Category Archives: rivers

The other invisible hand

One of the perils of ignoring the environment is the consequent failure to notice that the environment never ignores you. Healthy environments support human health and flourishing even as conservation secures natural resources and livelihoods. On the flip side, environmental degradation rebounds as economic losses, while pollution strikes at the heart of public health. Can one afford to ignore the environment when it affects both economy and health?

This global question now confronts India, as a developing nation surging ahead towards its predicted destiny as the world’s third largest economy by 2030. In its pursuit of a neo-liberal growth model, focused on indices such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the country has accorded lower priority to public health and environment (in the last national budget, the already low financial allocations for these sectors were slashed further by 20% and 25%, respectively). The growth model presumes that social benefits will accrue via the ‘invisible hand’ of market forces, possibly mediated by increased public revenues and spending following economic growth. Meanwhile, environmental conservation remains predicated on creation of regulations and reserves, while public health is contingent on access to clinics and care. Governance systems consider economy, ecology, and health as different domains, ignoring their inescapable connections.

India cannot afford to let this situation continue longer. The country confronts unprecedented air and water pollution and environmental contamination and degradation. Connections among health, economy, and environment revealed by recent research needs to urgently inform policy and praxis.

Smog in the skies of Delhi, India

Smog in the skies over New Delhi, India (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Pollution, health, and economy

Take the recent air pollution crisis in the national capital, New Delhi. Implicated in serious lung, respiratory, and other diseases affecting its citizens including over 2 million schoolchildren, the crisis exemplifies a country-wide malaise. Over 660 million people, half of India’s population, live in areas where fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution exceeds the National Ambient Air Quality Standard, reducing life expectancy by an estimated 3.2 years on average.

In 2011, PM2.5 and other atmospheric emissions from 111 coal-fired power plants across India resulted in 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths and over 20 million asthma cases. The economic cost to the public and the government was estimated at US$ 3.2 – 4.6 billion. Agriculture, too, is seriously affected. Climate and air pollution impact (due to ozone and black carbon) has reduced average wheat crop yields across India in 2010 by up to 36%, with yield loss up to 50% in some densely populated states.

Air pollution is not restricted to cities but extends into the countryside because of poorly regulated industries and coal-based thermal power plants (Photo: Aruna Chandrasekhar).

Air pollution is not restricted to cities but extends into the countryside because of poorly regulated industries and coal-based thermal power plants (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar).

Indoor air pollution due to use of inefficient biomass-based cookstoves is another serious health issue. In India, it causes over one million deaths and affects the health of over 400 million people, particularly women and children.

Similar concerns, connecting health, ecology, and economy, arise in water pollution and over-dependence on chemicals in industrial agriculture. The Central Ground Water Board reported recently that over half of India’s districts suffered groundwater contamination, including with heavy metals above permissible levels in 113 districts across 15 states. Along rivers, about two thirds of the water courses are polluted, with nearly 275 of 290 monitored rivers having highly polluted stretches. Water pollution does not only cause water-borne diseases and other direct health impacts, it can negatively affect diet and livelihoods due to the loss of fish and aquatic resources, contamination of soils and loss of agricultural productivity downstream of industrial and mining sites.

A 2013 World Bank study estimated that the financial and social costs of environmental degradation in India amounted to about US$ 80 billion or 5.7% of the country’s GDP. Of this, outdoor air pollution accounted for 29%, followed by indoor air pollution (23%), cropland degradation (19%), water supply and sanitation (14%), and pasture and forest degradation (15%).

River polluted with industrial effluents and ash from coal-based thermal power plants in Korba, one of India's most polluted industrial clusters (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

River polluted with industrial effluents and ash from coal-based thermal power plants in Korba, one of India’s most polluted industrial clusters located in Chhattisgarh District (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

Environment, climate change, and public health

How environment affects public health is often difficult to trace, but connections are evident and significant. A 2006 World Health Organisation (WHO) study attributed 24% of the disease burden (healthy life years lost) and 23% of all deaths (premature mortality) worldwide to environmental factors. The burden of environment-mediated disease and mortality is also higher in developing countries. Further, a large part of this is due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

In 2014, the WHO country profile for India noted that 60% of the 9.8 million human deaths were due to NCDs. The four big killers—cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases, cancer, and diabetes—account for 48% of all deaths and 80% of deaths due to NCDs. NCDs are a global problem—causing 68% of 56 million global deaths in 2012—that disproportionately affects low- and middle-income countries. Cardiovascular and respiratory health suffers due to air pollution, while cancers and hormonal disruption are known to occur due to many pollutants in the environment.

Scientists predict that the health situation will worsen under ongoing climate change. Increasing incidence of NCDs, besides other effects such as rise in vector-borne diseases and injuries due to climate extremes, is likely. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded with very high confidence that climate change will exacerbate existing health problems over the next few decades.

