Issue 16

RELOOK: Mukul Sharma on the Hindu right’s eco-politics, a decade later

This 2011 book examines contemporary environmental issues and movements in independent India on the one hand, and the development of Hindu conservative ideology and politics on the other. It includes the first thorough investigation of Anna Hazare’s movement in Maharashtra.

Mukul Sharma argues that these two social currents—environmental conservation and Hindu politics—have forged bonds which reveal the hijacking of environmentalism by conservative and retrograde worldviews. This, he says, constitutes a major aspect of hinterland political life which neither academics nor journalists have seriously analysed. Environmentalism and politics cannot be seen as separate from each other, for environmental issues are being defined in new ways by an anti-secular form of Hinduism. In turn, Hindu ideologues are gaining mileage for their ideology by espousing major environmental projects.

Anna Hazare’s impact is studied in detail through a careful field investigation of his environmental initiative in Ralegan Siddhi. Sunderlal Bahuguna’s opposition to the Tehri Dam in the Garhwal Himalaya is outlined with great anthropological subtlety. And the regeneration of Vrindavan’s urban and riverine hygiene by internationally funded NGOs is subjected to a historical scrutiny that includes an examination of how Lord Krishna has been redefined as the great god of conservation.

Sharma discusses Nazi Germany and fascist appropriations of environmentalism in Europe to contextualize Hindu conservative nationalists within a larger universe. By pinpointing the communal and authoritarian discourses within some of the new social movements, his book alters the way in which we look at everyday life in the subcontinent. For, says Sharma, at stake in this intermeshing of environmental Green and Hindu Saffron is nothing less than the way Indians understand their humanity. Excerpt from an interview

How did you come to focus on the connections between religious and environmental values and the associated patterns of political mobilization in environmental movements?

Between 1990 and 2001, I happened to do at least three kinds of fieldwork, in different regions, with diverse agendas, and these led me for the first time to begin asking questions about the emerging interrelationships between religious and environmental values and a certain kind of conservative, nationalistic politics in India.

First, as a member of an environment journalists team, organized by the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi, I visited Ralegaon Siddhi village and met Anna Hazare, to write on an ideal green village and an environmental crusader. I published three positive reports on this in the Hindi newspaper Navbharat Times, I was a special correspondent with them at that time. However, uneasy memories, notes, and documents on the use of Bharat Mata, Shivaji, Vande Mataram, army rules, religious symbols, codes and conduct in the village, along with publications by the then prominent leaders of the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh portraying the village and its leader as a model for the country, continued to haunt me.

Second, I had been covering the anti-Tehri dam movement in Garhwal for long, and in one of my visits to the dam site in the late 1990s, where Sunderlal Bahuguna was sitting on a long fast, I met a group of sadhus distributing pamphlets that anchored the religious and environmental values of Ganga not only as a pivot against the dam, but also against alleged ‘enemy’ symbols and people of the country: i.e. mosques and Muslims.

And third, when in 2000 I began working with the political foundation of the Green Party of Germany and had an opportunity to visit the country a couple of times, I found a troubled past and present regarding the relationship between the environment and certain kinds of political and religious beliefs. I also felt that environmentalists in the Green Party Foundation were reluctant to formally discuss these linkages. These experiences led me to think in a more concrete and focused fashion on the connections between religious and environmental values, and the associated patterns of political mobilization in environmental movements.

How would you respond to the assertion that books on religion and ecology, often by scholars of religion, have focused on the realms of culture and spirituality as they reflect ideas of nature or information on ecological relations in the natural world. Such scholarship takes little interest in the political realm or the politics present in cultural constructions of nature or sacred objects in nature.
On the other hand, the social science of environmental politics often lacks insight into the affective and devotional dimensions through which individuals and groups may relate to nature and thereby find affinity to the natural world in the form of a religious experience. If you agree with this formulation, is it your interest to bridge this divide?

Most works on religion and ecology, in the specific context of India and Hinduism, are often banal and unidimensional. They usually explore Vedic and Brahmanic understandings of religion, and apply them to the natural world. Leave aside the political realm, they do not even have space for contesting visions of religion and environment. Let me give an example from my village Vishwaspur, in Bhagalpur district of Bihar, where there is a thakur vadi (place of God), owned and nurtured by us, a few Brahmin families, in the name of the whole village. The religious values and practices associated with this place have a robust conservationist and protectionist streak concerning the ponds, trees, and water bodies in its vicinity. However, this religious place, its fruits and ceremonies, are closed to the Dalits of the village. The ‘sacred’ trees of the complex can only be worshipped and used by the Brahmins and Thakurs. So what kind of religious and spiritual values of the environment are we talking about, and by and for whom? I have also been finding many such instances in the state of Rajasthan—where there has been much hype around religiously and culturally celebrated ponds and water bodies—in the course of my new research on Dalit environmentalism. We need to dissect the various forms and content of religion in the environmental arena so that their regressive and liberatory aspects are understood simultaneously. Howsoever, worthy the religious beliefs and practices of an individual or a group may be for the environmental world, my interest lies in seeing it through the spectrum and cross-section of caste, class, gender, justice, and equity, and not as a stand-alone point of reference. Green and Saffron reflects precisely such a politics of the environment. It explores the cultural, ethnic and sectarian dimensions of green issues in India. This also underscores the intermeshing of identity, power, and nature.

How did your earlier career in journalism and subsequent career in the world of civil society organizations come to influence your research and writing of scholarly work?

As a journalist, I gained experience doing intensive and regular field work on the environment and rural issues at several critical sites in India and abroad. Tags like ‘rural’, ‘environment’ and ‘labour’ journalist came later, invented narrowly by media organizations. Some of the habits and practices developed at that time—going to the field and staying there, spending time listening to a cross-section of people, gathering diverse facts and documents, cross-checking, visiting local libraries, and most critically seeing a particular environmental or rural issue not only from the lens of a subject, but also from a cross-cutting of subjects and articulations—have influenced my present work.

After that, my continuing career in the world of civil society organizations made me conscious of the slippery and often shallow nature of research undertaken, and how not to do an academic and serious research work. Also, civil society organizations, working particularly in the field of the environment, made me more alert to its political implications. I have seen here, for example, how the notion of ‘sustainable development’ has frequently been stripped of cogent meanings and how incongruous actors, from power-driven governments and profit-making corporations to indigenous people and city-action groups, have couched their intentions in the language of sustainable development.

Indian writing on environmental topics, even by people who wish to contribute to scholarly debates, or those who ultimately become academics, has often originated in activism or public concern around a specific issue. Do you find these ties between political engagement and scholarship limiting the kind of topics and perspectives environmental scholarship in India has taken up? Are there consequent gaps in the scholarship? What might they be?

