A compelling history of India over the last 200 years mostly describing how its people and rulers have dealt with the weather.
Amrith (History and South Asian Studies/Harvard Univ.; Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, 2013, etc.), a MacArthur fellow, reminds readers that India contains great rivers and a famous monsoon, but these deliver only 4 percent of the world’s fresh water to 14 percent of its population. He also reminds us that Britain ruled India to make money; even the cost of government and military operations came from Indian taxpayers. Agricultural products, the source of most of this wealth, depended heavily on monsoon rains; when they diminished, famines occurred and tax collections dropped. Documented since ancient times, famines probably became more severe with population growth in the 19th century and the effect of British rule. Most people believed that modern technology would fix matters. Amrith mines British and Indian archives to produce a lively history whose heroes, mostly obscure, developed modern meteorology and built railroads, irrigation projects, canals, and especially dams. “Dams were the single largest form of public investment in modern India,” writes the author, “swallowing considerably more government expenditure than health care or education….More than any other technology, they promised a mastery of nature.” Major famines as late as 1943 only reinforced this policy. Nationalists were also believers, and following independence, there was a greater push for more projects. The author documents innumerable missteps and suffering but admits that it worked. Many Indians still go hungry, but food production has vastly increased. Still, Amrith doesn’t avoid the bad news about the future. Global warming is melting Himalayan snows that feed Asian rivers and worsening the weather, and India is already quarreling with neighboring nations when their actions threaten to divert river water.
Despite largely ignoring politics, war, and culture, Amrith’s thought-provoking history makes a fascinating case that water is equally important, perhaps more so.