< 500 Shiv Visvanathan, On ancestors and epigones

On ancestors and epigones


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THE importance of environment as a policy issue can be traced back to the colonial era. One can cite the various protest movements against colonial forestry in the Garhwal region or the tribal revolts chronicled by the historians of the subaltern school.1 The classic example would probably be the problem of flood control. As early as 1900, the British engineer, Francis Spring, suggested that ‘the appointment of a river commission for the organized study of the great alluvial rivers would be... an act worthy of the state.’2

The problems of flood control inspired the astrophysicist, Meghnad Saha, to speculate on the problems of river valley planning in India. He established the journal Science and Culture to popularise the need for statist planning to confront such environmental issues.3 The work of the science and culture pressure group contributed to the establishment of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) which was modelled on the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). However, environmentalism as statist ideology is a more recent phenomenon.

It was a result of the necessity of responding to the Naxalite and Chipko movements, out of a desire to suppress one and co-opt the other. Environmentalism as a reason of state is concurrent with the Emergency era. A concern for the environment provided a liberal dressing for the oppressiveness of the regime. It helped portray its humanistic concern for the victims of development. Such an ensemble of tactics must be differentiated from the holism of an ecological worldview. The grammar of the latter is radically different. It reflects the affinity of a society for nature, an intrinsic sense of the sacred regarding plants and animals, and an attitude to technology impelled by a sense of communitas.

As examples, one could think of various tribal worldviews or the culture of the Bishnois. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj would represent another embodiment of such a worldview. For an environmentalist, on the other hand, a concern with nature or for other cultures is an afterthought of his commitment to the project called development. It reflects the essential hubris of the state-science nexus and the belief that a little more technology and science can mop up the depredations of technocratic development.



The current view of environmentalism as a statist strategy is embodied in a series of tactics associated with some archetypal figures. My irrepressible colleagues have fine-honed it to a list of four. First the late prime minister, Indira Gandhi, internationally known for her concern for wildlife but indifferent to the genocidal possibilities of dams displacing people.

To add to this, we have the hyphenated strategies associated with two remarkably competent officials, Jagmohan and Jayakar. Jagmohan’s concern with town planning, with the city as a built-up environment, reflected the vision of Haussmannism as power, concealed under environmentalism as concern. The other part of this picture is a preoccupation with traditional heritage as a form of conspicuous consumption. It is embodied in the spectacle of Pupul Jayakar’s India Festivals. Interlacing all these into a populist manifesto was the work of Sanjay Gandhi, the fascist in the guise of a boy scout, with his concern for hiking, green belts and family planning.



But, beyond this set of personal styles, as an ideology, environmentalism in India embodies the following assumptions regarding nature, other cultures, technology and the city as the built-up environment.

1. It views nature primarily as a resource or commodity, justifying the preservation of nature for reasons of trade, tourism or leisure. It fails to comprehend the disjunction between the depredation of nature in the production system with the need to conserve nature for the purposes of leisure or consumption.

2. It attempts to humanize the violence of technological obsolescence through the museumization and preservation of endangered species, objects and people as spectacles or exhibits.

3. It disguises the power and violence of the state through notions of welfare, particularly through metaphors of health and hygiene, legitimating repression by offering to cleanse the environment. As a result, refractory communities like the poor, or even minorities, are cleared under town planning or family planning welfare programmes.

4. It fails to challenge the fact that the Indian state is an anti-ecological phenomenon displacing cultures and communities through dams, or destroying people through repressive forest bills introduced as an expression of its environmentalist concern. Environmentalism is a technocracy’s attempt to depoliticise the implications of ecologically inspired groups such as the Chipko, Appiko or even the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP).

5. It is illiterate about the possibilities of science itself being a mode of violence as expressed for instance in the idea of vivisection (the infliction of pain justified in the pursuit of scientific knowledge or Triage (the withholding of relief to certain communities justified on rational grounds).4 It fails to see the violence of the Bhopal disaster, nuclear energy or the green revolution as banally intrinsic to the dominant paradigms of science and technology.5

6. It abandons a civilizational view of nature and technology for the glorification of the nation-state and legitimizes managerial models as the styles of technological and political coping, sanctifying the expert technocrat as a special kind of man.



One could challenge such an ideology through a political critique of the state or through an evaluation of the technocratic conception of knowledge. But what I would like to do is to confront it on its own grounds as an imagination. I would like to suggest that it is a second-rate imagination and its mediocrity can be underlined by confronting it with its own genealogy within the national movement. Ideas, like families, need genealogies particularly to point out that they may have fallen into the wrong hands. The epigons must confront the ancestors particularly when the latter are more relevant.

I shall confront the current models of environmentalism with some of the collective wisdom of the debates on science and technology that were prevalent before the current model of statist development drove them underground or caricatured them through bowdlerization. I want to concentrate in particular on the critique of the Swadeshi movement of 1905. Swadeshism itself was the original embodiment of the garbled mix of nationalism and technocracy that we now call the import substitution model of industrialization.



The year 1905 was a landmark in the history of India. The partition of Bengal triggered the Swadeshi movement which demanded a greater degree of autonomy and initiated moves to indigenise industry. While its concerns were basically politico-economic, it was accompanied by an efflorescence of cultural debates. The movement produced in its aftermath a spate of self-criticism revolving around the civilizational question of science and state, focusing particularly on the question of university education and industrial development.6

Two aspects of the debate make it particularly relevant. It saw western science and civilization not merely as a fact out there, coercive and colonial, but as an inherent possibility within its own self. Secondly, it held that any solution should be relevant not only for the Indian village or neighbourhood but also to the whole world as a possibility. The neighbourhood had to reflect the concerns of the wider cosmos. The basic groups involved were the Gandhians, the Theosophists, the Swadeshi advocates, the Traditionalists, the Neovitalists and the Intermediate technologists. I shall restrict myself to a discussion of the last three groups.7

The solutions that all these groups offered were fascinating and provocative. They held that India could not reduce its identity to a scientific civilization. They saw science as problematic and sought to embed it within an ecology of other knowledges. Ecology, of course, is a modernist term. The equivalent exercise would contain the idea of a critical tradition or the use of tradition as a critique of modernity. The critical encounter between modern science and the civilizational traditions in India has not been fully played out. But even the first few acts offer a fascinating spectrum of possibilities.



