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The Hindu on : Gaia and Kali

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Tuesday, September 28, 1999

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Gaia and Kali

By Gail Omvedt

The question to be asked of the ``big dams'' of today is not whether they are big but whether they are appropriate and whether they function according to the requirements of social justice.

GAIA - THE term calls up images of the earth as a living being, all of its innumerable animals, birds, plants, rocks, mountains functioning as a single organism, interwoven, interlinked, complex and conscious. For the romantic section of environmentalists, Gaia gets interpreted in somewhat more radical ways, to imply that human beings have little role to play other than living and depending on mother Gaia in ways that interfere with her processes as little as possible. When Ms. Medha Patkar declared, in an interview to the Marathi daily, Sakal, (Aug. 1, 1999) that ``the rivers and streams of the country are its veins and arteries; if these are obstructed then death is certain,'' she was speaking out of these ideas of a nurturing, secure and providing nature in which human interference only causes destruction.

When British chemist James Lovelock and American biologist Lynn Margulis formulated the ``Gaia hypothesis,'' they were concerned to emphasise the notion of complementary interaction between life and environment. As Lovelock put it, this is ``a new insight into the interactions between the living and inorganic parts of the planet. From this has arisen the hypothesis, the model, in which the Earth's living matter, air, oceans and land surface form a complex system which can be seen as a single organism and which has the capacity to keep our planet a fit place for life.'' But the eco-romanticists have carried this further, using the idea of Gaia to argue for human non-interference with natural processes and to connect it with the eco-feminist dualities of female/nature and male/culture, in which woman is identified with nature, subsistence production, survival and peace; while man is seen as predatory and warrior. In the most ``modern'' version of this propagated by Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies, the market economy, commercialism, industrial production and ``Western science and technology'' are all seen as patriarchal and anti- nature.

The notion of nature and the Earth as a living organism might have taken on a different tone had Lovelock and Margulis used the Indian goddess Kali as a symbol instead of Gaia. Gaia, Greek goddess of the earth, seems primarily a gentle figure. As Demeter, she represented and protected grain harvest, and the most commonly known story is that when her daughter Persephone was carried off by the god of the underworld, Hades, Demeter/Gaia managed to get her freed for six months of the year. This explains the European seasons, six months of sunshine and warmth and harvesting, six months of fall and winter. Gaia stands for life and light, gentleness and peace.

But the Indian tradition sees goddesses in a much more complex form, as powerful and dangerous agents of both creation and destruction. Most of the village goddesses whose temples are seen everywhere are viewed as dangerous powers that have to be placated; they are linked to disease and death and to the protection against disease and death as much as to life. Durga's slaughter of the demons, Kali's dance of death - all of these symbolise the terrible and awe-inspiring forms that nature often appears to have.

And, in fact, the simple eco-romanticist view of nature as pure benevolence is out of touch with reality. Nature may not be really ``red in tooth and claw'' as the English saying has it; but neither is it a simple paradigm of cooperation, nurturance and harmonious development. From the beginning, cosmic, physical and biological processes have all involved both life and death, destruction and creation. Stars come into being, sometimes explode into novae, sometimes die a slow death. Life rises - though we do not yet know how it rises on other planets, on this one countless species have risen and fallen, just as billions of individuals have lived and died. To walk through a museum is to see records of past extinctions of species, for unless the old gives way, the new cannot come. Animals prey on one another as well as on human beings, forests contain wild and dangerous predators as well as food for gathering, rivers provide both water to nourish life and floods that destroy it. Earthquakes, floods, landslips, meteor attacks, all kinds of ``natural'' disasters have been rampant from the beginning; it is because human population has increased that these seem to have more and more impact.

Few dwellers on fields and in forests have viewed nature as simply benevolent. Nature may be sacred, but the sacred itself has always been full of danger for human beings. If the huge impersonal cities of today are unsafe, especially at night, the same was true of the forests that surrounded villages: few went out at night. And above all, no agricultural society has ever followed a policy of non-interference with nature. Agriculture, especially settled plough agriculture, requires something of a battle with the forests, cutting of trees, clearing of land; it requires arrangements to bring water.

This was true, above all, in India, where agriculture has existed for millennia and attained high productivity. The earliest known dams were built, probably by Dravidian speakers, in the Indo- Iranian borderlands around the end of the fourth millennium BC - known as ``gabarbands,'' they functioned not simply as reservoirs but to terrace fields and create the rich alluvial soil for agriculture. Over the next 5,000 years, dams, bunds, anicuts and canals have been built, lands have been flooded for reservoirs, water has been channelled into lands chosen by human beings rather than letting it flow in its ``natural'' course. Lakes covering hundreds of kilometres and stone dams, hundreds of metres long, have served to channel water for agriculture. The rich Cauvery delta was created over centuries by anicuts, channels and other forms of ``artificially'' channelling water. The lands that have yielded foodgrains and vegetables and fruits have been humanly created; if the earth is the body of Gaia, its veins and arteries have been humanly constructed. Environmentalists like to speak of the Bishnois, who gave their lives to protect their sacred trees in the desert. True, these are a crucial part of Indian tradition. But why not also claim the heritage of the Harappans who built the first gabarbands in the mountainous areas to channel water through terraced fields, of the peasants who cleared the forests to farm the land, of the kings and their engineers who built the Grand Anicut across the Cauvery and of the villagers who operated and maintained these systems? They used the engineering of their time to intervene in nature, to make the land productive for human occupation.

The builders of dams, like Sardar Sarovar or the Koyna in Maharashtra or countless others are not simply imposing the standards of an industrial society. They are using the best of the engineering of their time, just as the engineers of the Cholas or the Mughals sought to increase the productivity of the land. If there is a problem with these dams, it is not that they are built but that they are not properly built, that they are not really using the best engineering of its time, that it is not taking advantage of the possibilities of environment-friendly construction, that it is needlessly condemning too many to the loss of their land and to displacement. The question to be asked of the ``big dams'' of today is not whether they are big - the earth is big, society has also gotten big and requires ``big'' networks, grand achievements - but whether they are appropriate and whether they function according to the requirements of social justice.

The ``Gaia hypothesis'' will make a good deal of sense if we use it to keep an awareness of the interlinkages and complexity of life. But if ``Gaia'' is conscious, then it is humans and human society collectively that embody that consciousness. And, of course, consciousness and ability to intervene imply responsibility, and this responsibility grows with the increasingly awesome powers of modern technology. ``Walk lightly upon the earth,'' is another Greenish slogan that captures something of the necessary attitude: one cannot avoid walking, one cannot avoid the responsibility of intervention, but it should be done with caution. It is humans who can ensure whether the face of the earth goddess is that of Kali or of Laxmi.

Section  : Opinion
Previous : A chance missed by the media
Next     : Cauvery water row

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