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April is the cruelest month

April 06, 2004 10:52 IST

April is the silly season as far as lovers are concerned, or so goes the Western perception, given that that's when Spring finally arrives in their climes. In India this year, it is, of course, also the silly season for politicians, given that the national elections are going on in right earnest. April comes out like a lion and goes out like a lamb, some European poet said. I'm afraid some politicians will face the same fate, especially those who are blustering the most these days.

But I am much more concerned about some of the other things that are happening around India. First, the remarkable news that India has finally had a quarter of growth in the double figures. In the October to December quarter 2003, the economy grew at the breakneck pace of 10.4%, which is a record of sorts for the Indian economy. The best performing sector: agriculture, which grew at an awesome pace.

There was an analysis by an IIM Calcutta professor that I read somewhere that a major problem with the Indian economy in the last fifty years has been the lack of growth in agriculture, and therefore, the lack of disposable income among the rural population.

Many people think it is a bad thing that agriculture accounts for roughly 25% of India's GDP. I disagree; in my opinion that is one of India's core competencies (along with the ability to generate original intellectual property), for we also have some of the world's greatest biodiversity as well as a trove of genetic variants. After all, I believe things like rice and the domestic fowl were first domesticated in India.

Now that a single good monsoon has shown how impressively India's farmers can perform, I hope the powers that be pay more attention to this sector and increase investment there. As global warming and other catastrophes loom on the horizon, the most precious commodities that we can have are water and fertile land. If we husband these, we will be able to ride out future cataclysms much better than many others.

Energy in the form of oil and gas, which is the thing that everyone, in particular resource hungry nations, focus their energies on, is something that has limited value in the long run. One of these days, solar energy will come into its own; perhaps fusion will make a comeback thanks to the efforts of the likes of Rusi Taleyarkhan and his sonofusion experiments; and there are always hydrogen powered engines on the horizon.

Nevertheless, today we are hugely dependent on hydrocarbon energy. OPEC has once again decided to shrink its production, which is sure to raise prices, perhaps towards $ 40 to the barrel. So I suppose it is a good thing that the rupee is appreciating against the dollar, dramatically and rather alarmingly for those of us used to the dollar being so strong for long. As the rupee strengthens, that will cushion any oil shock.

But I have said time and again the more valuable fluid is water. A recent report talks of the Chinese starving the lower riparian powers such as Thailand and Cambodia of the waters of the Mekong (originally the 'Ma Ganga'). This is because of their control over the Tibetan plateau, where the Brahmaputra, the Mekong, and the Irrawaddy arise: in other words, China has the futures of India and Southeast Asia in their hands. This is one of the greatest national security threats the country faces, and the sooner we recognise it the better.

For, India has been one of the countries most blessed with water. Those of us accustomed to the majestic Kaveri and the myriad rivers of Kerala find it difficult to comprehend the value of water. But this year has given a foretaste of what might be in store for all of us if we do not manage our water resources well.

I refer to the drought that has hit South Kanara district in Karnataka and all of Kerala. Although the Southwest monsoon in 2003 was plentiful in 33 out of 35 districts in the country, it was scanty in just these two. Ironically, these are areas that usually get very heavy rain. As a child, I used to scan the weather reports in the Chennai newspaper called The Hindu and I used to wonder about the gigantic amounts of rainfall recorded in places like Agumbe in Karnataka, which in my imagination was a southern Chirrapunjee.

But now the newspaper reports talk about wild elephants and buffalo dying of thirst in the Bandipore and Wynad game sanctuaries in Karnataka and Kerala. There are huge wildfires like the ones that

threaten Southern California. Unlike temperate zone forests, India's tropical forests are unable to regenerate themselves, so I fear that these wildfires have permanently destroyed large amounts of forest.

And in Kerala, it seems an unfamiliar sight has now become routine: long lines of people waiting for water trucks to come by. While this is the result of a natural catastrophe, the failure of the monsoon, I think it is also a failure in leadership. There have been lean monsoon years before, but it has never come to this, where people are truly suffering.

There was once a book titled Everyone loves a good drought, which talked about, if I am not mistaken, the mismanagement of water resources on the Coromandel Coast.

Now, the Malabar coasts, blessed with 27 perennial rivers, is hit with the same problem. High temperatures, low water levels in wells, rampant extraction of aquifers with borewells, illegal river sand extraction, as well as the continuing destruction of the forest canopy in the Western Ghats and its transformation into plantations or farmland: all these contribute to the problem. Another major issue is the filling in of ponds and paddy fields and their conversion into residential property: a very destructive practice.

In a way, the picture may be less grim than I perceive it. I read a paper recently about periodic droughts and the waterworks that have been built successfully for millennia to combat them: this traditional knowledge is something that we need to harness again, for the British imperialists ruined them because they wanted to control the factors of production, of which water certainly is one.

Parakramabahu in Sri Lanka was successful in making the rain shadow regions of his island fertile, with massive waterworks. In 50 CE or so, Karikala Chola built an impressive system of canals, including the Grand Anicut, that ameliorated the water problems on the perennially water short lower Coromandel Coast. My good friend Michel Danino, as part of his work on education, has suggested that one of the best ways to teach children geography would be to take them to see ancient waterworks like these: for they give them an idea about the real value of traditional knowledge. 

But water is a problem today: so it is a rather unhappy Vishu that fast approaches us. This year, I am told the kanikonna (Indian laburnum) flowered early and in great quantities: it must have been fooled by the higher temperatures, at least 2 to 3 degrees above normal. So the beautiful bells of the flowers are all over the place, a feast for the eye with their golden petals.

April 14th, Jallianwallah Bagh day as well as Vishu and Baisakhi and Tamil New Year's Day, and a host of other festivals in regions around the country, approaches. Last year I wrote about Vishu in 'Silent Spring, Holy Spring.' This year, I am more pensive. I remember someone whom I always associate with the kanikonna, who is no longer with us.

While there is good news on India's economy, there is plenty of bad news as well. The recent statements by Pervez Musharraf about Kashmir are a sign that what I feared, that Pakistan is duping India as regards lasting peace. Emboldened by America's embrace, Pakistan has no intention of living in peace with India. I predicted this as far back as 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11: that it would make no difference to India's problems with the terrorists in the neighborhood, cricket matches and hoopla notwithstanding.

I talked about America's imperial hubris, quoting from the poem Ozymandias. Even though they have brought Saddam Hussein to book, their problems in Iraq are far from ending, as evidenced by the deaths of their civilians in Fallujah. I mourn this as a human tragedy, just as I mourned the mutilated Indian soldiers returned by Bangladesh, trussed up like pigs on a bamboo pole. Nobody deserves to die like this.

The elections and the funny season being with us both in India and the US ought to provide some grim humor, with some really funny candidates thrown up by the system, including one that reminds me uncannily of the much lamented Dan Quayle. Black humor may be the flavor of the season. We can only hope things will improve later in the year, with what looks like a likely NDA win.

Comments welcome at

Rajeev Srinivasan