I was brought up in one of the most beautiful natural environments anywhere in the world - the valley of Kashmir. Subsequently I was involved as the Chairman of the Indian Board for Wildlife, as well as the Project Tiger Steering Committee, one of the most successful conservation projects anywhere in the world.
I now head the Peoples Commission on Environment & Development (India), which holds public hearings around the country, reports of which are regularly published. I am also a Trustee of the Green Cross International.
Population control is an essential input into the environmental challenge. India's population is now around one billion, and we are adding the equivalent of one Australia (about 20 million) each year. Unless this trend is reversed it will be virtually impossible to save our already gravely threatened environment. Having been Minister for Health and Family Planning, and author of the National Population Policy, back in 1976, I have been distressed at the lack of political will in India to bring the population growth under control.
DECLARATION ON NATURE
In the ancient spiritual traditions, man was looked upon as a part of nature, linked by the indissoluble spiritual and psychological bonds to the elements around him. This is very much marked in the Hindu tradition, probably the oldest living religious tradition in the world. The Vedas, those collections of hymns composed by great spiritual seers and thinkers which are the repository of Hindu wisdom, enunciate an encompassing world-view which looks upon all objects in the universe, living or non-living, as being pervaded by the same spiritual power.
Hinduism believes in the all-encompassing sovereignty of the divine, manifesting itself in a graded scale of evolution. The human race, though at the top of the evolutionary pyramid at present, is not seen as something apart from the earth and its multitudinous life forms. The Atharva-Veda has the magnificent Hymn to the Earth (Bhumi-Sukta) which is redolent with ecological and environmental values. The following verses are taken from this extraordinary hymn:
Earth, in which lie the sea, the river and other waters, in which food and cornfields have come to be, in which lives all that breathes and that moves, may she confer on us the finest of her yield. Earth, in which the waters, common to all, moving on all sides, flow unfailingly, day and night, may she pour on us milk in many streams, and endow us with lustre.
Not only in the Vedas, but in later scriptures, such as the Upanisads, the Puranas and subsequent texts, the Hindu viewpoint on nature has been clearly enunciated. It is permeated by a reverence for life, and an awareness that the great forces of nature - the earth, the sky, the air, the water and fire -- as well as various orders of life including plants and trees, forests and animals, are all bound to each other within the great rhythms of nature. The divine is not exterior to creation, but expresses itself through natural phenomena. Thus, in the Mundaka Upanisad the divine is described as follows:
Turning to the animal world, we find that animals have always received special care and consideration. Numerous Hindu texts preach that all species should be treated as children. In Hindu mythology and iconography, there is a close relationship between the various deities, and their animal or bird mounts. Each divinity is associated with a particular animal or bird, and this lends a special dimension to the animal kingdom.
In addition, according to the Vaisnava tradition, the evolution of life on this planet is symbolized by a series of divine incarnations beginning with the fish, moving through amphibious forms and mammals, and then onto human incarnations. This view clearly holds that man did not spring fully formed to dominate the lesser life-forms, but rather evolved out of these forms himself, and is, therefore, integrally linked to the whole of creation.
This leads necessarily to a reverence for animal life. The Yajur-Veda (13.47) lays down that no person should kill animals helpful to all. Rather, by serving them, one should attain happiness.
This view was later developed by the great Jain Tirthankara, Lord Mahivira, who regenerated the ancient Jain faith that lives down to the present day. For the Jains ahimsa or non-violence is the greatest good, and on no account should life be taken.
This philosophy was re-emphasized by Mahatma Gandhi who always spoke of the importance of ahimsa and looked upon the cow as a symbol of the benign element in animal life. All this strengthens the attitude of reverence for all life including animals and insects.
Apart from this, the natural environment also received the close attention of the ancient Hindu scriptures. Forests and groves were considered sacred, and flowering trees received special reverence. Just as various animals were associated with gods and goddesses, different trees and plants were also associated in the Hindu pantheon. The Mahabharata says that 'even if there is only one tree full of flowers and fruits in a village, that place becomes worthy of worship and respect.Various trees, fruits and plants have special significance in Hindu rituals.
