Brush/floss and cut trees for happiness

I grew up in a small hill station town in central India.  Ethnically, I am a foreigner there ~ I belong to the "Aryan" race, and have lighter skin than the "Dravidians" who inhabited India prior to the Aryan arrival, and who were pushed into the forests while the Aryans built civilized cities next to the rivers.

For 3000 years, the Dravidians (or "Adivasis") lived happily in the forest.  A forest subsistence is a happy subsistence ~ as long as you have the forests.  The forests provide you with a wide variety of edible foods that "civilized" people would normally frown on.  Examples of this include fruit flys that can be roasted on an open fire.  The forest also provides you with adequate medicine, if you understand the forests.  Examples of this include the Neem tree, whose oil is antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and pro-good health. As an example, one does not need to brush with toothpaste and floss 2 times a day, as long as one can polish your teeth with a neem twig every now and then.  Everyone is happy as long as the balance of nature is maintained.

Unfortunately, forestland also tends to be very rich in natural resources that civilized people need for the advancement of civilization.  God must have a very sick sense of humor.  The hills around my hometown are rich in iron-ore, and coal, and manganese, and uranium, and cobalt, and copper.  And zinc.  You name it, and we have it.  

And even if we did not have any of that, the forests always have wood, and wood can be burnt to produce heat and energy.  And we are told that energy consumption is a key metric for measuring quality of life in the modern, civilized world.  Thus, the trees must be cut down to make firewood, and the empty space must be mined for all it's rich natural resources.  Not doing so would be tantamount to opposing progress.  We must increase our per capita GDP by an amount that exceeds inflation and population growth by 2.5%.

And so, the forests were cut down.  I remember riding the trains back to my hometown as a young boy and passing through those forests early in the morning.  The trains would stop every 15 minutes to rest, or for a drink (steam engines need lots of water and rest), and a swarm of Adivasis would clamber on with a pile of firewood that they had cut down.  The firewood would be nicely hung from the windows, or stacked on top...until the whole train was covered in firewood.  This firewood would be sold in the big city inhabited mostly by civilized Aryan people, who would burn it in their homes in order to improve their quality of life metrics.

In turn, the Adivasis (both men, and women) would make a few Rupees that they would use to buy food.  Who wants to eat roasted fruit fly when one can buy rice and daal in the market anyways ?  And wouldn't you want to brush/floss like all civilized people instead of rubbing your teeth with the twig of the neem tree ?

The circle of life had been disrupted...but civilization was on the march!

At school, I learnt a disturbing statistic.  At Independence (in 1947), 34% of India was forest land.  By 1978 (when I read this), it was down to 17%.  In 1986 (when I went to college), it was down to around 9%.  It was a small enough number that I would consciously avoid thinking about it.  The per capita forest cover (in many ways, this is a better metric for a cultures that lives off the forest) numbers were even more depressing because the population was growing rapidly.   As against the world average of 0.64 hectare of forests per human, an Indian has only 0.06! The European has 1.3 and the Chinese 0.1 ha.

All these changes are not without consequences, of course.  Cutting down the forest has a huge impact on global warming.  While nobody cares about global warming, everyone cares about local warming.  The reduced forest cover also had an impact on the local weather.  My hometown was a hill station where the British would escape to in the summers.  Summers became unbearably hot in my hometown with all the trees cut down.

But the real tragedy was on the Adivasis.  What was to become of a people who had lived in harmony off the forests for 3000 years ? Worse...they had themselves cut the forests down, and sold it to the civilized people.  What were they going to do now ?

The morning trains still run into my hometown.  But there are differences ~ the steam engine was replaced by the diesel engine and eventually by electric cars.  And the hordes of Adivasis with chopped firewood are also gone.  The forest is gone too.

I should perhaps describe the Adivasi people some more.  These are people who have valued a forest life for so long that they do not believe in the things that you or I may want.  They have no need for education, or a big house.  They don't need fast cars.  Some have no contact with the outside world ~ which means that they have not set eyes upon a light skinned Aryan like me.  (Once on a camping/trekking trip through the hills with my friends, we came upon a group of girls who moved through the mountains like goats and who were terrified at seeing 3 pale faced boys approaching ~ I could relate because I had the same sensation when I first saw a white man)

Well, some are like that.  Others have been swept up by civilization, and wear shirts and pants.  And they burn wood, and ride bicycles.  And they use soap and brush their teeth.  But on the whole, the literacy rate amongst Adivasis is still at around 15% (compared to the India-average of over 60%).  They cut down the forest before they could figure out how to get normal 9 to 5 jobs working in an office cubicle like the rest of the civilized world.

And so, what should they do ?

In such situations, there is usually only one answer: a violent rebellion of some sort, against someone, with some purpose.  It does not matter what sort of rebellion it is, and against whom you are rebelling, or what the purpose is, as long as the rebellion is violent.  And it must have a name...what good is a rebellion without a catchy name that everyone agrees upon ?

In this case, the rebellion is called the Maoist insurrection, or sometimes called the Naxalite-Maoist movement (named after a village called Naxalbari where it is said to have originated) Chairman Mao would have been proud ~ the Chinese Communists may have turned into free market ideologues, but his words have inspired millions of downtrodden Indians.  You know a rebellion has made it to the major leagues when it attracts the attention of the NY Times , and when it has it's own blogspot page or two

But, levity aside, it is a very serious insurgency.  The Indian Prime Minister recently declared that the government was losing the war against the Maoists , and the Indian Home Minister recently declared that it would take 2-3 years for the state to reestablish control.  There are large swaths of India where Indian policemen cannot go.  That trekking/camping trip that I described earlier ~ I would not even dream of that now.

This is where you can exhale, and say WoW.  

The situation is just as bad as in the FATA provinces of Pakistan; and the threat to the Indian state is just as great.  Fortunately for India, India has better politicians and will probably figure this out quickly.  As an example, due to a renewed effort at forest conservation, the forest cover has now increased to around 20%, and is projected to be back upto 33% by 2012.  The problem was recognized in the 1980s, and by the time I graduated from college, there was a widespread movement to plant trees ~ the government gave out free saplings, and one was judged by one's peers by the number of trees one had planted and nurtured.

And the central government is working hard to provide education and jobs to those who want that.  But for now, the news is pretty depressing.

Just a preview of the future struggles caused by environmental degradations.  Anyone got Al Gore's number ?

Tags: Adivasi, India, Jungle, Maoist (all tags)

Comments

3 Comments

Go plant a tree...

and make sure it is a "native".  I hate seeing redwoods in Southern California.

by Ravi Verma 2009-11-11 10:41AM | 0 recs
Re: Brush/floss and cut trees for happiness

Thanks for this personal/worldly excursion, one that sems relevant to what the entire world is experiencing.

I've heard of Neem trees and am curious enough to find out more.

by MainStreet 2009-11-11 11:11AM | 0 recs
Re: Brush/floss and cut trees for happiness

India is a fascinating country.  And this is definitely a fascinating diary!

by Steve M 2009-11-11 11:47AM | 0 recs

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