Panorama: a wider view

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All / Coexistence & Harmony
Panorama: a wider view
Shoo, another word for intolerance.
Photo Credit: Priyadarshini Ravichandran for kyobi.blog

I was sitting in the balcony, having my morning coffee while I looked out at the sea; it’s what I do almost every morning, yet it is special, because the sea, birds, trees, and me are a new configuration each day. 

As I settled on my seat, a crow came and perched on the ledge. Recently, it had been coming every morning and had become an expected visitor. I had this urge to shoo it away. The cawing sound is a little loud for my auditory nerves, and in anticipation I preferred it gone. But I let it be. And it did not caw. 

What is it about us humans that we do not like occupying space with another whose form, sound, or views we dislike? Others in the animal kingdom share this response. I was reading about elephants and their complex social structures—families, bond groups, clans. Some of their decisions are based on elephant culture and resource availability, and some on individual likes and dislikes: they take sides, they display loyalty, and they seek social inclusion. What they don’t do, or cannot do, is create tools of mass destruction and they can’t use propaganda to deceive, because their reality is still closely linked to the ecological world.

The experience with the crow and its cawing helped me understand the growing intolerance in the world. It struck me then that we develop intolerance in these seemingly innocuous ways, such as waving at the crow and saying go-away, even when the crow is perched unimposingly on a ledge. While elephants may not be able to reflect on how their behaviour is shaped, we humans can, yet we overlook the little reactions that lead to big trouble.

This explanation may seem a little excessive, except that it is not. It’s a simple experience of intolerance and therefore overlooked. The manifestations of such experiences are so disturbing on the world stage that we are usually overwhelmed. Let’s take the example of what is happening in Myanmar at present, the military is shooting and killing indiscriminately, people are dying and its distressing for almost all of us. What has been happening in Palestine is as troublesome, migrants from Africa being left to die at sea is heartbreaking, the genocide at Rwanda, the Gulags and Auschwitz, and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre were no better—the list is endless. Such events seem to come in waves that submerge us, leaving us with no adequate response, merely an emotional one. 

When events coincide with emotions, we react, we do it repeatedly till we develop a certain orientation. Our orientation can be liberal or conservative, rebellious, timid, or apathetic, or it can be deluded, righteous, or naïve, influenced by our surroundings, and our upbringing and exposure. 

Events and emotions feed each other in a continuous cycle till our orientation becomes an ideology. And what do we become? We become like dogs that keep chasing the tail: in futile pursuit of an illusion. 

Is there an alternative that will allow us to see the ineffectiveness of our ‘dog chase tail game?’ Is it preposterous to think that we—you and I—people with no real influence on the world stage can alter the course of humanity? To the contrary, it would seem. But how? 

By tolerating the presence of the crow. 

Perhaps if we begin here, we will not have to reckon with world leaders who cross all lines of injustice and deception, because from amongst us rise these very forces, be they supremacist, totalitarian, or militant.  

If 7.7 billion of us tolerated the other, would it not change the course of humanity as we know it today? Even if only half that number or about 3.85 billion actually succeeded it would keep the scale from tilting. 

I, a liberal thinker, only recently realised the narrowness of my broadminded views when I understood how critical I can be of others’ views. As someone with a more inclusive mindset should I not be allowing other views to hold space? I don’t have to imbibe these views if they feel insufficient and I need not engage by being critical. As an independent yet interconnected entity, I can simply let them be. 

A point-of-view does not breach the lines of respect and tolerance, our reactions do. Our reaction to the criticism and rejection that we receive because of our views leads us to coalesce into groups that eventually lead us to war with each other—civil, cold, or nuclear is irrelevant.  

About a week back, I read a book titled, ‘Emissary of Insight’. It’s a short biography of S.N. Goenka, the teacher of Vipassana Meditation. In April 2019, The New York Times featured him in their series Overlooked No More. Goenka or Goenkaji (-ji- is a suffix used in India to convey respect) carried forward the practical and ancient method of Vipassana Meditation from the time of the most recent Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama to the inhabitants of the tech age, relaying it beyond cultures and borders to both the scientific and the religious minded.