I find Indian environmental scholarship, otherwise very rich and path-breaking, thin in terms of its political engagement in post-Independent India, especially in comparison with other parts of the world. There are only a few specific arenas, like dams, water, forests, and gender, where ties between environmental scholarship and political engagement have produced significant studies. Such concerns have expanded environmental horizons, including its subject, actors, and writers. However, there is still too little politics in environmental scholarship and too much rhetoric in political writings on the environment. We are yet to see nuanced and rich understandings of ecological politics in India, in all its dimensions. Studies on the politics of a particular moment and movement, of a community and its leader, of an area and its tradition, are not enough to fill the lacuna of a broader and wider understanding of ecological politics in the country. There is a vast and vibrant political canvas of secularism and communalism, nationalism and authoritarianism, democracy and political parties, capitalism and socialism, Dalit and Brahmin, red and blue, superpower and regional power, which impinges on environmental politics, and vice versa.

This book, Green and Saffron, has been long in the making. In what ways is it different from the project you originally embarked on?

I would respond in two parts: how is it different from my earlier works, and from its earlier conception. The making of this book reminds me of the story of the rabbit and the tortoise, narrated to us since childhood: to win the race, the rabbit runs fast, but the tortoise carries on slowly and steadily. If my journalism was the run of the rabbit, this book has been the slow-steady walk of the tortoise. Where my journalism ended, this book began. It also has a distinctive feel because, since its inception, I have been working formally and informally with some brilliant environment scholars and historians. Editors normally publish. However, academics make it difficult (at times impossible) to publish. And this gave me a robust/difficult discipline, and style of writing and publishing. Also, my other projects like Contested Coastlines (co-worked with Charu Gupta) were more environmental and human-rights oriented in nature, while this work is more political and sensitive. Here I was journeying with some well-established people and vibrant movements in tumultuous political times, attempting to chart a relatively unexplored territory. This long painstaking path was slow in the making and also difficult to pen.

When I initially conceived this project, some ten years back, I saw fragmentary and inadvertent links between Green and Saffron. However, as this work progressed, these faint associations became more concrete and wider. Further, I earlier envisioned the work largely in the context of the present and the contemporary. However, later I also dwelt on its deeper historical, social, and political roots.

Could you name and discuss five or six books that, over the years, have influenced your thinking or shaped your writing?

The readings that have shaped my writings have ranged from footpath literature, pamphlets, to journalistic works and scholarly books. However, if I were to pick five or six books, though difficult, I would choose the following: Rahi Masoom Raza’s Hindi novel Aadha Gaon, which narrates the story of a village in Uttar Pradesh at the time of partition and independence, and how Muslim and Hindu families were torn apart. The novel is a powerful testament of how communal politics weaves itself into our everyday existence. Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano for the ways in which it rejects a straight-jacketed chronology and instead traces Latin America’s exploitation and impoverishment through a history of its principal commodities over five centuries. John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice has great resonance for me for its ideas of reconciliation between freedom and equality, justice as fairness, and distributive justice. Ramachandra Guha’s The Unquiet Woods has a continuing influence on me for its in-depth and path-breaking study of Himalayan social protests. I consider Richard P. Tucker’s work, especially his Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Decline of the Tropical World, a landmark study on modern global environmental history. It opens up new areas for me to study any ‘empire’ in the environment. A Field of One’s Own by Bina Agarwal has also been a regular companion.  

Image credit: Permanent Black

This interview has been republished with permission, from the publishing house Permanent Black’s blog and the author of the book. You can see more blog posts here.

Issue 16

‘Amazônia must live on’: Photographer Sebastião Salgado returns home with his new book

  • Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado traveled the Amazon for six years to capture nature and the people of the world’s largest rainforest, now depicted in his new book, Amazônia.
  • Salgado, one of the most respected documentary photographers in the world, returned to the region four decades after gaining fame shooting the Serra Pelada gold mine and its thousands of mud-covered diggers.
Cover of Amazônia. The book is published by Taschen in May and listed at $150 (Hardcover, 35.8 x 26 cm, 4.19 kg, 528 pages).

Having photographed people and landscapes in more than 100 countries, Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado has returned to the country of his birth for his latest book, Amazônia, which is at once an ode to the beauty of the world’s largest rainforest and a cry for its preservation.

For six years, Salgado, now 77, traveled the Amazon to portray its trees, rivers, mountains, forests and people in his trademark black-and-white style in an attempt to capture the heart and soul of a region that for many people, both in and outside Brazil, remains the great unknown.

“For me, it is the last frontier, a mysterious universe of its own, where the immense power of nature can be felt as nowhere else on Earth,” Salgado writes in the foreword. “Here is a forest stretching to infinity that contains one-tenth of all living plant and animal species, the world’s largest single natural laboratory.”

Over more than 500 pages, Amazônia offers a wide mix of images, from aerial photography to intimate portraits, which, thanks to Salgado’s eye for light, drama and detail, turn into still lifes of a timeless quality.

Zo’é men in the Zo’é Indigenous Territory, in the state of Pará. Image by Sebastião Salgado.

So we see the Maiá River meandering through the land like a vein of silver, towering cloud formations like castles in the sky, and rainfall so heavy that, from afar, it looks like a massive pillar. People often forget that the Amazon evaporates so much water that it produces aerial rivers, which bring rain and life to people and lands thousands of miles away.

An important part of the book is dedicated to the lives, dances and rituals of a dozen Amazon tribes, including the Yanomami, Asháninka, Yawanawá, Zo’é, Korubo, Marubo and Awá, thus giving names and faces to people of the forest who, elsewhere, are all too often and too easily reduced to the rather anonymous “Indigenous.”

So we meet Ino Tamashavo, a young Marubo girl covered in necklaces made of white snail shells and holding up a baby bird, which she will raise as a pet, while hunters Pinu Vakwē Korubo and Xuxu Korubo pose behind two woolly monkeys, freshly shot with their blow guns.

Pinu Vakwë Korubo, left, and Xuxu Korubo pose with a piping guan and two woolly monkeys that they killed with poisoned darts in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory, in the state of Amazonas. Image by Sebastião Salgado.

Yara Asháninka and Bela Yawanawá are both young girls living in Acre state. But while the former wears only a few feathers in her hair and has modest designs painted on her face, which indicates she is not yet engaged, the latter has painted a black Zorro-like mask around her eyes and wears an enormous headpiece of feathers reaching to her waist.

40+ years photographing the world

Salgado was born in 1944 in Aimorés, in the southeast of Minas Gerais state. He obtained a degree in economics before traveling to Paris in 1969. His wife, Lélia Wanick, went on to study architecture, while he got a job at the International Coffee Council, which regularly took him to Africa.

It was there, with Lélia’s old Leica camera, that Salgado discovered his true passion: photography. Although already 33 by then, he decided to follow his heart, give up his job, and try to become a full-time photographer.

And with success. Within no time, he was snapping photos for agencies such as Gamma and  Sygma and, in 1979, was invited to become a member of Magnum, the legendary photographers’ cooperative founded by the likes of Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Salgado’s first books dealt with the African Sahel, Latin America and manual laborers of the world, yet he really shot to fame with a project set in the Amazon: Serra Pelada, the notorious mine where thousands upon thousands of mud-covered men descended into the belly of the earth on makeshift wooden ladders in search of a grain of gold.

