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WORDS ARE BIOTIC

EXACTLY WHAT is lost when a language dies? Do we also lose what can be called a biotic worldview, the local knowledge and wisdom of which a language is a repository? Most linguists agree that about 6,000 languages are spoken today. Not all languages spoken in the world have been “discovered”.

The world’s languages are highly unevenly distributed. Four per cent of the 6,000 odd languages are spoken in Europe; about 15 per cent in the Americas, 31 per cent in Africa and 50 per cent in the Pacific and Asia. Just two countries put together, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, account for 25 per cent of all languages worldwide (about 1,500). India is home to about 380 languages. It’s clear that the current geographical spread of languages surviving today is skewed. But so is the number of people that speak each respective language.

There are two great belts of high density of languages. One belt runs from the West African coast through the Congo basin to East Africa, and the other runs from India and peninsular Southeast Asia into the islands of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Pacific. The seventeen major countries of these two belts (including India) contain about 60 per cent of the world’s languages and only nine per cent of the geographical land area.

Noticeably, quite a few of these countries are some of the poorest in the world.

Terralingua (a Washington – based non- governmental organisation that campaigns for linguistic rights) along with WWF carried out a cross mapping of indigenous peoples’ locations onto a map of the globally two hundred most fragile and important biological regions. WWF mapped out nearly 900 ecoregions of the world and found 238 of them to be of the utmost importance for biological diversity. These were termed the “global 200 ecoregions”. They then used the concept of “ethnolinguistic groups”, used to define a social unit that shares the same language and culture and uses the same criteria to differentiate itself from other social groups. In the mapping 4,635 distinct ethnolinguistic groups were found to inhabit 225 ecoregions, representing 67 per cent of an approximate world total of 6,867 ethnolinguistic groups.

Tropical rainforests, the world’s most biodiversity-rich areas, covering just seven per cent of the planet’s land surface, are home to at least 50 per cent, and perhaps as many as 90 per cent, of the world’s species. These ecosystems were also found to be the most culturally diverse regions, harbouring at least 1,400 distinct indigenous and traditional peoples.

Says the renowned Alaska Native Languages Centre based linguist Michael Krauss, “It is a plausible calculation that—at the rate things are going—the coming century will witness the death of 90 per cent of the human languages.” Others put it at 50 per cent. Krauss estimates that in the US and Canada 80 per cent of the native Indian languages (149 out of the 187) are no longer taught to children. Sixty languages were spoken in Canada. Now only four remain stable. But the real Armageddon is turning out to be Australia. Ninety per cent of the 250 aboriginal languages are near extinction. Daniel Nettle, co-author of the book Vanishing Voices, believes only one or two of these will survive the end of the century. Africa isn’t far behind. A recent survey has shown that virtually all African nations are affected to some degree. The survey showed 54 documented languages were extinct and another 116 were on the verge of extinction.

In India’s Living Languages, Sumi Krishnan points out that the 1961 census recorded 165 mother tongues in India, only 200 being spoken by more than 10,000 or more speakers. More than a fourth of all languages recorded had five or fewer speakers each. One third of the Kurukhs (Oraons) of central India had abandoned their language by 1979, the rate of decline being about 30 to 40 per cent every

decade; it is the same for the Gonds of central India whose language is also slowly tumbling into oblivion.

Such loss of valuable knowledge is not only the indigenous people’s loss but that of the entire humankind.

FAT CHANCE

OBESITY HAS become a worldwide concern because people in each and every nation are falling prey to it. Around one billion adults in the world are overweight and around 300 million of them are obese. Diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, gallbladder ailments, cancer, psycho-social problems, breathlessness, sleep disorders, asthma, arthritis, weak bones and reproductive hormone abnormalities are just some of the NCDs (non-communicable diseases) which are more likely to affect obese and overweight people. The governments of several developing countries like India claim that obesity and NCDs aren’t their problems. But the fact is NCDs are increasing even in developing countries. Of the

16.6 million people who died of cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) all around the world in 2001, around 80 per cent were from low- and middle-income countries. It’s feared that by 2010, CVDs would be the leading cause of death in developing counties.

There is a link between food and obesity—research has proved. The trouble is the food industry does not accept that their products are causing harm.

