During the early stages of the pandemic, social-media posts began flagging the return of wildlife to public spaces that were deserted due to COVID-19. Air pollution also reduced as industrial activity, ground and air transportation came to a standstill. But these gains were short lived, and, given the current health crisis, more enduring crises have been pushed into the background.
In this podcast, which is part of our special series Unmasking Southasia: The pandemic issue, we talk with environmental historian Sunil Amrith on climate change, global inequality and migration.
This is an edited transcription from the podcast. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Himal podcasts.
I’m Raisa Wickrematunge, and I’m here with Sunil Amrith, the Renu and Anand Dhawan Professor of History, and current chair of the South Asian Studies Council at Yale University.
We’re actually chatting with Sunil as part of the special issue we’re working on, on Southasia post-pandemic.
Welcome to Himal podcasts, Sunil!
Sunil Amrith: Thank you for having me Raisa.
RW: So just to start off, in your book Unruly Waters you note how “the history of water is more than a mirror to human intentions. The history of water shows that nature has never truly been conquered.” What would you say are some of the factors that have contributed to the growing frequency of these events?
SA: I think there are two things we need to consider: The first is the question of whether there is a change in the climatic patterns going on, and the second is to really focus on the social and economic changes that might magnify the impact of each one of these events.
So in terms of the changing patterns of cyclones, this is clearly a subject of ongoing research, and some uncertainty and debate within climate science. I’m not a climate scientist, but my best understanding of the state of research is that there is no clear trend towards an increasing frequency of cyclones. But there does seem to be a trend towards increasing intensity of cyclones. And I think that what we’ve seen across Southasia over the last several years is a rise in extremes of both wet and dry and sometimes, both simultaneously, and we’ve seen a rise in unevenness and spatial variation. Some of this is clearly being driven by global warming, some of it is also being driven by natural variability in the global climate system by El Nino and by the Madden Julian-oscillation.
The disease of gigantism is still with us but so is the critique of gigantism and that too you can trace back to the 1950s and 60s, and that has only gathered force since the late 20th century with the rise and rise of environmental movements across the region.
The second thing though is the question of social and economic history and how much we can think of these as engineered disasters. I think if we look at the Mumbai floods of 2005, the Chennai floods, the Pakistan floods of 2010, they’re very strong elements in that the damage that they caused were because of an interaction between the cyclones themselves and these engineered landscapes. These successive and generational attempts to control water, I think, which have ended up backfiring in many ways. So, for example, you see flooding is worsened by the elimination of various forms of natural drainage, by the destruction of mangroves along the coast, you see relentless construction in coastal zones, often in violation of coastal zone regulations. With a number of the river delta cities in Southasia, they’re sinking very fast, and they’re sinking because of groundwater extraction, because of water engineering further upstream. So, I think we need to think about the intersection between changing, climate change, changing patterns of cyclones and extreme weather, and human institutions and infrastructures that might worsen their impact.
Finally, this is not a wholly negative story. I think we do need to point to one quite astonishing success really – which is the massive reduction in the death toll from cyclones that we’ve seen in Southasia since the 1970s, and I think Bangladesh has done especially well in this. And what has caused that massive reduction in the death toll from cyclones is very simple, in some ways unglamourous, interventions. This has to do with cyclone shelters, it has to do with the impact of mobile phones (allowing the authorities to warn people), it has to do with incremental improvements in forecasting.
RW: I think the point that you made, about it being more an issue of extremes rather than growing frequency, is quite interesting and leads to the next question that I had, which is also related to Unruly Waters. The book talks about this disease of gigantism, and how the process of development has widened the gap between rich and poor post-independence, in a way unconsciously following colonial projects. Would you say that that’s still true?
SA: It’s interesting. That phrase ‘the disease of gigantism’ actually came from Nehru himself, and he said it I think in 1958. And it seemed to indicate a change of heart on his part, I mean Nehru’s so much associated with that reverence for big dams, for example, that famous quotation that he saw them as the temples of the new India, but here he is in 1958 and he points out that maybe the small projects taken together have as much impact on improving people’s lives as these gigantic projects. I do think it’s still true.
