story | Shikhar Agarwal | Guest Writer
photo | Extinction Rebellion Mumbai
*content warning: This piece contains mentions of suicide.*
Mumbai, India’s financial capital, a hub for migrants from across the country, and one of India’s most water-scarce states, is where I have been ever since I started my Leave of Absence in July 2019.
While Mumbai has its own water-related problems, including being underwater by 2050, annual flooding, and severe water shortages, it is still a far cry from the reality being faced by people in other parts of the state. In some villages in Maharashtra, the act of marriage is centered around access to water. That is, women only marry into villages or families that have ready access to water, while men sometimes marry more than one woman just to have more of them fetching water. During the supposed peak of the last monsoons in July, a fellow activist had made an excursion to understand the reality of the water crisis to a village in Marathwada, which is called the farmer suicide capital of the country. The story she told is as follows:
“I was walking around the village, trying to interview families about their experience with the water shortage crisis for an article in a regional newspaper. There wasn’t much appetite for discussions though, as a farmer had only yesterday hanged himself in a nearby village, and despite many reporters like me often visiting villages such as theirs, there has been negligible respite provided by the government, with suicide rates only going up.”
Farming is a dynamic activity that is prone to innovation in order to tackle the changes in weather and other external conditions. In Marathwada this means farmers exchanging their usual water-intensive, subsistence crops for less water-intensive commercial crops. However, when these changes happen too fast, due to erratic weather patterns – months of negligible monsoons being followed by flash floods – impoverished farmers do not have the financial, psychological or other capacities to deal with mass crop failure. They are unable to provide for their families. Indeed, many prefer to leave their family’s care in the hands of the general village community, which is more likely to ensure their survival, than continuing to live a wretched existence where the earth doesn’t yield a harvest no matter what you do.
“This was during the day time, and most of the women in the village had gone to locations many kilometers away, on foot, in search of water. I was able to find one elderly couple that was willing to be interviewed. They told me about their daughter – a 14 year old girl that they had recently married off to a relatively well-off Sarpanch (village headman) of a neighboring village. When asked the reason, they told me that this man was a very nice person who said he would take care of their daughter, and ensure that she never went hungry or thirsty. Indeed, what sealed the deal for them was that the Sarpanch had a borewell water pump installed in his backyard, which, at least for now, meant their daughter would be healthier [there] than with them.”
The climate and ecological crisis isn’t just about the facts. It is not about some distant dystopian future that we will one day plunge into if we continue burning fossil fuels at the current rates. No, it is about the lived realities of millions of human and non-human individuals around the world, that are becoming the first communities and species that are going extinct as we speak.
Women in India, particularly younger ones and those in rural areas, are among those most vulnerable to the manifold effects of the crisis. As the primary caregivers of the traditional Indian family unit, it is their duty to get water. Journeys which are taking them increasingly further away from their village leave them susceptible to assaults as they make their way back, often unaccompanied and during the night. Additionally, increasing scarcity of basic subsistence means that this not only enhances the likelihood of women being malnutritioned and undereducated, but also heightens the chance of the domestic abuse that usually accompanies unemployment and destitution.
In a region where over 80% of people are engaged in farming, the elderly couple told me, villagers deal with droughts and floods as oppressed people always do, by servitude to the rich man. Boys and girls as young as six are employed in the only thriving agricultural industry in this parched region – sugarcane. The absurdity of our world’s current catastrophic reality couldn’t have found a better real-life example. The cultivation of this water-intensive crop in huge plantations means powerful farmers take away a lion’s share of the little water that does reach Marathwada. What’s more, if a farmer that belongs to the Dalit (lowest caste) community commits suicide, they can’t even leave knowing that the aforementioned community help will be provided to their families, due to age-old societal stigma.
