Overtaken by Uttarakhand
Disaster exposes ways in which our social self-knowledge has not kept pace
Whatever one’s views on the myth that moving the Dhari Devi idol unleashed nature’s fury on Kedarnath, the story is a perfect metaphor for the faultlines the tragedy in Uttarakhand exposes. According to one version of the myth, the idol is in two parts, the head located at Dhari Devi and the base at Kalimath. For the devout, the important thing is that the head and the base need to be aligned on a particular axis, with the head and feet matching directionally. Misalignment causes chaos. Whatever the value of the myth, as a metaphor, one could not do better. Indian society, with all its changes, is fast becoming a tale of misalignment: its self-understanding and its realities pulling in different directions. The social self-knowledge, the process by which society acquires an insight into its own workings and acts on it, lags behind its material capabilities.
Of course it is important to put the Uttarakhand disaster in perspective. Natural disasters are often one-off events. They have a way of exposing the brittleness of state. Just think of the experience during Katrina, produced by a combination of planning not adapted to nature and state failure for a brief moment. For all our problems, we have been able to mount a rescue operation of heroic proportions and unprecedented scale. But there are larger questions that will go to the very heart of how our societies are constituted.
There are multiple ways in which our social self-knowledge has not kept pace. The terms in which the debate over environment and development has been carried out is unproductive beyond belief, to the point where we neither preserve the environment nor get development. How abridged our social self-knowledge has become can be gauged by this debate, where four untenable attitudes triumphed. The first was that growth itself will solve environmental problems. But even those who are votaries of growth need to recognise that a lot of eco-systems are irretrievable. The second was a wilful amnesia about what sustains India. Being presumptuous with important eco-systems like the Himalayas or Western Ghats is risking catastrophe.
The third is our inability to mobilise authoritative knowledge. This is, in some ways the biggest paradox of India. It is not that India lacks brilliantly knowledgeable people. There will often be disagreement amongst experts. But within the formal scientific establishment, we have not been able to create structures of authority and adjudication that can convincingly project a scientific consensus. Just witness the appalling public spat between two government committees on the Western Ghats. Both were headed by distinguished scientists, Madhav Gadgil and K. Kasturirangan. I have no credentials to judge the dispute, though Gadgil’s position seems more cogently argued. But the inability to forge a scientific consensus on matters that should be judicable licenses anything goes. And predictably, the same debate on the role of dams in this disaster has ensued. Finally, forms of indigenous self-knowledge and local expertise in these matters have been completely sidelined. The one unfortunate consequence of the development versus environment debate has been that even the knowledge environmentalists have has been sidelined. The British may have wanted to create new hierarchies of knowledge, but they were often far more respectful in taking on board local knowledge. Our tragedy is that we are misaligned with what we already know.
Our social self-knowledge is misaligned with our realities in other ways as well. As we have developed, our development discourse has grown narrower, rather than broader, in three respects. There is now a rank instrumentalism about almost everything, where narrow conceptions of gain immobilise larger questions of value, as if they were relics from the past. There is, as always, an awful political economy of the contractor state behind this tragedy, but that contractor state has itself been legitimised by a larger instrumentalism. Behind a contractor state stands an instrumental society.
Second, development discourse is now reduced to “projects” and “distribution”. These are important, and in some areas we have had unconscionable failures. But an understanding of the ways in which these come to be embedded in larger ecologies, social norms and structures of cooperation is eluding us. It just boggles the mind that we think we can have good health outcomes or nutritional gains without systems that produce good air or water. As Uttarakhand reminds us, quick gains in growth and human development can easily be nullified if not set in ecological context. Himachal, another outstanding state, is facing just such a risk. Avoiding a low middle income trap will need moving the development debate beyond one more transfer scheme. It will have to look at systems, from urbanisation to ecology to subtler issues on the quality of life. The character of those wicked problems, both in terms of the forms of knowledge required and habits of social cooperation, belongs to an order that is very different from inventing yet another government scheme. It requires a different order of invention, imagination and innovation. It is hard to attribute one event to climate change. Let us face the facts: Nature has not dealt India a kind hand when it comes to the effects of climate change. We don’t know the specifics yet. But we do know that we are the most vulnerable, with potentially catastrophic consequences. Apart from our unexcelled grandstanding in international negotiations, what are the forms of knowledge we can mobilise to deal with these threats?
The third problem is a misdirected attention span. India’s public sphere is vibrant. But we have to admit it is also imposing a huge opportunity cost in generating forms of social self-knowledge modern societies require. It is easy to dismiss so much of the Indian media as an irrelevant gladiatorial contest, generating more heat than light. Again, some reporters showed enormous courage and good sense. But so much energy is expended on arguing over dead ends. It is not clear what is worse: the fact that politicians squabble over so many irrelevant issues or that we spend so much time squabbling over their squabbling. This may seem like a trivial issue, but nothing impedes the formation of collective social self-knowledge more than misdirected energy. We have never recognised the point that governance is a scarce resource and we need to allocate it wisely. The same is true of discourse. Our talk and our material reality are now so misaligned. The challenge of Uttarakhand will not just be to provide relief. It will now be to reimagine a new and more imaginative social conversation.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’