Statistically, I think it looks like the 1970s were probably the peak of dam construction certainly in India. But what we’ve seen happening over the last 15 or 20 years is in fact a move to dam the upper-reaches of the mountain rivers which are of course quintessentially cross-border rivers. And this wasn’t technically possible or financially feasible until the 1980s, that’s true in China as well as in India.
It was only in the 1980s that the Chinese government starts to think about building these large dams on the Tibetan plateau and it’s only in the 1980s and 90s that the Indian government but then also in Nepal and Bhutan, that these sort of mountain rivers begin to be dammed. And this comes with enormous risks, needless to say, and they’re seismically active zones, there are huge risks to communities downstream that come from any one of these projects. One projection suggested the Himalaya might be the most dammed region in the world by the middle of this century. The clustering of those projects comes especially in a context of increasing climate extremes, with major risks.
I think the question of inequality is crucial. One of the things we know very well is the sheer number of people that have been displaced by these gigantic projects. One estimate done for the Indian case is about 40 million people displaced from their homes between 1947 and some point in the past decade by large projects – mostly by dams. And, needless to say, displacement – it does not fall on everyone equally. Adivasi communities have of course been particularly affected by the displacement and also are least likely to gain adequate compensation.
If it’s environmental change we’re most interested in then surely it makes sense to think of the Himalayan river basins as, in some sense, a region.
But the other thing I would say is, yes, you know the disease of gigantism is still there, you only need to look at India’s river linking project to see that particular imagination. The river linking project is quite explicitly linked back to this British hydraulic engineer Arthur Cotton who was working in Andhra and Tamil Nadu in the middle of the 19th century. So that legacy is still there. But there’s another story, which is of course to say that across Southasia there’s a deep and fundamental questioning of those projects and there has been since the 1970s., And I think that that critique is very well elaborated, I think that critique is increasingly widely known. And so there is this other story that yes, the disease of gigantism is still with us but so is the critique of gigantism and that too you can trace back to the 1950s and 60s, and that has only gathered force since the late 20th century with the rise and rise of environmental movements across the region, and in fact, the interconnection with one another as well.
RW: Speaking of interconnection, you talk of modern boundaries which are not following the history of the interconnectedness of the region, for example through the Bay of Bengal. Do you think the response to the current crisis and other crises should also recognise this? And what would solutions and mitigation look like?
SA: In some ways I think you’ve got to the heart of the question that lingers at the background of so much of the work that I’ve done because a lot of my work has been about how both social and economic phenomena are on a scale that doesn’t map directly onto the scale of policymaking and intervention which is overwhelmingly of course the scale of the nation state. And I would love us to think of multiple overlapping regions depending on the phenomena we’re most interested in. So, for example, if it’s environmental change we’re most interested in then surely it makes sense to think of the Himalayan river basins as, in some sense, a region. If we’re interested in coastal change and the particular risks and challenges faced by coastal communities then perhaps the Bay of Bengal rim would be a natural region to think about. When it comes to migration of course, the map of migration is very very different from the map of contemporary borders.
In a review that he wrote of my book – it was a very generous review – Rohan d’Souza does end by wondering if I had been somewhat naive to argue that what we need to deal with some of Southasia’s water issues is more crossborder cooperation. He points out that perhaps it’s only the nation state that can protect Southasia’s water resources from a free-for-all appropriation by the forces of global capitalism. I think Rohan might be right there. At the same time, I do feel like we could be far more creative in imagining what the scale of regional cooperation and regional institutions looks like. I should be clear that I don’t think there’s much chance of this happening in the current climate.
RW: I also wanted to talk about one of the stories that made headlines, which was of migrant workers who were stranded at borders or walking on foot to reach their hometowns. And since you’ve also written a little bit about the history of migration, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that history in the region and some of the factors that have shaped migration in the past?