Women, dalits, indigenous people, religious and other minorities, and countless other historically subjugated communities continue to be on the forefront of India’s rapidly escalating crisis. Fifth on the list of countries most at risk from climate change, it is difficult to not feel utterly broken, when you consider the diversity of India, and its humongous youthful population. When you add in the fact that the planet is locked into a certain magnitude of warming regardless of whatever we do now, and that what happens these days is only the beginning of the environmental systems collapse, you might find yourself a little closer to what is known as eco-grief or eco-anxiety.
Road to Caring:
More than halfway through my Leave of Absence, I could write a book about my experiences since leaving Yale-NUS College for my semester abroad in December 2018. For now though, I just want to tell you, my dear reader, is that it is okay to feel like we are just tiny cogs in this toxic system that is destroying our present and future. It is okay to feel like nothing we ever do on an individual scale could possibly make a difference when countries like India continue to destroy entire forests and increase their carbon producing capacities. It is okay to feel immense grief for all lives, human and non-human, that have been, are being, and will continue to be lost for the rest of our existences. It is also okay to step away from all the negative news and take care of ourselves when it gets too overwhelming.
What is not okay, is to not do something about it.
When I arrived in Utrecht in January 2019 for my exchange semester, I was severely depressed by my inability to tackle the crisis in a significant enough way such as to have an actual policy impact. That’s why I chose to go to the Netherlands, where I joined the direct climate action movement Extinction Rebellion (XR). Within a month of arriving, I started a local chapter in my city, and an action group on campus, became part of the international team, visited XR local groups in seven countries as a trainer, and ultimately turned down a lucrative internship with a startup in Barcelona to take a gap year and return home to India, trying to bring the movement here.
One year later, I’m still quite depressed about what’s happening with our world. Still very skeptical about the impact of my efforts over the last year, still struggling to cope with the idea that almost none of the dreams I had as a child about the life I wanted to live, are going to hold true in a few years from now. Every day when I step out of my house, I am faced with the reality of a city with 20.4 million inhabitants – overdosed people lying on the streets, fights over small sums of money, little children selling tidbits on the train, and hundreds of people living on the footpaths. As someone who had unexpectedly left India in 2016 with the intention of not returning for a long time, and had deliberately distanced himself from the immense daily suffering of this country, coming back and experiencing reality has been a tremendous struggle for me. It has been difficult to stay motivated fighting for political change in a system that is increasingly intolerant towards dissent, and where disinformation is becoming the norm. Having had the good fortune to go through the Common Curriculum at Yale-NUS and thoroughly deconstruct and unlearn all the normative narratives designed to propagate class hierarchies and systemic injustices, as well as had enlightening experiences with inspiring people from diverse backgrounds, sometimes it is difficult to not loathe myself for not doing enough with the immense privilege that I have.
But here I am, writing this piece, still trying to make something happen.
Why do it?
As cliche as it sounds – love is the reason.
The reason I continue to engage in this fight (with regular regenerative breaks) is because it has found me a community of people I can truly and completely love, and who I know love me. Be it the communities I joined in the Netherlands, the ones I created in India, or the burgeoning international XR one, these are the most beautiful groups of humans I have ever been part of, and indeed, have always wanted to be part of. Regardless of our beliefs, convictions, habits, behaviors, backgrounds and anything else, the one thing we all truly believe in is our duty to minimize the damage we are doing to ourselves and others, and our role as the people who are figuring out how to transition into a just and post-capitalist world, one where people come before profit. Earlier, I mentioned how a lack of influence on policy made me feel useless – the reality is that it is not about the politicians, we give far too much power to them – it is about bringing back the power of the people, strengthening grassroots communities, and taking matters into our own hands, as beautiful groups of humans who love and trust each other.
The revolution is about nothing else but relearning how to love ourselves, other inhabitants of this world, and the planet itself. Whether we will manage to save the planet, is an irrelevant question – there is no planet that is not us, and there is no saving, only salvaging.
We are here, and now, just like the first few cohorts at Yale-NUS, it is up to us, to consciously and deliberately shape the new world that we are entering.