Struggling with NCDs, who and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) set up a study group in January 2002 to discuss the problem with health and agriculture experts. The result was TRS 916, a technical report. It says that calories from sugar should form 10 per cent of the daily diet; and high intake of energy-rich and micronutrient-poor foods, sugar-sweetened drinks and fruit juices, large portion sizes of food in restaurants and extensive marketing of such foods are some of the causes for obesity. With TRS 916 in hand, the who team started meeting other UN organisations, non – governmental organisations, consumer groups and industries in order to have a global strategy to prevent obesity. The strategy came out in November 2003, and said changing agriculture, fiscal and regulatory policies, strengthening surveillance systems and consumer education can prevent NCDs. Growing more fruits and vegetables, subsiding healthy food and educating people about food were some of the options countries can use to fight obesity, the strategy said.

These suggestions irked several countries and the food and sugar industries. They realised that what they had presumed would be a harmless health policy went much further and hurt their interests. The 192 member countries of who were first given time till January 2004 to comment on the strategy and then the deadline was extended till February 2004 because governments wanted more time to study the suggestions. A total of 68 countries including India have now sent their comments on the strategy, which will become a policy if it’s endorsed at the World Health Assembly (WHA).

The strategy’s draft, which will be presented at the WHA, was issued on April 19, 2004, but consumer groups allege that it has been diluted. They say a passage urging states to offer incentives for producing, marketing and transporting fruit, vegetables and other healthy food has been deleted and other changes have been LUUSTRATION: EMKAY made, weakening the policy.

This strategy isn’t going to become an international treaty, but big businesses however fear that if they don’t act soon the strategy will become a success like the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. who has repeatedly said that food is not tobacco and it wants to cooperate with the industries. But the industries don’t want any restriction on intake of sugar and high-energy food.

The US sugar industry is one of the most pampered and powerful in the world. Domestic sugar price in the US has remained three times that of world prices in the last decade. The US’ Sugar Act of 1934 restricts imports and ensures that the government stores excess domestic production. Americans pay US $2 billion annually in inflated sugar prices because of this policy. Using its massive profits, the sugar lobby since 1990 has donated more than US $18 million to Democrats and Republicans. Sharing the same boat with sugar is the fast food industry. Since 2000, several studies have warned the fast food business to get rid of its obese image.

Helping these two industries is the confusion and division among who’s member countries over the strategy. At the who executive board meeting of member countries on January 21, 2004, a debate on the strategy proved inconclusive. Of the 34 nations who commented on the strategy, only UK, Canada, New Zealand, Spain and South Africa accepted it. India asked for more time to study the strategy. Pakistan asked for more scientific evidence. The US wanted more focus on personal responsibility, and India and 12 other countries said they “agree with the US”.

The US government is framing a new food pyramid which will suggest to its citizens that their daily diet should have 8 per cent sugar WHO’s strategy says it should be less than 10 per cent sugar. The US says fat should form 20-35 per cent of daily diet; who says 15-30 per cent. Why won’t then the US government let who recommend similar strategies?

The reason, consumer groups allege, is that the US wants to keep its people healthy, but ensure that its industries can sell their junk food to developing nations. Developing countries is where the money is

—Coca-Cola earns over 70 per cent of its profits outside the US. The value of Coke’s brands increased from US $68.95 billion in 2001 to US $69.64 billion in 2002 because of growing sales in developing countries. By the end of 1993, one third of McDonald’s stores were overseas and accounted for half of its profits. Four out of every five new McDonald’s restaurants are now opening abroad rather than in the US. The world has lot to gain if it switches to a healthy diet.

LONG YARN

THE COTTON story is a tangled tale. The number of suicides by cotton farmers in Vidarbha has risen alarmingly this cotton season. This is not just a consequence of increasing input costs, water scarcity and the high interest charged by sahukars (moneylenders). The Maharashtra government’s decision to bring down its msp (minimum support price) by withdrawing a 20 per cent premium over the national msp it used to pay and abolishing a ₹ 500 advance bonus it used to dole out at the beginning of the season to buy seeds has played a major role.

Students of Indian agriculture are brainwashed to believe that Indian cotton is of inferior quality. They are never told that “Indian cotton” is not really Indian. It is actually American cotton used in mismatched Indian conditions. Originally the British rulers promoted this cotton in India because their machines in Lancashire were unsuitable for Indian cotton but failed.