SA: I mean, I think the whole region and this is, to go beyond Southasia to think about South and Southeast Asia, to think about Southasia and West Asia, the whole region has been tied together by migration, arguably for centuries, and certainly throughout the 19th and 20th centuries on a very large scale. And I think there are some longterm continuities in the causes of migration.
One of them is debt. And I think that remains at the heart of so many of the movements – that particularly working-class migrations are oriented around huge amounts of family-indebtedness which of course in some ways strengthens the power of labour recruiters and then subsequently, employers. And that was true in the 19th century, that’s how indentured labour was recruited from India.
I think family networks remain really crucial to understanding migration, you know, why it is that people from a particular place end up migrating to some destinations and not others. I mean migration is deeply patterned. Historian Adam McKeown used the metaphor of grooves of migration, that’s something I’ve always liked because I think that’s right. They tend to become self-perpetuating over time. The other commonality that I think connects historical experiences with migration with contemporary ones is the fact that so much Asian migration is circular, and that is what I think really has been so evident to us during the pandemic, which is to say that you have people both stuck outside borders and stuck within borders and I think, that this makes us rethink borders in many ways, because in some sense you have migrant workers in the Middle East from Southasia or indeed in Southeast Asia who either can’t get home, or who were deported – who were forcibly sent home. You have migrant workers in urban areas of India who were given hours to return home, immediately indicating that they were not accepted in places that they worked in the cities they were seen as outsiders.
I think maybe even just rhetorically, there was a certain smugness to how some of us said, “Oh look, the air’s cleared up during this pandemic.”
So, these borders are not just physical borders but they are mental borders, they are borders of exclusion, and what we see is, I think, this is playing out in a way that makes us think again about the very clear distinction between internal and international migration. I think there are ways in which the pandemic has made us see the relatedness of both internal movements and international movements. I think the visibility of migrant workers through this crisis is really double-edged. Optimistically one could see that it has made so many people around the world – and this is not true just in Southasia, it’s true in the major cities of the Western world as well – it’s made people see how dependent they are on migrant workers. This whole idea of an essential worker which has emerged through the pandemic, so many of them are migrants. So, you know ideally this leads to a greater appreciation of the value of the work that migrant workers do and their crucial role in all of our communities. But I worry that in fact what we will see is an intensification of the sense of difference and exclusion.
RW: There’s actually been a lot of stories around climate migration in the recent past. In particular you made an interesting point which was that migrants might have actually been agents of environmental history. Could you unpack that a little?
SA: Sure, I mean that was a phrase I think I used in my book Crossing the Bay of Bengal. It’s actually something I’ve continued to dwell on and work through ever since then. When I said migrants are themselves agents of environmental history, I think I meant it in two senses.
The first was simply the observation that periods of the most rapid environmental destruction in modern times have coincided with the most intensive exploitation of labour, the most intensive exploitation by some people of other people. And that insight really came to me first from reading Judith Shapiro’s work, a book called Mao’s War [Against] Nature where she was talking about the extraordinary environmental devastation that happened during the Great Leap Forward and the cultural revolution, and she again makes a small comment about how the abuse of nature and abuse of people go hand in glove. And that was a real insight that stayed with me when I went back to thinking about the history of migration from Southasia to Southeast Asia and the fact I was reading Malaysian environmental historians talking about the three great deforestations in Malaysian history, one in the late 19th century, one during the Second World War and then one in the late 20th century. And each one of those great deforestations, if you want to call them that, coincides with an intensification of exploitation. So that was one sense in which I wanted to make that connection. Even today you see this with mining. You know mining is clearly one of the most ecologically destructive activities that we as human beings undertake. Mining is of course also one of the most exploitative industries in terms of how workers are treated.
It’s quite clear that COVID-19 is, like so many other pandemics, a result of environmental destruction.
