October 22, 2017

Can prosperity be brought to Fatehpur?

Article by Edward Goldsmith published in the Ecologist Quarterly No. 2, summer 1978.


The Fatehpur area is situated 80 kilometres from Dumka in Bihar, the poorest state in India. A westerner would be struck first of all by the incredible material poverty of its people. Their average per capita income for 1972-3 was approximately 145 rupees per annum, which at the current rate of exchange is the equivalent of £9. Eighty-six percent of this income is spent on food which leaves £1.26 for everything else.

Not surprisingly they live in mud huts which are one-roomed and windowless. Not surprisingly too, they possess very few material goods: a few rags, a brass utensil or two and a few vessels made out of hollowed-out gourds. On average there is only one bicycle per village and only four of the 13 villages possessed transistor radios in 1975.

If one considers poverty in the light of man’s total experience on this planet, then this is not in itself particularly shocking. As I have frequently pointed out there is no reason to suppose that man has any real material needs. For something like 95 per cent of his tenancy of this planet, he lived with practically no material goods of any kind.

The Indians of the North West coast of North America also had very few material possessions. In spite of this, before the coming of the white man, they were, extremely prosperous, for they had at their disposal the incomparable wealth of a rich and unspoilt natural environment. The forests teemed with wild game: fruit, berries and roots were there for the gathering, and we are told that they could walk across the rivers on the backs of salmon.

It was only once they were deprived of this ‘ecological capital’, once their rivers had been polluted and their forests cut down, that they required economic capital to buy the food they could no longer obtain free, and otherwise to take part in a way of life which centred more and more around the possession of material goods. In other words ‘economic capital’ was required to compensate for the loss of ‘ecological capital’.

Now let us return to the people of Fatehpur. There are 4,116 of them, (1976) and they live on 4,973 acres. That is a population density of almost one person to the acre which is about the same as in England, but there is an important difference. Their land is very much poorer than ours, in fact it is practically a desert. Let us read Kapila’s description of it:

“The soil is red, sandy and stony with very little top soil that does not retain water. In many places, the under-lying hidden igneous rock projects through the surface as outcroppings. There is little standing water, the few monsoon-fed ponds and streams drying out completely in the dry season.”

Indeed, already much of their land, roughly 2,153 acres, have become barren or built up and what is left also appears to be losing what remains of its fertility; so much so that their productivity is, in Western terms, pathetic. The per capita production of cereals (maize and paddy) is apparently no more than 65 kilos per head. Since the cultivated area is 2,205 acres, which means half an acre of land per head, one must take it that production per acre is no more than 140 kilogrammes, which is approximately 15 times less than one would expect in the UK.

Why, we might ask, are yields so poor? Undoubtedly our agricultural experts would tell us that the inhabitants of Fatehpur do not use enough chemicals. This is of course, nonsense. The agricultural literature of the 18th and 19th century, together with the experience of organic farmers today, shows that high yields can be obtained without agricultural chemicals. The reason, as I have already pointed out, is ecological disruption, more precisely soil-deterioration. Why then has this occurred? The main cause is deforestation. As Kapila writes

“it is because of indiscriminate tree felling without replacement planting, that the area has been reduced to a dust bowl.”

It must be pointed out that we in the UK have done precisely the same thing, and appear to have got away with it. The reason is that the soil in the arid tropics has a very low organic content and is thereby very vulnerable to erosion. Also the rains come all at once during the monsoon carrying away the soil with them, rather than being spread out much more evenly as they are in temperate areas.

Another reason is that, because of the firewood shortage, cow-dung tends to be burned as fuel rather than being returned to the land where it belongs.

The ecological disruption in Fatehpur has not only meant that its inhabitants are chronically underfed, but also that they suffer from a high incidence of infectious diseases. Thus, there are seasonal outbreaks of cholera, skin infections, filaria and malaria: one per cent of the population suffers from tuberculosis and 2½ percent from leprosy, (100 per cent in two settlements).

Why, one might ask, are they so vulnerable to infectious diseases? A western health expert would incriminate a shortage of medical services. This too is nonsense. An increasing number of studies reveals just how healthy are the inhabitants of tribal societies, when living in their natural habitat, by which I mean that in which they evolved phylo-genetically and culturally. In any case, the State of Bihar could not conceivably afford to furnish the people of Fatehpur with the trappings of a modern capital-intensive Health Service, any more than it could the paraphernalia of a modern agricultural system.

