New Delhi: To mark World Environment Day on June 5, team Banega Swasth India spoke with acclaimed writer and Jnanpith Award winner, Amitav Ghosh, who through his work has been highlighting the climate crisis that the world is facing today and has been warning every one of the mistakes made in the past and the lessons not learnt.
On this special interview we discussed about his latest book – The Living Mountain, more on environment and how climate change has started to impact us in our day-to-day life.
NDTV: How does the Living Mountain take the thought of planet’s crisis forward?
Amitav Ghosh: The Living Mountain is really a very short story, it encapsulates my last book The Nutmeg’s Curse. What happened to the people of the Banda island who grew the nutmeg tree is what happens to the people of this valley in The Living Mountain book. It is basically what is happening with the world right now..
NDTV: What has prompted you to pick environment as the topic again and again, is it the scale and scope of the crisis?
Amitav Ghosh: Writing about climate change is extremely difficult. And it is especially difficult when the work is fiction. It is very hard to make stories out of it; how do you make a story out of heatwave. You can probably make a story out of the storm or tornado or something. What made me choose this as a topic is the fact that people are weirdly normal about the climate change. I was in India a while ago and the heatwave there was astonishing. But what struck me was the fact that everything seems to be normal and that was the most unsettling thing. It is like we have already learnt to live with these changes. It is perfectly clear now that the large part of India is heading towards disaster from climate change.
Talking about Delhi, I think, more than climate change, the real problem of Delhi in the long run will be water. Delhi has always been on the edge of the dessert; it is a water stressed area. We have become completely dependent on fossil water from the upper Ganga aqua fall and that is almost exhausted. Once it runs out, what are we going to do, is the question we all need to ask.
Here we are in the middle of catastrophe. Climate Change is like a slow violence and that’s why these things are not easy to write about.
NDTV: Both your recent books – The Living Mountain and the Nutmeg’s Curse highlight the overexploitation unleashed by commercial interests.
Amitav Ghosh: The problem is that we have grown used to the climate change. We are very used to this entire cycle of consumption and production. These two are basically the drivers of the climate change. The COVID pandemic, increasing climate crisis, migration, wars are all the symptoms of incredible acceleration of production and consumption pattern that have overtaken the world. That is really pointing us towards the global catastrophe.
I am in Italy right now and here the heatwave has blown me out. It is 30 degrees out there..The most important river here the Po River has almost run out of water, one can actually walk on the river bed on most parts. This highlights where the world is really heading to and what a global crisis it is.
NDTV: Another running theme in your books also has been the destruction of the balance between nature and way humans interact with it. How do we redefine development?
Amitav Ghosh: People are now resisting the development activities that are taking the toll on the environment. For example, in Neyamgari, Odisha, the adivasis have resisted a mining company on the grounds that it will destroy their sacred mountain. The problem is everywhere across in India, we are seeing how forests are being exploited in the name of mining or development interests. Always, we have been told that this is development and progress but what kind of development it really is when hundreds or thousands of people have to lose their lands, environment and livelihood. If there is any progress or development that is coming from, then it is for the tiny group of people that is industrialists and corporates. For everyone else it is a disaster, especially for the poor people who are exploited.
NDTV: Sundarbans has been an integral part of the plot for many of your books, what is it about Sundarbans that draws you to keep revisiting it in your work.
Amitav Ghosh: Sundarbans is a very powerful landscape. It is like not any other forest in the world, it is completely different. Sundarbans is actually what opened my eyes to climate change, when way back in 2000, I was there researching for my novel The Hungry Tide. One could already see the effects of climate change on Sundarbans back then.
