3rd Prize Undergraduate Category, "Making a Difference" Essay Contest, 2011

By Pratik Mishra & Abdullah A. Rahman

February 7, 2012

Students at Adharshila Learning Centre's Organic Farm
CREDIT: Adharshila Learning Centre

Pratik Mishra, 19, and Abdullah A. Rahman, 21, are second year students at the School of Rural Development, Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Tuljapur, Maharashtra, India. They are working towards Bachelor's degrees in social work.

Essay Question: What does sustainability mean to you?

Social Sustainability in Rural India

In his book The Hidden Connections, Fritjof Capra calls for the building of ecologically sustainable communities, designed in such a way that their technologies and social systems—their material and social structures—do not interfere with nature's inherent ability to sustain life. Hence the question arises—What is an ecologically sustainable community? How do we facilitate the evolution of such communities? Can we bring the mass of our consumer culture-driven population to a tribal-like level of sustainability?

Explicit in the last question is the concept of tribal communities as the role model for ecologically sustainable communities. The notion of sustainability attached to them is usually attributed to their deep sense of identity to the forest and land as the source of livelihood and sustenance and the basis of their existence as communities without recognizing the role of the social and gender-equality in their community as the actual cause for their cordial relations with nature. The lack of hierarchy in the tribal society accounts for the lack of competition in their society, which accounts for the harmony within their community as well as with their surroundings. This is in contrast to the mainstream society of India which is plagued by centuries-old unequal relations of caste, class, and gender that decide access to resources and ascribed social status. Unequal relations are unsustainable and any attempts towards sustainability has to first address these unequal relations because as long as these relations exist, any attempt to introduce a sustainable culture or lifestyle would be externally-imposed rather than internally cultivated.

Currently the focus for the debate on sustainability of the present order of the planet has been on the premises of growing energy consumption and rapid rise of cities. The problems of sustainability based on capitalism, competition, consumerism, and class are thought to be predominantly urban as the expanding urban megacities are agreed to be the hotspots of unsustainable consumption. However we focus on the rural society of India partly because it too is increasingly being swept from their traditional roots and the culture and aspirations of the rural populace are increasingly mirroring the unsustainable livelihood standards of the urban centers. This is a dangerous trend and ebbing this flow, which means making rural communities prosperous and ecologically-oriented would set the bedrock for achieving harmony with nature within the global human civilization.

When we think of the rural Indian society, the collective identities as family, caste, and community are principal over individual identities. So it is the social dimension of sustainability that has to be worked upon before introducing innovations of environmental sustainability.

The caste system in India amplifies economic inequality and has pushed a section of population to the margins of society. Efforts at creating eco-sustainable communities within this structure of inequality can touch the lives at the margins only at a superficial level and would remain limited to the upper echelons of society. The endeavor at improving situations may be directed towards the social structure but the means have to be economic as well. In real terms, this means that in India the fight against the caste system has to be fought on the grounds of the class structure. Modifying the class structure to more equitable standards would create the conducive environment for innovations in sustainability. As long as there are wide income gaps and exploitative relations and consequently the spirit of competition, the need for sustainability would not be able to penetrate the public consciousness.

Hence in the context of creating an equal and sustainable society, holistic measures need to be taken on these three fields, hence forming sustainable livelihood, sustainable education, and sustainable politics. These broad areas are interdependent and might have overlapping impacts. For example, efforts for sustainable education cannot be initiated without enlightened political leadership that recognizes and values its long term accrual of benefits.

Beginning with sustainable livelihood, which is a well-researched approach that defines "sustainable livelihood as one which can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, and provide sustainable livelihood opportunities for the next generation."

Let us approach measures of sustainability in livelihood by taking the case of agriculture, which is India's largest source of livelihood. Amid concerns over increasing chemicalization of modern agriculture and rising issues of food security, an agricultural activist, Shripad Dabholkar propounded the 10 Guntha Project where he formulated that on ten Gunthas (which is equal to one-quarter of an acre) of almost any terrain, if farming were truly scientific, enough food for feeding a family of five can be cultivated simply using natural elements.

Next comes the measures for sustainable education. The education sector has to reorient its educational structure so as to change emphasis from striving to create only industrially employable workforce to one that appreciates sustainable livelihood and respect for rights. This would mean that the shaping of the minds should be done to reimbibe identity with nature among young minds so the words "Earth" and "soil," which have great sacred value to our culture and communities, are not equated to the word "dirt." An example of sustainable education can be seen in the Adharshila Shikshan Kendra School in Jhabua,Madhya Pradesh. Started in 1998 by two young people, Amit and Jayshree, this school predominantly for tribal children is based on the understanding that education should be anchored to one's culture, history, lifestyle and surroundings.

The students at Adharshila have to do farming as a part of their daily schedule—organically grow their own food learning values and skills of organic farming and of conserving biodiversity. The students interact with various communities and are educated on the problems and issues facing rural and tribal society in India. Over ten years, the active involvement of students in afforestation in Adarshila Sikshan Kendra has brought about a drastic change in the environment of the place. Once on a barren five-acre land, the school has made the whole surrounding area a lush and green jungle of diverse trees very much unlike mono-cropped compensatory afforestation forests. The students have also performed well in exams and have shown their competence in extracurricular activities, such as drama, painting, etc. The model at Adharshila could be replicated in many places across India. Sustainable education should serve to build up progressive thinking and innovations upon the livelihood sources based on natural resources and also serve to build an environment of social co-operation for the development of local economy.

Lastly is the role of sustainable politics in creating the eco-communities. The devolution of political power in India to village levels by constitutionalization of Panchayats (village headmen council) and assigning decision-making authority to Gram Sabhas (council of all villagers over the age of 18) has failed to a large extent. In the Indian society, economic power is synonymous with political power and inter-convertible and so remain the monopoly of the rich. Hence the dominated and oppressed classes are powerless in terms of prevailing economic and political systems. Reservations of weaker castes and minorities in local self-governance bodies have been introduced to counter these realities. But again without addressing the greater structural inequality, this intervention has only worked at a superficial level as de facto power still remain with the traditional elites.

Radical reforms in the political realities of today are an obvious prerogative for sustainability. Within the current political setup, there are spectrums of brilliance that can teach us values of sustainability-oriented leadership. In the village of Hiware Bazaar in Maharashtra, Popat Rao Pawar, a young Sarpanch (elected village headman) has led his village from being water scarce to water surplus village in a span of a decade with use of shramdaan (voluntary labour) to build check-dams and contour trenches. He could persuade villagers to adopt sustainable practices as ban cutting of trees and forbid free grazing in the forest. Rallying the villagers for sustainable development under the principles of self-reliance and self-governance, the community organization skill and experience of Popatrao Pawar and such successful local leaders can be used in creating institutions of Panchayat Academies with the objective to train the future local leaders to realize the potential of decentralization.

The idea of sustainable politics in its advanced form envisages leadership and local decisions taken not on the basis of elections which implies fragmentation of communities into at least two factions but rather taken on the basis of consensus where the entire community is socially organized around lines of unity and cooperation which will be a far greater success for democracy.

The concept of livelihood, education, and political systems as fundamental fields of intervention for the approach towards sustainability entails the organization of the government and various stakeholders; they need to strive towards cooperation rather than competition among them for the innovation of ideas. Only democratic means will be able to evolve and implement sustainable ideas, sustainable ideas can't be developed and implemented through undemocratic means.

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