Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Nexus so natural

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Shefali Tripathi Mehta, DH News Service, Jun 4 2017, 0:08 IST

Changes in the seasons brought in festivities which signified the importance of nature. Students were taught to draw inspiration from their surroundings and use it either for language, art or performing art classes. The concept of planting of saplings and ploughing of fields during Briksharopan in the month of August was introduced to the students of Vishwa Bharti as part of the festivities and everyone participated in the grand colourful event. In our house, we have always seen water retained after washing pulses and vegetables being used for watering plants.

Several species of birds have their homes in our garden and the squirrels know where their breakfast is kept each morning. It is simple for my father to point to the differences in the pattern of rocks and landscapes just as the knowledge of medicinal plants and uses comes naturally to my mother. Devika Raghave, whose parents grew up at Santiniketan, recounts.

One man’s vision

Rabindranath Tagore, when he set up the Viswa Bharati University in Santiniketan in 1921, wanted to create an environment for study where students would learn not just from books, but from experiences, and feel one with nature by being aware of the trees, the birds and the animals. Before he set up the university in 1901, he had started a school where classes were held in the sublime serenity of nature, under the trees. Tagore believed that ‘the highest education is that which does not merely give us information, but makes our life in harmony with all existence’.

In close to a hundred years since Tagore envisioned this, we have, all around us, only witnessed the brutal destruction of nature by humans. All our modern day environmental problems are a result of our relationship with nature gone wrong. We have abused our rivers, forests, trees and animals, using them selfishly and offering no nurturing care in return for what we receive. In the name of development, we have built structure upon structure so our cities choke for air and rains flood our homes; we have encroached into forests leaving no safe haven for wild animals, so leopards walk into our concrete colonies and children’s schools looking for food and water.

Our collective greed has led us to forget how our culture and festivals were meant to foster our connect with nature. We have lost sight of the essence of traditions and engaged ourselves with rituals. One such example is the festival of Naga Panchami, which dates back to when humans still lived in close proximity with nature and wild animals.

With the advent of monsoons, as the rain filled their pits, the snakes came out. There must have been awe and fear and reverence apart from the status the snake holds in religion and culture. The worship of the snake or cobra may have begun to prevent people from killing the snakes that may otherwise not harm humans. Today, it has become a mindless ritual. Snake charmers capture snakes from the wilderness, pull out their fangs, making them incapable of living on their own in the wild again, and bring the helpless creatures in cramped baskets to our doorsteps so we can feed them milk.

Forging lost connections

Anuragini Nagar, who works in the social development sector and is a naturalist at heart, says, “I wanted to explore the ways in which animals, birds and flora support each other. Last year, I joined a group that goes on wildlife tours with experts. The first was a herpetofauna trip that offered me a glimpse into the world of reptiles and amphibians. Since then, I have been on three birding trips and apart from all the beauty and wonder I came across, I discovered how birds have adapted to the change — from habitat, to beaks, to eating habits. So it is with nature.” These trips have made her aware of the deep linkages between nature and humans and the fact that there is a space for every being on this planet.

Priya Ramakrishnan Anand, also a busy full-time professional, takes out time to trek to the mountains at least twice every year. Priya says that amidst the unspoilt beauty of the mountains, surrounded only by the awe-inspiring stillness of nature, the mind slows down to absorb the images and the essence of nature.

MapleTree Farms, a farmers’ combine of about 70 farmers that delivers fresh, organically grown farm produce to almost 60 Bengaluru households, insists on the buyers visiting the farm to see the practices they follow in order to not harm the soil or disturb the delicate eco-system. Shankar, who leads this initiative, issues a light threat every once in a while, warning his buyers that he’s going to make one yearly visit to the farm compulsory for them to continue being supplied. It is his way of facilitating our lost connection with nature.

A similar goal was in the mind of the young entrepreneurs of Linger, a chain of holiday homes with the tagline and philosophy — ‘do nothing vacations’. Samir Shisodia, co-founder, tells me that “boredom is the start of awesome possibilities”. So their ‘properties’ do not offer ‘packages’ — there is no television, no snooker tables or chlorinated swimming pools. There are, however, hills to trek to, farms to visit, villagers to talk with, and streams to bathe in or to fish.

They encourage the use of locally grown food and offer local dishes. He says their guests are almost always happy and grateful for the experience of being led back to the simple pleasures offered free in nature — that of sitting in the dark, spotting fireflies, soaking in a sudden shower, getting to know trees and birds by their names.

Healing the earth

We are all naturalists and nature lovers at heart, but in the mad rush that is our life, we have forgotten to stop and smell the flowers. But increasingly, people are reviewing and altering their lifestyles to live more in harmony with nature, to harm it less. From completely environmentally responsible, resource-efficient buildings to organic farms that not only give us chemical-free produce but also prevent the depletion of natural nutrients from the soil; from groups promoting eco-friendly lifestyle choices to those working to save our rivers and lakes, trees and animals — people in their own way, big and small, are trying to heal the planet — one band-aid at a time.

