Categories
Essay

Potable Water Crisis & the Sunderbans

By Camellia Biswas

Many projected climate change impacts, including sea-level rise, temperature increase, heavy rainfall, drought and cyclone intensity, is increasing yearly flooding, riverbank erosion, salinity intrusion, etc. These pose severe impediments to the socio-economic development of India, especially the coastal areas. The coastal area of India, especially the Bay of Bengal, is located at the tip of the northern Indian Ocean. It is frequently hit by severe cyclonic storms, generating long tidal waves aggravated by the shallow bay.

At least one major tropical cyclone strikes the Eastern/south-eastern coast each year with powerful tidal surges. The Chakraborty et al (2016, 13-19) report states almost 2.3 million people were affected by Cyclone Aila more than a decade ago in May 2009. Many people were stranded in flooded villages. The tidal surge was about 10-13metres in height. It washed away enormous number of households, lives, livestock, crops and all other resources of the affected region. Aila was not a powerful storm, but its heavy incessant rains and storm surges were enough to swamp the mouths of the Ganges in both Bangladesh and India (Biswas 2017).

Some islands in the Bay of Bengal and the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans region were wholly submerged underwater. This catastrophe happened within a brief period, which resulted in people becoming homeless, leaving their assets in the households. A tiny percentage of the affected people could take shelter in the nearby cyclone shelter or schools during the cyclonic event. However, in several discussions, the affected people criticised that most cyclone shelters were built post-Aila and schools had only ground floors, which was anyways inundated. Most people thus took refuge on elevated roads. The extreme flooding also resulted in thousands of people losing access to safe drinking water and exposure to floodwaters containing untreated wastewater, dead animals and fish.

Impacts on water systems and water quality are often not visualised as chronic damage to property or the landscape. And thus, most treatments to these problems are temporary and short-lived. Potable water scarcity is a cumulative problem in the coastal region of India, especially Sundarbans, as it is revolving saline water slowly. Climate-induced disasters like rainfall, cyclone and storm surge, flood etc., are making the situation worse. Coastal people gradually depend on groundwater due to surface water salinity. As a result, groundwater extraction is increasing day by day. For that reason, the shallow aquifer has also been contaminated by salinity intrusion.

I have witnessed the horrific situation of women and children wailing for drinking water and waiting for relief distribution while spending my summer holidays at my native house in Sundarbans. The 14-year-old me then was horrified by the helpless situation of my own people, my kin and kept wondering whether disaster management conditions would be better or worse in due course of time especially when it concerns marginal communities of Dalits and Adivasis.

The memories of Aila keep flashing back to these Sundarban islanders every time they are hit by a cyclone or post-cyclone flood. Some of the stories they shared with me during my doctoral fieldwork made me revisit my Aila memories. As a native researcher, it gave a new stance towards the importance of water beyond its economic value and enhancing communities’ socio-cultural ties. Water, which has often served as an agency to conflict and dispute, during Aila it stimulated the sense of brotherhood and togetherness among the Samsernagar village residents.

Flood Friendship Between India-Bangladesh

Samsernagar is the last village in West Bengal’s Sundarban, bordering Bangladesh by river Kalindi. During Aila, the embankments of Samsernagar broke, resulting in the inundation of the village with the high tide influx from Kalindi. It led to total ruination of the settlement in just a couple of minutes. Samsernagar was submerged in the water, and so were the tube-wells and ponds, which were the only source of drinking water. It is where the villagers from Bangladesh came as harbingers of help.

In the political map, Bangladesh and India are demarcated as two separate nations. However, for people in Samsernagar, their neighboring village will still be the Village Koikhali of Bangladesh. To better understand, I phoned one of my respondent’s relatives who lived on the other side and asked about their experience during Aila regarding the help they provided to the Samsernagar residents. Koikhali residents came to Samsernagar rowing on their boat with barrels of potable water and other essential aids like food, clothes and mats. From several discussion and information interaction, it can be inferred that Samsernagar still recognises their international neighbour’s gesture which didn’t let them die of drinking polluted water. This act showed how, on the one hand, the water acted as a demon to the villagers through flooding and on the other, the barrels of drinking water brought by the neighbouring villages of Bangladesh became a sign of camaraderie and community interest. It went beyond just a mere necessity to live. It showed us how two villages come together, ignoring the human-made international boundary.

