Welcome to this wonderful opportunity to hear you on this course on Asian Religions and the Environment. And you have come to Yale this past year, 2019, as a professor of history, a leading environmental historian participating in Environmental Humanities and the South Asian Institute as well. So we're thrilled to have you here, and you've written a number of books which we'll refer to in the course of our discussions. But I'd love it if you can begin with a sense of: what are some of the key environmental problems that the region of South Asia and Southeast Asia are facing? Because they are huge, monumental, complex, and vexing. But if you could give me a feeling for your studies of some of the key environmental challenges. >> Thank you Mary Evelyn and thanks for having me. I'm really glad to be able to interact with all of you on this course. I think probably the first thing to say is that these environmental challenges faced by South and Southeast Asia are so multifaceted. And it might be worth pointing out at the outset that these are problems that can't and shouldn't be reduced to or fully captured by climate change alone. We rightly focus a lot of our attention on climate change these days when we're talking about environmental challenges. And I would say that in the case of South Asia, climate change, in fact, tends to supercharge and intensify a whole range of other problems. And maybe we can think about the nature of the problems in terms of the elements. I'll start with the air and the most recent study I've seen suggests that last year alone, air pollution was responsible for up to 1.5 million deaths in South Asia. If you look at the list of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, well over half of them are in South Asia. Given the magnitude of that crisis, it has in fact received relatively little attention. It has made headlines over the last ten years or so, particularly in relation to Delhi, particularly in relation to the smog that has descended upon Delhi, especially around Diwali time. But that is, in a sense, a small part of the problem. If you look at the air pollution risks faced by people who live in smaller industrial cities in the Gangetic Plain in particular, they're colossal. Indoor air pollution is a major cause of illness and death in India, has been for decades. Kirk Smith and others since the 1980s have done a lot of work in trying to design cleaner cook stoves. A lot of this has to do with biomass burning indoors for cooking. So, this is also a question of poverty and inequality. Water, the problems of water in South Asia, which is the subject of my most recent book are again, multifaceted and interrelated. There is the problem of water pollution. The Ganga, the Yamuna, and so many of South Asia's other great rivers are polluted to the point of extreme toxicity. This too is the problem that has been growing since the 1980s, 1970s, 1980s. There was a moment in the early 1980s when a stretch of the Ganga caught fire because of the level of chemical pollutants in the river. And that was in fact the spark for a whole series of public interest litigations by the lawyer, M.C Mehta, who did a lot to bring this to public attention, also to bring it to the Indian courts. In relation to pollution is also the problem of course of access to clean drinking water and to sanitation which is out of reach of a significant proportion of the population of South Asia. Been struck by this in the midst of the pandemic from the very beginning of this pandemic, we've been told that handwashing, regular handwashing is essential as a means of preventing its spread. And that really did bring home, in a sense, how far out of reach even that basic precaution is to many people in South Asia. And then we have the problems of the sort of simultaneity of the excess and the absence of water. Water for agriculture, water for urban use combined with these periods of intense flooding, increasingly intense cyclones. And that's really where we meet the problem of climate change, we meet the problem of changes and shifts in the pattern of the monsoon. Which in South Asia more than perhaps anywhere else in the world where still a large proportion of people are dependent on this very intensely seasonal rainfall of the monsoon system. The potential effects of a change in the monsoons' patterns, which we're already seeing evidence of, are truly terrible. And then finally, we have the problems caused by infrastructure, and I think this is another major theme in South Asia, but also in Southeast Asia. And in a way there's rather a sad paradox here because I think these infrastructures, many of which were designed in the 1940s and 50s, were designed precisely to free people from poverty. From a dependence on uneven rainfall, from the vagaries of climate. And these infrastructures, above all large dams, have had all sorts of unintended consequences, both social and ecological. On the social side, I think a cautious estimate by the Red Cross, would suggest that 40 million people in South Asia, sorry, that is India though, 40 million people have been displaced by infrastructure projects of which large dams account for the largest proportion. Many of them are from