No more a cycle of the season

Do the curly oaks of Uttarkhand still store chilled water?

An old Kumaoni folk song has a haunting refrain: "Bharpuri baajaani dhura baanj ki hawai chaw, aaj ka jayiya bati kabaki awai chaw … suroo roo roo…" The poignancy of these words is difficult to convey in translation, but what we are reminded of is a hard (and, alas, fast-fading) fact of life in the hill villages. Through the oak groves there used to blow a cold breeze, which revived body and mind – lifting the heart and making the spirit soar. The men, departing for the plains as young recruits or domestic drudges, hummed it with moist eyes. They knew not when they would return to be caressed by that breeze; hence the wail, suroo roo roo… Another song pleaded, "Ni kato ni kato jhumrali banja banjaani dhuro thando pani" – cut not the curly oaks, their roots store chilled water.

For the past two decades or so, those children of the Himalaya condemned to toil in the hot plains have returned home to depressing disappointment. The oak groves have shrunk, and the cool breeze and chilled water are gone. The blue hills yonder, and beyond them the snow-crested peaks, are shrouded in the smoke of forest fires that now rage for months. Those who consider themselves educated mutter, Climate change! The unlettered, meanwhile, look skywards, and question the eternally silent deity.

The temperatures they are certainly a-rising. Coal tar on the motor roads melts as easily as the ice cream that now sells like the earlier hot cakes in hill stations. There are the hill outposts which, a generation ago, provided welcome relief from the loo, the killing gusts of hot winds of the plains. Today, electric fans and even air conditioners have become common in the houses and hotels of the hills. Streams of tourists have been reduced to mere trickles – and why should they come? The lakes are polluted and gasping in their death throes; the glaciers are galloping backwards. Local fruit is hard to come by, and the only fauna that one encounters are the marauding monkeys. Who is the culprit? Climate change, mutter the knowledgeable, and the helpless look skywards.

Long before the UN's  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) snapped into its current gung-ho mode, bursting out of the saloon with both barrels of its gun (scientific and moral) blazing, my beloved hills had already been dealt a fatal blow. Back home, where one was born and grew up, no one had heard of carbon emissions or greenhouse gases. People walked miles to school, and carried their sick on their backs to hospitals even farther off. The villagers prayed for the motor road to 'come', to make the distant developed world accessible. They foraged in the forest all day for fuel and fodder, constantly in dread of the predatory forest guards. The chilled water that dripped from the spring fed by the lovely oak grove was, even then, a priceless commodity.

Each season's note
Then there was the border war with China, and development accelerated. Roads 'came' and the motorcars, buses and trucks 'brought' electricity and LPG canisters to remote rural areas. Hope ran high for a while that this would arrest deforestation and its associated natural calamities – the silting of the Himalayan rivers, the landslides and the rest. Now we are being told that all of this – these little mercies that were our lot, as crumbs thrown from the high table – has actually wrought havoc with the fragile climate. The warning is loud and clear: unless we mend our ways, we are all doomed. The learned Indian prime minister has graciously accepted the idea that cuts in fossil-fuel consumption, to ensure not more than a two-degrees rise in average global temperature, is the responsibility of every Indian, as it is of everyone else. What option did he have? The US can twist the Indian state's elbow in myriad painful ways – and that makes the Indian blood boil more than any climate change.

What is true of poor Himalayan villagers is true of the poor Third World – let's stick with the politically incorrect name for once. It's not only the mountain dwellers who are being scared to death; those who dwell along the seashore cannot forget for a moment that they are most vulnerable to the perils of global warming. Tsunamis are just for starters. Cyclonic catastrophes are brandished to convince helpless millions that soon their homes and hearths are going to be inundated, and they rendered climate refugees. The sea is rising and the deluge is neigh. The NGOs are working overtime to bring home the message, but climate change fails to fuel public debate among the wretched of the earth. Those who bear the brunt of 'natural' disasters know well that most of the killer calamities are all manmade – from Louisiana to the Andaman. The educated and the affluent hiss like a curse, Climate change, a plague brought upon mankind by the poor. The stricken poor look skywards, imploring answers from the silent god.

There was a time when climate change meant the cycle of seasons. The celebrated Sanskrit poem "Meghdootam" by Kalidas opens with an evocative stanza, painting word pictures of elephant-shaped clouds frolicking in the sky – harbingers of life-giving rains. His "Ritu Samhar" bursts forth with joyous exclamations as different seasons come along, accompanied by their own 'climate' – summer, autumn, rains, winter and spring. Mother dear wasted a lot of breath telling us unruly children that the symphony of life wouldn't be imaginable if the seasons didn't change, each contributing their different notes.

Those who chopped wood and hewed water for us more than half a century back in Mukteshwar (a small hamlet 8000 feet above sea level) hadn't heard of Kalidas, "Meghdootam" or "Ritu Samhar". But they were constantly caressed by the cold breeze blowing through the beloved oak grove, and could at will gratefully gulp the naturally chilled waters that the spring spouted. Today, documentaries focusing on climate change may win Oscars, and green warriors may share Nobel Prizes, but we will remain unconvinced that it is our burning of cow-dung cakes and brushwood that has brought the world to the brink. What can't be denied is that a climate has indeed changed – the climate of thought and of morality.

~ Pushpesh Pant is a professor at the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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