In 2013, he published what is arguably his opus magnum: Genesis, the result of an eight-year journey to all corners of the globe to rediscover mountains, deserts and oceans, animals and people, that somehow escaped the claws of modern society and still show a glimpse of life as it, perhaps, once was.

As Salgado said of the book, “Some 46% of the planet is still as it was in the time of genesis. We must preserve what exists.” Amazônia was born and shot in the same vein as Genesis.

A storm in Serra do Divisor National Park, in the state of Acre. Image by Sebastião Salgado.

4 million trees planted in the family farm

Salgado is not religious. Yet, deeply convinced that all Earth’s creatures are equal, he is a humanist and environmentalist both in and outside his work.

About his 2004 portrait of a marine iguana in the Galápagos, he famously said: “Every movement in the arm of the iguana is the same that we have in our arm — I identify with the iguana as my cousin. All of us came from the same cells. In a moment it was possible to be an iguana and the iguana to be me.”

In 1998, he and Lélia returned to his father’s farm in Aimorés, a sleepy village of some 25,000 souls in Minas Gerais’s Doce River Valley. Like so many other people in the region, his father raised cattle. And as in so much of the region, years of overgrazing had heavily eroded what some 150 years ago was still a very green part of the Atlantic Forest.

It was Lélia’s idea to try bring the land back to its former glory. Thus the Instituto Terra was born. In 1999, they planted the first seeds of some 300 different tree species. Today, more than 4 million trees have been grown, half of which make up a forest that covers most of the Salgado family land. The other half was sold to generate income.

Visit Instituto Terra today and you’ll see lush vegetation, birds and water streams where just 23 years ago there was just barren land. While it’s encouraging to know that regeneration is possible, Salgado says he hopes it will never be needed for the Amazon.

“My wish, with all my heart, with all my energy, with all the passion I possess, is that in 50 years’ time this book will not resemble a record of a lost world,” he says of Amazônia, which he has dedicated to the Indigenous peoples of the rainforest. “Amazônia must live on.”

Banner image of the Marauiá mountain range in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, in the state of Amazonas. Image by Sebastião Salgado.

This article was republished with permission from Mongabay. You can see their coverage here.

Note: This is the parent site of Mongabay, different from Mongabay-India.

Issue 16

Graphic novel version of classic science memoir aims for new audiences

  • Published in 1994, Edward O. Wilson’s “Naturalist” has long been known as one of the best scientific memoirs of its time.
  • A 21st-century graphic adaptation of the novel brings Wilson’s journey of discovering the natural world as a child, and that journey’s influence on his career choices later in life.
  • The adaptation was led by longtime graphic novelist, Jim Ottaviani, with illustrations by C.M. Butzer.

Over 25 years ago, world-renowned scientist Edward O. Wilson (often referred to as E.O. Wilson), published his celebrated homage to his personal journey as a scientist, biologist, and human being, Naturalist. Dubbed by the LA Times on its release as “one of the finest scientific memoirs ever written,” the book explores Wilson’s childhood exploring nature in Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

He has authored over 20 books and is a two-time Pulitzer prize winner.

The graphic adaption of Naturalist was conceived by author Jim Ottaviani, who is well-known for his graphic novels about scientists, including Alan Turning, Jane Goodall, Richard Feynman, and others. The book’s illustrator, C.M. Butzer, is a veteran cartoonist.

Mongabay caught up with Ottaviani and the crew at publisher Island Press about Naturalist: A Graphic Adaptation to find out more about how it came to fruition and how it can reach a new audience for Wilson’s lessons of environmental stewardship, study and conservation.

An interior page of the graphic memoir depicts E.O. Wilson on his path of scientific discovery. Image by C.M. Butzer courtesy Island Press.

Mongabay (MB): What drew you to this project?

Jim Ottaviani (JO): The short answer is: because they asked. I would never have had the audacity to suggest adapting the memoir of such an important scientist on my own.

So, Rebecca Bright, our editor at Island Press, approached me about doing an adaptation of this classic, and never having done such a thing I was excited about the challenge. I knew I’d learn a lot if I took it on, and I did! From the moment I started reading the prose version with “can this be comics?” in mind, I was underlining and making notes in the margin and looking forward to making a great book into great comics.

MB: What has the journey of making this book been like?

Ottaviani: We started down this path just over four years ago. E.O. Wilson’s journey from curious child to distinguished scientist to dedicated environmentalist follows a path – or perhaps it carves one? – that we all need to take. Not that most of us will become distinguished scientists, but we all start as curious children, and we all can join him where he is now.

MB: What advantages are there to using graphic art to keep conservation a hot topic?

Ottaviani: Our hope is to reach a new audience with this classic book. There are people who won’t pick up a book like the original Naturalist as pleasure reading. And as informative as it is, Naturalist is a pleasure to read. Maybe they’re not interested in non-fiction. Maybe they’re not interested in conservation per se. Maybe it’s that it is a classic, and they’re looking for something fresh. Who knows?

The good news is that there are many people – and I’m one of them – that will see a graphic novel about a topic they’re not naturally drawn to and pick it up just because of the medium. You might do this yourself with movies, or podcasts, or opera. A medium you enjoy can draw you in as much as the subject matter.

MB: Are comics less intimidating as reading matter?

Ottaviani: Sure, comics can be less intimidating for some. Fewer words, more pictures. But they’re just as complex as prose, and capable of layering information in subtle ways to deliver more information than you might think because they simultaneously engage readers in concrete, visual ways and abstract, verbal ways.

A few examples: In comics we can enrich the story by having the images complement or contradict those words. We can use color to set mood. We can even design pages to encourage reading just a bit more by controlling what happens at the end of a page, and using that to hint at what will happen when you turn the page. All of these things work together to hold a reader’s attention in ways that are difficult to do in prose.

The cover of “Naturalist” depicts E.O. Wilson in graphic novel format. Image by C.M. Butzer courtesy Island Press.

MB: You’ve done a lot of comics writing in your career – was there anything about this project that stands out?

Ottaviani: The biggest standout was how enjoyable this was. Part of that was because I got to work with C.M. (Chris) Butzer for the first time, and the colorist Hilary Sycamore again. And part was because I was asked not to depart from the original text. Less outside research meant I could get to work sooner. Now, I still cheated a little, and brought in a few grace notes from other books and writings by Prof. Wilson, but I mostly played by the rules.

The process itself brings to mind a quote attributed to Michelangelo, who when asked how he made one of his greatest sculptures, said: “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.” Though nothing is ever that easy, this project was about taking a beautiful book and chipping away the parts that won’t work as comics.

That meant making some hard choices, of course, because we wanted this to still be Wilson’s Naturalist, both in terms of content and tone.

MB: What were some of the bigger challenges you faced?

Ottaviani: Perhaps the biggest challenge was picking the right spot to end. The original book has an ending, of course, but as I recall, there were at least two other good places to stop, and for the graphic novel adaptation we didn’t have the space to include everything. So I had to pick one, and I didn’t pick the same last lines he used. This made me nervous.

