Ecorights and Responsibility

What and who gives humans the right to its ecosystem? Ancient and today’s tribal communities believe that their right to utilize resources in the ecosystem on which they depend is encompassed with a huge responsibility to protect and conserve it. In all situations right is a community (such as family, office, institution, association, organization, state or any other group), and therefore there is no such thing as private or individual right. This makes responsibility also beyond the self. The author Nirmal Selvamony provides interesting insights with examples, into rights and responsibilities towards our ecosystem.

Right is both (a just) entitlement and its object (Titus and Keeton 149 -166; Runes 271-272; Lewis 40-51; Moore 18). As entitlement or claim or privilege, it empowers the one who enjoys it. For example, the right to free expression empowers one in such a way that one could speak in public without fear of intimidation or threat. In this case, as in most others, two parties are involved: the speaker and the listeners. A closer scrutiny reveals the crucial role of a third party in matters of right. In the example we are considering now, the third party is the one that gives or denies the right to both the speaker and the listeners, to the former to speak freely and to the latter to listen without intimidation or threat. This is most evident when rights are denied. Colonial history is replete with several instances of right denial. Any reference, on the part of the public speaker, to a free state was enough to court arrest. Both the speaker and the audience in several such instances were anti-governmental in their sentiment and though the latter were willing to show their solidarity with the speaker by attending the public speech, they were quite powerless to safeguard the speaker’s rights.

A careful consideration of the situations of right shows us that right involves three parties — the one who has or does not have the right, whom we might call the “right-agent,” the one in relation to before (or in relation to) whom the right is exercised, here termed, the “right-patient” and the grantee of the right, who could be the government or the society or a particular institution or group, here called, “right-context.” It must be pointed out that these are roles/personae rather than persons. This allows for just two agents playing three roles between them. For example, in interpersonal contexts like conversation, certain rights are enjoyed by both parties, say, the right to use nicknames, right by virtue of kinship and so on.

In such cases too, the two parties, right-agent and right-patient invoke the right- context, the third party, to legitimize their rights. What the right-patient allows the right-agent is by virtue of the legitimacy ensured by the right-context even when the latter is not directly present as in the case of the police at the door of the auditorium of the public speech in a colonial state.

Granting or denial of right implies empowerment. Right is power. But power in itself is purposeless, at times, even dangerous without a proper end. In other words, right is inseparable from responsibility. Having allowed the agent, probably through “developmental” efforts, rights, the context expects her to use them responsibly. About the need to embrace responsibility within the ambits of rights and justice, Giri and Ufford write, “The crisis in daily routines and paradigms of development that we now face can be better illumined if we relate this to our clinging to only “rights” and “justice” frames of modernity and lack of willingness to accept the calling of responsibility”.

Responsibility is a calling as Giri and Ufford observe. When context empowers one by giving right, a responsible exercise of it is a response to that call. Further, responsibility is closely related to duty. Joseph Mazzini writes: “The theory of Rights may arouse men to overthrow the obstacles placed in their path by tyranny, but it is impotent where the object in view is to create a noble and powerful harmony between the various elements of which the nation is composed” (58). Therefore, he exhorted his readers to seek the principle of duty (Shourie 238). In our ecological era when the homocentric concept of “nation” is inadequate to realize the harmony Mazzini speaks of, we may substitute it with “community” to understand better the contrast between right and duty. Tho ugh both are addressorial in nature, duty suggests that the addresser -agent has already received “something” from the addressee-patient by virtue of her position in the community and that it has to be returned appropriately. Responsibility, on the other hand, implies expected behavior on the part of the addresser-agent and it is more oriented to the addresser-agent than the addressee-patient. However, both are communitarian in their semantic orientation.

As the context in all situations of right is a community (such as family, office, institution, association, organization, state or any other group), right is almost always communitarian, social and public (Freeman 74-75). There is no such thing as private or individual right as such (Narasimha Rao 3).

This is so because, as we have shown already, right involves three parties. Being communitarian, right is not only one’s claim or entitlement or privilege, it is also one’s responsibility to the community that allows that right.

The “right” community is not exclusively human as we often imagine it to be. In other words, rights, to many people, can only be human rights. Therefore, when we refer to the rights of other animals, we use the qualifier “animal” as if humans are not animals!

In fact, there is no autonomous human who could exclude animality and other aspects of non-human nature (Selvamony, “tiNai as Tree” 234). In reality, humans share their being with non-human beings enjoying an ontic identity that can only be described as a kind of home.