The economic fallout will also be high. One study estimated that India’s GDP in 2004 would have been 4% – 10% higher if NCDs were completely eliminated, while a 2014 report estimates that India stands to lose over US$ 4.58 trillion between 2012 and 2030 due to NCDs. Economic policies that alter occupation, mobility, and diet can exacerbate these problems, such as when lifestyles become more sedentary or livelihoods change from rural or forest-based occupations to working in polluted industrial areas as wage labour. The health – environment – economy connect has become a vital concern in recent debates such as over mining in forests where forest-dependent communities live, land acquisition of farms for industry and infrastructure, and reducing pollution from coal and shifting to renewables.

Expansion of mining in a Constitutionally-protected Adivasi District of Latehar in Jharkhand, where communities risk forced evictions, loss of common property resources, and livelihoods (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

Expansion of mining in the Constitutionally-protected Adivasi District of Latehar in Jharkhand, where communities risk forced evictions, loss of common property resources and livelihoods (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

Health in all, for all

As research findings accumulate, the connections between environment, health, and economy grow stronger. This has many implications for policy. For instance, health impact assessments must become a mandatory part of environmental and social impact assessments in industrial and development projects. The GDP-centric measurement of progress should make way for more holistic indices that include progress in health and environmental protection. Instead of viewing environment as a ‘hindrance’ or public health as a ‘burden’, economic policy must consider these integral to human development, and provide higher financial outlays. Finally, India’s draft National Health Policy 2015 recognises the need to integrate environmental and social determinants of health across all sectors, in keeping with the ‘Health in All’ approach, but concrete actions required in individual sectors are yet to be identified.

Ultimately, human lives and livelihoods, health and resources derive from the natural environment: humans are a part of nature. The environment is, in that sense, the other invisible hand that leads to a cleaner and safer, more alive and inspiring world where people can live and flourish. Environmental health subsumes and is connected to human health, just as the health of one’s body subsumes and is connected to the health of one’s heart.

(This post first appeared here in the International Health Policies Blog.)

Select references

  1. Greenstone, M., Nilekani, J., Pande, R., Ryan, N., Sudarshan, A., and Sugathan, A. 2015. Lower pollution, longer lives: life expectancy gains if India reduced particulate matter pollution. Economic and Political Weekly 50(8): 40–46.
  2. Guha, R. 2014. The other illiteracy: the Indian road to unsustainability. The Telegraph 9 August 2014.
  3. Pradyumna, A. 2015. Health aspects of the Environmental Impact Assessment process in India. Economic and Political Weekly 50(8): 57–64.
  4. Prüss-Üstün, A., and Corvalán, C. 2006. Preventing disease through healthy environments: towards an estimate of the environmental burden of disease. World Health Organisation, Geneva.
  5. World Bank. 2013. India: Diagnostic assessment of select environmental challenges an analysis of physical and monetary losses of environmental health and natural resources (in Three Volumes). World Bank Report No. 70004-IN.

Blowin’ in the wind — II

From a boat on Assam’s Deepor Beel—the freshwater lake lying south-west of Guwahati, the largest city in India’s northeast—you can look east past thousands of waterbirds and a carpet of floating leaves to see the city’s seething, smoking garbage dump. Under spotless blue skies, a thin brown haze blankets the lake from fringing forest to quarried hillock, from skirting township to the Boragaon dumpyard. As another dump truck lurches to a halt and tips its load of filth over, an unruly mob of Black Kites and a cloud of dark mynas explode from the murky earth flapping like pieces of tattered cloth caught in a gust. The truck deposits another mound of unsegregated waste—a fraction of the more than 600 tons generated daily from the city of nearly a million people—all plastic and putrefaction, chicken heads and pigs entrails, street dirt and kitchen waste, broken glass and soiled cloth, bulbs and batteries and wires and electronics and metal and paper and more. Beside the truck waits a line of people: women, adolescents, and children. And behind them, a phalanx of Greater Adjutant storks—tall, ungainly birds with dagger-like beaks and naked yellow and pink necks—awaits its turn.

At the Boragaon garbage dump near Deepor Beel, Assam (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

At the Boragaon garbage dump near Deepor Beel, Assam (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

In company with cattle and dogs, the people will scavenge first. Driven by poverty, with little or no land or possessions of their own, the women and children from poor families living around the lake have turned to the dumpyard, despite its appalling prospects for their health, to scour a livelihood from the residues of urbanisation. In the waste thrown out of home and market, hospital and motel, collected and dumped again by the trucks, in that twice-discarded garbage, they will rummage to gather things to sell, to use, to survive. Without even a cloth draped over their noses against smoke and stench, they will sift valuable scraps from the offal with metal hooks and bare hands.

Then, it will be the turn of the Greater Adjutants. The birds will parade over the dump, pick up and swallow rotting meat, skins, and bones, fish tails and goat’s ears, eyeballs and hooves, and some will carry it back to their nests on tall trees in villages kilometres away, to regurgitate and feed their hungry chicks. The stork, whose world population is estimated at around 1200 – 1800 mature individuals, about 650 – 800 of which lives in Assam, is considered endangered, its population trending downhill. Yet, there are days when nearly half the world population may be seen in the city of Guwahati, congregating at the garbage dump. In its decline, the stork has learned to survive off the thrice-discarded filth of humanity.