But the agricultural establishment in independent India succeeded in what the colonial rulers failed. American cotton now constitutes 70 per cent of the cotton crop from a mere 3 per cent at the time of independence. As a result, Indian cotton farmers have to live with low levels of productivity—500 kg per hectare (ha), compared to 1,100 kg per ha that Chinese farmers get from their indigenous Chinese variety. This low productivity, coupled with rising input costs, force many farmers to take their own lives.

As the cotton growers’ profitability goes down, the textile and garment industry throw up a few new millionaires every year, at the cost of the farmer. The favours doled out to these industries are understandable, they are potential forex earners. The situation becomes bleaker because 20,000 US cotton farmers armed with US $4 billion in subsidy can offer raw cotton at a price that is 40 per cent lower than Indian production cost.

The cotton farmers’ problems are too complex to be solved simply by announcing more credit. Following our colonial rulers, we discarded indigenous seed to match available technology. Not much institutional work has been done to create technology that can match indigenous raw cotton. The time has come to create technology and work on seed varieties more friendly to Indian conditions. Farmers in Gujarat and Rajasthan have developed seeds that suit Indian conditions. The search for suitable local hybrids gains more importance because American cotton is a real water guzzler. A quick look at the balance of the virtual water trade through cotton, clearly shows that China and the US end up receiving more virtual water than they give. But India is a big loser of water in this regard.

Gandhi’s charkha was not a mere symbol for swadeshi. It took care of local cotton varieties, provided more decentralised employment possibilities, and above all good quality of cotton. We may have deviated far away PHOTOGRAPH: RANJIT DESHMUKH / CSE from the spirit of swadeshi.

VANISHING ISLANDS

FOR THE past 15 years or so, Rabindranath Das has been watching the ground slip away from beneath his feet. Back in the 1990s, his family had about 3.5 hectares (ha) of paddy fields along Ghoramara island’s north western shores. But every year, especially during the monsoons, the Hooghly’s strong undercurrents would erode a bit more of the riverbank’s slopes, triggering sudden collapses of large sections of the bank. Every year, either the river or advancing embankments would swallow a fresh swathe of his family’s land. Now, less than a quarter of a hectare and the thatched mud house they live in, remain. “Next monsoon, when they build the boundary wall around the island afresh, we will probably lose the last bit of our land. It will fall outside the embanked area. Like most of the people here, we too will become bhumiheen (landless),” Das says.

Researchers at Jadavpur University’s School of Oceanographic Studies (jusos) in Kolkata say Ghoramara has been reduced in size by 41 per cent since 1969, displacing 7,000 islanders over the past 30 years. They predict the 3 km by 3 km piece of land that still offers shelter and sustenance to some 5,400 largely marginal farmers, fishermen and daily labourers, might not last beyond 2020. In fact, they say in another 15 years the sea will lay claim to a dozen islands in the Sunderbans, six of which are populated, rendering about 70,000 people homeless.

The 54 inhabited islands have no forest cover left. However, about 10,000 sq km of the Sunderbans are still covered by swampy mangrove forests (40 per cent of these lie in India and the rest in Bangladesh), much of which vanish under water for several hours a day during high tide. These dense, almost impenetrable estuarine forests have an amazing biodiversity. The Sunderbans, however, is best known for being the largest remaining natural habitat of the Royal Bengal tiger.

In the past 20 years, the sea has claimed two islands, Lohachara and Suparibhanga, the latter uninhabited. If scientists can be believed, Ghoramara and Sagar are following suit.

An annual 3.14 mm rise in sea level due to climate change is partly responsible for eating away these islands on the southern fringes of the Sunderbans. The higher than average rise in sea level (which is about 2.0 mm annually worldwide) is because of land subsidence (the caving in or sinking of an area of land through tidal erosion) which is typical of deltaic regions.

Refugees from Lohachara and the lost bits of Ghoramara currently add up to over 6,000. The local government, namely the Sagar block administration, has, since the 1980s, been resettling them on vested state land in Sagar, the largest island in the Sunderbans. In the remaining 18 blocks of the Sunderbans, refugees haven’t yet become a pressing problem.

