ROHIT Kumar has razed the small house he recently built a short stretch from the banks of the Kosi River in Bihar. He is saving the bricks for another home once the swirling waters from the river recede.
The Kosi is known as Bihar’s sorrow for bringing its annual fury from the glaciers and gorges of the upper Himalayas to the plains of a land where Buddha walked his conscious steps and cautioned against excessive materialism.
The gradient then tapers and slows Kosi’s flow, as happens with other rivers that originate in the Himalayas and sustain lives across the Indo-Gangetic plains.
A fear stalking the world, though one hopes the day doesn’t ever come, is that with the blessings of Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, and similar neoliberal right-wingers such as their friend Jair Bolsanaro, most riverbeds on our planet could go dry and Rohit Kumar’s grandchildren might need to search for another water body if there is one to drop anchor.
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Drought and floods are peas in the pod of the planet’s ecology. During a severe drought in 1917-18, the Jhelum River in Kashmir dried up completely. The western Himalayas hold over 48,000 square kilometres of glacier ice, second only to the poles. The Hindukush and Karakoram ranges sustain millions in their peaks and valleys while spawning the headwaters of rivers like the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra.
Modi cannot see a world without a daily plot to win a state assembly or parliament, come pandemic or high water.
Bolsanaro unsurprisingly was Modi’s chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations, and Trump was a special visitor the other day. The Brazilian leader has supervised the clearing of the Amazon forests at the speed of over 100 football fields a day.
Trump never believed in climate change. Had the coronavirus outbreak not foiled his plans, there would be toxic pipelines running through the most ecologically fragile zones in the US.
Modi is stymied by his innate faith in obscurantism. He cannot see a world without a daily plot to win a state assembly or parliament, come pandemic or high water. As his advice to clap hands and bang utensils to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic began to lose its appeal, he shifted the focus smartly to the elections in Bihar. To win elections, he needs to placate the business lobbies.
When UN Secretary General António Guterres spoke last month of reviving post-Covid-19 economies in an ecologically agreeable way, he may have been responding to Modi’s polluting plans to open up coal mining to the private sector.
Guterres said: “We cannot go back to the way it was and simply recreate the systems that have aggravated the crisis … There is no good reason, for example, for any country to include coal in their Covid-19 recovery plans. This is the time to invest in energy sources that don’t pollute, don’t cause emissions, generate decent jobs and save money.”
Modi has chosen the opposite course. Just when Indians were experiencing the happier spin-off from the coronavirus pandemic — cleaner air to breathe — a provision in the new deal removed the caveat to use washed coal. Furore is brewing over alleged permission to carry out mining in Assam in areas earmarked as forest sanctuaries for elephants.
Of the twin challenges to the planet’s survival — environmental calamity and nuclear decimation — India finds itself placed in the proximity of both. Purely from a cultural position this need not have been so. One can understand, though not trust, someone like Mike Pompeo, who believes it’s God’s will to destroy a rival nation. His bigoted mindset finds him hating Iran but striking an accord with the lunatic fringe known as the Hojjatiyeh. Both await the end of the world so that they could head for paradise. Hojjatiyeh plotted to precipitate a US-Soviet conflict by chucking missiles into the Soviet Union. Khomeini had them arrested. Who will stop Pompeo?
Firing Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision is a similar divine promise. East of Jerusalem, and within sight of both the Temple Mount and the Al Aqsa mosque, lie over a hundred thousand Jewish graves, ancient and recent. The feet face the city as the resurrection would begin there, walking them to the Holy City.
Environmental calamity or nuclear extinction must be far from the community of Hindus whose love for their world of flora and fauna carries them to the point of worshipping both. There’s no temptation to let the world they worship go up in smoke. Besides, much of Hindu mythology revolves around verdant forests and snow-clad mountains. The ice stalagmite worshipped in Kashmir’s Amarnath cave shrine as Shiva’s symbol has often melted into water. Reports say air conditioners were installed to reduce the heat from the crowds and warmer summers.
Likewise, the snow-clad Mount Kailash is sacred to Hindus. Since it is located in Tibet, special visas are offered by China to Hindus to fulfil their pilgrimage. Imagine the mythological mountain losing its fabled snow cover with climate change. Modi’s vision of a strong nation is anchored in Hindu rashtra with impregnable borders. How will he stop the rush of climate refugees from Bangladesh when the rising sea gobbles up the entire delta, or when the Maldives disappears under the Indian Ocean, and its people call out for help?
Only recently, right in the middle of the India-China fracas, a friendly professor from Vancouver sent me a book review. The book, World Without Ice by Jonathan Mingle, is a brilliant synthesis of evidence that leads to worrying conclusions about our future. With the help of six recent documents — books and reports — Mingle argues forcefully that our current understanding of the climatic issues are probably fraught with flawed conclusions.
The writer pores with particular interest on the report The Hindukush Himalaya Assessment, which draws out the physical and political outcomes of melting mountain ice. People in Modi’s team should read it, even if the book’s import would be more readily intelligible to Rohit Kumar and his marooned neighbours in Bihar.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2020