History and our notions of ideal and modern

Published: Tuesday 15 September 2009

A LOT of people who write on ecology do so with an unsaid assumption. That people in the past lived in sync with nature till industrialization and modernity disrupted this harmony. Some people--condescendingly called the pre-moderns--seem to work far better with nature than those versed in modern disciplines. Their wisdom respects nature as a provider and a healer (See Touch that heals trees). Champions of modern disciplines sometimes value such interaction, sometimes appropriate it; but rarely is there room for it in universities, the media and legislatures.

Tamil Nadu's legislators passed a bill that virtually nullifies farmers' knowledge. Politicians wont to quoting poets of yore seem to have forgotten what they said about farmers (See Deschooling farmers). The legislation is ill-intentioned and flies in the face of common sense.

History, though, is not just about people living in thrall of nature. It offers examples of casting aside wisdom perfected through the ages. The success of the Maya civilization is a lesson to those who believe we have nothing to learn from the past. Its demise is equally a lesson for those who believe in the ecological purity of pre-moderns. Tamil Nadu's legislators today comprise a historical type the Mayan king Jasaw Chan K'awiill (See Temples of doom).

How substantial is substantial?
if the Union government goes ahead with the National Green Tribunal Bill, all cases for environmental redress will go to a new green tribunal (See Access to justice curbed). This is to ease the load of environmental cases on the courts. The bill does not stop anyone from appealing the tribunal's verdict to the higher judiciary. So much for easing caseloads. Do not be surprised if environmental cases take longer and become more painful for the average citizen.

The tribunal's mandate, though broader than that of the dysfunctional National Environmental Appellate Authority, is vague. It will look into "substantial cases of environment", whatever that means.

It will be staffed with retired judges and 'experts' with graduate degrees in biology, or physical sciences or engineering, or bureaucrats with 15 years' experience. Its effectiveness is likely to be limited to an employment plan for retired bureaucrats and judges.

Emergencies rich and poor

the private sector provides up to 80 per cent of India's healthcare. The public sector's failure is often a reason for promoting private healthcare. The swine flu pandemic showed private healthcare is good for the good times, but ineffective in emergencies (See H1N1 caught India sleeping).

How do we define emergency? Is maternal mortality one? What about severe acute malnutrition? Diabetes? All of these are much bigger killers than swine flu.

The definition being followed now is based on per capita income--swine flu has so far affected only the rich.

This is not to undermine the seriousness of swine flu. A virus jumping the species barrier--in this case from pigs to humans--is a mark of how we handle our environment. A recent study has shown how cutting down of forests for agriculture created conditions for the malaria parasite jumping from chimpanzees to humans about 10,000 years ago (See Blame's on chimps). Today, malaria control requires large budgets. Swine flu, transmitted by a virus that mutates at whim and in a matter of hours, can be a bigger risk, and control is near impossible. When the cost of deforestation is calculated, expenditure on controlling and treating diseases like malaria, aids, bird flu and sars ought to be included.

Informing the informers

the Union health ministry stopped holding press briefings on swine flu. The grapevine had the reason thus swine flu was not a hot story after Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan's misfortunes at a US airport grabbed the air waves. The media does determine importance of stories.

Take the case of turmeric. After the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research managed to block a patent on turmeric in the US, the spice became fashionable overnight. For all its multifarious uses, the goodness of turmeric is yet to be harnessed. Curcumin, the active ingredient responsible for that goodness, is not soluble in water (See How to make curcumin cure better). This reduces the efficacy of the product, but industry keeps mum about this. Science is not allowed to interfere with sales targets.

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