That islands are losing landmass and creating thousands of environmental refugees is not really breaking news. It’s been happening for years now. Yet, the state has no such thing as a disaster management plan for the Sunderbans. All measures to rehabilitate environmental refugees so far have been ad hoc. This negligence stems from the perception among most state leaders and officials that the Sunderbans is a natural environment that people have infringed upon in the first place, says anthropologist Amites Mukhopadhyay. “Because this place has been assigned to tigers and crocodiles, people and their claims are somewhat secondary here,” says Mukhopadhyay, who has spent five years researching the impact erosion of bunds and embankments is having on the people of the Sunderbans. “If you simply go through the budget speeches of the state assembly you find a lot of importance being given to land erosion by the Ganga in Malda and rehabilitation of people there, but little mention is made of the same problem in PHOTOGRAPH: IAN UMEDA the Sunderbans.”

eDRIVEN

SUDDENLY, E-VEHICLES have trudged up the popularity chart and become part of the business model of major automakers— both local and global. Some of them have finally looked beyond the conventional internal combustion engines and to a completely new genre of technology.

The biggest explosion is expected in the two-wheeler segment. Around 1,30,000 electric two wheelers were sold in 2007-08. Bulk of these are low-powered and low-speed electric two wheelers. Another 110,000 electric two wheelers were sold last year.

Globally though, hybrids might enter markets sooner and more easily than e-vehicles because hybrids do not require new refuelling infrastructure.

Toyota was the first company to introduce hybrid vehicles in 1997. Its hybrid Prius drew crowds at the expo. The third generation of Prius was recently launched in India. Mahindra & Mahindra and Tata Motors have shown interest in developing hybrids. Hybrids, however, increase cost, weight and complexity. Experts say hybridisation makes sense in bigger vehicles due to fuel economy benefits.

The bus industry too has innovated to make hybrid CNG (compressed natural gas) buses. Ashok Leyland put on display Hybus—India’s first plug-in CNG hybrid bus. What is driving the e-market?

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, concerns about air pollution and more important, the OPEC oil embargo (in 1973, the 12 member nations of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries or OPEC stopped exports to the US as retaliation against the latter’s support to Israel against its war with Egypt), kindled interest in e-cars. This got further impetus in California’s Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate (adopted in 1990) that demanded 2 per cent of California’s vehicles to be zero emission by 1998 and 10 per cent by 2003. But the mandate waned due to technical and cost barriers. Sales plummeted and global carmakers such as Toyota rolled back their plans.

Concern over high oil prices and stringency in pollution and climate regulations have once again spurred new interest in e-vehicles. These are fuel efficient, as, technically the conversion of electrical energy into motive power is more efficient than burning fuel in an internal combustion engine.

Several international organisations including the International Energy Agency forecast modest growth of electrification of the vehicle market by 2020 in a conservative scenario. This could increase to a quarter of the new vehicle sales by 2050.

High prices, limited range, slow investment in technology improvement and lack of charging infrastructure have significantly slowed the commercialisation of e-vehicles.

The battery is a major chunk of the cost of e-vehicles. It costs nearly 30 per cent of an e-bike’s price. And it has to be replaced every two to three years. For an e-car, a battery costs ₹ 60,000 to ₹ 70,000.

The other advantage of an e-vehicle is there are no oil filters, air filters, spark plugs or radiators, which otherwise need maintenance. According to YObyke officials, the running cost of the e-bike is about 10 paise per km and after battery replacement about 50 paise per km. This is half the running cost of a petrol bike.

AGRARIAN BIOPSY

IT IS a crisis the country needed to experience. Agriculture as an issue had never attracted such attention. Currently, all the pillars of our governance system are engaged in dealing with the fast- spreading farmers’ protests across the country—from the legislative to the executive to the judiciary. Farmers are continuing their protests against the recently adopted farm laws.

As more and more people throng the borders of the national capital, there have been over 300 protests from across the country in support of those camping in Delhi. Agriculture is emerging as the axis of polarisation among political parties. Moreover, India never experienced such farmers’ agitations; not even during the extreme agrarian crises like the crippling droughts of the 1960s or even in the early 1990s when India joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) regime. These were just episodes of protests; governments declaring reactive policies and programmes; and, periodically waiving off farm loans. But now, the national slogan of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” is prickling the conscience of people. The farmer is emerging as the polarising figure. Among political parties, there is a subtle, but swift narrative being scripted: “Are those protesting the real farmers?” This narrative has an unusual spin as well: “rich” v “poor” farmers in the ongoing debate over farmers’ protests.

Nevertheless, farms and farmers—the theatre and the protagonist of an agrarian country—are defining the current political discourse. It is also time we raise some fundamental questions over this very existential occupation.