Jul 2, 2008

Carting the Wrong Ideas

A day after the Union government announced the latest hike in fuel prices, India's political class went into a satiric protest mode. Left-ruled Kerala witnessed 'mounting dissent': the CPM youth wing rallied around a bullock cart carrying a low-on-energy two-wheeler in Thiruva-nanthapuram. Would life be pushed back into the bullock-cart age? In BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, the chief minister's cabinet wobbled to work on bicycles in Bhopal. Their message: hail superpower India from the poor man's vehicle. Across the ideological spectrum, the two-wheeler symbolised a desirable future of progress fuelled by speed, the cart-cycle combine a 'past' of unproductive backwardness characte-rised by slowness. Irony rode the day but only to highlight the political parties' disconnect with ground realities. For, the 'humble' bullock carts — about 14 million-strong — and animal-drawn vehicles account for two-thirds of India's rural transport across shorter distances involving smaller loads. Animal energy helps plough two-thirds of the cultivated area. So says a report by the Planning Commission's Working Group on Animal Husbandry and Dairying for the 11th Five-year Plan constituted in 2006. It is a delicate ecology of land, human and animal. Of the 800 million tonnes of dung produced annually, 500 million tonnes are used as organic manure, the rest as cooking fuel by the poor. The report's clincher: annually, the contribution of draught animal power to agricultural production is about Rs 10,000 crore. Besides, animal energy saves about six million tonnes of petroleum! Surely, a case of the poor contributing to growth directly "instead of getting benefit from growth generated elsewhere". Marginal farmers and landless labourers own the bulk of livestock. The resources are more evenly distributed, with signi-ficant participation by women. In 2003-04, the livestock sector contri-buted 27 per cent of agricultural GDP, without substantial investment. What if there was a more efficient use of the animal energy system which links humans and nature into a composite whole? But used to shoring up the economy in unsung ways and derided by a population that has 'travelled from the bullock-cart economy to the IT age', that day, creature and cart uncomplainingly carried the angst of a party empathetic to the new 'masses' — the aspirational classes wanting to ride growth into a sunset made more glorious by pollution. Echoing this feat of linear ideation was the tableaux on bicycle wheels mounted in Bhopal. Imagine, a chief minister minus his power-transport of cars, lights and sirens, having to travel to work like many among the 43 per cent of ordinary Indians owning bicycles. As a bicyclist, CM saheb would never get pushed off the road and, more importantly, off the minds of planners intent on fast expressways of growth. It's simple, if you can't keep pace you drop out — in national interest. And all those western nations that have gorged on the fruits of progress and now nudge us towards an environment-friendly life can go take a bicycle ride. What the protests displayed was lazy thinking in 'either/or' terms; the inability to see a problem as an opportunity to re-envision development as inclusive growth. No wonder a dead two-wheeler is superior to a bullock cart or bicycle, signifying aspects of growth perceived as the only mantra for a double-digit economic sprint. It's a pervasive mindset. Most media reports flayed Delhi's Bus Rapid Transit System. How many bothered about the views of bus commuters? Buses in the capital use 5 per cent road space to meet 60 per cent daily travel needs. Personal vehicles 'driving growth' use 75 per cent road space to meet 20 per cent commuting demand. Guess whose views count? Our frames of reference have shifted and we haven't even noticed. The correct media frame today is the stylish curve of a car window. It's a sign of progress. Why wonder at a bullock cart turned into a bier for a dead two-wheeler by political parties with their collective finger on the nation's pulse?

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