As a self-taught comics guy, I didn’t feel qualified to edit a world-famous scientist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. Conversations with my friend and collaborator Leland Myrick helped me through this, and I can summarize what Leland taught me succinctly: sometimes you have to think of comics as poetry. Efficiency and precision in your choice of inked line can produce the same effect as a poem’s concise yet expansive choice of words. So, I’m grateful that Professor Wilson (he says I can call him Ed, but…) recognized that sometimes the best ending for an adaptation doesn’t always appear on the last page of the original.

MB: What role do you see the younger generations playing in conservation going forward?

Ottaviani: Going forward? All of the roles. People of my generation and older have begun the work, and together we have to continue to build tools – physical and social – to move conservation forward, but we certainly won’t finish this work, if it can indeed be finished.

An interior page of the graphic memoir depicts E.O. Wilson on his path of scientific discovery. Image by C.M. Butzer courtesy Island Press.

MB: Tell us a bit about the plant and animal life depicted.

Ottaviani: As you read it you probably noticed the rich detail in the flora and fauna, which Chris took great pains to make accurate. Layered on top of that are more cartoonish people. As a result, after a page or two you feel like you’re in a real world, but at the same time the simplified characters – including Wilson – offer the reader an opportunity to see themselves in those drawings. More detail in the people (or less in the settings) would have put more distance between the reader and the world of the graphic novel.

MB: How do you personally see the challenges of conservation that lay ahead of us in the 21st century. Is there much to be hopeful about?

Ottaviani: I’m hopeful because it appears to me that more people than ever care about conservation, and that we’re increasing both our expertise and willingness to take action as a result.

Prof. Wilson put it well in a 2019 interview with National Geographic: “I believe that we’re on the edge of a new era, in which value is extended to saving the rest of nature. Knowing it, preserving it, studying it, understanding it, cherishing it, and holding on until we know what the hell we’re doing.”

Naturalist: A Graphic Adaptation is published by Island Press and is available for purchase at Island Press and booksellers everywhere.

Banner image: The cover of “Naturalist” depicts E.O. Wilson in graphic novel format. Image by C.M. Butzer courtesy Island Press.

This article was republished with permission from Mongabay. You can see their coverage here.  

Note: This is the parent site of Mongabay, different from Mongabay-India.

Issue 15

Bringing science and activism to your Goan holiday: Puja Mitra, ethical marine tour guide

I always liked animals, but there was no one aha moment that led me to work with wildlife. During college in Bangalore, Karnataka, I volunteered with an organization that promoted the well-being of captive elephants, and I later worked with a group dedicated to ending human-elephant conflicts. When I moved to Goa after completing a master’s degree in biodiversity conservation and management, my focus shifted to dolphins. I ran a successful national campaign to stop trained dolphin shows. There’s a lot of science to show how damaging captivity is, but public awareness about dolphins is very limited in India—especially compared to tigers, which garner a lot of attention. When I joined World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in 2014, I turned my attention to dolphins in the wild. Goa is a tourism destination, and dolphin watching tours are a popular activity. I participated in a study that suggests tour boats can stress dolphins.

My colleagues and I tried encouraging boat operators to adopt responsible guiding principles that would reduce stress for the animals, but it didn’t work; they were running 45-minute trips, multiple times a day and couldn’t see how they’d possibly satisfy their guests and make enough money if they weren’t chasing and surrounding dolphins. It was then that I decided to quit WWF and start Terra Conscious, which offers ethical dolphin watching tours, among other experiences, in 2017. We had no business telling boat operators what to do if we couldn’t prove to them that it could be done.

Our trips show that there is an alternative to chasing dolphins. We don’t guarantee sightings, but focus on sharing knowledge about the marine habitat instead, and our customers still have a good time. Originally, I worked with boat operators who supplied the transportation, while I contributed the knowledge and coordinated the guests. Now the operators are trained to run the tours independently, and more want to sign up with us, which is really heartening.

The pandemic has been hard on the business, but other opportunities are opening up. Terra Conscious is coming out with a comic book, a project helping schools adopt stretches of coastline to get kids invested in conservation, and a guide-training program for responsible tourism.

The reason we have been successful so far is that people want something like this to work. We couldn’t do anything if the operators didn’t believe in it. And the trend among the audience is changing. At first there was a dearth of people who wanted these trips, but post-pandemic, people are willing to spend the money. Not just high-end Indian tourists but also local Goan families who are calling me up when relatives are visiting. They want to go on trips in their own area that they feel good about.

Growing up in Bangalore, I wasn’t really exposed to the coast. I never set out to have a marine livelihood, but it ended up happening along the way—and it is the best thing I did.

In the featured image, Puja Mitra offers alternative marine wildlife watching in Goa, India, with an emphasis on ethics rather than up-close encounters. Photo courtesy of Puja Mitra.

This is a story republished with permission from Hakai Magazine. You can see the latest issue here.

Issue 14

How will China’s decision to stop funding coal overseas impact developing countries?

At the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 21, 2021, in New York City, Chinese President Xi Jinping in a pre-recorded video address spoke about the centenary of the Communist Party in China and mentioned COVID-19 vaccinations. Then he said, “China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy, and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad.” 

It is clear the writing is on the wall for coal power”, tweeted Alok Sharma, President of the Conference of Parties (COP26). China had been facing increasing diplomatic pressure to renounce coal funding. Japan and South Korea made similar announcements about phasing out coal in early 2021. BBC’s Robin Brant said that China’s pledge “is the low hanging fruit. This was increasingly expected in terms of a pledge from Xi Jinping.” Jin Liqun, President of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, announced that “China needs to do its utmost to export renewable tech to low-income countries”.

Days after China’s declaration, the No New Coal Compact was announced as a joint effort by Sri Lanka, Chile, Denmark, France, Germany, Montenegro, and the UK. Promising to expedite coal phase-out nationally in line with COP26’s goal of consigning coal power to history. With promises of shifts to renewable energy being made globally, China has the potential to enter an international market of renewable energy, especially in Southeast Asian countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan which depend heavily on Chinese-funded coal.

Mr. Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary of India and former Special Envoy and Chief Negotiator on Climate Change, adds, “China has the ability to supply solar panels or wind turbines to the international market and it has been doing so.” Taking India as an example, he continues, “the solar power industry in India is almost completely dependent upon solar panels which are imported from China. So they [China] are very well placed, in fact, for exploiting the international market if there is an expansion of renewable energy capacity in the rest of the world as a return of climate change concerns.”

In February 2021, China refused to fund coal mines and polluting power plants in Bangladesh,  in a letter seen by Financial Times. In August 2021, Bangladesh’s Sirajganj district floated a tender for a solar park with expected Chinese funding of US $500mn, as reported by PV Magazine. While the shift to renewables is a welcome transition, what global problems are likely to crop up? “If you are looking at the current composition of energy infrastructure across the world, then you will see that it is still predominantly based on fossil fuels. So the great problem for countries is, what do I do with stranded assets which have been built upon the assumption that fossil fuel use will continue? And these are billions and billions in dollars worth of assets, whether it is in oil or coal.” Mr. Saran emphasizes that the poorer the country, the more difficult this transition will be. 