Adivasi communities without the political voice to be able to negotiate compensation or indeed to resist displacement in the first place. >> And you could just define Adivasi. >> Adivasis are often thought of as India's tribal peoples or Indigenous peoples, peoples who live in forest areas. And whose identity is, in a sense, very, very deeply shaped by that natural environment. >> Thank you. >> And so those are the social costs of displacement and then we have the ecological costs of the dams, mass deforestation in the catchment areas, flooding, but also a downstream, all sorts of impacts. One study by geologists has suggested that some of the most densely populated river delta areas in Asia are sinking at four times the rate sea level is rising. And all of these studies actually attribute a large part of that to dams. Groundwater extraction is another cause, but large dams affecting sediment flow on which deltas depend to renew themselves, play a major role in that. So, I think what we see is a realist of intersection of different problems, all of which are worsened by climate change. But I think there may be a couple of things to say about them taken together. The first is that in South Asia, environmental problems are also problems of social justice. I think that is very clear, not only are the poor by far the most vulnerable and the worst affected by these problems, but it is also, in many ways the environmental harm is also harming the livelihoods of those who depend on those environments in the first place. And I think the case of various Adivasi communities in India is a particularly good example of that. The second thing I would say is that, I think from the early 20th century, certainly from the 1950s, the response, the default response to environmental challenges in South Asia has tended to be to find a top down technological solution. So that might have been the large dam. Now it is the project to link all of India's rivers at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. Many have seen those in some ways. There's also those projects, those schemes as a continuation of a colonial approach to resources, to environments, to land. And one of the problems of those approaches, firstly, they've had a lot of non, unintended consequences. Second of all, there's a question of voice, there's a question of democracy, there's a question of whose voices are heard when these calculations are being made of the costs and benefits of a particular infrastructural intervention? >> Yes, yes, and historians like Guha have pointed out this social dimension a long time ago, hasn't he? And you're bringing that forward in your work with migrations and so on. And I don't know if you wanted to say something about that perhaps next, but also just the atmospheric pollution over the Bay of Bengal. And the huge studies that were done by Indian scientists and scripts in Los Angeles and so on, but to illustrate the heavy haze and human induced 85% of it. Smog and and so on over North India, especially the Bay of Bengal area. So science has been studying this for some time and yet still, the suffering that you mentioned, and I love that you're using the elements, the air and the water and so on, but maybe you want to touch briefly on the Bay of Bengal situation and then let's go to, you mentioned of course the upheaval from dams. But also migrations into Southeast Asia and elsewhere, one of the largest in human history. >> So let me start with the Bay of Bengal question. I think one of the things that's so interesting about that international study led by V. Ramanathan, and Scripps, and Indian colleagues, it's called the Indian Ocean Experiment, in the late 90s early 2000s, is it showed that not only does this haze cause terrible effects on human health, but that it might also be changing the climate, that the aerosol pollution over South Asia might, quite a few studies have suggested that it might, have an impact on atmospheric circulation to a point where it is partly responsible for the increasing special unevenness of the monsoon, perhaps also a rise in its extremes. So, we have this double bind that the same pollution questions that are causing such risk to human health are also perhaps having an ultimately even greater effect on the climate itself. And the irony of that is that the aerosol pollution is largely a symptom of poverty, not of excess, and we're so used to thinking about our over consumption of energy. The reason why there is so much aerosol pollution over that part of North India is that there are still 200 million people in India who don't have access to electricity and so they burn cheaper and dirtier fuels. So there's a different set of problems to the greenhouse gas emissions that are leading to planetary climate change, to global warming. But in fact they're interacting with each other in a very dangerous way. And I think what's so risky about this is that it really brings together health impacts, climate impacts. Arguably that is a reason why it should be a much higher priority than it is to try to find humane and democratic solutions to these problems. One part of that solution might well be to roll out access to electricity to a far larger proportion