'The Ecoliterate Society', 29 March, 2004.
At the release of the first Human Development Report for Tamilnadu held recently at Chennai I was struck by one unusual feature. It was that this was taking place in a state headed by a woman chief minister and that at the event the government was represented by its senior most civil servant who was a woman while the UN was represented by the country head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), also woman. However, even as I marvelled at this remarkable configuration, I was reminded of the saying that "Anything that may be said about India, the opposite would also be true!" Confirmation of this suggestion of extremes came as I leafed through the Report. It revealed the bleak statistic that less than ten percent of Tamilnadu's schools had toilets for girls. No greater reminder of the extent of deprivation in one of the country's more 'developed' states was necessary.
It took economists a while to recognise human development as constitutive of the progress of nations. It took even longer for even a minimally acceptable measure of human development to emerge. By now termed the Human Development Index (HDI) it is annually published by the UNDP. To our discomfiture we must find India's place firmly fixed in the bottom half of the list. Many would not know that India's HDI ranking is lower than its ranking in the league table of per capita income, implying that the country is doing worse on human development than it could given its income level. Indeed, more generally, on many social indicators the economy's performance is worse than that of sub-Saharan Africa. It is important to stress that the criteria on which nations are judged when a human development index is constructed are not particularly exacting. Apart from per capita income the index includes life expectancy and adult literacy. With a little more than fifty percent literacy India cannot but be seen as harbouring some of the worst instances of deprivation internationally. The UNDP has gone some way to bring this not only into the public consciousness but also into politicians' agendas. States historically not known for activist development policy such as Himachal or Madhya Pradesh under Digvijay Singh have gone some way in launching a literacy campaign.
Despite the advance that it represents the human development index is silent on one of the conditions of human well being, namely natural capital. This of course stems not so much from wanton neglect of the problem as from the great difficulty of quantitatively evaluating the state of the natural environment. Thus while the degree of shortfall from one hundred percent literacy is easily measured, it is more difficult to put a number on the extent of environmental degradation. The difficulty of measuring environmental decline has not prevented non-governmental bodies from flagging it as a source of threat to the future of humankind. We can, as a result, see that a sustainable human community is one designed in a manner that lifestyles, business practices, physical structures and technologies do not interfere with nature's inherent ability to sustain life. In particular, we owe to the physicist Fritjof Capra the idea that the first step in our endeavour to build sustainable communities is to become ecologically literate. To be ecoliterate is to understand the principles of the organisation common to all living systems. These principles are directly relevant to our health and well-being. Capra makes the following case for enhancing ecoliteracy: Because of our vital need to breathe, eat and drink, we are always embedded in the cyclical processes of nature. Our health depends upon the purity of the air we breathe and water we drink, and it depends on the soil from which our food is produced. In the coming decades the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy - our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly. Thus, ecological literacy, or 'ecoliteracy', must become a critical skill for politicians, business leaders and professionals in all spheres, and should be the most important part of education at all levels - from primary and secondary schools to colleges, universities and the continuing education and training of professionals.
(Capra: the hidden connections, London: Flamingo)
The relentless assault on the natural environment in this country can leave nobody in doubt of the need for a rapid spread of ecoliteracy in India. Indeed we cannot afford too wait till the conventional literacy targets in terms of reading and writing are met before we embark upon this task. At best they may be attended to simultaneously. As of now the political parties are united in their silence on the state of India's environment and their plans for its betterment. And we may rest assured that it will not be unless these parties are forced to break it by an ecologically literate electorate.