The attempt was not to deny science, but to confront it with life giving myths or inject it with what the philosopher, Arne Naess, calls ‘postulates of impotency’. The violence and hegemony of science, they suggested, could only be controlled by working towards a pluralist ecology of knowledges. They sought to confront science with the wisdom of the other that it had subdued as pre-scientific, non-or pseudo-scientific. When modern science confronted the primitive, it reduced him to a lower order of mentality. When traditionalists tried to introduce into science the order of the symbol, pleading for an iconography of technology, this was dismissed as a millenarian vestige. I shall now outline some of the solutions offered, beginning with the work of the traditionalists as represented by the writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy.



The traditionalists challenged the swadeshi conceptions of science and technology to prevent the repetition of a tragedy. They realized that the West had lost the great traditions of medieval technology. But, in India, tradition was still alive and craft technologies were still living orders of doing and being. These technologies were gene pools of an alternative imagination which had to be sustained and eventually made available to the West. The problem lay in the fact that the nationalism of the Swadeshi movement was a mechanical one, seeking merely to substitute in industry, Indian personnel and ownership for the western colonial order.

Ananda Coomaraswamy asked: ‘What has Swadeshi done for Indian art? Almost nothing. Efforts are made to establish all sorts of factories for making soap, matches, cotton, nibs, biscuits and what not, while men who can still weave, still build, still work in gold and silver, copper and wood and stone, are starving because their work is out of fashion.’8

The traditionalist critique of western bourgeois science and technology centred around the museum. The museum represented an attitude to nature and culture which had to be challenged. To the West, the museum as a collective representation, represented its humanistic concern for other cultures. Yet, to Coomaraswamy, the immiseration of cultures through science was represented in the paradox called the museum. As an institution, the museum embodied a classification of dead cultures, collected and classified by the very scientific-industrial mind that had forced them into obsolescence. ‘We preserve folksongs at the same time our way of life destroys the singer.’9



The museum and the reservation – both as part and zoo – were complements of the violence of science in the laboratory. The first sought to preserve the artifacts of dead cultures, the other protected and embalmed cultures and species which were dying. Yet, both were participants in the wider order of science which forced these modes of technology and living into obsolescence. While humanistic, they reflected the detached curiosity of science to what it had done to the other outside it. For Coomaraswamy, it was almost as if scientific curiosity and formaldehyde went together. He thus condemned the museum as ethnocidal and necrophilic, smacking of anthropology and archaeology as the sciences of dead and dying orders and not of art as part of the living ecology of traditions. Museum treasures, he reminded us, were originally everyday productions of men, live men in living cultures. Coomaraswamy quoted a Sinhalese journalist as asking, ‘If God appeared on earth and enquired for the Aztecs, Incas, Red Indians, Australian aborigines and other slowly disappearing races, would civilized man take him to the museum?’10

Coomaraswamy’s critique of modern science focused on three other aspects. Firstly, the notion of art itself. He rejected the post-Renaissance distinction between crafts and fine arts and appealed to the platonic notion of art as the principles of manufacture – the science, both the physical and metaphysical, of making things for man’s good use. Such a concept included under its rubric not merely painting and music, but agriculture, cookery, and fishing. ‘Art is simply the right way of making things whether symphonies or aeroplanes.’11 Second, such a view challenged the very notion of art and thus even of science as something done by a special kind of man.

Within such a traditional view, every man was both an artist and a scientist, that is the artist was not a special kind of man but that every man with a vocation was a special kind of artist in the pursuit of arranging something or other according to his constitution and training. Finally, modern science he argued, led to the immiseration of cultures, the destruction of people’s art, appropriating their science and rendering them prole tarian. According to Coomaraswamy, a craftsman sans his science was a proletarian. Coomaraswamy’s critique can be understood with reference to two small essays, one on synthetic dyes and the other on the gramophone.12



His short note on Aniline dyes was an immediate response to P.C. Ray’s eulogy of synthetic chemistry. In a review of the International Congress of Applied Chemistry, the scientist had argued that the success of synthetic chemistry was the result of the dedication of generations of chemists, of labours which ‘revolutionized and completely destroyed a staple trade of France, Holland, Italy, and Turkey.’13 Coomaraswamy was provoked by the fact that Ray had failed to question the desirability or consequences of such a distinctively scientific process. Coomaraswamy held that such a flaw was endemic to the structure of science, which justified itself as knowledge pursued for its own sake.



As a result of this, abstract science lacked the normative principles for differentiating between growth and obsolescence. One incorporated the notion of tradition, genealogical depth and memory while the latter sprang from the emptiness of clock time. Coomaraswamy felt that only tradition and the cosmologies of a traditional society could provide the ecological system of controls, the embeddedness required for directing the technological process. The traditional orders lacked the dualism of the symbolic and the instrumental which modern technique introduces. They embodied notions of responsibility which the professionalism of modern science seemed unaware of. Coomaraswamy cited the case of an Indian woman who refused to buy a washing machine because then ‘what would become of my washerman’s livelihood?’14

The craft idiocy of modern science was reflected in the use of synthetic dyes, an act which forced a whole way of life ‘to die or sink into oblivion, without an attempt to study it and learn from it.’15 Science became the basis for a proletarianized world where the craftsman is no longer a master scientist. Coomaraswamy saw proletarianization by science as a process of deculturation through appropriation and standardization. The introduction of synthetic dyes had destroyed these craft traditions, and the art of dyeing, rather than being a celebration of variegated techniques differing from family to family and district to district, became a standardized set of scientifically ordained procedures to be applied mechanically from packets distributed by visiting German salesmen. The craft models of tradition became, to Coomaraswamy, ways that must be kept alive to remind science of orders of responsibility from which science itself stemmed. The craft traditions offer us a model of internal control, of renunciation, as an alternative to the externalist model of international control which is so central today.



