“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known”
Carl Sagan seems to have poetically put in words, this incredible human quest to seek the unknown, to know what is beyond the known. It is perhaps this innate desire to stretch the limits of their existence which perhaps drove the earliest humans to move out of Africa to colonize the entire world, against all odds including an Ice Age. You may argue that environmental conditions and survival would have been the primary reason — but “curiosity” rather than dearth of food and resources were probably the reasons, as scientific evidence suggests.
Once human settlements began to come in place, such as the one in Indus-Saraswati (Harappan Civilization), it was perhaps curiosity combined with a search of a more prosperous life, that led humans to take risky sea voyages to trade with other civilizations.
The point i am making here is that it is not consistent with the innate nature of human beings to settle down and live peacefully ever after. On the other hand, there are groups among human beings who do exactly that, seeking to expand (if i may) their inner experience. It is difficult to expect the human species to be contained and defined by any one idea of how things are meant to be.
Gandhian views on industrialization — the need for self-reliance via the Charkha over industrial manufacturing, and the philosophy of natural living, practiced by ever increasing groups of conscious communities living around the world, manifesting as organic food and slow-food, home-schooling and un-schooling, permaculture and natural farming — have both influenced my thinking, ideas as well as purpose of life for years.
That influence has not receded. And yet i feel appalled when “development” is criticized mindlessly.
Crony Capitalism? Okay, show me the better model!
Images such as this one, describing trickle-down economics are virally spread on facebook, and hundreds join the rhetoric using terms such as crony-capitalism to express their dissent of modern economics, capitalism and trade. Modi-haters are particularly vicious in their criticism of Modi’s development agenda.
This is downright irresponsible. And the reason i say so, is because these folks have no clue of another form of sustainable and just models of economics. Gandhian philosophy of minimal industrialization — of a bicycle being good for human-kind, but railways having an opposite effect on civilizations — are the models that are talked about by those living in conscious communities. They long for creating village-like communities which barter, volunteer to serve needs of the collective, grow their own food, solve their own family and social internal conflicts, live in rural/semi-urban areas, and so on.
They call themselves “Swavalambi” (people who think independently and choose their ‘own path’). Even as i admire such independent non-mainstream thinking and agree with with many of their core ideals — i disagree wholeheartedly with their alternative-less criticism of current economics.
They forget that the essential human curiosity, which led to human migrations out of Africa, is the same that invented fire and the wheel, made the bullock-carts, attempted to observe and understand the stars in the skies, made ships to voyage across the seas to seek unknown lands (risking their lives), the humble bicycle, as well as the railways and the aircraft. It is the same human curiosity which causes human beings to have sleepless nights over solving mathematical problems to find a ‘unified theory of everything‘, or to dedicate their lives to sending humans to Mars — and while doing so, living uneasily with abject poverty around them.
Urbanization is inevitable
India is destined to become a urban majority country by 2040. Horrible, as it may sound to people calling out Modi’s “crony capitalism” (generally Aam Aadmi Party well-wishers), this is destiny unfolding. While i am not by a great distance an AAP well-wisher, i too used to be horrified at this by this idea.
What would happen to our home-grown ‘Panchayati Raj system‘ that devolved local governance down to grass-roots in a true “For The People, By The People” spirit, instead of abdicating in the hands of a centralised judiciary and bureaucratic structure?
Would we also become as materialistic as the Americans? What happens to our spiritual values? What happens to the close connect between simple living and spirituality that we’ve come to recognize to co-exist in this country? Would evil companies such as Monsanto come to control seeds in India as well, just as they have done around the world?
These are questions i have been troubled with as well. An urge to life a purposeful life constantly brings me back to questions of equity and social justice — a basic level of dignity for all. Naturally, i then get attracted to organisations that work in villages, and philosophies like that of the ‘Hind Swaraj’. Just like the ‘swavalambi’s’ i openly crticise materialistic living and ideals, and continue to get deeply inspired by movies like ‘Avataar‘ — with the native populations living in deep harmony with its forests and natural environment. Secretly, i long for a life like that.
