Dr. Asish Ghosh: Harvesting Environmentalism

One overhead fan beats back the thick humid heat of the Kolkata morning that seeps through the open door. The lights stay off to keep the place cool but leave the office feeling cave-like. A cave sounds a touch too primitive to describe the office of the founder of the Society for Environment and Development, a network of professors and professionals—spanning across multiple disciplines—that try to convert climate and sustainability ‘talk’ into some much needed ‘action’ in India. 

So let’s call it a lair. Remnants of a life’s work overflow out of trophy cabinets, off of shelves, and reshape pin boards to into complex geometries. The desk is unconventional for this day and age. A worn mechanical pencil sharpener perches off of the side. There’s no computer next to the topography of paper stacks, but a elegantly arched wooden smoker’s pipe. The sole piece of technology besides the light fixtures is a Samsung phone that rings constantly. Hindi, Bengali, and English regularly spoken through each end of the line.

Behind the desk sits now 76-year old Dr. Asish Kumar Ghosh in an off-yellow, cushioned armchair. The high-backed armchair looks throne-like in contrast to the small stature of the scientist and professor. From his  chair he addresses his audience directly, with a gleam in his eye that’s mirrored by the white of his neatly trimmed monopoly-man mustache that frequently twirls up in a delightful grin. 

Across the room is a painting of flowers. The composition shows a cross section of soil—the greens, whites, and browns in the painting evoke the aesthetic of the West Bengali rice paddies. The design looks like it borrowed equally from the influences of islamic architecture and from a collection of child’s kindergarten paintings. The painting is a relevant symbol, for Dr. Ghosh is in the business of spreading seeds. 

We sat down for what I at intended to be a conversation that turned quickly—and fine by me—into a lecture. Seeds were the topic of conversation for the day. I was happy to have Dr. Ghosh, or Sir as all of his employees and students call him, impart his wisdom onto me. He’s one of India’s pioneer environmentalists and a household name amongst the environmentally conscious nationwide. And there began what reminded me almost exactly of a one-on-one class with a Bowdoin College professor.

Unlike Dr. Ghosh, I do not hold a PhD in Agricultural Science so I apologize for any misuse or bastardization of technical terms—terms which I’m going to try to avoid using anyways. 

Over the past couple of millennium that humans have settled in the Bengal region of South Asia and farmed, 6,000 differentiated varieties of rice have developed. Each of those 6,000 species were selected for their resiliency in a particular sub-ecosystem, altitude, or terrain. Some could withstand droughts, others monsoons, a few grew even in the brackish water in the tidal delta region. And that was just rice in Bengal. Zoom out across India, and you would have found thousands upon thousands of specific sub-species of rice, wheat, and millet with unique properties that farmers had passed on from father to son through the generations. 

The decades after World War Two were marked by hunger, famine, and food crisis in India. In the late 1960s, the Green Revolution swept South Asia and combatted food shortages by farming with ‘miracle crops’ and heavy uses of fertilizer, pesticide, and industrial irrigation techniques. Crop yields soared and brought an India in crisis to food security. India is still an exporter of food today, even with its unwieldy population growth—India’s 1.2 billion people are targeted to reach 1.5 billion people by mid-century. Despite the broad successes of the Green Revolution, it didn’t come without its drawbacks and unintended consequences. 

For example, there is a train line that runs south from Punjab to Gujarat that has been dubbed something akin to ‘The Cancer Express.’ Because of the use of a certain fertilizer in Punjab, there is a high incidence of cancer in those agricultural districts that has been irrefutably linked to that chemical use in farms there. Farmers from Punjab take the train to Gujarat for treatment. The same fertilizer is banned in the United States, but the food grown in India with it is probably still exported stateside.

Additionally, although there is excess food production—storage containers fill up regularly and leave waste outside to rot—the poorest of the poor still go hungry in India. It is cheaper to let the food sit and rot outside of storage units than to distribute it among the neediest of the 37% of Indians who live below the poverty line. 

