Two things stand out in Elemental India: The Natural World at a Time of Crisis and Opportunity, a book by Meera Subramanian, a young American independent journalist of Indian origin. The first is that it isn’t simply a litany of all that has gone so terribly wrong with India’s environment, but also focuses on green campaigners who are doing admirable work to arrest the onslaught.
The second is that it well written, with many personal experiences and accounts based on her extensive travels as a Fulbright-Nehru fellow. It would thus appeal to anyone who need not necessarily be green.
Subramanian uses metaphors for the five elements – prithvi or earth, ap or water, agni or fire, vayu or air and akasha or ether – to illustrate both the threat to the environment and the possibilities of redressing them.
Perhaps most enthralling is the story of the country’s vanishing vultures, not commonly known to most people. Appropriately featured in the vayu chapter, the account is from Subramanian’s time as a reporter in India in 2009. Once the gawky sentinels of the skies, vultures are now invisible; the harbingers of death are themselves facing extinction.
The account brought back memories of a cyclone – the vayu in full force – in Mumbai in the 1940s, when I was a child, that grounded these ungainly birds and forced them to huddle in a corner of the garden. I had never been in such close proximity to these huge, grizzly predators. They were usually perched on the top of very tall tadgola trees and my attempts to shoot them with my air gun were dismissed with a disdainful ruffle of the feathers.
The story also outlines the intricate link between the introduction of new chemicals and life on the planet, immortalised by Rachel Carson in her Silent Spring in 1962, which is thought to have heralded environmental consciousness in the US. Two scientists, from the US and Kenya, the latter a raptor biologist of South Asian origin, began analysing the carcasses of around 2,500 vultures. In 2003, they discovered the culprit – vultures had ingested diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug, from the carcasses of dead cattle, who had been given the drug to ease discomfort in their cracked hooves and swollen udders. Diclofenac is similar to the commonly-used ibuprofen.
It took a lot of pressure from biologists and the Bombay Natural History Society for the government to ban the sale of diclofenac for veterinary use. But, as Subramanian, writes, “It was already too late. The Gyps [species] vulture population had plummeted from forty million to fifty thousand in the decade after veterinary diclofenac was introduced.”
A (IUCN) estimates that 600 vultures consume the same amount of animal waste as a medium utility plant required to dispose it. The India office of the IUCN has also estimated the economic value of the scavenging services: a vulture is worth 6.96 lakh rupees in urban India and 5.85 lakh rupees in rural areas.
Biologists are painstakingly trying to breed vultures at places like Pinjore in Haryana and the Buxa tiger sanctuary in West Bengal. Although their task is tough, as a female vulture produces eggs very sparingly, their efforts are gradually producing results.
Like the disappearance of birds due to the indiscriminate use of pesticide detailed in Silent Spring, the decimation of vultures has one horrific consequence. India has the largest cattle population in the world and without these scavengers, carcasses on the outskirts of villages and smaller towns will be consumed by crows and feral dogs. These come into contact with humans, unlike vultures, and new diseases can mutate in the carcasses, which take longer to dispose of. This could lead to severe epidemics, a possibility that cannot be ignored. All those who campaign against the killing of cattle ought to be aware of such dire outcomes.
The environmental mutineers
Subramanian fleshes out each of the five elements with the sagas of warriors who are fighting environmental destruction. Some, like Rajendra Singh, the ‘rainman‘ of Rajasthan who has revived rivers in the arid wastes of Alwar, are the usual suspects. Many others are unfamiliar even to other greens.
Subramanian doesn’t attempt to answer this. That is true of another recent book by a young environmental journalist, Bahar Dutt’s Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World (HarperCollins, 2014). A more holistic account is Landscapes and Lives: Environmental Dispatches on Rural India by Mukul Sharma (OUP, 2001).
The closest partly green but localised political movement to emerge was the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha in the 1980s, led by the intrepid Shankar Guha Niyogi, who was murdered by people with vested interests. Some would say the AAP, with its alternate number plate policy in Delhi, are also practising green politics of a sort.
Subramanian, understandably for an outsider, doesn’t venture to the question of how the present government is dismantling environmental laws and launching infrastructure and other major projects without due assessment of the damage they can cause.
Ultimately, as the late British science journalist David Dickson pointed out in his 1975 book, Politics of Alternative Technology, an alternative technology is only possible in an alternative society.
Elemental India: The Natural World at a Time of Crisis and Opportunity, Meera Subramanian, Harper Litmus, 2015, Rs. 599.
The book is also available in the US under the title ‘A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka’.