Poverty and traditional living can teach us about sustainability, if we would pay attention- June 18, 2012

A friend passed on to me the phone number of someone who home delivers organic veggies in Gurgaon and I am trying to evaluate the benefits of ordering these at an increased cost. I do believe that going organic will benefit my family’s health, but how much can I protect my kids and the rest of us from exposure to all sorts of toxins in products like milk, fruits, even pulses, chicken, wheat and rice…stuff we consume all the time?

Reading about the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development organized by the UN, I cannot help wondering what a stupendous task it must be to convince people from across the globe to see the urgency of the issue. Modern lives have consumption and wastefulness at the core. To turn first principles around and conserve instead of consume is a very fundamental transformation that most people will find extremely difficult. Much easier to believe the worst will never happen and continue with business as usual! Many a time, I am gripped with fear about what sort of lives our children will lead in a future world where people will slay for water.

One of the essential themes of the the Rio+20 conference is the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and the seven areas that need attention are: decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness. There is a strong link between urbanization and sustainability. We do know that as man has rapidly urbanized, the pressures on the planet has magnified manifold and the objective of sustainability more threatened than ever.

The connection with poverty is more complex, in my view. I usually associate higher income with higher waste generation. However, I have noticed time and again that urban migrant populations at the bottom of the income pyramid lose their inherent tendency of conservation and judicious use of resources rapidly. Instead, littering and wastefulness are the first ‘urban’ traits they pick up. To me, this is strongly linked to the loss of identity that poor families must feel when they migrate into urban spaces. The lack of ownership of a home and its environs, the feeling of being transient inhabitants of a physical space, the nonchalance and thick-skinned abandon that is born out of being treated as society’s lowest rung all act together to breed a feeling of contempt for the urban environment.

Therefore, the biggest challenge of all for sustainable development is that of carving a space of dignity for the urban poor. One way is to create policy and mechanisms that ensures a basic decent standard of living for all- quality shelter and access to basic services like water, electricity and sanitation being essentials. Along with this, a code of urban conduct needs to propagated in which civic duties including aspects like cleanliness, safety and conservation are expected from individuals and households that inhabit urban spaces. Once again, community plays a critical role here. Inter-class suspicions and rivalries need to be left aside if we are to build a society that is safe for our present and in a fit condition to hand over to our children.

I suspect this is not an urban problem along though. On Sunday, I attended the book release of the 3rd Encyclopaedia of Social Work in India. The editor of the 5-volume series, Dr Surendra Singh is a family elder, an academician of repute and a man with acute sensibilities with regards to the social dimensions of developing India. He pointed out that despite over 60% of Indians still quoting agriculture as their primary occupation, only a single researcher had contributed an article on social work among the farming community. Just goes to show that we are ignoring social transitions that are happening at a massive scale across the nation. Consumed by the idea of urbanization, we are unable to see the inter-linkages across geographies, the proverbial big picture.

I’m the zillionth person to say this I’m sure, but a nation like India, which still has living traditional cultures within its folds, cultures that still practice age old traditions of sustainable living, has the unique opportunity to recognize these precious ideas and adapt them to modern life. In this, we need to hear the voices of the poor and give credence to their adaptability. We then need to help them retain the sustainable aspects of their lifestyle and adopt these across economic strata and geographies, not look down on them and force modern, usually unsustainable practices down their throat in the name of development. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the construction field, but that is a whole different subject to explore!

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4 thoughts on “Poverty and traditional living can teach us about sustainability, if we would pay attention- June 18, 2012

  1. Thank you for making me think… Really think.
    Re.the organic veggies…. I have been using mostly Organic veggies, dry provisions I.e dals, rice, atta, oils etc. there is definitely a difference in my kids health.
    My idea was that in some way I’m lessening the amount of chemicals they are exposed to. Although as non- vegetarians, I’m sure they get it right back in with the meats!
    I have just started amostly organic home bakery and am amazed at the number of Mums who are keen on the stuff at a higher price rather than buying from an established bakery.

  2. As a person with still connected links to my ancestral village, I remember getting sackful pulses and grains from ‘home’. But I don’t know if this still is the case with my parents or that my cousins still farm like the old days. But, till 12 years ago, this was a staple farm to table ‘organic’ food we used to have. I would think if there were a way to better connect farmers to urban dwellers, sub-venting the middlemen, organic produce would be more available.

    In a project I was involved in India, trying to come up with a conceptual master plan for a city, I tried to provide a conceptual framework to preserve ag land next to the new city that could provide organic produceto the urban populace , by suggesting a development credit swap, wherein developers could get more FAR if they paid farms adjacent to the city to keep farming for a 20 year period. After which the farmer gets the option to sell or re-lease with another developer for more FAR.

    I don’t know if the idea will ever see the light of day, but I’ve put it out.

    • Many initiatives starting out along those lines. Mostly small entrepreneurs. Logistics, cold chain, large retail all need to chip in. We need the farmers market sort of concept in Indian cities

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