Hell on Earth: The Slow Travel Series

by Tobias Thornes

‘Surely, this is Hell indeed. Except that these pour souls suffer not for their own but for someone else’s sins.’

The Monsoon breaks like a sudden breath of sweet, fresh air after a long asphyxiation. Across the dry, sun-seared northern states of India reverberates a wave of joyful exhilaration: the long-awaited water has at last arrived; the tension that has tightened over weeks and months is shattered in an instant as life-giving liquor rains down from the heavens. The fragrance of the first fresh drops of water on the parched-dry ground erupts in an all-surrounding sweetness like nothing else on Earth. I can see the jubilation on the smiling face of the farmer who stands beside me, happy that his carefully cultivated crops can now start to soak up the elixir of life and grow. But it’s a happiness mingled with relief: the same medley of emotions that must have met in the grateful minds of many million Indian farmers down countless generations every year the essential rains arrived. It’s obvious, now, why this once mighty civilisation so worshipped the rain and rivers. If the rains failed, famine was the inevitable result. And it’s the memory and fear of famine that still haunts the country’s farmlands today.

My experience on this one small farm is, nowadays, an exception. It’s one of just a handful that have reverted to organic agriculture in a district dominated by more modern industrial methods. The living soil I can smell is rare, now, where the ground has mostly descended into dead, artificial dirt. This is no place of prosperity for nature or for man. For the great civilisation of India fell long ago, as did the exploitative British Empire that followed it, and now the country struggles in the sticky mire that has followed their dual decline, a half-way industrialised chaos that can be the worst of both worlds.

Over the past few decades, a programme of intense industrialisation has transformed the Punjab into a reliable breadbasket, ending the spectre of famine and making the country superficially self-sufficient in food. But beneath this hides a growing reliance on imports of fuel, fertiliser and pesticides, and, ironically, even in its desperation to reassert a proud independence, India has rejected the philosophy of its pre-colonial heritage and copied the intensive farming practices of the capitalist West. The population has tripled since independence; one in five humans today is Indian. Yet the ‘Green Revolution’ that has facilitated this boom, whilst immensely profitable for multinational machinery and chemicals manufacturers, hasn’t made for a better life for the majority. Three fifths now lack access to clean water, and the countryside is crumbling into ecological catastrophe.

What’s more, the high yields brought about through industrial farming can’t be sustained indefinitely. ‘Fighting against Nature,’ my host observes, presciently, ‘it’s a fight we cannot win’. Pests are defiantly evolving resistance to pesticides; soil stripped of its ecosystems and raped of its nutrients can no longer sustain high yields without the pouring on of more and more fertiliser. Stories abound of farmers driven into debt-induced suicide by the rising costs of chemicals and genetically-modified seeds. Promised prosperity through this new way of working but finding only poverty, perhaps a quarter of a million smallholders in the last two decades have found life too difficult to bear. More deaths, cancers and birth defects come directly from the chemicals, with sixty-seven widely-banned substances still used liberally on Indian farms. Poor labelling, widespread illiteracy and sheer desperation to bolster shrinking yields have led to a rampant overuse of these ‘magic’ quick-fix solutions that manufacturers and distributors have done little to stop. So, as the population rises still further, will Indian agriculture’s long-term unsustainability doom the country to a decline of deeper devastation than anything seen before?

Not necessarily. My friend is one of a vanguard of newly organic farmers exhibiting a renewed reverence for nature, melding together the best of modern expertise with traditional, natural techniques to get reliable yields out of healthy ground. The crops I’m looking at are local varieties, adapted to this environment and requiring only Jeevamruta feed – a boiled-down mixture of herbs and dung. A swooping swallow – now a rare sight on India’s farmlands – whirls across my vision, telling of a rejuvenated ecosystem, where pest-eating spiders and pollinators thrive once again. Organic farming is harder work, of course. It flies in the face of advice from most Indian agriculturalists – and the multinationals – who argue that there are too many people on the small-holder farms that dominate Indian agriculture; that computers and machinery should displace labourers who would be better off crowding into the cities in search of modern, indoor jobs. The organic narrative turns this on its head: couldn’t the country’s swelling numbers be counted as a blessing, a new organic workforce doing real jobs alongside Nature?

It’s cause for hope. But as I hobble eastwards in the humid heat of a rickety train, I’m soon reminded that none of this will save India from a deeper plight. Outside, the wide open landscape glistens in its painted coat rain. Not so long ago, the vast skies above it were host to forty million vultures. But the air is empty now, the magnificent birds become victims of poisonous painkillers that lately laced the carcasses of livestock on which they feasted. As we enter Jurkhand province, a new cloud takes their place on the horizon: one that bodes of a still-darker disaster that could bring about the fall of all forms of life we know and love.

I’ve come to visit the unquenchable fires of Jharia, one of the great coal-mining states of India. First set off more than a century ago, here baking seams of coal continuously burn, their flames fanned still fiercer year on year by the escalating extraction of this filthy fuel. Nowhere more deserves the title ‘Hell on Earth’. I stand now on the precipice of a vast mine, tearful and terrified at what we have done.

On one side of me stretches mile after mile of piled-up black bile, mountains of dead organic remains disgorged from their million-year resting place to feed humanity’s growing greed for electricity, the deadly drug to which we’re now hopelessly addicted. On the other side Earth gives way to a gargantuan man-made chasm – forest, field and flora obliterated to leave a lifeless pit, save for the scuttling, wheezing miners and scavengers who cough up lungs of black dust.

Surely, this is Hell indeed. Except that these pour souls suffer not for their own but for someone else’s sins. Here, then, have I found, at last, the black heart of humanity’s transgression. A world of unimaginable beauty, hacked, burned and blasted into a wasteland by crushed and broken slaves. And what for? ‘Development’. ‘Progress’. ‘Luxury’ for their demonic masters, and greed for more – more of what? What can possibly justify this sacrilege of suffering? These transient trinkets and comforts we greedily consume? Things that will themselves be dust in a decade, century, millennium. Solely for this pittance have we sold our paradise. And what will become of humanity, with all its love and life and creativity? Ruined and forgotten, by our own short-term selfishness we too will be destroyed. From Eden to Oblivion: hark how the ‘mighty’ fall!

The Poor Print

The Oriel College Newspaper. Run by students, with contributions from the JCR, MCR, and SCR & Staff. Current Executive Editors: Tom Davy, Joanna Engle and Chris Hill

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