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'A River Runs Again' tells five tales of India at the crossroads

Journalist Meera Subramanian beautifully crafts a filigree of cautionary and celebratory stories about India future and past, voiced with dignified passion.

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    A River Runs Again:
    India’s Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka
    By Meera Subramanian
    Public Affairs
    352 pp.
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Swaram Singh is a farmer in Punjab, India’s breadbasket. A man arrived at his homestead 50 years ago, bearing magic seeds and white crystals. Here, take these seeds, plant them, sprinkle the crystals on top, add water, said the man, and you will start a revolution, a Green Revolution. Take them. They are free.

“Don’t take anything they give you for free,” Swaram’s grandfather warned. But it was the dawn of the technological fix. Better living through chemistry. Famine was not a distant memory for India; it didn’t lurk, it was routinely on parade. Once you witness starvation, the promise of high-yield crops is not something to be sniffed at. Unless you are a grandfather with a nose for the Devil’s bargain. “‘When grandfather found out what we’d done,’ Swaram Singh said, ‘he told us we’d regret it.’”

Just so.

Meera Subramanian’s A River Runs Again tells five tales of India at the crossroads – a filigree of cautionary and celebratory stories – voiced with dignified passion. Elemental mistakes have been made – her concerns are mostly environmental, with one glaring exception – mistakes she has broken down into chapters entitled Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether. But India is a vast and kaleidoscopic place, home to great numbers of people, religions, landscapes, cultures, and nonetheless finite resources, a place where answers don’t come at the drop of a hat. If there ever were moments of national equipoise, however, the elemental problems Subramanian captures here have thrown the whole Rube Goldberg contraption that is India, with its 1.28 billion moving parts, severely out of whack.

Finding a way to balance on the environmental front – and consequentially, on economic, political, and social fronts – will be a touch-and-go process, Subramanian believes, prudent and anticipatory, as grandfather would have suggested. The good news is that problems addressed in these pages have been identified and there are solutions in the works. First, Subramanian would like to introduce you to the problems.

Those magic seeds were genetically engineered: high yielding, under particular circumstances, but like mules, couldn’t reproduce. Those white crystals: pure nitrogen fertilizer, “crack for crops,” as Subramanian chromatically puts it, and apropos: mixed with copious water, they were cornucopian, and free, at first. They got you hooked, but then the free samples gave way to an inflatable price tag on the fertilizer and the proprietary seeds. When the pests arrived to feast, in came the pesticides and insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, the heptachlor, endosulfan, malathion, dioxins, chlordane, aldrin, and Big Daddy DDT. There went the neighborhood and the health of the soil. Yields flattened; more junk was needed to coax the exhausted soil. Yields diminished nevertheless, but the country’s population gathered numbers and demand.

The word that fits this shoe is unsustainable: financially, environmentally, and for the sake of one’s sanity. What Subramanian discovers is a groundswell – not a mass movement, yet – of farmers turning back to the future, to concern for the native health of the soil, its care and feeding, tilth and microorganisms. In a country where a large percentage of the population live on modest plots of land, and where an underdeveloped infrastructure allows “small is beautiful” to persist, this is, Subramanian writes, “the perfect place for the model of the micro to emerge ... ripe with opportunity for such a paradigm shift.”

Don’t let the wonk-babble throw you off. Subramanian is an elegant writer (“A line of women, a brush stroke of six bright saris – orange, yellow, red, green”) sometimes drifting into the fruity ("a miracle emerging from the ether, life materializing from a web spun from spiraling DNA”) on into deliquescence: “We all carry weighty turbans woven with threads of responsibility upon our heads,” if only 99 percent of us.

So it goes for other problems, other solutions. The freshwater situation is a disaster: a rampaging host of poisonous effluents, wetland destruction, government-subsidized pumping exponentially outstripping recharge. But there is the return to the brilliance of India’s great little waterworks: small catchment areas, to herd and hoard monsoon waters (“constructed and crafted by simple people,” writes Subramanian with ill-advised loftiness).

A billion little cookfires become a greenhouse gas explosion, but inexpensive, efficient-burning stoves hold promise, though also social hurdles: “Would you rather cook standing up ... like they do in the movies,” asks the stovemaker. Yes, reply the women, “but my mother-in-law wouldn’t like that.”

In the wake of the Green Revolution and its army of chemical control agents, India has its own "Silent Spring": songbirds, peacocks, and noticeably the vultures – “a natural and efficient disposal system,” from sky burials to roadkill – are fewer and fewer. Not so the proliferation of vicious junkyard dogs now plaguing the landscape. But the villain has been identified – diclofenac, a widely used painkiller for the increase in pain caused by the introduction of all the “cides” – and breeding centers established. Vulture charisma: Mr. and Mrs. Look-a-Fright take a star turn on the conservation stage with the pandas and tigers.

Though the last trouble Subramanian confronts also pivots around a large environmental issue – population – it engages pressing misogynistic cruelty: reproductive rights, child brides, and sexual violence. A high-profile gang-rape case has spurred the Indian judiciary to expand the legal definition of rape to include sexual harassment, voyeurism, and stalking (still largely dismissed as “Eve-teasing”), yet “victims often find the police as threatening as their attackers, and the judicial system is notoriously torpid.” Education is one bulwark of defense, though more than anything, there is the increasing security of numbers: sisterhood.

Subramanian navigates these rough waters between baneful emergencies and precarious signs of enlightened attitudes with the right degree of cautious optimism. The making of tilth, the return of the indigenous rain barrel, women’s rights, the phoenixlike resurrection of Gyps bengalensis, the smoke-free cookstove – each may, really may, catch fire.

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