A few days ago, I was watching a debate on television on the IIT admission issue. One of the Professors from IIT Mumbai was lamenting that most of his students in the metallurgy department did not end up doing what they were trained for. Most of them ended up in dull software related jobs. His explanation was that software jobs paid 3 to 4 times more than what a job in metallurgy would pay. To a lay observer like me, it was puzzling that we invest so much time and energy on the best brains in our country, only to train them for jobs unconnected with what they have formally learnt. It is also sad that the decision-making amongst the Indian Youth seems to be driven more by financial considerations than anything else. While money plays an important role in our lives, the fact that it has become the key and only determinant of how we decide to spend our lives is something that all of us need to be concerned about. One cannot place the responsibility of this on our young people alone, and need to ask ourselves what kind of role models do we have today to emulate a lifestyle that is different from that of the vast majority. We also need to understand the various societal dynamics at play and explore whether any other pragmatic alternative exists to this crass consumerism that we see.
As I sat thinking about this, I remembered what Kempaiah, the elderly and wise Kadukuruba Yajamana had told me many years ago. It was during one of those wonderful and relaxed evenings, and both of us were generally talking about the lifestyle of the indigenous tribals and how modern pressures were affecting them. He started to tell me about how agriculture operations were undertaken by them. Tribals had always lived as a community and individual ownership was non-existent. Land was delineated not by boundaries fixed by the Government’s revenue department, but by the Yajamana and was collectively owned by the entire clan. Within this larger holding, each family would be assigned to cultivate a smaller portion. The Yajamana was all-powerful who always used his power wisely and without fear or favour. He would be the person who would decide which tribal farmer would grow what on the land allotted to him within the commune. This was done in a ritualistic manner with the Yajamana distributing seeds just after the pre-monsoon showers. Spirits would be called and everyone would be reassured about the forthcoming monsoons by them. Based on the directions given by the spirits, the Yajamana would declare that the agriculture operations could commence. He would then distribute different seeds to different families. If one got ragi seeds, another would get pulses and another would get coarse paddy, one family would get vegetables and someone else castor. Everything would depend on the Yajamana’s assessment of the requirements of his clan. He would make a fair estimate of the yearly requirements of the entire colony and then based on this, distribute the seeds. Everything was decided on a need based criteria. Kempaiah went on to explain that the particular crop the family would grow would also be decided on what was grown by the family the previous year. If they grew ragi the previous year, the chances were that they would get to grow some leguminous pulse this year. Apart from ensuring that the fertility of the soil remained good, it also provided for each farmer and his family to learn about how to grow different crops. This ensured that knowledge was not owned and controlled by any one person or family. Over years, expertise was acquired by the entire community and no one person would end up being indispensable to the overall social and economic fabric of the community. Power and information would also be symmetrically shared and all this contributed to the peace and harmony within the community.
Once the crops were grown and ready for harvest, yet another ritual would be held and the spirits thanked for ensuring that everything went on well. The Yajamana would then distribute the produce equitably amongst his tribe members. Small families got lesser share, while larger ones got more. Everything was based again on actual need and consumption and not on the labour or other inputs put in by any one individual family. All grains left over after the distribution process was complete would be reserved for community consumption. Families with old people, community functions and other such events would be the reason for this grain to be used. Some amount would also be set aside as seeds for the forthcoming year and would be kept with the Yajamana for safekeeping. In this society, there was no orphan left uncared for, no old person left unattended and no unhealthy competition to prove that one was better and richer than the other. Storing of grains was always with the intent of personal consumption and not for trade or other commercial application. This process also involved letting some land fallow and uncultivated and some land being allowed as grazing ground for the cattle. Every small detail would be thought of by the Yajamana and the system worked without any major hitch. There was such a deep recognition of reciprocity and interdependence amongst human beings.
These societies understood that moving forward could only happen if all joined hands and worked together. This is the sustainable development that all of us need to learn from our wiser indigenous brothers. The world recently spent millions of dollars for leaders from across the globe to come together at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil at the Sustainability Summit (Rio+20) to discuss ways and means to figure this simple secret which was a way of life for tribals for thousands of years. Instead of learning from them, ignorant and insensitive Governments including India have ensured that tribals are acculturated with ideas of individual ownership and market economies and have contributed to the dismantling and destruction of these age-old and time-tested practices.
Just imagine a world where all professionals worked together as teams and shared their success and profits equitably. Then we would not have a situation wherein a software engineer or a doctor earned 5-10 times more than their less fortunate counterparts. We would have a society where each profession would be valued and recognized for the contributions made rather than for what they are commercially worth. We would have a Just and Egalitarian system driven by principles of equity, equality, fairness and transparency. We would then not need to worry about being policed or compete with each other to constantly demonstrate one-upmanship in the wealth we possess, or the knowledge we have, or look to these empty status symbols to affirm our own identities. This not only sounds idealistic and unworkable in today’s world which is getting rapidly globalized & privatized and where market economies sustain on consumerism and commercialization. I know that this sounds very utopian and unattainable today, but then let us not forget that indigenous societies functioned on these very same principles and managed to survive thousands of years. All that we need is the humility to learn from them and the courage to change and live by these values. This can happen if we move away from ‘greed based’ to ‘need based’ societies in line with the Mahatma’s vision.