Development – once the most prized singularity of the 20th century, today is viewed as grim reality given the onslaught of projects which threaten the environment and society. Be it the Narmada dam or bullet train corridor in India, all have come under fire. With the climate change debate picking up momentum due to the efforts of the future generation of leaders, development has been garnering an even worse reputation.
We forget though that this is the same development which has for centuries helped mankind build its civilization and protect it from external forces. For instance, the Harappa Civilization is known for its organized and practical architecture which for its time was quite advanced and modern. It is especially praised for the drainage system, built out of baked bricks, stones, and bamboo connecting every single household systematically to the river. There were also dams and wells built to let in fresh water for irrigation and for other daily chores – all the while existing in a mutually sustainable spirit with the environment. Indus valley or Harappan society clearly understood why infrastructure development is required and what it stands for. As a civilization situated on the river bank, it was prone to floods. To control this, dams and wells with intersections and pipelines were constructed and spread out across the city, thereby successfully lessening the impact of river currents especially during flood season. For them, development was not the end result but rather a ‘means to an end,’ a means to counter the external exigency of river floods.
In fact, even today we find communities which have adopted practices to counter the above external exigencies, such as the Majuli community of Jorhat district of Assam. Situated in the Brahmaputra valley, the communities living here are prone to regular floods from May to July. In order to combat this, people have devised several strategies to avoid as well as minimize the impact of floods. Whether it is developing the elevated chang ghor, a bamboo house on stilts which can be dismantled or restored quickly after a flood rush; or being forearmed with boats and rafts as a chief mode of transport, doubling as shelter. In fact, development of a network of boats is much sought after in the area, as it can provide health services, transport, and relief during the peak season.
Significantly, sustainable living strategies can be observed amongst the farmers of the community who have adopted crop diversification and mixed cropping to guard against heavy losses, and at the same time, to earn their livelihoods. For example, mixed cropping of ahu and bao dhan rice is a common strategy in low-lying areas. Whenever the weather is favorable, the ahu crop would be ready before the flood. Even if there is early flood damage to the ahu, farmers are still able to harvest the bao dhan crop. Notably, the number of livestock is also much less in the area; nevertheless, with optimal shelters for them in order to protect them from the heavy Brahmaputra currents during floods. Although now, in recent times there has been a demand to increase and work upon the livestock industry as means of increased income generation. This requires a well thought out development plan for livestock management, which includes shelters, milking facilities, veterinary, and para-veterinary services among others.
Clearly, the concept of development, and the strategies involved, are all a means for a society to stand on its feet. Although incessant development is bad, development in and of itself is not the enemy. It is the society and the government which has now increasingly begun to view development as the end in itself – and it is this thought that is the enemy. If put to correct use, in the right place, in right way, and at the right time, development surely is a useful thing. As seen in case of both the Majuli or the Indus civilization, we realize that development does not necessarily harm the environment if leveraged the right way. Ultimately, as Karl Marx puts it, society receives its’ identity from the environment and development is a means of continuous exchange. He writes in his 1844 work Estranged Labor:
Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.
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