The Hindu tradition of reverence for nature and all forms of life, vegetable or animal, represents a powerful tradition which needs to be renurtured and reapplied in our contemporary context. India, the population of which is over eighty per cent Hindu, has in recent years taken a special interest in conservation.
What is needed today is to remind ourselves that nature cannot be destroyed without mankind ultimately being destroyed itself. With nuclear weapons representing the ultimate pollutant, threatening to convert this beautiful planet of ours into a scorched cinder unable to support even the most primitive life-forms, mankind is finally forced to face a dilemma.
Centuries of rapacious exploitation of the environment has finally caught up with us, and a radically changed attitude towards nature is now not a question of spiritual merit or condescension, but of sheer survival.
This earth, so touchingly looked upon in the Hindu view as the Universal Mother, has nurtured mankind up from the slime of the primeval ocean for billions of years. Let us declare our determination to halt the present slide towards destruction, to rediscover the ancient tradition of reverence for all life and, even at this late hour, to reverse the suicidal course upon which we embarked. Let us recall the ancient Hindu dictum: 'The earth is our mother, we are all her children.'
Chapter 13 Essays on Hinduism
ETHIC OF CONSERVATION
Ethical values are in reality those which conduce towards the welfare of all beings. The interpretation of these values, however, can differ in important ways. Welfare can be defined in terms of a single community, religious group, race, economic class, commercial interests or nation state. Through history human beings have interpreted ethical values in all these different dimensions, and, indeed, the clash between opposing concepts of welfare has been largely responsible for the bloodstained annals of the human race. It would require the latest generation of computers to work out the amount of suffering and misery, torture and slaughter that human beings have meted out to each other in the name of ethical and religious values. Our own century has seen the nadir of inhumanity. Millions have perished in wars and concentration camps, in gas chambers and nuclear explosions. Even as we meet here, fellow human beings are killing each other in the name of what each side considers to be an ethical value.
It is against this chilling background that we have to consider the whole question of the ethics of conservation. Before we turn our attention to conserving nature, it would perhaps be worthwhile to spend a little time trying to conserve the human race. For those of us who come from the developing world, the sight of mighty nuclear powers gleefully brandishing their terrible weapons at each other is extremely disturbing. One nuclear warhead today packs explosive power equal to a thousand of the bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki forty years ago; and, on a conservative estimate, there are now 50,000 such nuclear warheads in existence. May I, with great respect, ask this distinguished audience whether talk of nature conservation really has much significance unless this dreadful threat can be removed?
It is now obvious that a nuclear conflagration would not only destroy human civilization as we know it but endanger all forms of life on earth. Despite all the arguments marshalled by the proponents of a so-called 'limited' nuclear war, a series of recent scientific reports has made it quite clear that the dangers are too terrible to contemplate. And the most disturbing feature is that a conflict can now be started even without the two superpowers formally declaring war upon each other. An accident, a malfunctioning computer, a flight of wild geese, a ruthless group of terrorists, any one of these could trigger off calamity.
This whole question of nuclear weapons is far too important to be left only to generals and politicians. If the big catastrophe strikes, I can assure you that dedicated conservationists will not be spared from the effects of deadly nuclear radiation. Therefore, those of us who are committed to the preservation of life upon this planet and to furthering the welfare of humanity can no longer evade the unpleasant task of unequivocally confronting the dilemma of man in the nuclear age. It is a matter of great satisfaction that the World Wildlife Fund has expanded its vision beyond the animal kingdom into wider dimensions of the natural environment. May I suggest that it should also move in the other direction, and strengthen its interest in the survival of Homo sapiens, the race to which we happen to belong.
