Book Extract: Rescuing our endangered landscapes
Nowhere is the value of understanding local geographies more eroded than in our cities, says Arati Kumar-Rao in a sparkling new volume on ‘Indian landscapes on the brink’
Flying higher than Mount Everest, I look down from the smudged, double-glassed oval porthole of a commercial plane; 37,000 feet below me I see a twisting, turning blue-and-white river, braiding into itself silt and sand. On its banks are hamlets and a mosaic of green and brown farmland. A bridge straddles the river; clumps of trees punctuate the landscape.
Half an hour later, another river snakes below me. This one is browner, thicker, carrying more water, sand and silt. Big towns sprawl on its banks. Cocooned within our airborne tube and disconnected from the land below, my fellow passengers snooze with the shades pulled down.
I turn to the map on the screen embedded in the seat-back in front of me and trace the flight’s path. We are over the Ganga, where it bends into West Bengal from Bihar. Just two days prior, I was in that area. On an almond-shaped wooden fishing boat, we had pushed upriver and gone downstream all week long. The monsoon freshet was abating and the water level was decreasing slowly, revealing old silt islands, birthing new ones.
What I knew from being on the river, that I could never have known from flying high above it, was that it behaved differently on either side of the bend. The left bank was vastly unlike the right bank.
The people on either side lived disparate lives, they did not speak the same language, they grew different varieties of crops and rice; they harvested at different times and in vastly dissimilar ways. They experienced the same river differently. And this becomes clear only at ground level, while moving slowly through the landscape and paying close attention.
That process of ‘seeing’, where we experience a landscape with all our senses, is unavailable to us when we cocoon ourselves in planes and cars and buses and trains, rushing through the terrain without experiencing it. I have learned over time that it is essential to move at a human pace rather than a machine’s; to be alive with all our senses in order to begin to truly know.
Not unlike the way the shepherds in the deep Thar keenly understand the desert and its rhythms, or how the fishers in the Sundarban are one with the river, unlocking its secrets and deftly negotiating the dangers lurking within its dark waters.
A knowledge of hyperlocal geographies, of the undulations and perturbations of the land over small distances and how these change over seasons, is not only vital to survival but also integral to our resilience in the face of changes in climate.
And it is that very intimate, hyperlocal knowledge that is fast eroding today, as traditional livelihoods become unviable in the face of degraded landscapes and people are forced to move away from lands which they know deeply, to desperately find work in cities that are incongruous to their ways.
By some projections, over 200 million people are on the move in South Asia, displaced from their traditional lands, pin-balling from one city to the next. Imagine their progeny, our future generations, growing up with no knowledge of the traditional livelihoods that have sustained their ancestors, nor suited for any meaningful urban employment. We are on the cusp of a humanitarian disaster of colossal proportions.
Nowhere is the value of understanding local geographies more eroded than in our cities. Take the city I live in, for example, a ballooning metropolis housing thirteen million people and counting, and one of the fastest growing cities in the world as measured by increase in influx by the hour.
Bangalore sits smack in the centre of peninsular India, perched 900 metres above sea level; it has no perennial rivers or water sources.
In the sixteenth century, a local chieftain named Kempe Gowda and the rulers who followed him built and maintained an ingenious cascading chain of lakes and wetlands so that the excess in one water body would flow through to the next and so on, down the chain. Maps from Bangalore's past indicate that, at one point, the city had over a thousand lakes. Water was plentiful, floods were unknown.
The latter half of the twentieth century ushered in a new buzzword: development. Land for industry and later, big tech, became the most precious commodity; water bodies were ‘reclaimed', superimposed with concrete. By the 1960s, there were only 280 lakes left.
At the time of writing, there are just eighty, many of which are already facing encroachment; almost all are putrid with sewage and untreated industrial waste, and not one can supply potable water to the population. The cascading chain of lakes designed to drain the land and recharge groundwater has been irreparably broken, built over and choked.
During the heavier-than-normal monsoons of 2022, large parts of Bangalore became submerged. It rained continuously for a couple days in September, and the waters could find nowhere to go. And so it found its own level, flowing downstream, seeking the lowest lands and collecting in the depressions - areas that were once wetlands and overflows from interconnected lake systems and have since been built over.
One particular suburb, a conglomeration of giant tech parks and swanky gated communities, hit the headlines; viral images of the inundated basements of million-dollar residential properties, Jaguars, Bentleys, Audis and Mercedes Benzes floating amidst the detritus circulated on social media. And still the waters rose, seeping into the ground floors, drowning expensive carpets and designer furniture.
The CEOs and leaders of Bangalore’s vaunted tech companies had to be evacuated by inflatable boats and hardy tractors. The shanties that had mushroomed around these gated communities to service them were washed away. The waters from just two days of heavy rain took several days to recede; daily life took weeks to return to normalcy, property of all sorts was lost forever.
Woe-is-us postmortems in the aftermath conveniently shifted the blame for the incalculable losses onto that readymade scapegoat: 'climate change'. The government officials who had given indiscriminate building permissions and the builders who had flouted all norms to build over storm water drains looked the other way.
These stories, unfortunately, are not particular to Bangalore or to big cities.
In the freezing winter of 2023, residents of the pilgrimage town of Joshimath in the Himalaya were forced out of their houses when cracks began to appear in the walls, through the foundations, and on the roads.
Unchecked tunnelling and drilling, road-cutting and construction have long been the suspects. The region has always been prone to landslides. The town of Joshimath, 2,000 metres above sea level, sits on the remains of an old landslide.
But warnings over the years, from geologists and hydrologists have been ignored—here and throughout the Himalayan region. After the cracks appeared at Joshimath, alarm bells were sounded by all across the young mountain range.
The ideas to effect change, to make our cities water-secure, to make our mountains safe and rivers ecologically healthy, exist. The solutions—sometimes disarmingly simple and not requiring expensive technology—are at hand.