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12-4 is also equal to zero


A young British officer during the Raj era was very passionate about educating Indians. He was appalled by the apparent illiteracy in the rural areas that he visited. Equipped with manageable knowledge of the local language and the noble intention of spreading literacy, he would venture out to a nearby village whenever time permitted. Soon he realised that it was important to teach basic mathematics as well  and he took it up upon himself.
One day he decided to test his class of all male adults. He had done his job well and so almost all students fared well in solving a simple sum – what is 12 minus 4 – except one old man. According to the old man, the answer was ‘zero’ and he was quite sure about it. So the officer asked him to explain. “Son,” said the old man, “India is a land of farmers. Take away four months of monsoon from the year and we will get nothing. By this logic, my answer – 12 minus 4 equals zero – is also correct.”
The young officer smiled. He realised that it was important to respect the local way of life while introducing something new – even if the intention was right. More importantly, he understood that there can be more than one correct answer. This understanding helped me approach the subject of green infrastructure in this issue. It helped me resolve a dilemma. As the editor of a magazine focusing on the infrastructure industry – I clearly understand the criticality of developmental activities. However, as an aware individual of the human race, my loyalties pull me to the green cause. So, I resorted to the ‘12-4’ anecdote; I replaced the young officer with infrastructure builders and the old man with environmentalists.
But then, my dilemma is at a micro level. What about the macro level? At the macro level, are we even willing to accept that juxtaposing infrastructural imperatives with the environmental cause is a dilemma? On one day, the nation’s president says that “Bottlenecks and delays in implementation of infrastructure projects will be systematically removed.” She is obviously alluding to the various clearances required for infra  projects (chief of which is the environmental clearance). Immediately on the next day, she appeals to the country’s citizens ‘to contribute to ensure health and diversity of the planet and conserve its resources’. Can anybody blame the first citizen for being ambiguous?
Nobody can deny that as a nation India today needs a strong infrastructure. It is not a choice and therefore I have preferred to call it an imperative. But while listing the advantages of this imperative, can we afford to overlook the price? Dilemma again? In all fairness, it is not a dilemma that India alone can address. The entire world must address it – together. I leave you on that thought and a prayer from the ‘Varaha Purana’. “As long as there are mountains and green forests on Earth, till then we and our future generations will survive and live happily.” Incidentally, the president too read out this prayer during her address on the ‘World Environment Day’.

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Sept 2020
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