This is the first ethical imperative that faces us. Closely linked to this is the whole area of conserving the natural environment. The development of nuclear weapons with unprecedented destructive power has not taken place as an isolated phenomenon. In fact, it has been the culmination of a whole world-view that has dominated Western civilization ever since the renaissance.
This has been described as the Cartesian-Newtonian-Marxist paradigm, because the underlying thesis of these great philosophies is the dualistic-materialistic world-view which has so completely dominated Western civilization, and, through it, our entire planet.
I do not for a moment wish to denigrate the tremendous achievements of science and technology over the last few centuries. The transformation of agricultural and industrial production; the breakthroughs in all branches of science, specially medicine and surgery; the communications revolution that has converted this world into a global village in our very lifetime; the astounding adventure into space through which man has landed on the moon and is reaching out to the planets and even the stars beyond; all these represent a truly remarkable achievement of the human mind. However, as always, against the brightest light there falls the darkest shadow. With all its wealth and technology, two-thirds of the human race today lives below what can be considered a satisfactory standard of living, and one-third are in fact below the poverty line. Even as we meet here, in this beautiful town of Assisi sacred to the memory of St. Francis who loved all beings, millions of children go to sleep hungry, their bodies stunted, their minds distorted by malnutrition and lack of medical facilities. Ten days' expenditure on armaments can abolish hunger on this planet.
The great achievements of science and technology have not only been unable to meet the requirements of the human race, but have also been gained at a terrible price. The last few centuries, and this one in particular, have witnessed an unprecedented destruction of the natural environment. Man's ability to intervene in the environment has increased tremendously, but unfortunately there has been no commensurate growth in wisdom and understanding.
As a result of this divergence, there has been what can only be described as a ruthless and rapacious plundering of our planet, based upon materialist philosophies which deny the spiritual dimension of Mother Earth and look upon her as merely a material substance to be manipulated at will.
Hundreds of thousands of square miles of forest have disappeared, taking with them many species of fauna and flora. The atmosphere has been poisoned particularly in the great urban and industrial concentrations, so that in many cities it is becoming increasingly difficult to breathe clean air. There is reason to believe that the ozone layer surrounding this planet is becoming dangerously attenuated the possible effects of which we still know very little. Continued testing of nuclear weapons releases a steady stream of radiation into the atmosphere, the cumulative results of which will only unfold in the decades ahead and in the lives of generations yet unborn. The disposal of nuclear wastes now represents a major hazard in several countries. The tragic accident at Chernobyl is only a faint warning of what lies ahead for mankind if we persist in our present path.
The great oceans, which were the repository of the earliest life forms and from which all creatures originally emerged, have been heavily polluted. The increasing use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have poisoned the earth, and endangered the entire food chain. Numerous species have become extinct, and many others are on the verge of disappearing. The strange doctrine that our race is in some way specially entitled to destroy other species so as to establish its 'sovereignty' over the earth has distorted human consciousness down through the corridors of time.
Tens of millions of animals are slaughtered every year for food, or perish in agony in laboratories, and this in civilizations, which claim to abhor animal sacrifice. The anthropocentricity of modern civilization has now reached neurotic proportions, so that ultimately the race itself is in danger of committing collective suicide.
In this whole context, the ethics of conservation become very clear. It is now no longer a question of attaining spiritual merit or performing a good deed for our personal satisfaction or salvation. We have reached the stage where it is essential for our own survival, and that of generations yet unborn, to adopt conservation as a central commitment of the entire human race. The splendid work being done by the World Wildlife Fund which, to quote a shining example, co-operated so effectively with the Government of India in Project Tiger - surely one of the world's most successful conservation projects - is a heartening example of what can be achieved if men and women of devotion, dedication and firm resolve decide to undertake an ethically desirable venture. However, against the grim backdrop that I have sketched, this can only be described as a small pilot project.
What is needed at this juncture is a concerted commitment by governments, voluntary organizations and individuals the world over to call a halt to our suicidal march towards terricide, and, even at this midnight hour, to reverse the whole process of thinking, and begin the long, slow march back to sanity. Developing nations, in particular, must resist the temptation to follow blindly the industrial and commercial policies of the developed world without paying careful attention to the ecological factors involved in economic growth.
