Educate, Agitate, Organize: Shreekumar’s motto to make human society sustainable, equitable

Swasthik Prabhu*

While we all are looking for rapid economic growth amidst the pandemic, do we realize the cost of the growth? Does this growth come at the expense of something that we could never recover? Is the definition of sustainable development, correct? Can sustainability and what is generally considered development go hand in hand? There have been plenty of experts and activists trying to educate on the judicious use of our natural resources. Further, some activists have gone a step ahead and tried to show how to lead our lives sustainably. One such activist is Shreekumar of Udupi district, Karnataka.

Shreekumar is a chemical engineering graduate from KREC Surathkal. After graduation, he worked for a PSU, where he found himself uncomfortable with the hierarchical structure of the industry. As he was inclined towards pursuing science and teaching, he joined IISc Bangalore for post-graduate studies and went on to do a PhD. While at IISc, the demolition of Babri Masjid led to some introspection and questioning of his naive political beliefs. He became part of a group of students which was initially concerned about communal harmony but later about all issues of common interest.

A seminar in which an old student associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan spoke about the displacement of Adivasis by the Sardar Sarovar Project brought this student group into contact with the NBA. After submitting his PhD thesis, he went to the Narmada Valley and stayed there for three months. According to him, this experience was an eye-opener and the beginning of his political education. Living with the Adivasis made him understand their way of life and culture and how their relocation meant they’d end up in city slums. He says, “Here, they lived a dignified life in a much sustainable manner. We need to be aware that the convenience and the comfort that we enjoy comes at a great cost to others. My first step was to simplify my lifestyle.”

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Post PhD, Shreekumar started teaching at NITK, Surathkal. He tried to discuss social issues with the students. He explains, “Engineers have career opportunity in projects that displace tribals. The way technology impacts society should be understood by everyone and more importantly by engineers”. However, he did not find much resonance among the community. He says, “Though I enjoyed teaching, I felt that it did not have much relevance and we were only producing a workforce for an exploitative system. That is why I left it”.

He joined Sampoorna Kranti Vidyalaya in Gujarat, an institute that prepares people for activism, leading to a non-violent and non-exploitative society. A community living with no hierarchy and sharing work without class distinctions, where one has the freedom to choose one’s agenda of learning. Shreekumar stayed there for four years before returning to Udupi to start the Sangatya Commune.

“Sangatya Commune is a small group; we live pretty much the way we lived in Gujarat. However, here we do not want to look like an institution. Rather, we live like any other people in the village. United in the common cause, we try to live as sustainably as possible, fair in use of common resources and distribution of work. We also conduct workshops on sustainability and equity here”.

According to Shreekumar, the present economy demands perpetual growth, which is inherently unsustainable. The amount of resources that we consume is increasing at an alarming rate, and by simply participating in this economy driven by profit, we are adding to the problem. There are only two choices, either we contribute to the solution or contribute to the problem. He also says that the transition to sustainability will take time since we have to overcome the inertia of the present system. He explains, “the present social organization is evolved by systematically shifting people from village to urban areas, which is a result of an economy driven by fossil fuels. Megacities could not have been built without it. Now, our population is much greater, and the ecosystem, much poorer. A sustainable economy would provide for everyone even when it’s shrinking”.

Shreekumar says maximization of profit is the root cause of unemployment. He elaborates, “In the process of producing everything that we use if everyone gets employment, there will be no unemployment. When our economic activities are motivated by profit rather than fulfilling the needs of all, we employ as few people as possible. This leads to unemployment”. He is of the opinion that as long as profit-seeking entities continue to produce, without any check on the consumption of non-renewable and on decreasing the capacity of Mother Earth for replenishment of renewables, sustainability cannot be achieved.

We should be aware and make others aware of the situation to push the lawmakers to enact laws conducive to sustainability and equity. Quoting Dr B R Ambedkar’s dictum, “Educate, Agitate and Organize”, given for annihilation of caste, he says it should now be applied for grassroots level constructive work to make human society sustainable and equitable.

*PGP 2020-22, Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore

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