The Dilemma of Drinking water Crisis

That this acute drinking water problem can turn into a chronic issue in events like Aila and similar flooding situations is given credence by the fact that underground water also becomes saline due to leaching and seepage. Even after the floodwater recedes, the tube well water remains undrinkable. Sittler (2017), in her study on ‘Floodwater and stormwater can contaminate your water well’ argues that regardless of where storm-water runoff occurs, like floods, it can carry harmful contaminants such as soil, animal waste, salt, pesticides, and oil, potentially impacting drinking water wells and water quality. When discussed these challenges with groundwater experts at Sundarbans, they pointed out that in the Hingalganj Block, where Samsernagar village is situated, many deep tube well weren’t rightly maintained. Excessive contaminant-laden run-off infiltrated these drinking water wells through and assessed that the well casings or caps may not have been completely watertight. Moreover, any potential contaminants into the well can pose at least a short-term risk to water quality and human health.

In 2009, many families in Sundarbans, out of desperation, consumed pond water undergoing some basic filtration, knowing that the pond water stank from carcasses of dead animals. As farmlands remain filled with saline water, paddy yield became meagre the same and following year. Affected people when interviewed spoke of the mismanagement of the state’s relief supply and its lack of providing safe water, on how the local administrations would run some basic filtration like boiling the contaminated water and distributing it. As a result, hundreds of villagers suffered from diarrhea two weeks after drinking contaminated water. According to UNICEF, 28 diarrheal deaths were registered, and over 85,000 cases were reported from the Aila-hit districts of West Bengal.

Water can be considered a symbolic element, a resource, a commercial product, or a service. The interconnections established and the value attributed to water usage serves to build norms and references that influence the decision-making process from individuals to higher levels of social organisation. When considering it a resource for life, its interests and values vary and change across cultures, communities, states, space and time. One may raise an inquiry that spaces like Sundarbans is surrounded by rivers and seas, and that’s presumably the reason why Sundarban locals might not feel impacted by the presence of noble metals in the water.

However, as Sundarban landscape has a mangrove ecosystem, the water quality in and around the area has been found to be of inferior quality (CGWB report, 2014-15). If also, post-Aila most deep wells that were reconstructed at the height of 8-10ft above flood level so that the runoff was less likely to introduce contaminants into these wells, slight amount of saline water still managed to seep into the groundwater. However, it is the persistent presences of high iron and arsenic in the wells within that should raise alarm. So, even though the region is surrounded by water, most of it is toxic. Thus, for the Sundarban islanders, continuous access to safe and potable water is an aspiration that continues a dream for the whole community.

REFERENCES:

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Camellia Biswas is a doctoral candidate at the discipline of Humanities & Social science, IIT Gandhinagar. She is an Inlaks-RS conservation grantee for the year 2021-22. Her research specialises in Environmental anthropology, focusing on human- Nature Interaction in Indian Sundarban under the larger discourse of Climate disaster.

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Categories
Editorial

Towards a Brave New World

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

With Christmas at our heels and the world waking up slowly from a pandemic that will hopefully become an endemic as the Omicron seems to fizzle towards a common cold, we look forward to a new year and a new world. Perhaps, our society will evolve to become one where differences are accepted as variety just as we are fine with the fact that December can be warm or cold depending on the geography of the place. People will be welcomed even if of different colours and creed. The commonality of belonging to the same species will override all other disparities…

While we have had exciting developments this year and civilians have moved beyond the Earth — we do have a piece on that by Candice Louisa Daquin — within the planet, we have become more aware of the inequalities that exist. We are aware of the politics that seems to surround even a simple thing like a vaccine for the pandemic. However, these two years dominated by the virus has shown us one thing — if we do not rise above petty greed and create a world where healthcare and basic needs are met for all, we will suffer. As my nearly eighty-year-old aunt confided, even if one person has Covid in a remote corner of the world, it will spread to all of us. The virus sees no boundaries. This pandemic was just a start. There might be more outbreaks like this in the future as the rapacious continue to exploit deeper into the wilderness to accommodate our growing greed, not need. With the onset of warmer climates — global warming and climate change are realities — what can we look forward to as our future?

Que sera sera — what will be, will be. Though a bit of that attitude is necessary, we have become more aware and connected. We can at least visualise changes towards a more egalitarian and just world, to prevent what happened in the past. It would be wonderful if we could act based on the truth learnt from history rather than to overlook or rewrite it from the perspective of the victor and use that experience to benefit our homes, planet and all living things, great and small.  In tune with our quest towards a better world, we have an interview with an academic, Sanjay Kumar, founder of a group called Pandies, who use theatre to connect the world of haves with have-nots. What impressed me most was that they have actually put refugees and migrant workers on stage with their stories. They even managed to land in Kashmir and work with children from war-torn zones. They have travelled and travelled into different dimensions in quest of a better world. Travelling is what our other interviewee did too — with a cat who holds three passports. CJ Fentiman, author of The Cat with Three Passports, has been interviewed by Keith Lyons, who has reviewed her book too.

