Resources Research

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

Archive for June 2016

Old कृषि for new भारत

with 3 comments

For a civilisation whose agricultural traditions are some ten millennia old, ‘agro-ecology’ is but yesterday’s word, and although well-meaning, pales before the vistas of meaning that have been encoded into our cultivating practices. These are profoundly spiritual, and until a few generations ago, embodied a philosophy about nature, ‘prakruti’ (प्रकृति), that ranged far beyond the definitions that have become en vogue over the last few decades: ecological, sustainable, holistic and so on. This brief itinerary traces some of the causes that have led to the vulgarisation of agriculture (कृषि) in Bharat, and describes the means with which to find renewal.

RG_krishi_bharat_1_201606Menus at fast food restaurants and counters are today as mystifying as the ‘apps’ that are to be found crowding on the screens of young people’s mobile phones. There are now, in our bigger cities in India, ‘apps’ to buy food with (or through). These seem to be popular with a generation that is young – usually 20 to 30 years old – and which lives in shared rented flats near their places of work, which often is the info-tech industry, and is otherwise the finance, retail, services, logistics or trading industries. If there is one aspect common to where these food ‘app’, or menu ‘app’, users work then it is that they do not work in what my generation knew with some familiarity as the manufacturing or the public sectors.

This is a distressing trend, for we have always been a civilisation that counted our farmers, rivers, forests, temples and traditions. In Sanskrit there is a word used to describe the farmer. It is ‘annadaata’, which is, the giver of grain (अन्नदाता). This reverential word is found in every major language spoken and written in India today. The ‘annadaata’ fed his or her family, fed those who needed rice, gave the rice to be used for the ceremonies and religious observances in the temples, sold the rice to the dealers in grain. For many generations, the forms in which our farmers harvested the crops they cultivated were the forms in which they were bought, stored, cooked and eaten. Even during the formative decades of ‘modern’ India – that is, the years after our Independence and until the time when we began to be considered by the Western world as a country becoming a ‘market economy’ – a household rarely owned a refrigerator.

RG_krishi_bharat_2_201606We bought rice, vegetables and the occasional fish or poultry from the market, cooked them fresh at home, and ate our meals fresh. A vegetarian meal may keep overnight to serve as a breakfast for the following morning, and in north and parts of central India, so will ‘roti’ (रोटी) made out of wheat or barley. To keep food longer, it had to be processed, that is, its nature had to change so that it would not spoil in the climate. Thus, rice was commonly parboiled and stored, or parboiled and flattened to become ‘puffed’. Every rice-growing and rice-consuming region, from a single valley to a river basin, had its own methods and preferences of keeping food from spoiling, and finding ways to store that semi-prepared food. This was a kind of processing and most of it was done in our homes.

Surely it wasn’t that long ago? But memories such as these, so vivid to 50 and 60 year olds, are today seen as evoking times of hardship, want and shortage, are seen as recalling times that an agrarian country suffered ‘hunger’ before it became globalised and a ‘market’ of some kind. Such sharp experiences, for that is what the most vivid memories are made of, are considered to be uncomfortably close to the era when famines were recorded, one after another, during the 19th century especially (but also the Bengal famine of 1943-44).

Those appalling records are presented as the rationale for the set of ideas and practice (technical and economic in approach and intent) that came to be called self-sufficiency in foodgrain, which I remember first hearing as a boy, and which much later has come to be known as food security. The links were taught to us early – famine, food shortage, hunger – but what was left out was more important, and that was the policies of the colonial occupiers (the East India Company and then Great Britain, as the country used to be called) and the consequences of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and particularly in western Europe.

RG_krishi_bharat_3_201606Like the devastating famines in India of the 19th century, the Bengal famine of 1943-44 was an artificial shortage of foodgrain, for what had been harvested was shipped out instead of being sold or distributed at home. These aspects of the relatively recent famines of India, which robbed our ancestors of parents and children, were hidden until we uncovered them out of curiosity about food histories that must have been written (or retold) but were scarcely to be found.

