P.S. Ramakrishnan, with a variety of experiences as professor of Ecology At Jawaharlal Nehru University, founder Director, G. B. Pant Institute of Himalayan environment & Development, and Professor of Botany/Eco-Development, North East Hill University, is currently attached with the School of Environmental Sciences, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, as a UGC Emeritus Professor, As an internationally renowned ecologist working in the inter phase are of linking ecological and social processes, he directs his researches towards sustainable management of biodiversity and natural resources, with concerns for sustainable livelihood/development of traditional societies. For this work, involving about 400 research publications and 17 research volumes in this area of study, he has received much national and international recognition, including fellowships of learned academies in India and the Third World Academy of Sciences, and the Honorary Fellowship of the International Association of Tropical Biology (ATB), based in USA.
V. K. Why the scholarships and academic research on the hills and mountain areas are going down?
P. S. R. : By and large the standard of research and scholarship in most of the institutions of the country is going down except for a few exceptions. It is a matter of serious concern. State like Chattisgargh has had few hundred universities though they are being closed down through a supreme court order! Most of these institutions are sprouting over night.
As far as mountain areas are concerned majority of the academic souls do not want to be there; they consider this a punishment posting! For those who are there they are always looking for an opportunity to escape towards plains in the country. Further the kinds of courses that are offered in the institutions of mountain areas are not different form their counterparts in the plains. Mountain have different geo-environmental settings. But hardly any institution teach relevant courses specific to the region. The courses are mostly not relevant to the local situations. There is no focus on traditional and mountain specific courses. This does not mean that we should not teach textbook knowledge which is also taught elsewhere. We have to arrive at compromises that are in the interests of the mountain people.
One specific argument in this respect is that there are no specific if textbooks on mountain issues. There is a need for such textbooks. We do need traditional subjects to be offered in mountain-based institutions. At least some location specific issues also should figure in, which is not happening at present. V.K. Why there is no emphasis in the Planning commission on hills and mountain areas through they occupy so critical positions both in terms of geo-political interest and natural resource base?
P.S. R. : The question is closely related to the above discussions we are having. When there are no experts to talk on the specific issues of mountains, they are bound to be neglected. If mountains are to be integrated fully in the development debates and discourses of Planning Commission and at other bureaucratic levels we need to highlight the specific mountain problems; generate awareness on mountain issues; promote locally relevant education; and encourage local leadership. This is the context in which we have not only tried to reach our to various stakeholders through popular articles, audio-visuals, and the recent volume “One Sun, Two Worlds: An Ecological Journey, whch is a dialogue between a villager representing ‘traditional knowledge’, and the scientist representing ‘formal knowledge’. We have to take science to society!.
Although awareness is much better than before it is still inadequate. We need to start from the kind of education system that is mountain relevant at the top- University level, gradually moving down to the school level curricula development: or may be start at all levels with whatever little w have with us! In this regard 50 percent or at least 1/3rd of the curriculum should be mountain relevant. We should- promote mountain relevant research: create mountain specific scientific materials: gradually percolate the issues to the masses; create distinct cadre of people with specific knowledge on various mountain issues. We cannot expect a teacher from Calcutta or Chennai, to tech mountain problems tot eh students in Darjeeling, or in other mountain situations.
Ø Awareness should start at the highest level of education system. Once the knowledge is created we need to create critical masses of population who will change things at lower levels. The way is to encourage vigorous “reach out programmes”
Ø We have to work with the local community. Knowledge cannot be built inside the laboratory, alone. Knowledge about the specific issues needs to be gathered by interacting with the local people.
Ø The collected “traditional knowledge” is not always valid. We need to scientifically validate them using appropriate scientific tools.
Ø The scientifically validated knowledge can then be passed to the Planning Commission and other relevant authorities in the government.
V.K. Himalayas have often been identified as one of the global bio-diversity hotpots with a very strong base of traditional knowledge. However, governments across the region have been unable to exploit the bio-wealth in an optimum way. Further, we have failed to identify, and document the rich traditional knowledge across the region have been unable to exploit the bio-wealth in an optimum way. Further, we have failed to identify, and document the rich traditional knowledge across both space and time, let alone talk about absorbing such knowledge into the ‘formal’ knowledge system. Where have we gone wrong and what are your suggestions in this connection?
P.S. R. : A very difficult question to answer. Not many people want to venture into the ‘unknown’. Trying to decipher ‘traditional knowledge’ and link it with the ‘formal’ knowledge system is a difficult task, whilst scientists often look for ‘quick fixes’. Every body wants quick results. Unknown has risk associated with it and many people (researchers) are now tilling to face it. People keep on working based on the available text-book knowledge. What they need are quick research publications and short cuts for success. The moment they get opportunity they move down form the hills.