The people go first, the stork waits (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

The people go first, the stork waits (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

With the reek of burning, decaying garbage, the air carries the keening of flies and mosquitoes, the chatter of women and children, the clatter of stork beaks. The air lies thick, in humid vapours that burn the nostrils, clog the windpipe, catch at the throat as if to stifle the breath of life. And above it all, a twister of storks turns slowly, as the lanky birds rise and rise, in a thermal spiral, wings held wide, yellow pouches hanging at their throats, like penitent beings weighed by remorse heading to the heavens.

Greater Adjutant stork with black kite in distance (Photo: Jaydevn Mandal)

Greater Adjutant stork with black kite in distance (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

Seated on low thwarts, the three of us are rowed out by the boatman into Deepor Beel. The floodplain lake, a now-festering fragment of the great River Brahmaputra that has swung its course to the north, is a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance. Every year, thousands of waterbirds gather at the lake, from resident swamphens, lapwings, and herons, to wintering migrant shorebirds, ducks, and geese. Rowing in deeper water or punting through shallows with his oar, the boatman guides the flat-bottomed boat, freshly waterproofed with sticky black tar, over water clouded with sediment and plankton, towards the distant flocks of waterbirds. The boat skims the canopy of a swaying forest of soft underwater plants, topped by floating waterlily leaves that look like plates, like expanded hearts.

The floating leaves that carpet Deepor Beel (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

The floating leaves that carpet Deepor Beel (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

Fed by river and rain, the lake receives water and storm runoff along feeder streams and drains. It mixes city wastewater with the purer flows from the hills of the Rani and Garbhanga Reserved Forests to the south. Polluted by pesticide and fertilizer runoff, contaminated with fecal bacteria, muddied by erosion and sewage, Deepor Beel is slowly turning into ditchwater. Hemmed in between stolid hills and restive city, pincered by highways to the east and west, cleaved from the southern forests by road and railway line, the lake is shrinking, too. Over two decades beginning in 1991, Deepor beel lost 41 per cent of its open water, the area shrank from 712 hectares to 421 hectares and became more fragmented. With the loss of wetland area, the birds, too, appear to be in decline. Only the city and its impressive garbage dump are growing and growing.

On the lake, the water parts for our boat, closes in our wake, the parted plants mark our passage on the surface. In distant boats, fishermen fling their cast nets onto open water, or pull at their nets, stooping to pick their day’s catch from the tangle. Our boat slips over a long, taut fishing net stretched wide across the lake; the water is calm, now it is the horizon that is swaying. To the west vehicles ply on the busy highway, to the north the city burgeons, to the east the unsavoury Boragaon dumpyard moulders, and to the south a train thunders along the railway.

The tracks shrill and clatter under metal wheels, as they will almost every hour: the trains will not stop. There is blood on these tracks, the blood of elephants—herds, calves, tuskers—who tried to cross the tracks from the forest seeking water and forage in the lake. The elephants were slammed, were dragged, were extinguished: a slaughter wrought in passivity, for who, in their right mind, will attribute active intent to trains? Only the journeys of the elephants, the lives of the elephants, shall come to a stop.

Elephant killed by train (Photo: A. Christy Williams)

Elephant killed by train (Photo: A. Christy Williams)

The clamour of hundreds of whistling-ducks accompanies our passage, their pulsed whistles and squeals lance over the water. Suddenly, the air reverberates with wings. The resounding beat and rush of wings roils the air overhead, as hundreds of pintail ducks and greylag geese take wing from rippling lake to splayed-out sky.


Ducks and geese in flight over Deepor Beel, Assam (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

The storks still soar in the distance. From high, they must see the vast braid of the Brahmaputra winding through the landscape. They must see, far, far to the north, the grandeur of Himalayan peaks, dusted with snow and weighed by glacier. They must see that the lake below is but a drop of water on land. The ducks and geese wheel and quarter, they sweep and swerve in the air. They begin to descend, as the storks do, too, out of seamless, unmarked skies.

A Greater Adjutant descends from the skies (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

A Greater Adjutant descends from the skies (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

As dusk settles over the landscape and the milling flocks of birds settle for their roost, the fishermen return to their villages in their boats. The trucks and trains have passed, and perhaps the elephants have, too.

Dusk at Deeporbeel (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

Dusk at Deepor beel (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

By night, as the city flickers to life before us, the garbage dump, its people, its birds, all become invisible. Tomorrow, the fishers will return to the lake, and the women and children to the dump. And, from the skies above Guwahati, it is again to the lake and garbage dump that the birds, too, must drop.

…Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
~Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind

This piece follows an earlier post, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, at EcoLogic.

Perils of oil palm

The Economic Survey Mizoram 2012-13 made a bold claim. After quoting the Forest Survey of India’s (FSI) State of Forest Report 2011 that 90.68% of Mizoram is under forest cover, the Economic Survey claimed, literally in bold letters in a box, that the State’s forests

have suffered serious depletion and degradation due to traditional practice of shifting cultivation, uncontrolled fire, unregulated fellings etc.

The claim is a frequent one made by the state government and the agri-horticulture bureaucracy. Actually, what the 2011 FSI Report said was

Due to change in customary cultivation practices, focus has now shifted to raising horticultural crops… thus preventing secondary growth on old shifting cultivation patches. This has also led to the decline in forest cover assessed in the state.