Coomaraswamy saw science as accelerating the process towards the vulgar, unaesthetic man, a populist phenomenon which could not be restored by the palliatives of night school and ‘Home University’ pocket books. He added that, on the other hand, the craft traditions also embodied notions of ritualized reciprocity which eluded the secular structure of technological innovation. In his essay on the gramophone, he sought to articulate some of these normative principles.

The gramophone in a mechanical world was no longer an innocent form of entertainment. In fact, ‘every time you accept a gramophone in the place of a man, you degrade the musician, take from him his living and injure the group soul of your people.’16 Within the craft tradition each instrument had its own individuality, each moment of song was communion with a particular audience. But the mechanical production of the gramophone, where each part was made by a different man and fitted together by another man, destroyed such a process. The industrialization of music destroyed it both as a folk and esoteric art and rendered music vulgar and populist.



For Coomaraswamy, property, unlike in modern individualism, had to be part of communitas. Intellectual property was the common heritage of people and like natural resources had to be part of the commons. Any innovation which sought to destroy the continuity of such an heritage had to be renounced. Thus, what was rendered obsolescent by the gramophone was not just an artifact but a community of singers. Coomaraswamy was not against science per se. In fact, he believed that the only use for the gramophone was for purposes of scientific research. He felt however that science as a mode of perceiving had to be localized and encompassed within a wider metaphysics of the good, the true and the beautiful.

Modern intellectual science was merely a truncated cosmography and truncated cosmographies were woefully inadequate to provide the embeddedness, the holism that ecology demanded. One could hardly think of notions like the gift or sacrifice or play within such a framework. Coomaraswamy believed that one had to wage a relentless guerilla warfare against scientific civilisation. It was here that the swadeshism of Indian nationalism failed by succumbing to materialistic offerings of science, whether as the gramophone or the Aniline dye. ‘Five hundred years ago, it would not have mattered who destroyed Rheims; in this age of intellect it matters because contractors do not build like craftsmen. Indeed, is there any article of everyday use, from clothing of paper, from food to furniture that is as well made as it was a hundred years ago, except the engines of destruction.’17

If the traditionalists saw in resurgent India the possibilities of maintaining the continuity of tradition, the intermediate technologists discerned in the situation the possibilities of an altogether different experiment. They did not deny the rationality of traditional systems of technology. What they confronted was the problem of the viability of such systems against the onslaught of modernity, capitalism and imperialism. They were aware that the modern factory system was exploitative and degrading and saw the possibilities of helping India evolve industry in a different and more humane direction.



I shall examine two efforts in this context: the work of Allan Octavian Hume on agriculture and Fredrick Nicholson on fishing and agriculture. One must emphasize that the career lines of these exercises were similar. All these scientists were confronted with, even surprised by the rationality of traditional technology. The problem, however, lay in the fact that traditional technology as a text was being subverted by the new context. It was becoming unviable. The challenge lay in the possibilities of retaining the ecological viability of these technologies by introducing efficiencies which were consonant with their technique or by grafting them to alternative energy sources, like solar or wind-power, to avoid the diseconomies of modern technology.

The intermediate technology movement anticipated and articulated what is today known as the ethnoscience perspective. It holds that traditional notions of technology rather than being mere superstition were rational systems and, secondly, that the farmer and the artisan, like the scientist, was a man of knowledge. What is noteworthy is the reluctant admiration of this network of individuals for the rationality of traditional techniques.

The outstanding work in this genre is Allan Octavian Hume’s Agricultural Reform in India. Although it slightly predates the Swadeshi movement, it is relevant to the issues discussed. Referring to the peasant, Hume remarked, ‘so far as the rule of thumb goes, the experience of 3000 years has not been wholly wasted. They know to a day when it is best (if only meteorological conditions permit) to sow each staple and each variety of staple that is grown in each neighbourhood. As for weeds, their wheat fields would in this respect shame ninety-nine hundredths of those in Europe. They are great adepts at storing grain and will turn it out of rough earthenware pits after 20 years absolutely uninjured.’18



What troubled Hume was the fact that such knowledge was empirical, concrete, embedded in a local matrix of nature and tradition. Further, such knowledge was not purely secular but coloured by religious tradition. Hume listed a number of agricultural proverbs which governed the cycle of ploughing, sowing and reaping. Yet, unlike the modern agricultural scientist, Hume realized the importance of beginning with an analysis of such proverbs because ‘it is impossible to introduce any improved system of agriculture without realizing the extent to which the present practice of such an art is governed by superstition.’19

What puzzled Hume throughout was the fact that science was thought to be abstract and agricultural policy general; but here was a system of local sciences, embodied in proverbs, with its own vocabulary which incorporated empirical truths. Hume emphasized the importance of adapting science to local ecologies, especially in modifying machine technology to meet the needs of local agricultural systems.



Unlike traditionalism, the idea of intermediate technology consisted of an eclectic set of experiments. What was characteristic was the attempt to combine science as universal knowledge with local knowledges since these, even if ‘para-scientific’, had produced rational viable systems in symbiosis with other aspects of the culture. One must emphasize however that ethno-science and intermediate technology were relative rather than pluralistic orders. They only sought to humanize the movement from the traditional agricultural view to the scientific-industrial perspective. But the logic of their work led them to a realization that tribal or traditional agronomy as a system might embody a more ecological worldview than scientific agriculture.

The intermediate technologists saw swadeshism as a failure of the technological imagination. They felt that intermediate technology could provide that missing grammar, a blend of both technological competence and meaning. The role of the intermediate technologist lay in his ability to improve existing methods of technology without disrupting the culture or the ecology of the system and also in helping to facilitate a gradual movement towards industrialization. As evidence of the first, one can cite Nicholson’s work on agriculture and of the second, his efforts towards improving fisheries in India.

Nicholson, in his study of agriculture, showed that economics had to be ecological, that any system of intermediate technology must use what is generally under-utilized or ignored as waste. For technologists like Nicholson, the garden was the model, mediating between agriculture and industry. In his Note on Agriculture in Japan he remarked, ‘All land is treated like gardens, agriculture in Japan is horticulture.’20

It was Japanese intensiveness in the utilization of land and waste that impressed the British technologist. ‘With characteristic ingenuity, villagers contrive to attract mules, (the plan does not succeed with horses) to particular spots on the roads by odorising such spots with donkey droppings and urine; no passing donkey or mule fails to respond to the suggestion.’21 In fact, so intensive was the use that even city corporations obtained income by ‘leasing out the collection of dejecta to farmers and scavengers.’22 It was precisely such economy that Nicholson advocated for Madras which was poisoning itself with natural wastes festering on village sites.



