Sunday, April 02, 2006

Musings of An Overfed Intellectual

(taken down directly from a note on a loose sheet written late one november night)

Being an intellectual (alleged!) comes with its own share of feelings of guilt. We all are the not-so-privileged lot born in a land where the greatest and the most powerful men chose lives of austerity and ascetism. As a thriving success story of capitalism tries to create a sanguine attitute about the overall rise in physical living standards, a deep rooted something makes many of us doubtful. Roarkes and John Galts of early youth coax us to feel proud at eating the fruits of our own virtues; Valmis, Vyasas and Buddas of our childhood keep gnawing at our heart. They keep talking something about growing out of our needs! If there has been a real battleground between the coflicting ideologies of Capitalism and Socialism, it's the mind of an Indian!

Prof. ... delivered a talk on 'Sustainable Rural Development' in Astra on November 8. The candid and sincere oratory of the Prof. flared up smouldering embers of disquiet. 'What's meant by development?' 'What do you mean by fair competition?' 'Are things really so fair as we pretend they are?' The talk raised myriad philosophical, political, sociological and economic questions. In the course, the projects undertaken by Astra found a mention. More than their magnitude or economic impact, it was the noble intention, and indegenous attempts to solve practical problems that stood out as the main feature of all those projects.

The essential message was that sustainable development can never be achieved by following a fundamentally narrow minded and short sighted model of economic deve,opment. The deceit of fairness that we so hard to maintain will sooner of later break in front of the great economic divide. The real development of people will happen by fulfilling their actual needs, not by braiwashing them into defining their needs as per what's profitable to people who are already in an advantageous condition.


Ayan n' Mrinalini said...

The blog sounds to have been inspired by a very enlightning speech. Since I was not privy to the speech, so this comment might fall short in a some of the aspects. But here's my pragmatic 2 paise.

Raising questions on fairness of fair trade and meaning of development are good for flaring up the embers. But what I would be more interested in finding out is, did the talk give any practical insights on the options that one can explore in bringing about the fairness and development?

It is good to bash up the rich, they deserve it after all they are the RICH ones. Well, pragmatism aside, here is another question, how does a debate help the poor, I think an initiative to build a road might be more helpful rather than a gathering of intelectual debates and ideological bashing!!

Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti said...

Hm. As mentioned in the blog, here is this organisation called Astra which works for development of sustainable technologies.

Regarding rich-bashing, no, it wasn't that. The fact that it was being delivered by a prof. who could've got much richer than people who can't do anything better than getting richer and richer, and that he goes out there and works with people who aren't as privileged as any rich to have money to buy comforts for themselves, or as much ingenuity as the prof. himself as to build workarounds to a difficult and inefficient life, brings in a lot of credibility to what he says. Those people who have kept raising those questions, aren't really silly people, believe me. They have worked with committees of the highest order, and know who makes decisions having catastrophic environmental effects, and why and how they are made. Yes, I, who's not doing much more than writing blogs about it, might definitely be posed that question. And I won't really be able to give a good answer.

I, for once, consider the questions of sustainability not so much urgent. Rather, they are important problems. Before we are brought to a level where we aren't left with any other choice but to devastatingly compromise our lives in terms of living standards, I feel the first thing to do is to be aware that the question of sustainability exists. I strongly believe that there's a need of culture-change: of cutting down on unnecessary consumptions on a personal level; appreciating that a good life isn't equivalent to having more and more expensive cars and houses and gadgets; of giving the maxim of 'simple living and high thinking' another chance before verdicting it as the sole cause of the fall of us Indians.

Some straight answers to your questions: That prof. is doing something quite ingenious and effective for sustainable development. If there's any bashing going on in my blog, it of ourselves, who have been tutored in a particular way to look at the world. Nobody here is saying that being RICH is bad. It's good; it means a lot of capital which means a potential for something meaningful happening out of it. I would never go into macroeconomic arguments. I just have no idea about how money flows through a social system. I talk merely philosophically: If I can't stand up and answer for myself; if I am wasteful and ignorant and energy inefficient and over consuming; and the best possible argument I have for the way I live is : 'It's my money; I have earned it with my own blood; I will do what I want with it! And you get the hell out of my sight!' Then, I am not really master of even the least amount of modesty about my possession to be of any use to anything; and I am not doing anything for sustainable growth. Sustainable development can't be a side effect of a wasteful life.

Sustainable development is not about helping poor. It's not about charity. It's an absolute essential. For us. It's about finding out how the life can be designed and maintained around gadgets and technologies which consume only so much energy which can be sustained by the earth's ecosystem. It's about reducing consumption indigenously affecting living standards only as required, not beyond that.

It just begs us for a bit of consideration. It's a very individual level thing. Just asking a question: 'Could I do well enough without resorting to this particular item of consumption?' In giving the consideration of energy consumption a priority a little above the last, as against blatant vanity, and just simple impulse consumerism.

A step ahead of that would be to raise discussions on this issue. The very act of thinking and talking about this issue makes us a bit more aware of the fact that we are never fully able to pay for what we consume. There's something irreversible happening with each instance of consumption. It doesn't ask to to feel guilty for necessary consumption; it asks only for awareness. I feel it's important to talk on this issue, sincerely of course.

And the best thing to do is to devise economically viable inventions which have a profit making business model as solidly ingrained in them as the environmental sustainability. Astra is doing that. Their work is commendable. If rich are not to be questioned, Astra (and their collaborators) are worthy of reverence, definitely not oblique ridicule.

Thanks for making me spend some more thought in clarifying my own. It's an important issue. And you contribution to it is now perpetualised through your comment. :)

Ayan n' Mrinalini said...

Well, that does put it in a whole lot of perpective. But still I didn't get the example of ingenuity I was looking for. The intention to use these examples for identifying some of the things I or some more folks (who would probably like to make a contribution silently) can do to make a difference. At times you don't need yto achieve austerity to make a difference. Though that would definitely be some thing I would love to achieve myself.

Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti said...

Hi Ayan,
Unfortunately the IISc website sucks. The department is ASTRA. Go to
Here we have this index on top. Click on 'a'. In the list that appears there's a link for for Sustainable Technologies (formerly known as ASTRA)).

It's not working right now. If and when it does, you will be get to see there projects. Some work that I have come to know of are:
1. Energy efficient cooking stoves working on biogas.
2. Rain water harvesting systems.
3. Toilet and drainage systems for disaster hit areas (I have heard that they proved very good during tsunami).

Things like that.

Internationally, in similar vein, there's this TIER project ( in UC Berkeley. It's about inventing cheap Information and communication technologies for emerging economies, but has an implicit 'sustainability' aspect to it.

Personally, in our lab, my friend Kapil and I have been actively researching for the last several months in designing educational contents that could be possibly disseminated through mobile technology to remote areas through bandwidth, infrastructure and mobile devices, all of which are expectedly going to get cheaper in future.

Thanks for the positive interest! :)