According to recent news reports, about 200 nature-loving volunteers came together to make seed balls on Earth Day in Bengaluru. To reverse the effects of deforestation and climate change, this is an effective and inexpensive way of planting trees. Seeds of local varieties of trees that are suited to the climate of the region are rolled into soil and manure and then these laddoos are tossed into forests and barren land before the monsoons. These germinate and take root. The germination rate is believed to be 70%. This no-till method is also said to prevent degradation of soil.

Top of form

Many farm owners have opened up their farms for visits and stay. Families, especially children brought up in polluted, concrete cities, get an opportunity to get close to nature and partake of the simple pleasures of life like the company of farm animals and learning how fruit and vegetables that they consume, grow. Many groups organise nature, tree and bird walks to spread awareness about our natural surroundings.

All life in harmony

“The basis of a man’s nature is almost always... the soil from which he draws sustenance, the air which he breathes, the sights, sounds, habits to which he is accustomed. They mould him...” (Sri Aurobindo)

High-schooler Abeer Khan, when she came to know that about 10% of the waste in her city of Bhopal comprised single-use plastic bags, began raising awareness about it and offered alternatives. Starting from her school, she has facilitated the ban of plastic bags in two other localities of the city.

More schools than before are promoting learning through experiences; where students understand their linkages with nature and become aware of how human activities threaten the environment and animals.

There are more outdoor programmes that help students make sustainable lifestyle choices, explore eco-systems, and become aware of the natural world. But because this learning too is eventually geared towards the examination and score-based school system that aims to only better-‘equip’ students for their performance in exams, the crucial takeaway is lost. A child who learns about water conservation in school does not stop to think before leaving the water tap on at home.

In the absence of the fundamental sensibility of appreciation, wonder and regard for nature; of living our lives in harmony with it, we cause irreversible harm.

Long ago, we were walking on the ghats of Benaras and munching peanuts. Soon our hands were full of the empty shells and there was no trash bin in sight. We kept walking, holding on to our litter, displeased that we could eat no more. Our local guide and companion laughed at our predicament and pointed to the goats that were following us. They were polishing off the shells he was tossing away, leaving the ghats clean. But city life, where our segregation is complete when every bit of land, every tree and animal is property and not our partner, does not offer such simple solutions.

The young face

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Shefali Tripathi Mehta, March 12, 2017 0:15 IST
Driving force
When I was still in college, a friend who had joined the workforce recounted that when he refused to take a favour from a customer, the older colleagues in office mocked him and said that they were all like that when young and that everyone ‘learns’ with time.

It is true that everyone learns the ways of the world, and with time the shine of integrity and hard work may begin to dull, but there is always hope that the young will bring fresh energy and ideas into a system controlled by people set in their ways.

The Economic Survey of 2013-14 estimated that India will become the youngest country by 2021, with 64% of its working population in the working age group of 20-35 years. The millennials, as they are referred to, are just not separated by years but by the unique setting of the environment they grew up in. These are first generation digital natives whose knowledge and awareness of social, political, human, environment and world affairs has made them self-assured, assertive, with a mind of their own, and clear life and career aspirations. They are also somewhat entitled, vocal and impatient because growing up in a world connected through the internet, much of what they need has been at their fingertips.

At the cusp of this demographic transition, there is an immense expectation, a promise of the change, development and progress that previous generations too dreamed of but could not completely effectuate. How will a country with 29 as the median age take it forward? What can we expect?

Fair & equal

Their learning, which has been more participatory with discussions, interactions, and hands-on experiences, is more equipping and empowering. The youth expect and will demand a more participatory role in society, politics and governance of the nation. Social, religious and economic hierarchies cannot be magically obliterated but are increasingly frowned upon among the urban, educated. Families walk into restaurants with their domestic help and eat together. This was rare a decade ago. Most urban schools are now co-educational, and more students with disability are studying in mainstream schools. The millennials are, therefore, expected to be more gender- and disability-sensitised.

Civic-minded and aware, Generation X have been assisted and encouraged to transition mindsets and drive social changes. They are aware of matters such as global climate change, conservation, waste management, traffic congestion. This past Diwali, there was a significant decrease in fireworks and crackers — a movement driven primarily by school children. At individual levels too, school kids are involving themselves in social causes. Schoolchildren in a Bengaluru school started a drive to collect old school books and stationery for students from poor families. Social media, for all its apparent flaws, has been a powerful platform for the propagation of ideas, for support of good work.