If the human is a communitarian being, a home, her right also has to be understood in communitarian terms. The right to free expression might sound like a purely human right. But there could be occasions when it involves beings other than humans. If such a right may bring in non-human beings within the purview of the right context in an indirect manner, land ownership right brings them in quite directly. We often think that right to own a piece of land is just a matter settled between two human parties, the seller and the buyer. We seldom think that the other creatures dwelling therein, perhaps, much longer than the human “owner,” have any stake in the enjoyment of that piece of land. Not unlike an invader, the human landowner affirms his right by either flushing out the other (indigenous) creatures or killing them. Such acts of aggression and mindless violence are clear cases of right infringement. If our right has to be just, it has to affirm its integrative communitarian orientation.

It is true that the government has the right to develop the society.

Now see how it exercises this right in a dryland village.

With the drylands becoming wet There is no shade anymore.
Is it just that there is no shade? No millet, no maize;
No gourd that climbs and blooms in the evening; No partridges that stir out suddently
From under the groundnut plants At the slightest sound;
No pigeons in the shade of the neem Among the cactus hedge;
No coucals, no koels,
No cassia, the croton of the dry lands To inspire the koel to sing.
The bare dam built on the small stream Laid waste our village.
The dams on Kaaviri had destroyed Forests far and wide.
We lost our forests for rice, And then, no rain;
Now, no forest, and no rice.

                        – pazamalay. Trans. Nirmal Selvamony; pazamalay 1991, 51

Little do the promoters of the cause of development realize that even the dry land is a delicate web of life blending millet, maize, gourds, groundnut plants, partridges, pigeons, neem, cactus, coucals, and cassia into an intricate tapestry.

The integrative nature of the community is nowhere more evident than in primal societies. Speaking of the Lakotas, a primal community of American Indians living on the plains of Nebraska and South Dakota, Chief Standing Bear (b.1868) said that a Lakota

Can see more clearly into the mysteries of life and come closer in kinship to other lives about him…Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky and water was a real and active principle. For the animal and bird world there existed a brotherly feeling that kept the Lakota safe among them and so close did some of the Lakotas come to their feathered and furred friends that in true brotherhood they spoke a common tongue. (McLuhan 6)

The brotherhood of the primal people includes the spirit beings too. Another American Indian, Bedagi (Big Thunder) in 1900 declared that

The Great Spirit is our father, but the earth is our mother. She nourishes us; that which we put into the ground she returns to us, and healing plants she gives us likewise. If we are wounded, we go to our mother and seek to lay the wounded part against her, to be healed. Animals too do thus; they lay their wounds to the earth. (McLuhan 22)

If everything in the universe is related, then, right cannot simply be a thing of power or legal claim, or a certain kind of knowledge, but only an ecological phenomenon. This means that every right, be it right to freedom or justice or peace or life, is determined not simply by law or custom or polity or morality, but by oikology (ecology).

By implication, the human right we speak of today, and vociferously defend in various ways at several levels, individual, national, and international, cannot be determined except in relation to the rights of non-human organisms and nature including land (Rolston; Selvamony and Ruckmani, “Land Health”; “Holistic Land Ethics”). This fact stares us in the face forcefully today for some reasons. The first is the role of the science of ecology, which has laid bare this relationship in such a compelling manner. One wonders whether this science is the greatest rediscovery of the last century, whether it is the gospel for mankind today. The second reason is the modern communication network. Today all parts of the globe are linked through technology resulting in a shrinking of distances between countries and continents. Thanks to such communication, our inadequate knowledge of the mutual impact of two remote locations (such as Ka lpaakkam on Canberra or Doha on Delhi) is becoming apparent increasingly.

In the face of such ignorance, it is not enough to codify environmental laws or speak of animal rights, land health and even bioethics. We need to move towards ecoethics that will subsume human ethics. Ethics, that has been human ethics all along, cannot be an autonomous discourse anymore (Aristotle; Moore; Aurelius; Titus; Titus and Keeton; 1). Human ethics and bioethics will have to together yield ecoethics. The present essay is an attempt at formulating it by focusing on only two of its aspects, namely, rights and responsibilities, more specifically, ecorights and ecoresponsibilities.

Human ethics and bioethics will have to together yield ecoethics. The present essay is an attempt at formulating it by focusing on only two of its aspects, namely, rights and responsibilities, more specifically, ecorights and ecoresponsibilities.

Ecorights2 can be understood in two ways: as rights of all members of the ecological family of the universe and as rights of any member of an ecological community in relation to the rights of the other members. Since this family includes humans as well as non-human beings, the right of any one member of this family has to be determined only in relation to the rights of all the others.

