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The origins of spiritual agriculture, 1

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Our Hindu scriptural references provide a spiritual and dharmic basis for agriculture and for the harvesting, distribution, and the consumption of food. This article follows my earlier writing on the subject, ‘Old krishi for new Bharat’ (part 1 of the krishi series), and ‘How we almost lost our growing tradition’ (part 2). This article was written for the Indic and Indology study website Indiafacts.

"Without any foes in the world, their [farmers’] aim is [carrying out] plans of others; beaming with tender love of all the animal class, they are experts in 'just' thinking." From the text on farming called ‘Kashyapiyakrishisukti’, written around 800 CE.

“Without any foes in the world, their [farmers’] aim is [carrying out] plans of others; beaming with tender love of all the animal class, they are experts in ‘just’ thinking.” From the text on farming called ‘Kashyapiyakrishisukti’, written around 800 CE.

“Pressed (by men at the helm of affairs) in the words ‘Let food be given again and again and (also) article of wearing apparel of various kinds’ many men in that sacrifice did as they were told (freely gave away food and raiment). Numerous heaps, resembling mountains, of rice cooked from day to day in the traditional way were seen on that occasion on the sacrificial grounds. The men as well as the hosts of women that had arrived from different lands were fully entertained at that sacrificial performance of the high-souled emperor.”

Early in the Valmiki Ramayana is the description of the great ‘asvamedhayajna’ of Raja Dasaratha, which required the preparation of the ‘yajna’ grounds on the northern bank of the river Sarayu that flows alongside Ayodhya.

This passage, from canto 14 in book one, the Bala-khanda, of the Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, is one of several in the Bala-khanda which describes the principles of the offering of food, with reverence and honour, with the care that the dignity of the receiver is maintained. The scale of Raja Dasratha’s ‘yajna’, with vast complexes having been built to accommodate the multitudes of visitors, huge cantonments having been constructed for the visiting rajas and their armies, also gives us some indication of the quantities of food that were required, cooked freshly and traditionally, served with care, and to the satisfaction of all.

The Srimad Valmiki Ramayana has been described as an epic that begins with the description of one great ‘yajna’, that of Raja Dasratha’s, and which concludes with the description of another great ‘yajna’, that of Lord Sri Rama’s. These are two great ‘annadanas’, the giving of food. While the ‘yajnas’ involve great ritual and recitation by the assembled priests and scholars, in both, the continuous activity that occurs throughout is the ‘annadana’, for all of the multitudes present – whether a great brahmana with hundreds of followers, whether a visiting raja’s army, or whether ‘tapasvins’ (those who practice penances), ‘sramanas’ (those who undertake austerities), ordinary folk, the old, the women and children – are tired and/or hungry. This indeed is one of the important lessons to be found in the Srimad Valmiki Ramayana and when considered closely, it reveals the centrality of ‘annadana’, the giving of food, and therefore that of the creation of food, its cultivation.

Thus, we find that the sages of Bharat, in their advice and counsel to the rajas, insisted upon the protection of ‘varta’ (which included agriculture, animal husbandry, and trade), with a special focus on the cultivation of crops. When the sage Narada, for example, visited Raja Yudhishthira, his concerns were very much more than ordinary (Mahabharata Sabhaparva, the second parva, chapter 5). In a series of questions, which are not couched in an interrogative tone nor are they in the form of any lofty diktat, but which combine simplicity and sound statecraft (among the essences of the Mahabharata), Narada asks:

“Have you had big water ponds constructed everywhere in your realm? Agriculture cannot be done only on the hope of good rains.”

“I hope that the farmers and the workers of your realm are not unknown to you. Are you aware of what they do? Are they happy with you? Their happiness is one single cause of social prosperity.”

“I hope that the crops and the seeds of farmers in your realm are not wasted. Do you do good to each farmer by giving him loans on one percent interest for agriculture?”

Likewise, in the Anushasanaparva (the thirteenth parva) of the Mahabharata, Bhishma pitamaha, instructs those gathered around him, thus:

“The absence of food makes the five principal elements of the body disintegrate, and with the loss of food, the strength of even the strongest is lost.”

“Food is man’s life and it is through food that the living beings are born. The whole world is based upon food. And therefore food is regarded as the highest.”

No advice that had travelled through the eras, sustained by the webs of knowledge that extended between the federations of gramas and the learning sanctuaries of the ‘mathas’ attached to mandirs large and small, was ever too inconsequential to be discarded.

No advice that had travelled through the eras, sustained by the webs of knowledge that extended between the federations of gramas and the learning sanctuaries of the ‘mathas’ attached to mandirs large and small, was ever too inconsequential to be discarded.

The Mahabharata speaks simultaneously of ‘annadana’ and ‘jaladana’, for the giving of food and water alike are regarded as the greatest of all sharing in life. There are detailed instructions on the giving of water (by constructing ponds, wells and reservoirs). Earth (‘bhoomi’) and trees (‘vriksha’) being inseparable from ‘anna’ and ‘jala’, the Mahabharata instructs ‘bhoomidana’ and ‘vrikshadana’ – the giving of fertile land upon which to grow crops, and the planting of trees – as essential for sustenance and nourishment of all.

This illustrates the consideration given by both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the cultivation of the crops, so that food may be obtained, given and consumed. In both our ‘shruti’ and ‘smriti’ are to be found a number of references to food and its cultivation, the manner of its use, its place in the scheme of material things. The Chandogya Upanishad contains a series of discussions on the material basis of life, with the ultimate basis being Brahman. They have stressed the importance of food in the nourishment of the mind. Uddalaka demonstrated this to his son Shwetaketu in quite a practical fashion, when he asked his son to do without food for a fortnight (subsisting on water only) and thereafter to recite the Veda, which Shwetaketu could not do, since, his mental faculties were considerably weakened. These he later regained after eating food. Uddalaka, further, repeated the lesson once more, this time proscribing water as well! Similarly, in other Upanishads, such as Brihadaranyaka, Kaushitaki, and Aitareya, there is to be found an emphasis on ‘prana’ as energy, which flows in many channels in the body, which, like the mind, is to be nourished by food.

Thus, our Hindu scriptural references provide a spiritual and dharmic basis for agriculture and for the harvesting, distribution, and the consumption of the food. Even as our civilisation passed through many alternate periods of prosperity and disruptions, the fundamental religious and cultural values have remained more or less the same to this day.

The archaeological and paleo-botanical investigations that have been carried out, since the early nineteenth century – using methods which have helped to both redraw the civilisational map and assign dates earlier than was previously done – have shown that domestication of cereals and pulses certainly occurred around eight millennia before the so-called ‘common era’ began (in the Gangetic plains, in the regions that correspond to the Saraswati-Sindhu settlements, and also in the Deccan, home to an abundance of millet varieties).