And finally, as Indian farmers adopted western farming practices, they lost touch with their traditional knowledge, especially about the diversity of their seed stores. With no concept of a need to preserve those seeds, they abandoned their heritage of knowledge of seeds developed over time.

In an attempt to achieve short term food security, Indian agriculture lost long term resiliency and their diversity of subspecies that can withstand a wide spectrum of climate conditions.

Climate change changes the weather in sporadic and unpredictable intervals. The environment could be hotter, colder, wetter, drier, or as sea levels rise, saltier. It’s a broad depth of adaptable, resilient crop types that needed in the climate change era in addition to one ‘supercrop.’ 

Dr. Ghosh has seen this agricultural transformation occur in his lifetime. In the late 60s, he was studying for multiple PhDs in Madison, Wisconsin as a Fulbright Scholar. (Before leaving, he needed to take an oath at the US embassy swearing that he wasn’t a communist. In Madison, he was featured on the front page of a newspaper participating in an anti-Vietnam War rally. The picture got back to the embassy and he got in a bit of a pickle.) Although Ghosh was offered plenty of opportunities to stay on in the United States and start a career, he knew he had to return to India, indebted to serve the country and the citizenry of India who’s tax money funded his undergraduate education. And that’s exactly what he did. 

In one of his most recent projects, Ghosh led the Center for Environment and Development to rediscover some of India’s lost seeds that could succeed in the coastal regions of West Bengal where salt water intrusion is ruining agricultural yields.  

One particular region that seeing some of the swiftest environmental changes is the agricultural belt on the fringes of the Sundarban mangrove forest where salty seas are rising to the level of—or even above—farmland. Earthen embankments are the only wall of defense. 

While young technical academics may wiz through technology databases and infiltrate google for answers, Ghosh’s file cabinets contain information not on Google, and he was able to identify the locations of tiny samples of six species of long lost salt-resistant seeds. Some were in the archives of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources and the rest were in villages in the remotest Sundarban islands. Of the six, four were replicated into sufficient quantities by scientists. The most promising could handle soil salinity of up to 7mS/cm, a measure of conductivity. 

Next, Ghosh reintroduced those seeds back to villages. He told me that the village farmers seemed to realize how special these new—but old—seeds were. A song was written about them and they were called the miracle seeds! After each crop cycle, farmers took a bundle of the seeds to store away among their most important possessions. Since the project, the seeds have been protected year after year and the stewardship of these plants was taken on board by the villages themselves.

Dr. Ghosh has made the human-inhabited Sundarban region more resilient. For free. 

“Asish’s job is over.” he said to me. He helped the villages rediscover their traditional expertise then left. He’s hoping to reintroduce these seeds to the whole coastal agricultural belt bordering the Sundarban, that’s 220km of West Bengal coastline.

Ghosh’s new project is to study how climate change and sea level rise will impact human migration out of delta areas in Africa and Asia. “It’s going to be the world’s largest migration of humans,” he told me, “all in predominantly muslim areas.”

Soon, he’s traveling to the Odisha on the middle east coast of India for the delta migrations project, but he told me he’s going to take the seeds with him in his back pocket and try to get it started there too. 

Dr. Ghosh has developed a demeanor with students that he must have adopted during his years in Wisconsin. He spent over two hours lecturing me, with an intermission for Darjeeling tea.  Ghosh clearly shows that he takes an interest in the ambitions of young people. He often remarks on the successes of his old students and boasts about the feats of the most accomplished. 

His students are his other bag of seeds. They seem to be everywhere; a growing force of environmentalists. 

Later on that afternoon, I walked six blocks north to another office building to see one of those students, Dr. Anurag Danda who is now the Head of Climate Change Adaptation & Sundarbans Landscape for the World Wildlife Fund India. 