Ecological planning must be built into the whole process of industrialization, and ecological values should become part of educational curricula throughout the world. The insights of the great religious traditions of mankind, which will find expression in the five declarations being prepared here in Assisi, should be spread widely through mass media - the press and radio, television and cinema.
Ancient myths often powerfully illuminate the human predicament, and there is the Hindu myth of the churning of the milky ocean which speaks to us today across the millennia, symbolizing as it does the dangers that lie in a mindless quest for ever-increasing possessions.
It is a sobering thought that we are a privileged generation, not only because we may be the first to see the dawn of the third millennium after Christ but also because we may be the last to inhabit this earth. Our survival now depends upon our capacity to make a major transition of consciousness, equal in significance to the earlier ones from nomadic to agricultural, and agricultural to industrial society. We must transit to complementarity in place of competition, convergence in place of conflict, holism in place of hedonism. We must, in short, move rapidly into a new, global consciousness to replace the present fractured and fragmented consciousness of the human race. This, as I see it, is the true significance of the ethics of conservation.
Chapter 14 Essays on Hinduism
POPULATION THE FORGOTTEN FACTOR
I had the honour of leading the Indian delegation to the World Population Conference in Bucharest, Romania in 1974. The United Nations itself took the initiative of organising this conference on population.
I made the remark there, which subsequently became quite famous and was quoted in many parts of the world, that "development is the best contraceptive". The idea being that once economic development takes place, fertility and growth rates automatically fall and, therefore, all we have to do is to concentrate on economic development and population will look after itself. Now I would like to rephrase the slogan. Instead of saying that development is the best contraceptive, which is still valid in its own sphere, I would rather say, "contraception is the best development". I hope this new slogan is also going to get as much publicity as my earlier one.
The figures of Indian population today are thoroughly alarming. The world population has gone up from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 5.3 billion, that is more than double, in 1990. As per the first census that took place after our independence in 1951, recorded population in India was 351 million. In the 1991 Census, the population figures that came out were 844 million, but these figures are an under-estimation and in fact the population was above 867 million. From 351 million to 867 million in 40 years is a staggering increase; the growth rate is still over two per cent per annum. We are adding one Australia every year to our population, and even if the growth rate remains constant, the increase in absolute terms will expand every year, especially as life expectancy has steadily risen now to 60 years.
Sadly, the torrential increase in our population is being consistently ignored by those in whose hands fate has placed the destiny of this nation. At the rate we are going, by the year 2000 we will have the questionable privilege of being the most populous nation on the planet, having at last overtaken our neighbour China. The percentage may have decreased, but the total number of Indians below the poverty line is increasing. That means that there are more poor people in India today than there were when we in became independent, and there will be more below the poverty line in the year 2000 than there are today.
The implications of this magnitude of population growth are too obvious to need reiteration. Already, it had diluted much of the benefits of our substantial economic growth since independence. Widespread malnutrition persists, sending into society shrivelled bodies and undeveloped minds; our urban slums are exploding across the land like venomous cancers devouring the countryside; deforestation, desertification and despoilation of our natural resources proceeds apace; the pressure of population exacerbates rural conflicts and social tensions, fuelling the growing proclivity towards violence.
Although we have made very considerable progress in the last 40 years in industrial and agricultural sectors, yet even the green revolution now is not going to produce comparable foodgrains to keep pace with the population growth. Today, we are exporting foodgrains but our people are still undernourished. It is simply that they cannot afford to buy food and, therefore, we have a small surplus, which we export. It is not that our people are fully fed and then we have an exportable surplus.
The pressures upon food are going to increase and the benefits of our economic development during the last 40 years have already been very largely diluted as a result of population growth. The fact is that the nation has not paid enough attention towards this, and that is why I call it the forgotten factor.