The author, Daniel Stuart, an academic, has tried to offer a critical and impersonal view on the life and choices of S.N. Goenka, who happens to be his meditation teacher, as well as mine. In reading the book I felt that it was too narrow in interpretation and simplistic in its explanation of complex events that may have led to some of the choices made by the Vipassana teacher. So, there’s Stuart’s view of S.N. Goenka’s decisions and approach that does not fully match my view, and neither is a complete or true representation, because Goenka(ji) is not here to explain the reason behind his choices.     

Can I therefore be satisfied with the book, as a well-written biography that offers a different perspective? A mentor suggested that I give space and room to the author to express his views. The minute I did this, all criticism dropped. I felt enriched as a reader who could use their own discernment to understand what I had received from the book, or explore the topic to develop a more complete perspective, or simply put aside the book like others once read.

A view is a perspective (merely one way of looking at something), sound is a vibration, and form is light reflected; That’s all. What then is there to dislike or criticise?

Where?

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Where?

Where I can sleep under the blue sky
Where fear doesn’t chase me or pull me down
Where my heart sings with the wind
Where nature is my body
Where trees are my kin
I need not travel to get there
All I must do is let go
Maybe I can; maybe I will; someday

Song of freedom: Nijeder Mote, Nieder Gaan

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All / Coexistence & Harmony
Song of freedom
Where freedom resides.


There’s very little that I have to say in this blog post. The shared video says it all: A collaborative contribution by artists from the Indian state of West Bengal expresses what it means to be free, in a song in Bengali, one of India’s many languages (a symbol of pluralism that the country and its people have managed to preserve till now). Video is supported by English subtitles.

Freedom
To rise up to love
To question our choices
To make art that inspires
To nourish trust
To give with joy
To care because not to is not in our nature
To be not victorious but truthful
To rest where freedom resides

Where?
Love is reciprocated
Kindness is chosen
Beauty is expressed
Trust is respected
Gratitude is felt
Caring is natural
Truth is lived.

Back Home

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Back Home
On my way home. Photo Courtesy: @Arka.Works

I began with a naïve assumption that people who had a connection with rural India would migrate from the city and move back home if they were given the means to a stable livelihood, one that possibly generates the income they earn in the city (INR 25,000 to 30,000/ USD 345 to 414 a month, for a family of five). 

Many in India’s marginalised urban communities live in over-crowded spaces in conditions of much distress, from exposure to extreme weather to lack of proper water and sanitation. Yet these conditions are not significant enough for them to choose a return to more sparsely populated villages, where they can live in natural surroundings alongside relatives.  

A friend who works in the social sector had alerted me to this possibility: ‘People who have been living in the city are so used to city-life that it’s likely they will not migrate back to the villages,’ she said. 

However, I wanted to reconfirm, because the need to depopulate cities is obvious, the need to repopulate villages is also obvious, and the need to redevelop our relationship with the earth and with nature is imperative: both for our moral and physical wellbeing, and for the wellbeing of the planet and all its inhabitants. 

Therefore, I requested a friend who lives in a slum settlement at Ambedkar Nagar in Cuffe Parade, Mumbai (India) to gather relevant information about the background of a few families and ask whether they would return to the village if economic opportunity existed. 

My precise, 13-question interview was held with four families. Three from Ambedkar Nagar and one from a different locality. I understand that this is a small group, but I wonder if people who share constrained physical space and everyday uncertainties develop a common sentiment or a shared way of thinking? The responses to my interview confirmed what my friend had intuitively known through her years of experience working with similar communities.     

Most of the families at Ambedkar Nagar have lived in Mumbai for a decade or two, or even three since the inception of this slum settlement in the 1990s. The people we spoke with still have family back in the villages, but the land they have is negligible in size and the families depending on it are large. That’s one reason why living in the village is not plausible. And the other reasons include lack of access to healthcare and education, and a more narrow outlook on social issues, which the respondents condensed into a phrase (lack of) open-thinking. I began contemplating : If access is what defines city-life and keeps people linked to the city, can we not improve access to some of these facilities and ideas so that eventually villages witness reverse migration and become dwellings of choice for more people, even those who are city-bred? Or can we at least bring the current rural-to-urban migration to a halt with improved exchange and access?

