Centres on the Periphery: Coping with Climatic and Institutional Change
by Anil Gupta
In connection with the recently held conference on climate
change in Delhi, Anil Gupta has written a very perceptive essay. It
brings out the relevance of Traditional Knowledge Systems in the context of
the environmental problems that we are facing today. It is quoted in full
below. D.P. Agrawal
When the attention of the world is focused on the outcome of the next global
conference on climate change, scheduled to be held in India in end October,
it might be useful to recall some issues that we know will never be discussed
at the conference. It is to these unheard and unasked questions that we will
have to turn, especially with the environment becoming increasingly turbulent.
All these years' formal knowledge networks have ignored the need to support
and strengthen informal knowledge networks. Perhaps they considered the marginalisation
of knowledge-rich, economically-poor communities and individuals as inevitable.
Perhaps the mega-project of progress considered the articulation of these voices
as roadblocks. Sometimes these roadblocks were ruthlessly levelled by quelling
their space and social identities. At other times, the traffic of progress simply
bypassed them. But things are changing.
There is a tremendous global interest in the knowledge of local communities,
particularly those in marginal environments. The ethics of this interest and
exploration continue to be exploitative and asymmetrical. At the same time,
civil society in many developing countries is evolving its own answers to
the question of learning from the margins.
Why, in times to come, would learning from the margins be vital to the survival
of humanity ? Consider current ecological or climatic disturbances, the immense
social discomfort they cause, and the increasing inability of mainstream people
to cope with environmental turbulence due to the cushions of their everyday
life. This turbulence will increase, either due to global warming (and consequent
floods) or due to drought (and a decline in the ground water table). How will
societies cope? My answer is that the skills, knowledge and institutions evolved
by people on the margins, who have already been coping with these stresses
for the last several millennia, will become a major source of survival. Is
this the reason why global institutions are suddenly finding so much merit
in local knowledge?
The trend of modern institutions, whether of the state or the market, imposing
common, universal solutions has run its course. It is true that young educated
people around the world watch the same films, use similar metaphors and articulate
their identity through similar motifs. But for every such wave of universalisation,
the reactions from the margin are becoming manifest. Some of these reactions
are ugly, unfortunate and perhaps not in the interest of human survival. But
such extremism is to be expected, no matter how and how much we may despise
A polycentric vision of future social formations requires many more centres
to emerge on the periphery. The family as an institution, on the other hand,
might become peripheral if children are either not allowed to ask fundamental
questions or if these are answered in too pat a manner. We have to learn afresh
the art of leaving certain questions unanswered, such that the capacity of
a young mind to explore and enquire increases. For if they are not allowed
to take wing, our children will wither in their nests. In contrast, children
of pastoralists and migrants do not suffer from these constraints. They learn
to cope with stress perhaps a little too early and too well. Both extremes,
those who receive a privileged education and thus become handicapped, and
those who are social dropouts and depend very little on formal institutions
for survival, deserve attention.
Let us look at some sites of marginal knowledge. Bamboo houses built by poor
people in flood-prone regions allow water to move under houses resting on
stilts. Once rivers start changing their course (in many cases they have already
done so), such structures might come into greater prominence. Food crops like
foxtail millet, grown by poor people in drought-prone regions, are neglected
despite their quality attributes. Given our dependence on only a few crops
and their few select varieties, climate change will necessitate a much greater
recourse to agricultural biodiversity. As of now, it is only the laggards
of the 'green revolution' who conserve agricultural biodiversity. In situ
conservation has not yet become a policy goal. Many policy makers believe
that by engineering mainstream crops with more vitamins and minerals, they
will meet people's future nutritional and food security needs. But marginal
crops will be crucial in times of crises, for no other reason than because
they can survive stress better. The lessons of traditional institutions in
managing common property resources will also become vital when private rights
to resources will no more be feasible and viable.
Climate change will require the ability to cope creatively and collectively.
Where would we find such creativity and collectivity except in stress-prone
regions? But even here coping strategies are becoming weaker, seeds do not
last, streams are no more steered collectively, rain water is not harnessed
and local varieties are not preferred as food, thanks to the artificially
created taste for the so-called superior' crops like wheat and rice.
Centres on the periphery will have to emerge. We may avoid discussing them,
but the questions do not go away. Many knowledge experts will pass away, though
and so would the survival knowledge they carry with them. Who or what will
fill these vacant spaces?
Please do write in to tell us what you think should be done to protect the
rights of squirrels before they vanish. Many snakes, birds and other animals
have already vanished due to the pressures created by us, in the name of our
families and children. Have we asked our children if they would like to live
in a world devoid of birds and squirrels, let alone ask squirrels what their
children were going through?