Some of the most pressing global concerns of today can only be addressed if disciplinary barriers are breached and a nurturing environment is created to enable free and open exchange of ideas. The echo network is an initiative that aims to facilitate this process by creating a network of like-minded thinkers and bringing them together on a common platform to brainstorm solutions to issues related to human-environment relationships in India.
When a tree falls in a lonely forest, and no animal is near enough to hear it, does it make a sound?
From a scientific viewpoint, the answer to this question is, apparently, no. This is because one key definition of ‘sound’ is the sensation produced in an ear due to disturbances in the air and so, a ‘listener’ is central for a ‘sound’ to be ‘heard’.
Therefore, argued from this point of view, would the voices of a million people calling for a better future go unnoticed if no one listened to them?
But if these voices were heard by the collective ears of a network of listeners, who also happened to be problem-solvers, one could hope for a better, brighter future.
The echo network is one such collective ear. The project is a unique initiative that seeks to bring together like-minded people – innovators, social workers, scientists, doctors, law-makers, and many others – to forge public-private partnerships to address India’s issues on human-environment relationships.
“All across India, people are raising their voices for a better future, not only for us humans, but also the environment and India’s unique ecosystems – this is happening in schools, homes, cafes, courtrooms, and even boardrooms,” says Shannon Olsson, Director of the echo network, and a professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru. “And the echo network aims to listen with an open heart. We need to listen to each other, consider different viewpoints, and respond with solutions backed by logic and reasoning,” she adds.
The concept of a nation-wide network of experts from various sectors of society took shape in 2018, when Olsson and K. VijayRaghavan, the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the Government of India, discussed the need for a coordinated pan-India effort to conserve the country’s dwindling natural ecosystems.
VijayRaghavan’s words, “Let’s see what you can do”, spurred Olsson to begin working on the echo network. After much effort and intense discussion sessions to bring partners with widely-ranging areas of expertise onboard, the echo network was finally launched in late 2019, under the guidance of the PSA. The network is currently partnering with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Hindustan Unilever Limited, RoundGlass, the India Climate Collaborative, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C‑CAMP).
At present, the echo network has three main goals. First, to establish a network of people from diverse backgrounds to discuss ideas for tackling real-world problems. Second, it aims to support scientific research for feasible solutions and communicate them to the government, industries, and society. Third, the network is looking to create a new generation of interdisciplinary scientists who can tackle problems across different domains of expertise.
The echo network is currently working towards its opening goal by starting discussions across different sectors of Indian society to outline real-world problems and possible scientific solutions to these. In its first effort, the network brought together economists, healthcare professionals, lawyers, scholars, policy-makers, activists, journalists, and CEOs to establish a white paper: India’s Journey Beyond COVID-19.
The paper begins by outlining the most urgent problems India has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and will face in the coming post-pandemic days. It also offers a list of mitigation measures and immediate steps that can be taken to tackle these problems. With this paper, the network aspires to formulate solutions based on scientific research, technology and innovation, and an equitable sharing system, to address some of the most serious of India’s issues. These issues fall under four broad categories: (1) public health systems, (2) dignity and equity for all communities, (3) sustainability of livelihoods, and (4) security for human and environmental ecosystems.
The network then organised a series of four interactive online sessions in July and August, titled “Let’s Talk….We’re Listening”, to stimulate discussions in these areas. Each session, hosted and moderated by Olsson, consisted of a series of questions put forward by members of the public for the experts associated with the network.
The first session, on communities with dignity and equity, dealt with issues of dignity, job security, and equity associated with migrant workers and women workers. Human rights activist Usha Ramanathan and economist Priya Shyamsundar (Lead economist at the Nature Conservancy) delved into these issues, elucidating the feasibility of using science and technology to address them, and the tradeoffs between nature conservation and economic growth.
“I think of the COVID pandemic as a kind of pause – someone hit the pause button on the universe. Eventually, it should start up again, but when it does, we can’t go back to the old normal, because there was something clearly wrong with that,” said Usha Ramanathan, who spoke eloquently about poverty, and how the plight of millions of migrant workers was barely given a passing thought during the imposition of sudden lockdowns.