While such efforts are typically the mandate of public policy that has been conspicuously inactive at village development, can we not create useful activity? What happens if we start exchange and inter-dependency programs between cities and villages? Cultural exchange and trade agreements are common in foreign policy, can we not attempt the same through a people’s initiative? 

I am starting a consumer circle to increase trade with village enterprises and farmer groups. I have identified two non-profit institutions near Mumbai that can help supply us with some requirements to start with. There will be soap nut (reetha) for laundry and all-purpose bio cleaners to start the exchange. We can grow from there and take this initiative beyond products to developing the education infrastructure through teacher-mentoring programs for village school teachers: Sharing methods and ideas is as important as purchasing made in the village products—Since so much of what we consume is about where it’s made, (rightfully so if it comes from the culture or specialty of a region) then made in the village is how I think we need to brand these products to develop in the minds of people the idea that villages too can be creative and economic centres, of the kind that balance existing inequalities.

There are similar initiatives that are underway already, and one more will likely add to the positive momentum. I invite you to join the consumer circle by filling this simple form (Consumer Circle, Mumbai) with your details. I will start sharing information on products and other exchange programs through email. 

Our attempt will be to increase trade to help make villages economic centers, and to increase the exchange of methods and ideas to encourage the progressive development of villages. We will restrict ourselves to villages that are at a 300-kilometer or 186-mile distance from the city, so that we can take weekend road trips to facilitate exchange, and transport products easily using limited fossil fuel and packaging, and also create a way to send back and reuse packaging.  

Perhaps you are encouraged to start a similar circle in your city. Please connect with me if you do. Who knows we may become a network and force of good someday. I can be reached on dogearsbooks@gmail.com

‘Let the villages of the future live in our imagination, so that we might one day come to live in them.’ – Mahatma Gandhi

A very special thanks to Ashok Rathod and Sunita Rathod, and to Neesha Noronha.

Untouchable

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indu mill and 116 treesreplacing history

Image courtesy: Mumbai live and Free Press Journal

I live next to a textile mill complex from an era long-passed. Today, the old stone buildings have been reduced to rubble and the trees that surrounded them, more than 100 in number have been felled. My tired senses don’t feel the same when I look out the window and see pale-grey, concrete walls. 

The sound of drilling, hammering, crushing is louder than the thoughts in my head (didn’t know that was possible!). This despite the hundred odd meters between the construction site and my home, and the sound of waves breaking on the shoreline as a relief from nerve-wracking industrial sounds.

But what about the construction workers? Don’t they feel the dis-ease created by the sound of these machines frantically at work? Do they wear noise-reduction headphones like shooters and gaming folks who use it as a way to shut out the world while they enter their virtual realities? Unlikely. In a country where construction is rampant and labour is cheap and dispensable, and in an urban megalopolis where there are more people than the space for them to live (20,000 per kilometre/0.6 miles) and more vehicles than road span 1900 per kilometre or 0.6 miles, noise cannot be considered a hazard. 

Object Density, Mumbai Length of area
20,000 people 1 kilometer, 1000 meters, or 3281 feet
1900 cars at 14 feet per car = 7.6 kilometers, 7600 meters, or 25000 feet
(14 feet is the smallest sedan size considered to average out large vehicles and hatchbacks)
Given that Mumbai’s urban roads mostly have two lanes, the span would reduce to 3.8 kilometers, 3800 meters, or 12,500 feet, about 3.8 times the existing span of 1 kilometer, 1000 meters, or 3281 feet
(if all cars were brought to a halt, then they would be on top of each other)

With no way to know the mental and emotional response of those on the construction site, and feeling acutely the loss of the 100 or more trees and of the accompanying silence, I began asking myself about what a 350-foot (106.68meters) monument on a 100-foot (30.48meters) concrete pedestal represents? 

The question led me to discover Waiting for a Visa, written by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar to illustrate the tyranny of the caste system through a set of six incidents in his life and the lives of a few others from his community. A short 20-page book that should have been part of our history curriculum in India, but was omitted for reasons best known to the Education Ministry. I am wondering why our teachers did not recommend the book as suggested reading? The possibility is that they probably hadn’t read it either: That’s how under-promoted the book is in the country: if a tree falls in a forest with no one to hear it does it make a sound? When we don’t know about something does it even exist? A good way to hide our injustice. 

