Education for Sustainability

The ‘Chai’ growth and the path towards sustainable industrialism

“Only when the last tree has died
and the last river has been poisoned
and the last fish has been caught
will we realize
we cannot eat money”


A recent article on the prospects of organic tea cultivation in Assam in recent years caught my attention. It is pertinent to argue against the  onslaught of  conventional modes of  Industrial Tea cultivation  and manufacturing in Assam and its accompanying scourges of soil toxicity, loss of bio diversity, saturation of chemical inputs in tea plantations that not only degrade  environment , soil, water bodies but also human health and quality of life.

Historically, the first Tea Company was formed in 1839, and from 1856 to 1859 several tea companies and private Tea gardens were in existence. The wastelands rule 1838 came into being to attract planters for rapid expansion of Tea Plantation in Assam, and successfully encroached the wastelands in Assam for cultivation of Tea.  It is well known that such measures  led to wide spread de-peasantization and dispossession of local farmers and affected  the agrarian economy in drastic ways. According to Tea Board of India Statistics 2015, total production in the country from January to June this year was 665.25 mkg,  with Assam alone producing around 162.55 mkg .  Highly industrialized, tea manufacturing in Assam is an example of how industrial capitalism evolved out of colonial capitalism and survived amidst pre-capitalist economic formations of indigenous communities. After Independence the tea industry, in its new avatar,  embodied ‘modern rationalization of formal institutions’ to its very essence. Not only did it strive for high profit making, it  optimized its carbon footprint quite unflinchingly  resorting to manufacturing that was  energy and waste intensive. However  quite ironically it also upheld  ideals  of the  growing popularity of welfare state , and partnered the Nation state  in supporting a huge labour force through welfare schemes. Early capitalism often displayed this paradox, because of  its affiliation to the  conceptual polarity between nature and community.

That now, there is a parallel voice emerging to question the sanity of this tested path, is an indicator of a paradigm shift in the popular understanding of growth and prosperity. This also warrants a serious thought about alternatives, choices that are to be made based on desirability, achievability and  replace- ability. Desirability  based on the capacity to provide solutions to the emerging challenges; achievability  based on whether it can be achieved in the time frame permissible to meet the challenge; and replace- ability based on  posibility to replace the existing value based need.

The question here is, if unlimited growth of economy through large scale industrial capitalism  founded on formal rationalization of knowledge systems is inevitable and beneficial for humanity, how can we explain the existence and sustenance of communities that are limited in every aspect of  growth, consumption,  scale of operation and implementation.  The indigenous wisdom guiding the social formation and community life realized long back that one cannot sustain  a linear system of growth given the conditions of finitude of our resources. Their traditional world view of resource allocation, redistribution, consumption  and depletion is thus dominantly cyclical  focusing on limit, balance, low impact and waste, recycling in a close loop.

That industries are now trying to integrate this structure formally in the manufacturing DNA indicates that this does not come naturally or inherently to formal modern organizations. This transition will have to be a deliberate replacement of modern linear manufacturing world view  as “take–make –waste” with a  production structure in a close loop that ensures re consumption of the manufactured product back into the system after the expiry of its usage. All components of manufacturing  ie  resource, energy ,  waste and impact in this new paradigm shift will have to assume a more responsible and self evaluating approach that can ensure  limit, balance, impact and recycling in a close loop. In case of waste disposal this can be done in two ways, either as a second level resource input or as a diversified secondary product for another independent production system. Organic farming initiatives and sustainable tea manufacturing are some such production systems. Organic farming creates a holistic self supporting ecosystem in the farm and tea wastes can be used for vermicompost   as fertilizers or biogas as a renewable source of energy.