The second session, focusing on sustainable livelihoods, addressed issues of urban versus rural-centric job models, climate change mitigation, sustainability of agricultural livelihoods and economic resilience against disasters. Public policy professionals Arunabha Ghosh (Founder-CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water), Crispino Lobo (co-founder of the Sampada Trust (ST), Sanjeevani Institute of Empowerment and Development (SIED) and the Sampada Entrepreneurship and Livelihood Foundation (SELF)), and Chirag Gajjar (Head, Subnational Climate Action at the World Resources Institute) addressed these issues during this session.
Arunabha Ghosh pointed out that over the last 20 years, natural disasters and vector-borne diseases have cost India around Rs 13.5 lakh crores, not counting the effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, while India invests Rs 20 lakh crores as a stimulus to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, the country also needs to fashion a plan to avoid such a massive loss – of about 200 billion US dollars – in the future. Addressing the need for preventive measures and development of economic resilience in the face of disasters like the current pandemic, Ghosh said, “Every dollar invested in resilience saves you two dollars in losses – the biggest lesson we can learn from this pandemic crisis is that early prevention is better than cure.”
“Conservation and the environment are not in a little box, unrelated to health, economy, or social concerns. Without environmental security, without a clean, healthy environment or ecological integrity, we, as a country cannot progress and develop,” said Prerna Bindra. “And any such environmental conservation effort has to be a science-driven and knowledge-based effort, which is why the echo network’s multidisciplinary and partnership approach excites me,” she added.
In this session, a question on how biodiversity conservation can be linked to healthcare led to a discussion of the concept of one-health. One-health is a public health concept based on the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and the environment. As human populations grow, human-livestock, human-wildlife, and livestock-wildlife contacts also increase. Coupled with climate change, deforestation, and intensive farming practices, such contacts not only increase the chances of new zoonotic diseases emerging, but also of these diseases spreading rapidly. Apart from zoonotic diseases, one-health issues also include antimicrobial resistance, pollution, food safety and security, and other health threats that tie humans to the environment.
A key problem in one-health is the estimation of health benefits of preserving ecosystems. This is a tricky issue, as it involves measuring quantities that are not exactly saleable – you cannot ‘sell’ or ‘buy’ the services that an ecosystem provides. However, there are some established methods by which one can measure, to some extent, the economic impacts of environmental degradation.
“In 2014, India projected a growth rate of about 8.5%, while the degradation, the amount of natural capital we took away from our asset base to fund that growth was 5.7%”, said Nitin Pandit, quoting the results of a study undertaken by the World Bank on the impact of environmental degradation on the Indian economy. This essentially means that the net ‘gain’ that our country acquired was a measly 2.8%. In addition, this study only quantified the economic asset loss due to forest degradation and soil erosion. “It does not include the relationship between forest degradation and health, which is exactly what we will be looking at in the national biodiversity mission,” he added.
With sessions like these, the echo network is encouraging interactions between different sectors of society to develop science-based solutions for the real-world problems that India currently faces.
“We need scientists who will be able to discuss their profession with a bureaucrat or a farmer with equal ease. We need to make a new system where science and research are as much a part of our society as law or medicine,” says Olsson.
To do this, the next step will be to identify research questions addressing specific knowledge gaps related to the challenges identified through inter-sectoral interactions. The research questions will then be tackled via collaborative research spanning different sectors led by a cohort of young scientists or ‘research ambassadors’. These research ambassadors will work among different organizations, companies, and institutes to learn to think outside of academic walls to apply scientific solutions to real-world problems. In this way, the echo network hopes to integrate scientific thinking for problem-solving into Indian society.
Our country is a rich, crowded, struggling nation – rich in natural resources, biodiversity, tradition, and culture, crowded with the billion humans who call it home, and currently struggling to balance the needs of its peoples with those of its ecology and environment.
The echo network’s strategy of “listening with an open heart”, coupled with its efforts to change how science and technology are embedded in society will hopefully help us find solutions to India’s problems and forge a brighter path for the nation’s peoples and its environment.