A country of 1.2 billion people faces immense challenges on all fronts, and the growing awareness of social discrepancies and problems are driving children as young as eight to innovate. Ceiling fans powered by windmill on the roof; spray-on gloves for garbage collectors and labourers; cushioned helmets for construction workers; movable traffic dividers for traffic congestion; wheelchair that converts into crutches; and a low-cost Braille printer — these are all innovations by school students.

Helped by education and awareness of the world they live in, young people are rejecting the politics of vote banks and appeasement. For too long the educated middle classes have been accused of apathy towards the electoral process, but this is changing. There were 10 million first-time voters in our general elections two years ago.

Women & family

Twenty-six-year-old Chanda lives in a rented room with another girl. She cooks in seven homes, earning Rs 3,000 per home. A gutsy girl who commutes on a bicycle and rattles off the names of dishes she can prepare, she confides that her husband left her and their six-year-old daughter for another woman, so she moved from Kolkata to Bengaluru to work. When Nasreen’s husband began to demand her earnings from the odd jobs with which she sent her two children to a private school, she refused. He left her. When asked her how she would manage on her own, she showed no sign of worry and replied matter-of-factly that she would just need to work harder. The story of these women is the story of thousands determined to turn gender bias on its head.

The taboos of women living alone, being unmarried, remarried, divorced, single will perish as more women seeking their rightful place in society stop caring. Aware of their rights, girls are eager to study, earn and be independent. More and more girls are caring for and supporting their aged parents. With women getting into top jobs and involving themselves in advocacy and decision-making, there will be greater pay equity and safeguards of their rights. Recently, women bus conductors in Kerala quit en masse over disparity in pay — the men were being paid almost double the salary for the same work. More millennials were born to liberal parents, mixed marriages, and have parents who are relatively more accepting of their lifestyle changes.

More relaxed societal norms also mean there is a healthy mixing of the genders and there is no rush to marry, which has been the only acceptable man-woman relationship in our society. At the age the previous generation began to feel the heat of ‘settling down’, the millennials continue to focus on career, travel, taking sabbaticals to try new things, study or pursue a new calling. Long-distance relationships and marriages, late marriage and childbearing are common. Clearly, we are a less intrusive society and with more and more youngsters moving out of their parents’ home as early as after school to study or to work, the generation has more freedom to make their marital choices. Relocation within the country and abroad for work or education is also a non-issue.

Work is play

More students are opting to work after graduation to finance their higher education. Many are taking a year off to figure out what they want to do; to travel, or to gain work experience for better university prospects. Treasa M, who was unclear about her future, took up a job with a multinational immediately after graduation, so while the paychecks keep coming, she has time to figure out what she wants to do.

We have seen generations of men and women sitting uneasy in their jobs — careers that were thrust upon them because some careers were considered more stable and respectable. Many among these, especially women, unable to balance work and family responsibilities, could never have fulfilling careers. Six months into her Chemical Engineering degree, Mansi A decided it wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life and quit to study Environmental Science.

Her parents supported her decision and the six months she was between courses, she utilised in learning a foreign language. Apoorv S, who secured a well-paying, cushy job with a finance company immediately after his post graduation, is preparing to move to the social sector for more gratifying work and use of his education.
Many students are bypassing corporate jobs, where the burnout is quick, for a career in the social sector. There is a definite inclination towards the social sector with volunteer training and social entrepreneurship programmes becoming more popular.

‘Best fit’ is what one hears repeatedly from Generation X. They are unwilling to compromise. The start-up generation is following their heart over the security of salaried jobs. Though the IT industry is still a big draw for youngsters, students are rejecting seats in poorly-equipped private colleges.

The millennials are up for risks and challenges. They live in the moment and choose experience over assets. They are in no hurry to buy the first car or house. Challenging work and excitement are their driving forces. They grew up knowing their rights, pursuing their interests and hobbies; parents and teachers gave them the freedom to take decisions and find their own solutions — they want this from their careers.

A two-way street

Even as we try and sound upbeat about this young face of India, we must realise that they will turn out only as good or as bad as their education and upbringing. The New Year eve’s blot of shame on the face of a very cosmopolitan and urban-liberal Bengaluru cannot be pushed out of our recall. Have we done enough in terms of providing this generation with direction, gender sensitivity, civic and social awareness?

Are the benefits of education and financial security reaching all sections in all parts of the country? The rise in caste-based agitations and demands for reservations is a warning that the youth is angry and frustrated. If the employment rate looks okay, it is because a large part of the population is working in the informal sector. The growing demand for education indicates that the youth will demand jobs in the formal or service sector. Despite increased wealth and a burgeoning urban middle class, a vast majority of India’s population remains illiterate and impoverished.

Millennials live in the villages too. Will there be enough income-generating activities that keep people interested in agriculture? The average earning in urban areas is still better than in rural areas, and education and training are by and large oriented towards urban life. What are the living conditions the few big cities with their infrastructure and resources already stretched offer to the growing numbers constantly migrating for work and a better life?