It has already been shown how humans cannot realize the values of freedom, justice, and peace among themselves, but only in relation to the rest of the family and on this principle the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Donnelly; Thomas; Newberg) also stands in need of revision. As Felix Wilfred puts it, “The code of human rights in its conceptualization and formulation, as we have it today, is not the final and definite one” (Lobo v).

How could human beings define rights from an ecological angle? This question is closely tied up with the larger question of the relation humans have with other organisms. This relationship is expressed in terms of assumptions (ideas, feelings, attitudes and values) and also acts. In fact, the assumptions are subtler and more consequential than the acts themselves.

Lack of proper knowledge of the right-patient can result in denying the latter her dignity. This is particularly true in inter-religious situations. Often lack of proper knowledge of another group of people leads to entertaining wrong assumptions about it. A ready example may be those assumptions about the Tamil people: they are all Hindus, cow-worshippers, wearers of taali (wedding neck ornament), monogamists, and daily bathers (ravi, ca. ce. 2).

The strangest assumption is that all right-patients are humans. Ceyamookan’s “panRikaLaip paRRi enna teriyum ugkaLukku?” (What do you know about pigs? azakiyacigkar 98) addresses the issue of the human’s knowledge of and attitude to non-human beings.

What do you know about pigs? Here are a few more details:

One: Pigs don’t wallow in mud Because they don’t know It is mud.
Two: Pigs are beautiful Because They don’t make themselves up.
Three: Pigs are not mean animals Because They don’t consider other beings Lower than themselves.
Lastly: Pigs are not slaves of men. Because they don’t depend upon man.

(Trans. Nirmal Selvamony)

Against the pejorative portrayal of the snake in the Christian myth of the Fall, Emily Dickinson declared an aboriginal bond with one of “nature’s people” in her “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” (Johnson 459):

A narrow fellow in the grass Occasionally rides:

You may have met him – did you not? His notice sudden is.…
Yet when a child and barefoot I more than once, at morn,
Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash Unbraiding in the sun,
When, stopping to secure it, It wrinkled, and was gone.
Several of nature’s people
I know, and they know me; I feel for them a transport Of cordiality;
But never met this fellow, Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

Though the speaker-persona of D.H.Lawrence’s “Snake” (Pinto and Roberts 349-51) does not belong to a culture that is particularly snake-friendly (Rowland 142-47), there is a basic attempt to acknowledge the basic kinship humans enjoy with the rest of nature. The relationship between the persona and the snake evolves from being one between a guest and a host to another between a king and a subject and yet another between a lord and his vassal:

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid. But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out of the dark door of the secret earth.…
For he seemed to me again like a king.
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld Now due to be crowned again.…
And so, I missed my chance with one of the Lords of Life.

Like Lawrence’s persona, the narrator-persona of Edwin Muir’s “The Horses” (246-247) discovers the non-homocentric world in his own way. In both poems the question of right is implicitly dealt with. If the speaker-persona of “Snake” is compelled to realize the hard fact that his water right is limited by the snake’s, the narrator of “The Horses” begins to appreciate the ecoright to freedom: “No organism shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms” (Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Ecorights).

And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.…
We had sold our horses in our father’s time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us…
…Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent By an old command to find our whereabouts And the long-last archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used. Among them were some half-a-dozen colts Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world, Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.…
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts. Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

One may want to compare the relationship between the horses and the humans with that between the narrator in Shantini’s story of Maggie (in the present volume), and Maggie herself, the dog orphaned by the neighbor of the narrator. Even after desertion, Maggie’s display of “free servitude” evident in her visits to her mistress’s house, shall we say, pierces the heart of the narrator. We may do well to note that it is the narrator’s compassionate attitude to Maggie that enables her to safeguard Maggie’s right to dignity and shelter. Attitudes are inextricably related to assumptions.

One can speak of two types of assumptions and acts—reductive and non- reductive. Those which reduce the other to the level of an object with a view to analyzing or manipulating or exploiting could be termed “reductive” and those which do not do so but allow the other inherent dignity and worth, “non – reductive.”

One of the major assumptions of the civilized societies is that the non -human beings are inferior to humans and so they are meant to be used by human beings. Here is a humorous verse from Ogden Nash, which expresses this assumption.

