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 real victims and genuine tragedies on a daily basis, it inadvertently leaves people to create possibilities for their own emancipation as well. With humane development far distanced from a sizable population, individual creativity is innovating new pathways for leftovers of the society to tread on. For millions trapped in the downstream economy of deprivation, ordinary folks are scripting extraordinary tales of bringing basic elements - potable water, safe food, and fresh air - within peoples’ reach.
Elemental India is an inspiring journey through this landscape of paradox and possibilities, a compendium of stories weaved together to reflect the essence of pancha mahabhuta – five elements that constitute nature. Within the geographical bounties of the sub-continent, a wide array of fascinating survival options are being created by enterprising individuals and institutions to keep the ‘five elements’ in harmony. Embedded in this quest for alternatives are personal journeys of some of these individuals in search of a meaning of life.
Umendra’s crusade for organic agriculture in Punjab; Kanhaiya’s relentless pursuit for water in Rajasthan; and Pinki’s tirade for women liberation in Bihar are few of those stories, offering counter narrative to the dominant discourse on development that hinges on industrialization. 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 the vignettes of change sweeping the country.
Inspiring as the stories may be, these remain on the margins of mainstream growth agenda of the state. One reason for this being so has to do with the very nature of these initiatives, as these occur outside the purview of the state by non-state actors. Consequently, the state is under no obligation to integrate such products or processes in its institutional architecture. Need it be said that successive governments have often been hostile to the environmentalism of its times.
Another reason for non-acknowledging such transformative stories has to do with the state’s 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, it is quite unlikely if equity and ecological concerns will merit any serious consideration in the prevailing political-economy of development.
Unlike most first generation non-resident Indians, the author carries compassion for country’s rich culture and its intrinsic value system. With a stint at one of the environmental non-profits in the US, she has developed empathy for deprived people and appreciation for bottom-up change. Building on her investigative analysis, she argues in favor of a new economy that neither loses sight of the last man nor country’s irreplaceable natural resources.
Having been privy to most stories and people featured in the book, I am both at an advantage and a disadvantage as a reviewer. The advantage is that one can quickly relate to the stories, and the disadvantage being that one 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, towards a secure, sustainable, and prosperous future. The issue of scale has remained unaddressed, though.
In addition to making an interesting reading, Elemental India is a grim reminder on the challenges confronting the country, and gives a timely call to the policy planners to evolve an intrinsic Indian model of development which is more proactive and permanent. Neither Nehru’s monolithic top-down industrialization nor Gandhi’s austere agrarian model can suit the changing India, which is young and aspiring. It needs a new script for change that draws the best from both, capitalizing on its human and natural resources.
by Meera Subramanian
Harper Litmus, New Delhi
Extent: 340, Price: Rs 599
This review was first published in The Hindustan Times dated July 23, 2016.