Thus, Mizoram’s forest cover may be taking a turn for the worse not because of shifting cultivation but because of the State’s push to establish permanent cultivation, notably horticulture crops such as oil palm.

An oil palm plantation on a steep slope adjoining Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).

Permanent plantations and settled agriculture also result in permanent loss of forest cover, unlike the temporary loss of forest cover followed by regeneration that is characteristic of shifting cultivation. Unfortunately, the FSI reports do not distinguish areas under plantations, nor do they carefully record patterns of regeneration, so on-ground change in land use and forest cover remains difficult to assess accurately. As a result, Mizoram’s remarkable organic farming system of shifting agriculture, locally called jhum or ‘lo’, remains much misunderstood and maligned.

Oil palm clearing ground Borneo

Tropical rainforests cleared for oil palm plantation in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).

The expansion and impacts of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis and E. oleifera) cultivation in tropical regions, especially in south-east Asian countries, is now a global problem from social, conservation, and climate change perspectives. Palm oil now accounts for a third of vegetable oil use worldwide. The area under oil palm cultivation is rapidly increasing from around 3.6 million hectares in 1961 to over 16.4 million hectares in 2011, much of it by cutting down mature, secondary, and peat swamp tropical forests. The deforestation and burning of forests in southeast Asia for oil palm is leading to species extinctions, water shortages, and widespread pollution, besides contributing to climate change.

Oil palm and rainforest fragment Borneo

Forest areas have shrunk to fragments as oil palm plantations expand over vast areas in south-east Asian countries, like here in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).

In India, oil palm plantations are now being actively promoted by government and private companies, including in Mizoram where 101,000 hectares have been earmarked and over 17,500 hectares have already been permanently deforested for oil palm cultivation. Near Aizawl’s Lengpui airport, a large hoarding now advertises the benefits of oil palm cultivation. But the photographs of irrigated oil palm trees on flat lands appear incongruous amid the surrounding steep slopes withering dry in the sun during summer.

Oil palm promotional poster along the highway near Lengpui airport.

Oil palm promotional poster along the highway near Lengpui airport.

Further ahead, in areas newly cleared of bamboo and forest cover, small oil palm plantations appear and bare slopes are studded with rubber saplings. Intended as permanent crops, these plantations are often touted as superior to shifting cultivation by government authorities and private companies.

Forest cleared for establishment of monoculture rubber plantation: worse than jhum?

Forest cleared for establishment of monoculture rubber plantation: worse than jhum?

In Mizoram, area under plantations of oil palm, rubber, and teak is increasing. Teak, a deciduous tree not naturally occurring in Mizoram, is planted extensively by the State Forest Department even in evergreen forest zones. All these plantations are worse than shifting cultivation from an ecological viewpoint. Shifting cultivation is preferable to industrial and monoculture plantations because it creates and maintains a dense mosaic of bamboo, secondary, and mature forests in the jhum landscape. In other parts of northeast India, diverse bamboo forests and jhum areas are being replaced by tea plantations, mining, and timber monocultures. Scientific research from rainforests of south-east Asia and the Western Ghats of India attests that industrial monocultures, such as teak, tea, oil palm, and rubber, provide habitat for fewer wildlife species than natural, mature, and secondary forests. A study from Thailand revealed that rubber and oil palm plantations have 60% fewer bird species than lowland rainforest.

Oil palm is conventionally grown as monocultures after clear-felling forest, retaining little or no natural tree cover. Numerous studies have documented that oil palm plantations support very few rainforest plant and animal species. Oil palm plantations may shelter less than 15% of the forest biodiversity, besides reducing water availability and quality in hill streams. My own recent research from the Dampa landscape along with Jaydev Mandal, research scholar at Gauhati University, indicates that monoculture oil palm is much worse for wildlife than the jhum mosaic of regenerating forests and fallows in the landscape.

Oil palm plantations now occupy shifting cultivation fields on slopes and wet rice cultivation areas in valleys.

Oil palm plantations now occupy shifting cultivation fields on slopes and wet rice cultivation areas in valleys.

Under multiple schemes besides the State’s flagship New Land Use Policy (NLUP), both Centre and State are subsidising seedlings, fertilizer, and building of water tanks, besides the construction of oil palm mills to benefit private companies. Furthermore, in an unusual arrangement, the State has apportioned captive districts to the three private companies (Godrej Oil Palm Limited, Ruchi Soya Industries Limited, and Food, Fats & Fertilizers Limited) for palm oil business, thereby making these farms “corporate plantations in effect” as one recent news report puts it.

Converting secondary forests and shifting agriculture to oil palm is a travesty of watershed management.

Converting secondary forests and shifting agriculture to oil palm is a travesty of watershed management.

In Mamit District, oil palm is even planted after clearing forests on slopes and catchments under the Integrated Watershed Management Programme. Water is diverted from natural streams to tanks and taken through pipes to feed this water-demanding crop in newly-deforested areas, in a brazen travesty of the concept of watershed management. In contrast to such support and subsidies, the State Government provides no support for farmers practicing ‘lo’ shifting agriculture.