From the age of Sri Rama of Ayodhya till about the time that the kingdoms of northern and Gangetic Bharat began to be absorbed by the great Nanda empire of Magadha, the precepts concerning the cultivation of crop, and of the centrality of ‘annadana’ (and ‘jaladana’) took hold in practice and in institution through the cooperation of three kinds of institutions, whose connections were maintained until the later medieval period in Bharat, after which the interlinked support they provided for dharmic agriculture began to slowly crumble. These institutions were the state, which is the kingship and a form of enlightened administration, whose intricacies and nuances were so minutely and authoritatively compiled and enlarged by Kautilya, the ‘gramas’ or the villages and their farmers (“It is indeed the cultivators, who carry the burden of the King on their shoulders,” Bhishma had advised), and third, the mandirs and their associated ‘mathas’ as seats of learning and influencers of socio-economic conditions.

The Puranic list refers to the Pauravas, Aikshvakus, Panchalas, Kasis, Haiahayas, Kalingas, Asmakas, Maithilas, Surasenas and Vitihotras. Together with Magadha flourished the Kosala and Vatsa kingdoms. There were Avanti, Videha and Anga. From those eras (typically called the Vedic and later Vedic) and into the ages of imperial dynasties for both Uttara and Dakshina Bharat, it is the relatively less commented upon, quite inconspicuous, sparsely documented, but extremely influential ties between ‘grama’ (and kisan), state (in the form of a ‘kalyana raj’), and mandir (the fabric that maintained dharmashastric society), which weaved closely to the ancient injunctions about cultivation, food and the responsibilities of individual and king alike. From the Mauryas (300 to 185 BCE), the Sunga, Saka, Kushan, Satvahana, Vakataka, Pallava, Pandya, Gupta, Harshavardhana, to the Karkota, Pala, Pratihara, Chalukya, Rashtrakuta, Yadava, Chola, Hoysala, Kakatiya and Rajput, these ties were responsible for maintaining at a high level the wide set of sciences that supported what we today call krishi, but which had meant very much more, when known as the ‘varta’ of the Vedic age.

The old ‘Hindu rate of revenue’ had indeed been laid down in the dharmashastra, and was one-sixth or one-eighth or one-twelfth the produce, and the latitude provided as to the proportion of collection derived not from the strains of maintaining a treasury or the considerable costs of a standing army, but from the climatic conditions and the ability of the ‘gramas’ to bear payment. If the rulers of southern Bharat at times claimed a share even as large as half the produce, they made continued improvements in cultivation possible by excavating and maintaining vast irrigation works at their own cost (this indeed was the agrarian base of the economy that supported the great eastward seaborne excursions during the Chola period, with Suvarnadvipa, the modern archipelagic Indonesia, becoming Hindu in rule and socio-religious practice) and took their share in kind, not in money.

That there was a steady, incremental and appropriate technology surrounding cultivation is seen from the export, during the eras of the Satvahanas (around 40 BCE to 220 CE) and the Kushans (78 to 144 CE), of steel weapons and cutlery to western Asia, where they enjoyed high esteem. That esteem was due in no small measure because of the widespread manufacture of sturdy agricultural implements: hoes of varying lengths, sickles with variations in both blades and handles for different purposes, and true spades (these found in Takshashila) are testament to how advanced this technology was. As with discoveries of such implements in other places, such as in Sanchi, their workmanship indicates how advanced ironmongery was at the time. There is also the reassurance that our kisans, like their lines of ancestors stretching back into those storied eras, valued the engineering utility of a well-designed implement by continuing to make and use it: the ‘bhakhar’ (a blade-harrow) that even in the 1980s was in use in the black cotton soils of Madhya Bharat has been employed in the same form for centuries.

Farmers create for us the recurrence of food, which in the words of Bhishma in Anushashanparva, is the manifestation of the primeval being. They carry knowledge, they share the burden of the Raja and make the ‘annadana’ possible.

Farmers create for us the recurrence of food, which in the words of Bhishma in Anushashanparva, is the manifestation of the primeval being. They carry knowledge, they share the burden of the Raja and make the ‘annadana’ possible.

In the Arthashastra – that inexhaustible compendium of counsel, example, regulation and precept – there is a mention of the suitability of different crops for cultivation, according to rainfall: “Hence, according as the rainfall is more or less, the superintendent shall sow the seeds, which require either more or less water. ‘Sáli’ (a kind of rice), ‘vríhi’ (rice), ‘kodrava’ (kodo millet), ’tila’ (sesamum), ‘priyangu’ (panic seeds), ‘dáraka’ and ‘varaka’ (the medicinal plant variety phraseolus trilobus) are to be sown at the commencement (púrvávápah) of the rainy season. ‘Mudga’ (black gram or black lentil), ‘másha’ (green gram or mung), are to be sown in the middle of the season. ‘Kusumbha’ (safflower), ‘kuluttha’ (horsegram), ‘yava’ (barley), ‘godhúma’ (wheat), ‘kaláya’ (leguminous seeds), ‘atasi’ (linseed), and ‘sarshapa’ (mustard) are to be sown last” (Book 2, Chapter 24, ‘Arthashastra’ translation by R Shamasastry). No detail was too small to be excluded, no advice that had travelled through the eras, sustained by the webs of knowledge that extended between the federations of gramas and the learning sanctuaries of the ‘mathas’ attached to mandirs large and small, was ever too inconsequential to be discarded.

By the end of the period normally taken to be that describing ancient Bharat (the repulse of the first Arab invasions at the start of the eighth century, followed by the fall of Hindu Kabul in 870 CE, as R C Majumdar has written in volume four of ‘The History and Culture of the Indian People’), the sciences upon which rested the practice of our agriculture, and the dense, inherited cascades of knowledge concerning the material, astrological and spiritual schema of our agriculture had been well maintained. It was recognised that while different districts grew principal crops, this never implied that farmers were growing these mainly. A diversity of crops (cereals, legumes, vegetables both leafy and tuberous, fruit) implied good consumption, good trade and moreover a good basis with which to fulfil the ancient injunction on ‘annadana’.

Our farmers’ cropping seasons were mainly divided into two (with the sowing-to-harvest cycle overlapping the six climatic seasons). Agricultural life has from its earliest organised emergence in Bharat (and Bharatvarsha) been cyclical, based on the luni-solar calendar as calculated for region and province. According to the prevailing calendar, agricultural work is planned and carried out, which in turn informs and guides the cultural practices. The diversity of crops, the characteristics of the land, the practices of cropping, the Devas and the Devis, who presided and the rituals that were to be observed for them, these were the cornerstones of agricultural life.

In most parts of Bharat, the agricultural calendar was (and there are calendric holdouts still to be found) divided into fortnights punctuated by new moon days (‘amavasya’) and full moon days (‘purnima’). The rainfall pattern of these periods was carefully observed and recorded and cropping plans were made on these meticulously maintained records. Proverbs and sayings came to be coined in order to encode and ease the transmission of such climatological and meteorological knowledge. Thus, our agriculturists’ calendars included the 27 ‘nakshatras’ and the months (jyestha, ashadha, shravana and so on) that they corresponded with major festivals – with each month containing one major festival. This remarkable arrangement was noted even as recently as the 1940s in the last of the provincial gazetteer series of British India. The festivals contain scientific principles related to the management of agricultural lands, management of water resources, and the essence of sustainability, and the festivals help valorise the vast experiential knowledge webs of the farmers.

