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The Rediff Special/ Rajni Bakshi

Romantics and Practical Solutions

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Romantics are easy to dismiss. After all, they are impractical dreamers. Surely they have no place in the rough and tumble of political struggles that shape the future. So it seems like a fatal flaw when the Narmada Bachao Andolan is charged with being a bunch of "eco-romanticists."

Yet civilizations are shaped by those who dare to challenge prevailing notions of 'practical' and thus expand the frontiers of the possible. By questioning the nature and modes of 'development' this is just what the Narmada Bachao Andolan is doing. It is true, as some critics have suggested, that the NBA's struggle is not merely about big-dams and water. It is part of a larger agenda for global transformation which stretches the limits of conventional wisdom and can thus seem fanciful to many people.

Amid rampant cynicism perhaps it is romantic to suggest that co-operation should replace competition as the dominant social value. Similarly the concept of a decentralised industrial economy, which empowers local communities, seems unrealistic in a world where more and more power rests with large global corporations. Then it also seems ridiculous to challenge the Wall Street version of the ancient mechanism of 'markets.'

Yet, this perception may change in the future. Much of what is taken for granted today was once considered impossible. For centuries many societies accepted the buying and selling of human beings as slaves. Even at the beginning of the 19th century those who fought to abolish slavery in the Western world, were dismissed as unrealistic idealists. A determined and dogged struggle changed that.

Similarly, those who today question vast, centralised projects which bring destruction and displacement to one place in order to develop another are condemned for being anti-progress or romantic. This attitude is now in the process of being changed. Such struggles and processes are always slow. There is often no fixed point at which an idea or value is transformed from being 'romantic idealism' to an accepted norm.

Modern societies are far more excited by the ways in which human technological ingenuity defies impossibilities -- be it flying machines or the world wide web. Thus it is almost heretical to challenge the view that modern technology can solve the many problems that are created by it in the first place. This is a view that firmly dominates the main square of the global market-place of ideas. For example, there is still very limited space for the suggestion that we can learn from traditional societies and gain by treating nature as sacred and not merely as a commodity.

However, the need to expand the space for such ideas is being acknowledged by more and more people all over the world. This is largely because there is now a vast amount of global data and dispassionate, non-romantic, analysis to show that the prevailing modes of industry and resource use can never provide for the needs of all human beings. Therefore there is need to radically re-think not only the means but also the values by which we use natural resources.

This understanding has been officially accepted by most governments and international agencies since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. But the seemingly universal slogan of 'sustainable development' covers a deep divide.

Those at the nerve centres of the global economy do not see the challenge of sustainable development as demanding a paradigm shift. They tend to see it as a management problem and rely on the logic of the market to ensure both economic and ecological balance.

On the fringes of the global economy and power structures are a wide range of struggles which are calling for a change in consumption patterns, modes of production and the pattern of natural resource use. This is the crux of the global clamour for an alternative, more creative, model of development.

The clash between these two broad mind-sets could cloud the early 21st century in much the same way as the contest between capitalism and socialism dominated the dawn of the 20th century. This dispute over the ways and means of 'development' cannot be neatly filed away under the 'environment' rubric. Extending across the economic, political and cultural spectrum this is a tussle about the future of human civilization. The NBA is only a small part of this multi-faceted, global struggle.

It has been alleged, most recently by the reputed scholar and social activist Gail Omvedt, that the NBA represents the voice of the "eco-romanticists of the world, not that of the Adivasis, Dalits and bahujan farmers of the valley." This criticism has been made by others who fear that a decentralised, village-centred economy will perpetuate old patterns of feudal bondage. Several forums of the 'alternative development' fraternity have attempted to establish a dialogue with Dalit groups on these issues. But clearly, this concern needs to be addressed in a more intensive and rigorous manner.

Over the last ten years the revived interest in traditional sciences and technologies has involved a wide range of scholars, technologists and activists of varied hues. It is true that there is a small stream, within this fraternity, which tends to exalt traditional systems as a comprehensive solution for today's problems. This view rests on an idyllic vision of times when humans lived in near-complete harmony with nature. But the vast majority of people engaged in these struggles are realists.

The realists know that there is no pristine past. The present and future have to be built using all the knowledge and wisdom now at our command. It would be foolish and irresponsible to claim that traditional methods alone could cater to the present density of human population. But it is equally daft to dismiss the practical worth of values that accompanied notions of sacredness. This has been the lament of all those who have struggled to save or rejuvenate the village commons.

In recent years there has been a wide variety of ground-work and research which combines traditional knowledge with modern innovations. Much of this work is in the areas of water, energy and organic, or natural, farming. Yet there is still no dynamic public debate, let alone dialogue, about these options.

Both the central and state governments have lent support to many of these micro-level projects. But, they have refused to review and accordingly re-orient their macro-policies in any meaningful way. Similarly, the corporate sector is still largely unaware that these alternatives hold the promise of far more cost-effective ways of addressing major infrastructure areas like water and energy.

There is an urgent need to alter this situation. But this is not happening partly because the creative vision which propels the alternatives-seekers has still not managed to capture the public imagination. The NBA's decade long struggle has generated a wide public awareness about the problem of displacement. But it has failed to convince enough people that the multi-dam Narmada Valley project is, in itself, a flawed proposition.

In this context, the charge of 'eco-romanticism' may be unfortunate if it causes more people to ignore the NBA or even condemn its activists as anti-progress hell-raisers. When 'eco-romanticists' is used as an allegation it implies a sentimental attachment to some pure ideals matched with an indifference to the actual needs of diverse sections of society.

Those who are dubbed 'romanticists' may well dismiss critics like Gail Omvedt as part of the backlash against the environmental movements in the West. In recent years several critics have contested the "purist Green" claim that Western industrial civilization is inherently dangerous. Many of these critics have accused environmental activists of preventing the ''poor and backward'' people of developing nations from realising the benefits of modern industry.

We, in India, should not limit ourselves to the terms of the debate in the West. Instead we must foster a constructive and rigorous dialogue which involves various shades of activists, policy makers and leaders of the corporate sector. Such a dialogue would not be intended to gloss over or obliterate basic differences in outlook. But it may be a solid means for respective segments of our society to fine-tune their understanding of the challenge of development.

A wide variety of technologists and social activists have already spent decades building a more than prima facie case for alternatives that are socially, economically and ecologically more cost effective. The dynamic participation of a much wider range of people will be required before visionary ideals are translated into reality. Therefore, it would be tragic if most of us to cling to whatever is 'given' at the moment and fail to closely examine processes of radical, even 'romantic', questioning.

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