Shifting cultivation is often considered an unsustainable practice. In reality, the major challenges today for sustainable agriculture and agroecology actually concern industrial agriculture and plantations: how to reduce dependence on agrochemicals and move to organic farming, how to diversify from single to multiple crops, how to integrate fallows and hedgerows and unplanted areas in plantation landscapes, how to retain native plant species and vegetated buffers along rivers, ravines, and ridges. Oil palm promoters and planters have not made any effort to retain valuable bamboo forest patches, wet rice valley agriculture fields, strips of forest vegetation along streams and rivers to prevent erosion and pollution, or implement other essential safeguards. All these aspects of sustainable agriculture, missing in oil palm plantations, are often already practiced in shifting cultivation in Mizoram.

Better land use: The jhum landscape mosaic of fields, regenerating fallows, and forests (on left) is a better form of land use and forest cover than monoculture oil palm plantations (on right).

Better land use: The jhum landscape mosaic of fields, regenerating fallows, and forests (on left) is a better form of land use and forest cover than monoculture oil palm plantations (on right).

A 2012 review of the science and sustainability of jhum in Mizoram in the journal Agroforestry Systems by Dr Paul Grogan of Queen’s University, Canada, and Drs F. Lalnunmawia and S. K. Tripathi of University of Mizoram, Aizawl, notes

… in contrast to many policy-makers, shifting cultivation is now considered a highly ecologically and economically efficient agricultural practice provided that [authors’ emphasis] the fallow period is sufficiently long.

The authors list options to enhance shifting cultivation, such as nutrient and water supplementation, optimising crop choice to extend site use period along with measures to further retain soil and fertility, and judicious use of commercial fertilizer coupled with organic inputs. Jhum farming, with or without refinements, and modified multi-cropping systems such as the Changkham model and Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT) are all preferable to monoculture plantations such as oil palm.

Trying to wean farmers away from jhum and remove land forever from the ambit of shifting cultivation by usurping spaces for permanent plantations will have significant repercussions for ecology and economy. As oil palm and rubber plantations begin to replace bamboo and jhum and permanently dot and scar the slopes of Mizoram, an economy based on culture, diversity, and community is changing to one based on cash, permanent monocrops, and private interests. Instead of promoting such a transition in Mizoram—a land of steep slopes, fragile ecology, water scarcities, and remote villages—a policy more sensitive to land and the needs of farmers who practice ‘lo’ shifting agriculture is urgently needed.

This article appeared on 20 August 2014 in Newslink, a daily published from Aizawl, Mizoram. [Original PDF here]. It is cross-posted on EcoLogic.

March essays

Two of my essays appear in print this month in two relatively new magazines that have been around for a couple of years.

EarthLines March 2014 cover

EarthLines March 2014 cover

One essay titled ‘Madagascar, Through the Looking Glass’, appears in the March 2014 issue of EarthLines, a magazine of nature and place-based writing published thrice a year from the UK. EarthLines is an artfully produced magazine and I was glad my piece finds place in the March 2014 issue.

The EarthLines essay is part of a longer work by the same name, which I am working on, themed on life and loss, rapture and revival in the island. It is based on a trip that Divya and I made to Madagascar in November 2012. A few of our images of lemurs and reptiles from Ranomafana accompany the EarthLines piece.

Black and white ruffed lemur in Ranomafana

Black and white ruffed lemur in Ranomafana

The other essay appearing this month is on wildlife in the heart of India, the land of deer and tiger in the forests of Central India. This appears in the March 2014 issue of Fountain Ink, a monthly carrying long-form writing, narrative journalism, and photo essays, published from Chennai, India. Fountain Ink is an attractive small-format magazine that fits like a delectable little book in your hand. The article carries some of our photos and those of Kalyan Varma from Kanha and Bandhavgarh and you can read the full text here.


Behind the onstreaming

Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.
~ ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges

“You all know what a river is,” the biologist says, standing on the banks of the Cauvery, as behind him the river mumbles and roils over low rocks and gleams slick silvery flashes in noontime sun. The man, who has spent a good part of his working life studying rivers and the animals like otters who live in them, is talking as a resource person to a group of scientists and conservationists on a field trip after two days of a conference on river otters in Bangalore city. “The river’s upper course begins in the mountains, the water comes down the slopes, becomes perennial in the middle course,”—the speaker gestures to the river behind him—“and then flows through plains in the lower course before finally entering the sea.” Standing in the audience, listening, he thinks the biologist seems self-assured and competent: he must know, he must be right. And yet, it seems too pat, too succinct, too simple, that a great river like the Cauvery weaving its way through southern India is described thus—as neatly organised and fulfilling as a three-course meal. It seems to suggest that a river is but a line—a watery, purposeful line drawn from mountain to sea. A line.

