Uutinen

Letters from India No 12

´Letters from India´ is a fortnightly brief written by Finnish exchange activists participating in the Lokayan - Kepa co-operation programme. The ´Letters´ are circulated primarily among the staff of the organisations and members of the groups responsible for the joint activities, i.e. Lokayan´s Global Responsibility Forum - Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam and Kepa´s India Group.
Oras Tynkkynen
23.4.2000

Introduction

DELHI -- My last Letter from India starts with an article on the encouraging work of villagers in Garhwal hills to revitalise their environment. Rita and I spent four days in a remote village called Ufrainkhal observing efforts to reforest the barren hills and revive traditional water harvesting methods. Our itinerary was as follows:

    9.4. Delhi- (230 km)
    10.4. -Ramnagar-Bajro-Ufrainkhal
    11.4. Ufrainkhal
    12.4. Ufrainkhal
    13.4. Ufrainkhal-Bajro-Ramnagar-
    14.4. -Delhi (230 km)

Climate change and international climate politics are issues I have been working on for some time now. They were also the main topic for my exchange stay in India so it is about time to write something about them in these Letters as well. The second article tries to outline why I consider climate change to be of utmost importance to the South.

The third article narrates the story of Bill Clinton's visit to India - what it was and why progressive activists opposed it. There is not much new to the Finnish readers who have come across my piece on the same subject in Kepa's Uutiskirje, though.

Highlights include short pieces on the alternative women's reservation bill and Dalai Lama's speech. Finally, in reflections I write about - well, my reflections on the three and a half month stay in India.

Closer to heaven: the regeneration of Garhwal Hills

A breathtaking view spreads out from the bus window. Age-old pine trees reach for the sky. Majestic hills are covered with bright green forests. At the bottom of the valley, one can see a beautiful meandering stream; it has a long way to go before it reaches the sea. Hill slopes - probably the steepest I have ever seen - have been ingeniously put to use by digging terraces that sometimes number more than one hundred on a single slope. It looks as if they were built for the gods: a stairway to heaven.

Only 20 years ago many of these hills in Pauri Garhwal, northern Uttar Pradesh were barren and desolate. Lack of water was a constant problem and women had to walk long distances to fetch enough firewood to cook food. As there was no protective forest cover, soils were prone to erosion and landslides were frequent.

At that time, Sachchidanand Bharati was a young man who had just graduated from the university. He heard that the government was busy cutting a rare fir variety in the Doodhatoli forest. Alarmed, he set out to the villages near the forest and tried to convince the villagers to struggle for the preservation of Doodhatoli. This was not easy, but he succeeded by promising that the benefits of the forests would go directly to them. With the villagers as his support, Bharati persuaded the officials to visit the Doodhatoli forest. After three days in the forest, the officials decided to stop the felling.

But this was only the beginning - now Bharati started organising people. He went from door to door and invited everyone to a public meeting the next day. At the meeting he would talk about the everyday problems of women and how lack of trees makes life difficult for them. This was repeated in a number of villages and gave birth to a movement to preserve forests and a large number of women's groups. Tree nurseries were set up and training workshops held. It was decided that no one would ever get any salaries for working in the forest movement. Furthermore, no foreign money was going to be used.

The people started regenerating the forests that had been lost a long time ago. First they dig jal talais or small basins that will retain the rainwater. Tree saplings are planted next in these basins. Saplings will grow, protect the ground from erosion and give a chance for other plants to thrive in their shade. Little by little as leaves fall and dead plants decompose, new soil is created. Newly planted areas are protected from grazing cattle by a community decision.

After some years, the forest is old enough and it may be opened for grazing. Meanwhile, the villagers are already busy setting up new jal talais and plantations. Every year new patches of forest are planted and each family plants 5–10 trees. Little by little hills regain a healthy forest cover. Villagers even take turns in protecting the forests from illegal cutting by people from other villages.

In Bharati's remote village, Ufrainkhal, we get to see all the different phases of regeneration. From a dry and erosion-prone slope the villagers develop with their hard work and expertise a lush forest with visible moisture and scores of birds. Water levels are going up and fires cannot touch these forests. And this experience has been repeated in more than 150 villages in the region.

The villagers respect the hills. When I see a snow-clad mountaintop for the first time, Bharati guides me to greet the mountain. When we eat candies in the forest, one is offered to the Himalayas. This same devotion can be heard in the hypnotic songs of puja (religious service in Hinduism) that continue for hours uninterrupted.

It is as if this spirituality comes from the hills. There is something really serene and peaceful, almost sacred about their beauty. When the sun retreats behind the hills and paints the sky with shades of orange, red and purple, I truly feel that people here - at 2,200 metres from the sea level - are closer to heaven.

Climate change: the case for southern participation

Climate change is the worst environmental problem humanity has ever faced. At best, it will only disrupt ecosystems and societies to a bearable extent. At worst, it will end the human civilisation as we know it.

