Ecology is permanent economy.

-Sunderlal Bahuguna


In Nature's economy the currency is not money, it is life.  

-Vandana Shiva


India — that wondrous human planet unto itself — home to the most splendid edifice on Earth, the Taj Mahal, the inspiration for the “Jungle Book” by Kipling, a land where there used to be 40,000 tigers a century ago, the land of Gandhi and Satyagraha and the passive political resistance that pushed back the formidable British Empire. Built of a small galaxy of ethnic groups, India is the land of mystics and saddhus who meditate in stillness upon the ultimate reality unknown to the chaotic maelstrom of the West. India’s mythology harbors the last great pantheon of gods on earth, deities whose colors and powers beggar the imagination.

Varanasi, India’s oldest city, is where the devout come to be purged. Here sannyasins ask for absolution, and give alms to a higher hidden reality. Here the bodies of the dead are enflamed to remind the living of the finality of life. India is a massive magnet that draws the spirit to matter, matter to its origins and the spirit back to the body of fire. Repetitions cast a spell on the faithful who bathe and pray under the auspices of the Ganges mother. The rituals are of a hypnotic order.

Here, one night, a gigantic wedding procession unfurled with sparklers lit like torches. Young and old carried chandeliers on their shoulders while others balanced three pronged, three-foot tall light bulbs on their heads as if making offerings to the spirits. Trumpets and stereos blare from an Indian 1001 nights. Rickshaws, cars and chariots all move as if compressed by the solemnity of the traditional clashing into the mayhem of the modern. We drove slowly as hundreds processed down the streets accompanied by a tattooed elephant in full regalia carrying the bride and groom. Through the dark veil of the evening’s shadows, the massive form of Asia’s largest creature seeped through the streets like a slow methodic marauder carrying an entire civilization on its shoulders.

India’s wisdom dates back to the Vedas several thousand years before Christ. Its earliest teachings probably date back several thousand years before even the Vedic texts were compiled. What has the world not learned from India? But today in following the dictates of globalization, she is in the process of losing her soul, much in the vein of the United States, in hopes of super power status that is betraying her long term economic viability for short term gains and indeed her people’s future.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

India used to be a counterweight in spirit to the abject colonialism of the West. Its seeming unruliness was offset by a core and depth of resilience of its 700 million rural people who hold the proud history of an entire subcontinent. It is the only real counterbalance to China in Asia. Its teachings still inspire the world like no country in Asia. But over the past few years India has been growing a new skin as Arundhati Roy has unmercifully tried to tell us the past few decades. India is in the process of losing her soul, something which she should know about better than any nation on Earth. The dam builders, the coal extractors and forest flayers are having a field day in India amidst a pandora’s box of monsoon chaos, and climate change melting the great peaks of the Himalayas, the third pole as it is called.

Roy was once asked by a Dutch filmmaker what can India teach the world? She pointed to the Call Center College in Gurgaon, outside of Delhi where hundreds of young English-speaking Indians are “being groomed to staff the backroom operations of giant transnational companies.” They answer questions from the U.K. and the U.S. on such subjects as credit cards to washing machines. How easy is it, Roy exclaims, for an ancient civilization to learn to abuse itself. America lures computer scientists and technicians to the U.S. from India while hundreds of thousands of villagers are displaced at the Narmada River to make way for a mega dam, to prove India’s technical machismo in the modern world. Only a few like Roy dare to take on the patriarchal estate speaking for the dispossessed while leaders spend billions on weapons of mass destruction. Those who lose are the farmers deprived of subsidies and who eke out an existence on a few acres of land.

Tens of thousands of farmers have already committed suicide as Vandana Shiva reminds us, because they are forced to buy expensive terminator seeds, genetically modified seeds, from Monsanto that do not grow back the following year. They are sterile and have caused debt, despair and death. She has pointed out the “food totalitarianism” sponsored by such entities as the World Bank as having taken a terrible toll on Indian farmers — India whose workforce used to be based on permaculture and organic farming practices that reach back millennia, now thrown into chaos to feed a massive population. Monoculture, as Shiva is so resolute in expressing, leads to deadness. The contradictions of India are as numerous as her Gods.

And whether it is the building of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River and dozens like it that has displaced tens of millions, and the impassioned, dignified peaceful protests of its people or the building of nuclear missiles while her population hungers, India cannot continue on this corrugated path indefinitely. The environment and climate there are changing too fast. The judicial and military strongmen of that nation, much as in the U.S., will have to choose sustainability or a nation on its way to homogenizing and subverting the essence not only of its land but also its people where over 200 million do not have access to clean water. The heat will simply make work impossible.

