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A poverty of self-knowledge: What Uttarakhand reveals about us

India, know thyself. It's the core and urgent message of Pratap Bhanu Mehta's brilliant op-ed in the Indian Express which zooms in on the unacknowledged root of our present-day ills. It's not lack of governance, development per se, or even corruption. These failings and failures have remained intractable -- and grown more so -- because of a poverty of self knowledge. [The must-read essay is available here]

"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," writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

We are unable to speak or think about our nation, our politics or our problems in constructive, creative and imaginative ways. And nowhere is this more apparent, according to Mehta, than in the debate over the tradeoff between development and the environment. The arguments are cyclical and stale, reaching no meaningful resolution, because of a blinkered set of assumptions:

The first was that growth itself will solve environmental problems… 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. The third is our inability to mobilise authoritative knowledge… within the formal scientific establishment, we have not been able to create structures of authority and adjudication that can convincingly project a scientific consensus…

Finally, forms of indigenous self-knowledge and local expertise in these matters have been completely sidelined. The one unfortunate consequence of the development versus environment debate has been that even the knowledge environmentalists have has been sidelined... Our tragedy is that we are misaligned with what we already know.

A result of not planning adequately or not listening enough? Reuters

A result of not planning adequately or not listening enough? Reuters

While Mehta doesn't offer specific examples, the debate over the Uttarakhand tragedy has all the hallmarks of this blinkered mindset. Armchair experts bitterly argue in the media over whether this was a "man-made" or "natural" disaster, driven by ideology than knowledge. There is no apolitical scientific consensus that can intervene to offer definitive answers -- not to prove any one side right but so that we can know as a nation what went wrong. Nor is there any acknowledgement that local Uttarakhandis are not just victims to be rehabilitated, but also experts to be consulted on the correct path toward reconstruction.

Mehta goes on to pinpoint the ways in which the larger discourse around development has grown ever narrower, shrinking to shallow cost-benefit analysis and fear mongering over growth rates.  "There is now a rank instrumentalism about almost everything, where narrow conceptions of gain immobilise larger questions of value, as if they were relics from the past," Mehta writes.

Hence, Uttarakhand CM Bahuguna will tout the tourist money gained by developing resorts while dismissing the value of forests or rivers.

A second narrowing occurs when we reduce development to "projects" without ever looking at how they fit into the socio-economic context within which they are executed and function. The result is a discourse of development that seems untethered from reality: "It just boggles the mind that we think we can have good health outcomes or nutritional gains without systems that produce good air or water."

In the end, Mehta turns the focus back on us and the heated, empty partisanship that dominates our conversations about politics. We are no less implicated in the impoverishment of the national discourse: "It is not clear what is worse: the fact that politicians squabble over so many irrelevant issues or that we spend so much time squabbling over their squabbling."

Above are just the highlights of a far denser and extended essay.  Mehta's language is often opaque but his points deserve careful reading and self-reflection. You can read "Overtaken by Uttarakhand" on the Indian Express website.

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