Dr. Danda wore a patterned short-sleeved shirt that would have been a huge hit among the trendiest canal lanes of Amsterdam. He even spoke english with an accent as if he were native Dutch. But Danda was born and raised in the Indian state of Maharashtra—even though he identifies as a West Bengali now (That’s like an LA person becoming a New York person). His intriguing dialect was adopted while studying in the Netherlands for his PhD. His thesis was on water management and adaptation to climate stresses in the Sundarbans. He literally took lessons from the Dutch and modified them into an in depth analysis of the Indian mangrove delta–but he did that two decades before the rest of us. 

In Kolkata, he told me, there is a lot of climate talk, but little to no action. As an organization without access to big sources of funding, the WWF office mostly directs it’s energy closing the loop between the science, the villages and the politicians. They crosscheck recorded climate patterns and see if they are observed by the villagers themselves, who are for the most part absent minded to the formal academic concepts of ‘climate change.’ But if the villagers say, “oh my, we do see the soil getting drier!” that verifies that changes in the data are mirrored by empirical evidence in the real world. 

In addition to their work in the Sundarban, WWF India’s other climate adaptation project works to improve the health of the Ramganga tributary of the Ganges. 

Politicians will not get interested in climate adaptation projects unless there are hefty price tags and whispers of gigantic sums of money transferred between bank accounts, I was told. Politicians won’t be interested in anything short of large-scale hard infrastructure adaptation projects. But something like a multi-billion dollar flood gate project doesn’t match the geographical nature of the area here. The Sundarban mangrove is Kolkata’s front line, a geo-engineering project by Gaea her wonderful self. 

The most vulnerable, all 4.5 million of them, live on inhabited mangrove islands just inland of the protected nature reserve. The adaptation investment that is needed is not a Bay of Bengal Wide concrete wall, but reinforcements of the hundreds of kilometers of earthen embankments which hold back not only the freshwater flowing south in the rivers but also the saltwater of the high tides that the Bay brings. Behind the embankments are villages, agricultural land, and 4.5 million lives. 

On May 29th, 2009 Cyclone Aila destroyed 900km of such embankments as 125 kilometer an hour winds and 40 foot waves barraged unapologetically through. Salt water flowed out onto so much agricultural land and ruined the soil to such a degree that growing rice in 2010 was impossible. (The next season Ghosh came down with his salt resistant seeds). 

The Sundarban dikes are earthen soil embankments, significantly less high-tech than the concrete dikes that stitch the Netherlands landscape together. The Dutch have doubts about the longevity and efficiency of their professionally engineered dikes. And here in India with the bonus threats of earthquakes and cyclones, villages rely on farmer-constructed earthen walls. The thoughts give me flashbacks to being back on the beach as a kid, no matter how much sand I’d add to my sand castle’s walls, the rising tide and rolling waves would always win. Just, the stakes are a bit higher.

After Aila, many of the dikes were left unrepaired. There was a question of ownership and a good reason for confusion.

Ashoka was a king who ruled the Indian subcontinent before Christ. In his time the Zamindari system started. A landlord would build an embankment around an island and lease out the land for economic extraction—farming, honey collection, fishing—as long as taxes were paid to the landlord. It was in the Zamindar’s private interest to maintain the structure of the embankments. A similar system existed until 1947, India’s independence. 

Since then, the upkeep of the Sundarban dikes has been passed around from department to bureaucratic department. The department of agriculture developed an adequate maintenance system, but then an amendment to the constitution gave the duties to another bureau so the office with the good system no longer has the funding. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle where the pieces are tossed between three scrambled up boxes. And each box is locked. A Bengal tiger swallowed the keys. 

So who is responsible to rebuild? The tide people are waiting, expecting the government to show up.

At the same time that it is unfair to place the burden on impecunious people who lost a year’s supply of crop yield, homes, livelihoods and loved ones to strap up and re-build, it’s those very people who have chosen to live in a volatile landscape. Maybe it’s the premium people need to pay for living on vulnerable areas of the coast. 