On April 1976, I presented before the Parliament a National Population Policy which, I can say without fear of contradiction, was the most comprehensive, enlightened and far-sighted policy ever to be adopted by any nation. I wrote it myself after extensive interactions with state governments, local bodies, voluntary organisations, medical people and the World Health Organisation (WHO). The tragedy is that, for a variety of reasons into which it is not necessary for me to go, the whole policy got derailed and distorted, and instead of becoming the centerpiece of our economic development, things became so bad that nobody would touch family planning. Even the phrase 'Family Planning' became a taboo and the name of the Ministry was changed from 'Family Planning' to 'Family Welfare'. People became allergic to the very word of 'family planning' and all political parties, without exception, virtually ignored population control except to pay it passing lip service in their largely unread manifestoes. I had envisaged in that policy document that the birth rate would come down to 1.4 per cent by 1984. We are now in 1995 and the growth rate is still above two per cent
The basic point that needs to be made is that we are in a disaster situation as far as population is concerned and, therefore, have to make urgent and concerted efforts to bring down the increasing rate of population. The first thing that is needed is a breakthrough in contraceptive technology. If we can put up our own satellites; if we can develop missiles that can carry various elements with them, why have our scientists not been able to make a breakthrough in contraceptive technology? The Ford Foundation has clearly stated that as a result of a multiplicity of factors, including a strong anti-family planning lobby in the United States, Western pharmaceutical companies have lost interest in contraceptive technology.
This is an area where we must have a major breakthrough. What we really need is either an anti-pregnancy vaccine, on which Professor Pran Talwar has been working for the last 20 years, or a pill, which is available like a pill of aspirin. We are still very dependent on operative techniques, on vasectomies and tubectomies, which are very effective, but do impinge physically and psychologically upon the most sensitive elements of the human anatomy. If we can get a breakthrough in non-invasive techniques, it could make a vital difference. Why is it that even for our own indigenous problems we look to the West for solutions? If the Indian pharmaceutical companies could develop a breakthrough in contraceptive technology, it would be an extraordinary thing, and I have urged the industrial and commercial community to interact with scientists on this important aspect.
The second major point is that we should concentrate more than we have been doing on female literacy. There is a close correlation between fertility and female literacy, when the latter goes up, the former goes down. This fact is so well established now that it is known through out the world. For example, in Kerala, which is not otherwise a prosperous state, because of universal literacy, the birth rate is much lower than it is in other parts of the country. Here is an area in which we have got to work very hard. Women must be associated at all levels in any family planning or population control programme. As long as they are simply looked upon as appendages, invariably high birth rates are bound to be there. Once society accepts the women as co-partners, and they must be given equal status and opportunities, this problem to a large extent can be taken care of. What is really needed is the restatement of the ancient Hindu concept of ardhangini, the woman walking side-by-side as co-partner in the adventure of life. It is only if we are able to get this concept clearly enunciated and articulated into society then population control awareness will percolate amongst the mass of citizens of the country, three-quarters of whom still live in rural areas.
The third point is the welfare of children, maternal and child health care are absolutely essential for ensuring lower fertility. It may appear to be a contradiction in terms, but the lower the child mortality rate, the lower is the growth rate. Where mortality rate is high, the family tends to have many more children because they are not sure how many are going to survive. Wherever children are well looked after and the mortality rate of the child falls, fertility also falls. Therefore, the integrated child health care programme is extremely important. This involves immunisation of pregnant and nursing mothers; nutritional inputs of infants; and a whole gamut of medical and childcare facilities up to the age of five.
Fourthly, we have to develop some kind of old age insurance and pension. It is all very fine for intellectuals sitting comfortably in the cities to say that everybody should have only two children, whether it includes a boy or not, but when we talk of the villages and poor people, when the girls get married and go away who is actually going to look after those people when they are old? This may not be a fashionable question to ask, but is a valid question, not something to be dismissed as an outmoded form of thinking. The only way one can deal with it is to develop gradually some kind of old-age pension for people who, after 60 or 65 years, cannot work, so that they are convinced that there is some sort of a 'safety net' even if they do not have a male issue.
