Book review: Elemental India offers inspiring tales

  • Sudhirendar Sharma, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jul 23, 2016 07:53 IST
Vision of hell: When the five elements of nature - space, air, fire, water and earth - are not in harmony, environmental disasters like the fire at Delhi’s Bhalswa dumpyard become frequent. (Ravi Choudhary/Hindustan Times Photo)

India is a land of paradox: if there is poverty amidst prosperity then hope can be traced amidst despair too. Despite being an increasingly unequal society that produces victims and tragedies every day, it inadvertently also leaves people to create possibilities for their own emancipation. With humane development far distanced from a sizeable population, individual creativity is coming up with new pathways on which those who have been left behind can tread. Ordinary folks are scripting extraordinary tales of bringing basic necessities like potable water, safe food, and fresh air to millions trapped in the downstream economy of deprivation.

Elemental India is an inspiring journey through this landscape of paradox and possibilities, a compendium of stories woven together to reflect the essence of pancha mahabhuta — the five elements that constitute nature. Within the geographical bounties of the subcontinent, enterprising individuals and institutions are creating an array of fascinating survival options to keep the ‘five elements’ in harmony. Embedded in this quest for alternatives are personal journeys of individuals in search of a meaningful life.

The book is a grim reminder of the challenges confronting the country. It gives a timely call to policy planners to evolve an intrinsically Indian model of development, which is more proactive and permanent.

Umendra’s crusade for organic agriculture in Punjab; Kanhaiya’s relentless pursuit for water in Rajasthan; and Pinki’s tirade for women’s liberation in Bihar are a few stories of change that offer a counter narrative to the dominant discourse on development that hinges on industrialisation. That there is an alternate way of life and an alternate approach to human development that doesn’t compromise on any of the five elements is the leitmotif of these stories. Meera Subramanian does not miss out on details while capturing vignettes of change sweeping the country.

Inspiring as the stories may be, these remain on the margins of the state’s mainstream growth agenda. A reason for this is the very nature of these initiatives, and the fact that they occur outside the purview of the state and are steered by non-state actors. Consequently, the state is under no obligation to integrate such products or processes within its institutional architecture. Indeed successive governments have often been hostile to the environmentalism of its times.

Author Meera Subramanian, a first generation non-resident Indian, has done a stint at an environmental non-profit in the US. (Harper Litmus)

The state also does not acknowledge such transformative stories because of its obsession with double-digit economic growth, wherein ecological concerns are viewed as middle-class ‘lifestyle environmentalism’ aimed at stalling progress. With ‘Make in India’ being the current dictum of growth in the prevailing political-economy of development, it is unlikely that equity and ecological concerns will merit any serious consideration.

A first generation non-resident Indian who has had a stint at an environmental non-profit in the US, the author of this book is passionate about India’s rich culture and its intrinsic value system. Subramanian has much empathy for deprived people and an appreciation of bottom-up change. Building on her investigative analysis, she argues in favour of a new economy that neither loses sight of the last man nor the country’s irreplaceable natural resources.

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Having been privy to most of the stories and the people featured in this book, I am both at an advantage and a disadvantage as a reviewer. The advantage is that one can quickly relate to these stories; the disadvantage is that one also closely understands their unresolved complexities. While the collective power of many small efforts (largely apolitical) to bring about change is acknowledged, what gets missed out is the fact that development is inherently a political process. How two divergent forces can be made to enter into a dialogue has remained a vexed question.

No surprise, therefore, that the author toes the predictable line of argument in renewing her hopes that small stories have the potential to trigger big change and take us towards a secure, sustainable, and prosperous future. The issue of scale, though, has remained unaddressed.

An interesting read, Elemental India is a grim reminder of the challenges confronting the country, and gives a timely call to policy planners to evolve an intrinsically Indian model of development, which is more proactive and permanent. Neither Nehru’s monolithic top-down industrialisation nor Gandhi’s austere agrarian model can suit changing India, which is young and aspiring. It needs a new script for change that draws the best from both, capitalising on its human and natural resources.

Sudhirendar Sharma is a development journalist

Meera Subramanian
Harper Litmus, New Delhi
PP 340; Price: Rs 599

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