Nicholson faulted both colonialism and swadeshism for ignoring such everyday technologies. Nicholson articulated his vision of intermediate technology in a remarkable passage on fishing. One should notice in particular his attempt to locate various forms of technology into niches. ‘There is a vague popular idea that development means ‘steam trawlers’; that there is an illimitable sea harvest outside needing only to be gathered in by a modern plant and by starting steam trawlers. My own idea of Madras needs and methods is, on the contrary, that we do not need or want steam, save for particular cases; that to jump from the catamaran to the steamer is impossible and unwise if possible, and that our true method is to proceed by the ordinary and historical process of slow development; revolutionary methods, here as elsewhere are a mistake. We want to develop, gradatim et parti passu, the fisherfolk, the fishing industry and the fishing trade by methods which will not necessarily reduce fishing folk to hired labour under capitalists, European or otherwise.’23



Within intermediate technology, thus, science becomes a tool to prevent the proletarianization of labour. Nicholson claimed that it was the sailing boat and the curing yard rather than the steam trawler and the refrigerating car which should be the focus of attention. He realized, however, that the days of steam trawling would come, but felt that the old and the new must be ecologically niched and that the superior and more powerful boats should supplement and not oust the catamaran and the canoe. The role of the state lay in being a humane referee between these differing styles of technology.


In general, some notion of evolutionism informed the debates on the Swadeshi movement. But the specific critiques of swadeshism were more informed by the maverick ideas of Patrick Geddes, biologist turned polymath sociologist, town planner and educationist, who saw in his neo-vitalist biology, the possibilities of the recovery not only of tradition but the unities that the dualisms of western science had unnecessarily kept apart. The Geddesian critique of the swadeshi-colonial idea of science operated at two levels: firstly, in terms of the specificities of university reform and, secondly, in showing how India could contribute to the recovery of a more biologistic view of the world.

Geddes saw the colony as a tropical world, magnifying the pathologies of the West. He claimed that there was something unreal about the extraordinary diffusion of English as the medium of education in India. He realized the disaster of a system which was ‘trying to educate princes into public school boys, pundits into honours graduates, babus into cheap clerks, peasants into proletarians.’24

Yet, Geddes cautioned that swadeshism in its very moment of protest, was compounding the tragedy through its interpretation of the situation. Geddes believed that the strife was not between East and West and added that developments in science had created the conditions for the recovery of a second West – the other West of vitalist ecology beyond the reductionist, machine-driven colonialism of the first West. For Geddes, the restructuring of the Indian university had to develop through a dialogue with this other West. The Indian university of the future had to understand its genealogy as a knowledge system.



Geddes argued that the career of the university as an organism reflected an often violent dialogue with the competing notions of knowledge and pedagogy resident in its environment. Its success lay in its ability to provide a working synthesis. The medieval university itself arose out of an attempt to reconcile the doctrines of the Christian church with the recovery of Aristotle. Paralleling this was the dialogue of the medical systems, where physicians of many faiths were comparing not only their drugs but their doctrines. This medieval university then became the Renaissance university by imbibing ‘the new learning from the fugitive Greeks, the new astronomy from the persecuted heretics and the results of the new art of printing from wandering scholars and craftsmen.’25 The Renaissance university eventually grew into the contemporary German system. For Geddes thus, no university was complete without its dissenting academics. The relation between the two provided for both stability and mutation.



Geddes remarked that India, in rebuilding its universities, faced a similar challenge. Rather than mechanically importing the western university, one had to innovate by counterposing the western university to the civilizational possibilities inherent in indigenous systems of medicine, agriculture, law or architecture. The tragedy lay in the fact that India had failed to respond to the challenge and produced not a post Germanic university expounding new notions of biology, law and medicine but second hand pre-Germanic universities in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. These universities were unable to respond creatively to the possibilities of their environment and were reduced to being examination machines. What was true for the university was true for the scientist.

Geddes once observed that he was not against Indians travelling abroad for science, but he warned against the insidious power of western thought. ‘Let the Indian student come to us by all means... but I think merely to be a more or less faithful or weak reproduction of ourselves, be it in sports or games, as minor functionary or convert, not even if he were to surpass our ideal. Prince Ranjitsingh is most welcome; he has done us no end of good; he has raised the popular esteem and respect for India in the man in the street more than a new Buddha would have done. We admire the Saxon Ivanhoe for overthrowing Norman champions at their own tournaments. Yet Ivanhoe, masquerading in a culture foreign alike to his deepest traditions and his highest aspirations was... but the first snob, the first misleading example to his own culture.’26



Today, Indian science has produced many of these lesser Ranjitsinghjis. One can cite the names of Bhabha, Sokhey, Saha or the Krishnans and the Swaminathans as examples. Yet they were carriers of the western genepool of knowledge in whom the alternative possibilities of an Indian worldview became recessive. Geddes cited as counter example to the Ranjit-singhjis of science, the name of Jagadis Chandra Bose.

Bose tried to forge the grammar of an alternative science.27 His was an attempt to inject into science the alternative assumptions of his own culture. Particularly in his classic Responses in The Living and Non-Living, Bose sought to inject into science, the Indian concept of vitalistic monism to demonstrate that plans and even metals were irritable. One could cite the praises of Shaw, Hardy, Einstein or Romain Rolland, but it is the facetious response of an English newspaper that captures the life giving power that his work gave to a mechanistic vivisectional science.