I don’t mind eels Except as meals.
And the way they feels.
– Michael and Benton 119

Pazamalay’s “murugkai maram” (Drumstick Tree) is also based on this assumption though in an indirect manner. It shows the kind of treatment meted out to a sterile drumstick tree in the countryside by the villagers:

cokkaayi thrashed it until her broom was all broken up. While yet another girl was dropping down her skirt Stormed in aunty saying “Enough of that, stop it girls.”
– Trans. Nirmal Selvamony; pazamalay 1996, 45-46

The poem is based on the custom of insulting a sterile tree by thrashing it with the broom (a symbol of meanness) and exposing bare bottoms to the tree. In extreme cases, such trees are denied their right to existence. Unlike Nash and pazamaly, Kannadasan, a popular Tamil poet of the twentieth century, generalizes it in a stanza of a song he wrote for the movie paacam (affection).

It is for me that the world was born The running rivers too are for me The flowers bloom for me
The mother did offer her lap for me.
– Trans. Nirmal Selvamony

A related notion is “wildness” (“Animal”; McLuhan 45). Nature that is not amenable to such uses as habitation or cultivation by humans is referred to as “wild.” When put to such uses, it becomes domesticated. If anything wild is not directly useful to humans, the “domesticated” and the “tamed” are (puRanaanuuRu   187:   1;   kaligkattupparaNi;   Selvamony,   “tiNai   as Tree 221-22;

“Interrelatedness” 68; “Revisiting Greenness” 183 -184).

Plants and animals are also categorized on the basis of their supposed relationship to the humans. Accordingly, they are either harmful/ harmless or poisonous/ non-poisonous. In deed what the humans consider harmfulness in the animal is its predatory nature essential to it for its survival. What is po ison for the human is essential fluid for the animal. This is not unlike a fly seeing human saliva as poison simply because it could be drowned in it or ants imagining humans as the most dangerous beings because the former can very easily be trampled by the latter. Assumption about the harmfulness of the other is a major threat to the safeguarding of rights.

When wrong assumptions jeopardize rights, the responsibility of the right – agent is to scrutinize the assumptions, admit their wrongness when they are wrong and change one’s attitude consciously. Though this is easily said than done, it is worth the attempt. Several natural parks and ecological NGOs conduct workshops and provide hands-on field experience in order to debunk people’s misconceptions. The poets also do this in their own way. For example, in Denise Levertov’s “To the Snake,” (Summerfield 56) the persona vindicates the harmlessness of the snake by holding it before her companions.

Non-human beings are not only harmful or harmless; they are eith er good or bad. Popular imagination and written works have hierarchized them morally and contributed to the development of a discourse of non-human characterology. If the snake’s harmlessness needs to be vindicated, the mosquito requires no vindication whatsoever. It has indeed a long and well-established criminal record. D. H Lawrence builds on this Satanic image of the mosquito in his poem “The Mosquito,” (Pinto and Roberts 332-334) which opens with a Donnean banter:

When did you start you tricks, Monsieur?
Your evil little aura, prowling and casting a numbness on my mind.
Speaking of crows, cinnakkapaali in his “ippaTiyum cila vicayagakaL” (A Few things Like these; azakiyacigkar 100) observes
Is it true it is a thieving creature
Tactfully snatching away the eats from the hands of children
– Trans. Nirmal Selvamony

If the crow is not an antagonist like the mosquito, she is probably a trickster. The counterpart of the foe is the friend. Typical examples are the friends of the farmer (Fletcher 194; 72-73). A harmonious relationship with the non-human beings is also in evidence, which is congenial ground for ensuring rights. A holistic relationship is affirmed when the latter is regarded as a kin of humans. In Tamil Nadu there still survives a custom of an adult male marrying a plantain tree. If the elder brother is a bachelor, the younger brother cannot marry until his elder brother is married. To circumvent this problem, they perform a ritual in which the elder brother is married to a plantain, the ideal bride who will ensure longevity and fertility (Findly 316-19; Amirthalingam 59; Selvamony, “tiNai as Tree” 229; “Serving Flesh” 107-108). Elsewhere the present writer has shown how an Alexandrian Laurel (Calophyllum inophyllum) tree was regarded as an elder sister in a family of the coastal people (Nar. 172.4-5):

Mother told me** about the special Laurel tree, “More respectful than you is your sister in deed”.
– Trans. Nirmal Selvamony; (** her daughter)

Non-humans are regarded not only as kin, but also as peer or superior. cinnakkapaali’s piece “ippaTiyum cila vicayagakaL” (A Few things Like these) shows the commonest bird in Tamil Nadu, namely, the House crow ( Corvus splendens) as friend.

