Monday, 11 June 2007

Collecting cow dung for energy

Collecting cow dung for energy

by Remigius de Souza

COLLECTING COW DUNG! Can it be either a hobby or work? How could a hobby be so dirty, messy and stinking? It’s not ‘work’: work, by common sense, is that pays in currency. But I had started doing it six decades ago. That coincides with Sixty Years of India’s Independence!

Collecting cow dung is not ‘work’. See, for example, the Census Survey of India, Section 10.2, which says: ‘Persons engaged in household duties, students, dependants, retired persons, rentiers, beggars are some of the categories grouped as non-workers.’ That is, women and the school-drop-out are included in the above categories. This is outrageous, and derogatory and insulting to millions of peasant women and children. And the peasants never retire unless invalid.

As a boy, besides the study at primary school and working at paddy and vegetable farms during monsoon, I collected cowdung. I walked barefoot carrying a bamboo basket to collect cow dung from the fields where the cattle grazed, during the dry seasons. To do that one has to walk a lot.

I would then help my mother to make “sheni” from the heap of dung collected in the field. “Sheni” is/are about 30 cm in diameter, 3 cm thick disc made by mixing water, rice husk and chopped rice straw, pulverized by feet, and the balls of mix are pressed flat by hand, and sun dried. These were stacked and stored mainly for monsoon. It was a “free” energy – fuel – for cooking; this practice still continues.

We periodically gave a cow dung slurry wash to the mud floor of our mud house. Walls too received external dung wash before monsoon. Some of dung was put in the compost pit in our yard for the use during monsoon in the farms that we took on rent. Even the ashes from the “Chulha” – cooking hearth – collected round the year, went to the farm to rejuvenate the soil.

We also gave the wash to bamboo equipments: a sturdy bamboo mat silo to store rice, a delicate finely woven bamboo mat used for seating and sleeping, the bamboo baskets of various sizes, on the unused side.

If you have heard or read the elite – Indians or foreigners – who say, with authority, that the poor and the peasants in India cut trees for firewood, it is a lie. Don’t trust them. They cut brushwood or branches, and of course, use “sheni”, for fuel. The rich in the village purchased firewood from the poor peasant women who carried the head loads during weekly bazaar to earn some cash for use in need; they came from the nearby hills.

In my village, Hindus cut select / reserved trees to cremate the dead, and Catholics burry the dead without timber coffins. Compare this with the western and the westernised societies who use timber coffins with decorations and embellishments.

The major consumers of wood are the rich and the rich nations of the world. They, of course, never pay the right price for the wood they consume, or never use their resources to replace it from where it comes, even within their own country. They pay only to the middle persons or agencies and the transport, and the industrial processes. Though they may be knowledgeable, they conveniently ignore that wood could be replenished.

GANDHI DESCRIBES the typical Indian village as a ‘dung-hill’, writes Ajit K. Dasgupta (‘A history of Indian economic thought’, Routledge, 1993, p.161). It refers to ‘foreign rule, unclean and insanitary living conditions and habits’ of village people. Dasgupta didn’t mention what was Gandhi’s opinion about cities.

However, it fails to notice that dung is a vital energy source. It fails to see that energy sources and consumption in any form are directly connected to ecology and environment of land (and waters) and life. It also fails to learn this very basic and universal principle from the villages and villagers, who have been practicing it for millennia without being verbose.

I visited Gandhi’s Ashram at Wardha in 1990s to attend a conference. It is a most urbanised place with rural look, but very few inmates, perhaps the caretakers. Right along its border fencing is a small village. I took a long walk at both places: just looking – no talk.

The village – people and houses looked poor – was full of life and activity. A single road passes through it; at both ends there were heaps of cow dung that belongs to various families. The Ashram looked abandoned, like any other monument, like, for example, Fatehpur Sikri.

It seemed both the neighbours remained alien to each other for more than sixty years, or since Gandhi founded the Ashram. Neither of them, it seemed, had any positive or creative influence on the other.

THE UK’s first dung-fired power station opened in Devon in 2002. The £7.7 million facility processes up to 150,000 tonnes of slurry each year from 30 local farms (Jeremy Smith & Jon Hughes, ‘Less waste, more speed’, Ecologist, March 2007). Such a speed and centralised production suits an industrial society, where 80 percent people live and urban areas and where cattle/bird farming is on mass scale. It cannot, or does not want to, think in terms of decentralisation. They would see how to hold centralised power, even if an issue is local.

Like British Raj (rule) then, if the Swa-Raj (Self-rule), following the colonial policies, continues to curb, control, crush people’s autonomy by various legal means then there is no salvation for the majority i.e. peasants. One cannot stop at what Gandhi said in the past.

The prime topic of the day – economy – is already a past; it’s now time for environment–ecology–energy and for democracy democracy — human rights and freedom. Whatever may be the implications, the British have finally recognised cow dung. Now let us see how our Indian Masters take it!

There is much more to cow dung related activities, and other hundreds of such actions that peasants take that are not recognised by the authority. These involve Environment – Ecology – Energy, which include labour of the peasant family. Is this taken into account by the economists and the government? If they don’t then they are ignorant of ground reality. If they do, then why the peasants don’t get a fair deal at par with industrial products? You don’t need great intelligence to know the answer. The simple answer is the industrial product is related to economy, neither for survival nor for the people.

EVEN SCHOOLING, then, was not a ‘work’, for us, as we were not crazy for marks and ranks, as it is now, mostly among the urbanites and the elite. Besides collecting cow dung, I was also involved in many other errands, like any other village kids.

However, as we were a landless farming family, and there were no adequate education facilities, I migrated to Mumbai for high school education. I lived at a commune near Bombay Central Station. Being a student I paid rent of Rupee 1/- per month.

As I landed in Mumbai I continued walking, and collecting dung. This time it is different: the dung – the shit of civilised society – urbanity – city.

Walking for kids, perhaps even for the grown-up, in the landscape is not a passive action. Landscape is dynamic entity and not a passive object as is treated by the modern aesthetics. It changes with time and seasons, and with changing focal point. It enriches perception of reality through all the senses. The words come later.

Action first, the theories follow. It is not the same as reading a book, looking at a picture of landscape, watching a TV programme even if it is ‘natural history’. Nowadays children (who have an access) are glued to TV. However what matters most is the scale and reality. But this is not the department of the economists.

The cow dung helped us to help grow food in the farms, helped to cook our food, and helped us to maintain our mud house; thus helped us to sustain. And finally the used cow dung in – all forms – went to the soil.

Could modern technology, which learns from the nature and exploits it for the benefit of industrial society, replicate this cycle of process? At least I am not aware of any, with my limited resources.

Also, by now the sources of energy have changed, and the production and consumption patterns of energy have changed for the insatiable wants of the capitalist, which have created destruction and disparity at unprecedented scale and rate among the peoples as never before.

This microscopic case study of a single person – one from 1000 millions – cannot be generalised. There may be million different examples in several bioregions and climatic and topographic regions of 600,000 villages of India. Any mighty centralised power with all its mighty resources and infrastructure, cannot event comprehend the facts – the ground realities.
This very article too is not a ‘work’; it’s burning that cow dung and that shit collected over six decades, on my last lap.
I shall be back with more on the subject.
(For Ecologist article, "Less waste, more speed" see link: )

Remigius de Souza
69-243, S. B. Marg, Mumbai 400028 India
Copyright Remigius de Souza © 2004
(24 March 2004, Upadated 18-06-2007)

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