The islands have disappeared, mangroves are decreasing, species of plants and animals are fading away. The most important creature in the Sundarbans are the crabs, they keep the whole mangrove forest breathing and over the years they have diminish in numbers. Way back you would see crabs’ whole sandbanks. The mudbanks used to turn red with crabs and now we don’t see that anymore. The bird life in Sundarbans have decreased so much and it is really shocking. If you will talk to fishermen, there they will tell you how it is becoming harder and harder to catch a fish. And let’s not forget that the Sundarbans lets out on the Bay of Bengal, which is also becoming a dead zone. Bay of Bengal supports millions of people and it becoming a dead area will be a catastrophe on a scale that we can’t even speak of. And it is happening because agricultural fertilisers are being used in large scale.
NDTV: During our visit there we saw efforts being made to reforest the area and regrow mangroves to ward off the risk posed by the increased frequency of cyclones. But the question is, is it too little too late and how do we reverse the sustained damage done over the decades?
Amitav Ghosh: Well, it is never too late to start. You can always ameliorate, mitigate. Our neighbour Bangladesh is far ahead of us in doing so. They have come up with all kinds of solutions to save the Sundarbans like planting oyster beds and so on. They really have been pioneers in this and we need to learn from them.
But in a sense the real problem is that the deltas around the world are sinking at 4 times the rate of sea level rise. I am glad you have seen people planting mangroves in the Sundarbans to reverse the damage but what has happened in last two decades there is making people leave Sundarbans.
NDTV: One of the challenges about climate reporting that journalists grapple with is how to make it relevant and relatable for their readers. As a writer how big is that challenge of how to tell the story you want to about climate crisis so that it finds wider audience and acceptance?
Amitav Ghosh: At this point everybody knows that the climate is changing. So, it is no longer a question of how to communicate. The problem is how to make good literature out of it. You have to have strong characters, good story to tell and a powerful plot. I see more and more of that every day. So many interesting books are coming out on these things.
NDTV: The Great Derangement was a non-fiction, the last two works the Nutmeg’s crisis and the Living Mountain are parables, Jungle Nama relied on folklore from Sundarbans – how do you decide the form – how much of it is driven by the audience you hope to reach or is it purely based on the content.
Amitav Ghosh: It is certainly not the question of audience. No writer sits back and thinks about what audience he/she will target. The story has to work for you in the first place and then you decide to write it. With Jungle Nama, I thought that’s the story that needs to be told. It is the story that I thought had particular urgency because it was a story about what is happening with the world right now.
NDTV: Your writings also indicate the interdependence that is an integral part of nature. In our climate change reporting or even in the global climate negotiations the big headlines seem to be about air pollution, controlling the emissions to curtail global temperature rise to 1.5 degree or 2 degrees. Are we missing the nuances of nature in all the noise?
Amitav Ghosh: I really think Nature as the world is very artificial. It sounds like that we are talking about something that is outside the human’s life. It is very artificial distinction. What we are talking about is the interdependence and how do we need to live in synch and harmony with each one of them. There are incredible number of species within us. More than 50 per cent of our bodyweight comes from these species called bacteria. So, within each one of us it is a living forest and I think we have to look in terms of interdependence.
Crabs are such essential species to Sundarbans and it is also the last thing we really think of when we actually thinking about the forest. When we talk about Sundarbans, we think of tigers, cobras and all but it is the humble crab that keeps the forest alive. So, it is high time we think about the connectivity and start acting upon it.
NDTV: As COVID-19 proved the hardest hit are those, who are already vulnerable and marginalized. Climate crisis is no different. Where do we go from here then, do we see any glimpses of a new world order emerging out of this chaos?
Amitav Ghosh: Clearly there is a new world emerging. I think, we need to start acknowledging that climate change is not all about technology or science, it is fundamentally a human conflict. Climate change is basically a war by another name. And that’s why it is so difficult to find a way to address it. We haven’t been able to address it because we don’t even think it as a conflict. If you look at COP26, in so many ways it was a complete failure, it showed the world how global institutions have broken down. So, I think we can no longer even pretend that there is an attempt being made globally to address these problems and anyone who is saying that is completely deceiving them.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, that is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.