Redesigning Our Life and Living

Safeguarding, Endangered

Redesigning Our Life and Living: Some Reflections from Ashoke Chatterjee

Chatterjee, Ashoke


“In terms of a future vision of the good life, we will have to draw upon the great heritage of world knowledge and experience to create a discipline of modernization which dissolves the divisions between rich and poor, the contrasts between waste and want, and the repetitive patterns of ugliness and beauty which constitutes the violated environment of our planet. The only weapons we have are our sensitivity and creativity. Let us recognize them, sharpen them and mobilize them for engineering the societies of tomorrow.”

Reading the mission statement of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, the Ministry draft on Institute objectives, and the sensitive response to the Ministry draft by Director Peter deSouza, I was taken back over 30 years to an address by the late Romesh Thapar to a global conference[1] at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Thapar’s call (quoted above) was for the emerging profession of designer in the ‘Third World’ to help advocate what the mission statement describes as way of living in harmony with nature, avoiding over-consumption and waste. The need was to “texture a society which is self-reliant and comparable to the best. Obviously, it cannot be done in imitation…..The computers throw up forbidding calculations of the kind of productivity which will be required to buttress standards of living comparable to those prevailing in developed lands. Does this mean that (our) people are forever condemned to an inferior level of living? If we live by computer calculations, yes. If we base ourselves on redesigning our life and living, no.”1 Twenty years earlier in their classic India Report[2] to the Government of India which led to the founding of NID, the celebrated designers Charles and Ray Eames had singled out “service, dignity and love” as the qualities that must help generate Indian solutions to the problems of a new time. “In the face of the inevitable destruction of many cultural values —- in the face of the immediate need of the nation to feed and shelter itself —- a drive for quality takes on a real meaning. It is not a self-conscious effort to develop an aesthetic —- it is a relentless search for quality that must be maintained if this new Republic is to survive…”2

The challenges to education articulated many years ago by these two thinkers are with us still. They have been made even more critical by rapid growth in the economy and by even greater divisions within society. Stability and peace are threatened by accelerating environmental degradation and by rising anger among those excluded from shopping-mall fantasies. The threat of mimicry is all around us as a consumer culture takes over our ability to “redesign our life and living”. A nation that should be demonstrating alternatives to the world now turns to the fashion industry for enlightenment on issues of modernity. For many, Gandhiji’s ability not “to be blown off my feet” seems to have been swept away by the winds of so-called globalization.

Old words, new meanings

As the mission statement indicates, education in Asia and the Pacific is the first means toward a society founded on values of peace and sustainability. If a new institute bearing the name of Mahatma Gandhi is not to “become just another institute” but foster the educational resources a future world may need, perhaps its first task may be to redefine the terms it will use: education, peace and sustainable development. These words buzz around the globe, their use seldom questioned. Yet there is little consensus on what they should actually mean, even in India. Current debates surrounding national education policies reflect this confusion. Peace means very different things to mainstream politicians or populations described as ‘separatist’ (or even in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat). Yet the absence of overt conflict is not the same as “equitable, inclusive and justice-oriented” growth described in the Working Paper. ‘Sustainable development’ is like a mountain wrapped in mist: we all want to get there but none of us has seen it, try as hard as many have.

What definitions did Gandhi use for ‘education’ and ‘peace’? Can we re-examine his explorations and apply his search to these concepts in our time? Gandhi never spoke of ‘sustainable development’, yet he said it all with his observation that “The earth has enough for every man’s needs but not for his greed.” Well before any of us, Gandhi understood that the planet was both our opportunity and our constraint, and that respect for its systems would have to be the foundation for a just society. His nation today is hurtling on another path promoted by “peddlers of the glossy life based on the twin evils of waste and want” with “tawdry efforts to keep up with the styles and fashions of the industrial and advanced world”1 (Romesh Thapar again).

This reality might suggest two scenarios. One, that a new institute is a useless task, doomed from Day One. Another, that this opportunity is more urgent today than ever. A Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development must certainly choose the scenario of hope and determination. The task is to help develop alternative definitions and demonstrations of a good life for millions in this region and around the world. In this new millennium, can this not be the core of a “new education harnessed to the imperatives of peace and sustainability” to which the Working Paper refers?

