Rising eco-conciousness in India and some thoughts on comparison

Roanne Kantor //

In what follows, I want to first extend the few scattered thoughts I presented at the CHCI conference in Paris about the shift in eco-conscious rhetoric that I observed in various sites in North India when I returned there for the first time in four years this winter. One of the most striking examples of that rhetoric is the quote in my title, offered almost out of the blue, by a friend over tea in rural Bihar. The quote strikes me for another reason, too, one especially relevant to the conference in which I presented it. That is, it functions as a comparison, in which pollution is made comprehensible and actionable through its relationship to another, better known quantity—terrorism. This is also, more or less, what we do under the aegis of “medical humanities” when we compare science and the arts for our own, not always congruous, purposes. Not for the first time, I want to end by reflecting on the risks and rewards of comparison in these contexts.

Last year right around my birthday in November, a series of catastrophic fires swept through California. Although we were hundreds of miles from the fires, a quirk of the atmosphere and the sheer size of the smoke plume meant that the air by us was so full particulate matter that, for at least two weeks, it was deemed “too dangerous to spend time outside.” During this time, I did go outside, partly to attend my first ever American Anthropological Association conference, held in San Jose. The level of air pollution was on everyone’s lips (as were their 3M N95 masks). But I noticed a curious habit amongst those of us who live or work in India. “Look at all these white people going crazy about the air! This is normal in Delhi.” 

Two months later, I myself was in Delhi, and I can tell you that this is true, in a way. Except for a brief and glorious respite right after a rain, the air certainly felt as smoky and unbreathable as it had in Northern California. But the assessment is wrong, too. Yes, this level of pollution is “normal” in that it is now expected, standard, average. But it is not “normal” in an affective sense, the way it used to seem over the last ten years that I have lived in and visited Delhi. For the first time, I saw a major shift on the street and in people’s homes about how pollution is treated: air purifiers, masks, and a whole series of new public campaigns about the environment. Nor do these sentiments remain only in Delhi, government capital and often playground of the elite. What shocked me more was seeing them spread all over where my husband and I work in rural Bihar.

Bihar is often raised metonymically as a symbol of cultural and ethical backwardness within India—something our panel moderator Rishi Goyal helpfully reminded the Paris audience this June. That means, first, that we might expect top-down ecocritical discourses to reach there relatively late, and second, that Bihar itself is often discussed, metaphorically as a dirty place—where dirt stands for everything from political corruption to poverty to caste or gender bigotry. Talking about “pollution” in these contexts takes on extra weight. 

Two weeks before returning to Delhi, we had gone back to Bihar to visit friends. Change happens in rural India, like so many things in this life, according to that old Hemmingwayism—“at first gradually, then suddenly.” Many things were very much as we’d left them—old family feuds, favorite recipes, the same jeep trip we take every time to local markers of the glorious past when this part of Bihar was not a backwater, but the beating heart of Buddhist life. But some things were radically different. And a lot of those had to do with ecoconsciousness. 

We’re sitting on the roof of some friends drinking chai—what seems a perennial stereotype of rural life until you realize that tea leaves and concrete roofs are both relatively recent arrivals in this part of the country. We’re commenting on the beautiful greenery that the couple enjoys in their particular corner of the village, the garden of another resident that they are simply lucky to overlook. Seemingly apropos of this, our friend says:

Pollution is a hundred times more dangerous than terrorism.

No, pollution is not new. But the rhetoric around it is. The threat of a border-crossing Muslim contagion cued by “terrorism” has been usurped by the idea of even more insidiously mobile agents: the land, the water, the air.

Pollution has been a major problem for a while. After all, nine out of ten of the world’s most polluted cities are in India. And even in this rural idyl, the air is far from clear, full of the smoke of people burning, well, everything: wheat stocks to renew the soil, coal to keep warm, even plastic trash, to keep the environs “clean.” Four years ago I had written an article about the pervasive use of smokey, dirty cow dung patties, goitha in a region where people could not consistently afford cooking gas. Now, with the advent of 24 hour electrification, even gas is passé: every woman who can afford it uses one of those single-burner electric induction stovetops, the kind you see on YouTube cooking videos. Their poorer neighbors use a knock-off “heater,” which wealthier women will relish telling you is more wasteful and worse for the environment.


At the same time, another of our local friends has had his consciousness raised by a local NGO about the importance of trees. Now, everyone knows trees are important. This is a place where almost every tree in a seemingly “natural” environment is actually owned by someone with a very specific purpose in mind for it: wood for construction, branches for fuel, sap for country liquor (technically illegal since last we lived here), and fruit for eating and selling. But that’s not what trees mean to our friend. He now keeps a garden, a nursery of sorts of small trees and arranges to have them planted around the village, just because trees are good. We go to plant a tree with him and some other friends because this act is symbolic, in and of itself.