Among birds, I like crows very much. It’s true, it is a thieving creature
Tactfully snatching away the etas from the hands of children In deed, it is a foolish creature
That comes and perches on the compound walls of the house And caws at the oddest hours.
Even then
Isn’t it my friend
That looks at me and calls out to me
In my village where I crawled as a baby and grew up And also in this city planted from elsewhere.
– emphasis author’s; Trans. Nirmal Selvamony

The persona in caa. aragkanaatan’s “en paciyum cila paRavaikaLum” (My Hunger and Some Birds; azakiyacigkar 169) takes an I-Thou attitude (Buber) to the birds and, what is more, talks to them as if he would to another person:

If anybody asks you
Tell them you don’t know. Oh birds,
It’s between you and your visitor. I just came to see
The bengalgram plant. The flocks
Are pecking at something. If I go, I get nothing.
In fact I came only to see The bengalgram plant.
I don’t know anything:
It’s between you and your visitor.
Eating by yourselves (without giving me also) pecking at the grains
without heeding what I repeatedly tell you, you may yourselves very well answer.
– Trans. Nirmal Selvamony

The narrator of Walt Whitman’s “I saw in Louisiana A live-Oak Growing” (Holloway 118) speaks of an oak tree in Louisiana that speaks and stands solitary without any friend or lover3:

I saw in Louisianan a live-oak growing, All alone stood it…
Without any companion it grew there uttering Joyous leaves of dark green (Note 2)

The speaker-persona of caa. aragkanaatan’s “taccuur pooneen” (I went to taccuur; azakiyacigkar 168-69) finds a peer-Thou in four Portia trees.

Swinging their tails, swaying their heads, and raising the dust moved the herd
with the half-naked children following them. The dust hit me as I walked, made me look at him again.

It was the age when you tied up the palmyrah stalk to the tail and chased– then at Seshaiyar’s house door would stand four Portia trees fanning the earth also to swing on the branches
to roll those leaves (and blow beep beep beep) and make whistles,
to hide away the marbles if you had won many those trees helped you.
The roots would snake upto their frontyard even.
For Seshaiyar’s daughter’s marriage
all the trees has been to furniture turned.

The craft of the carpenter was wonderful.
Now, what does it matter If there were everything Except those trees
That stood as if beckoning When you entered the street? Nowadays
I don’t spend much time at taccuur.
– Trans. Nirmal Selvamony

From early on such natural beings as the cloud, the bee, and the bird have been regarded by humans as messengers, (tolkaappiyam III. 8.192) who were at times peers too.

In human imagination nature has also figured as a superior force to reckon with. For example, in his poem, “Prelude” (I. 357-385; Selincourt 499) Wordsworth spoke of an epiphanic moment when the persona encountered a peak not as a peak but as a living giant.

Having considered the assumptions, and feelings of humans towards non – human beings, let us proceed to a brief discussion of human acts. Like the assumptions, acts could also fall under the two categories already mentioned, reductive and non-reductive. All human acts that reduce non-human beings to the level of an object or an inferior being that can with impugnity be manipulated or exploited could be termed “reductive acts.” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s persona in “God’s Grandeur” (Gardner and Mackenzie 66) speaks of such acts in the following manner:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Many of our economic acts fall within this category. Consider the lines of Wordsworth:
The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
– Selincourt 206

Writing shortly after the I World War, Rabindranath Tagore (Burns 97) gives poignant expression to the conflictual acts of humans, which threaten the rights of all:

The world today is wild with the delirium of hatred, The conflicts are cruel and unceasing in anguish

These conflicts have degraded the earth to such an extent that only the Buddah could in his “immeasurable mercy and goodness wipe away all dark stains from the heart of this earth.”

But, what is legitimate non-degrading relationship? A question that arises at this point has to do with the legitimacy of killing. Can people who are capable of engaging the non-human other in a non-reductive relationship kill it? Does not killing infringe the right to life? Can we say that all kinds of killing presume reductive relationship with the other? Now, killing and the non-reductive relationship with the killed are two different things. Prob ably, one has to regard the prey as an object in order to kill it, but this does not prevent the killer at another moment, to regard that very same prey as another worthy of respect and affection. In fact, this seems to be the way the primal people affirm their kinship with nature. In deed, they kill some of these kinfolk (the prey such as deer, moose, and buffalo, and other living beings like trees) when necessary (for food) but that fact that they have the power to kill does not warrant any hubris on their part as killers. Killing never went against kinship interests, but brought them closer to the prey (the killed) in a bond of fellowship and dependence. This fact became very clearly obvious to the American Indians when they witnessed a very different typ e of killing carried out by the invading white people. An old holy woman of the Wintu Indians of California said,

