‘Unearthed: An Environmental History of Independent India’ will be a handy guide for teenagers [Book Review]

October 11, 2020 1:00 AM

A reminder that every action taken by humans in the past and the future is connected to nature and the environment at large

From the Green Revolution to the National Action Plan on Climate Change, the book chronicles the country’s historical movements and significant green missions (Reuters Image)From the Green Revolution to the National Action Plan on Climate Change, the book chronicles the country’s historical movements and significant green missions (Reuters Image)

By Shriya Roy

There is very little written about the environmental history of India. While there is no dearth of high-quality, well-researched literature on any other segment of India’s history, the environmental aspect has remained quite unexplored. Meghaa Gupta’s book Unearthed: An Environmental History of Independent India has done a terrific job of capturing this complex trajectory, breaking it down into more relatable terms. Sharp illustrations alongside text throughout the book add to a better understanding of the topics.

Gupta addresses the environmental issues and impacts that aren’t talked about much and are even hushed. Starting from the time of independence to the present times, she lays out how activities and incidents have impacted the environment and its beings in independent India. Be it the construction of dams, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Beej Bachao Andolan, battling mountains of waste, fighting air pollution or coping with soaring temperatures, India has shared a remarkable relationship with the environment. From the Green Revolution to the National Action Plan on Climate Change, Unearthed chronicles the country’s historical movements and significant green missions.

The book is laced with interesting trivia, tales of eco-heroes and easy-to-read accounts, uncovering the stories of the past in an attempt to rewrite the future. Unearthed gives detailed accounts of past discoveries that brought about various environmental revolutions in India.

For instance, Gupta quite intricately presents the environmental impact of Partition, something that barely finds mention in any books on the topic. The author points out how an inadequate process of disposing dead bodies from the communal riots and improper nutrition in refugee camps eventually led to hunger and weather casualties, as people did not have the strength to fight the cold.

Gupta underlines how independent India went from becoming ‘largely underdeveloped’ to one of the fastest growing countries in the world. She talks in detail about the Indus water treaty between India and Pakistan, and how it affected agriculture, the fishery industry and large areas of mangrove forests.

The book also manages to cover several aspects like the White revolution, the Green revolution, the nuclear debate, the Bhopal gas tragedy and offers not only a historical and economic perspective, but also spells out the business challenges and activism that went behind the various movements and the political ineptitude of various governments.

She views these revolutions through a critical lens, pointing out to the readers the adverse ecological and environmental impacts they had. She tells readers how the Green revolution cured hunger alright, but led to an over-dependence on pesticides, destroying crop quality and ended up largely damaging the natural environment.

She details the sufferings of forest tribes that came along with industrialisation and construction of dams. Unearthed trains its readers on how to perceive a historical ecological movement, like the Sardar Sarovar agitation, from various angles. It talks in detail about sacrifices of activists in their fight for nature and the environment.

The book maintains a balancing act, wherein it not only appreciates historical decisions like Project Tiger, but is also largely critical of tragedies like the Bhopal gas leak and the water crisis in Chennai. She ends her environmental account referring to the present-day smog and air pollution situation in Delhi and the National Action Plan for Climate Change, pointing at the great need for the individual and the government to take matters related to the environment seriously.

This book’s timing is perfect, as it comes amid the growing debate around climate change across the world. Tracing key events in our history, the idea in Unearthed is to unearth the environmental impacts of various events, small and big, social, political, technological or economic, on the landscape of the natural world and the environment.

The target audience of the book are teenagers, who have very little idea of India’s tryst with environmentalism. This book will be a handy guide for them.

Book Details: Unearthed: An Environmental History of Independent India by Meghaa Gupta
Penguin Random House
Rs 215, R299

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