So I wanted to make that link, but the second way in which I wanted to think of migrants as agents of environmental history is that migrant labour reshapes landscapes around the world. And this is actually central to how migrants themselves made meaning of migration. And what I mean by that is I spent a lot of time collecting oral histories from former plantation workers in Malaysia, many of whom had migrated in the 1920s and 1930s and for almost every single one of them the way they tell their stories, they tell their stories through the way their labour changed the land, and that itself then can become the basis on which to make claims of citizenship and belonging. You have a way of thinking about this where migrant workers say we made this land what it is. Our sweat and blood made this land what it is. Of course, this is our country too. So in that sense I want to think of the reshaping of landscapes not simply in terms of environmental destruction but even the most destructive of these processes ends up being a part of the life experiences of those who are involved in these often against their will, often working in very exploitative connections, but they’re also making meaning out of the landscapes that are created and I think that is something that anthropologists have shown, I think it’s very important to think about that dimension of this as well.
But finally, one of the things I was really motivated to do, is to point out that this idea of climate migration can be a very reductive concept. It’s so difficult to abstract climate change as a singular cause of migration. Clearly in the past and in the present climate or environmental harm, environmental toxicity intersects with so many other things which lead people to uproot themselves and to leave their homes whether these are economic pressures or questions of debt or questions of coercion, questions of state coercion, of marginalisation of particular communities. So, I worry when we talk about climate migrants that we create an idea that people are purely victims, that they don’t have that creative agency that I think every one of these communities clearly does have. And I’m always struck in the work that I do that the simplest question ‘Why did you migrate?’ is perhaps the hardest to answer for anyone. For any one of us it’s true, in my own life as well that I think there’s so many different causes that sort of shape migration, and that shape the particular routes that people take, that it is helpful I think to be cautious with phrases like climate migration.
RW: And do you think that there’s any similarities between the oral histories you’ve collected from the past and what’s happening now?
SA: I think one commonality is clearly that networks matter. That migration is not always a viable option for people who face environmental disasters, and I think this is one of the things that does tie the past and the present. You know if you read some of the media discourse about climate migration you imagine that, you know, climate change happens and then vast numbers of people are on the move. And usually it doesn’t work like that at all, in fact, I think the far greater risk is people who can’t move – is people who are stuck, is people who for whatever reason, whether it is because of disability, whether that is because of absolute marginalisation, a lack of the sometimes quite substantial capital one needs to be able to make these moves. I think it is more likely that the most vulnerable people in the world will not be climate migrants at all, they will, in fact, be immobilised and I think that is something that does tie the past and the present.
One difference is, of course, the sheer pace of environmental change. I mean anthropogenic climate change is showing its effects in a brutal way in Southasia now, and that is not the case when I’m talking about the 19th century., Those were for better or worse natural phenomena which nevertheless only become natural disasters when they’re mediated through social and cultural and political institutions.
RW: In what ways would you say the pandemic has exacerbated inequality?
SA: I think the pandemic has exacerbated inequality in the most visceral way, because it suddenly becomes clear if everybody is ordered to go home, you know what that home means is as good an illustration as any of the stark inequalities that divide Southasia and indeed that divide every society that I know well. If people are told to socially distance how possible is it for people to be distant when they live in crowded conditions, in crowded cities. When people are told to take precautions, that’s fine if you’re an academic that can teach by Zoom from home – it’s not fine if you have no choice but to go to work.
RW: I also want to talk a little bit about one of your older books, Decolonising Public Health. One of the things you talk about is how the internationalisation of public health through organisations like the World Health Organisation (WHO) wasn’t as smooth as is sometimes suggested, and rather relied quite heavily on local agency and improvisation. Do you see similarities in the obstacles the Southasian region has faced during this pandemic in terms of response?
