The Idea of India Makes Little Room for Its Ecology

At a time when public debate about nationalism and the idea of India is being intensely conducted across university campuses and in millions of drawing rooms, we must remind ourselves that our lives, culture and understanding of land are ecologically grounded. An ecological perspective interrogates dominant views of nationalism and allows us to approach the question with greater nuance and sensitivity.

A couple of years ago, I went to the Sunderbans – the vast deltaic ecosystem straddling eastern India and Bangladesh – to talk to people there about how sea level rise was affecting their lives. An encroaching sea had been nibbling away at those islands for years – and continues to do so – causing tens of thousands to abandon their homes and fields, and move further inland, or move out. We stayed one night at the edge of Sagar island; all along that stretch of coast were abandoned homes and saline lands, broken trunks of dead coconut trees jutting into the sky, creating a landscape one can only describe as surreal.

This erosion of our lands is happening not just in West Bengal, but in many parts across India’s vast coastline. It’s happening along parts of the Orissa and Tamil Nadu coasts; on the other side of the Indian landmass, it was reported some years ago that the advancing sea was forcing people to move out from Gujarat’s Valsad and Bharuch districts. “The poorest are the most directly affected,” said a scientist who studied this manifestation of global warming. “They can’t afford to shift but they can’t stay here either.”

That sea level rise is going to increase and accelerate over the next few years and decades is an accepted scientific fact; the only point of debate is how fast this will happen. It will happen to a greater degree because the great ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica will melt at an accelerating rate, a trend that may have already begun. Most timeframes of this process tend to stop at the end of this century, but the nature of ice sheet melting is such that once it starts, it carries on for thousands of years. The greatest threat to our lands may come from just beyond our shores, not from what we think, but from the sea.

If any of us have fixed geographical notions of the nation-state, the rise and fall of sea levels everywhere ought to give us pause. Not just in warnings about the near future, but also lessons from the past. As the Earth went into and out of warm interglacials – such as the present one – water got frozen in the ice sheets at the peak of ice ages or melted into the sea during the interglacials, altering the levels of ocean waters by dozens of metres and re-creating land borders in the process. Not just here, but also elsewhere; perhaps the most striking example is the Channel that now divides England and Europe. At one time, England and France were contiguous landmass. Over anything beyond the short term, our borders are drawn not by us, but by the oceans.

There are at least two other ways in which global warming and its effects gently – and sometimes more abruptly – interrogate our modern political imagination of the nation. Some ecosystems effortlessly straddle national boundaries. That is to state the obvious; but in an era of global warming, so do its effects, which raises questions about how we ought to respond. Most of the hundreds of glaciers studied across the Himalayan ecosystem are melting – in India, Pakistan and China. A number of Asia’s legendary rivers – including the Indus, the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Mekong and the Yangtze – originate in the glaciated heights of the Tibetan Plateau. The effects of global warming in one region will hurt people across boundaries. This particularly holds true for the Indus, whose waters derive – much more than say, the Ganga or the Brahmaputra – to an overwhelming degree from glacial melt. Glaciers melting and then receding in Tibet will dry up the Indus, and will devastate agriculture and shrink water supplies for millions of people dependent on them beyond its borders, in Ladakh, and in Pakistan. Ecological crises of this nature and scale demand political and policy responses that transcend rigid nation-state frames.

Third, as global warming’s effects begin to intensify and speed up, millions of people will pour across borders. Some studies indicate that one of the multiple, complex factors that have influenced the current refugee crisis in Europe is the massive drought – likely influenced by climate change – that has hit Syria over the past few years. As rising sea levels engulf the Maldives and particularly large tracts of low-lying Bangladesh, India becomes an obvious destination for their climate refugees. If you’re alarmed at the prospect, reflect on the fact that migration might also likely happen in the other direction – desperate Indians also running away, from persistent droughts, a collapsing agriculture and rising heat levels. These are not prognostications; the signs of all of these have already begun. They might end up being internal migrants, or migrate beyond our shores to places with more water or a more hospitable climate. Will they be received with greater grace than the Shiv Sena displayed a few years ago towards job-seeking migrants from North India? Will they be more welcome than the Syrian and other refugees are in Europe presently?

The answers to those questions will depend upon the openness, or rigidity, with which people here and elsewhere regard the idea of the nation, who ‘we’ are. Ecologies and a changing climate – which is far more powerful than we give it credit – ought to make us realise that a hard notion does not capture changing complexities, nor is very helpful. On the other hand, greater flexibility and more humbleness may make us better prepared to cope with the challenges that a warming climate and other ecological crises pose before us.

Nagraj Adve works and writes on issues related to global warming. He can be reached at [email protected].