Living lightly on earth


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WE educate our children in the belief that there is a future; and in the hope that our children will inherit the future. So the best indicators of the dominant values of a society and the goals towards which it is reaching are to be found in the character of its schools. Since schools are also places where the cultural values of the past are transmitted to future generations, in articulating the educational needs of a school, parents, educators and writers are brought face to face with the aesthetic and moral values they wish to transmit. Ideally these values should be linked with the country’s achievement in the past and with the country’s present needs.

What is the future which awaits our children? The underlying assumption of the question that Indian children have a common future is itself dubious. It can legitimately be asked whether a student who is well-fed, attending a boarding school in the salubrious climate of the hills, and learning to use computers has any future in common with a malnourished child who goes to a school with no blackboards, if indeed he does go to school. The latter may have no worthwhile future at all. And it might be worthwhile to analyse the significance of this marginalisation of more than 75 per cent of the children of this country.

The failure to provide an infrastructure for primary education in the villages of India more than 40 years after Independence is in sharp contrast with the sophisticated institutions, for technical institutes of higher education are funded by government, which essentially means that the money to support them comes from taxes. And since indirect taxation forms a substantial part of the taxes collected by government, the financial burden is borne by all the people. L.K. Jha put it graphically when he observed that 25 paise of every rupee spent on educating an IIT student comes from the pockets of men and women whose children may never enter a proper classroom.

The goals of our present system of primary and secondary schooling is to prepare students for the examination system which will take them to the best technical institutions in the country. While the teaching of science and mathematics has over the years been upgraded, the teaching of the humanities and social sciences continues to be straight-jacketed in grotesque ways. Those areas of the Indian reality which ought to form the proper subject of study like caste, poverty, and environmental degradation, if we are to create a responsible and aware body of citizens, form no part of the syllabus.

The capacity to think independently and critically about problems that plague modern Indian society which ought really to be a prominent part of a humanities curriculum, is perceived to be intractable from the point of view of the examiner. Lest the evaluation become subjective, every effort is made to reduce both history and economics to a series of facts; a one-to-one correlation between facts ensures proper systems of grading.



The four noble truths of Buddhism are just ways of earning four points in the examination; they have nothing to do with the wider question of right livelihood. Nor does it seem to matter that the textbook’s sense of what constitutes a fact is somewhat eccentric; that Kanishka’s headless statue is not made of brass, that Buddhism definitely did not borrow the idea of the soul’s immortality from Brahmanism. Obviously here the respect for science has not translated into respect for evidence. As if to balance out the fragmentation and even atomisation of the subject matter of the humanities, the material covered in the syllabus is vast. It puts impossible burdens on the memory; mugging or learning by rote become the preferred ways students cope with the outrage thus perpetrated on them. The inevitable conclusion is then that schools are definitely not places to learn critical thinking, nor the places to learn humanity or even about beauty.

So when the social studies textbook informs the student that among Africans ‘and even some tribals in India’ magical beliefs predominate, it is only mirroring back to us our own view of ourselves, that by and large we are a rational and scientific people who should remain poised on the cutting edge of technology. The equation of progress with industrialisation provides additional rationalisation for diverting funds from rural education to institutes of ‘higher learning’. At the same time the humanism implicit in certain areas of science, for instance in Darwin’s theory of human evolution which teaches kinship between human beings and also between human beings and animals, is lost sight of.

If the present system of education excludes the poor rural student from proper careers in an industrial world, the industrial mode of production only serves to further their improverishment. In her brilliant and passionately argued book Staying Alive, Vandana Shiva demonstrates that in countries like India the price for industrialisation or the transformation of a need-based economy to a commodity-based, resource-intensive economy is increasingly being paid by the poor women in the villages of India. The responsibility for sustaining the basic needs of their families has perhaps always rested on their shoulders. But now, with the commercialisation of forests, with the depletion of the soil’s fertility, and the, diversion and subsequent pollution of such major resources as water, the satisfaction of even these basic needs of water, fuel and food has become an impossible burden.



The rural poor are trapped on all fronts: denied proper education, they cannot hope to succeed in an industrialising world which, like a monster, continues to exclude them from sharing in the common resources of the earth and even deny them the right to life. Attempts to change the values of those who will inherit the future is systematically discouraged by those who set the educational policy of this country.

As the fruits of industrialisation continue to be monopolised by the affluent, and the earth’s limited resources are diverted to feed industrial needs, it would seem that the future really belongs to the children of the affluent but for one rather crucial fact – that the earth, whose children we all are, is in trouble and has begun to react like those angry goddesses whom many of us remember and even propitiate. It will require more than mantras to propitiate her this time, for she has been deeply wronged. Geologists predict that by the end of the next century more than 50 per cent of plant and animal species will become extinct. And though there have been mass extinctions in the 600 million years since life on earth began, the extinction that is now underway is proceeding at a faster rate than any previously recorded, and is also man-made.



At the beginning of the next millennium the affluent among us will have truly inherited this small blue-green planet but it will no longer be hospitable to life. For Vandana Shiva, there is a certain symmetry between the destruction of nature and the degradation of women, tribals and peasants, those who live lightly on the earth. If the earth is to survive we have all to learn to live lightly on it. And that, I would suggest, ought to be the aim of a sane education policy for the 21st century. After 40 years of Independence, as we approach a new millennium, we find ourselves on the edge of a precipice.