‘Can metals feel? Last night at the Royal Institution, Professor Jagadis Chandra Bose proved they can in the same way as animate things. He struck a piece of copper, pinched a piece of zinc, gave it poison, administered an antidote, threw light upon an artificial retina. In each case, the electrical emotion registered by the galvanometer was painful to witness. There is an opening for a society for the prevention of cruelty to plants.’28



One wonders what would have happened to modern science if it had been more systematically impregnated with the vitalistic monism of Bose’s biology. It might have altered its destructive attitude to nature. One must confront at this stage the full implications of Geddes’ neo-vitalism. For Geddes, biology was not merely a mode of thought but a way of living. For him, the machine was anti-nature. The hegemony of the machine had, however, permeated several major sectors of western thought – physical science, political economy, pedagogy and town planning. Geddes argued that the mechanical worldview was grounded on an outdated science, in a physics before the discovery and internalization of the second law of thermo-dynamics. He added that from such a reductionist physics was also derived the arrogance of an economics based on ‘the increasing dissipation of energies and material resources, an activity termed development in the enthusiastic verbiage of this pseudo-science.’29

Mechanistic thought had also infected notions of power, as for example in the Haussmanic city, with its celebration of linear planning, employing grids of roads cutting across vital communities. The mechanical world was a reductionist one replacing unity with uniformity, emphasizing equalization instead of difference. Mechanistic science lacked the vocabulary to understand the organicity of tradition. Geddes saw in his neo-vitalist biology the possibilities of a dialogue that western science had repressed. Mechanistic physics, through its reductionism, had denied mystery and magic; biology, by rejecting reductionism had emphasized the possibilities of emergent worlds. A biological worldview eventually merged into a cosmic one, where the ideas of science, magic and religion interacted once more.



For Geddes, thus, there were two Wests, the paleotechnic West of the mechanical-colonial era and the neo-technic, vitalist, ecological West. Swadeshism, he implied, was ignorant of the neotechnic sciences and in its very moment of protest, was internalizing the categories of the mechanical mind. It is in this context that Geddes repeatedly emphasized that the new university for India would be primarily an agricultural one based on the notions of biology. He pleaded for a revival of a rural view of science. ‘The economics of the leaf colony and the economics of metals are coming into conflict; the first will again have the largest significance as in the rural world of the old.’30

It is interesting to note that both Geddes and Tagore, in their schemes for a new international university, argued in a similar manner. The biologist as scientist resonated with the poet in his conception of the university, in vision, if not in all detail. One should add that Geddes, Tagore and Jagadis Chandra Bose taught together at a summer school in Darjeeling. All three were interested in the relations between different forms of knowledge systems and virtually sought to institutionalize an ecology of knowledge systems.

Tagore believed that the modern university as a collective representation embodied the essential world-view of western civilization. Thus a student from another land had no difficulty in obtaining a grasp of the western mind because it was captured synoptically in the university. Tagore felt that the East had no equivalent institution. He sought to build such a centre at Santiniketan. Tagore was not content with a swadeshism that settled for a voyeuristic view of the western university. He argued that before the dialogue between East and West could begin, there had to be an intellectual centre which embodied the spirit of knowledge in the East, reflecting each of its great civilizations. Only with the existence of such an institution could the interaction of East and West be one of equality, of dialogic reciprocity, exploring difference.



Tagore argued that each university was an embodiment of an archetypal set. The western university, as the microcosm of the civitas, reflected the mind of the city. In India, however, civilization was associated with the forest ‘taking on its distinctive character from its origin and environment.’ Its intellect sought spiritual harmony with nature, while the mind of the city sought its subjugation, extending its boundary walls around its acquisitions. The sage in the forest hermitage was not interested in acquiring and dominating, but in realizing and enlarging his consciousness by growing with and into his surroundings. Even when the primeval forest gave way to the farm and the city, ‘the heart of India looked back with adoration upon the great ideal of strenuous self-realization and the simple dignity of the forest hermitage.’31

The West on the contrary took pride in subduing nature. As a result, the American wilderness, unlike the Indian forest, lacked an animistic power. For the West, nature belonged to the category of the inanimate. Western thought posited a disjunction between nature and human nature but the Indian mind freely acknowledged its kinship with nature, positing an unbroken relationship with all.



Thus, while a city science sought to subdue nature, in India ‘a whole people who were once meat eaters gave up taking animal food to cultivate the sentiment of universal sympathy for life, an event unique in history.’32 Tagore predicted that the dialogue between the two universities would be between a city science and a forest science, between a mode of being that sought harmony with nature and a way of doing that sought possession of it.

Tagore did not deny the power of western science or the dynamism of the western university. He felt however that the dialogue of knowledges could only begin when differences were understood and recognized. It was in a similar spirit that Geddes sought a return to an agricultural view of science, to a biology that would replace the hegemony of the machine as reified metaphor. Geddes’ letter to Sister Nivedita about his idea of the proposed Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore could have been written by Tagore. One arrived at vitalism through the poetics of a leaf, through understanding the implications of the forest as meaning, the other through the synoptic eye that sought communion with the life-giving tendencies of science. It is in such a context that Geddes’ vision of the Indain university should be seen.

‘You seek wealth through poverty, through simplicity. We seek the mastery of man and beast; you know the spirit that is in them. In science, it is we who have dissected the body, we who have classified and named the plants, but it is amidst the strange symbolism of your temples that has first and most fully been shadowed forth the secret of growth and the revival of all things living – for us the outward forms of life and death, for you, the inner mysteries. We can tell you of evolution in concrete detail, as of horse from clumsy tapiroid, flower from humble weed; but you caught the first breath of Brahma; the anti-thesis of anabolism and katabolism with its physiological details and their outcomes.

‘Our world is the modern specialists skill, but yours has been the cosmic sense. With the renewal of your own poetry, your own philosophy, renew your ancient science, infuse and deepen our keener yet less profound western thought.’33



The Geddesian plans for the post-Germanic university were never concretized. The swadeshi nationalists defeated his hopes of designing the new University of Banaras. The Central University of Indore remained an unrealized vision. The dialogue between Geddes and Tagore did not continue for long. Soon after he moved to Palestine to work on the plans for the University of Israel. But the ecologistic vision of the world remains as relevant today, particularly in his vision of the city.