A challenge of measurement

Perhaps as a starting point one could return to the effort within the United Nations some years ago to redefine progress, and to move away from mere fiscal measurements and GDP as its sole indicators. Important leadership for this move came from Asia: the late Mahbub ul Haq of Pakistan and Amartya Sen of India. Their vision echoed Robert Kennedy, who had once observed that GDP measures everything except what makes us human. Since 1990, the UN Human Development Reports   and the HD indicators they contain have focused on an understanding of progress well beyond statistics of income and production.  ‘Globalisation with a human face’ now has a foundation of economic and intellectual rigour which offers a useful space within which the proposed Institute’s contribution could be understood and shared. Asia’s contribution to HDI issues suggests a chance to think out of the box and move ‘sustainable development’ from rhetoric to practice within the region. With UN members accepting (at least formally) this new discipline of measurement, the challenge is to apply it to everyday decision-making, just as Bhutan is trying through its policy on Gross National Happiness.

‘Assessing progress toward sustainability’

The Workshop papers have reminded me of an effort in the early 1990s in which I participated. That experience resonates with Stream 3 (Natural Resources and Global Change) set out in the Working Paper. It brought together a team of volunteers from several parts of the world to understand what sustainability actually means. This effort emanated from the IUCN (World Conservation Union) in Geneva. There, scientists had been deeply frustrated that the wealth of knowledge on both the planet’s delicate ecological systems and the threats of unregulated economic growth appeared to have little impact on decisions taken each day by national and local authorities. Conditions were moving from bad to worse. Why had knowledge and data not led to better attitudes, behaviours and decisions, the IUCN scientists asked? Our small team set about talking to some of the most affected communities and decision-makers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. What emerged powerfully from the field was that people’s understanding of progress had little in common with notions prevailing at policy and planning levels. People were demanding plans and evaluations on their own terms. Administrators and planners demanded measurements and reporting systems that could hold up to national and international systems of accounting and governance, including donor pressures for ‘scale’ and ‘replication’. How then could the gap be bridged between people and those entrusted with making decisions on their behalf? Could a shared understanding of sustainability emerge that could also be translated into an approach, methods and tools for new directions?

From this attempt to listen and learn, a hypothesis emerged. It went something like this: The world is in a crisis of unsustainability. The wellbeing of all people is not being achieved. The eco-system is under grave threat. It cannot solve our problems for us. Human behavior is the main cause of this crisis. It is also the only source of its solution. We need to understand which human behaviors are problematic, and the motivations behind such behaviours. The health, wealth and quality of life of people are inextricably tied to the diversity, productivity and quality of the eco-systems of which they are a part. Consequently, sustainability depends on improving and maintaining the wellbeing of both people and their eco-systems together, simultaneously. Tensions that exist between the needs of people and the environment, as well as between different groups of people, must be addressed. No one knows what these combinations of wellbeing are or how to achieve them. Progress depends on recognizing our ignorance and uncertainty, and founding our actions on questions and learnings —- through groups of people reflecting and acting within their own communities. In other words, through education.

This hypothesis struck our small team, drawn from several continents, as an echo of Gandhi’s reminder of need and greed. Now, more years later, it seems to suggest what a Mahatma Gandhi Institute can and should do through education: foster among people such processes of reflection and action that understand progress as the wellbeing of humans and nature together. The IUCN effort led to a system of diagnosis, monitoring and evaluation[3] that could be applied at village, region, country and international levels. The system began with a few apparently simple questions of survival (leading to a rich and often baffling range of responses), and culminated in analytical tools that included a ‘Barometer of Sustainability’. The Barometer could be used as a scale for measuring the wellbeing of human and ecological systems, providing an immediate demonstration that progress demanded that both systems travel together, on the same trajectory, toward that misty goal of sustainability. No longer a trade-off between ‘development’ and ‘environment’, wellbeing could now be demonstrated as a non-negotiable need for both to travel hand in hand. Later, using data from national and UN accounting systems, this approach was used to develop a country-by-country index of quality of life and environment[4]. It offered scientific evidence that the quest for a good life was possible through ways of living that are desirable, equitable and respectful of Nature’s systems that hold us all.

This IUCN experiment coincided with much of the UN’s early work on the human development approach. Perhaps because of that, the experiment was subsumed in larger ones. Yet I am constantly reminded that our efforts deserved much greater exposure. This is evident in daily reports of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ still regarded as some kind of trade-off between human prosperity and environmental conservation. Perhaps this is so because  national and international spaces for reflection and learning are still so limited, our education systems still so closed, and peace still understood as the absence of law-and-order conflict rather than harmony between peoples and the ecologies which sustain them — just as the Mahatma had described peace so many decades ago.