India, that former land of milk and honey and sacred cows that linger by the tens of millions. India “where ordinary people march around in khaki shorts and learn that amassing nuclear weapons, religious bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, book burning, and outright hatred are the ways in which to retrieve a nation’s lost dignity,” triumphs Roy.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

The Gond people of the 420,000-acre Hasdeo Arand forest, gather grass and cultivate land which contains a billion metric tons of coal. It is also home to sloth bears, leopards and elephants. Like many places in India and elsewhere the Adani mining group would like to dig deep for the resources there that would wreak havoc on the Adivasis, India’s first peoples. Adani makes $13 billion a year. The Adivasis depend on the forest for timber, grass, fruit, seeds, tubers, and medicine. The proposed coal rail line would run 75 kilometers right through prime elephant migration paths. While Adani says it is improving health care and education for the indigenous people most locals see the mining as a death sentence. The forest is all they have ever known and the knowledge they have of the forest, especially in time of extreme climate change is priceless. A one-time compensation for a millennia-old resources base of irreplaceable water, land and wildlife, which nature has provided for free for generations, is not a fair trade. Prime Minister Modi’s “self-reliant India” will find opposition from four key states: West Bengal, Maharashtra, Jharkand and Chhattisgarh, who have raised legal objections to the slated coalfields. Energy security is one thing. Ultimately sacrificing India’s environment and first peoples will bring untold consequences.

India’s people will have to find an almost herculean strength and resolve to survive not just the vagaries, tribulations and calamities of climate change, but also the fortitude, resilience and vision to withstand the usurpations of their land, not from the British Empire, but from their own government. They will need to foster a new Satyagraha. They already have.

Coming back from the most remarkable fort on Earth, not far from India’s nuclear test site of Pokaran in the Thar desert, is a vision. Pokaran is where India has exploded nuclear bombs to “defend” herself against Pakistan. Only a few gazelles run through the heat waves like ghosts of antelopes hovering over the sand. Years ago, there were many more. After the flat expanse of the Thar, we finally see in the distance a brown fortress of sandstone rising 250 feet out of the desert like an apparition of stone. Lying on the silk route between Arabia, Persia and India, Jaiselmer radiates like an earthen jewel. Jain worshippers wind their way through labyrinthian passages. The Jains’ strict vegetarian adherence to ahimsa or intentional non violence or non injury guides them in respecting every being, even the humblest insect. The locals paint their homes with flower patterns on tan adobe walls. Each act is a craft but an also an act of devotion and reverence, an acknowledgement of place, for a deep ancestral abiding that is becoming rarer with each passing decade. Upon leaving Jaiselmer, we learned that India has tested its last nuclear bomb. Sabre rattling by the government taunts neighboring Pakistan, which is testing its own nuclear arsenal. For several years after that test, the world would hold its breath before the instability in Asia’s underbelly.

Outside of Jaiselmer we encountered the Bishnoi people who believe in the sanctity of each tree, in each plant. Perhaps the greatest story of any group beholden to environmental causes belongs to this unique group. It is said that one September morning in 1737, in the village of Khejarli, a mother, Amrita Devi, heard a tree being cut and ran to stop the intruder. Girharidas Bhandan, a mounted officer in the court of Jodhpur, ordered his men to cut a sacred Khejri tree to make lime. Amrita stepped in front of the tree and said,” Cut my body before felling the tree.” Bhandan ordered Amrita’s head cut off as well as the tree. In the ensuing incident 363 Bishnois sacrificed their lives as well as Amrita’s three daughters. Gandhi, in his life’s work probably drew inspiration from the Bishnoi and their selfless sacrifice to living things. The red saris of the women glistened like banners bursting with the color of blood and life. Almost no trees grew. The water table was collapsing. Only increasingly rare dead trees could be cut and burned. Buffalo dung and goat and sheep milk kept the people going. It was a devotion the dominant society could well learn not only in India but worldwide. The Bishnois embody a rare and holy reverence as one of the rare models for humanity. But by that time it may well be too late.

As the UN Secretary-General Guterres emphasizes, India must turn away from coal, especially if she wishes to be a super power. Anything less condemns India and Modi’s government to a disastrous future with respect to climate change. The world’s largest investors are abandoning coal, and India should too. Renewables are everywhere within sight and should be seized now. Already her infamous pollution is scaring and changing the color and look of her inimitable Taj. Guterres has called for a “green recovery” after COVID-19. If India and her age-old wisdom cannot change her civilization, who can? China and India will be the major players in next year’s cop26. It may be the world’s last chance.

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.


Published on Sep 09, 2020