River in Narasipura

A view of the river (Photo by Romana Klee, Wikimedia Commons)

Standing in the shade of a sprawling banyan tree beside a small riverside shrine near Mavinahalli village—located in Karnataka State about a third of way down the river’s 800 km length from nascent spring in the Western Ghats mountains to yawning mouth in the Bay of Bengal—they look across the river. They look past waters gushing through the innards of a centuries-old check dam, spewing white from between stones dislodged by the last monsoon flood, past calmer waters slipping smooth around boulders in the river bed, through little tuft-like islets with sedges and grasses and leafy Polygonum tangles waving their heads with wind and water. They look across water looping around elliptical islands and ephemeral sandbars, past a dry stretch lying in the lee of a small hydroelectric dam conterminous with the check-dam, towards the opposite bank over three hundred metres away. From the reservoir brimming behind the dams, a canal draws water through the countryside draped with fields of paddy and sugarcane, onion and tomatoes, pastures and stands of coconut trees. Downstream the river slides, roils, slips, glides, waves, shimmers, effervesces, and chatters—down a long, gently-curving stretch, with little channels curling and purling between islets, before it swings out of view. An hour ago, a lone otter, swimming, head held above the water, had suddenly turned, dived, and vanished under the marmoreal surface. There is so much the river shows, so much it hides.

He tries hard to imagine the river as a line, but fails. In the sparkling sweep of water, fish wink in little splashes at the surface, radiating ripples subsumed by the silent current. Then a cluster of ebony rocks, marked with white acid splashes of bird droppings, rises a couple of feet above the water—enough, it seems, for the darter standing motionless and coloured like the stone itself, wings held open to dry in sun and wind. Water again, a tar-black cormorant skimming ahead of a leafy twig bobbing and turning slowly as it drifts—to what unknown destination? And land, again, an islet edged by a strip of fine, dark sand carrying the calligraphy of wader feet, and crested with sedges and shrubs into which a little black-headed munia flies carrying a long blade of dry grass to tailor its nest among reeds. Then, water again, with Asian openbill storks walking on stilt-legs, like old men, heads bent, looking—wading in inches-deep water in the company of stately grey herons, frozen in ambush, fierce eyes behind dagger beaks. Land again, a sand-bar, tossed like a throw-cushion on the satin sheet of the river, attended by a line of snow-white egrets, onto which a common sandpiper sweeps in on stiff, twitching wings, even as a cloud of three hundred pratincoles flares into the skies, wheeling, quartering, rising, twisting, dipping, flashing now white, now brown, in a stupendous, heart-stopping, aerial symphony of movement, like one giant bird exploded into hundreds, yet alive. Then water, then land, water, marsh, and land again.

The river is a braid of land and water, he concludes. A braid, like the braids that village women washing clothes at the riverside make with their hair—parted neatly or drawn back from their foreheads, pulled into long bunches, woven over and into each other but for a tassel at the end, the braids coming tight together neat and gleaming down their backs, just as land and water and marsh and rock come together in the river shimmering its way ultimately south. Now, the egrets and otters and storks and plovers are but jasmine and kanakambara flowers decorating the braid.

Still, he is not satisfied, although the idea of a river as a braid seems better than calling it a water-body, or by that ambiguous, ambivalent, amphibious word: wetland. In the river, the waders, the storks, the otters: do they not belong to water and land? And do we not have to see the great wheeling flock of pratincoles but once to know that they belong to land and water and air? And if they are not part of the life and energy of the river—then what is the river?

No, his vision is too constrained by what he sees before him now: an all-too-human constraint. He needs to look further. He thinks of what the man said of the river’s origin in the mountains: the tiny spring of sweet water that somehow became this great, wide river. The origin, in a sacred pool, springing out of the belly of the mountains in Kodagu.

* * * * *

He knows the sacred place, the hillside temple at Talacavery in Kodagu. In the austere heights of the Western Ghats mountains, at an elevation of nearly 1,300 metres in Kodagu district in Karnataka, a tank and shrine of the eponymous river goddess mark the origin. He has been there with her, a girl of Kodagu, her middle name Cauvery, too. Soon after their wedding, they had made the traditional visit with her parents, like so many others from Kodagu to worship and be blessed by the river. Modest offerings at the shrine, mediated by a priest, a few sips of sacred waters, a purifying walk through the pool a few yards below. Now, as then, they both think that wherever crystal springs of sweet water emerge, as if from the earth’s navel, no one, religious believer or scientific atheist, can be faulted for heaping such places with spiritual value.

View of Talacauvery temple from Talacauvery mountain

Temple at Talacauvery (Photo: Vinayaraj, Wikimedia Commons)

From source to sea, the Cauvery basin occupies more than 81,000 square kilometres and sustains nearly 33 million people: an area about the size of Austria with four times its population. The basin—about 245 kilometres at its widest and 560 kilometres at its longest—spans the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, with small portions in Kerala and Puducherry. At 400 people to the square kilometre, it is among the most densely populated river basins in India. Around 70% of the population is rural, two-thirds of the basin is agricultural land. A land with a rich history going back thousands of years, a crucible of the cultures that make South India what it is today. The river is the circulatory network of water-filled arteries and veins of the land. As the river’s watery tendrils weave through the land, its vitality weaves the tapestry of landscapes and peoples.

