of a button delivering goods and services as though from the horn of plenty, the vacuous promises of imminent superpowerdom and a techno-utopia set to the beat of Bollywood lyrics. We have indeed been misinformed.

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