SA: Absolutely. I mean, I think if anything this current crisis has really flagged the fragility, the weakness of international public health institutions. You know, let’s put aside the Trump regime’s obscene antics and defunding of the WHO. I think even sympathetic and sensible observers would see that the WHO has really lacked the capacity and the authority to coordinate international responses to this pandemic. What we’ve seen is quite the opposite, in fact we’ve seen the re-emergence of a kind of public-health nationalism. And it makes me actually think that what we need to illuminate this is perhaps an older style of comparative history.
The most rapid environmental destruction in modern times have coincided with the most intensive exploitation of labour.
Twenty or more years ago, Peter Baldwin wrote a book called Sickness and the State [Contagion and the State in Europe] in which he made the argument that there’s a very strong patterning to different national responses to public health crises. And I think you see this if you look at Europe, for example, look how different Sweden and Finland have handled the pandemic. You know, neighbouring countries, each with a very different tradition of infrastructure and thinking about public health – Sweden has been very laissez faire with the pandemic, Finland has been very proactive and responsive, and I think we can see this across Southasia. We can see the strong regional differences within countries and certainly among countries. We can see the weakness of rural health infrastructures which was something that even earlier in the 20th century always was a real sort of limit and a break on how far these international campaigns can go.
Needless to say, we’ve already talked about this. You see the starkness of inequalities in terms of health outcomes, in terms of access to medical care. And if there’s one lesson I take from that much earlier work of mine on the history of public health and international health interventions, the lesson is actually one looking forward, which is, you know, if and when we do have a vaccine, there will not be a simple panacea. I think a vaccine, we all hope that we have a vaccine for this infection soon, but rolling out that vaccine, giving people universal access to it, persuading people that it’s safe – these are all eminently social and political concerns and there’s no straightforward way that this is going to play out, I don’t think, certainly based on historical precedent.
RW: Do you think more enduring crises like climate change – are they getting buried due to this crisis, and what do you think the cost of that would be?
SA: I think there are a number of things that have been very interesting about this pandemic in relation to climate change – these more enduring longer-term challenges. The first is the contrast – I mean the pandemic exploded every argument that had for years and years and years been trotted out particularly by Western governments, to justify inaction against climate change. “It’s too expensive, we can’t shut down our economies.” In fact when it came to the pandemic, you know, even the US government did this for a chunk of time and governments around the world did this. So, in some sense it really sort of exploded the idea that economic interests will always prevail over anything else.
On the other hand there is also – this is even common just from the history of health – just that epidemics are dramatic, epidemics are scary, epidemics attract attention in a way that chronic diseases don’t. So, you know, precisely that and nobody’s talking about the kind of crisis of the number of lives that have been lost to air pollution, for example – or we talk about it much, much less than we’re talking about the pandemic. Certainly, do a lot less about it. So, I think there is that sense that immediate crises are easier for maybe all of us and certainly our media to understand and respond to than longer term crises. And perhaps climate change in that sense is the longest-term crisis of all.
Rob Nixon uses this phrase ‘slow violence’ to talk about climate change and other such environmental disaster and I think that’s just right. And you know in some ways, I think maybe even just rhetorically, there was a certain smugness to how some of us said, “Oh look, the air’s cleared up during this pandemic.” You know people were really suffering from the shutdown of their economies during March and April across the world. And I think that that – you know there is a certain way of writing about the fact that the skies are blue again, and we don’t see aeroplane trails and the air quality’s improving – in a way that may have seemed that it was sort of minimising the human suffering that came with that.
I think one of the things that’s been made clear to so many of us is simply that the only way to deal with climate change is massive, massive investment. Not the kind of sudden shutdowns that we’ve seen in this pandemic. First of all, as you’ve said, they don’t last. Second of all, they cause enormous suffering and harm. So, you know, really it strengthens the arguments of those who for a long time have kind of been arguing for a kind of massive investment in climate change mitigation. Again, I’m not sure the political circumstances at the moment are propitious for that. And I do think there are ways in which the pandemic has been so traumatic for so many places around the world, that the appetite to think about a long-term ultimately far graver crisis like climate change is perhaps not there at the moment.