Yet, the river is more than a closed circulatory network, it is more open and dynamic. Downslope from Talacauvery, the water joins a first-order stream emerging from the dense forests and swaying grasslands on the mountains, becomes a clear stream chittering over smooth pebbles and rocks, along banks shaded by evergreen trees. Here, they had bathed in the waters, in public with other visitors and pilgrims, the women entering water almost fully clothed—a dip, some splashing, water cupped lovingly in one’s hands and poured over one’s own head, a ritual cleansing of body and soul. He had felt how strongly the community identified itself with the river, and the river’s significance for their land: as birthplace, as mother, as source of pride, as progenitor of water and life. Like the two of them had done, all Kodagu couples would visit these waters, he thinks, if it was within their means. They would bring their children, their children’s children. At the end of their lives, many would, like her father, have their ashes consigned nowhere but in the river.

Perhaps, like a bloodline, the river is a community of waters. A coming together of freshets, a commingling of streams traversing earthly life and landscape, surmounting boulders, cascading down cataracts, sweeping through calm interludes, receiving, sharing, giving, branching out into little distributaries that join the vast oceans of life. Through Karnataka, then Tamil Nadu, the Cauvery gathers the waters of the Hemavathi, Kabini, Shimsha, Arkavathi, Bhavani, Moyar, Noyyal, Amaravathi, and more, before splaying out into the great delta of over 14,000 square kilometres across Thanjavur and its neighbouring districts. At every confluence of rivers, one is likely to find shrines, or ghats, or great trees, silent markers of religion, culture, and ecology.

He ponders, now, over the two streams joining near the origin, the water lapping against as-yet unsullied banks. Something that the hydrologist said at the conference comes to him: the daily flux of water with the breathing of the trees. He imagines now the water level dropping subtly by day as the trees in the watershed draw water up through their roots, breathe them out through their leaves, the level slowly rising again as the trees close their stomata in the quietude of night. He imagines the tree as a river itself, waters drawn from the earth, coursing through the trunk, branching out, breathed out into the atmospheric ocean, the air then burdened with moisture, condensing as mist and cloud, rushing back into the mountains, then falling as rain, the water drenching the trees and the earth, shimmering down the tree trunks, sponged by the leaves on the soil, percolating through soil pores and root tubes, then drawn out again, into the tree, into the river. Now, the river is a dendritic network of water melding with the trees.

* * * * *

A yell snaps him out of his reverie back to Mavinahalli. Standing on a bamboo coracle, wooden paddle in hand, a fisher shouts across to another in a coracle downstream asking, perhaps, about the day’s catch. On the banks, the conference group splits and climbs onto half a dozen coracles and two inflatable rafts to experience the river, discuss field survey methods—their task for the day—and look for otters. The coracles and rafts are full and he waits on the banks with her, for another coracle from the village. A boy is dispatched running to the village for the purpose and returns soon with the coracle. The boy carries the coracle inverted over his head, only his legs are visible, feet slapping bare earth: he looks like a walking mushroom. Behind him, a fisherman follows, holding a paddle.

The sun blazes furiously over their heads and there is no breeze. The shimmering surface of the river reflects the light, the water is barely cool to the touch. Sweating, squinting against the light, squatting at the three points of a triangle in the coracle for balance, the two of them and the fisher make their way slowly downriver, the coracle swinging now this way, now that, to the rhythm of the rowing.

Fishing in a coracle (Photo: Nisarg Prakash)

Fishing in a coracle (Photo: Nisarg Prakash)

Out in the river, the fishing is on. A pair of smooth-coated otters gambolling in the current, heads up skimming the surface, plunging suddenly as if diving for a fish, reappearing somewhere else. A fisher on a coracle, swinging his net, heaving it out, the net fanning out in a circle, dropping, the net hauled up and checked for unsuspecting fish caught. Another setting out a net line from the edge of an islet out into the river, waving their coracle around the unseen net in the water.

He sees the river as an ecosystem, one that sustains life and livelihoods; he wonders what the fishers see the river as.

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote:

There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.

To this, keeping rivers in mind, one could add:

There are two spiritual dangers in not knowing a river. One is the danger of supposing that fish come from the market, and the other that water comes from the tap.

The history of use and abuse of rivers in India is a sorry one. Few rivers have been left undammed, their dynamic flow, their open throbbing engines of life, left untrammelled. After 1947, independent India embarked on a phase of dam building, reaching a crescendo in the 1960s onwards—a period when around the world there was one dam being built every day on average. The archaic and obsolete ideas of development based on large-scale impoundment of water for agriculture and electricity generation has spared few of India’s rivers. The Cauvery and its tributaries already has a series of major dams at Harangi, Hemavathi, Krishnaraja Sagar, Kabini, Mettur, Lower and Upper Bhavani, Avalanche, Emerald, Kundha Palam, Pegumbahallah Forebay, Pillur, Porithimond, Parson’s Valley, Nirallapallam, and Amaravathi, and smaller impoundments, 65 dams already, plus a series of irrigation canals drawing water out—Devaraj Urs, Mettur, Kodivery, the Grand Anicut of the Cauvery Delta, Lower Coleroon, and more—all of which feed the prosperity and eternal discontent of human needs in the basin. Over a hundred dams, beguilingly named mini-hydels, built or being built, generating power and profits for privateers, are set to scupper what is left of the river. The 2012 River Basin Atlas of India proclaims that about 90% of the Cauvery basin’s average water resource potential of 21,358 million cubic metres is “Utilizable Surface Water Resource”. The live storage capacity of completed reservoirs has already usurped half that pot of water—a disputed and contentious pot, the sharing of which the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have fought over for more than 150 years. Another large hydroelectric dam, recently proposed at Mekedatu, already has the political powers-that-be jousting, indicating the bitter fight is not over.