Farmers create for us the recurrence of food, which in the words of Bhishma in Anushashanparva, is the manifestation of the primeval being. They carry knowledge, they share the burden of the Raja and make the ‘annadana’ possible. What qualities must they have then? The sage Kashyapa, while dealing with the environmental and spiritual aspects of cultivation in his text on farming called ‘Kashyapiyakrishisukti’ (written around 800 CE), describes the character of farmers, thus:

“[The production of] grains and other vegetation are the sole purpose for highest fulfilment of the earth. The rich earth full of vegetation is the cause of growth of living beings.”

“They [farmers] are devotees of cow, earth, and gods; they are absolutely truthful in speech, intent on being agreeable to others, and always contented in mind.”

“Without any foes in the world, their [farmers’] aim is [carrying out] plans of others; beaming with tender love of all the animal class, they are experts in ‘just’ thinking.”

This affords us a glimpse into the spiritual and scriptural underpinnings of the activities, which we have only recently started to call ‘agriculture’, but which held much greater meaning as ‘varta’ and the more familiar ‘krishi’, because of their inherent connection to ‘annadana’. These are the ancient roots of our bonds with bhoomi, ‘panchabhutas’, and ‘annadana’.

A discussion about the factors that led to the longevity of the tripartite system, which enabled ‘varta’ to function so well for so many centuries, the harmonious interdependence between the prescriptions under Ayurveda for maintaining health and the produce of spiritual cultivation that provides such substances (such as the ‘sali’ families of rice mentioned in the Arthashastra), the assault on the ‘grama’ during the eras of occupation of Bharat by foreign powers, and the much more recent displacement of our spiritual agriculture by what is today called ‘agro-ecological’ and ‘organic agriculture’, follow in the next article.

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Written by makanaka

November 4, 2016 at 20:01

Environmental law and the dharmic principle

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RG_tree_om_blog_20160829The recent history of “global” approaches to the environment has shown that they began full of contradictions and misunderstandings, which have continued to proliferate under a veneer of internationalisation. To provide but a very brief roster, there was in the 1970s the “Club of Rome” reports, as well as the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in 1972 (which produced the so-called Stockholm Declaration). In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro) was held and was pompously called the “Earth Summit,” where something called a “global community” adopted an “Agenda 21.” With very much less fanfare also in 1992 came the Convention on Biological Diversity, and signing countries were obliged to “conserve and sustainably manage their biological resources through global agreement,” an operational conundrum when said resources are national and not international.

In 2000 came the “Millennium Summit,” at which were unveiled the Millennium Development Goals, which successfully incubated the industry of international development but had almost nothing to do with the mundane practice of local development. In 2015 came the UN Sustainable Development Summit, which released a shinier, heftier, more thrillingly complex list of sustainable development goals. During the years in between, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its associated satellite meetings (three or four a year) spun through every calendar year like a merry-go-round (it is 22 years old, and the very global CO2 measure for PPM, or parts per million, has crossed 400).

The visarjan (immersion) of Shri Ganesh. The idol is accompanied by huge crowds in Mumbai. Photo: All India Radio

The visarjan (immersion) of Shri Ganesh. The idol is accompanied by huge crowds in Mumbai. Photo: All India Radio

Looking back at some five decades of internationalisation as a means to some sort of sensible stock-taking of the connection between the behaviors of societies (ever more homogenous) and the effects of those behaviors upon nature and environment, I think it has been an expensive, verbose, distracting, and inconclusive engagement (but not for the bureaucratic class it sustains, and the “global development” financiers, of course). That is why I find seeking some consensus between countries and between cultures on “ecocide” is rather a nonstarter. There are many differences about meaning, as there should be if there are living cultures left amongst us.

Even before you approach such an idea (not that it should be approached as an idea that distinguishes a more “advanced” society from one apparently less so), there are other ideas, which from some points of view are more deserving of our attention, which have remained inconclusive internationally and even nationally for fifty years and more. Some of these ideas are, what is poverty, and how do we say a family is poor or not? What is economy and how can our community distinguish economic activity from other kinds of activity (and why should we in the first place)? What is “education,” and what is “progress”-and whose ideas about these things matter other than our own?

That is why even though it may be academically appealing to consider what ecocide may entail and how to deal with it, I think it will continue to be subservient to several other very pressing concerns, for very good reasons. Nonetheless, there have in the very recent past been some efforts, and some signal successes too, in the area of finding evidence and intent about a crime against nature or, from a standpoint that has nothing whatsoever to do with law and jurisprudence, against the natural order (which we ought to observe but for shabby reasons of economics, career, standard of living, etc., do not).

Clay cooking pots and decorative terracotta. A craftsman and his wares at a weekly market in Kerala.

Clay cooking pots and decorative terracotta. A craftsman and his wares at a weekly market in Kerala.

These efforts include Bolivia’s Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, whose elaborate elucidation in 2010 gave environmentalists much to cheer about. They also include the recognition by the UN Environment Programme, in incremental doses and as a carefully measured response to literally mountainous evidence, of environmental crime. This is what the UNEP now says, “A broad understanding of environmental crime includes threat finance from exploitation of natural resources such as minerals, oil, timber, charcoal, marine resources, financial crimes in natural resources, laundering, tax fraud and illegal trade in hazardous waste and chemicals, as well as the environmental impacts of illegal exploitation and extraction of natural resources.”  Quite frank, I would say, and unusually so for a UN agency.

Moreover, there is the Monsanto Tribunal, which is described as an international civil society initiative to hold Monsanto-the producer of genetically modified (GM) seed, and in many eyes the most despised corporation ever-“accountable for human rights violations, for crimes against humanity, and for ecocide.” In the tribunal’s description of its rationale, ecocide is explicitly mentioned, and the tribunal intends to follow procedures of the International Court of Justice. It is no surprise that Monsanto (together with corporations like Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, and DuPont) is the symbol of industrial agriculture whose object and methods advance any definition of ecocide, country by country.

This ecocidal corporation (whose stock is traded on all major stock markets, which couldn’t care less about the tribunal) is responsible for extinguishing entire species and causing the decline of biodiversity wherever its products are used, for the depletion of soil fertility and of water resources, and for causing an unknown (but certainly very large) number of smallholder farming families to exit farming and usually their land, therefore also exiting the locale in which bodies of traditional knowledge found expression.  Likewise, there is the group of Filipino investigators, a Commission on Human Rights, who want forty-seven corporate polluters to answer allegations of human rights abuses, with the polluters being fossil fuel and cement companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, and BP, and the allegations include the roles of these corporations’ products in causing both “global warming and the harm that follows.”

A 'gudi' and 'bhagwa dhvaj' hoisted by a home in Goa for Gudi Padwa, the festival which marks the beginning of the new year.

A ‘gudi’ and ‘bhagwa dhvaj’ hoisted by a home in Goa for Gudi Padwa, the festival which marks the beginning of the new year.