Based on my experiences in India, it would seem that climate change does not feature very high on the agenda of the activist community as there are so many other, often more urgent things to deal with. However, I would argue that the gravity of the issue would call for increased participation of Indian activists in the future. Let me explain why.

Climate change is going to have a deep impact on the South. The southern countries will be the first to suffer and the devastation will be markedly more than in the North. In addition, it is the poorest and most vulnerable sections of the population that will bear the brunt of the destruction; as is often the case, when it comes to devastation, the last man - or daridranaryan as Gandhiji called it - comes first.

Climate change will increase the frequency and force of extreme weather events (cyclones, droughts, floods, heat waves); introduce tropical diseases to new areas; worsen food security; flood small islands and low-lying coastal regions; aggravate the shortage of water; and further deforestation and desertification. It is likely that towards the end of this century millions of people will die due to climate change and many more will have to leave their homes and become environmental refugees.

All this is very theoretical - what has happened recently in Central America and Orissa is not. Hurricane Mitch ravaged Central American countries at the end of 1998 and killed about ten thousand people, rendered three million homeless and caused huge economic damages to the already poor Central American countries. Honduras lost 70 per cent of its crops. A cyclone in the Indian state of Orissa (see Letter from India 13) killed also about ten thousand people, made 7.5 million people homeless and affected another 15 million people. Most of the tree cover on the coast and closer to half a million livestock were lost. Economic costs may run into hundreds of billions of rupees.

If climate change is left to continue unabated, the future weather forecast is more of the same. More areas like Honduras and Orissa will be put in a time machine that takes them decades back in development, obliterating the hard work of thousands of dedicated women and men literally in a matter of days. Many southern countries simply do not have the technical and economic capacity to deal with such a heavy additional burden. The combined effect of climate change and so many existing social, political, economic and environmental problems may condemn many countries to chaos and misery.

Climate change is caused mainly by the industrialised countries. An average US citizen produces 20 times as much carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas, as an average Indian. If we are to avert potentially catastrophic changes in climate, emissions have to be reduced globally by as much as 60–80%.

This looks like just another case in a chain of global inequities, but it is in fact an opportunity in disguise. The most equitable way to go about distributing the burden of emission reductions is to set a level of per capita emissions that is equal for all countries of the world. To reach this level, industrialised countries have to cut down their emissions drastically while most southern countries may continue to increase their emissions in a controlled manner. If this global system of emission quotas is complemented with international emission trading, there could be a massive flow of resources back from North to South as industrialised countries would have to buy unused emission quotas from more frugal southern nations. This would strengthen global ecological democracy significantly. This article is a very concise introduction to the state of my thinking on climate politics in the North-South context. I have made many strong statements but the space available does not allow me to substantiate my claims. I have gone through the same issues in greater detail in a paper published by Kepa titled Climate change and the South that should be available in late May. The paper may be ordered for free from Kepa (kepa@kepa.fi). A longer report on equity in international climate politics commissioned by the Centre for Science and Environment (Delhi) is due out this summer. It will then be available also at http://www.oras.net/writings.html.

Clinton went back

American president William Clinton visited India at the end of March with a sizeable convoy of security personnel, aides and even his daughter and mother-in-law. Allegedly the aim of the visit was to reduce tensions in the region, promote non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and further collaboration in the fields of economy, science and environment.

Indian activists saw the visit in a different light. Clinton was considered to be one of the most vocal agents of imperialism, neo-liberal globalisation and corporate rule who wanted mainly to open up India's market for American exports. Many people thought that his attitudes towards the Kashmir conflict and nuclear weapons were hypocritical and paternalistic. It is ironic that the biggest military and nuclear power in the world has refused to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and yet has the nerve to order India and Pakistan to do so. Despite all Clinton's anti-terrorist rhetoric, activist saw him as the biggest terrorist of the world.

Both from a journalistic and a political point of view it was interesting to follow the hype surrounding Clinton's visit. Journalists reported with military precision each meal Mr. President had, who he talked to and which places his mother-in-law visited. At one point almost all stories on the cover of a newspaper were somehow related to Clinton. TV news programmes became equally monotonous.

Indian political establishment went out of its way to extend hospitality to the visiting dignitary. All roads that Clinton would use were cleaned, painted and sometimes even paved anew. Traffic signs got a thorough washing and roadsides were decorated with plantations. In Bangalore stray dogs were caught, a curfew was declared for cows and beggars were transported to distant places where their sad existence would not disturb Clinton's sensitive mind.

Activists, not wanting to be left behind, organised their own events to "welcome" Clinton. Several demonstrations were held with powerful speeches, slogans, banners, political songs and street theater. Holi - one of the two major annual Hindu festivities - was creatively utilised; the tradition of burning effigies of demon Holika was converted into modern use and this effigies of Clinton and corporate imperialism perished in flames. The string of protests ended with a fast.

After a fair amount of shouting the slogan "Clinton go back!" he finally did just that - left the country as fast as he had come. Activists will probably not miss him.