Ambedkar was the chief architect of the Indian Constitution and he was a social reformer who advocated equality. He came from the much-discriminated untouchable community and he wrote the short book to highlight the reality of their situation for international readers. When he returned after five years of study at Columbia University, New York (USA), and London School of Economics, London (England), the oppression of casteism had been erased from his mind, only to be vividly revived by the people with whom he shared water, land, air, and cultural roots. 

Image courtesy: Routes Blog, Diplomatic Titbits Blogspot, The Buddhist Center

The straightforward language of the book gives a clear glimpse at what the people of his community suffered at the hands of not just Hindus—the original drafters of the caste system—but also Mohammedans, Parsis, and Christians, who otherwise divided stood unified in their discrimination of the untouchables of India. 

Water a resource that you and I so casually consume, each time we feel the pangs of thirst was often refused to the untouchables (I am intentionally using this politically incorrect word to emphasise the injustice meted out to a group of humans). 

The refusal to give access to drinking water refutes the right to life. We may think that such unjust treatment of individuals has been abandoned in one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Only if that were true. 

As recently as two years back, we killed a man from this ostracised community for using a hand pump to draw water during a heatwave (we became accessories to the crime by not advocating the end of such injustice; accessories definition). Despite various laws, the Prevention of Atrocities Act, and special reservations in educational institutions and in government employment, India has not succeeded at abolishing this tyrannical social injustice. A reminder perhaps that we need to strengthen our ethics and not merely our economy. 

Can a statue achieve to bring about change where laws and acts have failed? Not just any old statue like the ones in city squares, but one that will stand taller than the Giant Sequoias or Redwoods, the largest living organism on Earth: Larger than life but not larger than the stature of the man it represents.

At a total height of 450-feet or 137-meters, the upcoming Ambedkar statue will be the third tallest in the world. Following after, The Statue of Unity in Gujarat, India, which at about 787-feet or 240-meters from the base has not managed to bring unity amongst the divided sects in the country, and the Spring Temple Buddha of China that too failed at inspiring China to adopt the tenet of non-killing and non-violence towards all living beings with its wet market trade. And much like, the famous Statue of Liberty that did not stop the erosion of liberties during the recently-ended term of the 45th president of the United States.

Untouchability is a symptom of repulsion. And repulsion is a violent act of the mind. People violating the dignity of a person, whether we call them untouchables, Dalits (meaning oppressed or broken), or Harijan (The people of God) are simply being self-destructive: Most of us have felt the wrath of our repulsion at some occasion or the other to recognise its self-destructive capacity. Repulsion rages within us and destroys our love and joy as much as it destroys the joy and love of another. Its tools are anger, violence, hatred, and even seemingly innocuous rudeness, irritability or snappiness.   

When in our watch a person can be killed because he wanted to quench his thirst with a drink of water, then the violent reality of what we permit to thrive stares us in our face. Are we willing to look at it, people of modern India? We have been free for too long to ignore this oppression of freedom. 

While greatness needs to be celebrated to remind us of the values a person embodied, the INR 1100 crore (INR 11 billion or about USD 152 million as of date) budget allotted to build the statue of Ambedkar could have been used to uplift the downtrodden in the Dalit community through initiatives that increase inclusivity and reduce religious intolerance, and through socio-economic interventions. This may have been a more befitting way to honour a man who dedicated a large part of his adult life to help rid India of social ill-will.

“I measure the progress of community by the degree of progress which women have achieved. Let every girl who marries stand by her husband, claim to be her husband’s friend and equal, and refuse to be his slave. I am sure if you follow this advice, you will bring honour and glory to yourselves.”


Ambedkar was an advocate of woman’s rights. Quote Courtesy: The Better India

April 14 is the birth anniversary of Ambedkar, can we be harbingers of change and living examples of equality that Ambedkar advocated and worked for? 