Such examples show that there is a fairly strong and active manifestation of the movement to recognise ecocide as a crime under international law. However, to find such manifestations, one has to look at the local level. There, the questions pertain more tangibly to the who, what, and how of the ecological or environmental transgression, and the how much of punishment becomes more readily quantifiable (we must see what forms of punishment or reparation are contained in the judgments of the Monsanto Tribunal and the Philippines Commission).

Considering such views, the problem becomes more immediate but also more of a problem-the products of industrialised, mechanised agriculture that is decontextualised from culture and community exists and are sold and bought because of the manner in which societies sustain themselves, consciously or not. It is easier to find evidence for, and easier to frame a prosecution or, the illegality of a corporation, or of an industry, than for the negligence of a community which consumes their products. So the internationalisation (or globalisation) of the idea of ecocide may take shape in a bubble of case law prose and citations from intergovernmental treaties but will be unintelligible to district administrators and councils of village elders.

My view is that searching for the concept which for the sake of semantic convenience we have called ecocide as an outcome of an “internationally agreed” idea of crime and punishment will ultimately not help us. I have such a view because of a cultural upbringing in a Hindu civilisation, of which I am a part, and in which there exists an all-embracing concept, “dharma,” that occupies the whole spectrum of moral, religious, customary, and legal rules. In this view, right conduct is required at every level (and dominates its judicial process too), with our literature on the subject being truly voluminous (including sacred texts themselves, the upanishads, various puranas, and works on dharma).

Perhaps the best known to the West from amongst this corpus is the Arthashastra of Kautilya, a remarkable legal treatise dealing with royal duties which contains a fine degree of detail about the duties of kings (which may today be read as “governance”). This treatise includes the protection of canals, lakes, and rivers; the regulation of mines (the BCE analogue of the extractive industries that plague us today); and the conservation of forests. My preference is for the subject of ecocide and its treatment to be subsumed into the cultural foundation where it is to be considered for, when compared with how my culture and others have treated the nature-human question, it becomes evident that we today are not the most competent arbiters, when considering time frames over many generations, about how to define or address such matters. The insistence on “globalising” views in fact shows why not.

(This comment has been posted at the Great Transition Initiative in reply to an essay titled ‘Against Ecocide: Legal Protection for Earth’.)

How we almost lost our growing tradition

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Part one, ‘Old krishi for new Bharat’ is here.

This came to be known as a ‘development paradigm’ which countries like India and civilisations like Bharat were given prescriptions for. Many of these prescriptions were and continue to be the equivalent of chemotherapy and radiation as used for the treatment of cancer – destroy in the name of curing. This is why in our regions (they are entirely ecological regions, our river valleys and plains, we saw no reason to call them anything but the old names they had been given, for words like ‘ecology’ and agro-ecology only now convey similar meaning that कृषि संस्कृति does) which grew rice, millets, barley, sorghum, wheat, pulses, seasonal fruits and vegetables, a new identity was announced.

This was done early in the ‘green revolution’, a programme that to our ‘annadaatas’ is no less devilish than the industrial revolution in western Europe was to the very fabric of those societies. The new identity was ‘high yielding variety’ and these new hybrids were in no way better than what they were given the power to replace. They neither yielded more than the current varieties, nor did they contain more nutritive elements, nor did their plant matter prove to have more uses than what they replaced, nor could they survive during inclement phases of a seasonal climate with a cheery hardiness the way our traditional varieties could. They were inferior in every way; how could they not be for they had emerged from a science whose very gears and levers were designed by the global market which ruled, paid for and determined that science.

RG_krishi_series2_pic2_201607Youngsters in the India of the 1970s, whether in cities, towns or villages, knew little of these changes and what they portended. Our preoccupations were study, work and attending to the daily and seasonal chores of family. But already, the difference between us and them was being introduced into our quite impressionable lives. Cola, hamburger, popcorn, blue jeans, rock music and behavioural accessories that accompanied such produce had appeared in our midst, via many illicit routes (in those days the Coca Cola company had been expelled). Looking back, such products and behaviours seemed desirable because two important factors worked together – the impact of ‘western’ (mainly American) popular culture vehicles and in particular its motion picture industry, and the accounts of those Indians, young and old, who had left their country to become (mainly) American. It was a time when our world was still considered to be dominated by superpowers and lesser power blocs (we were neither), but the friendship India had with the Soviet Union, the USSR, at no time became manifest through food and drink, behaviours and attitudes.

Why did one influence but not the other? Years later, when working with the Ministry of Agriculture on a lengthy programme intended to strengthen our agricultural extension system, I found a part of the answer. Even in the early 1950s, what became our national agricultural research system, under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (itself a nationalised version of the Imperial Council of the British colonial era), had been partially designed and implemented by the US Agency for International Development and facilitated by the Rockefeller Foundation. A full decade before the mechanics of the ‘green revolution’ set to work in the plains of northern India, the state agricultural universities and the specific crop institutes they cooperated with were organised along operational lines drawn up by foreign advisers (the early FAO was present too). And that early indoctrination led to one of the most invisible yet long-running collaborations between ‘formal’ crop science personnel from India and the American land grant colleges with their extensive networks of industry interests.

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As a young man in my early twenties, I would often hear about the ‘brain drain’, which is the term we used to describe those students and scholars who had earned degrees from our Indian Institutes of Management or our Indian Institutes of Technology and who had made their way abroad, most of them to the USA. These were publicly funded institutes, and the apt question at the time was: why were we investing in their education only to lose them? I had been utterly unaware at the time that a similar ‘brain drain’ had taken place in the agricultural sciences, which by the first decade of the 2000s did not require the ‘drain’ aspect at all, for by then the mechanisms of globalisation, aided by the wiles of technology and finance, meant that the agendas of industrial agriculture could be followed by our national agricultural research system in situ. Of ecology, agro-ecology, environment and organic there was barely a mention, so successfully had the ‘food security’ threat begun to be spun.

It is a recent history that has taken shape while our urban and rural societies have worried themselves about how to escape monetary poverty, to escape hunger, to escape deprivations of every conceivable kind, and to pursue ‘development’ of every conceivable kind. While this has happened, the historians that we needed – I call them historians loosely, they needed only to observe and record and retell, but from the point of view of our joint families and our villages – to record such a change were very much fewer than we needed.

It may seem inconceivable that in a country of our size and population – which crossed one billion about a year before the 2001 Census – we lacked appropriate recordists but this too is a matter of selective exclusion (like the story about the hybrid seeds) for there are essays and tracts aplenty in our major languages and in regional scripts that detail the erosion of tradition because of the assaults of modern ‘development’ on our societies. But these are not in English, they are not ‘formal’, they carry no references and citations, they are published in local district towns, they are read by farmers, labourers, retired postmasters and assistant station masters but not by internationally recognised macro-economists or nationally feted captains of industry; they are not considered chronicles of social change and of the studied, deliberate, ruthless dismantling from our societies their traditions, amongst which is the growing of food.

