5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

A River Runs Again: Reporting on India’s Natural Crisis—and Its Surprising Solutions

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The world’s second most populous country – projected to be first by 2022 – is developing faster than ever before, roiling the social, political, and environmental landscape.

In her new book, A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, From the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka, environmental journalist Meera Subramanian chronicles India’s efforts to balance economic development and environmental protection, including innovative programs to educate youth about sexual and reproductive health.

Subramanian was inspired by the five elements – earth, fire, water, air, and ether – to investigate five aspects of sustainable development: organic farming, clean cookstoves, freshwater, endangered species, and population and family planning. Traveling throughout the subcontinent, she found stories of “ordinary people and microenterprises determined to revive India’s ravaged natural world.”

"Looking for livelihood options...makes them more vulnerable, and traffickers recognize this"

At  the Wilson Center book launch on October 13, Subramanian was joined by freelance journalists Priyali Sur and Lisa Palmer, who offered comments on the book based on their own reporting from India on the interconnections between climate change, food security, and gender.

Sur, a former television reporter for CNN-IBN, has covered the spike in human trafficking spurred by extreme flooding in the northeastern state of Assam. “Vulnerability that arises from looking for livelihood options, wanting to get work, wanting to sustain the family and wanting to provide for the family, which I think is a [bigger] responsibility for the woman than the man, makes them more vulnerable, and traffickers recognize this,” she said.

Palmer, a former Wilson Center fellow and current fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, Maryland, discussed the technological revolution taking root in Indian agriculture. Some organizations, like the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, are supporting “climate-smart villages” in India, which use solar energy pumps and sensors to measure crop health and reduce water consumption. The organization aims to create 1,000 climate smart villages across six states including the grain baskets of Haryana and Punjab, said Palmer.

Like her fellow journalists, Subramanian embraces the stories of women and does not shy away from reporting on the connections between environmental sustainability and gender, reproductive health, and empowerment. In a moving section of A River Runs Again, she describes reproductive health education sessions in Bihar, one of India’s most impoverished and underserved states where child marriage is rampant and fertility rates are the highest in the country.

One boy named Papu Kumar, with big ears and high cheekbones had three younger sisters. He declared that he had decided to wait until he was twenty to get married. He was encouraging his sisters to do so as well. But Sanoj, a forlorn sixteen-year-old boy in a frayed white baseball cap, spoke up to say that he couldn’t see an easy path for his two younger sisters.

“There’s child marriage in our community,” he said, “and it’s difficult to make people change. It’s important for boys to wait until they’re twenty one for marriage and eighteen for girls. I learned this in training, but it’s not possible to make everyone understand that child marriage is a bad thing.”

“Have you tried to explain the reasons to wait?” Binod asked him.

“Yes,” Sanoj insisted. “When my sister was getting married, I tried to tell my grandfather and father to not do it, that she was too young, but there was so much pressure.” Maybe it is the father who exerts pressure, or the village, or maybe, Sanoj said, “the girl understands the weight on the father’s head in that situation,” and does what she can to be a good daughter, quietly accepting the fate of marriage. Girls, too, carry a burden of responsibility in India. They wear the weight of wedding gold and flowers and expected subservience upon their heads when they are paired with their husbands, even if matched with the sweet seeming boys that sat before me.

[…]

Also from Kanhaul, Sobha and Suman were sisters in a family with seven children. Both described their village as a confined place.

Suman was slender and stubborn. “We’re determined, no matter what difficulties we’ll face, none of us will get married before eighteen or nineteen,” she said. “And we’ll only spend our lives with a good husband, as a couple.” She used the Sanskrit phrase dampatti, meaning husband and wife, but spoke of it as more of an egalitarian pairing. “I won’t settle for any less. What do I need to be happy and keep my children happy?”

Sobha was the most self-possessed. Her forehead was marked with a sparkly bindi that matched an S-shaped pendant hanging from her neck. She sat attentively as the others spoke, only once interjecting, “We should say the truth.” But once she had the floor, she commanded the room. All distracted chatter stopped. “What sort of place is this?’ you’ll say if you come to my village. From Bodh Gaya, there’s a river and a hill, and behind them is the village, like a cave. People were afraid to go inside. Even my father didn’t want to stay in the village. It was claustrophobic.” There had been changes, she said. Some villagers now had phones, and one road was being paved.

She learned about the Pathfinder training course from village elders, who said all girls between fifteen and eighteen should attend. But “my situation was common in the village,” she said, “where each household might have six sisters, five sisters. So we made a group with at least one girl from each house. We took the training and then we went back home to teach others.” She had to periodically gulp to catch her breath, as though she had been waiting a very long time to speak and felt the importance of each word.

Sobha said she was able to get a Pathfinder poster of the life cycle of a human being passing from birth through adolescence, followed by marriage and a young couple weighing birth control options, and later holding a child as it is being immunized. She used the poster to begin talking with others in the village. Pinki and Binod exchanged looks; they had no idea that one of their students had gone rogue and appointed herself as trainer.

When Sobha finished, Pinki asked if she would continue to work with Pathfinder to organize more training courses. Sobha eagerly agreed.

[…]

What, I asked, would he choose if he could do only one thing to address population growth?

“Delay the age of marriage, delay the age at first birth, and the spacing between the first and second child,” [Rafay Eajaz Hussain of Population Services International] began. “Make quality health services accessible to all through the government system and address the adverse sex ratio. Besides that, education, livelihood, social development, class- and caste-based equity. Bridge the huge gaps in health resources. It will take some time, but one should choose the right path. One needs to improve the system and also address the social and systemic ills like the dowry system and casteism. Women should be respected. Women’s empowerment is a major issue. If you give the power to women, they will decide to limit the family, because they have to bear the burden of raising the child.”

I heard myself laugh at this “one thing,” though I wanted to weep. How easy it is to forget that those statistics are made up of individual lives: Asha, Suman, Sobha.

“We might not be able to see the change in our lifetime,” Rafay continued, “but we should try to bring the processes on the right path. Someone else will take it forward.”

He shrugged a bit.

“The line,” he said, “is never straight.”

To hear the full discussion, watch the archived webcast.

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Written by Deepshri Mathur, edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker.

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