We can use individual and collective engagement with people from Dalit communities to acknowledge their presence and help restore their dignity. On my part, I hope to identify a group of children from Dalit households to hold a series of story sessions and writing workshops that can help them use story writing as a tool for advocacy and to connect with fellow humans within and outside their community. To begin with, I recommend we develop our empathy by reading Waiting for a Visa (Link to PDF, courtesy Columbia University).

Sources and Citations:
https://www.indiatoday.in/diu/story/mumbai-vs-delhi-behind-covid19-numbers-india-two-worst-hit-cities-1687236-2020-06-09
https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/mumbais-vehicle-density-15-times-that-of-maharashtra/articleshow/74507821.cms
https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/mumbai/mumbai-height-of-ambedkar-statue-height-to-be-raised-by-100-ft-6218141/
https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/accessory

Perfect as is.

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All / Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony

More than a year back it was suggested that I explore the concept of ageing in a story about mangoes. The suggestion came from my uncle T.S. Ananthu, a founding member of Navadarshanam Trust in Tamil Nadu, India. Navadarshanam was started in the 1990s to experiment with the Gandhian approach to technological progress that is predicated on the principle of nature as nurturer.

The possibilities in the suggestion were evident to me, so I left the thought alone till it evolved.

A little sub-text that I must add is that thoughts don’t just enter the mind and vanish; once in, they appear again and again shaping our imagination and influencing our perceptions. Since this realisation, I have become increasingly selective about the thoughts that I am willing to receive. It’s merely a sanity-preservation mechanism. The thoughts of T.S Ananthu or Ananthu Chacha are more than welcome, because they are a product of a beautiful, non-violent disposition, born of commitment that has been lived.  

Perfect as is: The story about beauty, ageing, and a gender-neutral mango

Perfect as is
Beauty is a disposition.
Photo credit: The Economic Times

Mangifera Indica, the botanical identifier for mango would have been the name of our protagonist had I not found out about its distaste for the human habit of categorising everything: from kingdom, to phylum or division, to class, all the way to species.

I opened up the matter for discussion: ‘What’s wrong with adopting the name of your species for the story,’ I asked. ‘But that’s not where it stops, does it? You humans have varieties within a species; look at your own—Black, Brown, White, Asian, Hispanic, Caucasian. You don’t go around calling yourselves Homo Sapiens. Why then call me by the name of my species?’ countered mango. ‘Good point,’ I murmured. ‘If only you humans would try and restrict yourselves to simple categorisations, such as living and non-living, edible and non-edible, and natural and human-made, you wouldn’t need so many names. You could then simply call me fruit,’ added mango. I thought this was a sensible view of the matter, but I stayed quiet. ‘Oh, well,’ went on mango, ‘You humans can keep busy with categorisations, but you are not going to tell me what name I should choose to be known by.’ I relented.

It disagreed vehemently with Alphonso Mango, said it’s a strange name for a fruit, as unappealing as Mangifera Indica that sounded clever merely because it was a mouthful. ‘If I must have a name for your story to begin, then Hapus is what I shall be known by; it’s native, easy, and gender-neutral,’ it stated resolutely.  

So Hapus it is that our protagonist is called. 

Hapus chuckled at the name. It had made up a partly fictitious though not necessarily exaggerated tale about the origin of the word, while developing a growing sense of pride in its own beauty, a result of watching the fruit-grower, the children of the fruit-grower, and the husband of the fruit-grower who before placing Hapus in a crate, examined it and exclaimed: ‘Perfect!’  

Hapus was telling its creative tale, for the first time, to the third bunch of bananas to be placed by its side. It had been awkward with the first two bunches, not entirely comfortable with their presence on the same display table. Understandably so, because on the tree and in the crate it had shared space with other mangoes only. 

However, as the bananas glanced at Hapus with admiration, it felt reassured by the increasingly familiar feeling of attention that it had become used to receiving, and by the time the third bunch of bananas were placed on the table, Hapus was all but ready to regale with its tale.  

The bananas listened as Hapus recited, ‘My great-grandma told me that back in the day when there were only the sucking type of mangoes in India, people did not look at mangoes as an object of beauty, they simply relished the juicy fruit. Then, the Portuguese came, conquered, and began to send fruits to Europe. They wanted mangoes that their royalty could consume with the accepted table etiquette of their culture, and so they grafted trees to cultivate more firm varieties of mangoes. 