[This article is the second part of a series of four.]

Old कृषि for new भारत

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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.]

Between Berar and Nizam, a taluka in Maharashtra

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RG_gazetteer_Parbhani_Hingoli

This is a small taluka in Vidarbha, Maharashtra. To the north, not far away, and visible on the horizon, is the line of hills called the Sahyadriparbat, which is also called the Ajanta range after the site with the remarkable frescoes.

Also due north is the city of Akola, and a little farther away north-east is Amravati, named after Amba whose ancient temple the old city, with more than 900 years of recorded history, is built around. To the west, in a nearly direct line west, is Aurangabad. To the south had stretched, not all that long ago, the dominions of the Nizam of Hyderabad, to which this little taluka had once belonged.

RG_Hingoli_Sengaon_201601Sengaon is the name of this taluka (an administrative unit unimaginatively called a ‘block’ by the administrative services, elsewhere a tehsil or a mandal) and today it is one of five talukas of the district of Hingoli, which itself is only very recent, for before 1999 it was a part of the district of Parbhani. But Hingoli town is an old one – its cantonment (old bungalows, large compounds) was where the defenders of this part of the Nizam’s northern dominions resided (over the frontier had been Berar), and there was a large and thriving market yard here, as much for the cotton as for the jowar.

The villages of Sengaon are mostly small and agricultural, which is how the entire district was described in the district gazetteer of the 1960s. There are today 128 inhabited villages in this little taluka, and this chart (click it for a full size version, data from Census 2011)  shows how their populations depend almost entirely on agriculture – for the group of villages, 92% of all those working do so in the fields, whether their village is as small as Borkhadi or Hudi, or as large as Sakhara or Palshi.

There were Bhois here (and still are), the fishermen and one-time litter-bearers, there are ‘deshastha‘ Maratha Brahmins, there are ‘Karhada‘ who take their name from Karhad, the sacred junction of the Koyna and the Krishna in Satara district, there are the former leather-workers and rope-makers called the ‘Kambhar‘, there are the weavers who are the ‘Devang‘ (with their four sub-divisions, and themselves a division of the great Dhangars or shepherds), there are the ‘Virasaiva‘ or the ‘Shivabhakta‘ or the ‘Shivachar‘ (all Lingayats) who have for generations been traders and agriculturists.

RG_Shengaon_villages3There are the ‘Pata Jangam‘ still who must lead a celibate life and could be distinguished by the long loose roseate shirts they wore and who spent their days in meditation and prayer, there were the ‘Mali‘ the fruit and vegetable growers the gardeners and cultivators (and in times past their society was divided according to what they grew so the ‘phool Mali‘ for flower the ‘jire Mali‘ for cumin seed and the ‘halade Mali‘ for turmeric), and there are the Maratha – the chief warriors, land owners and cultivators – and the 96 families to which they belong, there are Maheshvari Marwaris, the ‘suryavanshi‘ or ‘chandravanshi‘ Rajputs, the Lambadi who at one time were grain and* salt carriers but also cattle breeders and graziers, and the ‘Vadar‘ or stone and earth workers.

This is who they are and were in the taluka of Sengaon, beyond and away from the dry and terse descriptions contained on government beneficiaries lists and drought relief programmes. They know well their trees in the expansive grasslands of the north Deccan – the Indian bael, the ‘daura‘ or ‘dhamora‘ tree, the ‘saalayi‘ whose bark and gum resin treats all sorts of ailments, the ‘madhuca‘ or mahua, the amalaki – and do their best to protect them; the twigs and sticks that fuel their ‘chulhas’ are those which fall to the earth.

It is a small taluka but old, like the others in the ancient north Deccan, and in Marathi, some of the elders of the villages here explain, with great embellishment and pomp, how the Brihat Samhita contains detailed instructions of what to plant on the embankments of a water tank, especially the madhuca, which they will add could be found in villages whose names they all know well: Pardi, Shivni, Karegaon, Barda, Sawarkheda, Suldali, Kawardadi, Datada, Jamthi, Sabalkheda …

Written by makanaka

January 6, 2016 at 12:22

Out with the legislated history of Bharat

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A public statement entitled ‘Hypocrisy and Indian History’ has within two days of it being released gathered supporters by the thousand. Written by a group of historians, archaeologists and scholars of the Indian civilisation, the joint public statement has issued a clear and much-needed call for an unbiased and rigorous new historiography of India.

The 50 signatories (at this time supported by more than 4,000 via an online petition) have condemned the “pernicious imposition by the Leftist School of a ‘legislated history’, which has presented an alienating and debilitating self-image to generations of Indian students, and promoted contempt for their civilisational heritage”. The authors of the joint statement have opened a first front in the quest for India’s Leftist historians – long held as the only writers and interpreters of the history of an ancient and exceedingly rich civilisation – to face a reckoning that will undoubtedly be grim for their school.

'Bheelalas' (also Bhilala), Sehore (MP, the old Central Provinces), 1862, from the Waterhouse Albums

‘Bheelalas’ (also Bhilala), Sehore (MP, the old Central Provinces), 1862, from the Waterhouse Albums

They have pointed to a few of the more odious recent instances of the Left historians doing their duty to the former Congress-led government – on 26 October 2015, a group of 53 Indian historians publicly said they were alarmed by what they perceived as a “highly vitiated atmosphere” in India. Soon after, an “Open letter from overseas historians and social scientists” (numbering 176) followed, and this letter warned against “a dangerously pervasive atmosphere of narrowness, intolerance and bigotry” and “a monolithic and flattened view of India’s history”.

Such made-to-order intellectual endorsing of what has been a tactical political campaign against the BJP government has disturbed many historians, archaeologists and scholars of the Indian civilisation.

hist_quote1The authors of this statement have said their response is to the hypocritical attempts by leftist historians to claim a moral high ground. “Many of the signatories of the above two statements by Indian and ‘overseas’ historians,” they explain in their statement, “have been part of a politico-ideological apparatus which, from the 1970s onward, has come to dominate most historical bodies in the country, including the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), and imposed its blinkered view of Indian historiography on the whole academic discipline”.

The authors of the (welcome and timely) call to free Indian historiography from the intellectual gulags of the left include a number of current members of the ICHR, several former members of the council, several scholars of the Archaeological Survey of India, university professors, Sanskrit scholars and linguists. They provide seven good reasons why their call is important, and these are (reproduced directly from the call):

'Kali Ghat, Calcutta', from 'Picturesque India. A handbook for European travellers, etc.', by W S Caine, G Routledge & Sons, 1890

‘Kali Ghat, Calcutta’, from ‘Picturesque India. A handbook for European travellers, etc.’, by W S Caine, G Routledge & Sons, 1890

1. A reductionist approach viewing the evolution of Indian society almost entirely through the prism of the caste system, emphasizing its mechanisms of “exclusion” while neglecting those of integration without which Indian society would have disintegrated long ago.