As a biologist, Geddes was fascinated by mediating categories and he used them creatively. The biologists concern was not for progress which is a linear notion, but with growth, a process which mediates between life and death. His notion of region and regional planning mediated between the abstractions of universalist planning and the parochialism of the locally concrete and also between town and country. The mediating term was the garden. The gardener was the peasant in the city, and Geddes wanted city planning to incorporate a ‘peasant’ view of science.



Unfortunately, the city regarded as part of a mechanical industrial order conceptualizing the city as a machine legitimated the throwing away of old and worn out parts becoming a mandate for obsolescence. The violence lay in the fact that the city was an organism. Thinking mechanistically, one performed lobotomies while hiding behind the innocence of a Lego set. To counter this Geddes advocated two methods: (i) the diagnostic survey; and (ii) conservative surgery.

The practitioners of the diagnostic survey like the general practitioner knew their city as a person. They did not begin with palaces and the great civic buildings and only later ‘penetrate the older parts of the city and then, too often, only to sweep it past before them.’ They began by understanding the inner labyrinth of the city. Like all organic forms ‘this may at first seem confused to our modern eyes, that have for so long been trained to a mechanical order,’ but ‘gradually a higher form of order can be discerned – the order of life in development.’34 Life to a gardener is capable of repair, rebirth and revival. Like the gardener, one pruned only certain selected parts, the dilapidated sections, but only to encourage life processes. This whole act of conservative surgery should be achieved through cooperation and persuasion.

Three notions become fundamental to the post Haussmanic Geddesian city: a notion of order that goes beyond the grid iron and understands irregularity, a notion of space that links domestic space, the village square and temple shrine to cosmic space and the idea of a city that internalizes the biological wisdom of the rural world.

Geddes held that the degradation of the city was due to the ‘deterioration of a peasant people deprived of their old contacts with other earth.’35 He felt that renewal could only come through innovations by the people themselves across the three spaces mentioned above. His observations are still fascinating. ‘Everywhere in the slums we see women toiling and sweeping, each struggling to maintain her little hovel above the distressingly low level of municipal paving.’36 ‘The plague,’ said Geddes, ‘is product of the uncleanly victory of the rat over the housewife. This of course is not her fault but of our masculine inefficiency as businessmen, city rulers and state controllers.’37



Thus, the first task of the planner was to liberate domestic space, make the innumerable little adjustments which help the housewife maintain a healthy environment. ‘Few realize,’ Geddes added, ‘the hygiene of tuberculosis consists above all of getting everyday a verandah fit to sleep and a chabutra to sit on.’38 The economic life efficient wisdom of the housewife needed the garden as a complement. It is not only the place for the tulsi plant but the shade giving fruit tree, preferably the banana, rather than that present icon of industrialism, the eucalyptus.

Geddes argued that this garden had to be different from that of the suburbias of western planning. These garden cities were urban suburbs which had neither agricultural productivity nor provided real contact with nature. Rather than being an antiseptic collectin of ornamental trees or an assembly line of flowers, gardens, Geddes argued, had to be efficient means of waste disposal. ‘It is the disaster of India that her great religious systems were formulated before the realization of the significance of manure; while it is the strength of China and of ancient Rome that their religious systems fully and frankly appreciated and even idealized the manurial process.’39



But more than being a source of food and a pollutin absorbent, the garden provided a different notion of time, work and rhythm embodied in the peasant view of science. In his Gardener’s View of Science, Geddes remarked, ‘The ancient correlation of astronomy with climate and vegetation and through these with animal life, with human occupation, is thus for us as fundamental as for primitive science... Within the zodiac, the sun, the moon, the world of life and labour all become unified as of old within a single education, a single initiation in which cosmic unity and human ideal unite.’40 It is this integrated view of the world that the garden preserved in the city. If the gardener was the peasant in the city, the zodiac was his compass – a compact cosmos of life giving rhythms integrating folk, work and place.

I have described above some of the conceptions of nature and technology elaborated by the critics of the Swadeshi movement. The question one must ask is, how are they relevant to the contemporary Indian nation-state proud of possessing the third largest cadre of scientific personnel and the fourth largest army in the world? Firstly, the idea of ecology is relevant for the conception of the nation-state itself. Such ecologically sensitive concepts like survival, plurality and the commons are more open-ended than ideas like security, development and social contract with which contemporary political systems operate.



More importantly, while environmentalism is more of a behaviouristic response to nature, ecology seeks more meaningful mediations between nature and culture. In this context, it seeks to challenge the hegemony of the one nation-state – one science view of the world. It realizes that the relation of the nation-state to the various ethnic groups is analogous to the relation of western science to traditional and folk knowledges. It is also aware that the survival of tribal and peasant groups might lie in conserving their ethnosciences.

Both the nation-state and modern western science as victorious regimes speak the language of domination and defeat. Within such a framework, defeated knowledges are either museumized or disappear altogether. An ecological approach seeks to go beyond this zero-sum imagination and speak instead of the language of inequalities, the language of difference.41 The language of inequalities allows mainly for erasure through defeat or equalization through uniformity. The language of difference leads to complementarity and reciprocity based on the recognition that various forms of knowledge contain different truths. It recognizes the unique rather than the universalizing, contending that truths like germ plasm cannot be stored in genebanks and museums but must be lived out.

Let us consider how scientific environmentalism or the nation-state handles difference. The problematic ‘object’ is generally a recalcitrant peasant or a tribal following his own truth. The following possibilities exist:

I. Genocide – the total erasure of a people and their knowledges.

II. Assimilation – the loss of identity and absorption into the mainstream.

III. Museumization – preservation in parks, reserves and museums of defeated cultures, a embalming that does not allow for growth or mutation.

IV. Dualism, Apartheid – the existence of a defeated culture as a lesser unit separate but unequal.

V. Systems, Cybernetics, Federations – a non-playful notion of the whole emphasizing unity and stability rather than metamorphosis. The whole seeks to discipline the parts, the emphasis being eventually on communication and control rather than meaning and truth.

VI. Pluralism – a dialogic relation between different truths in search of a whole or unity, allowing for emergence, mutation and mystery. The search is not only for similarities but for understanding of differences, even allowing for incommensurability.