We needs to create a local cadre of experts with whatever knowledge base that my be available with us. We can’t expect the people format he plains to do this. It needs lot more effort. We need to work with the people. We need to go to the field.
To interact with the local people, researchers have to change their mindset. But they don’t change. We often end up doing biophysical research without involving human dimensions. This is where we have gone wrong. Mountain specific research demands integrative research linking the natural with the social sciences!
V.K. Glacieal retreat in the Himalayas and its subsequent impact on the ecology, environment and livelihood, in and around the region, I another burning theme that has been gaining importance in the debates and discussions. Some have criticized the concept and lamented such environmental scare mongering has become a common pastime these days. What is your stand in this respect?
P.S.R. : Every one now believes that there is ‘global warming’. There is no denial of the fact that we have destroyed mountain ecology. Healthy ecosystems act as buffer to cope up with rapid and unpredictable changes in the environment. We have destroyed this buffer because of our greed and vested interests. Mountain people also have colluded in this game play, and have made the difficult to resists, and if the people are poor it is even more so! People in the mountains have been made victims of corruption. The large-scale destruction of natural resources has had its impact. In our mountains most of the good forests have been cleared. In my own experience Nainital and Mussoorie are not the same now, as they used to be in the past. Whatever is left need to be rigorously conserved with community involvement. Major rehabilitation and restoration activity need to be encouraged. Understand the traditional knowledge and ensure community participation. But we also need formal knowledge. We need to mix both for creating hybrid technologies that will ensure conservation linked with sustainable livelihood/development of local communities, with their participation!
V.K. The recently passed Patents (Amendment) Bill is silent on the protection of traditional knowledge under the justification that plants are completely out of purview of the legislation. This means our time tested traditional knowledge is still vulnerable under IPR regime. How do you react to such recklessness of our decision makers and what are your suggestions to the policy makers in this context?
P.S.R. : Traditional knowledge has to be validated and incorporated into science. The validated knowledge has to be documented, and made known widely. CSIR has steeped into the process of doing this. I think the only way is to validate the knowledge and built database. Merely passing resolution is not going to help. Not all traditional knowledge is patentable, in the first place. In places like Sikkim and Darjeeling Nepalese Alder (utis) is a nitrogen fixer. It is a traditional knowledge available with the locals practicing cardamom farming in the region. How to patent this? Traditional knowledge is a mixed bag! The people of Darjeeling, for example, may use the traditional knowledge of Sikkim. However, if I use the same traditional knowledge of Sikkim in the plains it may not work. It is very difficult and complex. There is no one solution of rewarding the knowledge of local community. The only thing we need to focus on is promoting local knowledge, and use this knowledge first for the welfare of traditional societies living in biodiversity areas, and then worry about larger benefits to humanity as a whole! This itself is a major step.
V.K. Environmentalists and activists have been crying for quite some time now against the construction of some 168 hydel dams in the eastern Indian Himalayan regions and north eastern hills in view of the possible negative geo-environmental impact and ecological wealth of the region. Have the government of India and the respective state governments taken right step by commissioning such capitalistic development ventures in the region?
P.S.R. : The question is very complex. I don’t know what to say. I don’t say that hydel power is not important. I am also not sure whether the government is taking up the issues related to this in a way it would have been taken. Any hydel project that implies large scale uprooting of local people is bad. Hydel projects are often not accompanied by very appropriate natural ecological rehabilitation activity: even if it is done, often it is shabbily executed! It is very difficult to take a stand. Many people say small-scale projects are fine and environmentally sustainable. But sometimes even small projects can be damaging. Take for example, Rathangchu project in Sikkim. It was a small project yet culturally and environmental situations of specific geographical locations. Vigorous environmental and socio-economic-cultural analysis needs to be done, before taking conscious decisions, regarding ‘development’ in the mountains.
V.K. When GB Pant institute was set up, many people had expected it to be doing pioneering research and policy studies. However we do not find much coming out of this” What is your comment on this?
P.S.R. : when research institute comes to mountain even mountain people start thinking that big money is coming and the institution is meant only for creating jobs! That is the culture that has been evolving over a period of time! When the basic objectives of institution building get deflected, where is the hope!
The problem is there are very few people who understand the mountains. And when your promote them, locals too think you are working against hem. Further, vested interests push the locals against the interests of the institute making the institution poorer in very possible way! The good people ultimately move out. We know how to create institutions, but don’t care much to maintain them! This is the strange situation, we are passing through. The earlier discussions we have had here are al relevant in this discussion too. Many good scientists leave and go out of frustration. We have to induct good people and also know how to retain them, or else institutions start breaking down!