2. A near-complete erasure of India’s knowledge systems in every field —philosophical, linguistic, literary, scientific, medical, technological or artistic — and a general under-emphasis of India’s important contributions to other cultures and civilizations. In this, the Leftist School has been a faithful inheritor of colonial historiography, except that it no longer has the excuse of ignorance. Yet it claims to provide an accurate and “scientific” portrayal of India!

3. A denial of the continuity and originality of India’s Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh culture, ignoring the work of generations of Indian and Western Indologists. Hindu identity, especially, has been a pet aversion of this School, which has variously portrayed it as being disconnected from Vedic antecedents, irrational, superstitious, regressive, barbaric — ultimately “imagined” and, by implication, illegitimate.

hist_quote24. A refusal to acknowledge the well-documented darker chapters of Indian history, in particular the brutality of many Muslim rulers and their numerous Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and occasionally Christian and Muslim victims (ironically, some of these tyrants are glorified today); the brutal intolerance of the Church in Goa, Kerala and Puducherry; and the state-engineered economic and cultural impoverishment of India under the British rule. While history worldwide has wisely called for millions of nameless victims to be remembered, Indian victims have had to suffer a second death, that of oblivion, and often even derision.

5. A neglect of tribal histories: For all its claims to give a voice to “marginalized” or “oppressed” sections of Indian society, the Leftist School has hardly allowed a space to India’s tribal communities and the rich contributions of their tribal belief systems and heritage. When it has condescended to take notice, it has generally been to project Hindu culture and faith traditions as inimical to tribal cultures and beliefs, whereas in reality the latter have much more in common with the former than with the religions imposed on them through militant conversions.

Illustration 'Women of Bombay' from 'What I saw in India', by H S Newman, Partridge & Co., 1885

Illustration ‘Women of Bombay’ from ‘What I saw in India’, by H S Newman, Partridge & Co., 1885

6. A biased and defective use of sources: Texts as well as archaeological or epigraphic evidence have been misread or selectively used to fit preconceived theories. Advances of Indological researches in the last few decades have been ignored, as have been Indian or Western historians, archaeologists, anthropologists who have differed from the Leftist School. Archaeologists who developed alternative perspectives after considerable research have been sidelined or negatively branded. Scientific inputs from many disciplines, from palaeo-environmental to genetic studies have been neglected.

7. A disquieting absence of professional ethics: The Leftist School has not academically critiqued dissenting Indian historians, preferring to dismiss them as “Nationalist” or “communal”. Many academics have suffered discrimination, virtual ostracism and loss of professional opportunities because they would not toe the line, enforced through political support since the days of Nurul Hasan. The Indian History Congress and the ICHR, among other institutions, became arenas of power play and political as well as financial manipulation. In effect, the Leftist School succeeded in projecting itself as the one and only, crushing debate and dissent and polarising the academic community.

hist_quote3And there we have it. I signed the petition (which you will find here) and commented: “The Indic approach to understanding the patterns of the past has been systematically denied, suppressed, altered, misrepresented, miscast, ridiculed and marginalised by the historians who are the subject here. In my view, aspects that have a great deal to do with shaping events and the lives of peoples – language and spirituality – have been ignored altogether by the ‘leftist school’. In so doing, a gigantic corpus of work and memory concerning our Bharatiya past has been concealed or neglected to a condition of near ruin, and this has been disastrous for the transmission of the values and ideas which are part of our heritage. That is why I welcome this call for a new historiography of Bharat.”

The 50 original signatories of this statement are:

1. Dr. Dilip K. Chakrabarti, Emeritus Professor, Cambridge University, UK; Dean, Centre of Historical and Civilizational Studies, Vivekananda International Foundation, Chanakyapuri, Delhi; member, ICHR
2. Dr. Saradindu Mukherji, historian, retired from Delhi University; member, ICHR
3. Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Director, CPR Institute of Indological Research, Chennai; member, ICHR
4. Dr. M.D. Srinivas, former professor of theoretical physics; former vice-chairman, Indian Institute of Advanced Study; chairman, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai; member, ICHR
5. Dr. Meenakshi Jain, associate professor of history, Delhi University; member, ICHR
6. Michel Danino, guest professor, IIT Gandhinagar; member, ICHR
7. Prof. B.B. Lal, former Director General, Archaeological Survey of India
8. Dr. R.S. Bisht, former Joint Director General, Archaeological Survey of India
9. Dr. R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Archaeology, Govt. of Tamil Nadu; Vice Chancellor, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Viswa Mahavidyalaya, Kanchipuram
10. Dr. B.M. Pande, Former Director, Archaeological Survey of India
11. Prof. Dayanath Tripathi, former Chairman, ICHR; former Head, Dept. of Ancient History, Archaeology and Culture, D.D.U. Gorakhpur University, Gorakhpur; former Visiting Professor at Cambridge, British Academy
12. Prof. R.C. Agrawal, President, Rock Art Society of India; former Member Secretary of ICHR
13. Prof. K.V. Raman, former professor of Ancient Indian History & Archaeology, University of Madras
14. Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, Dancer and Research Scholar
15. Prof. Kapil Kapoor, former Rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Chancellor, Mahatma Gandhi Antararashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, Wardha (Maharashtra)
16. Prof. Madhu Kishwar, Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi
17. Dr. Chandrakala Padia, Vice Chancellor, Maharaja Ganga Singh University (Rajasthan); Chairperson, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla
18. Sachchidanand Sahai, Ph.D. (Paris), National Professor in Epigraphy, Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Advisor to Preah Vihear National Authority under the Royal Government of Cambodia; member, ICHR
19. Dr. J.K. Bajaj, Director Centre for Policy Studies, Former Member ICSSR
20. Dr. Makarand Paranjape, Professor of English, JNU; Visiting Global South Fellow, University of Tuebingen
21. Dr. Nikhiles Guha, former professor of history, University of Kalyani, West Bengal; member, ICHR
22. Prof. Issac C.I., member, ICHR
23. Prof. (Dr.) Purabi Roy, member, ICHR
24. Prof. Jagbir Singh, Former Professor and Head, Dept. of Punjabi, University of Delhi; Life Fellow, Punjabi University, Patiala.
25. Dr. G.J. Sudhakar, former Associate Professor, Dept. of History, Loyola College, Chennai
26. Dr. Bharat Gupt, Former Associate Professor, Delhi University
27. Prof. O.P. Kejariwal, Central Information Commissioner & Nehru Fellow
28. Dr. S.C. Bhattacharya, former Professor and HOD, Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology, Allahabad University; former National Fellow, IIAS, Shimla
29. Prof. S.K. Chakraborty, former professor, Management Centre for Human Values, Indian Institute of Management Calcutta
30. Dr. Amarjiva Lochan, Associate Professor in History, Delhi University; President, South and Southeast Asian Association for the Study of Culture & Religion (SSEASR) under IAHR, affiliated to the UNESCO
31. Dr. R.N. Iyengar, Distinguished Professor, Jain University, Bangalore
32. Professor (Dr) R. Nath, former Professor of History, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur
33. Kirit Mankodi, archaeologist, consultant to Project for Indian Cultural Studies, Mumbai
34. Prof. K. Ramasubramanian, Cell for Indian Science and Technology in Sanskrit, IIT Bombay; Council Member International Union for History and Philosophy of Science; member, Rashtriya Sanksrit Parishad
35. Dr. M.S. Sriram, Retired Professor and Head, Department of Theoretical Physics, University of Madras; Member Editorial Board, Indian Journal of History of Science; Former Member, Research Council for History of Science, INSA
36. Dr. Amartya Kumar Dutta, Professor of Mathematics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata
37. Dr. Godabarisha Mishra, Professor and Head, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Madras
38. Dr. R. Ganesh, Shathavadhani, Sanskrit scholar
39. Sri Banwari, Academic and Journalist; former Resident Editor, Jansatta
40. Dr. S. Krishnan, Associate Professor, Dept of Mathematics, IIT Bombay
41. Dr. Rajnish Kumar Mishra, Associate Professor, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
42. Dr. Vikram Sampath, Director, Symbiosis School of Media and Communication; former Director of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) – SRC; historian and author
43. Prof. K. Gopinath, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore
44. Prof. M.A. Venkatakrishnan, former Professor and Head, Dept. of Vaishnavism, Madras University
45. Dr. Sumathi Krishnan, Musician and Musicologist
46. Dr. Prema Nandakumar, Author and translator
47. Dr. Santosh Kumar Shukla, Associate Professor, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
48. Dr. Siniruddha Dash, former Professor & Head, Dept. of Sanskrit, University of Madras
49. Dr. Mamata Mishra, Managing Trustee, Prof. K.V. Sarma Research Foundation
50. Dr. Chithra Madhavan, historian and epigraphist