This time we have the eminent Aruna Chakravarti review Devika Khanna Narula’s Beyond the Veils, a retelling of the author’s family history. Perhaps, history has been the common thread in our reviews this time. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Anirudh Kala’s Two and a Half Rivers, a fiction that focusses on the Sikh issues in 1980s India from a Dalit perspective. It brought to my mind a family saga I had been recently re-reading, Alex Haley’s Roots, which showcased the whole American Revolution from the perspective of slaves brought over from Africa. Did the new laws change the fates of the slaves or Dalits? To an extent, it did but the rest as fact and fiction showcase were in the hands that belonged to the newly freed people. To enable people to step out of the cycle of poverty, the right attitudes towards growth and the ability to accept the subsequent changes is a felt need. That is perhaps where organisations like Pandies step in.  Another non-fiction which highlights history around the same period and place as Kala’s novel is BP Pande’s In the Service of Free India –Memoirs of a Civil Servant. Reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha, the book explores the darker nuances of human history filled with violence and intolerance.

That violence is intricately linked to power politics has been showcased often. But, what would be really amazing to see would be how we could get out of the cycle as a society. With gun violence being an accepted norm in one of the largest democracies of the world, perhaps we need to listen to the voice of wisdom found in the fiction by Steve Davidson who meets perhaps a ghost in Hong Kong. Musing over the ghost’s words, the past catches up in Sunil Sharma’s story, ‘Walls’. Sharma has also given us a slice from his life in Canada with its colours, vibrancy and photographs of the fall. As he emigrated to Canada, we read of immigrants in Marzia Rahman’s touching narrative. She has opted to go with the less privileged just as Lakshmi Kannan has opted to go with the privileged in her story.

Sharma observes, while we find the opulence of nature thrive in places people inhabit in  Canada, it is not so in Asia. I wonder why? Why are Asian cities crowded and polluted? There was a time when Los Angeles and London suffered smogs. Has that shifted now as factories relocated to Asia, generating wealth in currency but taking away from nature’s opulence of fresh, clean air as more flock into crowded cities looking for sustenance?

Humour is introduced into the short story section with Sohana Manzoor’s hilarious rendering of her driving lessons in America, lessons given to foreigners by migrants. Rhys Hughes makes for  more humour with a really hilarious rendition of men in tea cosies missing their…I  think ‘Trouser Hermit’ will tell you the rest. He has perhaps more sober poetry which though imaginative does not make you laugh as much as his prose. Michael Burch has shared some beautiful poetry perpetuating the calmer nuances of a deeply felt love and affection. George Freek, Anasuya Bhar, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Dibyajyoti Sarma have all given us wonderful poetry along with many others. One could write an essay on each poem – but as we are short shrift for time, we move on to travel sagas from hiking in Australia and hobnobbing with kangaroos to renovated palaces in Bengal.

We have also travelled with our book excerpts this time. Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow shuttles between US and Japan and Somdatta Mandal’s translation of  A Bengali lady in England by Krishnabhabi Das, actually has the lady relocate to nineteenth century England and assume the dress and mannerisms of the West to write an eye-opener for her compatriots about the customs of the colonials in their own country.

While mostly we hear of sad stories related to marriages, we have a sunny one in which Alpana finds much in a marriage that runs well with wisdom learnt from Kung Fu Panda.  Devraj Singh Kalsi has given us a philosophical piece with his characteristic touch of irony laced with humour on statues. If you are wondering what he could have to say, have a read.

In Nature’s Musings, Penny Wilkes has offered us prose and wonderful photographs of the last vestiges of autumn. As the season hovers between summer and winter, geographical boundaries too can get blurred at times. A nostalgic recap given by Ratnottama Sengupta along the borders of Bengal, which though still crossed by elephants freely in jungles (wild elephants do not need visas, I guess), gained an independence from the harshness of cultural hegemony on December 16th, 1971. Candice Louisa Daquin has also looked at grey zones that lie between sanity and insanity in her column. An essay which links East and West has been given to us by Rakibul Hasan about a poet who mingles the two in his poetry. A Bengali song by Tagore, Purano shei diner kotha,  that is almost a perfect trans creation of Robert Burn’s Scottish Auld Lang Syne in the spirit of welcoming the New Year, has been transcreated to English. The similarity in the content of the two greats’ lyrics showcase the commonalities of love, friendship and warmth that unite all cultures into one humanity.