This shift will have tangible impacts on individuals as well. Mr. Saran points out such manifestations in the employment sector, “a large number of people are employed in the fossil fuel industry across the world. When you are going to be making a shift, unless you have the ability to generate more jobs, say from renewable energy, or that the use of renewable energy is leading to an expansion of economic activity generally, you are also going to be faced with a very major social problem and an economic problem. And neither technology nor funding is today coming from the developed countries to the developing countries.” Dr. Rityusha Tiwary, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the University of Delhi and Visiting Fellow at Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies, adds, “tangible impact on all the sectors of the economy as well as all sectors of the working class, labour class included. We don’t have very strong labour laws so this compensation, the big multi-corporations are going to draw out from perhaps, the salary of the working class.”

So where does this leave Beijing’s coal-dependent international allies? The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a US-based non-profit, published a report in July 2021 revealing that China supports 56% of the total capacity of international coal pipeline proposals. According to another report published by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a nonprofit thinktank, 4.5 times as much overseas coal capacity linked to China has been shelved, than progressed to construction. Indicating that overseas coal projects initially backed by China have subsequently wilted to significant political and financial challenges. For instance, Indonesia had the largest share of coal capacity backed by Chinese financing, 11 gigawatts of which have been cancelled since 2017.

Analysts expect China’s announcement to improve Beijing’s coveted Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) reputation for future greener energy investments. For Pakistan, for instance, where China is a major coal-based energy investor, a renewable shift would significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions with improved air quality. This change may take time. According to Dr. Tiwary, there are several initiatives in BRI which are “coal-based infrastructural capacity-building, so that might mean that there is a slag as well in BRI because immediately, if you stop funding international projects which involve coal, then there is expected to be a kind of slugging outcome in terms of how those projects are completed. So, it’s a two-way road.” 

Anushree Pratap is a second-year student at Ashoka University pursuing Political Science and Environmental Studies. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 14

When a people’s eyes are as moist as a land: The Tharu speak

A people whose eyes are as moist as the land they once knew, as their own.

The Tharu of Chitwan, living close to Nepal’s south-central border with ours. India’s 1751 km border with Nepal, may be open, but ask the average Indian about the Nepalese, he or she might mention a Gurkha as guard or soldier, a farmer tilling the rice field, and a people migrating to India freely. None of this would be inaccurate, but ask some more, have all Nepalese migrated? What about the Tharu, native to an Indo-Gangetic marsh on both sides of the border? With Yogi Adityanath’s UP home terrain of Gorakhpur being part of this landscape. A bog, like London, was once. But what is this Terai?

Geographically, Nepal is not only at the centre of the Himalayan arc, it has the longest stretch of the Himalaya. The Siwalik hill range, under it, is an undulating comma threading Chitwan and Rapti valleys, in the lowlands. Dr. Toni Hagen, a member of the Swiss Technical Assistance team in 1950, who was the first to do a geological reconnaissance of the country, classified the edge of the Gangetic floodplain as the Terai. In Urdu, it implies the edge of a watershed; in Hindi, low-lying plain or foothill. Terai, or the moist land. Wild swamp. Unpredictable sinkhole. Inundated with floodplains. In part a fertile extension of the Indo-Gangetic plain, thick with forest, grassland, and an all-around sticky humidity. Click to see the immensity of this forest landscape, in The Skin of Chitwan online exhibition, (referred hence as TSOC exhibit). Nature’s own no-entry sign, as we will see, for colonial powers and the Nepalese themselves.

The Tharu, a forest people, are native to Nepal’s Terai. Their name, some say, comes from where their ancestors migrated, the Indian Thar desert. Some say it comes from sthavir, referencing followers of Theravada Buddhism. In fact, one TSOC exhibit quotes scientist Ulrike Müller-Böker’s The Voices from Chitwan: Oral histories, ‘The forest presents itself to them as a familiar environment, whose rich biological stock they know, and know how to use, very expertly.’ A life of gathering thatch-grass for their home, firewood for cooking. Land close-by for grazing cattle and growing rice by the riverbank. (A TSOC click-through album shows you their rice diversity from the Nepal Gene Bank. Another photo album highlights their foraging choices for fermenting grain. A moving, matter of fact audio clip describes how the simal tree’s fluffy fiber made their pillows and blankets. Yet one more, lets you flip the pages of a Tharu shaman notebook, with a hand-drawn herb a page and a few lines on how it can be used). Scientists in both Indian and Nepalese academia have also written several research papers on whether the Tharus are more malaria-resistant than those who came after them.

But wait. This is one photo of two Tharu women, at home in the Chitwan valley. The story of this basin with sediments of the peaks from the Northern parts, after all, turns into a political scratch card across Nepalese history. We will in fact use four images borrowed from the multimedia exhibition, to tell the Tharu story.

‘Photo of women “A domestic record of being in time and becoming of place. Old family photographs collected from the private albums of Harnari’s inhabitants.” Mangani Raut’

Firstly, a need to maximize revenue base, means land grants are given in this Terai over two centuries of Gorkha and then Rana rule. A landed class emerges. Some supply timber to the then British-colonized India. The jungles with one-horned rhinos, swamp deer, and Asian elephants are also easy game for hunting howdahs. None of this includes the earliest settlers, the Tharu. Forest and timber offices come up under the Ranas here by 1880, as does a national level Central Forest Management office in 1924. But the threat of malaria is still so real that the forests and the Tharu survive into the 1940s.

It’s the year 1951. Mount Everest is yet to be scaled, and the era of foreign aid to Nepal begins. The US is first, India follows. As does a political revolt. 

Rana rule after over a century is replaced with a blink and miss political party formation and while democracy appears still-born, a bureaucracy doesn’t. One of the early development projects set off by King Tribhuvan in 1952 with external aid, is an inspection to Chitwan. The aim is to see if the upper hill folk, reeling under landslides, food shortage, and a flood in 1953, can be rehabilitated in this valley. In 1957, the new rulers of Nepal pass the Nationalization Act. All forest land is now government-owned.

At about the same time, American marine biologist Rachel Carson is becoming the public voice of science, as she leads a decade-long DDT expose in the US. While the US stirs in the wake of a burgeoning environmental consciousness at home, a forerunner of USAID along with the WHO in 1953, begins funding and leading the spraying of DDT on Nepal’s Terai. The spray reaches Chitwan by 1956. Dr. Randall Packard debating this developmental policy writes in 2009, ‘Following World War II and the development of new anti-malarial drugs and pesticides, including DDT, malaria control and eradication were increasingly presented as instruments for eliminating economic underdevelopment. By the 1960s, however, economists and demographers began to raise serious substantive and methodological questions about the basis of these claims.

