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Of gains and pains : An environmental history of India

Meghaa Gupta | Updated on October 16, 2020 Published on October 16, 2020

Mixed bag: A sense of loss — of simpler times when pollution and climate change were unheard of — lingers despite the rapid strides towards development   -  THULASI KAKKAT

Author Meghaa Gupta turns the lens on the country’s environmental history in a book for children and lay readers

Among my many childhood memories are my grandfather’s anecdotes about ‘the good old days’. I heard stories of a time when pankhas — hand-held fans — kept him cool and kerosene lamps gave light, when it was normal to walk or cycle several kilometres to go to school, when few had seen a car, let alone sat in one, and fast food was an alien concept. I saw it as a trying childhood and argued relentlessly about how nothing seemed ‘good’ about those days!

He’s no more, but his anecdotes are still with me. I’ve often found myself remembering my own childhood and wondering how tedious it might appear to children today, bereft as it was of the internet and the mobile phone, among many other delights.

Hidden in this mesh of memories is a fascinating account of development: Of how India went from being a largely underdeveloped country during my grandfather’s childhood to one of the fastest growing economies today. History fills us with pride at what we’ve achieved. Yet, lurking behind this pride is a sense of what we’ve lost — a time when life was simpler and no one had heard of pollution or climate change.

Unearthed: An Environmental History of Independent India / Meghaa Gupta /Puffin / Non-fiction / ₹299

 

My book Unearthed: An Environmental History of Independent India chronicles this development — from the days of the Partition to the National Action Plan for Climate Change — so that young readers can understand how we’ve grown, and how our choices and actions have impacted our environment.

Having held a day job in children’s publishing for close to a decade, it was but natural that the idea to write a book on this subject for children came instinctively to me. Besides, I couldn’t find enough books that offered an easy introduction to environmental history, suitable for both young and lay readers.

What struck me the most about environmental history was its close connection to our everyday lives — covering disparate aspects such as the type of waste in our dustbins and food on our tables to the source of water that comes into our homes and the state of the air that we’re breathing. It wasn’t an epiphany but I delighted in it and wanted to express it in my own words.

At the stroke of the midnight hour, India awoke to freedom that came with its own set of trials and tribulations. The land had been ruthlessly divided, creating a dire refugee crisis and a rift not just between communities but also over the sharing of natural resources, especially rivers.

Independent India faced several problems. One of its biggest concerns was an acute shortage of foodgrain. To overcome this, efforts were made to modernise agriculture and boost productivity in the 1960s, leading to what is known as the Green Revolution. Its other concern was an ambitious need to industrialise.

At the centre of our plans to modernise agriculture and build our own industries lay large multipurpose dams — marvels of engineering that prompted Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to call them the ‘temples’ of India’s progress. Water from these dams would not only irrigate our fields but also generate valuable hydroelectricity for industries.

Development brought progress, but it came at a cost — a nearly hostile takeover of nature. Forests were cleared to make way for roads, agriculture, human settlements and factories. Rivers were cut up by dams. Chemical pesticides and fertilisers were pumped into agriculture. People in many parts of the country were beginning to get adversely affected by this development drive. In the 1970s, simmering discontent boiled into the first major people’s movements to safeguard the environment from rapacious development. We hugged our trees and protested against dams with unflagging conviction.

Yet, it took a horrendous gas leak at a pesticide factory in Bhopal to shake up India’s collective conscience and make us realise the unimaginable perils of reckless industrialisation. That cold December in 1984 proved to be a turning point in the story of our development and the environmental history of our land. We established the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1985 and passed the Environment Protection Act a year later.

But even the Bhopal Gas Tragedy couldn’t stem our ever-growing appetite for development. Following the economic liberalisation process that started taking shape in 1991, India found itself in an era of unprecedented prosperity. It was, in many ways, a second wave of massive development, which brought its own share of environmental debacles.

My tryst with environmental history was rather fortuitous. It began in 2013 when I was commissioned to compile a handbook on courses and careers in the environmental field for students in India. In the course of researching that book, I found myself immersed in rich environmental literature by scholars such as Mahesh Rangarajan, K Sivaramakrishnan, Ramachandra Guha, Madhav Gadgil and Pranay Lal. I spoke to people who worked in environmental law, science, education, journalism, film-making, tourism and other such fields and was inspired by how they persisted with their work even in the face of great apathy. It was the best kind of education possible, one driven entirely by interest.

Writing this book has been a precious milestone in my life. The biggest joy has been discovering and deconstructing a story of our past that’s ever more relevant to our present and imperative for our future.

Meghaa Gupta works in children’s publishing and her book ‘Unearthed: An Environmental History of Independent India’ was published by Puffin in August

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Published on October 16, 2020
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