One evening, in a cluster of villages along the coast of the Arabian Sea in the western parts of India, whispers were heard from the forests. Yes, in those days back in the 16th century fruit trees grew amidst other trees, there were no orchards then, and we the cultivars were planted by humans at the periphery (edge) of the forest.’ 

The bananas looked at Hapus in astonishment, as if seeing it for the first time. Hapus unwilling to trade admiration for astonishment quickly explained, ‘Humans only grafted and planted us, it was nature that gave us life and nourished us, so we too are natural fruits.’ Saying this, it hastily continued with the story.

Please ‘turn over’ to page 2

A simple toolkit

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All / Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony
simple toolkit
A simple toolkit: natural wisdom. Photo taken at: Navdanya, India

Outrage, judgement, apathy, sadness, uncertainty, contemplation, solidarity, and reform, are words that are gaining in personal significance, to describe shared reactions to neatly categorised and conceptually organised political, economic, social, and environmental world events. But is this unidimensional structure all there is to the events, or is there something else that elicits in us this range of responses? For me, these events, regardless of categorisation and location, are analogous to a bowl of clear water in which, if I look, I see reflected my own image. Therefore, the reactions.

How can events such as, the farmer protests in Delhi, India, the arrest of Disha Ravi, a 22-year old climate activist from Bangalore, or the burning of effigies and posters of a singer from the United States of America and an environmental activist from Sweden, reflect my image? Unless actively involved, where do I come into sight?

When I looked at the farmer protests, what I saw staring back at me was my judgement: there it was an unpleasant image of me. Rather than giving me a clear view into someone else’s character, the impetus to judge made me see that my character needs to develop in strength.

This realisation and the accompanying agitation made me drop all judgement. I decided instead to take another look at the event and carefully choose my response. I chose not to let propaganda dictate how I apply myself, and I chose not to fall prey to hatred, avarice, and apathy: three friends that, unlike the three wise men, come to pay homage not to a compassionate mind but to a mind filled with ignorance.   

I chose instead to understand where in the case of the farmer protests does our collective benefit lie? 

Collective benefit is not the underlying goal of modern economics, because if it were then we would not have poverty, hunger, and depleted natural resources. And as part of the human collective, it serves us well to remember this without cynicism. 

Collective benefit does not require us to have a homogenous identity. It requires neither nationalism nor globalisation. It requires freedom. Only when we are free will we have the compassion and courage to take individual responsibility that is imperative to developing collective benefit. 

This understanding carries us beyond social freedoms to where the mind is free of self-serving ideologies: Rigoberta Menchu, David George Haskell, Yuval Noah Harari, and Banksy are eminent yet unobvious examples of this freedom. And like them are many others less eminent who make our everyday world that much more sane.   

So, in context of the protests, you and I can look to the youth of India for inspiration, and we can serve collective benefit by a simple and undramatic act of individual responsibility: We can choose well-being over convenience.

When we choose well-being, we will no longer be manipulated to generate demand for produce that is not seasonal, local, and indigenous (native). 

Eating seasonal, local, and indigenous produce will enable natural cycles to steer consumption. There will be no cash crops for traders and corporations to sell at a profit; this would mean no monoculture (cultivating a single crop in continuous cycles, in a given area), no need for unreasonable yields, and no depletion of soil expedited by our ignorance. Without demand trends to spike prices, traders and corporations will have little incentive to be part of this fragile and important sector—fragile because of climate uncertainties, and important because of delicate ecological interdependencies and because of our reliance on life-sustaining nourishment. 

This may seem like a simple view of a complex affair, but it is so only if we look through the lens of modern economics or politics. Deep truths lay below the complexity of human concepts, in a clear place where it is easy to see that in choosing well-being rests our collective benefit and our freedom. 

Our act of simple, good sense, if taken, may topple the structure of self-serving economic ideologies—the structure on which stand the hatred, avarice, and apathy that we are witnessing in world events. Would ours then be an act of non-violence, or will it be termed as a seditious act of anti-government sentiment?   