Role of Traditional Knowledge in redefining Industrial Manufacturing

Indigenous and Traditional knowledge (IK &TK) is an inextricable part of our global legacy, an invaluable resource that ensures a just allocation and balance of natural capital and social assets. It is  local knowledge – knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society and  forms the  basis for local-level decision making in agriculture, health care, food preparation, education, natural-resource management, disaster management and a host of other activities in rural communities. Given its foundational proximity to localism and limited impact, this form of knowledge  appears informal, and small scale. However the most significant contribution that IK makes is to ensure that a holistic planetary balance maybe maintained through connections of local global exchange of values. This simply means that when limits are posed at  local level through a paradigm of responsible resource  utilization, equity, environmental sustainability, we may be able to ward off the combined impact of unsustainable practices at a global scale. Given its experiential nature, augmentation and enhancement of IK and TK with capacity building  through modern tools and strategies of mainstream  technology, business, scientific temperament and critical thinking can help evolve a powerful system for local development and welfare state emphasizing adaptability, inclusion, innovation. Particularly for emerging economies at a time when emulating choices made by developed economies is no more sustainable, options of ‘leap frogging’ are being propounded as a path for new age growth. It is now increasingly believed that  areas of the world  that have a poor economic base  can move forward without going through the intermediary steps of developed technologies  and  devise its own locally  adaptable tools, models and ideas to build their society. A number of these formalized locally adaptable technologies for energy, health care, disaster management, agriculture have their foundations in informal knowledge systems that are inherited legacies of local communities.

Indigenous communities in rural periphery have assets, resources and capital that need nurturing by enhancing the local know-how with stepped up research and outside technical advice, in order to increase their efficiency and effectiveness so that it can provide solutions that are immediate, sustainable and inclusive say for example to increase land’s productivity, address health condition, disaster management a and sustain critical ecosystem. People in such communities   have indigenous knowledge that has guided them to conserve scarce natural resources and survive in hostile environments by getting the incentives and keeping the balance right.

In Assam in the year 2006-7, in an experiment undertaken by Dhekiajuli Tea Estate owned by Parry Agro a Corporate conglomerate tried to implement  Traditional Knowledge pertaining to production techniques in Cultivation /manufacturing of Tea. The initiative was taken by the local management primarily to address the hazardous impact of toxicity in the local environment, soil and water quality. Most importantly  health impact on the resident labour population made the management sit up when they found a significant rise in the number of lung diseases ,skin infection and   birth deformity among the labor. I first visited the tea garden in 2007 to conduct fieldwork  with my students from IIT Guwahati  registered for my course Concepts and ideologies in social life where sustainability and sustainable development as a conceptual paradigm from sociological perspective was explored . The experience for us was positive and the optimism of the management and workers  was contagious and  motivating for the young technocrats of future India. The management was committed to a market driven competitive industrial manufacturing process but steered their motivation with a parallel experiment of vermicompost, agnihotri yajna, Panchgavya or cowpathy, Amrit pani or fermented cowdung  which generates about 250 kinds of beneficial bacteria and other localized and organic pest control and fertiliser techniques to promote sustainable industrial growth with  low chemical impact. Sources of Indigenous knowledge  such as Vrikshayurveda was systematically explored to unearth traditional organic practices in farming and agriculture.  The cultural worldview of environmental sustainability embedded in our traditional knowledge about agricultural practices and farming is elaborate in its glorification of trees and tree planting. Every topic  connected with the science of plant life such as procuring, preserving, and treating of seeds before planting; preparing pits for planting saplings; selection of soil; method of watering; nourishments and fertilizers; plant diseases and plant protection from internal and external diseases; layout of a garden; agricultural and horticultural wonders; groundwater resources; etc finds a place in these texts.

The management however abandoned the grand project as  an unfulfilled legacy that succumbed to the more powerful forces driving our unsustainble existence. Inspite of significant progress made towards the environment and labour health and quality of natural capital like, land, water and soil which started reflecting  low toxin and chemical content that is disastrous  and highly pollutant, the Company had to abandon this experiment eventually by 2014. Apparently the  embedded externalized costs of low health condition, environmental degradation and toxic waste generation  are seldom built into the company balance sheet of profit making. As a result the transition towards the new paradigm of sustainable industrialization of tea manufacture was  seen as a failure in terms of production cost and output.