RW: Why do you think environmental history is important? And do you think that there are lessons here that can be applied for the current situation, and the future as well?
SA: So early on in the pandemic, Pratap Mehta wrote a wonderful essay on the pandemic in which he makes the point that, you know, our identity as a species is mastery. And even when the pandemic makes clear in a sense how vulnerable, how porous we are to nature, in this case to a pathogen – our instinct is to think we need to immediately turn to a sort of vaccine. Science will fix this. So, our identity as a species is mastery. And, of course, in some ways the kind of thrust of environmental history is to show that that isn’t the case and perhaps that could never be the case. One of the big questions that I think environmental history might help us to address is: how did one part of humanity, the wealthiest part of humanity, come to believe that it was immune from natural limits, from planetary boundaries? So, I think there’s a history of ideas there to be told. A history of how the most powerful sections of the world came to feel sort of alienated or indeed in control of nature.
Both social and economic phenomena are on a scale that doesn’t map directly onto the scale of policymaking and intervention which is overwhelmingly of course the scale of the nation state.
The second thing that I think environmental history can teach us is paradox. Because of course some of our greatest gains as humanity comes with controlling the environment. If you think of our control of disease environments in the 20th century that’s led to huge increases in life expectancy around the world, including in Southasia. In fact, the problem there is that these increases have not been equitable enough, and they haven’t gone fast enough. So, there’s a real paradox and that too comes from our control over the environment, over nature. But at the same time, environmental history shows us the many many unintended consequences of every single one of these attempts to dominate nature.
So, for example, it’s quite clear that COVID-19 is, like so many other pandemics, a result of environmental destruction. It’s the result of interference with animal habitats, that’s what’s allowed for so many spillover events, and the ecologist Kate Jones at UCL in London – [who] has done a statistical analysis of the sheer number of these spillover events that have jumped to human hosts since the 1960s – has shown a very, very clear correlation between that and, you know, the invasion by human settlements, by human infrastructure of all sort of habitats. So, there are those sorts of unintended consequences and [in] all of the work that I’ve done on the environmental history of water too, I think, unintended consequences are a major theme that come out of that. And so, in terms of lessons, I think the main lesson is humility.
I don’t know that there are practical lessons to be learned from environmental history so much as a lesson that understanding environmental history might, I hope, lead us towards sort of greater humility in some of these projects to subdue and to conquer nature, seeing that these have untold and unintended consequences.
RW: So, I wanted to end by asking you how you think the pandemic will shape Southasia in the future, in terms of issues like climate change, migration, and inequality?
SA: At my most optimistic I think this can, this must be, an opening for those voices that have for a long time been calling for, for example, a more equitable healthcare system; for the importance of crossborder cooperation; for a more expansive view of security thinking about human security as well as military security; for those voices that have pointed out that environmental destruction will inevitably have an impact on our own wellbeing and on our health. I mean, I think, if ever there was a moment for these voices to be heard, that this is one. My fear though is that the crisis will, we’ve already talked about the ways in which it might accelerate inequality. I think this has already been the case – I mean I saw a news item recently that the period of March has seen possibly the biggest transfer of wealth, biggest gains in wealth ever, by the 0.1%.
The second is that I think the emergency health measures that have been taken have been taken in an atmosphere of rising authoritarianism across Southasia and indeed across the world, including right here in the United States. And I think this is a real risk that some of these emergency health measures may in some way or other be made permanent – the sort of systemisation and control of minorities, migrants and the vulnerable – the stigmatisation of particular populations. So, I worry about the climate of fear and indeed the climate of misinformation that we’ve seen. Finally, I think the economic damage of the pandemic has been profound and will be very long-lasting and that too will shape inequality but will also shape politics across the region.
RW: Thank you so much for joining us Sunil.
SA: Thank you so much, Raisa. Thanks for having me.
Supported by Heinrich Böll Stiftung Hong Kong’s Asia | Global Dialogue Programme.