Can we wash away the rains?

A discussion on five books which trace the roots of ecological disasters

Published - November 17, 2021 12:03 pm IST

Often in times of disaster when/if governments are found lacking, people tend to show their best side.

Often in times of disaster when/if governments are found lacking, people tend to show their best side.

From November 7 to November 12 this year, Chennai received 46 cm of rainfall, which is five-and-a-half times the normal amount. In October, there were record rainbursts in Kerala and Uttarakhand as the southwest monsoon began to retreat from the subcontinent. Tamil Nadu, and especially Chennai, had seen severe floods in 2015, Kerala in 2018, and Uttarakhand in 2013 and 2021 all of which caused widespread devastation.

Viju B., a journalist, traced the reasons for Kerala’s frequent calamities in his book, Flood and Fury: Ecological Devastation in the Western Ghats (Penguin). The root of the crisis, he writes, lies in the changes wrought to the State’s fragile topography by uncontrolled real estate development, putting thousands of people at risk. He travelled throughout the State and reported that the government’s stand that the 2018 floods were a once-in-a-hundred-year phenomenon was “illusory”. Landslides and floods followed for three consecutive years. When Viju B. visited Wayanad in 2019, he found people living in the Ghats fearful of rains. “The character of the rain has changed, metamorphosing into a water-bombing monster, triggering landslides.” The government, he says in the preface to the second edition, had not re-evaluated development policies in the light of the changing climatic conditions, and instead appeared “hell-bent on going ahead with unscientific expansion plans in these ecologically-fragile regions.”

In her 2019 book, Rivers Remember (Context/Westland), Krupa Ge says the floods that ravaged Chennai in 2015 were man-made and led her to think “how on earth did this happen to us?” After conducting research for four years, talking to all stakeholders, she concluded that the city’s water bodies had been either clogged or encroached upon haphazardly, closing all routes for the water to subside. Sadly, similar situations persist in many other cities of India. “If you live in urban India and find your home and your city sinking, it’s possibly because of mismanagement of water bodies; because rivers remember.”

Often in times of disaster when/if governments are found lacking, people tend to show their best side. Rebecca Solnit analyses this trait in her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell (Penguin), where she writes about communities that rise to the occasion in times of a crisis. “Thousands of people survived Hurricane Katrina [in New Orleans, 2005] because complete strangers reached out to those in need of help,” she writes. Observing such societal behaviour, Solnit says, “The very concept of society rests on the idea of networks of affinity and affection.” Such networks must be preserved to make societies more collaborative and local.

The importance of locals taking up the cause for a community is underscored in Shekhar Pathak’s The Chipko Movement: A People’s History (Permanent Black, 2021) where he profiles ordinary people who began an extraordinary protest to save the environment. In his account, Pathak writes how the movement evolved in the 1970s as a response to rampant deforestation in the then northern Uttar Pradesh, now Uttarakhand.

The natural world began speaking out “episodically” with severe monsoons, flash floods, droughts, caving of mountainsides etc. Decades ago, in the 1980s, Alexander Frater followed the monsoon as it began its journey from Kerala and moved north in Chasing the Monsoon (Picador) , and witnessed its capricious nature firsthand.

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