Overtaken by Uttarakhand

Disaster exposes ways in which our social self-knowledge has not kept pace

Whatever one's views on the myth that moving the Dhari Devi idol unleashed nature's fury on Kedarnath, the story is a perfect metaphor for the faultlines the tragedy in Uttarakhand exposes. According to one version of the myth, the idol is in two parts, the head located at Dhari Devi and the base at Kalimath. For the devout, the important thing is that the head and the base need to be aligned on a particular axis, with the head and feet matching directionally. Misalignment causes chaos. Whatever the value of the myth, as a metaphor, one could not do better. Indian society, with all its changes, is fast becoming a tale of misalignment: its self-understanding and its realities pulling in different directions. The social self-knowledge, the process by which society acquires an insight into its own workings and acts on it, lags behind its material capabilities.

Of course it is important to put the Uttarakhand disaster in perspective. Natural disasters are often one-off events. They have a way of exposing the brittleness of state. Just think of the experience during Katrina, produced by a combination of planning not adapted to nature and state failure for a brief moment. For all our problems, we have been able to mount a rescue operation of heroic proportions and unprecedented scale. But there are larger questions that will go to the very heart of how our societies are constituted.

There are multiple ways in which our social self-knowledge has not kept pace. The terms in which the debate over environment and development has been carried out is unproductive beyond belief, to the point where we neither preserve the environment nor get development. How abridged our social self-knowledge has become can be gauged by this debate, where four untenable attitudes triumphed. The first was that growth itself will solve environmental problems. But even those who are votaries of growth need to recognise that a lot of eco-systems are irretrievable. The second was a wilful amnesia about what sustains India. Being presumptuous with important eco-systems like the Himalayas or Western Ghats is risking catastrophe.

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