It's never too late to save our environment. Meghaa Gupta is out with another book
for children- Unearthed- An Environmental History of Independent India. Published
by Puffin, this nonfiction book takes a look at the fate of our forests since the day
of our country's independence.
1. Why did you choose to explore environmental history for your book?
In 2013, I was commissioned to compile a guide on courses and careers in the environmental field for students in India. As I went about speaking to a slew of professionals working in this field, I was fascinated. History seemed to be coming at me from all directions. Whether it was MC Mehta who spoke to me about his pioneering work as an environmental lawyer or Mike Pandey, who shared his spellbinding accounts of being a wildlife documentary filmmaker at a time when India didn't even maintain a comprehensive record of its wildlife - I was hooked. I started reading a lot of books on the subject and from a vague idea, environmental history began to take a clear shape in my mind. Of course, it would take many years before I finally felt that I had it in me to write this book. Also, environmental history is a relatively under-explored area, especially in children's publishing, and this only motivated me more.
2. Was it easy to find sources for research?
We have a continent of rich environmental literature in this country. Mahesh Rangarajan, T Sivaramakrishnan, Madhav Gadgil, Ram Guha, Amitav Ghosh, Zai Whitaker, Arefa Tehsin, Bijal Vachcharajani... I'll get tired of remembering names! So yes, it wasn't very hard to find sources - both online and offline. The other advantage of writing contemporary history is that one can always reach out to people who have actually lived through the time. To be honest, the difficult bit was assimilating all the research into a single book!
3. As deforestation spreads alarmingly, did you come across stories of hope for a greener future? Any model which can be replicated across the country?
Harnessing the power of local communities is an effective model to bring about change, whether it's deforestation or any of the other environmental challenges we face. If they're empowered with the right knowledge and motivation, they can be changemakers. I saw this personally, when a few years back, I travelled to Mawwlynnong village in Meghalaya. It's often called the 'Cleanest Village in Asia' and I was fascinated to see how the villagers have come together to transform this remote village into a hub of sustainable living.
I've also been pleasantly surprised by stories of initiatives like the for-profit SELCO that has persuaded entire villages to adopt solar energy to electrify their homes or for that matter, a large number of waste-management ventures that are cropping up in this country. These examples prove that sustainability can be a business model too!
4. Do you think children are being briefed enough in schools and home about conservation? What more can be done?
In 2005, EVS became a mandatory subject in India's schools. Whether one believes in the importance of formalising EVS or not, I do think that having it there has, to some extent, exposed more children to the topic of conservation and certainly, today's generation is far more conscious of it than previous generations. Interestingly, the Greta Thunberg phenomenon has shed greater light on young climate activists from India like Ridhima Pandey and Licpriya Kangujam. So, apart from being environmentally-conscious, today's kids also have peers who are actively fighting for the planet.
But, if you ask me, conservation is a mindset that needs to truly penetrate our being, to be effective. It's one thing to talk, write and speak about it, and quite another to consciously follow it. Here's where adults and families come in - as do problems! What happens when a child is taught about conservation in the classroom but sees wastefulness all around? Electricity, water and paper being wasted, people buying unnecessary things, peers coming into class with a new bag every week or throwing lavish birthday parties? Will the message really sink in? Will the child have the strength to overcome the temptations of material abundance and excessive comfort? Even adults often fail at this, so isn't it a bit unnatural to expect it from children? I know there are exceptions, but this is the truth on the ground. Yet, I see hope in children and I know when they're sufficiently inspired, they can overcome great odds. So, I think we need to begin by having truly motivated and empowered EVS teachers who believe in their subject and also educate parents to actively encourage a conservation mindset in the household, so children can have every day role models to inspire them and prod them on their journey towards realising a greener planet.
5. Are you a full-time writer?
I think it's almost impossible to be a full-time writer because writing will never be able to help me pay all my bills! I started out as a journalist, but for the last 10 years I've been working in children's publishing. Seven of those have been with Tulika Publishers. I currently manage Tulika's book rights portfolio. I also write freelance for a few newspapers and magazines and in the middle of all that, I squeeze out time to read and write books!
6. How long did this book take to write? From pitch to publication?
I've had this idea in my mind since 2014 and have been building on it over the years. The book is on contemporary history, so many of the stories have been added in the course of these years, for example, the water crisis in Chennai. It was only in 2019 that I began writing it and took about a year or so to do this.
7.How connected were you with nature in your childhood?
My mother loves gardening, so we've grown up seeing her get excited about the karelas or the tomatoes or the roses growing in her pots! She hasn't changed and because of her we too have learnt to take pleasure in such happenings! I also remember my parents taking me and my younger brother to parks every other day, when we were children. I grew up in Delhi, so it was usually the neighbourhood park on the weekday evenings and Lodhi Garden, Buddha Jayanti Park or Deer Park on the weekends. I don't think I actively connected with nature in my childhood, but I certainly remember the joy of running barefoot on a field of grass.
8.Which period of Indian history has the maximum deforestation? Could it have been averted or reduced?
The industrial revolution in the 18th century changed the fate of this planet because it was the start of large-scale deforestation to meet the needs of industrial growth. It began in Britain and as a colony, India wasn't spared the massive fallout. After that it has only increased and I don't think I can accurately guess when it was at its peak because we appear to be breaking new records every year!
Humans have always sought out prosperity and environmental concerns are usually secondary, so I'm not sure to what extent we could have averted or reduced deforestation when it came with the promise of rapid industrialisation and economic progress. But today, we have the technology and the knowledge to actively integrate sustainability into industrial development and we need this more than ever!
9.The needs of humans have always been a priority than animals. Comment
Self-preservation is a basic instinct in all species. Humans are no different. But our abilities are far superior than all others. Unfortunately, this has meant that we have preserved ourselves at the expense of other species. Whether it is clearing forest areas for development or culling Covid positive animals en-masse, we have always given priority to our needs.To buy a copy of Unearthed click here.