Our first translation from Uzbekistan – a story by Sherzod Artikov, translated from Uzbeki by Nigora Mukhammad — gives a glimpse of a culture that might be new to many of us. Akbar Barakzai’s shorter poems, translated by Fazal Baloch from Balochi and Ratnottama Sengupta’s transcreation of a Tagore song, Rangiye Die Jao, have added richness to our oeuvre along with  one from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Professor Fakrul Alam, who is well-known for his translation of poetry by Jibonanda Das, has started sharing his work on the Bengali poet with us. Pause by and take a look.

There is much more than what I can put down here as we have a bumper end of the year issue this December. There is a bit of something for all times, tastes and seasons.

I would like to thank my wonderful team for helping put together this issue. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious need double thanks for their lovely artwork that is showcased in our magazine. We are privileged to have committed readers, some of who have started contributing to our content too. A huge thanks to all our contributors and readers for being with us through our journey.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful transition into the New Year! May we open up to a fantastic brave, new world!

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Review

A Sagacious Tale of Oppression & Turmoil

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Two and a Half Rivers

Author: Anirudh Kala

Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2021

How do we understand a land and its people? How do we look at its history, at a phase of turbulence which once ravaged the lives of its people? At the social structures rarely talked about? And how do we make sense of it? Can the perception be whole if only selective truths are voiced?

The Partition of India in 1947 had left Punjab with only two and a half rivers out of a total of five. From the early 1980s onwards, a state which had witnessed much violence and bloodshed at the time of Partition, began to be devastated by the spread of militancy again. This period of unrest spanning almost a decade was the time when common people, who had yet not recovered from the trauma of partition, faced the torment of not only terrorism but also counter insurgency. And though there are numerous reports on the violation of Human rights during counter insurgency in Punjab, both the Central and the State Governments have continually refuted such reports.

Two and a Half Rivers is a fictionalised account of those troubled years of Punjab through the lives of three main characters — a clinically depressed doctor, trying to take on life one day at a time, and Shamsie and Bheem, both Dalits, struggling to make their dreams a reality. Writing with keen perception, the author, Anirudh Kala, not only offers a striking account of the many ordeals that people went through that period and the solidarity which helped them keep afloat but also of the less addressed issue of oppression of lower castes and their sufferings.  

Kala is a psychiatrist by profession. His aim is to educate people about mental health and mental illness, focusing on eradicating stigma, labels, and prejudice. His debut fiction The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness was published in 2018. Two and a Half Rivers published by Niyogi Books is his second work of fiction.

In this novel, he juxtaposes the situation of state with that of the mental illness of the doctor who is also the narrator. As the fog of depression descends on his mind, the state is also veiled by the layers of sorrows and anxieties from which no escape seems visible. With the increase in terrorists activities, the rivers start filling with the dead again as if to devour those who had somehow survived the Partition. An increase in extortion, abduction and killing by the terrorists leads to the nabbing of common people on doubt by police. The custody, seldom resulting in the release of those apprehended. Jails become torture centres and those captured subjects of experiments for effective torturing. The unrest that follows compels Shamsie and Bheem to shift to Bombay in search of a peaceful life only to return back few years later in the aftermath of a crackdown on Dance bars.

Following the timeline of those difficult years, the author looks at the tragic events which made the ‘Punjab problem’ worse in succeeding years. He takes into account Operation Bluestar, the assassination of the Prime Minister (who he names as Durga), the pogrom of November 1984 and counter insurgency. The novel offers a commentary upon the inept tackling of the situation by the state including ruling dispensation and police. The narrator minces no words while observing that the State and Army had conveniently forgotten that there were to be a large number of pilgrims in the Golden Temple at the time of that operation as it was the celebration of the martyrdom day of a Sikh guru or that more common people began disappearing after the police chief announced incentives and rewards to curtail terrorism.

While the narrator narrowly escapes the custodial torture after being picked for alleged connection with militants, Bheem isn’t that lucky. His identity becomes the final noose around his neck. Shamsie suffers assault too, a punishment for escaping advances of an upper caste boy in her teenage. Whilst common people die and more disappear, Punjab is steeped in sorrow of losing loved ones from which only the tears of grief bring some respite. We are told that more than eight thousand young people have not come home, and never will.