Open your arms to ‘cities’ and ‘development’
But living a ‘Pandora’ like life, here on Earth is a dream that needs to be kept aside for another lifetime. I’m ready for now to open my arms to cities and Modi’s development. What made this switch?
To be honest, Sanjeev Sanyal drove the final nail in the coffin — his book “The Land of Seven Rivers“, and some of his recent articles – “The Architecture of Hinduism” and “The End of Population Growth“. The book and his other essays re-affirmed my faith in humanity and its ability to adapt and survive. Let me explain.
I started my career with Prasanna Lal Das, who over 15 years ago first challenged my doomsday thinking (as a conscientious kid, straight out of engineering college) about humanity and India self-destructing itself with climate change, crony capitalism (this term did not exist then, but i was a revolutionary like Arvind Kejriwal), destroying forests, over-urbanization of villages, and so on. I remember him talk about the ingenuity of the human race to invent and engineer a new future for ourselves. I learnt to begin to become comfortable with envisioning a future where instead of resisting change and idealizing about reversing industrialization of the world, we perhaps needed to ‘struggle’, leading to the next engineering leap. During this struggle, humanity as a race would continue to go through terrible suffering, death, disease, and all the worst things we can think of — just as it does now.
I remember writing an article on why the Delhi Metro’s introduction of the first coach for women only was a regressive idea. My basic argument was that with such segregation, Delhi’s men will never become comfortable with women and their clothing choices — while the reverse, even as it might continue to create harassment for women in the short-term, will lead to greater gender equality and acceptance, longer term. I remember Prasanna agreeing with me. On another instance, i remember arguing with him about his idea of DTC installing automatic ticketing machines. I was unhappy with the idea of so many jobs being lost to machines. To this his argument was clear — that ‘if machines do not replace ‘mundane jobs’, human beings will not invent/innovate new ‘creative ways’ of living their lives‘. I remember, head-fallen, thinking — and him retorting — “the spirit of my my argument is essentially the same as yours for not segregating women in the Delhi Metro“.
Then came Sanjeev Sanyal’s book. He talks of Hinduism as a complex adaptive system, which faced many tribulations with the Saraswati drying up because of climate change and change in course of the Yamuna and Sutlej, and yet it survived, continuing surprisingly to this day. Over 5000 years later it is alive with markers of its ancient society and traditions. He talks about the entrepreneurial spirit of the people of ancient India — to celebrate whose travels to Bali for trade (eventually with China) against odds of risky/violent seas — festivals like the “Bali Yatra” in Bengal were created. He talks about the cities of Indus Valley civilization not being confined to cities of the elite, but being dynamic evolving ecosystems with (what we now call) ‘slums’ all around them. He talks about the continuum of these slums existing in Mumbai and Delhi even today — once again in an ever evolving, adaptive ecosystems called “cities” which give rural populations a chance of a better life even while using the ‘living on the fringes of the city‘ as a means to wean themselves away from rural poverty.
Who are we to decide living in cities, that villages are better — and that we must preserve them as they are — for the populations to stay there. In fact, this is a constant dilemma my friends who have ejected themselves from city-life to pursue more conscious rural/semi-urban lives, express. In their interactions with rural youth, they nearly always come across younger folks who want to get out of villages to pursue a life of better income and more opportunities in cities.
“By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been”
We humans generally like to cling to romantic ideas of the golden past – life’s pace was not so killing, food was healthier, people had time for their relationships, they lived longer and healthier lives, and so on.
But data suggests that the world has never been better on all parameters of human development (except perhaps ‘happiness’, which has never been measured). Bill Gates changed my ‘golden-past romanticism‘ with this annual letter that i read, waiting for a meeting at the office of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
We will adapt, survive and thrive
Prasanna Lal Das, Bill Gates and finally Sanjeev Sanyal have made my outlook of the world and humanity more positive. Ofcourse we have problems, vested interests to keep people poor, crony-capitalism, climate change, the threat of ever evolving viruses such as Ebola threatening our existence as a species.
But i am now a firm believer in our ability to adapt and give continuity in a positive way to not only our species but ensure a healthy survival for the planet as well. We’ll also offer a more dignified life, free of extreme poverty, to most among us.
And we’ll use our cities as our most potent weapon.