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Friday, November 27, 2015

Indian Monsoon Rains—the Other Side

For aeons, monsoon rains have been descending in India with an amazing spurt of life-giving energy at the appointed time “like a king in pride of power” duly accompanied by “the lambent flashes of lightning …and the reverberating thunder” that is hailed by mankind “as the royal cavalcade is acclaimed / by crowds of suppliants.” For, it is on varsha, rain, that “impregnation in the entire universe” rests—varsha makes their “earth a comely courtesan / attired in the green silk of grass / wearing silver ornaments of sprungup mushroom / ruby of purple colored worm of moist fields.”

The arrival of monsoon rains—dark clouds descending in rows making the sky look like the color of a peacock’s feather, reverberating thunder announcing its arrival, moist- laden cool winds gushing in, its resplendent tunes making peacocks in the countryside welcome them with their “jubilant cries / To hail the friendly rain; / And spreading wide their jubilant trains, / With the love play of the kiss and embrace, / They hold their gorgeous dance parade” (RS 2.6), and suddenly, the vast sky opening up “To deluge the earth with generous showers; / And the lisping patter of the rain / Rings sweet to the ears of men” (RS 2.3)—though, is an annual feature in India, it appears fresh and  fragrant every year.

As a vertical sheet of water descends, it rushes at an incredible speed, as though to meet its mate—the scorched earth, and when the much-longed and long-awaited waters ultimately descend, the mother earth swallows the first ambrosial waters of the season with glee. For Indians, varsha, as Kalidasa had aptly adored, is “prāninām prānabhūtahthe life-breath of all that live. Besides, nothing was so romantic to the poets of yore as the patter of rain shower—an ordered filigree of sound that stirred them to muse.

Indeed, India has so much to be thankful to monsoon, for in it, all its existence recycles year after year. For, besides these romantic ragas, there is hard core economics of India that is intricately entwined with monsoons —even today, around 66% of the agricultural land in the country is directly dependent on monsoon rains. There is an undeniable link, that too, a defining one, between rains and Indian agriculture as the Economic Survey of 2013-14 categorically states: “The intensity and distribution of rainfall determine the crop prospects in a majority of the areas.”

Our annual economic-affair with monsoons starts with the announcement of Indian Meterological Department’s (IMD) predictions about the monsoon rains. Of course, our IMD has been forecasting about monsoon rainfall for over a hundred years, yet they remain a mere approximation of the real world, but not reality; for, after all, atmosphere is, as Edward Lorenz’s (of MIT) studies reveal, a ‘chaotic system’. Indeed excess or scant rainfall creating chaos, almost every year in one part or the other of India, has become a common phenomenon in the recent past. Severe droughts—dry winds, parched fields, emptied wells, withered crops, dying cattle, hunger deaths—often result in the migration of poor and the marginalized lot from the countryside to the nearby urban centers for a fistful of food leaving behind everything, their dwellings, relations, their associations, indeed their very roots. 

According to Sen (1981), the worst sufferers of the drought are the “people much farther down the economic ladder" for, according to him, their “Starvation is ...the result of his [their] inability to establish entitlement to enough food”. Sen is indeed categorical about the drought inflicted starvation, when he says, “Starvation is characteristic of some people not having enough to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough to eat. While the latter can be a cause of the former, it is but one of many possible causes”. That is where government of the day plays a critical role in obviating the suffering inflicted by the drought. Similarly, floods—cloud bursts, swelling streams, overflowing rivers, breaches to river banks, tanks and canalbunds, marooned villages, paddy fields in knee-deep water, even putrefaction of standing crops, washed out roads and rail tracks—too play havoc with the lives of the people from the lower-rungs of the countryside. The resulting pangs of human suffering well reflect in these lines: “The villagers ... / …slapped their bellies / and whined: / ‘I have not eaten for three days’ / ‘my husband has been washed away’ / ‘my son is dying’ / ‘I cannot find my daughter’” (Ezekiel, 1999, pp. 44-51).