In reality the people of Fatehpur are unhealthy for very different reasons – ecological ones, associated with the disruption of their natural environment.

  • Once the trees are cut down in the dry tropics the water-table inevitably falls, the streams dry up and the rivers become torrents that cause floods during the monsoons and are reduced to a mere trickle during the dry season. Eventually the only source of water is the village pond which is shared by all: cows, goats, water buffaloes and people alike.
  • Also the air is always full of dust from the eroding fields, and with the dust blows the dried excrement of men and beasts.

Less hygienic conditions are hard to imagine, while at the same time the inhabitants’ vulnerability to infectious disease is increased by malnutrition, and exertion from the efforts required just to keep alive in such unpropitious conditions.

What then can be done for the people of Fatehpur? – and let us not forget that though they may be an extreme case, the plight of perhaps half the world’s population is not dissimilar. The answer that would be given by the experts is that they must ‘develop’, by which is meant introducing them into the world market-economy. Needless to say, it is difficult to conceive of a more misguided policy. Let us consider just some of the inevitable consequences.

First of all it would mean inducing them to sell what little food they have so as to buy all sorts of unnecessary manufactured goods, without which, they would be persuaded, civilised life is not conceivable: pesticides, fertilisers, and antibiotics to begin with; processed foods next, and then radios and electric toothbrushes.

Once introduced into the cash economy, they would have to buy their food rather than produce it themselves, an intolerable situation, which, as Polanyi has pointed out, is the basic cause of the worst famines that occurred in India during the British Raj. The bigger the market, the greater would be the competition for the available food. If the market were a world one, then the people of Fatehpur, with their income of £9 per annum, would have to compete for their food with the inhabitants of Los Angeles and New York, for whom such a sum is regarded as sufficient remuneration for little more than an hour’s work.

Even if development would enable them to buy their food elsewhere, it would not provide a solution, since it would simply be a means of exporting their food problems elsewhere, and as soil deterioration and desertification became generalised, as is happening today, it would be but a matter of time before there would be nowhere left on Earth to which food problems could be exported.

In reality, there is only one solution to ecological deterioration and that is ecological regeneration. If the people of Fatehpur are to survive and prosper it will only be by replanting their forests: increasing the capacity of the soil to hold the waters of the monsoons; raising the water levels; restoring their dried-up streams; transforming their torrents into rivers with an even flow; and returning organic matter to the soil so as to restore its lost fertility.

This is what eco-development should be, not the manufacture and distribution of solar collectors and windmills. These may be useful, but their main utility lies in that by using them we can reduce the impact of man ‘s activities on his natural environment a sine qua non of ecological regeneration. Soft technology, in fact, is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. The end is ecological regeneration and it is on this regeneration not on the minor comforts that soft technology can provide, that must be based the new prosperity of Fatehpur.

The question, then, is how do we start the ball rolling? How can we induce the people of Fatehpur, struggling to survive in ever less propitious conditions, to devote a great deal of their time to planting trees and maintaining them? Clearly they must be paid to do so, and if the money is to be forthcoming, part at least of the income from the mature forest in 40 or 50 years time will have to be made over to the financing agency involved.

Governments and International Agencies could help by reducing the taxes and otherwise subsidising such an enterprise. In the meantime the only really useful form of aid would be that which helped reduce the impact of the activities of the people of Fatehpur on their deteriorating environment. Somehow they must be provided with some form of energy, solar cookers perhaps, which would reduce the need for firewood and enable them to return cow-dung to the fields where it belongs.

This is the sort of plan which could be implemented via the World Community Development Service. It is the only sort of plan that could prevent the gradual extinction of the people of Fatehpur, as their remaining soil is otherwise slowly, but inexorably, transformed into dust. If it worked, it would provide a model for combating poverty that could be adopted not only in the dry tropics, but also in the temperate areas of our planet. For nearly everywhere poverty is ecological, rather than material, deprivation (unless it be social deprivation as in the slums of the Western world – but that is another matter) and it can only be combated by building up ‘ecological’ rather than ‘economic’ capital.

Perhaps Fatehpur is the place to prove it – that, in any case, is the view of Mukesh Kapila, secretary of World Community Development Service, whose Fatehpur Integrated Development Project (run jointly with Santal Pahariya Seva Mandal) is based on a tacit acceptance of the above diagnosis of the problem he is determined to solve.

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