A few years ago, social activist Pramila
Dandavate had asked me at the end of a talk
whether the Indian environmental movement
had a symbol similar to Gandhiji's charkha
during the freedom struggle. My answer was,
of course, no, as indeed there is none. But I
have since thought a lot about this and I
would like to share my answer with the read-
ers of Down To Earth.
My first response was to say that the bicycle is the best symbol. It is good from an environmental point of view, being a non-polluting vehicle. It is good from a social point of
view. Only a transport system built around
the bicycle would promote equity. The bicycle
is also good from an individual's point of
view. It keeps the driver fit and healfty. So
from all points of view it is a great symbol to
have - except that the bicycle is not a product
of Indian culture like the charkha.
After a lot of thought, I now believe'thAt
gobar (cowdung) is the answer. The wide-
spread and diverse use of gobar in Indian society stands up to every principle of good environmentalism. Cowdung is a waste product.
Yet, instead of being looked down upon, it is
highly respected. There is almost a sacredness
attached to it. People touch it without hesitation. They even use this waste to plaster their
mud houses to keep away, of all things, house-
flies. just sit on a newly cowdung-plastered
mud floor. It is so cool and clean-. I have often
wondered about what prompted someone to
use animal waste in so imaginative a manner,
since the obvious reaction is to stay away
from it and not sit on i17 But someone must
have watched cowdung with great interest and
noticed that it had certain qualities which
were worth experimenting with. This person
was probably a woman, given the fact that
women spend so much time taking care of
cattle. She was obviously a person inspired
instinctively by the best principles of recycling. Cattle exist in plenty and so does cow-dung. Can I make some use of it?
Of course, the greatest use of cowdung is
in our farming systems. Indian soils have been
exploited for millennia. Yet today they continue to be fecund. To a great extent this is because Indians have practised not just farming but a combination of farming and animal care which give them access to large quantities
of animal manure.
The use of cowdung in the villages of the
Western Himalaya is absolutely remarkable
even today. The soils of the mountain terraces
are inherently poor. But they have to be cultivated year after year. They remain fertile only because the villagers keep a lot of cattle, mre
for cowdung than or milk, spend hours going
to the forest to co ect leaves and grasses to
feed then , ten collect hundreds of
tonnes of cowdung from cattlesheds and carry
it to the fields to manure them. All those pictures of women carrying loads of Aewood have been described as symbolic of amenergy crisis:@But this is a total misunderstanding of
the re@l situation, Every Himalayan woman
has tonnes of cQm4@hg at home which she can
potentially us'e as fuel. But she will never do
s6. She Will instead spend hours going to the
forest to' collect firewood but keep every dung
dropping for her fields.
Unfortunately, women in many other
parts of India have no forest to turn to. They
can only burn cowdung. As a result, millions
of tonnes get burnt every year as cooking fuel.
For Bharat, cowdung is more important than
electricity, coal or petroleum. Years ago, while
addressing the Varliamentary Consultative
Committee of the@ Ministry of Energy, minister Sushila Rohatgi had asked me what
thought was wrong with India's energy policy.
Its management, I had answered. The least
important energy source, atomic energy, is
10'oked after, by the most important minister,
namely, the prime minister-Next in order of
importance are electricity, coal and petroleum. All have separate departments and ministers. But the most important energy sources,
firewood, cowdung and agricultural residues,
have none. So, I explained to Sushilaji, India's
energy system needs a Gobar Mantri (cow-dung minister).
I had had no hesitation in saying this especially after having shown the Members of Parliament slides of how people in Gujarat
and Rajasthan put a stone or a stick on every
cowpat lying on common lands to lay private
claim on it. The very first issue of Down To
Earth had, in fact carried the findings of our
nationwide survey on how Indian villagers
claim gobar droppings on common lands.
I, therefore, can't think of an example
which symbolises the spirit of environmentalism more than gobar. Do readers of Down To Earth agree with me that a cowdung mound, of the type that women in Haryana make so well, best symbolises India's environmentalism or have I got my head too much in dung?
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