Unearthed: An Environmental History of Independent India – Meghaa Gupta

Unearthed: The Environmental History of Independent India - Penguin Random  House India

This is a book whose reading must be made mandatory in every high school across India. Meghaa Gupta, whose personal involvement with environmental studies has been sustained and storied, has written a compelling and concise book that engages the reader in a purposeful fashion, and succeeds admirably in inducing a sense of introspection and instilling a degree of responsibility for protecting and preserving the environment. As Ms. Gupta illustrates, both the management and mismanagement of the ecology in independent India has been a contrivance of circumstances, condition and capitalism. For example, circumstances that brought in an existential crisis in the form of hunger, forced India to transform from a ship-to-mouth (importing food grains) situation to a firm advocate of Green Revolution. Drawing on the tenets and philosophy of Norman Borlaugh, a Scientist referred to popularly as the Father of Green Revolution, India produced its own father of Green Revolution in the form of Dr. M.S.Swaminathan. Similarly, an alarming depletion of tiger population in the country, that almost brought this magisterial animal to the brink of extinction, spurred both the State Machinery and the National Government to institute a raft of legislation and measures such as the Project Tiger initiative and strengthening the Wildlife Protection Act, that remarkably stemmed the rot in the form of devious poaching. Capitalism on the other hand, has acted as a double edged sword. While liberalization and globalization has ensured that India has become one of the fastest growing economies in the global market, it has also ensured that the number of water bodies in the metropolitan city of Chennai had depleted from 600 to 30 by the year 2017. In fact, as Mr. Gupta illustrates, on the 19th of June 2019, Chennai ran out of most of its potable water. This “Day Zero” led to the declaration of an emergency.

Ms. Gupta covers issues of topical interest in a manner that is pleasing on the eye and easy to comprehend. Abhorring jargons and cold shouldering ‘treatise language’, she makes each topic engaging and enlightening. At the end of many a Chapter she also provides a well calculated and inspirational ‘nudge’ by setting out stellar examples of ordinary individuals whose feats elevated them to extraordinary pedestals, and urging youngsters to following the path carved out by them. For instance, while writing about the memorable “Chipko” or tree hugging movement that saw men and women hugging trees to prevent their commercial felling, Ms. Gupta brings to the attention of her young readers the exploits of the great Sunderlal Bahuguna. “He walked close to 5000 kilometres across Himalayan villages, spreading awareness about the movement and gathering supporters. Bahuguna’s long walk, similar to Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March, made him famous as the ‘Mahatma of India’s forests’”. Consider the following description of the one man who arguably was the torch bearer of elephant conservation in India. “Raman Sukumar is often called India’s ‘elephant man’ and is one of the most definitive voices on the ecology of Asian elephants and human-wildlife conflict. In 1986, he helped set up India’s first biosphere reserve—a significant ecosystem with a large population of elephants—in the Western Ghats. It has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. More than a decade later, he established the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation that promotes field research and conservation efforts to protect Asian elephants.”

From the historical to the contemporaneous, Ms. Gupta’s entrancing book covers 73 years of India’s tryst with the environment. As Ms. Gupta optimistically demonstrates we have come a long way in not just prospering collectively as a nation but also ensuring that we maintain a symbiotic and respectful relationship with ecology in general. Such an attitude has led to the promulgation of many reforms:

  1. An area of 10,400 square kilometres around the monument was set aside as the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ). Industries within the TTZ could not use fossil fuels like coal. Those that did had to close down, shift or switch to using natural gas;
  2. Mawlynnong, a nondescript hamlet in the state of Meghalaya has been designated the cleanest village in Asia. Boasting just a little over ninety houses and with a population of approximately 500, Mawlynnong has 100% literacy and inhabitants of this agricultural community collect garbage is collected in bamboo bins;
  3. The CII-Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre in Hyderabad is a building with an LEED rating. Constructed using significant amount of recycled material, such as broken glass and tiles and fly-ash, the CII-Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre uses rainwater harvesting and also recycles all its wastewater. Air-cooling towers sprinkle the air with water to cool it and gardens on the roof also bring down the temperature. This reduces the amount of air conditioning required. The building is designed in such a way that for a large part of the day it gets direct sunlight and doesn’t need artificial lighting. These are among the many ways in which the building saves energy.

But as Ms. Gupta also illustrates with equal concern, there are still enormous tasks to be accomplished if India needs to overcome environmental pollution and damage. The Central Ground Water Board of India in an ominous assessment of groundwater pollution has emphasized that groundwater in several Indian states is polluted with high amounts of chemical components like nitrates, fluorides, arsenic and lead. Some of these have seeped into the water when wells have been dug too deep. Delhi still continues to be the smog capital of the world, a landfill in Ghazipur is as tall as the Qutb Minar, and by 2030, 40% of the Indian population is at a risk of facing acute shortage.

While we might have succeeded in launching the largest number of satellites into space from a single rocket, we have not been completely successful in eradicating the pernicious ills of pollution and poverty. However, as Ms. Gupta exhorts it is within and in each of us to contribute our incremental bit and make this Planet a tad bit better every passing day. May The Force Be With Us.