MAHATMA Gandhi dreamt of an India where villages would be independent entities, supporting themselves by harmonising human needs with local resources. Today, driven by the bogey of over-exploitation and the steady depletion of natural resources, researchers are frantically trying to find ways to realise the Mahatma's vision by making the village ecosystem sustainable.
But modern trends of exploitative development bely any such hope. Eminent British scientist Garrett Hardin used to recount a tale of how a group of competing farmers grazed cattle on a common pasture. Each farmer found that it was more profitable in the short run to graze more cattle than the pasture could stand, resulting in the eventual destruction of the pasture and their livelihood. The fable illustrates aptly the inexorable link between humans and nature and the consequences of disrupting it.But need it be like this?
The village ecosystem hangs on a delicate balance. If too many trees are cut or population pressure forces the expansion of croplands and habitats, thus reducing forests and grazing pastures, the results can be devastating. Faced with firewood shortage, villagers would turn increasingly toward cow dung, depriving crops of vital organic fertilisers and thus adversely affecting land productivity. Vanishing pastures would reduce livestock, leading to a shortage of animal manure. And, the vicious circle would continue.
The key to understanding village ecosystems lies in the concept of biomass -- products obtained from plants and animals that enable people to survive. In the coming years, India's demand for fuel, firewood, fodder, building materials such as timber and thatch will grow by leaps and bounds. In the next decade, food grain production must increase from about 170 million tonnes to more than 250 million tonnes. Production of milk, cotton, rubber, fish and other sources of food and industrial raw materials must also increase at the same pace, if not faster.
Population pressure, increasing consumerism and a complete disregard of the environment -- however driven by need -- have already turned nearly half of India's land mass into a "pseudo-desert". More people have meant more mouths to feed, which has put pressure on the land. Land set aside for grazing or forests is converted into croplands. Traditional methods of farming are replaced by modern methods where the land is given no opportunity to regenerate or rest. Increased numbers also mean more houses, for which, again, land is needed. Rapid industrialisation and runaway consumerism has compounded the already intolerable strain on natural resources.
The state of things was not always thus. Before the advent of the modern state, the village ecosystem was alive and sustainable. The decline can be said to have started with the British, who were the first to initiate the policy of converting common natural resources into government property. The process has continued after Independence. Today, we have conveniently divided natural resources into categories such as "protected areas", "sanctuaries" and "reserves", managed by government officials, mostly outsiders who fail to comprehend the bond between local people and their environment.
This has resulted in the tragic alienation of the local people from the commons. Instead of protecting the village ecosystem, we have institutionalised a virtual free-for-all. This is nowhere more starkly illustrated than when tribals, who have lived in harmony with forests for centuries, start hacking trees. If they don't, the forest contractors will, they maintain. Desperate economic conditions, compounded by the destruction of their natural habitats have left them no option.
What India desperately needs today is to increase productivity of all the components of the village ecosystem -- from grazing lands and forests to croplands, water systems and livestock -- in a sustainable way. Current rural development efforts are extremely fragmented in that they focus mostly on agriculture and often, the efforts are contradictory and counter-productive. People who build tanks do not want to do anything about getting an appropriate land-use in the village to protect the catchment of these tanks. Those looking after livestock or promoting dairy operations pay scant attention to increasing fodder supply.
The way out could be to promote integrated village ecosystem planning, taking into account the enhancement of the total resource base of the village ecosystem, the production of basic biomass needs of the village and the equitable distribution of these resources. It is also vitally important to take the social structure of the village into account as some groups in the village may depend more on its common resources, the rights to which have to be safeguarded.
The widely different nature of village ecosystems in India and varying social structures in different parts of the country make rural ecosystem planning doubly complicated. It is difficult -- even impossible -- to envisage any one plan being effective on a national level. An effective plan has to take into account particulars at the community and ecosystem-specific levels.
The important role of the government in sustainable rural development hardly needs to be emphasised. Experience has shown that the government can be more effective only if it allows the local community to implement regeneration and development programmes. The first step towards it would be to strengthen the village-level institutions such as the gram sabha (village council).
Disseminating information on resources, their use and villagers' rights would enable local communities to make the right decisions. Secondly, the government would have to emphasise spreading ecological awareness and provide training and technical assistance. Indian village communities have a vast treasury of traditional knowledge which, combined with modern science and technological inputs, could show the ways to best manage the available resource base sustainably. Efforts can be augmented by the knowledge gained by non-governmental organisations, who have considerable experience working at the grassroots level.
It is also vital that women play an important role in the affairs of village communities. Women take an active interest in programmes designed to improve ecological conditions because of their culturally determined role as collectors of fuel, fodder and water. But because women seldom participate in any institution dominated by men, separate women's councils could be formed in every village.
Regenerating the environment and restoring the resource base of the country's rural population, especially of those living in ecologically fragile regions, would ultimately depend on political decentralisation. Every settlement in the country must have a clearly defined environment to protect, care for and use, and open fora such as the gram sabha where all can get together to discuss their problems and find common solutions.