With the poignant telling of this tale, the author also prompts the reader to ask why the lives of those from lower castes are far more easily dispensable, why are they inconsequential, why this malaise is so deeply ingrained in the minds of upper caste and why is it a normal way of life. In a religion which believes “Awwal allah noor upaya qudrat keh sab banday, aik noor toh sab jag upjaiya kaun bhale ko mande” (All humanity was born from a single divine light, and everybody is born equal. All are the children of nature, and no one is good or bad), how can there really be a discrimination based upon caste?

Sensitive is one word that can be best used to describe Kala’s writing. He writes not only from a place of awareness but perhaps also pain and anguish. His description of the distressed years of Punjab carries a rare sensitivity which warrants a deeper understanding of the place as well as its people. That he chooses to tell it through the lives of two Dalit characters, also bring forward his focus on the otherwise lesser talked about issue of caste discrimination in Punjab. The narrative voice is subtle and sometimes seems distant, which works well for the reason that it gives the narrative a sagacious tenor, making it compelling and very moving.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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Categories
Review

Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes

Author: Shylashri Shankar

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Shyalashri Shankar is an academic whose third non-fiction, Turmeric Nation: A Passage through India’s Taste, won a woman author’s award in India called the AutHer Award (2021). This book is a detailed and rich journey through India’s multiple cuisines and culinary cultures divulging interesting facts like Aurangzeb was a vegetarian.

In the literature of food writing, we have both advocates of diversity, food fusionists as well as food fashionistas. Shankar’s approach is fairly eclectic and informed, drawing on the anthropology and sociology of both food and the cultures they originate from. Professing to write a “food biography” of India, she also realises that such a task is both “challenging and daunting”, given the magnitude and diversity of the task involved. She describes Indian cuisine as layered and pluralistic, where there is no one cuisine which can be described as ‘Indian’. Her book proceeds to map these regional diversities not only in food and food cultures, but also cooking styles.

Giving veritable gastronomic glimpses into the fascinating world of the great Indian kitchen, Shankar explores food histories of ancient India dating back to Harappans, while keeping a keen eye for networks of customs, habits and styles of living. From time to time, the cuisine has absorbed new methods of food processing and cooking and been hospitable to new and foreign influences. At the same time, it has at times exerted injustices since the sociology of food is shown to be intricately linked to the that of the caste as shown in the section on Dalit foods. Shankar rightly refuses to mythify or romanticise food, instead she refers to social anthropologist James Laidlaw’s notion that nowhere in the world are food transactions socially or morally neutral, and that the politics of and around food are probably the sharpest in South Asia.

She draws from the theories of ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who, she argues, analysed different cooking techniques to put forward an influential structuralist idea of the raw and the cooked. Food, according to this theory, is a medium between nature and culture. The activity of cooking performs a process of civilising nature.

Shankar asks more fundamental questions: Did our ancestors determine the way we eat? What is the DNA of food preferences? Which is a better diet — vegetarian, non-vegetarian or paleo (what Is paleo)? Does food have a religion? What food creates ardour and desire? What are the transgressions and taboos on certain kinds of foods? What is the purpose and function of certain rituals around food — for instance, the logic of feasting and fasting? As Shankar takes us on this fascinating journey of culinary exploration, we see the emergence of a rich map of cultural anthropology.

Turmeric Nation is an ambitious and insightful project which answers these questions, and then quite a few more. Through a series of fascinating essays—delving into geography, history, myth, sociology, film, literature and personal experience—Shylashri Shankar traces the myriad patterns that have formed Indian food cultures, taste preferences and cooking traditions. From Dalit ‘haldiya dal’ to the last meal of the Buddha; from aphrodisiacs listed in the Kamasutra to sacred foods offered to gods and prophets; from the use of food as a means of state control in contemporary India to the role of lemonade in stoking rebellion in 19th-century Bengal; from the connection between death and feasting and between fasting and pleasure, this book offers a layered and revealing portrait of India, as a society and a nation, through food. It takes us on a fascinating culinary journey through the length and breadth of the subcontinent.

The proof of the pudding, many might feel, is in the eating. Why such a learned dissertation on food, gastronomy and culinary traditions? Is it ultimately to map unity, diversity, and work towards an idea of syncretism? Either ways, the book is worth keeping on our shelves and stocking in libraries, swelling the corpus on food studies which is now studied as an important part of Cultural Studies in many universities. The book ultimately gives us much food for thought as it theorises the practices of cooking and eating across Indian cultures.

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  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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