The fifth point is that population control is not something that can be done merely by the government or by adopting policies in Parliament. What is required is a mass movement, a national movement for population control. This must involve the Central Government, state governments, local bodies, corporations, municipalities, zilla parishads and panchayats, because unless these bodies are deeply associated, the nation is not going to get the desired results. It is no use simply talking in urban areas, because in any case small family norm is much more popular there. It is the rural population, which must be involved.
We should involve not only the Chambers of Commerce and Industry but also the entire industrial sector, including organised labour that could be an extremely effective instrument for motivating the working class to adopt family planning. Some progressive and enlightened industrial houses have already started paying attention to population control. We must involve non-governmental organisations, particularly women's organisations.
or example, the Family Planning Association of India, which has got branches all over the country, could play a very meaningful role in this context. Apart from these, youth organisations, trade unions and cooperatives must be associated. We should also put population values into our education system.
Indeed we should not leave anybody out, including religious leaders. One of the problems faced in the earlier experiment was that a feeling developed, rightly or wrongly, that some communities were deliberately opting out of the family planning process. That feeling, unfortunately, had a very negative impact on others. Actually, the statistical figures did not prove that conclusively, but nonetheless there was a feeling. So if we are now going to have a second try at the population policy, we have to involve the religious leaders of all communities together. Even, in a Roman Catholic country like Italy, the growth rate has fallen despite the strong attitude taken by religious leaders of a certain community there. Therefore, once we get to the people and explain to them that it is in their own interest that they should adopt the small family norm, and if we can go through the religious leaders, the message will be result oriented.
Need for National Consensus
What I am really pleading for is renewal of national interest in population control. I prefer the term 'population control' to 'family planning', because family planning is only one part of it. Population control is a much wider concept. The National Population Policy took a number of decisions never taken by any government anywhere in the world. For example, we took a certain date for the population proportions of various states as the cut-off date, and said that this proportion will continue till the end of this century.
We did not want a situation where the states, which have higher population growth, would then claim more Central aid. In fact, it should be the other way round. Some states were saying that if they do well in population control, they would lose seats in the Parliament because the other states are going to grow. So we froze the representation in Parliament which has not been done anywhere else in the world. What we now need is a renewal of this whole process, making it a national movement cutting across barriers of race, religion, caste and political parties.
In fact, population control should be a subject of national consensus. The damage that has been done to the national interest by making population control a subject of political controversy is absolutely impossible to compute. Hundreds of billions of rupees have gone to create all the infrastructure that is necessary, but we have already reached such a huge figure that even if our population growth begins to fall, it will take another 25 years before our population beings to stabilise. So the country must realise that it is facing a disastrous situation.
There is a lot of talk of China. First of all, Chinese figures are suspect and not accepted by many people. As per the published figures, the Chinese population growth rate has come down to 1.4 or 1.5 per cent. Even WHO and other international agencies are beginning to question those figures. Secondly, we are a democracy, and whatever we do, whether we like it or not, we have to do in a democratic way and not by force. That makes the task more difficult. In fact, the new policies of the government has adopted towards economic growth and development should be matched by a parallel movement in the field of population control.
It is a difficult path, but there are no soft options. We are going through a multi-dimensional crisis in India today. It is an economic crisis, a social crisis, a political crisis and a spiritual crisis as well. It seems to me that the great vision of those who led the freedom movement is disappearing, and we seem to be caught in the welter of negative thinking. Many people of my generation have virtually given up hope. They may be right, but if we lose hope, then any chance of making it is also lost. We need not only a renewal in interest in population control, but also renewal of faith in ourselves, in our cultural heritage and in the capacity of democracy.