Written by makanaka

November 20, 2015 at 00:59

The Indo-Pak orange line four years later

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Almost exactly four years ago, in September 2011, the border between India and Pakistan was photographed by an astronaut on the International Space Station. It showed the border as a long orange line, one of the few international borders that can be seen from low earth orbit.

On 23 September 2015 the space agency NASA released a new picture. The line is as long and orange as it was, perhaps more fortified now. The cities visible on both sides of the very well lit frontier are more populous, and certainly emit more light in 2015 than they did in 2011.

An astronaut aboard the International Space Station took this nighttime panorama while looking north across Pakistan’s Indus River valley. The right half of the picture is occupied by the western districts of Rajasthan. Image: NASA

An astronaut aboard the International Space Station took this nighttime panorama while looking north across Pakistan’s Indus River valley. The right half of the picture is occupied by the western districts of Rajasthan. Image: NASA

I have added names to the clusters of bright lights seen in the new photograph. In western Rajasthan, Jodhpur, Barmer, Bikaner and Jaisalmer are all visible. In southern Pakistan, Karachi and Hyderabad are easily made out. The media has used the new photographs too, as you can see here, here, here and here.

A high resolution image is available here from Nasa’s Earth Observatory website. Another night image shows the border zone looking south-east from the Himalaya. An older daytime view shows the vegetated bends of the Indus Valley winding through the otherwise desert landscape.

Written by makanaka

October 7, 2015 at 10:12

Counting the great Indian agricultural mosaic

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There is not a ‘bigha‘ of Bharat that has not been cultivated, used as orchard, or as pasture, or at one time or another over the centuries, times tumultuous or peaceable, belonged in part or wholly to a nearby ‘agrahara‘. The measurement of our land is a science that is as ancient as are the sciences of tending to and cultivating the land, and what today we reckon in hectares and acres (not ours these measures, but left behind and used through administrative inertia) were counted, re-counted, assessed and taxed as being a certain number of guntha, bigha, biswa, kanal, marla, sarsaai or shatak. In these wondrously named parcels of land – bunded and their perimeters shaded, so that the kisans of old could sit under a leafy canopy and enjoy a mid-day meal and a short snooze – grew our foodgrain.

There are 138.35 million operational holdings in India. (Uttar Pradesh has 23.33 million, Bihar 16.19 million, Maharashtra 13.70 million, Andhra Pradesh 13.18 million.) The small and marginal holdings taken together (below 2 hectares) constitute 85.01% of all holdings. This treemap represents the number of holdings, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding area.

There are 138.35 million operational holdings in India. (Uttar Pradesh has 23.33 million, Bihar 16.19 million, Maharashtra 13.70 million, Andhra Pradesh 13.18 million.) The small and marginal holdings taken together (below 2 hectares) constitute 85.01% of all holdings. This treemap represents the number of holdings, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding area.

Whether Gupta or Vijaynagar, Hoysala or Kakatiya, Mughal or British colonial, these fields every so often received visitors, at times unwelcome but usually businesslike, for the Bharat of old and of medieval times alike was profoundly productive, and these officials had much ground to cover. In later eras they were known as tehsildar, naib tehsildar, kanungo and patwari and they prepared records such as the ‘shajra nasab‘ (always with the help of a typically tattered ‘jamabandi‘), followed by the ‘khatauni‘ – a laborious task that required the patwari to measure each ‘khasra‘ and appropriately mark it with pencil (a rough marking, to be inked only after final tallying) on the ‘mussavi‘. And to be administratively infallible, for land revenue and land settlement is the most serious of a government’s business, the kanungo re-measured the land and added his observation to the ‘mussavi‘.

And so it went, from one panchayat to the next, from one circle to another, from one tehsil (or mandal or taluka) to the next, passing under the tired eyes and across the cluttered desks of assistant settlement officer (where is the inspection diary, these officers would ask), then to the assistant collector (grades II and I) and then to the spacious chambers (supplied with punkahs and water coolers) of the district collector.

The total cultivated area is 159.59 million hectares, the average size of an operational holding has declined to 1.15 hectare in 2010-11 as compared with 1.23 hectare in 2005-06. (Rajasthan has 21.14 million hectare, Maharashtra has 19.77 million, Uttar Pradesh 17.62 million, Madhya Pradesh 15.84 million.). This treemap represents the cultivated agricultural area, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding.

The total cultivated area is 159.59 million hectares, the average size of an operational holding has declined to 1.15 hectare in 2010-11 as compared with 1.23 hectare in 2005-06. (Rajasthan has 21.14 million hectare, Maharashtra has 19.77 million, Uttar Pradesh 17.62 million, Madhya Pradesh 15.84 million.). This treemap represents the cultivated agricultural area, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding.

It was so then, in the time of my grand-parents (two sets, at opposite ends of British India), and it was so in the time of their great grand-parents. During my lifetime it has come to be called – this detailed measuring of our land with a benign view to assessing fairly – the agricultural census, and it is the most recent one, 2010-11, which gives us many points to ponder, but is somewhat lacking when it comes to the labyrinthine histories of the administering of what for so many centuries has been measured and recorded.

Nonetheless the Agricultural Census of India 2010-11 serves us with a commentary that is contemporaneous and informative, for its primary fieldwork consisted of “retabulating the operational holding-wise information contained in the basic village records” which “would be done by the village accountant”, a gentleman (usually, for accounting has not experienced the gender equalising which panchayats have) known in different states by different names – he is the patwari but he is also the lekhapal, the talathi or the karnam. His work (always in progress, just as the seasons are) is supervised by the revenue inspectors.