But this is still the 50s. With the success of the malaria eradication programme, the fear among the hill folk recedes. They clear the dense Terai quickly. The new moniker for their settlement, Moujas. Between 1927 and 1977, sixty percent of the Terai forest is gone. Most of it over two decades of this resettling, steered by King Mahendra. Population triples in a decade. Arguing for the hill folk to be seen as environmental refugees themselves, a 2010 paper acknowledges, ‘Chitwan was indeed the site of tremendous agricultural extension during the 1950s and 1960s, and substantial agricultural intensification in the 1970s and 1980s. Intensification included irrigation, fertilizer, mechanization, improved seeds, and the creation of the country’s first agricultural institute (located in Chitwan).

‘New settlers hoe their fields in Narayanghat.
Photo by Bill Hanson

Some say that the king wants more monarchy-loyal settlers to move, hoping to stem future revolts. Ex-military personnel in particular are encouraged to move closer to the Indian border near Chitwan. (Another TSOC exhibit looks at this from the Tharu point of view). To neutralize local opposition in the 1970s, 1400 hectares are apparently distributed among 696 local politicians. Some of them, Panchayat leaders. While serious land reform which includes the Tharu or agricultural sharecroppers is never seen on the ground, the Forest Act gets several updates.

Hunting by the new migrants makes the swamp deer and the wild buffalo disappear. The numbers of the Bengal Tiger, one-horned rhino, and wild elephants dip alarmingly and the Sarus crane becomes endangered. The Tharu, largely illiterate and lacking official documentation, become poorer and in debt, with each passing year. To address this wildlife crisis, Nepal gets its first national park in 1973 – The Royal Chitwan National Park. 

Kathmandu’s focus on the Terai is also evident from the fact that out of the 22 Forest Resources Survey publications to come out between 1965 and 1973, only two end up being on non-Terai areas. In the first of many roads, an all-weather road comes up in 1979, linking Chitwan’s largest town, Narayanghat, to the eastern part of Nepal’s East-West highway, which opens up toward Eastern Nepal and India. Narayan, who the Tharu believe to be the provider of sunshine, rain, and harvests, becomes the namesake for the transportation hub by the 80s.

The TSOC exhibit channels this dislocation of the Tharu, ‘Almost overnight, in-migration turned the Tharu into minorities in their own homeland. In 1955 nearly 100 percent of the population were Tharu; in 1970, that figure was only about 14 percent. Today, only a third of the valley is forested, and almost all of that forest lies within the national park.’

‘Travellers cross the Narayani River at Pitauji Ghat, down the river from Narayanghat. Logs are piled across the river, which will be brought over to be hauled to India.
Photo by Dave Hohl, 1967’

The Army moves in to regulate poaching, but also to evacuate 20,000 Tharu as the park expands. They also have to pay to access their thatched grass now. An excerpt from Joanne McLean’s 1999 paper, Conservation and the Impact of Relocation on the Tharus of Chitwan, Nepal documents clashes between soldiers and locals in a TSOC exhibit as well. Between 1966 and 2000, state control of the forest becomes a financial asset, as it earns 3398 million in tax revenue from the sale of forest products and approximately 2751 million in Nepalese currency, through the sale of timber. In fact, through the late 1950s and 1960s King Mahendra’s coined slogan, ‘Hariyo Ban, Nepal ko Dhan’ {Green forests are Nepal’s wealth} gets a local version which goes like ‘Hariyo Ban, Raja ko Dhan’ {Green forests are the King’s wealth}.

‘The degraded landscape: A spectacle of modern technology opening a new frontier in Chitwan. A dozer clears forests to pave way for the construction of infrastructure and an integrated economy.
Photo by Dave Hohl

Community forestry laws with multiple amendments from the late 70s to the 90s have now made a pathway for decentralized natural resource and forest management? With iffy early gains, forest cover in many parts of Chitwan has improved, as has its wildlife numbers. Although by 2005, only 10 % of the Terai forest user groups get to have a say in how the national park functions, as against approximately 24 % of the hill forest groups. While the Tharu community itself scatters with a very mixed Chitwan now.  

With the People’s Revolution in 2006 overthrowing a corrupt Panchayat system and a national population census planned in 2021, this is still a live tug-o-war between top-down instruction and bottom-up need. Not to mention the silences in between. Quite like the experience of tuning in to the Skin of Chitwan online exhibition.

The featured photo is by Amrit Bahadur Chitrakar, Nepal Picture Library.

Tisha Srivastav teaches Media Studies at Ashoka University.

All the images are courtesy of the photographers attributed in the story and Nepal Picture Library. 

Issue 14

The revolution begins from the street (art)

“Thoughtful street art is like good fiction – it speaks out on behalf of everyone, for us all to see.” 

Carla H. Krueger

The final day of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) taking place in Glasgow from 1 – 12 November has a special event called Arts and the Imagination”  hosted by Brian Eno, a British musician, composer and record artist, who defined and reinvented some of the most popular songs of the ‘80-’90s era. It will discuss art and culture in building conversations around climate change. Art has often been shown to have a powerful influence in communication on climate change. Where science fails in inspiring public concern for it, art with its visual engagement makes facts relatable and emotively direct.

So how is a street as a space of interaction between people and art? Think of any lane, street, road, anywhere in the world. As you step on the sidewalk, falling leaves crunching below your feet, cars and buses zooming past you on one side, you happen to glance at a wall on one side of the road.  Swirls of paint in vibrant colours of blue and green in intricate designs coat the walls, cheering you up immediately. Perhaps, you take a step back to observe, , and see that the entire work seems to have some message. Does it speak to you?– The latest Indian Census figures confirm that the biggest part of India’s working population walk to their place of work or cycle. In both cases, a glance on repeat, at the wall on your way to work is something many can choose to engage with. 

According to researchers, streets carry out various social functions, they act like a meeting space to interact with peers, both friends and strangers as well as the society at large. They are ever-changing spaces that symbolically communicate urban problems. Street art in particular, beyond the lens of being a visual image, acts as a mode of communication to other individuals and to protest against an ongoing current event. This conversation is not discriminatory in nature, as the audience is not restricted by class, like it often can be in art galleries. Street art also inserts itself into the small social space within the daily routine. Through this process, street art acts as a connection between the artist and the viewer but also between the individual and society. Street art manages to go beyond​​ the standard, restricted use of space with the help of appropriation and reappropriation of powerful known images and messages. 

So how are Indian artists thinking about this egalitarian space, now?

The word on the street (art)

Shilo Shiv Suleman, 32, a renowned artist from Bengaluru and the founder of Fearless Collective, has used public walls as her canvas to draw attention to the livelihood of waste pickers and Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike’s (BBMP) pourakarmikas (waste and sanitation civic workers), during the pandemic. These women work to collect, segregate and recycle the waste collected from residential areas on an everyday basis. These services didn’t qualify as essential services during the pandemic, so they were not considered frontline workers, who had access to emergency payment or early vaccination.To highlight this, the Fearless Collective along with Hasiru Dala, a social impact organisation working for the welfare of waste pickers, started “Essential” and collectively created a public monument. 

With the slogan “We are for you, you are for us”, the mural stands beautifully painted on the Utility building in Bengaluru, as a timely tribute to the hard working women, who hold our cities together. 

