Thinking ahead

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Tuesday 15 July 1997

The governance systems of India - bequeathed to us by the erstwhile colonial masters which we embraced with great eagerness - are today in a state of deep crisis. The British built bureaucracies to control and manage India's natural resources and to deliver a variety of services like education and medical services. The British had a very limited interest in India's economic development and were mainly interested in revenue extraction.

For them, there was no incentive to prove the success of their enterprise. To rule, of course, they had justify their existence as a better people who had a legitimate authority to rule. The economic growth spurred by the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the impoverishment of India at the same time because of British policies leading to hunger, illiteracy and famines, created an enormous economic gap between the two countries and furthered the legitimisation of the British rule. British historian David Arnold has written a fascinating book on how the perception of India as a hungry and desperate nation grew within Britain and how the policies of Britain which itself impoverished India provided a continuously positive feedback to this perception. That when the British came to India, this country was possibly the world's richest, most urbanised and literate nation on earth was steadily forgotten.

The fact that India was a country which Westerners were once just as desperate to reach as many Indians are today to reach the West, does not exist even in the consciousness of educated Indians in the late 20th century.

We raise this issue not because of pride in the history of the nation. Which, of course, we have in very great measure. But, more because we believe that there may be many lessons that we can learn from the past. Not that all that is old is gold. But, nonetheless, if we had such a creative history there may be some nuggets which we can still use today. The fact that India has such a huge and rich history, itself increases the possibility of finding some nuggets. It is equally possible that the nuggets we find may be more effective in the Indian context because these solutions would be the product of Indian culture and, thus, more in tune with the behaviour of Indians.

British-style governance systems have totally failed to deliver the goods for a variety of reasons. Let us just throw up a few reasons for debate. For instance, it seems to us that Indians somehow just don't like to obey the law. They have no hesitation in bypassing the law in every way possible. This is indeed strange because in their interpersonal behaviour, Indians are more structured than just about any other social group in the world. There are laid down rules for whom we should marry, what we should eat on what occasion, how the son should behave with his father, how the daughter-in-law should behave with her mother-in-law, and so on. And though modernisation continues to erode many of these behavioural systems, they still cling on in a myriad ways with great tenacity. Why should Indians, therefore, be so structured in their inter-personal behaviour while being so unstructured in their public behaviour?

Indians probably never cared much for centralised governance systems. Which leads us to ask whether corruption is a new phenomenon in India or an old one? Indian history is definitely full of cases from the days of Kautilya and before when rulers stabbed each other in the back for petty gains and allowed foreigners to gain a foothold. At another level, Indians like to keep themselves and their houses clean but have no hesitation in throwing waste in front of their neighbour's house.

With this kind of behaviour being deeply and culturally-rooted, British- style governance systems which are highly centralised and bureaucratic and, therefore, require considerable public cooperation just cannot work. Yet, on the other hand, Indians built innumerable numbers of tanks and ponds, protected their catchments, shared the water, built schools in which millions got educated, and built massive cities. All this could not have been possible without a governance system in which the public did not behave with a degree of responsibility and care. A satellite picture of Ramnathpuram district in Tamil Nadu still shows hundreds of tanks even though this entire heritage is today in a state of great decay. How did this happen? What were the governance principles which led to this advanced stage of natural resource management and delivery of services?

A new discipline of history has slowly emerged in the West which is called environmental history. It studies the history of ecological changes with the growth of human civilisation. Surely, such a discipline could shed a lot of light on how we have reached the current state of the Indian environment but even more than that, it could shed light on how the governance systems worked in the past to manage the natural resource base, the processes of urbanisation, and so on. Hindi litterateur Mahadevi Varma once said, "It is not possible to put a foot forward without keeping the other one firmly on the ground unless you want to fall down." In other words, no society can move forward in an organic manner without taking into account its own roots.

Keeping this in mind, the Centre for Science and Environment recently organised a conference on ecological history. Though historians had few thoughts to offer on this theme, some ideas came out very clearly:

Firstly, Indians definitely had a conservationist attitude towards nature but it was more a form of 'utilitarian conservationism' rather than 'protectionist conservationism' which many modern environmentalists preach. Indians did not hesitate to reconstruct nature to suit their convenience but they built rules to live sustainably with the structures they created. Religion was often used as a tool to reinforce those rules.

Secondly, most of the rules regarding the use of land, the use of water or the use of pastures, for instance, were developed at the community-level, which is probably why they were respected. The kings seldom made any rules to manage these things. On the other hand, the current scenario is that there is a plethora of rules in Central and state capitals but by the time they reach the point of implementation, they get totally and utterly dissipated. And even if there is someone there to implement these rules, the attitude of Indians that every state directive should somehow be bypassed leads to near-total non-observance. Thus, today we have a lot of rules at the top but nothing at the bottom whereas in the past there was nothing at the top while there were quite a few rules at the bottom.

Thirdly, the state rarely invested in public services. In Rajasthan, for instance, the kings rarely built tanks for irrigation or for drinking water except for those which they used themselves. The massive Pichola lake of Udaipur was built by a nomadic gypsy. What the kings did were to encourage the people - from local nobles to ordinary businesspersons, from temples to rich prostitutes, just about anybody - to invest in schools, tanks and other such social and economic infrastructure and look after their upkeep. Historian Dharampal has documented in detail how hundreds of thousands of schools were built in India before the British rule. The kings essentially encouraged this investment by allowing these people lands to cultivate which would not be taxed by them. Many modern economists would also argue that appropriate fiscal policies can go much further in changing human behaviour than state regulation. Are there any lessons for us in all this to build a better 21 st century? These are just a few ideas that we as laypeople have gathered because of our interest in environmental governance but there is surely a lot that Indian history can teach us howsoever much westernised we might have become.

This is why we will probably organise more such ecological history conferences. To learn how do we ensure that our other foot remains rooted firmly in the rich ground of India.

Anil Agarwal

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