These worthies (not as dour, I can assure you, as their title suggests, for they are just as often cultivators themselves, or veterinarians, and even ayurvedic practitioners) contribute to the most important part of our agricultural census, and that is the preparation of the list of operational holdings. It is a task far too wide and vast and complex for any revenue inspector, however dedicated and well disposed towards both the physical and mathematical aspects of it, for this officer must examine all the survey numbers in the basic village record, the ‘khasra register’ (or any other equivalent local record), classify the survey numbers held by operational land holders, often cross-reference this tentative list with other village records (like the ‘khatauni‘) which names the cultivators. Many consultations ensue, a few arguments, and a considerable amount of cross-confirmation in dusty stacks and mouldy cupboards.

This is the historical milieu to which our agricultural census belongs. We should savour it, for it is a unique undertaking, just as much as each of our thousands of varieties of rice (‘dhanyam‘ it was in the time of the ‘agraharas‘ and it is so today too) – the careful and ritual counting of the great Indian agricultural mosaic.

Why did food need cities at all?

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Cities may grow a few of their vegetables, but from where else can the cereal staples come if not the rural fields? Photo: Rahul Goswami, 2015

Cities may grow a few of their vegetables, but from where else can the cereal staples come if not the rural fields? Photo: Rahul Goswami, 2015

The industrialisation of the transfer of food produce from a food producing region to a net food consuming one is in my view the cause for what we have grown used to calling the rural-urban divide or difference. It is artificial and unfortunately this artifice is the basis for a number of untruths – such as ‘cities are the engines of growth / innovation / education’ and so on (arguments that have been spread vigorously by the globalisers, such as the World Economic Forum, most central banks, the commodity markets, and the international trading system).

From accounts about what we today call south and south-east Asia, the difference between a crop-producing region (managed by a group of villages) and a net food-consuming centre lay mainly in what that centre did for the villages. Markets for the sale and exchange of produce and livestock usually led to one village (with more political power than others) hosting the market, the associated food trading infrastructure, the finance needs (simple as they were, such as credit and insurance for the next season), the transport. These became the first urban centres – but it is important to recall that they existed as adjuncts to crop-growing regions, even when host to the apparatus of ruling regimes and (just as often) faith-based and spiritual enclaves.

In the Western Ghats, a termite mound next to a shrine is also venerated. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

In the Western Ghats, a termite mound next to a shrine is also venerated. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

There are examples that show how the balance of power was maintained – and corrected when necessary – between such centres on the one hand, and the needs of crop-growing communities supported by temple domains, on the other. Studies of the Hoysala period of southern India (1000-1350 CE) have explained how the ‘agraharas‘ – temple complexes to which belong villages and agricultural lands – were centres of crop collection, redistribution, storage and trade. Were these ‘agraharas‘ ‘urban’ in the sense we use the term today? To some extent, insofar as the priestly class and administrators did not actively cultivate crop staples. But there is another group which did not – the soldiery, and a standing army not only did not lend its labour for use in the fields, it also demanded a large amount of food. And so we have in our annals accounts of how the ‘agraharas‘ of southern India on occasion refused to continue feeding an enlarged standing army at the cost of what we today call the food security of the peasants. Naturally, the ruler had to comply.

I think this illustrates the ties between the cultivators of food staples and the consumers of produce. The trouble is that if in Hoysala times the adjustment was made by an ‘agrahara‘ (which embodied the religious aspect, devotional food, equitable distribution, and so on) in today’s scenario there is no such studied altruism. The market thinks short-term, uses financialisation as a means to yoke people to consumerism and has in many countries exploited the historical connection between food producer and consumer to boost, through the application of technology and the artifice of ‘retail’, GDP.

Written by makanaka

February 15, 2015 at 20:14

Greece checkmates the European Union

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Syriza has said Greece will continue to make payments on the country's massive debt, but will also negotiate relief. Most important, the Syriza programme is unmistakably left wing and will lead to a head-on collision with the EU institutions and big business. Image: Cartoon Movement / Gatis Sluka (Latvia, Riga)

Syriza has said Greece will continue to make payments on the country’s massive debt, but will also negotiate relief. Most important, the Syriza programme is unmistakably left wing and will lead to a head-on collision with the EU institutions and big business. Image: Cartoon Movement / Gatis Sluka (Latvia, Riga)

The victory of Syriza in the 25 January 2015 general election in Greece has triggered off genuine hope in Europe that changes for the better are possible. There was, for the world to witness through television cameras and to read via social media channels, an outpouring of joy on the streets of Athens when the Coalition of the Radical Left (which is what the acronym ‘syriza’ stands for) won 37.5% of the votes polled and 146 seats in the parliament.

The Syriza that has now formed the new government brings together a group of 13 radical and left-wing political groups and factions ranging from democratic socialist and green-oriented to communist, trotskyist and maoist leftists and even some anti-European groups. Regardless of their often divergent political trajectories, their joint solidarity is a remarkable achievement, not only for Greece but for Europe.

Greece_syrizaAlready, the new Greek government is stamping upon Euro-politics a new voice. Syriza has spoken out against the EU partners over the statement that blames Russia for the recent attack on the Ukrainian city of Mariupol (Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria had voiced similar objections earlier). The new government, headed by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, said bluntly that “… it is underlined that Greece does not consent to this statement”. The decisive ‘no’ from Syriza could inspire other countries to follow suit and oppose Brussels’ policies towards Russia on the Ukrainian crisis. Before the remarkable result in Greece, it was considered difficult in the EU to break ranks but now it is not unlikely that Hungary, Slovakia and Cyprus will find the courage to also say ‘no’ to the diktat from Brussels.

And that is one reason why Europe’s parties — conservative or socialist or some muddled admixture thereof – have become anxious at the electoral success of a genuine leftist party in one of the countries of the European Union. They see the success of Syriza as encouraging and emboldening growing leftist movements in larger countries, including Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and elsewhere, all countries whose citizens have been hurt by the iron heel of selective ‘austerity’ imposed by the European Parliament (in collaboration with the International Monetary Fund and Europe’s central banks). As does Syriza, these new movements in Europe reject the jaded and morally compromised parties that have been taking turns running European countries as adjuncts to the dictates of trans-national capital and the networks of global financiers.

The resounding victory in Greece has halted in its tracks the prevailing neo-liberal consensus in Europe that the way to ‘reform’ economies is to impose ‘austerity’, slash social programmes, hammer down wages, boost unemployment, and privatise functions that have long been public like transit, education, roads and and health care. This is after all a coalition whose manifesto stated, “The national debt is first and foremost a product of class relations, and is inhumane in its very essence. It is produced by the tax evasion of the wealthy, the looting of public funds, and the exorbitant procurement of military weapons and equipment.” Greece has spoken and all of Europe is changed.

Written by makanaka

January 29, 2015 at 20:28