The first five possibilities are virtually sequences in the developmental process of which environmentalism is an integral part. Those recalcitrant cultures which were not destroyed are displaced into reservations or parks, or are incorporated into the process of development through structures like the school. But the sense of pluralism, of different systems interacting with and penetrating each other, is missing. The issue can be understood by examining how the problem of medical systems was confronted in India.42 The dominant western medical system was regarded as more true and efficient than the traditional Ayurvedic, Siddha, Unani or folk practices. The latter were lesser knowledges.

The possibility of Ayurveda confronting allopathy and comparing different notions of health, diagnosis or disease is alien to such a worldview. Like the cottage industry, the traditional medical systems exist as separate but unequal forms to be inched, museumized or even mined. As an instance of the latter, one can cite the case of Rauwolfia Serpentina long used by Ayurvedic practitioners to treat tension. The drug Reserpine was extracted and inducted into the western medical pharmacopia while the Ayurvedic philosophy itself was ignored. The plant, once common in many forests, has been so rapaciously hunted that it is regarded an endangered species today. The old warning of the Ayurvedic practitioners that the future of Ayurveda and the forests was inextricably linked did not enter the systems view of the environmentalist.



Consider another example. India possesses the greatest diversity of crops and farming systems. The diversity of gene-plasm is sustained because of a multiplicity of agricultural styles. This diversity of nature constitutes part of the repertoire of any culture. One can make a strong case that gene-diversity, ethnoscience and ethnicity are inextricably linked. With the coming of the green revolution-monoculture, this diversity of gene-plasm is being eroded.

Let us examine how the environmentalist confronts the problem. They seek to store germ-plasm in gene-banks or parks and reserves sustained in artificial conditions. Within such a framework, it is the laboratory and the scientist that become responsible for the seed and not the farmer. Improved upon, standardized and patented, the seed becomes the property of a multinational, to be sold back to the farmer at immense profit. Thus, even concerned environmentalism becomes inadvertently an act of deculturation. The ecologist, Cary Fowler, in a recent conversation, remarked that in Nicaragua seeds are regarded as a part of the national heritage like music, and the farmers are encouraged to be trustees their. Fowler added that ‘gene-banks were like museums, where seeds go to die.’43 The real alternative, he said, lay in allowing the farmer to be the scientist working to sustain this gene pool as a continuing part of agricultural practice.

Thus, what ecology seeks to sustain is the language of plurality as the language of survival, not the logic of monocultural efficiency which is the restricted grammar of the one-nation one-science nexus. True plurality would demand not just a critique of shifting cultivation by scientific agriculture, but understanding what the wisdom of the former, in mediating between the forest and the garden, has to offer to scientific agriculture.



The civilizational vision of ecology elaborated above emphasized the dangers of reductionist models of science for politics, particularly in exaggerating the violence of the dominant regime. I would like to confront as the final example the ideas of Geddes and Jagmohan. I believe this exercise to be particularly relevant because Jagmohan has often been criticized for atrocities associated with slum clearance. But what has been missed out in these assaults is the fact that this bureaucrat, who was an outstanding planner, was actually following the logic of a certain knowledge system.

Jagmoham was a self-confessed adherent of the mechanistic model of planning inherent in the works of Haussmann and Corbusier. In a revealing poem in his Island of Truth, he confessed,

‘I know

I am no genius

no Haussman reborn

no Lutyens with a chance

or Corbusier with Nehru’s arms.’44



This dedicated bureaucrat saw in the Emergency, the moment for the realization of his environmentalist dreams. For Jagmohan and other technocrats, the poor in the slums were brakes on progress. Legally they were squatters, ‘medically’ they were carriers of virus and disease necessitating the strong hand of the state to purge, cleanse and renovate them. The demolitions in Delhi were an attempt to erase the slums and visually cleanse Delhi. Jagmohan stated that slum clearance was a technological act transcending politics. He claimed: ‘What had been bulldozed is not the slums but their politics, not the jhuggi jhonpries but physical and mental disease they reared. Bulldozers are instruments of development not of demolition.’45

Jagmohan’s vision of green belts and gardens itself reflected an industrialist notion of environmentalism. Here nature is geometrically rendered into hedges, flowers pruned into clocks. The park was a creation of an industrial worldview which regiments nature into orderly rows so that the worker could consume it in his moment of leisure. It was the epitome of alienation. One wishes Jagmohan had internalized the ideas of Geddes. It would have sensitized him to possibilities which he was blind to, made him more culturally self-confident, less prone to parade the recommendations of Margaret Thatcher and her ilk.46



Geddes observed that ‘the policy of sweeping clearances should be recognized (as) one of the most disastrous and pernicious blunders in the chequered history of sanitation.’ He felt it was politically coercive and biologically illiterate. Underlying it was the idea of Haussmannic notion of order. It was based on a notion of health that viewed all dirt as pathological. It extended the idea of plague to poverty, slums, congestion as sources of the social plague, the revolution. Both plague and revolution threatened the existing order and had to be wiped out. The method was that of the grid iron, which did not tolerate irregularity. As a result ‘new thoroughfares are hacked through old world village life.’47

Geddes observed that the obeisance paid to the straight line and the drawing board lead to ‘standardized semi-slums which are but the slums of tomorrow.’48 What was transferred through the grid iron was ‘the isolationism and individualism of the western city.’ There is a wisdom to the above lines which is relevant today. The Haussmannism of the Emergency bureaucrats disrupted communities and transferred them to the peripheries of the city. In these new areas the old sense of community was destroyed. People became part of an industrial lumpen and it was this mass that sections of the ruling party used to ravage the city during the genocidal violence of November 1984.

The pluralistic possibilities of the post-swadeshi visions eventually gave way under the onslaught of the Bolshevik revolution and its positivist variants. Such alternative worldviews were made to appear romantic, arcadian, reactionary, or even revivalist and lost their power as life-giving myths. The great impact of the Russian revolution was to deaden the importance of local knowledges and highlight the importance of the two great mega-machines of modernity, the nation-state and Big Science, both encompassed within the dreariness of statist development. As a cognitive map, this can be best understood in terms of a shorthand from R&D monographs – the innovation chain, which incoporates the various processes relating to technology transfer.



