Mahesh Rangarajan on Asia at the Crossroads: Day 2 Biodiversity Asia 2012

Reported by Hita Unnikrishnan, ATREE PhD student

An eminent historian, a renowned writer, an excellent orator and the Director of the Delhi Memorial Museum and Library – these myriad facets are but a small part of the many hats donned by the plenary speaker Mahesh Rangarajan who spoke at the SCB Asia Conference on 08/08/2012. He spoke on Asia at the Crossroads: Nature, Nation and Science in times of change. The focal point of the talk was the epochal and transformative changes that Asia has seen between the period of its almost complete colonization and modern times. Asia is unique in the fact that it has gone on to have forged ahead with technologies that were specific to the West namely economic growth and intellectual advancement. Citing the rapid expansion of Asian countries such as Japan and China and recognizing the importance of India in the scenario, the author stressed that Asia is regaining the space occupied pre colonization; largely due to its leaders. India is placed uniquely as a bridge not only between different cultures but also by virtue of its physical and geographical characteristics. Asian countries are unique in that while there is a clash of civilizations, there is also a strong conference between them, a conference that is exemplified by the numerous examples of animal trades and animal gifts that have gone on for as late as post Indian independence when the elephant ‘Indu’ became a symbol of friendship between India and war torn Japan. He stressed on the notions of nation state that is characteristic of modern times is deeply connected to our notions of nature and the human dimensions we impart to it. The notion of nation state is relatively new concepts as prior to the emergence of the modern economy, the fluidity of contact with nations have been essential across history. Indeed for as long as the 18th century, a significant number of horses in India were imports from the West.

One of the significant changes brought post the colonial era is the feeling that political freedom was attained at a great cost and that the only way to defend it was through economic growth. And economic growth was brought about through the conquest of nature in the form of big dams, and such large scale projects. Post 1960s, however critiques of this arose, first from the point of view of human welfare and later on, in the form of environmentalism; environmentalism which came to be sharply demarcated into environmentalism of the poor and the rich.

The speaker emphasized that Nature is important in the iconography of the nation state. Transforming animals to symbols not just to the state and charismatic animals but also the landscape, a celebration of rivers in India as a notion of identity, transferring values to human society to nature(bravery, charm, love); any notion of nature has something to do with how human it is. Identities that relate to the conquest of nature and even malevolent identifications are given to nature. What then emerges is that the importance of the human in nature is very important in our notions of conservation. However this element of the ‘human’ in nature also serves as a tool for disempowerment through the exclusion of people from that nature as has been evidenced by the numerous examples of swidden agriculturists and pastoralists of the world who have been considered unproductive by the new regimes.

In this context, the speaker left us with two important concepts that hang in the air like a strong chord and are very important in today’s world:

  • How have societies and landscapes with a very long history remained livable over centuries and millennia?
  • However useful the past is, it cannot help the present, as the present has no precedent. Recent and older pasts of other countries have to be taken and understood in such a way as to craft a solution

And that is where Asia is at the crossroads. Will it merge science and the nation state?