We are one of the oldest literate civilisations on earth today; our roots go back to the 3rd millennium BC and many ideas from the past survive into the present as vague feelings which command our loyalty. The idea of a gurukulam is one such idea to which Indians respond with deep nostalgia. It goes back to ancient times when children were educated by sages in their forest hermitages. The vital link between learning and a natural settings posited in the original idea is articulated by Rabindranath Tagore when he wrote: ‘Contemporary western civilisation is built of brick and wood. It is rooted in the city. But Indian civilisation has been distinctive in locating its source of regeneration, material and intellectual, in the forest, not in the city. India’s best ideas have come when man was in communion with the trees and rivers and lakes away from the crowds.’

And in V.S. Naipaul’s most recent novel, the main character, much to his critics dismay, is the Wiltshire landscape. Here the writer, two generations removed from the subcontinental home of his ancestors, and an intruder in an English aristocrat’s once formal garden, traces the shape of the ancient Wiltshire landscape all the way to the neolothic Stonehenge. Making friends with deer and observing the ‘cycle’ of modern lives unfold against this panoramic background, he finds the path to the source of his own creativity.



Among the villages of Rayalseema in Andhra Pradesh, peasants will donate their best common land to build schools for their children, laying gardens and fruit trees and tending them as if they were temples. Indeed, recent research in the fields of health and education confirms this ancient belief that learning and healing are enhanced in natural surroundings. Colin Ward, who is education expert on the Town and Country Planning Association of London, writes: ‘The rural needs of the urban child are not just the sights of the farm or the pleasures of running untrammelled through the woods or exploring the country park. They include vital personal experiences and discoveries like silence, solitude, and the sensation of utter darkness.’ And a study sponsored by Unesco concludes by saying that for children, ‘the hunger for trees is outspoken and seemingly universal.’

Nascent memories of sacred landscapes continue to survive in Indians. It is a vital life-enhancing legacy from the ancient past which cuts across barriers of caste, class and education. It is a legacy on which a sane educational policy for the future can be built. Since it is no longer possible to locate schools in forest landscapes, schools should take on the responsibility of restoring the landscape around them. First, by teaching students to take care of their immediate surroundings; second, by introducing curricula which teach students the connectedness of nature and man’s place in it; and third, by cultivating those virtues which nourish and sustain earth – austerity, non-violence and cooperation. Indian schools should become the centres for the regeneration of the earth.

Schools like the Navodayas which are located in rural surroundings should become open institutions. By an open institution I mean one which does not set self-enclosing boundaries: it is a resource centre for a network of smaller, one-man schools located in villages. It shares its library facilities, its science and craft teachers who then could enhance the work of the smaller schools. It does not institutionalise competition in the student body because competition educates students to be self-enclosed, to think in terms of limited loyalties.



The necessary tools for this approach to education will have to be created by a network of partnerships of private and public agencies, central government institutes like the NCERT, environmental groups, local forest departments, agricultural research colleges, surveyors, land use experts and so on. Experts from various academic subjects will have to create an interdisciplinary curriculum which instructs students from an early age about the interdependence between human beings and their total environment, about the limits to the earth’s resources and limits to technology, about conserving water and soil, about preserving natural landscapes.



Students will have to be taught that every ton of topsoil slipping seaward from its hillside home, beyond natural replacement levels, represents a failure of culture. Sociologists will have to teach respect for forest tribes. And historians will have to teach that city life is not the ultimate accomplishment of humanity – that great achievements occurred outside the ambience of cities. And writers will have to ensure that lists of facts and statistics do not drown out humanity, nor ignore the experience of three quarters of our civilisation.

Our experience in Rayalaseema suggests that if a sufficiently inviting infrastructure is located in the countryside, it attracts young talent, men and women who are looking for alternative ways of living, and also students from cities looking for space and greenery. A sane educational policy for the future of India would encourage the movement back to the countryside, for human beings all over the planet are going to have to reclaim their land; they are going to have to stop behaving like aliens on earth and become natives instead. The educated and the well to do in India will have to learn to live in the Indian countryside, in villages, and to curtail their levels of consumption, turning people’s attention back to the land, toward those natural processes which sustain life and ‘the welfare of all living beings’, to use a felicitous phrase from Ashoka’s rock edicts.

There are various ways of relating to the landscape. The pattern of colonising and then exploiting a landscape is intrinsic to the industrialised mode of production. We in India are falling completely under the spell of this idea, to our very great peril. I would like to believe that different, more nurturing ways of relating to the landscape may lie in the Indian psyche, and that the future of our planet will depend on whether we can make these impulses flower.

These impulses have flowered in the past. D.D. Kosambi going against orthodox Marxist ideology argued that, ‘(Ancient) Indian society seemed to develop more by successive religious transformation than by violence.’ Evidence for his argument came from a close study of the rock-cut caves that follow ancient stone age routes down the Western Ghats. According to Kosambi, Buddhist monks in the 3rd century BC left flourishing cities of Pataliputra and Ujjain to build and inhabit rock-cut monastries along the Eastern and Western Ghats, inhabited at the time by fierce forest tribes. To this region they brought the technique of agriculture and in the early centuries of our era helped nourish the voluminous sea trade between the Han empire to the East and the Roman empire in the West.

Following Kosambi’s lead, more recent scholarship has also acknowledged the vital role played by the Buddhist monastries in sustaining trade along the Northern Silk Route. By providing such services as food, medicine for both men and animals along some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, they transformed the landscape.

The challenge today is very different. To reverse the process which has led to the present degradation of nature will need all the intelligence of which our species is capable. It may take a thousand years to regain the earth, but a beginning has to be made now.


* Reproduced from ‘Towards 2000 AD’, Seminar 365, January 1990.