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An Environmental Message That Gets Lost in Translation

An Environmental Message That Gets Lost in Translation

Valley of flowers in Uttarkhand. Credit: Alosh Bennett
Valley of flowers in Uttarkhand. Credit: Alosh Bennett

A rather strange picture emerges from reading the Hindi versions of available tracts on environmental issues, copiously used by officials, social workers and the media all through the Hindi belt. The documents contain legal interpretations of internationally binding agreements on environmental protection and provide guidelines for encouraging community participation for preventing further deterioration of air, water, land and forest resources . And even though many nations speaking in multiple languages are signatories to the agreements, the documents we use in India are usually issued in English. The tacit assumption is that the relevant agency or agencies of the government will have them translated in Indian languages.

For the vast Hindi belt, before various local agencies receive these for information and speedy implementation, the text is translated in Hindi by some governmental bureau of translations with an army of designated Hindi officers. The translated versions are not only expected to cut neural routes through the deep incomprehension about environmental degradation believed to be clouding the vernacular minds, but also convince the local populations that it is they who are mostly responsible for everything from the smog to the polluted waters and shrinking forest cover in their area.

A long exposure to such a mindset has made the language used by field level workers — the school teachers, several block level officials etc. — into an awkward in-between medium of communication. They are led to believe that not their every day colloquial speech but the strange hybrid — a Sanskrit laden-Hindi used by the Hindi translators — is real the voice of lettered people and it alone can carry the weight of the profound knowledge emanating from New York or Geneva or New Delhi. Braver local agencies perhaps would have stood firm, telling those that hand out the translated reports that a vast untapped treasure of traditional environmental wisdom exists in our vernaculars . Also, not all lettered people in the Hindi belt need to be of the same class, nor do they speak a standardized Hindi . Hindi even within one Hindi speaking state like Bihar may be heavily inflected with local dialects and may contain countless terms to describe the natural flora and fauna. But out of cowardice or an eagerness to please, the field workers and their leaders usually just accept the strange Sarkari jargon and swap it for their normal voice. This is happening from Uttarakhand to Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Bihar, Haryana or Uttar Pradesh, wherever environmental protection advocacy work has been going on. One minute you may be sipping tea with the workers and talking normally, the next, as they address the illiterate and semi-literate, you hear their tone change into what the Gandhian scholar Anupam Mishra calls an entirely didactic noveau riche Hindi (Nai Amir Bhasha).

The patron saints of these tragically double voiced in the Hindi belt range from politicians, activists and non-profit foundations headquartered in metro cities and state capitals, to newspaper reporters and school teachers lecturing their disoriented wards in one room-schools, on how to save their Paryavaran (the environment). One of the key words they use is the term Labharthi.  This term, neither local nor global, is composed by joining together two Sanskrit terms : Labh and Arthi. Labh has several meaning such as benefit, extra, gains etcetera. But in colloquial Hindi, by and large the word means profit (as in Shubh-Labh, the conjoined term that the Indian trading communities paint over their cash boxes in red all through north India for good luck).  Arthi means one who craves something. So the term Labharthi to the common man denotes not a humble receiver of benefits accruing out of something well done, but some one who craves a profit. It is this new mind set a popular Kumaoni song  illustrates well :

(Aaans katoon, Bans katoon/ Khet karoon maidan/Jab main baniye ki chili lyun/Tab main padhan!)

“I shall mow down forests, I shall mow down bamboos/And then I shall marry a rich money lender’s daughter and become the village head .”

Common natural resources

Most of our hill communities which had lived for centuries on forest produce, grazed their cattle in common fields and drawn water from common resources followed strict community rules about how to take only what you can replenish and never ever pollute the source of sustenance. This was made possible by conferring divinity over all natural phenomena. The forests, the grazing lands, the rivers, they were all divine properties and you looted them at your own peril. This simple logic saved the forest, water sources and grazing fields from human greed and exploitation even during droughts and floods. Now the locals are told that nothing can be personally owned unless duly noted in governmental Khasra and Khatauni, and if the ultimate owner, the government, so desires, they are bound by law to sell it for a price the buyer sets. In local experience, all governments have also regularly displaced villagers in the name of development (read building dams or thermal plants or leasing out forest and agricultural land for car factories or mines) and  unhesitatingly obliged those that were well connected and well heeled by presenting them precious public land for a song. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Today in Uttarakhand the same communities that were hostile to loggers, realtors, mine owners and  hundreds of reckless vandals whom they kept out as enemies and outsiders, today actively seek them. Precariously located properties in ecologically sensitive zones have been sold after flouting all laws and norms, not once but several times over while the law looks the other way. A generation ago the villagers would have chased these very buyers out of their village flourishing a sickle or a Khukri. Today when they come with lawyers who specialize in helping outsiders become insiders by creating an intricate pattern of ownership fronted by locals, they may sit together and are often party to the forging of land deeds and signatures.

The irony of social forestry

The term Samajik Vaniki, unthinkingly and literally translated from the English term, Social Forestry, has thus acquired deep ironic overtones. Social forestry may have had a long history of social activism and legislating  in the west, but we in India today disregard our own even longer history of flora and fauna in the hills being protected by the sacred community laws of the forest dwellers. The history of the last six decades of environmental conservation in India has many such complicated backstories and multiple semantic mazes. Samajik Vaniki is especially loaded as a term because it goes to the heart of generational conflicts in our communities and the government of the day.

‘If this is Samajik Vaniki,’ an amused village woman once asked tongue in cheek, ‘was what we were practicing earlier, Asamajik Vaniki (anti-social forestry)?’ Near her village, the forest department of the government was mowing down forest to create a motor road through a string of contractors who didn’t care a hoot for those that had lived by the forest and the narrow grazing areas that fed their cattle. There is great merriment all around at the woman’s query, and as though on cue, the group bursts into a popular folk song :

(Tala tuka Joga Nai Thekedar/ Mal tuka gusain shilpkar/ Beech beech gang naiki maar/ Chhai chhan Kulli, Nau chhan Jamadar).

The opening part of the road belongs to Thekedar Joga Singh, the barber/The end of the road is Thekedar Gusain Shilpkar’s/In between work the gangs /Six coolies and nine Jamadars!

Mrinal Pande is a senior journalist and commentator

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