The famous exhortation of the third chapter (verse 14) of the Kathopanishad, though first articulated thousands of years ago, is as relevant today as at that time. It calls upon us to awaken and to arise and to move forward across the razor-edged path towards our chosen goal. Though many of us think that we are awake, in fact at many levels we are asleep. We are no longer open to the great currents of spiritual power that flow down to us across the long and tortuous corridors of time. And once we awake, we have to arise, to mobilise our material, financial, intellectual and spiritual resources and start moving onwards. If we do not move upstream, we are going to be swept downstream by the very inertia of time and events. And nowhere is this truer than in the field of population control.
Chapter 9 India and the World
POPULATION DEVELOPMENT AND ENVIRONMENT
World population is growing at an alarming rate of around 100 million every year. This growth rate presents a catastrophic scenario, as it exerts severe stress on our natural resources as well as the life support capacity of our planet. It has now become perfectly clear that there is a synergy between population and natural resources. The increasing human activities, on one hand, adversely affect the environment and, on the other, degraded environment has a malign impact on human population. Over the past few centuries, the predominant paradigm has been of exploiting nature for the benefit of human beings. This has wrought such havoc that today the air, the land and the water are getting increasingly degraded, the ozone layer is getting attenuated, thousands of plant and animal species are becoming extinct, and millions of acres of forests are disappearing. If the current trend of population growth continues unabated and the patterns of human interference in nature remain unchanged, the vital ecosphere of Planet Earth could well be irreversibly damaged with its concomitant tragic impact on all living beings on this earth. At the same time, the challenge of global poverty and deprivation continues to grow. One-fifth of the earth's population, over a billion human beings, live in what has been termed "absolute poverty", below the minimum level required for a dignified human existence, while another two billion are struggling to keep themselves above the "absolute poverty line".
The nexus between population, economic activity and the environment is a complex one. In this intricate and sensitive relationship, the human dimension is the key element. Environmental degradation has been the result of the efforts of all countries, developed and developing to secure improved quality of life for the growing number of their citizens.
The population size and per capita resource use is directly proportional to the degree of threat to the ecosystem. It is further exacerbated by consumption patterns. Thus the major threat that we face today is from unacceptably high rates of population growth mainly in developing countries, and unsustainable consumption patterns mainly in the developed ones.
The population issue is not merely a matter of containing the numbers. There is a wide range of issues involved in the complex task of population stabilisation. A meaningful population policy has to address itself to the entire gamut of relationships between the people and resources, and how we can conserve natural resources for generations yet unborn. The demographic trends mirror economic as well as social and cultural factors.
A popularly held belief is that as a country becomes economically more prosperous, its population growth rate declines. This is a simplistic view of a complex phenomenon.
A combination of social, cultural and economic factors contribute to the decline in fertility rates. They include, among others, reducing infant mortality rate, rising educational levels among girls, and advances in social and economic status of women. Even two decades after the World Population Congress in Bucharest in 1974, development continues to be the best contraceptive, but the matter of population stabilisation is now so urgent that it can no longer be left to be dictated by comparatively slower pace of economic growth in developing countries.
Even well conceived population policies take time to impact upon the fertility rate. If the goal of replacement fertility rate by 2050 AD in developing countries is to be reached, then the pace of economic and social development will have to be substantially forced.
It is necessary to have a comprehensive, far-sighted and holistic population policy and then implement it with imagination by generating public awareness and political consensus. At the core of such a policy should be measures to raise the economic, social and political status of women.
Taken together, these factors represent an unprecedented challenge to human compassion, wisdom and perspicacity. Environmental protection and human development act and react upon each other. The Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 had clearly focused on the nexus between them. However, they are no longer tasks only for governments and international agencies. There are three crucial inputs that are needed. The first is the people's participation. This can be through various independent sector agencies and at many levels. There are development and environment oriented NGOs specifically dedicated to the task of generating awareness about the impact of developmental strategies on the environment, and protecting and nurturing the ecosystems. These have to be empowered so that they act as a creative bridge between the people and the government. Then there are, what in India we call, the Panchayati Raj institutions or bodies involved in local governance. These envisage a whole structure of power devolution from state capitals to district headquarters, then further down to villages. Activating this network is essential not only for environmental protection but also for the success of the literacy programme, population stabilisation and provision of essential health care services.