Highlights from the fortnight

ALTERNATIVE WOMEN'S RESERVATION BILL

Unlike in many other parts of the world, women's participation in politics has actually stagnated or in some areas even declined in India ever since the independence. While many remember the India of Indira Gandhi, women constituted less than eight per cent of Lok Sabha (the lower house of the parliament) in 1998. This is less than in 1984 and only marginally more than in 1962. In Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the parliament, women's representation is lower than ever before.

At the state level the situation is hardly better. Some states got their first female legislative assembly members only in 1990. In 1999 Delhi led the pack with 12.9% female representation in the assembly, but there were still states without a single female representative. Interestingly enough, the situation is hardly any better in states with high female literacy or a political leadership strongly - at least in theory - in support of women's rights.

To remedy the situation, a bill for women's reservation has been proposed in the parliament. The bill would give 1/3 of all seats to women and lottery would be used to choose the constituencies. The discussions in parliament over the bill were heated even by Indian standards and no decision has yet been made.

Although the idea of a reservation for women sounds good at first, many progressive and women's groups - including Lokayan and CSDS - criticise it strongly. Forcing voters to choose women is not a good way to go about promoting women's participation. Using lottery to decide which constituencies would be reserved for women would mean that there would be no continuity and no incentive to nurture the constituency. One third of men candidates would be forcefully unseated in every election. Reservations for adivasis and dalits further complicate the picture.

The weaknesses of the original bill have led these groups to propose an alternative women's reservation bill. According to them, the real problem lies with securing party tickets to women candidates. Despite lip service to the contrary, none of the parties - including the different leftist hues - has managed promote the participation of women even within their own ranks, let alone the wider society. When women candidates have contested, they have generally fared batter than men. This would indicate that the best way to promote women's participation is to give them a fair chance to contest.

Instead of reserving seats, the alternative bill would demand each party to field women candidates in 1/3 of constituencies. To avoid parties fielding women only where they have no chance of winning, there would have to be 1/3 women candidates in a selected geographical area - say 15 constituencies put together. This would mean that women would get a chance to compete with men on a relatively equal footing. It would be up to the voters to decide whether the women candidates have enough merit to represent them in the parliament.

DALAI LAMA SPEAKS

At the end of March I got a chance to listen to the speech of Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. A small lawn at India International Centre was packed full with hundreds of people, surprisingly many of them foreigners.

Dalai Lama emphasised that ethics and moral values should not be restricted to religious people. Compassion and loving kindness are a natural part of being human. While one cannot be sure that our ethical action really benefits other people, the impact on oneself is always instant and positive. Ethical life and practice of compassion contribute to good health and peace of mind. Sense of caring should first encompass you and then extend to others.

Forgiveness is not weakness. The Tibetans always oppose the evils the Chinese invaders commit in Tibet, but they still try to develop caring and compassionate feelings towards the Chinese as people. A person with negative emotions becomes a slave. If you resort to violence, you will also suffer.

While most people would agree that Dalai Lama is an extraordinary person and one of the greatest living teachers, he himself stressed that each and every one of us has the same capacity to transform. He encouraged everyone to make their heads laboratories and experiment with ideas.

Dalai Lama hardly said anything really new. Like Gandhiji, what he teaches is wisdom that is as old as hills. However, it seems that humankind needs many more people like him to show us the way to compassionate and peaceful living. Actually more remarkable than what he said was how he said it: very simply, thoughtfully and with a great sense of humility. Deep thoughts about good and evil were often accompanied by his trademark laughter that is truly infectious. That laughter alone would have made attending the event worth the effort.

Reflections

At the time of writing this, the very last days of my exchange in India are at hand. I am busy finishing outstanding work and taking care of practicalities related to my departure. Amidst this hubbub, it may nevertheless be good to look back and see what happened - and did not happen - during the past three and a half months.

I do not hesitate to say that the exchange was a very important, educative and useful experience for me. I feel deeply enriched by all I have seen and done. There was a fair amount of learning involved and I think also managed to do something useful. I will carry the experiences with me and try to put them to use back in Finland. I feel privileged as I have had the chance to participate in this programme.

As always in life, there were also some problems. Communication across two different cultures and in a foreign language seemed to create at times ample room for misunderstandings. Learning to read cultural codes took some time. As I do not speak Hindi, I did not understand many conversations and had to rely on someone else for interpretation. Some practicalities like the heat towards the fag end of my stay were also a bit trying at times.

These small problems inevitably crop up and they do not change the fact that overall the experience was very positive. What is more, oftentimes the exchange was also a lot of fun. This is largely thanks to the many people I had a chance to meet.

However, although I am personally quite content with the stay in India, I do not know whether I have managed to live up to the expectations of friends at Lokayan and Kepa. We will probably get a chance to hear their judgement quite soon.

My experiences with the exchange are summed up in my final report that will be available from Kepa.