The white people never cared for land or deer or bear. When we Indians kill for meat, we eat it all up. When we dig roots we make little holes. When we build houses, we make little holes. When we burn grass for grasshoppers, we don’t ruin things. We shake down acorns and pine nuts. We don’t chop down the trees. We only use dead wood. But the white people plow up the ground, pull down the tree, kill everything. The tree says, “Don’t. I am sore. Don’t hurt me. (McLuhan 15; pirammaraacan 89)

Even a common act of plucking a flower could be an act of strangling and infringing the flower’s right to life. We may listen to what the persona of cureecan’s “enatanpu” (My Love; azakiyacigkar 22-23) has to say:

The crying of flowers I can hear
When the neck is twisted With fingers on the stalk. My foot, with open eyes, Walks on sand
Without stepping on a small ant And killing it.
– Trans. Nirmal Selvamony

In the politics of ecological relationship, humans have a greater responsibility to avoid situations wherein the non-human other, due to its vulnerability, could be reduced to the status of a victim or slave. What is legitimate within a framework may be illegitimate within another. A cartman’s right to drive the bullock the way he wants may be legitimized within the humanistic and homocentric world. But in an ecological world, the cartman may have to sacrifice his right for a greater cause, namely, his responsibility to protect the rights of animals. In such contexts, power lies in concealing it (even as art lies in concealing it); such occasions call for extraordinary humility, gentleness and compassion on the part of humans rather than hubris. Hubris including bravado is basically an expression of the Buberian I-It relationship often evident in acts of invasion and colonization. A counterpart of the colonizer who ravages the land only with an eye to profit and use figures in ilakkumi kumaaran gnaana tiraviyam’s “vaNTikkaaLai” (draft bullock; viruTcam kavitaikaL 147; ilakkumikumaaran 16-17) in the form of the cartman, who is totally insensitive to the plight of the bull that suffers untold pain and cruelty at his hands.

That I’m unable to take the next step Because of the bleeding
From the bruise from horseshoe on the forefeet I should tell him.
I should show him Crow picking worms
From the swelling on my neck The size of an unhusked coconut.
I should tell him
About the flies sucking up my life From the bruises from the whip. To remove the nylon rope
That aggravates the pain on the snout bruised like rice I should beg him.
It would be better
If I showed him the tail
That can’t anymore chase flies away Being broken from twisting
When rarely his cart I just couldn’t draw.
So thinking
It lay down ruminating;
Like a prisoner, the gallows awaiting; Quietly will it keep looking at him Coming with a smile
Shaking and draping his towel on his shoulder.
– Trans. Nirmal Selvamony

Insensitivity to the right-patient marks hunting for pleasure and as a motif it recurs in literature (Hussain; Shresht, Mani, Smith). A humorous treatment of it is in evidence in the following piece from Ogden Nash (Michael and Benton 119)4:

The Hunter

The hunter crouches in his blind ‘Neath camouflage of every kind, And conjures up a quacking noise To lend allure to his decoys.
This grown-up man, with pluck and luck, Is hoping to outwit a duck.

Active exercise of right involves the meeting of the right-agent and the right- patient. In such contexts, the least that is expected of both parties is acknowledgement of each other, a kind of phatic communion inevitably necessitated when both “meet.” The right to acknowledgement is a basic but unwritten organismic need. Though many of us could remember rare moments when we have felt the necessity/possibility of mutual greeting, the poets have succeeded in verbalizing those quite sensitively. A contemporary Tamil poet, paavaNNan (azakiyacigkar 74) has a piece about a creeper that announces its presence in a manner that is too compelling to be dismissed lightly.

ovvoru teeTalukkup pinnum (Behind Every Search)

The flowering creeper trained on the door arch will laugh;
it will wave in the breeze now and then and twinkle with flowers.
The flower’s attractiveness will melt my heart. The creepers will grow,
as they grow they will cover the door itself, they will block the grill door itself.

