Shri S Gurumurthy highlights the Importance of India’s Traditional Practices for Conservation and Sustainability at a NITI Aayog Event
Heena Samant, Research Associate, VIF

On 9th October, 2023, NITI Aayog organized its eleventh NITI In-House lecture at NDMC Convention Centre, New Delhi. Shri S Gurumurthy, Chairman, Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), was invited to deliver the keynote address on “India’s Tradition of Conservation & Sustainability”. The event was attended by several senior government officials, academicians and student communities.

Shri Gurumurthy began his speech by emphasizing the importance of sustainability and conservation in the 21st century. He said that these are complex issues that require original thinking. He regretted that the current education system in India is unable to produce original thinkers such as Shri Aurobindo or Swami Vivekananda. Many of the things that are taught Indian academic institutions, are devoid of deeper understanding and relevance. With an anecdote from the life of Shri Aurobindo, Shri Gurumurthy explained the importance of unlearning the present ways and start thinking afresh. While the task may appear daunting, he suggested that this original thinking will stem from our civilizational values. He highlighted four key areas that needs our focus:

  • Social Capital;
  • Respect and reverence for nature;
  • Rejection of one-side fit all model; and
  • Bharatiya approach for development.

Furthermore, he stated five most prevalent geopolitical assumptions. Those are as follows:

  1. The post-World War II order and the post-Cold War world order is in a state of crisis.
  2. There is no alternative world order.
  3. Diffusion of power is taking place at an extremely rapid pace at the global level.
  4. The world is going towards an unchartered territory.
  5. There is no linear movement in the world today.

In order to address the challenges of 21st century, he suggested five principles which are:

  1. Original thoughts need to be triggered in order for development to take place- Unless we shared some of our existing knowledge, we will not be able to learn new things.
  2. Most obvious is most difficult to detect- most of us are not aware of the obvious facts and unless we know these facts we will not be able to comprehend the current realities of the world.
  3. Over - specialization has its own merits. However, it has shrinked our capacity to look at things from a macro perspective.
  4. It is important to decontextualize from the ongoing narratives, and step back to have a clearer picture of current events.
India’s traditional way of life can save the world

According to Shri Gurumurthy, India’s G20 theme of “One Earth, One Family, One Future” was not just a motto that was used to get attention for this event but a living philosophy. This philosophy has its roots in our history and civilization. He further added that this philosophy is backed by facts. For him, the answer to world’s challenges towards sustainability and preservation lies in Indian ethos. Shri Gurumurthy elaborated his argument with some of the facts as below:

Food Habits

Concerning the availability of per capita agricultural land, the current global average is 0.63 hectare per head, 1.27 hectare per head in the United States, 0.43 hectare in China, and only 0.13 hectare in India. This is a stark contrast where a country with a population of 1.4 billion people has only 0.13 hectare of agricultural land per head and requires a deep understanding. According to Shri Gurumurthy, the answer lies in the food habits as food is taken on the basis of the traditional culinary formula. If the world adapts American food habits, we will need 40% more agricultural land than the world has today. On the other hand, if the world adopts Indian food habits, we will need only 40% of the agricultural land we are using now. He expressed his optimism saying that if this shift actually takes place, then the net-zero targets will be achieved with surplus. It is estimated that two-thirds of Indians are meat eaters and rest is vegetarian. Meat, however, is not India’s main food; its main food is cereals and meat is a side dish. It is the reverse in the West. India’s per capita meat consumption today is 3.1 kg per head while it is 109 kg in America, and 84 kg per head in European Union. He exclaimed that it is the most environmentally damaging food habit while India has the most environmentally friendly food habits. As a matter of fact, India’s meat consumption which was 5.2 kg per head has come down to 3.1 kg per head. This represents a massive 30% reduction.

Another example of India’s functioning environment friendly compatible model is that we are comfortable with every living creation in the world. The cattle population in India is 300 million, it is 257 million in Brazil, 95 million in China, 94 million in the U.S., and 89 million in the European Union. This shows India’s way of living where Indians live in harmonious way with its large number of cattles. According to him. it is possible because Indians don’t treat cattle only as an edible proposition, but it is our friend, it is part of our agriculture, and it is worshipped. He gave the example of 1962-1971, when despite having a dearth of food in India, no animals were killed. Through this example, he illustrated Indian value that if “one is kind to animals; one cannot be unkind to humans.”

Living Habits

In the U.S. in the year 1960, the average person residing in a house was 3.31. In the last sixty years, it has come down to merely 2.51. To adjust to this drastic change, the US constructed additional 31 million houses, causing huge environmental damage. India on the other hand has 4.9 persons per family as spare households today, which is a slight reduction from 5.2 persons in 1951. Additionally, India is the highest home-owning population in the world with 85% people having houses. If 4.9 persons per family comes down to 3.9 persons, then India would need 51 million more houses. If it further comes down to 2.51 persons, India will need 130 million more houses. It proves how Indian model of relation-based society is environmentally compatible.

Some of the lifestyle choices that India has successfully preserved through centuries are:

  • Respect for nature;
  • Respect for parents; and
  • Respect for women

Finally, India’s functioning model of society is duty-based. In India, people don’t stay together because of any contract, rather by choice. And, according to him, women of India deserve the entire credit for keeping the family together. India’s lifestyle and food habits are already environment-friendly. Going forward, India needs to build on these practices, based on its traditional values and supported by scientific facts.

The talk then concluded with a short question and answer session. A pertinent question was asked “where and how can one begin to start thinking originally”? To this Shri Gurumurthy answered that it was time that the people of India de-linked their present way of thinking and start getting new ideas. This can happen only if we start introspecting ourselves. He further suggested that morality should be promoted in economic, social, and environmental discourse.

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