Even today, after so much research (especially by the last generation) has become available about the effects of colonial policies on the movements and shortages of food in India, the bogey of food shortage and hunger is still dressed in the garb of technical shortcoming, that our farmers (किसान) do not know how to increase yields because their knowledge is deficient, insufficient, inefficient. It is a slander of a collective that has supported through its efforts and wisdom a civilisation (भारतवर्ष) for centuries.

As it was with the colonial era, so it is with the pervasive apparatus of trade and finance which finds its theatre in globalisation, or the integrated world economy. One of its first tasks was to denigrate and run down a complex and extremely rich tradition of agricultural knowledge – but even to call it ‘agricultural knowledge’ is misleading, for its diverse strands of knowledge, awareness and practice encompassed our relationship with nature and natural forces, and our duties towards state, for faith and religion, towards society – while simultaneously promoting a ‘scientific’ approach that could derive its authority only by first asserting that what it was replacing was not science.

[This article is the first part of a series of four. Part two, ‘How we almost lost our growing tradition’, is here.]

The ideologies about knowledge

leave a comment »


The few paragraphs that follow are taken from my recent article for the TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) magazine, Terragreen. Published in the 2016 May issue, the article links what we often call traditional knowledge with the ways in which we understand ecology and the ways in which we are defining ‘sustainable development’.

quotes-blueSustainable development has today become a commonly used term, yet it describes a concept that is still being considered by different kinds of societies, by each in a manner of its choosing. This has happened because while historically how societies grew to be ‘developed’ was a process that took a variety of pathways, today the prescribed pathway to the ‘modern’ scarcely changes from one country to another.

Hence culturally what these societies have considered as being ‘sustainable’ behaviour – each according to its ecological context – is being replaced by a prescribed template in which interpretations are discouraged. Such a regime of prescription has led only to the obscuring of the many different kinds of needs felt by communities that desire a ‘development’ that makes cultural sense, but also of the kinds of knowledge which will allow that ‘development’ to be sustainable.


Click for image pdf (600kb) of article

Some of this knowledge we can readily see. To employ labels whose origin is western, these streams of knowledge and practice are called traditional knowledge, intangible cultural heritage, indigenous wisdom, folk traditions, or indigenous and local knowledge. These labels help serve as gateways to understand both the ideas, ‘development’ and ‘sustainable’. It is well that they do for today, very much more conspicuously than 20 years earlier, there is a concern for declining biodiversity, about the pace and direction of global environmental change, a concern over the unsustainable human impact on the biosphere and the diminishing of community identity.

There is widespread acknowledgement of the urgency of the situation – this is perceived across cultures, geographical scales (that is, from local units such as a village, to national governments), and knowledge systems (and this includes both formal and non-formal ways of recognising these systems). The need for such a new dialogue on the situation is expressed in several global science-policy initiatives, both older and recent, such as the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) which is now 22 years old, and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), whose first authoritative reports became available in 2015.

Development whose sustainability is defined locally and implemented locally means that the ‘investment’, ‘technology’ and ‘innovation’ (terms that have become popular to describe development efforts) comes from the people themselves. Many diverse agencies at this level – civil society, youth groups, vocational networks, small philanthropies – assist such development and provide the capacities needed. This is the level at which the greatest reliance on cultural approaches takes place, endogenously.

In domains such as traditional medicine, forestry, the conservation of biodiversity, the protection of wetlands, it is practitioners of intangible cultural heritage and bearers of traditional knowledge, together with the communities to which they belong, who observe and interpret phenomena at scales much finer than formal scientists are familiar with. Besides, they possess the ability to draw upon considerable temporal depth in their observations. For the scientific world, such observations are invaluable contributions that advance our knowledge about climate change. For the local world, indigenous knowledge and cultural practices are the means with which the effects of climate change are negotiated so that livelihoods are maintained, ritual and cultivation continue, and survival remains meaningful.