It will darken (the place).
There won’t be enough space for going in and out. I can’t bring myself to cut off the creeper too.
As a wall on another side is broken, a new gate comes up,
the flowering creeper will train on the new door too; adding to the attraction
it will abound with flowers;
long-grown creepers will obstruct the door.
– Trans. Nirmal Selvamony

The right of every being to a life of high quality has to be complemented by the right-agent’s responsibility rather than entitlement to right. Of our responsibility to “stand bewitched” turn to aatmaanaam’s (50) persona’s words (pirammaraacan 50):

unnuL niRaiyum ulakam (The World that Pervades you)

May you see the world
where everything is
new and bears the truth of the moment;
and may you stand bewitched
by its music profound.
– Trans. Nirmal Selvamony

A meeting of the kind described by aatmaanaam – – an encounter marked by novelty, a revelatory moment fascinating the beholder – – finds an illustration in teevateevan’s “velikkatavin matil meel oor anil” (A squirrel on the wall of the fence door; teevateevan 16):

On the brightly shining wall of fence door was a baby squirrel nibbling and
peering at something making its forelegs hands just like a human’s.
My wife too saw that sight
my face pointed to abruptly interrupting a debate.
‘This squirrel
I’ve already seen’ she said. ‘Impossible.
How do you say that quite certainly?’ The dust of debate rose again.
‘Shall we ask the squirrel this?’ I said.
The squirrel turned back and looked at us like a star poet performing before
a movie camera and said,
‘My stare, briskness, probing mind, and the secret of my vibrant health I owe to the following:
Being unburdened by everyday matters
I can do without!’

–Trans. Nirmal Selvamony

Sometimes there is an urge to move beyond the initial meeting and greeting, to engage the non-human other in an act. That is what the persona in aatmaanaam’s piece ‘ceTiyutan oru uraiyaaTal’ (A Conversation with a Plant; pirammaraacan 77) does: answers questions of a plant and engages in a conversation with it:

A plant looked at me and smiled.
I too was delighted with the new acquaintance. It asked me, ‘Who are you?’
‘Me, Me’
I didn’t know what to answer, sighed deeply.
‘Why’re you tossed about like this? Be quiet like me’.

–Trans. Nirmal Selvamony

Non-reductive praxis, like the ones we have been considering so far, calls for responsibility, and not mere rights. When agents become responsible, they do not stand on rights alone, but on higher values which call for acknowledging the worth of the patient (addressee). Accordingly, regarding a neem tree as a lady, a crow as a friend and a snake as a guest is common in poetry and this phenomenon usually goes by the name of “personification.” Now, is this a mere poetic device or a deeper aspect of ecological kinship? It is well known that the so -called civilized people of the world (let us say, the non-primal people) look upon trees and animals as lower beings either as in the wild or as domesticated. The wild/domestic categorization implies that those that are domesticated are useful to the humans, while those in the wild are not. But such a notion does not characterize the primal world.

Tatanga Mani (1871-1967), a Stoney Indian from Canada said, “Did you know that the tree talks? Well they do. They talk to each other, and they’ll talk to you if you listen….” (McLuhan 23). Do Mani and Beagi (Big Thunder) speak of the earth as mother (McLuhan 22) in a metaphorical manner in the same way as cuntaram piLLai does in the state anthem of the Tamil people?

Now, how do we reconcile these mutually incompatible attitudes to non – human beings? Could we say that the primal people are unenlightened and superstitious, and the non-primal people enlightened and therefore, closer to the truth? Or could it be the other way? Could it be that the primal people have a holistic attitude to nature whereas the attitude of non-primal people is partial, and therefore far from true? Anthropologist Dorothy Lee (McLuhan 15) spoke of the spiritual relationship the primal people enjoy with nature. The meat of the hunted animal should not be wasted, but utilized completely not for the sake of thrift, but for the sake of the spiritual kinship with the slain. Considering the fact that the spiritual bonding with nature still survives among the non-primal people also in some form or the other, especially, as practices such as the worship of trees and animals, one wonders whether this affirms a basic need in man, a need to express confraternity with nature. If this is so, can we regard personification and pathetic fallacy as remnants/survivals of an aboriginal ecological kinship humans man enjoyed with the whole of nature?

So much for the representation of non-reductive orientation in poetry. While we speak of human relationship to non-human beings we should not forget the relationship among the non-human members of the community themselves. They too enjoy a communitarian bonding that goes beyond each other’s rights. cinnakkapaali’s verse “cookam” (sorrow; azakiyacigkar 102), unlike Gieve Patel’s “On Killing a Tree” (Parthasarathy 86), portrays the suffering of a communitarian tree, not an autonomous one:

First of all they lopped off the crown, then
the fingers, the arms; tore off the chest.
Chopped off the thighs, and legs, and piled up all in a row.
Not even a moan, nor a drop of blood
in the faces of the loggers, no anger,
no pity either.
But still
the birds cried sorrowfully.