And I think paying a premium is exactly right for those who own vacation homes on Cape Cod or Long Island in precarious landscapes, but for people such as these who have been forced to come to the Sundarbans to find refuge from religious, political, or social persecution—because they have no where else to go—the question of who pays becomes a little bit more twisted. 

It’s easy to say: the cost of living here is too high and all ‘tide people,’ as they’re referred to in Amitav Ghosh’s novel about the Sundarban’s The Hungry Tide, must move to the interior of the country. But there is another, often overlooked human element involved—the deep attachment and association to what people call to home. In the Sundarban, the people have just as many roots into the mud as the mangroves themselves, and no matter how hard the waves crash, they want to stay. 

This passage from The Hungry Tide puts it well: 

“Once we lived in Bangladesh, in Khulna jill: we’re tide country people, from the Sundarban’s edge. When the war broke out, our village was burned to ash; we crossed the border, there was nowhere else to go. We were met by the police and taken away; in buses they drove us to a settlement camp. We’d never seen such a place, such a dry emptiness; the earth was so red it seemed to be stained with blood. For those who lived there, that dust was as good as gold; they loved it just as we love our tide country mud. But no matter how we tried, we couldn’t settle there: rivers ran in our heads, the tides were in our blood.” p.175

This fictional paragraph was verified by an economic experiment. Dr. Ghosh told me that a micro-finance, small loans bank, similar to Grameen Bank, offered to give families a significant amount of money—more money than the many of the village woman the loan was offered to had ever held in their entire lives—to move inland. In a notable quantity of cases, the loan was declined. They wanted to stay. 

In a place where natural disasters are seen as an act of god rather than an effect of a climate system,  a place where Bon Bibi, the forest goddess, is worshiped for luck and fortune, there may be more involved than climate scientists in Europe think. It’s not just about packing home and moving. They may go down with the ship.

I asked Dr. Danda about whose duty it is to pay for the costs of climate change. He is optimistic that climate change is an opportunity for nations to work together. Climate change in Danda’s view is the first time all nations can work together against an outside adversary.

“We’ve never been attacked by extra-terrestrials,” he said, then began to pipe up, “but climate change is by and large a threat to humanity itself.” It’s a reason for nations to cooperate; a call to arms to fight for the common good of mankind. 

So, in Danda’s mind, the payment question comes from the very top. But he also thinks it comes from the very bottom, from the personal and household level. It’s in the private interest of individuals and households to pay for their own defenses. Choose to build in a risky location you should have to pay for it.

“If your house is on fire? Who’s job is it to get the fire out? It’s the same as any other disaster. Sea level rise is just complicated because it is slow onset. Well, slow onset that becomes like a fast onset disaster very quickly.”

At the end of the conversation, Dr. Danda told me he fears for the world his granddaughters are going to be born into. But he doesn’t have a doomsday attitude. He seems to be exactly the right type of bright minded person needed to be head of Climate Adaptation in India. He’s currently stocking up on more tools at the Dutch armory as he is working at TU Delft in the Netherlands for his second PhD now.  

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One thought on “Dr. Asish Ghosh: Harvesting Environmentalism”

  1. Many years back as an young hydraulic engineer I worked in Sundarban. I left and went far away but still today Sundarban attracts me. In 2009 when Aila took place I again started to follow up the post Aila rebuilding story and specially the failure to rebuild the age old or backdated as somebody says ( not me) earthen embankments. I believe that though sufficient amount of money has been sanctioned to rebuild them but could not be done for difficulty in fresh land acquisition. Huge amount of land has been proposed to acquire I believe, I think easier alternative is possible. In any case this topic may not interest much to many. But I feel restoration and rebuilding of earthen embankment is surely an important requirement for survival of land and people there.
    Incidentally to mention that during my early year I had the opportunity to work with Dr J J Dronker an eminent hydraulic engineer from Delft, Netherlands in Sunderban only..

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