True Cost

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All / Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony
True Cost
Designed in the US, made in China using Italian fabric, and worn in India

A week back while I sat in the car waiting for my father, outside the branch of a commercial bank, I noticed a young man walking on the pavement. He was drinking soda from a green, plastic bottle that he thoughtlessly chucked at the corner of the pavement after chugging the soda in a hurry. I watched the urgency in his movement. As hurriedly as he chugged the soda and chucked the bottle, he turned to a street vendor minding mobile phone covers displayed colourfully on a wooden cart. 

The young man and the vendor exchanged words continuously while the man picked and examined various mobile covers. He finally chose one, paid the vendor, and left. Leaving no trace of his presence except for the chucked bottle. 

Segue into our homes; what do we see? Waste bins or trash cans (earlier called, waste-paper-basketsintentionally highlighted) filled with pieces and strips of plastic packaging, chocolate wrappers, and potato chip packets; replace these with protein bars and trail mix packs of the body conscious. Regardless of the contents or the branding, the packaging is the same: plastic and aluminium, with bits of paper included, chucked casually in the bin.

The corner of the pavement and the corner of our homes are different forms of architecture, and their function and design make them visually distinct, but they both hold trash—a trace of our presence. 

Consumerism, a movement that began in the 1950s, with an increase in industrial production and an improvement in chemical compounds that nature cannot breakdown, made it easier for us to package, transport, and store, and therefore to consume with urgency and without pause or thought. 

If we do decide to pause and are pushed not by the urgency of the young man (the urgency latent in consumerism), we may be forced to ask what is the true cost of the soda bottle, the mobile cover, or of our chocolates and protein bars? 

It’s a calculation you and I need to make, because equity traders, investment bankers, corporations, brands, and our educational institutions aka advertising agencies and digital media platforms are not going to do it for us.

To calculate true cost, we must include the following cost items

  1. Raw materials or ingredients used
    Are they renewable or non-renewable, local or imported. 
  2. Location or origin of these materials and ingredients
    If it’s native to your region then it’s more nutritious than acai berries and more sustainable than bamboo.
  3. Estimated amount of water used to grow, farm, or produce
    When you’re uncertain if rainwater has been used, consider water as a non-renewable resource in your calculation.
  4. Cost of extracting non-renewable fossil fuel
    Fracking injects liquid into the ground at high pressure to force open fissures and extract oil and natural gas. It has an undesirable impact on the seismic movement below, the activity that causes earthquakes.
  5. Place of manufacturing or making
    Does it need to be made in Italy or in China? Aren’t we skilled enough to create beautiful design and utility?
  6. Distance travelled to reach us
    The shorter the distance the better.
  7. Consumption trend to assess if it’s a high demand product
    The higher the demand the wider the distribution, and more the carbon footprint. Beware it’s a trend.
  8. The influence of advertising on our free will
    A mind that gives up agency is a deprived mind; a slave to propaganda.
  9. Impact of packaging on the environment
    Compostable, biodegradable, or long-life (immortal): Do we need packaging that lives longer than us? 
  10. Livelihood and wages of farmers, miners, workers, makers, artisans, machine operators
    Equal dignity. Equal Pay – Hold brands responsible to ensure they pay everyone in the value chain equally, because the computer engineer cannot do the work of the delivery boy, and both are essential for fulfilment. 
  11.  Price of contentment and our involuntary submission to greed
    Economics governs everything, then why leave out our sanity? If contentment is indeed priceless then it must be placed at the very top of the true cost list. Will that change the cost of the things we buy?

I recall the days when I went to Banana Republic and Gap, before we had Mango, Zara, and H&M arrive in India. I was thrilled to find a bargain on the sales rack, and even more pleased that I chose clothes only made of natural fibre in Bangladesh or India. 

It never occurred to me to calculate the true cost of these clothes. Ten or Fifteen US Dollars felt like a great deal. How far I have come since those days, and today this list of eleven does figure in my calculations. I consume now with less urgency and with a lot more contentment.

Choose a natural resource that you care deeply about and get started. I began with water and the implications of our production and consumption cycle on ground water resources. 

