Marginlands: Indian Landscapes on the Brink Arati Kumar-Rao
264 pages|₹ 699
An ice stupa for water storage, Ladakh (Photo: Alamy)
ARATI KUMAR-RAO, an “environmental photographer, writer and artist, and National Geographic explorer” fulfils all four of these functions in an exemplary way in Marginlands. She evocatively tells us the stories of the wasted landscapes of our country and of the unforgivable official neglect of traditional wisdom and knowledge systems, which sustained the people living here.
To cover these vast landscapes, Kumar-Rao has trudged and climbed, trekked and travelled by water and land, to the deserts and high mountains, to the great river basins and swamps, valleys and coastlines. She has met with, and shared endless cups of laal cha with the residents, whose knowledge and wisdom the planners in our governments have discarded and disregarded.
Most of that knowledge is invaluable for a country as diverse as India, where the one-size-fits-all policy does not work. In the far reaches of the Thar she meets shepherds and locals who can figure out where water lies beneath the sand just by studying the virtually imperceptible slope of the dunes; she meets the fishers who know where the fish swim by the currents and flows of the river systems. The enormous, expensive ‘development projects’ launched by the government invariably mess up these working ecosystems and with it the lives of the people who have made a satisfactory living off the land and water.
Great rivers are plugged up by enormous dams and barrages, causing siltation, so that the invaluable sediments brought down by them no longer spread out in the river basins. The barrages cut off the migratory routes and breeding areas of fish (West Bengal’s precious hilsa is one victim), or are dredged so that huge container ships will not flounder, (endangering such apex predators as river dolphins). Mangroves are destroyed for ports, forgetting that they are, perhaps, the best bulwarks against tidal rage. Seawalls are constructed to keep the angry sea at bay, simply displacing the ocean’s invasion to other places. Deforestation in the hills leads to devastating flash floods that flatten everything in their path.
To top it off there’s global warming, which is melting the glaciers in the Himalayas at an alarming rate. And yet, the locals produce solutions, for example the construction of ice stupas, which ensure a steady supply of mountain water in summer. There is our usual casualness too: Army camps set up in Ladakh (which are vital for our security) throw trash, which has proved a bonanza for fierce, feral Tibetan Mastiffs, whose population has exploded to 30,000 and who are playing havoc with the local wildlife, including the rare black-necked crane. In the Thar, giant windmills are slicing up the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard and long-billed vulture. The apparent thoughtlessness in planning and the lack of garnering feedback and wisdom from the locals or bouncing ideas off them is underscored in the book. Even elephant herds know the value of traditional wisdom better than us, as they faithfully follow their matriarchs to sources of water in tough times.
It is the indigenous people (and the environment) who pay the price for the grand ‘development’ of cities. These people fall into debt and must trudge to these same cities to eke a precarious living.
The writing is riveting, and quite rightly has been described as “luminous” (by author and traveller Paul Salopek). This book needs to be mandatory reading for all the planning mandarins who ought to get out of their offices and do the kind of fieldwork Kumar-Rao has done, before launching their grandiose projects. Perhaps then they will realise that the lives these projects affect belong to real people and that they are not mere ciphers and statistical numbers. They are human beings with families to raise, who have lived in harmony with their environment for generations. Which is more than can be said for most of us.