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Vol. 11 No. 4 - October 2005

Indian Village: An Ecological Perspective

By: Chandra Shekhar Mohanty

 India is a vast country spreading over an area of 33.67 million square kilometer, having 7.78 thousand kilometer of coastline. The large variation in climatic condition soil types, water bodies, vegetation types encountered in the countries endows with an endless variety of life between the snow-bound mountains of great Himalayas and the dark tropical forests. To the outsider, baffled by the heterogeneity of its races and their languages, beliefs and traditions, this country means little more than a geographical unit. To its people it is a vast complex world whose organic unity is taken for granted. But, whether one tries to describe India in terms of its geography and natural resources, or explains it historically, the picture remains incomplete, and only a comprehensive view of the wide canvas of Indian life can lead to proper understanding of the country and its people.

The cultural unity of the Indian people springs largely from the agricultural character of the country. Even today, when industrialization is progressing and large scale migration taking place from rural areas to cities and towns, majority of the Indian people lives in villages and is dependent on land. Since time immemorial, agriculture has been a kind of religion in the country. The gods that are honored belong to the soil and are more or less the same all over the country. To understand India, one must, therefore, study its village life.

Indian Village Life

Rural people are often stereotyped and simple, but they usually know much more about their environment than many well-trained outsiders be they government officials or academic researchers. Farmers know the soils, the plants, the pests, the seasons, and the problems and risks, which they face. Farmers on their fields experience the sequence and conditions of their cultivation as a whole and have or good insight of the problems. Their adaptations are often skillful, sensitive, subtle and sophisticated. Of late, they are also-getting exposed to newer technologies that are relevant to rural setting.

Science and Technology for Rural Development

The principle that “simple is sophisticated” can apply in this scenario to choices made in research and development. Research and development decisions frequently lead to innovations, which are large-scale, costly, difficult to maintain and dependent on greater inputs, which have to come from outside the rural environment. The innovations may be profitable; but they tend to benefit those rural people, who are already better off, rather than the poorer marginal farmers and landless laborers. In contrast, innovations which are small-scale, cheap, easy to maintain and use locally available and renewable materials and inputs, are more likely to benefit the poor. At times, the formal research and development can miss opportunities or point them in the wrong directions. For example, for a rice breeding concentrated heavily on responses to chemical nitrogen, which is often cornered by the larger farmers, to the neglect of improving nitrogen-fixation in the root zone of the rice plant, a biological technology which may be scale-neutral, cheap, renewable, and more readily available to many more of the smaller farmers. In this scenario, research and development need be directed towards those simple outcomes to which the poorer rural users will have better relative access.

The Indian subcontinent is one of the most fascinating ecological and geographical regions in the world. It lies at the confluence of the African, European and Southeast Asian biological systems. The variety of ecological systems sustain a huge amount of diverse forms. Among such ecological systems are the villages of rural India which support diverse forms of life with their vast natural resources. About 76% of India’s population lives in about 5,76,000 villages. In the past, the villages were self sufficient. However, industrial transformation and population growth in the post-independence period accompanied by rising living expectations have resulted in tremendous pressure on the natural resources of the villages. The important life support systems such as cropland, wetland, woodland, grassland and rangeland/wasteland have been misused, overused and degraded. The system is no longer able to function properly.

Conservation and management of bioproductive systems and recycling of resources involve human labour as an important energy input. Sometimes a change in the physical environment disturbs the balance between men and natural resources of a village ecosystem leading to several changes in the socioeconomic and cultural life of the people. The aspect of culture that changes most radically is that linked to the environment. Several different methods have been employed to compute the human and animal energy used in work. The total food energy intake of a full-time farm worker (working 40 hours per week) can be used as a measure of the energy utilized in farm labor.

Rural Development

Out of the total population, 52.5% live below the poverty line and a majority of them live in Indian villages. Because of the unsatisfactory living condition of rural mass, one of the most formidable and fundamental aspects of India’s effort towards development is rural development. Rural development is a dynamic process to improve the socioeconomic life of the rural poor. It involves extending the benefits of development to the poorest among those who seek livelihood in the rural areas. In the other words, it implies economic and social uplift of the under -developed and poor people in the rural areas who have been languishing below the poverty line and are unable to meet their basic minimum requirements.

It is imperative that each development program should be viable economically, and should pave the way for activities. The monetary value of natural resources used by rural communities for subsistence is important when addressing issues affecting the livelihoods of impoverished rural households. There is therefore the need to attribute monetary values to non-marketed products from smallholder production systems in order to reliably account for resource availability and usage.

Major Environmental Problems in Indian Villages

The following are among the major environmental problems, which seriously affect the Indian villages, and erode the socio-economic and health conditions of the rural poor.

