Archive for January, 2021

Jyoti Pande Lavakare’s ‘Breathing Here Is Injurious To Your Health’

January 27, 2021 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Breathing Here Is Injurious To Your Health (Hachette India, 2020) is a compelling first person account of the struggle to bring India’s air pollution crisis to the forefront of the country’s policy priorities. Packed with information, this well-written book also bears witness to the appalling personal losses caused by the subcontinent’s poisoned air. 

Particularly striking are the author’s descriptions of the many forms of denial that India’s air pollution activists have to deal with: assertions that ‘you’re over-reacting’, or that Indians have developed immunities to bad air, and so on. As Lavakare points out: ‘inhaling even small amounts of microparticles reduces immunity rather than building it. Simply put, inhaled microparticles cause inflammation and oxidative stress on every organ they touch, beginning with the lining of the nose all the way to the lining of the lungs and beyond, releasing free radicals and reducing overall immunity. Unlike immunity to bacteria and viruses, the build-up of particulate matter over the years probably explains reduced immunity, greater sickening, faster aging and many other symptoms. People confuse immunity with endurance.’ 

In recent years the world’s focus, so far as air pollution is concerned, has been on China, not India. In the mainstream media narrative, it was China that had the worst air quality problem in the world. Yet, the data shows that through much of this time New Delhi’s air quality was much worse than that of Beijing. Yet, India’s air pollution crisis was ignored, by the local media as well as by foreign journalists. 

Why the disparity? Lavakare’s book suggests that there were two reasons for this. One was that there was much more public concern about pollution in China than in India. The second was that Western diplomats and journalists generally avoided talking about India’s air quality even though they knew very well how bad the situation was. The reasons for this are not hard to discern; they are the same as those that shield India from international criticism on many other counts as well. It is because India serves as a convenient ideological counterweight to China, as a different model of development. In effect, it was for ideological and strategic reasons that India’s air pollution problem was long overlooked, at immense cost to ordinary Indians. The silence was not broken until the New York Times’s South Asia correspondent, Gardiner Harris, began to write about the subject in 2014. 

The rise to dominance of neo-liberal ideologies also has much to do with India’s failure to confront the pollution crisis. Lavakare is by no means a critic of neoliberalism, but her book provides a telling example of its effects. Over the last decade, vast clouds of smoke have been descending on the region around New Delhi in late October, making the area’s already catastrophic air quality even worse. This annual plague of smoke is caused by the burning of crop stubble, by farmers. Lavakare quotes the journalist Arvind Kumar, who has traced the problem back to a series of decisions taken by the government of Punjab, between 2007 and 2009, when a law was passed that effectively forced farmers to change their patterns of cropping such that they were left with a very small window between the harvesting of one crop and the planting of the next. Hence the hurry to burn the remnants of a harvested crop, in October – at exactly the time when the prevailing winds carry the smoke in the direction of New Delhi and its environs, which are home to 46 million people. 

But there is a further twist to the story: the primary beneficiary of the change in cropping patterns is none other than the mega-corporation Monsanto, which has long sought to control the world’s supply of food. ‘The push for Punjab’s law came from another source,’ writes Arvind Kumar, ‘the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which has acted as a shill for Monsanto around the world.’ Kumar’s conclusion is that ‘the people of Delhi have two choices. They could either take to the streets and march against Monsanto and evict the corporation from India and restore the previous cropping pattern, or they can wait to get suffocated when Delhi once again becomes a gas chamber this year.’

Indeed, it is increasingly clear that post-war American policy interventions in India, such as its advocacy of the ‘Green Revolution’ have been largely responsible for creating the compounding environmental disasters that underlie the currently ongoing farmers’ protests. These protests are said to be the largest in human history, yet the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains unmoved in its determination to impose a set of laws that will benefit mega-corporations that are close to his party. 

India’s failure to adequately address its air pollution problem is a grim portent for the future: it suggests that the country will be similarly unable to deal with other aspects of the intensifying planetary crisis, such as climate change. It is perfectly clear now that India’s government, and its political class, have been captured by corporate interests to such a degree that they have become incapable of acting in the public interest. 

Amitav Ghosh 

January 27, 2021


‘Powershift’ by Zorawar Daulet Singh

January 24, 2021 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Given recent developments, few will deny that the increasingly adversarial relationship between India and China is one of the most important factors in the emerging geopolitics of the 21st century. Zorawar Daulet Singh’s Powershift; India-China Relations In A Multipolar World (MacMillan, India, 2020), is therefore a timely addition to the literature on a subject of compelling urgency.

