"Most future decisions will be business decisions"

The man who has hrought the Calcutta wetlands ecosystem to international limelight, DHRURAJYOTI GHOSH is still enchanted by challenges. As chief of the West Bengal government's Environment Improvement Programme (EIP), this civil engineer-turned doctorate in ecology from Calcutta University has earned kudos for 'rediscovering'the folk technology of treating urban sewage water. His passionate patriotism and commitment to traditional folk knowledge has led him to challenge Western environmental theories, and fads. Fashionable "environmental opportunists", as he calls them, stay away from him. A Global 500 awardee, and presently the eastern region trustee of the World Wide Fund for Nature, Ghosh spoke at length to Sujit Chakraborty

Published: Tuesday 15 August 1995

The experiment in Panihati, where you have used folk technology and oxidation ponds (Down To Earth, June 30) for treating sewage and reusing the water for rice and fish cultivation, has earned much applause. But why did the experiment take so long?
This took us a whole process of unlearning what the Western environmentalists have taught us about wastewater treatment. We had to learn to look at the people at the ground level, for whom waste is not a pollutant, but a resource. It is the absolute opposite of what the West has taught us. For the fisherfolk around Calcutta, it was a question of resource recovery, not treatment of waste. I am astounded at their wisdom, their philosophy, which is totally different from our conventional ecological understanding.

The fisherfolk's cooperative society in Muclialy, near the Calcutta docks, had also undertaken a successful experiment in using a series of ponds for treating toxic industrial effluents and turnihg it into water good enough for fish cultivation. How do the two experiments compare?
Unfortunately, due to the fact that the Mudiyali experiment has not been recorded, documented and put on a scientific basis, it has lost its value as a scientific experiment. For any experiment to be termed scientific, its replicability has to be ensured. But that has not happened. It's a tragic waste of a tremendous people's effort.

Your work on the East Calcutta wetlands ecosystem has been the most highly praised so far. Could you tell us how and when it all started?
After my degree in civil engineering, I completed my PhD in Ecology from the Calcutta University in 1980, the first ever for an engineer. I had joined the Calcutta Metropolitan Water and Sanitation Authority (CMW&SA) in 1972. In 1980, the then finance minister of West Bengal, Ashok Mitra, asked me to look into the wetlands problem. My PhD thesis had been scrutinised by R ichard Meier of Berkeley University. When I wrote to him saying that I was getting into this project, he said, if I could spend 10 years in the area, I would leave a mark on history. I decided to do it.

It took you a long time to establish the scheme. When did you realise that Western models would not work?
In 24 hours. It was simple, it was all there, the wisdom of our @r&yious generations. What was difficult was to get accepted into their fold. The people here were tough, the area was crime prone. They distrusted me instinctively. I stayed on and helped them with sourcing, and in my capacity as a CMW&SA person, I helped them with their lockgates and the availability of proper sewage. It took me 3 years just to convince them that I was a friend.

I once went deep inside the territory to Durgapur village, where most people were, at that time, thieves. They wouldn't let me in. When I asked them if they were thieves, they admitted to that. So, I picked up a kid and asked, "Well, will he also become a thiep. " Then the kid's father started sobbing. Finally, I could convince them about me helping them to turn their lives into something better. I became an insider.

You have been avoiding the press. Why?
I firmly believe that if the ecologist becomes larger than the ecosystem he is working for, then it spells doom for both. What brought you to environmentalism?
I am trained as an engineer. But I completed my studies in the fiery early '70s. The youth and radical movement was sweeping the world. It was the age of questioning everything. In that context, I questioned my role as an engineer. Is there a definite goal?

In the '70s, ecology was fast emerging as a major thrust area. By then, I had read the Explosion of the Subcontinent by Robin Blackburn, in which there was a short note on an ecological- study of West Bengal villages from a PhD thesis of Chicago University. This made sense to me. I realised that ecology would be the strong subjective tool for my challenging the discipline of engineering. I decided that I would have to incorporate ecological principles in engineering designs and developmental planning.

You have this passion for all things local...
It started during my engineering days. As students, we were made to measure the stress factors of iron, steel, cement, concrete ... but never of bamboo poles. I found this amazing, because our teeming millions are constantly using bamboo for their homes, their bridges... their basic building material is bamboo. They go by their local wisdom, oral traditions. That's how I learnt the value of native intelligence. I strongly believe in the concept of "from the masses, back to the masses".

Your views on ecology and environmentalism have not won you too many friends, have they?
In the world of environmentalists I am an outsider'. I do not ever consider ecology as a part of biology. It is entirely the faith of those people who do not understand ecology. It is an independent discipline studying the inter-relationships between the various living and non-living things surrounding us.

You have written a major paper on ecological history. What provoked you?
I realised that the classical interpretation of history by Marx as a history of class struggles is no longer tenable. The second conflict, between man and nature, also influences the course of history on equal terms with class struggle. To that extent, history has to be re- written.

Your work in the Calcutta wetlands has seen a considerable amount of activism. In that context, what direction do you think environmentalism should take?
I look upon environmentalism as the highest form of trade unionism. This is my realisation from the wetlands experiment. As Lenin bad said in his treatise, trade unionism is aimed at securing the maximum benefit vis-a-vis the employer. Environmentalism, by that token, is aimed at securing the best possible deal in our natural environment, vis-a-vis the state.

We hear nowadays of ecofeminists, and we have our clemi-gods of environmental activism. Any comments?
The field today is pack with what I call environmental opportunists. Some of them speak on all subjects, though any subject needs a long, long time to be understood. But these people need to catch the headlines, so they shoot their mouths, creating a nuisance value. This, they later encash-for procuring projects, grants, travels....

What do you feel will be the fallout of this kind of activism?
It will distort priorities and targets. Take the Bangalore wetla@nds, for instance. Some people started crying hoarse about protecting it, and protecting the birdlife there ... again, ecology as an extension of biology. Wetlands is not about birds at all. It's about a whole ecosystem, about the wetlands peoples and their cultures. I find it totally ridiculous that the logo of the Ramsar Convention should be a bird. What about the people? The Bangalore wetland needs to be filled. It is next to the airport. You know what the risks are? An airplane full of people is more valuable than the birds. And I must thank environmentalist Father Cecil J Saldana (St Joseph's School, Bangalore) for clearing the perspective.

You have been working on the Environment Improvement Programme and have just completed the environmental status report of Calcutta. What is its chief significance?
This is what Agenda 21 is all about: local participation. The best thing about this is that it proves our internal competence. Foreign teanis have been throwing around crores of rupees trying to do this, because they say Calcutta does not have this talent. We have shown that we not only have it, we do not even need external funding. It is a pathfinder.

The target of this excercise is the sustainable development of a metropolis.

What do you feel are the key factors involved?
The key fact6rs are regulatory criteria and developmental controls; enabling of the common person to determine his/her destiny; and an early-warning system of the dangers ahead.

In the context of a sudden growth of environmental concerns, what'll be the shape of thing in the near future?
One must understand some basic postulates: no decision is neutral, it depends on the observer-object relationship and the frame of reference; second, all public decisions are political decisions; and most of such future decisions will become business decisions. And this will mark the fundamental change in the arena of politics globally.

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