Street art also acts as a medium to celebrate the rich biodiversity of a place. Artist Afzan Pirzade, a street artist based out of Pune, as a part of the Worli Dairy Project, painted the walls in blues and greens, showcasing the diverse biodiversity of Mumbai. Though always seen as the concrete hub of the country, Mumbai also has rich natural heritage that needs to be safeguarded. Through this artwork, he sought to remind the people of Mumbai of the rich fauna and flora they are surrounded with. The artist covers some of the concrete to replicate a scene from nature to convey this message. 

An illustrator and artist born in Tamil Nadu and currently based in Goa, Osheen Shiva’s mural, “Better Together” showcases the interdependence between nature and us. Painted on the walls of the Kendriya Vidyalaya School in Trivandrum, Kerala, is animal life native to the state. The backdrop and the placement of the art on a school wall, is a subtle reach out to everyone who will care to look at it.

Art to Articulate 

John Dewey, a renowned American philosopher and psychologist in his book Art & Experience thought of art to be at the pinnacle of communication when it comes to universality and reach. Art transcends the boundaries of language and communicates shared experiences and thus, a shared sense of meaning. But how do artists use art to communicate? 

Scott R. Rudd, a professor of communications at University of Texas, Austin, argues that the artist through their art communicates either a certain experience to the viewer, or leads them to make certain judgements about an experience. They use the material media that art provides to elicit experiences or thoughts about the specific message they seek to communicate. Art does not always convey new information, but creates new ways of communicating it. 

So while Glasgow discusses this in relation to climate change, a great diversity of subjects and concerns, both local and national continue to revitalize Indian city and townscapes. So, look up as you walk by and see if your lived experience shows up on the wall close to you.

Devanshi Daga is a fourth year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She has completed her major in Psychology and is currently pursuing her minor in Sociology and Media Studies. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 14

All the good girls go to hell: A Soul-Stirring Yet Undeniably Catchy Single By Breakthrough Singer-Songwriter Billie Eilish

Listen to the song here

19-year-old singer-songwriter Billie Eilish is known for her cryptic songs that are surprisingly lilting. Yet more often than not, they point toward a dark story. All the good girls go to hell is no different. Its music video was dropped in September 2019, as the fifth single in her breakthrough album – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go and features the award-winning singer having white wings, soaked to the skin in black oil, struggling to make her way out of a pool of sludge. Instantly reminding the viewer of a helpless bird stuck in an oil spill. My Lucifer is lonely, sings a wispy voice struggling for breath, as she tries to escape the clutches of the pool, and the listener immediately understands she is referring to the devastating and inescapable consequences of climate change. 

When the video was dropped on YouTube, Billie even confirmed her message through the video’s description. “A note from Billie”: “Right now there are millions of people all over the world begging our leaders to pay attention. Our earth is warming up at an unprecedented rate, icecaps are melting, our oceans are rising, our wildlife is being poisoned and our forests are burning.” 

Standing there, killing time, can’t commit to anything but a crime, sings Billie, possibly taking a dig at our world leaders’ unwillingness to address the climate crisis. The video then has the weary-looking singer managing to come out of the pool, but now staggering through a street, engulfed in flames. The fire continues to burn down her surroundings, as she turns her piercing gaze directly towards the camera and sings, Hills burn in California. The chorus line airs her fears about the rising sea levels, Once the water starts to rise. 

It seems Billie Eilish is not the first singer to express concern about the changing climate through her music. Every day gets hotter than the one before, Running out of water, it’s about to go down sings Childish Gambino in his 2018 hit song, Feels Like Summer. Likewise, the English pop-rock band, The 1975, opened their 2019 album, Notes on a Conditional Form, with a monologue by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s where she calls for civil disobedience to fight for proper climate action. 

While Eilish skillfully uses her lyrics to ask difficult questions and urge humans to show more compassion to the planet, the music itself is incredibly unique; confusing almost. ‘Flitting between gothic, cartoonish show tunes, slow-burning, glossy pop and sculptural, choral electronic strangeness’ as The Guardian describes it. Her voice is fluid but the sounds are funky. Something about the teenager’s intense breathy vocals, neo-gothic vibe, and use of electric sounds, immediately draws a listener in, making them want to truly understand the message she is trying to spread through her craft. 

Meera Anand is a third year undergraduate student at Ashoka University, who is currently pursuing a major in Economics and a minor in Media Studies. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 14

Book Review: The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis

The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, is celebrated writer Amitav Ghosh’s latest offering on the perils of the current climatic context we find ourselves in, its roots with the past, and our undeniable reliance on nature for survival. Out in October, it follows after ‘The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable’ written by Ghosh in 2016. Which was acclaimed for its prowess in calling out the world of art and literature, for failing to bring climate change & our ecological crisis to common parlance and public consciousness.

Ghosh, who won the Jnanpith Award in 2018, employs the nutmeg as the unconventional protagonist in his new work. One that gets transformed into a commodity through Europe’s colonial expansion in its pursuit of trade monopolies, like in the case of the spice trade leading to conquests in the Indian Ocean from the 15th century. And the fossil fuel economy in the present day. 

Ghosh excavates the tale of the Nutmeg, a ground spice, native to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, and draws an analogy between it and the transformation of the earth into a set of resources that can and should be exploited.  It’s in the pursuit of the nutmeg by the Dutch and their consequent conquest of the Banda Islands and its people in the 17th century that Ghosh creates parallels with the modern liberal interventionism observed in present-day international politics. He does so by highlighting a still-pervasive philosophy traceable to the 16th century, which states that any “well-governed country…has an absolute right to invade countries that are ‘degenerate’ or in violation of the ‘laws of nature & nations’”. The Bandanese people, like many other cultures of that era and before, regarded the earth as a living entity, as living and breathing as they were. Their deep-seated, ancient bond with the Earth had passed down generations through stories, songs, and tales, and they knew that without nature, they would not survive.

Ghosh’s investigation into the past uncovers many rich details for the reader such as the falling of a lantern at the Banda Islands, an incident that led to extreme panic among the Dutch soldiers, and violence against the Bandanese people. Discovered by Ghosh after translating Dutch records. With this, Ghosh demonstrates how brutality against indigenous people is inextricably linked with Europe’s conquest of nature.“But since the nutmeg trade is synonymous with the Bandas, it can’t be helped”. 

Similarly, Ghosh brings to light many other instances that mark shifts in thought as well as the tools used to transform the earth into an inert entity that has been conquered ideologically & physically. The modern civilisation, Ghosh remarks, prizes itself for finally conquering nature and becoming the “crowning race”, achieves so by exterminating every other species. Ghosh attempts to unpack the centuries of subjugation of the earth and its people through the tales of the Banda and Maluka people of Indonesia, and the Navajo Tribe of North America.

The earth has lost its meaning, as it is conquered, inert, supine. The earth can no longer enable, nor delight, nor produce new aspiration.” In a world where the earth’s billionaires (who not-so-coincidentally are also major polluters) are in a space race, Ghosh’s choice of the nutmeg, a spice, an entity of and from the earth as the focus, is a deliberate attempt to break free from the capitalist notion: “[views] the earth as though it were an inert entity that exists primarily to be exploited and profited from, with the aid of science and technology”. The reader can’t help being moved as the account traces the loss of the sacred relationship of humans with the earth under the guise of the privilege of modernity. The modern world, where chasing profit is considered the sole virtue, isn’t meant to sustain the bonds of the earth.