We go back to Patna, the state capital. More and more of our village friends live there, or in even bigger metropolitan areas. Some sort of state infrastructure program has decreed that the walls around public buildings should be beautified by madhubani paintings—one of the few iconic folk art traditions of this part of the country. Every five or ten panels, religious imagery or figures of good fortune are interrupted by earnest, visually indigenized messages about building a family latrine or using the trash can to contain your rubbish. These complement but are also visually distinct from the more standardized roadside messages about pollution, ones invoking either the white-outlined everyman of bathroom signs all over the world, or the specific everyman of India, Mahatma Gandhi.

Concepts of dirt and cleanliness have long been used as the staging grounds for contests of sovereignty in India. In the colonial era, it was India as the land of heat and dust. For Gandhi and the independence movement it was India as the land of public defecation. And now it is India as the land of unbreathable air. Books like Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste and Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India rhetorically tie up India’s (grim) futurity with its failure to deal adequately with pollutants of various kinds. I saw Robin Jeffreys and Assa Doron, authors of Waste of a Nation, on a panel at the Jaipur Literature Festival that same month! These narratives circulate and have cache, not only in the West. 

Postcolonial scholars like Dipesh Chakravarty, Sudipta Kaviraj, and Partha Chatterjee have responded to older versions of these charges by emphasizing competing definitions of cleanliness, ones that have to do with boundaries between a scrupulously clean inside and a devil-may-care outside. As with Mary Douglas’s famous formulation, dirt is what is on the wrong side of the border: matter out of place. 

So When the Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the “swacch Bharat” [clean India] initiative, it was immediately greeted as a capitulation to long-standing narratives about India’s insalubrious climate, wrapped up with a Hindu-nationalist bow. And certainly it makes me uncomfortable to go on about foul air, sounding like nothing so much as one of Bernard Cohen’s account of colonial officials who swathed their sensitive midriffs in flannel – in the height of summer, can you imagine! – to keep out harmful “miasmas.” 

And yet, I can’t just brush off the ideas about cleanliness and health that animate swacch Bharat when I consider my own embodied experience, and, more importantly, the experiences of my friends. Newer anthropological explorations of Indian eco-consciousness share my frustration with the handwaving “cultural differences” approach of Chakravorty. On the one hand, Anand Taneja has shown how precolonial Muslim approaches to ecology in Delhi have been actively foreclosed by the postcolonial state—ideas of order and cleanliness quite distinct from Chakravorty’s study of high-caste Hindu Calcutta. Radhika Govindrajan has shown, on the other hand, how caste prejudice can lurk beneath what Chakravorty calls neutrally “different orders of aesthetics” around cleanliness, a line of critique also raised by Jeffreys and Doron and Spears and Coffey. Finally, Govindarajan and Naisargi Dave have illustrated how the far-left and far-right actually overlap around “environmentalist” issues like animal protection.

Indeed, I have recently discovered that my own  environmentalist/ feminist critique of cook fuel and women’s working conditions is just as amenable to right-wing cooptation. In India this winter, I was inundated with billboards and bus stand advertisements for “Ujjwala,” a swacch Bharat initiative offering cooking gas subsidies to Indian women. Effectively pink-washing and green-washing at the same time, the initiative was meant to help the environment while also saving women’s time and health. The prime minister claimed he got the idea for Ujjwala from the short story “Eidgah” by the supremely famous, socially progressive Hindi novelist Munshi Premchand.  The story concerns a poor boy who foregoes a present for himself at the Eid fair and uses the same money to purchase a pair of tongs to save his grandmother’s hands from burning over the cook fire.

What does it mean that the work of a left-leaning, progressive writer can be coopted for use in a right-leaning government? What kind of violence is entailed when these narratives are removed from their original circulation and asked to do another type of work, in a different field? It’s an extreme example, to be sure. But the question niggled as I attended some of the panels on at the second day of our conference.

Take Sneha Mantri’s moving analysis of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West as an allegory for the emotional and intellectual journey of medical training. I loved this provocative argument, and I find it warranted, in part, by Hamid’s own increasing interest in abstraction over the course of his career (a point made to me by Zain Main at UPenn). I can’t wait to share it with my students when I teach Exit West next Spring. But I’m also troubled by the kind of violences such abstraction may entail. What are the stakes of metaphorically displacing the experience of forced migration at the novel’s heart, especially in a conference context where we also heard from Ghana Hatem-Gantzer about the specific health challenges faced by migrant women in France? Interdisciplinary scholarship needs to keep this question always in mind. For those of us who attended the Paris conference, I’m excited to see how we address it.

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