Cauvery basin (Courtesy: River Basin Atlas of India)

And there is drinking water, too, he remembers. He travels often between the cities of Coimbatore, Bangalore, and Mysore, where nearly 11 million people depend substantially on the Cauvery or waters from its basin for their drinking water supply. How much of all that water has he imbibed over the years? If over half his body is water by composition, is the Cauvery now a part of him, too? Is he then not part of the river of life that is the Cauvery? And then, if the river declines, will it only presage his own?

Meanwhile, as the river silently gives, it silently receives: the wastes of cities, the washing and leavings of humanity, agricultural chemicals and poisons, fertilizer runoffs and residues. Invasive alien plants like water hyacinth and Salvinia choke its flow, as native riparian vegetation along the banks is stripped off to be replaced by unsparing farms and alien Eucalyptus. Alien fish fed into the waters proliferate, as native fish beat their retreat under the hooks and looks of Fisheries Department officers and anglers. The fishers still eke out their living, on a fluctuating catch from a changing river, taking recourse to poison and dynamite to fill their nets with stunned and shattered fish. All along the river, lorries queue up in the hundreds, gouging sand from the bed, destroying the fabric of the river from the bottom up, even as the sand will help erect the concrete framework of houses and buildings in the growing cities and towns. And further down, at the end of the river—if any river can really be said to have an end—down in the Cauvery Delta, every drop of water that enters the sea is considered wasted. Not as waters that forever build and sustain fertile plains, not as waters that sustain flourishing ecosystems well past the Coromandel coastline—no, any water entering the sea, so the blinkered view goes, is water wasted. And so it goes.

To utilitarian human eyes, the river is no line, or braid, or network, or tree of life. The river is only a pipe from tap to flush-pot, with feeder pipes to drain or dump at will.

* * * * *

The next day, a hundred kilometres downstream in Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, he sits quietly by the river again. A welter of broken forest-clad hills, having somehow resisted farms and dams, have left a stunning stretch of river winding past stately arjuna and mango and jamun trees towering along the banks. The others have left on their coracles, but he prefers to sit silently by himself and watch the river. Past the disembodied darter, swimming with only snake-neck and spear-beak showing above the surface, a marsh crocodile basks on rocks across the river. On a high branch in a tall tree, a lesser fish eagle waits, eagle eyes on the river, suddenly plunges into the water, then rises with the merest splash, back to its perch, a fish in its talons.


A view of the river at Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

In the quietude, he wishes now for a good book about the river. Perhaps the translation of Eternal Kaveri by T. Janakiraman and Chitti, to know as the subtitle suggests, ‘the story of a river’. Or another book by the same name, documenting the historical sites along the river. Even, It Happened Along the Kaveri, a recent publication touted as a delightful travel book replete with the requisite anecdotes and trivia. Would he have understood the river a little better then? Would he have known the river in its essence as the otter and fisher on the coracle, perhaps do, everyday? Maybe he would have. But the book he carries with him, the book that he finds absorbing, now, by the river, is Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Fictions. What can one learn about a river from mere fictions?

He is dissatisfied with all his metaphors of the river, distressed even at his attempt to describe the river thus. Line, braid, network, tree, tap—really? Is that all he can come up with? He is disgusted with his ideas, his scrawls in his notebook.

The river is a great engine of life, energised by the sun’s fire, the wind’s breath, the cloud’s sweat, the pull of earth, and the touch of mountains. An elemental, spinning circle of water, air, earth, and fire, that distils the alchemy of ethereal life. His eyes on the ever-moving current—water in him, in the air, in the earth—all moving, melding, dissolving, he wonders how one can pin down in words something so fluid, so full of movement? It is like trying to hold a fistful of water; the tighter he clutches at it, the more it slips away.

Finally, it is in Borges that he finds his answer. In the story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, where Borges writes about an imaginary realm of idealistic nations, Tlön, a world whose language and everything derived from language is suffused with idealism. For Tlön’s people, Borges writes:

the world is not an amalgam of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts—the world is successive, temporal, but not spatial.

Consequently, in their language, the “conjectural Ursprache” of Tlön, there are no nouns. There are “only impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) functioning as adverbs.” There is no noun like moon, Borges writes, but there is a verb that in English would be “to moonate” or “enmoon”. In Tlön, one does not say “The moon rose above the river.” One would avoid nouns altogether, and say: “Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.” Imagine that, he thinks, a river not as a noun, or an object of human consumption, but as a verb, a ceaseless flowing part of a community of ever-flowing life.

Ah, yes! That is it: exactly, perfectly, it!

It is so the onstreaming engines on, sunblazing, windbreathing, condensing, earthpulled, and hillblocked. It is so in circlespinning, watered and aired and fired and earthed. It is so the onstreaming ethereally alchemises into lifesparking.

As it sundowned, watching: downward, behind the onstreaming, it flamed.