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Opinion | Some questions that can lead us to a brighter future

We need answers to questions of a changing world. Questions such as the shape migration will take as parts of the world become unfit for habitation. Questions such as access to potable water

While some citizens in Assam favour a more restrictive law, compatriots in other parts of the country are clamouring for a more inclusive one. (Photo: PTI)Premium
While some citizens in Assam favour a more restrictive law, compatriots in other parts of the country are clamouring for a more inclusive one. (Photo: PTI)

It’s that time of the year again. Much of the modern world dials down its hectic pace, albeit for just a few days, to revel in holiday cheer, reflect on the months that went by, and prepare for the year ahead. Each passing year reminds us that we are one milestone closer to the complex and unpredictable world of the future which we must prepare ourselves for. The need to understand and adapt to the changing world is here and now.

At this time, I thought it fit to write about five unanswered questions that have come my way this year, for which we must find answers in the years to come.

Let me begin with the topical. Our nation’s response to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has spanned both extremes. While some citizens in Assam favour a more restrictive law, compatriots in other parts of the country are clamouring for a more inclusive one.

Notwithstanding this, our current preoccupation with the CAA underscores a greater imperative to understand the past, present, and future of a broader phenomenon, one that has arguably played a significant role in the course of human history— migration.

Wednesday was International Migrants Day. Going back 300,000 years, the first Homo sapiens are believed to have migrated out of Africa, to Asia, Oceania, and Europe. More recently, the number of migrants in the world has increased more than three-fold in the last 50 years, from 84 million in 1970 to 271 million today.

One must ask the question what shape migration will take in an era where parts of the world may be unfit for human habitation. Political and economic causes for migration may make way for environmental causes. Trans-national migration may lead to trans-planetary migration.

While on the topic of the environment, one area of great concern is our access to and use of fresh water. Local water ecosystems are tipping off the fine balance they have maintained for centuries. At a regional level, it is a matter of time before Himalayan snow melts and floods the plains of north India. While a large number of research groups across the world are beginning to address various aspects of the problem, the question of water is yet to be framed in a holistic manner, considering the three axes of time, space, and knowledge—connecting the past with the present and future, connecting the global with the regional and the local, and connecting various disciplines of knowledge such as hydrology, civil engineering, environmental science, metrology, and human behaviour. This is all the more critical for us here in India, as South Asia is the focal point of a global water crisis.

Connected to the issue of water is that of population growth and demographics. Most demographic studies do not factor in dramatic increases in lifespan. However, there are many efforts underway within the scientific community to increase not just lifespan, but healthspan—which is the duration of time for which we can live independently, actively and in good health. Substances such as resveratrol have been proven to increase lifespan by slowing down the chemical pathways that lead to ageing. The presence of this substance in red wine, for example, is thought to explain the so-called “French paradox"—the mystery of how people in a country like France with a high-fat diet enjoy relatively higher life expectancy.

Genetic modifications in smaller species have led to a six-fold increase in lifespan. A dramatic increase in human healthspan poses several fundamental questions. At a sociological level, how do we deal with family structures, with, say, six generations living together at once? From an economic standpoint, would social security systems bear the strain? From a philosophical point of view, would we feel the need to have children and perpetuate our genes, if we ourselves become somewhat perpetual?

Speaking of philosophy, one of the most interesting tensions humanity has witnessed in the last millennium is the interplay between science and faith. Scientists who have questioned long-held faiths and beliefs have, since the dark ages, been branded as heretics and faced persecution. However, both science and faith attempt to answer the same question of what is reality. Science attempts to do so in an observable and repeatable manner, but within the constraints of assumptions and conditions, while faith attempts to do so in an absolute and unconstrained manner, though not apparently observable and repeatable. In the past century, scientific progress has enabled us to broaden these constraints to expand the boundaries within which scientific reality remains valid. Can we continue to expand these boundaries so that science and faith may assist and not contradict each other in their quest for reality?

Finally, while we all agree that we have formidable problems to understand and solve this century, it has not been easy to get countries and people around the world to begin thinking about addressing these global challenges in a collaborative manner. This has become extremely difficult, given the climate of nationalism and self-absorption evolving in countries across the world. It is hard to imagine organizations such as the United Nations being re-invigorated enough to be the answer. How then are we going to work together to face challenges.

Kapil Viswanathan is vice-chairman of Krea University

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Updated: 19 Dec 2019, 11:08 PM IST
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