Of Cows, Bacteria and 'Human' Rights - I

By Satya Sagar. Dated: 10/11/2018 3:05:59 PM

It is a truly a great privilege for me to be here today to speak to all of you at this meeting to remember Prof. Balagopal. I never knew him personally very well but of course read his writings and followed his work with great admiration. His wisdom, courage and compassion have been a source of inspiration to me and many, many others.
Let me tell you a little bit about myself. Over three and half decades ago I strayed into journalism by chance and worked in first the print and later television news medium in India and also abroad in South East Asia. From journalism I again strayed into the world of public health around two decades ago. In other words, I went from being a hack to a quack. Today when people ask me what exactly is your 'field', I tell them like Max Weber said many years ago when asked a similar question, "I don't have any field, because I am not a donkey!"
In that spirit I will share with you today some of the insights into the subject of human rights I have gathered from my dabbling around in many disciplines - journalism, sociology, political science, microbiology, medicine and ecology.
The theme of my talk today is 'Human Rights and Nature', which is a very broad canvas indeed. Each of the three terms involved 'Human', 'Rights' and 'Nature' can be explored endlessly. I will try not indulge in too many theoretical abstractions but will touch upon a few sub-themes that may be of relevance to the overall idea of human rights.
A few questions that I want to discuss today are:
• What exactly is a human being? Do we really know or do we simply assume we know? How does our definition of what a 'human' is affect our idea of 'human rights'?
• How do human perceptions of and interactions with Nature have an impact on relations within human societies?
• The character of human beings is contradictory and like Mother Nature itself - capable of great violence and cruelty but also immense compassion and nurture. How can we best ensure that what we call 'human rights' are actually respected and observed by humans?
Let me start by saying that one of the problems with the term 'human rights', I feel, is that it is a bit outdated in our age of rising ecological consciousness and climate change. The rights of human beings are very important of course, but it is becoming very obvious that we cannot really protect them without considering the rightful place of all other species, including planet Earth itself.
It is now eight years since a group of environmental and social movements from Latin America and other parts of the world gathered in Cochabamba, Bolivia to declare the Rights of Mother Earth. It recognises the Earth as a living being and states that "the planet consists of interdependent living communities and it is not possible to recognize the rights of only human beings without causing an imbalance within Mother Earth".
As Eduardo Galeano, the great Uruguayan writer and poet said "Human Rights and the rights of Nature are two names of the same dignity. Human legs are also the road that Nature walks". More recently, a few months ago, I was in Bolivia too as part of an effort to draft the Universal Declaration on Rights of Bacteria. Yes, Rights of Bacteria - those invisible living organisms that most people associate with disease.
More on that issue a little later, but the broad thrust of attempts to define and uphold the rights of Mother Nature or bacteria are essentially to say that in the larger scheme of evolution and our planet all species have equal right to exist. No individual species, including humans, can really claim to have an absolute right over the fate of any other species, whether plants, animals or insects.
We are all interdependent on each other, including as food sometimes and there is a need to maintain mutual respect and an overall balance. The key principle involved here is that if you take from Nature you should be willing to give back in equal measure or be ready to be taken by Nature too. It is a concept that is practiced only by some indigenous communities in some parts of the world.
Much of the so-called 'civilized' world only knows how to take more than its share and give back toxic wastes in return. In fact, the idea of 'civilization', equated currently with societies that make large constructions like the pyramids or the Taj Mahal, is highly questionable. Valuing dead buildings over people is more of like a real estate agent's idea of what it means to be civilized, which should instead focus on how humans treat each other or living organisms around them.
The idea of human superiority or 'intelligence' over all other living creatures is also deeply mistaken. We are the only species on this Planet which has developed the capability of destroying all forms of life, including ourselves, several times over. Talking about human 'intelligence' therefore is as ridiculous as discussing the compassion of a suicide bomber! It is time to recognise that that humans are the problem and those who agree, need to initiate steps to make our species harmless to the future of our planet.
The Rights of Nature are now enshrined in the Constitutions of at least two countries - Bolivia and Ecuador. What this actually means in practice in these countries is a different question. Just as with human rights, the Rights of Nature have to be constantly fought for - but it is a great beginning to recognising that our Planet does not belong to humans alone and the future of our species is inextricably linked to the fate of all others.
Maybe in India, where the tradition of worshipping different aspects of Nature is deeply ingrained, a concept like Rights of Nature should not be difficult to understand and we should also promote this concept more widely. Adivasi communities, in particular have believed and still believe in the sacredness of forests, rivers, mountains, many animals, the sun, moon.
However, I also realize that without Adivasi communities winning their own political and social battles for survival and respect it is difficult to see how the Rights of Nature can be established more widely. In fact, the concept of Rights of Mother Earth emerged in the Andean region of Latin America after decades, if not centuries, of struggle of indigenous communities against colonialism, racism and the plunder of Nature by mining companies.
In our own times, the concept of the Rights of Nature in India faces a threat from both traditional and modern trends in Indian society. What we are currently living through in this country for quite some time is a very strange mix of the most regressive aspects of tradition combined with the worst aspects of modernity.
—(To be continued)
Satya Sagar is a public health activist and writer. He can be reached at sagarnama@gmail.com
(This article is based on a talk delivered in Hyderabad on 7th October 2018 as part of the 9th memorial meeting of 'Remembering Balagopal', an annual event commemorating the late social activist K Balagopal)



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