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Stretching arguments to point of absurdity

SCIENCE, DEVELOPMENT AND VIOLENCE -- THE TWILIGHT OF MODERNITY Claude Alvares Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi Price: Rs 195

By R Ramachandran
Published: Monday 30 November 1992

-- CRITICISING or condemning lopsided developmental priorities and highlighting their consequences is one thing; outright rejection of the very concept of development, science and technology is quite another. Propagating extremist ideology -- one that goes to the meaningless extent of rejecting even the Second Law of Thermodynamics -- is the sum and substance of this new book by Claude Alvares, a self-described "deprofessionalised intellectual".

Science, Development and Violence is his book's catchy title and it is bound to sell because "anti-development thinkers" -- to use Alvares' own label for individuals of his ilk -- are on the rise in the country. Alvares' failing, as always, is choosing isolated cases as the basis for sweeping generalisations and extremist conclusions. His book is largely reportage of studies that can be suitably interpreted to fit within his ideological parameters and is an array of extreme assertions in language that betrays a cult of anti-scienticism -- and not conviction. "Triage" and "plunder" are words he uses repeatedly and indiscriminately to describe the process of development. Unfortunately, the violence and blunder is more in Alvares' writing than in the target of his attack.

Alvares would like to see a return of the Third World (the South) to self-sufficient communities of subsistence living, devoid of any mechanised industrialisation because this is based on the Second Law and denied the benefits of modern science and technology. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is part of nature, to which Alvares so badly wants us to return, and will govern the behaviour of all systems for all time, with or without Alvares and whether he likes it or not. The Second Law is not a product of industrialisation; on the other hand, industrialisation began with the realisation of the content of the Second Law. So, it is not merely a matter of definition, as Alvares seems to think.

The virtues of gur, idli, roti and mother's milk are well known and the institutions that Alvares attacks for doing research on milk substitutes are also the ones to highlight the nutritive values of traditional foods. Nobody has recommended such foods be abandoned and people continue to consume them in large quantities. White sugar and bread may have been fallouts of the colonial period, the inherited paradigm of industrialisation and other Western influences, but it cannot be denied that neither idli nor roti can be mass-produced -- as bread can be. And, mass production is necessary, as long as the concept of a State remains valid. By professing an ideology that rejects development, Alvares is actually advocating the rejection of this very concept.

Despite the crafty rhetoric aimed at convincing the reader of his premise, Alvares offers no alternative model. Undeniably, there have been positive aspects of development. For example, the average life of an Indian has increased as a result of modern medical research. Traditional systems of medicine undoubtedly have their own rightful place, but it was modern medicine that helped to combat plague and smallpox.

The green revolution -- and the discussion of this subject happens to be the best part of the book -- drew largely from the research of J K Bajaj, a fellow of the Indian Council of Social Science Research. As a technological solution to food shortages, it may have resulted in long-term ill-effects to Indian agriculture. But it is a moot question whether such a shortage could have been averted in any other manner. Decades from now, medical research may discover harmful effects of widespread immunisation and use of antibiotics. But do we reject them today, at a time when the only proof is that they are beneficial? As a state, if that as an entity is to be accepted, the dilemma can well be imagined.

Alvares is wrong to presume that a reversal of the path that the human society as a whole has chosen to follow, is possible in just one part of the world. It may really have been misconceived, as Alvares would have us believe, and may have even been imposed on a section of the world, but the reality that it is a historical process cannot be undone.

To blame it all on the Second Law is as funny a notion as any that one can come across. Ambient temperature cannot cook idli. And an idli or rice-cooker is as much a result of the Second Law as any other industrial process. True, greater efficiency demands higher temperatures and greater use of resources. But solar cookers, for example, would take ages to cook. Stretching an argument to absurd limits is the technique used throughout the book. So by that token, Alvares should stop publishing books using paper and, instead, write on palm leaves because paper manufacture and the printing process use temperatures that are above the ambient, because this makes them more efficient than leaf engravings.

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