The worst calamity that India suffered in the recent past is: the 1977 cyclone that hit AP coast, under the influence of which on November 19, a huge storm wave destroyed a number of villages in Divi Sema—“Once / there was a village here / Once the land and the air and the sky here / were filled with people. / … / Once / crops heavy with golden grain / danced here in graceful waves. /… / What you see now are not waves / but heaps of bodies / and threads of breath / cut off from bodies. / And silence. / … /A silence that pervades the universe / and
settles in the eye of the corpse” (Nagnamuni et al., 2002)— killing thousands of people as they slept. It disturbed the consciousness of people. Some lament that even after more than three decades of such suffering, the indifference of the administration—aptly dubbed as Koyya Gurram (The Wodden Horse) by the poet, Nagnamuni—to the fact: “Water can quench your thirst and keep you alive / It can also kill” (Nagnamuni et al., 2002) is evident from its recurring failures in minimizing the aftereffects of such calamities. It is, however, pretty encouraging to watch the farmers, challenging the limits set by the monsoons, march on defiantly, for “He is a man of the soil. / He could not severe his bonds with his land.”

Intriguingly, in our classical Sanskrit literature, we seldom come across poetry talking about the variations in the environmental behavior such as recurring droughts and famine, floods dislodging people from their natural habitats and the resulting suffering of the mankind—“... the pregnant woman / drowned, with perhaps twins in her, / kicking at blank walls / even before birth”25—as is found in the modern poetry. It is not clear if it is more due to the rarity of such events in those days or because of the very dictates of Sanskrit poetics.

Nevertheless, it is felt that the cleverness and inventiveness of the mankind has changed everything of the planet—changed its very climate, more so since the industrial revolution in Europe. With an overwhelming emphasis on reductionist science, we have developed such technologies, institutions, and lifestyles, which proved to be profoundly unhealthy. Excessive technological growth, coupled with ecological short sightedness and corporate greed, has created an environment in which life has become quite unhealthy. Most of the industrial units are simply dumping their hazardous industrial wastes—which are “not just incidental by-products of technological progress; they are integral features of an economic system obsessed with growth and expansion—‘somewhere else’, without neutralizing them, though in a finite ecosystem, there is no such place as ‘somewhere else’ (Capra, 1989). As a result, man, despite his unique endowment—intelligence—is today heading to exercise a choice to die with a whimper through sheer lack of oxygen, water, food and so on.

Much of India is already warming—in the last 50 years, the mean annual surface-air temperature has risen by an average of 0.4 oC (Rupa Kumar et al., 2002). Meteorological records indicate considerable random, that too, unexplained, variation in the monsoons. The frequency of droughts has been increasing: there were six droughts during 1900 and 1950 as against 12 in the following 50 years, and three droughts already occurred since the beginning of the 21st century. Rising deforestation, receding water tables and overgrazing are found to increase the vulnerability of ecosystem to drought. Similarly, the magnitude of flooding has increased in recent decades: affected areas have risen from 19 million ha 50 years ago to 40 million ha in 2003—about 12% of geographic area is today affected by floods. Since 1980, floods have almost been occurring every year—the worst being in 2003 and 2005. Increase in population, deforestation and inadequate drainage have all contributed to rise in floods and flood damage.27

According to a World Bank Report (2008), projections for climate change in India for the period 2041-2060 are: an increase in average surface temperatures of 2 o C to 4 o C; more variable precipitation during monsoon season; glacial retreat due to warming; and a rise in sea level. These changes are sure to impact agricultural productivity, threatening food security and developmental efforts.

Amidst this all-round failure, science and scientists are still breathing ‘hope’ into our lives: they say all is not lost, provided we change our behavior at the global scale: consume less—less energy and less food, and conserve more. Also, limit the population growth. Research is being undertaken to understand the process of moving carbon-dioxide into and out of atmosphere—to identify sources and sinks—by mapping carbon-dioxide levels and its change over time through OCO-2 satellite.28 But the political leadership is not yet ready to usher in such changes for the fear of losing their popularity.

Of course, all is not lost, for  “Thought is born of failure”,  said Whyte (1944),  and  that is the only hope for our better tomorrow. 
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