The innovation chain is more than just a managerial schema. It embodies the technological civics of knowledge and power in modern society. As a cognitive map, it reflects the importance of science and technology in the construction of the collective self of modern society. As a process, it involves a rite of passage from tradition to modernity, from underdevelopment to development, from a pre-industrial to a post-industrial regime. The flow of science and technology is from centre to periphery, metropolis to satellite. Even pollution seems to follow this trajectory. Environmetalism is a part of such a managerial schema, providing the ‘softness’ of the human relations approach to the hard Taylorism of many transfer of technology models.

As a statist ideology, environmentalism is anchored on two axioms which are essential to the perpetuation of science as a hegemonic form of knowledge. One can dub them irreverently as the doctrine of the immaculate conception of science and the doctrine of the fall.

The first assumes that science as a method is neutral and as a mode of truth can be the basis of the planetization of the world. It also believes that science is good or potentially so and that the available corpus of scientific knowledge if well used can solve the basic problems of inequality and starvation. The second axiom, the doctrine of the fall, bemoans the fact that science and technology have become increasingly consumerist, intensively polluting and excessively militarized.



The furthest one can go within the dynamics of this managerial framework is to argue that science has somehow been embedded in the wrong politics. The politics of dualism also comes immediately into play contending that while science is autonomous and universal, technology is local and adaptable. The problem thus becomes essentially one of management rather than of metaphysics; questions of epistemology and cosmology are no longer the primary focus. Such managerial views fail to see the link between the green revolution and Bhopal, between a choice for pesticides and the gas leak. They fail to realise that a consumerist search for energy might lead to nuclear annihilation. They substitute the real diversity of forests with industrial plantations of eucalyptus.

It is for these reasons that an ecological worldview must oppose environmentalism. Any ecological critique must seek to deconstruct the present hegemony of the one-nation, one science view of the world. It must seek to confront the normal science of the nation-state with the wisdom of its ethnicities and the hegemonic logic of modern science with the life giving power of local the knowledges-ethnosciences, which have guaranteed the survival of tribal and peasant communities for generations.


* Reproduced from ‘The Politics of Ecology’, Seminar 330, February 1987.



1. See Ramachandra Guha, Scientific Forestry and Social Change in Uttarkhand, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.XX, Special Number, November 1985, p.1939-1952 and Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies, Vols.1-4 (Delhi: Oxford University Press).

2. Shiv Visvanathan, Organizing for Science (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985), p.100.

3. Ibid, see Chapter III.

4. See Shiv Visvanathan, From the Annals of the Laboratory State, Lokayan Bulletin, Vol.3, Nos.4 & 5, October 1985, p.23-47.

5. Shiv Visvanathan, Bhopal, the imagination of a disaster, Alternatives, Vol.XI, Number 1, January 1986, p.147-165.

6. Sumit Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (Delhi: Peoples Publishing House, 1977).

7. For a discussion of the Gandhians and the Theosophists, see Ashis Nandy and Shiv Visvanathan, Modern Medicine and its Non-modern Critics, Mimeographed paper presented at UNU/WIDER Conference on Development and Technological Transformations in Traditional Societies: Alternative Approaches, August 1986.

8. Ananda Coomaraswamy, Essays in National Idealism (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1981) pp. 74-75.

9. Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Bugbear of Literacy (London: Dennes Dobson, 1947), p. 8.

10. Ibid, p. 22.

11. Ananda Coomaraswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art (New York: Dover Publications, 1956), p. 98.

12. A. Coomaraswamy, ‘The International Congress of Applied Chemistry and Aniline Dyes,’ Modern Review, Vol.VI, No.3, September 1909, p. 275-278 and Coomaraswamy, 1981, p. 201-206.

13. Coomaraswamy 1909, p. 275.

14. Coomaraswamy 1947, p. 6.

15. Coomaraswamy 1909, p. 277.

16. Coomaraswamy 1981, p. 204.

17. A. Coomaraswamy, ‘Love and Art,’ Modern Review 14(11), May 1915, pp. 574-84, 576.

18. Allan Octavian Hume, Agricultural Reform in India (Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1899), p. 5.

19. Ibid, p. 58.

20. F.A. Nicholson, Note on Agriculture in Japan (Madras: Government Press, 1907), p. 29.

21. Ibid, p. 45.

22. Ibid, p. 45.

23. F.A. Nicholson, Madras Fisheries Bureau: Papers from 1899 (Madras: Government Press, 1915), p. 83-84.

24. Patrick Geddes, On Universities in Europe and India, Five Letters to an Indian Friend (Madras: National Press, 1904), p.19.

25. Ibid, p. 3.

26. Ibid, p. 95.

27. See Ashis Nandy, Alternatives Sciences (New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1980).

28. Quoted in S.P. Basu (ed), Letters of Sister Nivedita (Calcutta: Navbharat Publishers, 1982), p. 778.

29. Arthur Thomson and Patrick Geddes, Life: Outlines of General Biology (London, Williams and Norgate, 1931), p. 1185.

30. Quoted in Amelia Defries, The Interpreter Geddes: The Man and His Gospel (London: Routledge, 1927), p. 175.

31. Rabindranath Tagore, Modern Review, Vol.XIV, July 1913, p. 1 (Mimeo).

32. Ibid, p. 2.

33. Geddes, 1904, p. 17.

34. Jayqueline Tyrwhitt (ed), Patrick Geddes in India (London: Lund Humphries, 1947), p. 27.

35. Ibid, p. 88.

36. Ibid, p. 52.

37. Ibid, p. 70.

38. Ibid, p. 70.

39. Ibid, p. 91.

40. Quoted in Annie Beasant, Theosophy in Relation to Human Life (Benares: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1905), p. 113.

41. I am indebted to Jit Uberoi for this distinction.

42. See Nandy and Visvanathan, UNU/WIDER, 1986.

43. Interview at CSDS, 1985.

44. Jagmohan, Island of Truth (New Delhi, Vikas, 1978), p. 10.

45. Ibid, p. 71.

46. Ibid, p. 16.

47. Tyrwhitt, 1947, ibid, 52.

48. Ibid, p. 57.