Wake up and turn out the lights

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Between the lines / Coexistence & Harmony
Lost lives
Wake up and turn out the lights

When a glacier bursts do we hear our heart break?
When people go missing do we feel our heart ache?
When families cry do we shed tears?
We in our urban settings should hang our heads in shame
For the floods that drowned the cries of the people at Chamoli, Uttarakhand, carried the force of our greed. 
The climate has changed; what about our ways?
Can we change now while we hear the screams and feel the pain?

Let’s pledge to change one thing in our personal consumption cycle (whether of raw materials or products) and walk out of the shadows into the starlit night to brighten not our streets but to lighten our imprint on the planet and on the lives lost at Uttarakhand. 

Take a step on https://www.count-us-in.org and let’s make a difference together. I have signed up for a step titled Green Your Money on Count Us In. This means that for two months I pledge to only invest in businesses with sound environmental processes and practices. This is my second time signing up for the step. What step will you take?

Each of us is a consumer first

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All / Coexistence & Harmony
Nature–life–consumption: we are consumers first

Do you think of yourself as a consumer like you think of yourself as a gender, a child, a parent, a professional? Each of these roles defines and shapes our self-image then why not the role of consumer? 

We have all been consuming natural resources from the day of our birth (our first gulp of air is a natural resource). Does reflecting on this thought reframe our narrative as consumers? 

Do we even have a consumer narrative or are we buying and consuming merely what is easily accessible or what is socially and culturally appreciated?

As an observer, writer, and initiator of a project that is trying to reduce consumer carbon footprint by integrating consumption choices with the production cycle, I question the consumer’s role in production? 

It may be sufficient for some of us to have an inactive, lopsided relationship with what we consume, but for those of us who see the far-reaching impact of individual choice this inactive arrangement is not enough: In a species and in nature, individual choices influence collective realities. Your reality, not just physical but also mental and emotional will be influenced unequivocally by my choices though we may never meet or cross paths. Nature is intricately connected, and we may be close to forgetting but we are still part of nature.   

It will be unfair if I expect you to take all this in and become an engaged consumer. Yet in the face of climate emergency we need to rise. Do we have the capacity? If not, how do we build that collective capacity? Can we ask this question, while empathising with our varied and changing social, cultural, emotional, and economic realities? 

We have now climate emergency on one end and our varied spectrum of changing realities at the other, both can’t be ignored. However, one is irreversible after a point and the other is transient yet influential. To move ahead, we need to link the two. With what? Life. 

Life is nature: they are not distinct. To be an engaged consumer that’s where we need to begin: by asking if the process that went into making, packaging, and transporting a product is respectful of life. Asking is our bridge. It will take us consumers into the production cycle. 

Here is a list of eleven questions that we can convert into steps towards making conscious purchase choices.

  1. Made by hand? – Yes
  2. Made using clean energy, such as solar, wind? – Yes
  3. Made by reusing and recycling water? – Yes
  4. Made without harming the soil’s natural composition, i.e. without increasing soil toxicity (the pH balance that we all love in our skin care products) – If possible then yes for certain
  5. Made locally or in a region where it can be transported over land? – Yes
  6. Packaged with a complete ingredient list – Worth reading and looking at
  7. Packaged in single-use plastic? – Do not buy
  8. Packaged in reusable materials? – Buy only if needed; you don’t want your house to become a store-house
  9. Packaged in recyclable materials? – Okay only for staples, such as spices and grains, and indispensables like toothpaste!
  10. Transported over land? – Works
  11. Transported by Air? – Do not buy except when your laptop or phone breaks down

When you buy from small, independent, and local producers, designers, and makers, you can ask if they will ship your purchase with minimal packaging if practical or take back their packaging to sterilise and reuse. You will be surprised at how willing they may be to accommodate your request. 

I have made such requests with many producers and suppliers in India, including Black Baza for coffee beans—they now ship to me without plastic packaging in unbleached, brown paper bags using ground transport only. Saucery during the subsequent delivery take back their containers used for preservative-free pasta sauces. Gouri’s Goodies joyfully agreed to keep aside for me orange and dark chocolate squares without the individual plastic wrapping. I simply picked these up whenever I was close to their workshop and kitchen.  

The consumer’s imprint on production may reduce production’s imprint on the planet. With this in mind, is it possible to ignore our role as consumers?