of rural India. That will come with its own costs. If that is coal fired electricity, that will lead to an increase in India's overall carbon emissions. So I think there are very difficult choices to make here. >> Yes, by no means is it black and white, good and evil, very, very problematic. And that's why this whole sense of ecojustice, environmental justice, the coming together of people and planet, is so important. Give us a feel for your studies in this part of the world, of the role that religion may play for environmental resistance, restoration. The Chipko movement of course has the shakti idea and Hindu notion of the energy of the feminine to preserve those trees in the Himalayas basin. So what's your sense of the religions of Southeast Asia, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and so on for environment? >> I think the first thing to say of course is the sort of enormous pluralism and diversity of religious traditions and practice in the region. And I think that itself is a strength because it speaks to multiple cosmologies, multiple ways of being in and being with nature. And I think to some extent, that diversity is precious, it may itself be threatened at the moment. And so I think that's the first thing I'd like to say. It might be worth differentiating between on the one hand national or even trans-regional traditions and much more local ones. In relation to the sort of macro-religious traditions, I'm struck by the paradox of the rivers, because of course India's rivers are among the most revered and sacred and worshiped in the world. And my former colleague Diana Eck in her wonderful book "India: A Sacred Geography" really points to that paradox that the Ganga in particular is both the most worshiped and perhaps the most polluted river in the world. And how do we square those two things? Why is it that despite being so spiritually valued and important, that the rivers haven't been taken better care of? And I think that is a paradox. It's an open question. There have been a number of efforts to clean up the Ganga and India's other rivers with very very limited effectiveness. Perhaps some of this has to do with a sudden separation between the sort of sacred value of the rivers and their everyday use in what are densely populated parts of North India where people struggle for livelihoods. Where there are huge levels of social and economic inequality. Where there has been weak enforcement of, you know, India has actually fairly strong water and air pollution laws going back to the early 1970s. The problem has been in their enforcement which has been relegated to local pollution control boards which are very often controlled by powerful interests. So there's this question of why despite being so sacred, India's rivers haven't been better cared for. And I think maybe it's more constructive to look far more locally at local traditions, because I think these have probably been more impactful in relation to conservation, in relation to sustainability. Hindu and other traditions that are profoundly rooted in place, profoundly rooted in an attachment to landscapes and all of the other forms of life that share those landscapes. And I'm particularly struck, there's been a lot of discussion of and work on India's sacred groves. There are thousands of sacred groves in India which are revered and worshiped, have arguably been worshiped for centuries. And these are profoundly local places, are very often in mountain areas, in the Western Ghats, in the Himalayas. And for a long time, they weren't recognized, they weren't given legal protection. That is starting to change. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 was in some ways an imperfect but an advance nonetheless in giving a certain amount of protection, a certain amount of local collective ownership over some of these forest landscapes. Our wonderful colleague here, K. Sivaramakrishnan, has written about how the jurisprudence of the National Green Tribunals of India, but also even the Supreme Court, have started to actually turn to the constitutional provision of religious freedom as a way to protect some of these sacred groves. The green tribunals themselves are sort of under attack in India today. So there is a way in which perhaps they are no longer going to be able to play the role that they did. But there's certainly a moment in the 2000s where the importance of these local groves, these sacred groves, each often guarded by or presided over by a very local deity in the local temple. That I think can in some sense be seen as a heartening and a hopeful story. And a way in which religious traditions, which you described so beautifully in the way you put the question Mary Evelyn, is to root people in place, in heaven and earth and landscape. These are living vibrant traditions and I think, yes, the overall story of environmental protection and indeed environmental destruction in India over the last 50 or 60 years is a sobering one. There are other narratives, I think, there are other, more hopeful, very local examples of how nature has been protected and even restored in multiple ways. And there I think, religious belief of various kinds plays a very important role indeed.