Peace: a precondition

Peace itself is an essential precondition for progress, however progress is defined and understood. The Mahatma is a universal symbol for it, although his battle for peace is so often ignored and reduced to ritual. These dilemmas and contradiction, as well as the opportunities for hope, come together in his own state of Gujarat, where I live. A massive ‘Mahatma Mandir’ in Gandhinagar (observe the use of terms) has been erected to symbolize what many industrialists and planners now regard as the ‘vibrant’ investment model the rest of India should follow. Gujarat has for decades been respected for its administrative and entrepreneurial advantages, with an enviable record of attracting investments and infrastructure. Yet several of its human development indicators are poor, the environment severely degraded, and human rights have been violated without apology on a scale unknown since Partition. Conflict resolution efforts have come from communities, often led by women, reacting to the carnage of 2002 and the pressures of thoughtless industrialization with carefully conceived agendas for transformation. They believe that peace must be sought and sustained as a precondition of sustainable growth, not as a future by-product, and their demonstrations[5] have a direct link to activity Streams 1 and 4 described in the Working Paper (‘Women in Peace & Development’ and ‘Civil Society, Social Movements & Community Participation’). Globalisation without a human face is a challenge in a state that, like so much of India, prefers ‘MG’ rituals to Gandhian practice. This reality is perhaps another indicator of why a Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development may be critical to rescuing Gandhi’s legacy for future generations.

Impacting policy: an example of crafts

All this brings me back to the suggestion that the new Institute commence its efforts with a fresh understanding of the terms it will use, and to guide their usage in everyday actions for progress. Perhaps this could be linked to Stream 2 (Informed Policy Making) proposed in the Working Paper. One finds many examples of the urgency of this need to redefine ‘progress’ and its twin, ‘development’. One of them concerns Indian handicrafts, acknowledged as the largest source of Indian livelihood after agriculture. Hand skill was a social, economic and political force which Gandhi used to win India’s freedom, yet today the sector is in a crisis of neglect and competition. Over six decades after Gandhi, handicraft is a virtual black-hole of knowledge and understanding in Ministries and at Yojana Bhavan. Anywhere up to 200 million or more artisans are under threat as planners dismiss the sector as a ‘sunset’ activity irrelevant to an emerging superpower with Singapore and Silicon Valley aspirations. A look at the map of India quickly communicates that areas most affected by separatism also represent India’s enormous wealth of artisanal knowledge, skill and potential —- Gandhi’s truth rejected at the cost of such colossal national suffering.  The struggle at this moment is to find a means of reflecting this huge economic force in national accounting systems that continue to disregard it, and to do this within the ambit of a new Five-Year Plan[6]. Establishing the economic power of hand production seems a precondition to establishing the worth of Indian craft as an unmatched source of sustainable livelihoods and of ecological sustainability, as a social insurance system of alternative employment where people are located and at seasons when most needed, as sustaining huge populations still at the margins of society (minorities, dalits, tribals, women), as a resource of innovation and creativity essential to all Indian industries, and as a value system entwined with the Indian identity. All these factors for harmony in human and natural ecologies, for understanding who we are and why, for putting millions in some control of their lives and futures, for peace — for ‘sustainable development’ —- were understood and demonstrated by Gandhi and his generation. They have been left to wilt behind a haze of ritual obeisance and lip service, while elsewhere in the world Gandhi’s truth is re-emerging as humankind’s safest passage into the future. Enhancing the knowledge and status of India’s magnificent artisans would perhaps have been core national policy if we had more often questioned ‘development’, just as Gandhi did. The prime task of a new Institute is surely to help future generations to stand on the shoulders of his legacy, rather than be forced again and again to re-discover it.

[1] “Identity in Modernization” was Romesh Thapar’s keynote address at UNIDO-ICSID-India 1979, the first United Nations conference on design, hosted by NID (Ahmedabad) in January 1979. Romesh Thapar was editor of Seminar.

[2] The India Report 1958 (NID, Ahmedabad) by Charles and Ray Eames led to the founding three years later of NID, the first design education institution in the developing world.

[3] “An Approach to Assessing Progress Toward Sustainability”, IUCN (The World Conservation Union, Geneva) 1997.

[4] “The Wellbeing of Nations”, Robert Prescott-Allen, Island Press 2001.

[5] See “Rising” (Ashoke Chatterjee, Business Standard Books, 2011) the story of Utthan, a Gujarat-based NGO working in its most difficult environments. Following the 2002 carnage, Utthan has innovated and integrated a strategy for peace in all its efforts toward equity, women’s empowerment and sustainable natural resource practices.

[6] “Craft Economics and Impact Study” Volume:1, April 2011. Crafts Council of India, Chennai

‘Education for Peace and Sustainable Development’ 13-14 August 2011

Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla

September 9, 2011

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