            Daulet Singh’s most interesting contribution lies, I think, in his analysis of the larger geopolitical picture, particularly in his examination of the Sino-Indian relationship through the contrasting perspectives of two of the founding fathers of strategic theory: Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), who believed that strategic power depended on the control of the oceans; and Halford Mackinder (1861 – 1947) who saw the Eurasian heartland as the ‘geopolitical pivot of history’, on which strategic dominance depended. ‘India’s geostrategy,’ writes Daulet Singh, ‘is being contested by two somewhat competing images: the Mackinder image – or the idea that continental spaces are what really matter in power politics – and the Mahanian image – or the idea that maritime spaces in the seas are what ultimately account for the power of states.’ (185)

            After Independence India’s leadership adopted a Mahanian view of maritime power, a vision that was essentially borrowed from the Anglosphere. ‘In the 1950s,’ writes Daulet Singh, ‘India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had remarked, ‘To be secure on land, we must be supreme at sea’. This assertion reflected an uncritical acceptance of an old British adage despite a vastly different geopolitical context. Separated from continental great powers, the British and Americans could shape the balance of power at sea without worrying about their land frontiers.’ (198). But this Mahanian view, Daulet Singh points out, is completely inadequate to India’s current circumstances: ‘For India, continental geopolitics can never be compensated by a maritime geostrategy.’(198).

            In terms of global geopolitics what is truly epochal about the rise of China is that it has begun to move the locus of strategic power away from the oceans and back to the continental heart of Eurasia. This is indeed the aim of the Belt and Road Initiative, which inaugurates, for the first time in five hundred years, a strategic shift initiated by a non-Western power. In opposing this initiative, Daulet Singh suggests, India has more to lose than to gain: ‘India’s main concern has been that the BRI is designed to stamp China’s geopolitical dominance. Some argue that such a fear might be misplaced for “all great infrastructure and  connectivity ventures – throughout history – have altered the prevailing geoeconomics matrix, and hence the resulting geopolitical balance. While the geopolitical effects are short-lived, the geo-economic benefits survive over time”. Or put simply, new trading linkages eventually trump geopolitics.’(242)

            In cutting itself off from a major geo-political and geo-economic shift, Daulet Singh suggests, it is India that risks isolation within its region: ‘In an ideal world, a South Asia in splendid isolation, and, an India with the economic and institutional capacities might have produced an order for the entire region. But India’s internal preoccupations, a lop-sided growth model with a weak state, and, China’s rise has exposed the idea of South Asia as an exclusive sphere of influence. It is no longer a viable venture.’ (253).

            A better alternative, Daulet Singh argues is for India and China to ‘learn to sensibly manage their complex relationship and evolve their existing modus vivendi to incorporate a framework where a gentler rivalry or competition is handled maturely and at the same time does not inhibit the pursuit of their common or overlapping interests.’ (ix).

            Despite its strengths Daulet Singh’s book also has some major weaknesses, due mostly to the fact that his book is written within the shallow historical frame that is characteristic of strategic studies. He makes no reference, for instance, to the Qianlong Emperor’s intervention in South Asia in the late 18th century, even though it was largely responsible for the continued existence of Nepal as a sovereign state. Astonishingly he makes no reference to the most important work on Qing xenology and the evolution of the dynasty’s foreign policy: Matthew Mosca’s From Frontier Policy to Foreign Policy: The Question of India and the Transformation of Geopolitics in Qing China (Stanford University Press, 2013). Nor does he make any reference to the First Opium War, which was largely fought by Indian soldiers and financed by Bombay merchants. India may have chosen to forget this chapter of the past, but I am sure Daulet Singh is well aware that in China this war is seen as the beginning of its ‘century of humiliation’. I am sure he is aware also that according to the theorist Dominique Moïsi, humiliation is one of the key emotions for the analysis of contemporary geopolitics. The Chinese view of the Opium War can be contested of course, but to omit it entirely from an assessment of Sino-Indian relations in the modern era, is, frankly, unconscionable.

            But the book’s most important oversight, in my view, lies not in its approach to the past but rather in its assumptions about the present and the future. Daulet Singh treats time as linear, assuming that the geopolitical constraints under which nations make strategic calculations will remain substantially unaltered in the future. This is a cardinal error: the Earth is now in the grip of a planetary crisis that is unfolding in a non-linear fashion, changing everything, including geography, and therefore also geopolitics. Daulet Singh mentions, but does not take proper stock of one of the most momentous of these changes: the opening up of a new maritime passage through the Arctic. This route will not only lessen China’s strategic dependence on the Straits of Malacca, it will also create an entirely new maritime choke-point in the Bering Straits. Similarly, non-linear changes are now unfolding rapidly on and around the Himalayan plateau, the ‘Third Pole’ from which both India and China receive much of their water. These changes are sure to transform Sino-Indian relations in totally unpredictable ways.

In short, Daulet Singh writes as though we were still in the stable Earth of the Holocene – but alas, we are on a different planet now. It is perhaps unfair to single him out for an oversight that is all too common. But he would do well to heed the words of his fellow geostrategist, Brahma Chellaney, when he warns that security and geopolitics ‘need to be thought of differently now that we are beginning to understand the new context of the Anthropocene.’

            That being said, Powershift remains an insightful and timely re-examination of the increasingly volatile relationship between India and China. Zorawar Daulet Singh asks some important questions about India’s interests and capabilities in relation to China, and makes some sensible suggestions for de-escalation.

            Daulet Singh is right, I suspect, to suggest that entrenched attitudes within India’s strategic communities are an impediment to fresh thinking on these issues. It is to be hoped that a new generation of strategists, like Daulet Singh, will expand the discussion. This publication is itself an important step in that direction.

Amitav Ghosh

[This review appeared in The Wire on November 13, 2020]



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