Indoor Air Pollution

Indoor air pollution caused by burning traditional fuels such as dung, wood and crop residues adversely affects to the health of the villagers, particularly the women and children. There is evidence associating the use of biomass fuel with acute respiratory tract infections chronic obstructive lung diseases in children. Lung cancer has been found to be associated with the use of coal, however, there is no evidence associating it with the use of biomass fuels. Cataract and adverse pregnancy outcome are the other conditions shown to be associated with the use of biomass fuels. Finally, there is enough evidence to accept that indoor air pollution in India is responsible for a high degree of morbidity and mortality in the rural areas.

Loss Of Biodiversity

Biological diversity in general and agricultural diversity in particular is being depleted at an unprecedented rate in the past few decades. Much of the agricultural biodiversity that remains on farms today can be found on the semi-subsistence farms of developing countries like India.  Even though a variety of plants and animals homestead gardens comprise a variety of plants and vegetables, although the species richness of these gardens has been considerably reduce. Nevertheless, it is heartening to note that, some awareness has now been generated to conserve biodiversity.

Change In Land-Use Pattern

Land-use change has important implications for sustainable livelihood of local communities where traditional crop livestock mixed farming is sustained with local inputs. Knowledge of recent changes in land use, driving forces and implications of changes within the context of sustainable development is limited. A study analyzed the changes in spatial patterns of agricultural land use, crop diversity, manure input, yield, soil loss and run-off from cropland, and dependence of agro-ecosystems on forests, during the 1963-1993 period in a small watershed in central Himalaya, India. Data obtained from existing maps, interpretation of satellite imagery, GIS-based land-use change analysis, participatory survey and field measurements were integrated to quantify changes at the landscape/ watershed scale. During the 1963-1993 period the same group found that, agricultural land use increased by 30% at the cost of loss of 5% of forestland. About 60% of agricultural expansion occurred in community forests compared to 35% in protected forests and 5% in reserve forests. Agricultural expansion was most conspicuous at higher elevations (2600m) and on medium slopes (10 -30°).

Waste Management in Rural Indian Villages

A micro-level study was carried out in a typical south Indian village to assess the quantity and type of wastes generated and its present mode of management. This information was used to identify the appropriate technologies, which could enhance the value of the waste produced, and at the same time, improve the economic conditions of rural people. The study indicated that nearly 2364 tons of rural wastes in the form of crop residues, animal manure and human excreta are produced annually in the village with a population of 510. About 77% of the waste generated in the village was used as domestic fuel, animal fodder and organic fertilizer for crop production. The rest (23%) was left out in open fields for natural decomposition. The energy balance sheet of the village indicated that the present consumption of biomass resources was 50% less than that actually required for various domestic and agricultural applications. Anaerobic digestion of animal manure and human excreta produced in the village could yield 82% of the domestic energy required besides enriching the waste by 3-4 times as compared to conventional storage on the ground. If the traditional mud chulha (stove) were replaced by an improved chulha, each family unit could reduce its annual consumption of fuel wood.

The use of non-renewable energy in Indian villages is very low. In the agriculture it is minimal, as it is mostly based on human labor and animal power rather than oil and electricity. Cultivation in large areas is done by hoe and animal draught. The use of tractor for tilling the land is also common in some areas.  Ground water is lifted variously by human power and by animal power. The tube well and water pumps are also becoming popular in many areas. Cooking and lighting use local energy sources such as biogas, solar energy, firewood, and dung.  Part of the village’s income comes from communal energy farming with Eucalyptus and different species of Euphorbia (a succulent) and other energy crops, which enable the village to be, by a small margin, a net exporter of energy. Even the tools and utensils used in the village are produced nearby in small regional centers using small quantities of non-renewable energy.

Means of transport, used in the villages utilize animal power as well as petrol or diesel. The villages produce little surplus for export to the rest of the economy and import little from several essential items nearby from the town. Most of the villagers do not often travel long distances, (except on the inter-village exchange program) partly because they are notable to afford to travel much.

Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, said that “India is in villages”. “If villages perish, India perishes”. Therefore, village ecosystems need a closer study emphasising on the interactions between societal needs and life support systems. A village, being a typical unit of rural India, can be considered as an ecosystem taking into account its distinctive structure and function.

The term village ecosystem reflects the totality of settlement and its activities as a dynamic and organic whole. The function of a village ecosystem mainly depends on the major bio-productive systems such as agricultural lands, grasslands, forest and wetland, which together form important physical resource base. In developing countries like India, the rural sector with high population density and high level of poverty poses a serious threat to the environment. Impact of human activities on the resource base of an ecosystem sometimes leads to critical situations. Degradation of the environment is closely related to the pattern of resource use which is influenced by population level, migration pattern, market access and land use practices. Indeed, it is a bitter truth that despite having all the wealth, science and technology in our hands, our society can never escape its dependence, direct or indirect, on the earth’s natural resources, and it is particularly true for Indian villages.

The author is a member of ISEB and a scientist at Eco-education Division of National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow.

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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