A SUSTAINABLE society is one that is prepared to monitor the impacts of its activities carefully, openly and democratically, analyse them and use its wisdom and knowledge to solve problems. The knowledge capital of a society is just as important for sustainability as its natural or human-made capital.
Several meetings have recently been organised to stress the importance of education in the promotion of sustainable development.
"Science" and "environment" are possibly the two greatest ideas of the 20th century. One has brought immense power to create unprecedented wealth. The other has made human beings realise that wealth creation, or development as it is often called, is self-destructive. Therefore, the urgent need to reconcile environment with development. While this is unquestionable, it is equally important to realise that there cannot be any education more important for national integration in a multicultural society like India than environmental education. Nothing can create greater pride in India, its people and their cultures.
Every idea, it seems, possesses a dynamics of its own. A scientist in Delhi or Dhaka tends to focus on the scientific achievements of Europe, North America and Japan. This curiosity and enquiry is indeed important, especially in an increasingly globalised economy. But, in the process, scientists can become decultured or neglect local problems and perspectives.
Environmental concerns, on the other hand, tend to focus on local problems and perspectives. Progress in this direction is automatic. Interest in environment begins with a desire to understand the physical attributes of a country -- in India's case, its diverse ecosystems, its hot and cold deserts, its temperate and tropical hill and mountain regions, its deep, alluvial plains and its enormous wetlands. India's extraordinary biological and ecological diversity is nothing short of a marvel.
As one becomes more aware of the ecosystems of the country, one becomes more interested in the people living in these ecological regions: the desert nomads, the shifting cultivators, the fisherfolk and the diversity of farmers cultivating hills, mountain terraces and the plains.
Interest in production systems and the way people relate to their environment generates interest in understanding their cultural systems. There is a direct relationship between India's ecological diversity and its cultural diversity. It is based on the extraordinary rationality of human beings -- their techniques and innovations -- to live and benefit from their environment. Not surprisingly, for citizens of a multicultural society, the richness and diversity of its traditions and the rationality of its people and cultures evoke pride. Science, because of its outward-looking dynamics, often tends to regard them as backward.
How can Indians -- indeed, people of the world -- be educated about this interactive complex of ecology, society and culture?
It's a challenging task and must obviously begin at school. Geography is the most important subject, which needs as innovative and imaginative inputs as it can get. Unfortunately, geography as a subject has got increasingly downgraded over the years in Indian schools.
In fact, in several Western countries, post-graduate geography departments have been the main locus for environmental studies, which have turned out to be extremely inter-disciplinary in nature. In India, environment teaching in universities has gone largely to science faculties and has become synonymous with environmental sciences. It has failed to equip students with the social dimensions of environmental issues.
Environmental education is something that must begin at childhood and go on, at the minimum, into the late years of school. During this period, it must not get ghettoed as a separate subject. Environmental issues must get integrated with all subjects. History need not be just a chronicle of actions of kings and queens, but equally a chronicle of resource-use patterns and how societies dealt with problems of survival, wealth generation and economic growth.
Unity in diversity is a phrase that all Indian children are taught. But how many know what it means? To the extent we understand, it means there is rationality in each culture and therefore, each culture is equally worthy of respect. The rationality of Indians in the Indo-Gangetic plains is no less or more than that of the Ladakhis or the Nagas. Nothing inspires more respect for a culture than the knowledge of its rationality. If a multicultural society like India is to hang together in an increasingly unicultural world, it must create a generation of Indians that is intensely aware of its logic, roots, wonders and uniqueness. And, what is true of India is true for the world, lest the dominant people -- and the white races -- continue to think they alone have the logic to teach the rest of the world. It is not hunger or GATT that will create the maximum tension in the world, it is the threat of eroding its multicultural character.
Not only schools, the media also have a critical role to play because human sensitivity has a limited range. Take a village. Its water comes from a nearby well or pond, its energy from the local forest and its milk is the product of its grassland. So villagers have an inherent interest in their immediate environment.
But take the city dwellers of India. Their oil comes from Kuwait or a distant refinery, water from a far-off dam, bricks from the fringes of the city and food from various parts of the country. Can such persons care about how excess fertiliser use affects farm land? Do such persons even know how many people lost their homes for the dam built to provide water to them? Do they realise that a river is polluted every time the toilet is flushed, killing fish and, ultimately, the livelihood of poor fisherfolk?
Our consumption patterns, powered by modern science and market forces, can destroy a lot without consumers even knowing it. Schools must make children aware of what it means to eat apples or rice. Eat them they must, but acutely be aware that the search for producing environment-friendly foods must go on. The message becomes powerful on television. It is probably not a historical accident that the environmental message grew rapidly in the TV age.
Where are such powerful messages needed more than in India, where poverty and high population density combined to make the social impact of ecological destruction extremely high? Where the destruction of the river means the destruction of fisherfolk. Where the destruction of the forest means the destruction of the poor tribal. Where the destruction of the grassland spells a threat to the very survival of the grazier. Indian education has great challenge before it.
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