Ghosh creates a parallel between the geopolitical conflict driven by the spice trade & the modern geopolitical conflict for “botanical matter” (fossil fuels). “Five centuries of history – going back to geopolitical rivalries over the control of cloves, nutmegs & pepper – have given the world’s most ‘advanced’ countries a strategic interest in perpetuating the global fossil fuel regime.” He explains that the primary reason for inaction towards addressing the climate crisis is that the hegemony of the West rests on the control of the fossil fuel regime & their vested interests prevent a shift away from it. He, however, may be giving too much leeway to China & India, two of the biggest oil importers, on their renewable energy efforts as the same fossil fuel lobbies drive domestic coal production which maintains this hegemony. 

While the world awaits climate action, and the elite sections of society hope for technology to buy them out of the climate crisis, Ghosh’s latest attempt hopes to restore the bonds with earth. He brings together the many crises we face today, placing them in the historical and present context and offering insight into how we landed at this moment of planetary crisis. By interlinking events through space and time, he creates a rich understanding of what must be done to survive the crisis, and perhaps come out of thriving. 

Mehak Bhargava is a student of Environmental Studies at Ashoka University. When she’s not worrying about the planet, she dances & experiments with specialty coffee drinks. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 14

Who is riding pillion on the e-scooter buzz in India?

“We have recorded our best month in September, with one e-scooter sold every day,” says Sminy Devassy, owner of Ampere Electric’s franchise in Thrissur, a district in central Kerala. Ampere Electric, the e-mobility business of Greaves Cotton Limited, has otherwise sold more than one lakh e-scooters nationally since they launched thirteen years ago. In the case of another e-scooter manufacturer, Ather Energy, its CEO, Tarun Mehta, through a LinkedIn post on October 15, said that their sales in the past fortnight alone equaled the total sales in 2020.

One look at the data of India’s apex body representing the Indian automobile industry, SIAM’s 2020-2021 domestic sales trend, tells you why. All two-wheeler sales dipped in 2020 nationally. So compared to a year ago, is it picking up again as a category in general and a buzz around electric vehicles in particular? Has Sminy, who started this franchise at the cusp of 2020-2021 and sold more than 200 e-scooters, in the first three weeks of October, entered the EV business at the right time? 

The Electric Vehicle (EV) Push: Business & energy-security?

20 Indian states, including Kerala, now have an EV policy, with more joining in. To help the common man make the shift, the cost price is down, with a subsidy or two. One, the central government’s Fame II subsidy and states are individually offering their own. Many have early bird incentives and schemes for battery packs like Maharashtra here

The Kerala State Electricity Minister recently launched an online EV store and app for the state, passing on 50 % of the subsidy, first to government employees. In fact, Vehicle Registration data for two-wheelers, which in this case, shows motorcycles and scooters in the same category, is down in all Central and Southern Kerala districts, barring Ernakulam. Like it has been across India in 2021. Much of it is due to the pandemic, but are a few, in wait and watch EV mode?

At one level, this shift attempts to address national energy security. Fossil fuel based transportation is the second largest source of CO2 emissions, it has already caused over 50 % of the global energy consumption and the rising price of crude oil will continue to affect a nation’s trade deficit. Like much of the world is realising, a reset begins with shifting from a vehicle dependent on the internal combustion engine or ICE. To electric options. But is it here that EV companies like Simple Energy and OLA are aiming for the world?

OLA Electric’s live stream on August 15, was kicked off by its CEO Bhavesh Agarwal’s e-scooter launch, where he had this to say, “As we develop as a nation, we need to make sure many many more people get access to a two-wheeler. But we can’t make them gasoline two-wheelers — we need to ensure these are electric two-wheelers.” He went on to add, “scooters, which are urban mobility vehicles haven’t been innovated upon for decades. The scooters currently in the market are completely out of sync with the aspirations of India. They are boring, dull, slow, clunky and just don’t represent the future.” He then introduced the OLA S1 — the e-scooter which within a matter of two months, received over half a million bookings. Stepping up production capacity, deliveries are slated to begin October end, says the company. Although it is tight-lipped about final booking numbers.

Will India’s two-wheeler consumer adapt?

In India, 80 percent of all vehicles sold are two-wheelers, so it makes economic sense to innovate in this consumer segment. Even when sales are currently down in 2021, the number of Indians using two-wheelers has grown from a decade ago. While a little less than ten Indian companies are in the e-scooter space, global brands like Honda and Yamaha are currently doing feasibility studies in India, to see the world’s largest two-wheeler market readiness, for e-scooters in all aspects. Ask Sminy what her customers look for before deciding and she says, “Customers look for e-scooters with high power and high range. They generally buy with the intention of keeping it for 5-6 years, expect low maintenance and some people even get their e-scooter, to experience an electric vehicle for the first time as an experimental mission.” Her next statement is a reminder that this EV segment has also seen a boom and bust before. When EV bicycles of Chinese make were pitched as EV scooters, Indian EV companies like the one she has a franchise for, lasted out, “being an older brand under Crompton Greaves gives them credibility and trust to the customers, compared to the Chinese scooters. And now with petrol prices increasing so rapidly and moving beyond 100 rupees.” 

CEO Tarun Mehta in the same post also says, “Smaller cities are producing an amazing EV story, beating most predictions (including some of our own). EVs are going mainstream now.”As a YouTuber with over 9000 subscribers,  Hasna Nishaf, a quail farmer from rural Kerala might agree with him. She has recently bought one. She also quickly put out her cost-benefit analysis of  EV use on her Malayalam channel, Zara the Farming Partner, “this e-scooter has helped me bring down my monthly running costs from 3000 rupees to just 150.

Nikhil C Rimon, who works as a mechanic in the same store, comments on the maintenance cost for servicing, “we just check the batteries, brakes and do general maintenance for the services. After the initial 3 free services, a customer typically only spends about 300 rupees for each service afterward which includes a water service as well.” 

The health benefits have been confirmed by a 2021 study conducted by the International Council on Clean Transportation which says that mass adoption of EVs with a market penetration of 67 percent by 2030 alone, would save Indians $10.3 billion in avoided health costs, due to decreased pollution. ‘This is under the conservative assumption that the additional power demand due to vehicle electrification is met through fossil fuel power plants. Additional policies to clean up India’s electricity grid could amplify the air quality and health benefits of vehicle electrification.’ The current leader in charging networks for electric vehicles in India, Tata Power, has already invested widely in solar and wind electricity generation

While e-scooter startups like OLA Electric and Simple Energy, aim for export and the Indian market, the central and state governments gear up with schemes and subsidies, the road ahead is abuzz with change. 

Gamechanger? Time and the price-sensitive Indian consumer will tell.

Cefil is a student of Mathematics and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University.

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