It is significant that in the new Panchayati Raj legislation as many as one-third of the elected positions at all levels have been reserved for women. Such affirmative action in favour of women is probably unique in history and highlights an awareness of the basic fact that without empowerment of women none of these programmes can succeed. It is rural women who are closest to the earth; they draw the water, collect the firewood, work in the field, nurture the house plants, and therefore have a much deeper perspective on environmental values. Similarly, the brunt of unplanned families, physically and emotionally, falls upon them. It has been found that female literacy is one of the basic requirements to ensure the adoption of small family norm in particular and social and economic upgrading of the family in general.
The second factor, of course, is the government at national as well as state levels. In today's polity, without active cooperation of government at various levels, no attempt at environmental conservation can succeed. We have to work with governments. It is necessary to form voluntary pressure groups to influence decision-making at various levels. Whenever activities inimical to sustainability of the environment take place, the people must raise their voice against it. In a democracy, the people's voice must reach the decision-makers. Under the colonial set-up, there were no mechanisms to input popular perceptions in the process of governance. If the same situation persists today as it did before Independence, then the people will start questioning the meaning of democracy, the meaning of democratic polity. We, the people, elect our representatives and send them to Legislative Assemblies and Parliament. They are accountable to us. Have we told them to raise our concerns in these forums? Have we flooded them with demands that they present our views to government?
We must continually pressurise our elected representatives to raise various issues of grave relevance to us in legislative forums. Unless we do that individually and collectively, we will not be able to make our governments aware of our concerns. It is our duty to tell them when they go wrong. If we are able to build up widespread public concern about these vital issues, then political power centres will have to pay heed to us.
In our cultural heritage, the environmental values are extremely strong. Atharva Veda has 63 verses, the "Bhumi Suktam". These are some of the most integrated, the most enlightened and the most realistic set of thoughts on the environment to be found in any literature anywhere in the world. They express a worldview which recognizes the spirituality inherent within Nature and stresses that, to survive, the human race must partake of the holistic and harmonious relationship with the world that it inhabits. Our sages and seers have stressed the sacredness of rivers, lakes, land and forests. They had realised, in their higher consciousness, that unless we are able to protect the natural environment, the human environment will collapse. We should restate these ideals in a new form in the context of our present day technologies and make them more meaningful within our contemporary framework. We need to incorporate environmental values in our formal and nonformal educational systems. We need a coordinated and orchestrated programme of public awareness through every available medium to build up public opinion to renew our ancient concept of living in harmony with the resources of our planet.
The third element consists of the institutions of education and research. They should identify and prioritise the needs of the people, undertake research into them and ensure that the fruits of their research reach the people in the shortest possible time. All these three elements have to meld together in a spirit of constructive interaction and cooperation if we are to succeed. Let us not deceive ourselves. We are facing a very difficult and alarming situation. With our growing population, rapid social changes are taking place, which tend to create explosive situations. Development, population limitation and environmental conservation are three very important areas of national concern. We have to be very creative and innovative in finding solutions to our problems in these spheres. The challenge before us is daunting. If we lose heart, if our consciousness is tarnished, if we are not sure of our goal, if we lose faith in our culture, our history and our self-confidence, then our nation cannot progress. Our success in meeting the challenge will lie in all sectors of our society moving from confrontation to cooperation through communication and dialogue.
Chapter 19 India and the World
Amar Mahal Museum & Library
Amar Mahal Museum & Library, placed in a picturesque setting of Himalayas is an epitome of royal grandeur and magnificence...
Here are some photographs of the work I am doing and some of the events I have been involved in.
Featured Journal Posts
Recent Essays and Statements
© Copyright 2008, Dr. Karan Singh