Seeking the right symbol

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Thursday 31 August 1995

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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