–Trans. Nirmal Selvamony

So far, we reflected on rights from an ecological perspective. Our deliberations have shown that we cannot speak of human right any more apart from the right of non-human beings. This in turn involves reviewing the relationship between humans and non-humans from an ecological angle. Such relationship could be put into two broad categories– attitudinal and praxiological. Human attitudinal and praxiological relationship with the non-human beings has been portrayed by poets in interesting ways problematising the rights of both parties and signposting the need to move beyond right into the terrain of responsibility. With the insights gained, an attempt has been made to draft a declaration of ecorights, which can be amended when and if necessary.

Universal Declaration of Ecorights

 Article 1: All organisms (human and non-human) are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Though all of them are not endowed with the same sentient and mental powers, all should act towards one another in a spirit of kinship.

Article 2: Every organism is entitled to all the rights of freedom set forth in this Declaration without any discrimination on the basis of either organismic status, or possessions of any kind, material or non-material.

Article 3: Every organism has the right to life, liberty and security.

Article 4: No organism shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5: No organism shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, or degrading treatment.

Article 6: Every organism (including man) has the right to recognition everywhere as an organism (and not above an organism) before law that is common to all organisms.

Article 7: All organisms are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.

Article 8: No organism shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. Article 9: Every organism has the right to “privacy,” family, and home; to be safeguarded against any attack upon its honour and dignity.

Article 10: Every organism has the right to freedom of movement and residence within its ecologically determined territory.

Article 11: Every organism has the right to land and territory.

Article 12: Every organism has the right to the resources required for its survival, sustenance and well-being.

Article 13: Every organism has the right to freedom of expression and the right includes freedom to change identity and association according to ecological welfare and positive eco-traditions.

Article 14: Every organism has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Article 15: Every organism has the right to take part in the government of its ecoterritory.

Article 16: Every organism has the right to ecological security (which includes the security of its community and territory)

Article 17: Every organism has the right to work and subsequent reward. Article 18: Every organism has the right to rest and leisure.

Article 19: Every organism has the right to an adequate quality of life; and the right to be safeguarded from threats to such necessary quality of life.

Article 20: Every organism has the right to knowledge necessary for the well-being of its community.

Article 21: Every organism has the right to participate in the events of its ecocommunity.

Article 22: Every organism has the right to an ecological order both local and global.

Article 23: Every organism has the right to duties to a positive ecocommunity. Article 24: Nothing in this Declaration of Ecorights should be interpreted in favour of any one class of organism (such as the humans) and nothing harmful to these rights should be indulged.


  1. To Aristotle ethics was a branch of politics in the sense that “it was the duty of the statesman to create for the citizen the best possible opportunity of living the good life.” (The Ethics of Aristotle 26). He maintained that “the study of moral goodness is part of political science,” and that the goodness we have to consider is the human goodness” ( cit., 51). To G. E. Moore (2), Ethics deals not so much with what is good or bad in human conduct, as with what is good p er se. Also see Harold H. Titus and Moris T. Keeton 12 ; Titus, Harold H. Titus 9; and Marcus Aurelius VI.23
    While Western ethicists regard ethics as a matter of human affairs, Indian notions of ethics are more inclusive. aRam (virtue) is an ultimate principle (tolkaappiyam III, 8. 102) which characterizes human’s relationship with other human beings, nature, and God. This could be borne out by evidences from both tolkaappiyam and cagkam Literaure. Dharma (virtue) is right conduct but inseparably tied up with the systems of varna and ashrama. Rta is understood either as a cosmic order or the order that is involved in the proper expression of human’s relation to the Gods, or simply as moral order (McKenzie 6).
  1. See Selvamony
  2. A comparable piece is Manjeri Isvaran’s “The Neem is a Lady,” which narrates the tragic story of the neem—how the tree got married to the majestic Pippala with due wooden rites, and thereafter, the bowels of the handsome Pippala were ripped open by a blazing bolt. But lady neem “st ill dreams that dream of old, bygone bliss/of the splendor of her husband in his prime.” (Gokak 219-20). Also, for a significant meeting of a monkey child and a human child, see Sujata Bhatt’s poem, “The Stare.” Rajani, P., V. Rajagoplan and Nirmal Selvamony 197-98).
  3. Compare Hilaire Belloc’s “Hippopotamus” (Kennedy 528): I shot the Hippopotamus With bullets made of platinum Because, if I use leaden ones His hide is sure to flatten ‘em.


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