A River Runs Again

India's Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka


By Meera Subramanian

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Crowded, hot, subject to violent swings in climate, with a government unable or unwilling to face the most vital challenges, the rich and poor increasingly living in worlds apart; for most of the world, this picture is of a possible future. For India, it is the very real present.

In this lyrical exploration of life, loss, and survival, Meera Subramanian travels in search of the ordinary people and microenterprises determined to revive India’s ravaged natural world: an engineer-turned-farmer brings organic food to Indian plates; villagers resuscitate a river run dry; cook stove designers persist on the quest for a smokeless fire; biologists bring vultures back from the brink of extinction; and in Bihar, one of India’s most impoverished states, a bold young woman teaches adolescents the fundamentals of sexual health. While investigating these five environmental challenges, Subramanian discovers the stories that renew hope for a nation with the potential to lead India and the planet into a sustainable and prosperous future.



When he was little more than a boy in Madras, my father learned of the family astrologer's prophesy that he would grow up and one day cross the Kala Pani, the demon-filled Black Waters that separate India from the rest of the world. Hindus, especially high-caste Brahmins, were forbidden to traverse such divides, yet the prediction came true. When he was twenty-five, my father became the first in his family to leave South Asia. He traveled by ship for three weeks and a day before arriving in New York Harbor. It was 1959, and he planned to stay for eighteen months in pursuit of a master's degree in engineering. Five years later, he had acquired a PhD, to his family's delight, and an American wife, to their distress. He was part of that first trickle of Indian immigrants that would grow into a flood, and his union with my mother was representative of what would become, a half century later, an intimate link between cultures. Then, Asian-­Indian wasn't even a category on the US Census. By 2014, yoga had become a common American pastime and a visit from the Indian prime minister could pack Madison Square Garden in the heart of Manhattan.

After my brother and I were born, my father took all of us to Madras to meet his family. Though I was too young to remember that first visit, the arms of aunties and grandparents who cradled me surely imprinted, and I still remember exquisite details from later trips. My father's vast clan in India—to whom I was closer than to the small scattering of American relatives of European descent on my mother's side—sowed the seeds of my interest in India's natural history and her people. Their faraway influence broke through the thick crust of my otherwise insular suburban upbringing in New Jersey (malls! rock concerts!), where my parents had settled to raise my brother and me.

On each trip to India, I gathered impressions. There were the seeds of the mehendi plant whose leaves an aunt ground into a paste to decorate my hands for a cousin's wedding when I was ten. There were seeds that grew into the limes I plucked from an uncle's front yard in Alwarpet to make fresh juice at his house when I was thirteen. And there were those from the neem tree whose upper branches my grandmother reached for from her balcony and used to craft me a toothbrush when I was nineteen. Maybe it was these seeds that planted in me a desire to leave the race of the upwardly mobile Northeast and landed me at the end of a dirt road in Oregon by the time I was twenty-six.

Aprovecho Research Center, the environmental nonprofit where I lived and worked for nearly a decade, was composed of an eclectic team of idealists, hungry for knowledge. Much of the forty-acre land trust was a forest where we collected the wood to build and warm our homes and to cook the food we grew organically. We harvested electricity from the sun with a solar array and built a small dam to trap water from a spring. Both a school and research center, Aprovecho drew people from around the world to teach and learn the skills of sustainability.

But just as I was turning my back on consumerism, living deliberately in developing-world style on the edge of my developed nation, Indians were getting their first real taste of material wealth and wanted more.

In the summer of 1991, India launched initiatives that opened its economy to the world. The result was a rapid blooming, as awkward and astounding as human adolescence. After nearly half a century as a borderline socialist nation—with one inept state airline and two types of cars to which you could affix a "Be Indian Buy Indian" bumper sticker—this still young country had vaulted into the global economic fray. The once wealthy "Bird of Gold," as it was called before centuries of colonial rule plucked her bare, was again poised to soar. Analysts predicted that the world's largest democracy would soon outpace China economically and become the fifth-largest consumer market by 2025—with a middle class that would exceed the entire population of the United States. As the United States and European Union struggled to regain their economic footing after the 2008 economic crisis, the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—continued to rise, with India leading the way. That "Western power will remain intact," wrote Patrick French in India: A Portrait, in 2011, "is an outdated and fantastic view."

But as India travels on this path of progress, masses of Indian citizens are being left behind, and the lands and waters that have sustained India's people for millennia are beyond compromised. Since achieving independence in 1947, India's population has tripled. While a rapidly growing middle class has gained unprecedented material comforts, only a tiny fraction of Indians can afford to shop at the glitzy air-conditioned malls springing up across the country. Today the vast majority of Indians still struggle to meet fundamental daily needs. Six out of ten citizens lack access to clean water, a third live beyond the glow of the electric grid, and less than half have access to a toilet. More than two-thirds of households cook over an open fire, and the food they prepare there is inadequate: nearly half of all children under five are stunted, and the rate of malnutrition currently exceeds that of sub-Saharan Africa.

Sustainable development is said to be the solution, but what does this term mean? How can it help farmers tilling their soil in Punjab or mothers preparing dinner in Maharashtra? How can it affect biodiversity in cities, in wild reserves, and in rural areas?

A catastrophic collapse of the South Asian vulture population led me back to India as a reporter in 2009. The story revealed complex relationships among India's exponentially growing population, the finite resources that sustained them, and religious and cultural circumstances wholly unique to India but echoed around the world. A couple of years later, over a meal of curries with American and Indian friends, the idea of a book devoted to stories of India's land and the people working to sustain it emerged. I would tell five stories, one for each of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether.

Ancient Greek philosophers ruminated endlessly on what constituted the foundation of the physical world. It was Plato who first used the word "element," and Aristotle who classified earth, water, fire, and air as either wet or dry, hot or cold, and added ether to the mix.

In Islam the elements, anāsir, are seen as prime matter, material indivisible, with earth farthest from heaven and fire closest. In ancient Tibetan philosophy, the five elements equate with the five senses, the primary pranas—vital energies—of existence. In Chinese belief systems, the five elements of Wu Xing are seen as ever-changing forces or phases, rather than immutable building blocks of matter.

In Hinduism, India's majority religion, the five elements, called pancha mahabhuta, are described in the Upanishads, ancient Sanskrit texts written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. All are part of prakrti, nature, and all would be expressed in each puja prayer ceremony I witnessed in India as a child, when the smell of flowers and fire would intermingle with the hypnotic sound of chants. The Taittiriya Upanishad places the elements in relation to the divine Brahman with these words, like the series of "begats" in Genesis: "From Brahman arises ākāșa (ether), from ākāșa arises vayu (air), from vayu arises tejas (agni/fire), from tejas arises ap (water), and from ap arises prithvi (earth)."

In all their variations, these elements form the world we all inhabit. They play off each other in an eternal dance of equilibrium. But human impacts have increasingly upended this natural balance. Today, equipoise among the elements is disintegrating, and if these ecological challenges are not tackled creatively, India's economic growth will be crippled, and its people and wildlife will continue to suffer. India has become the staging ground for an experiment in human survival. Can 1.2 billion people, one of every five on earth, inhabiting a mere 2 percent of the world's landmass, learn to live sustainably?

It is only a matter of time before even the most comfortable of countries will face similar circumstances. India's current ecological problems reflect what other nations will be confronting increasingly in the years to come, if they are not facing it already. In the United States, storms such as Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast, withering droughts in California, and forest fires throughout the West are growing ever more frequent and devastating. India's mistakes and successes could provide a map forward for the rest of the world.

Now is the moment when India can choose what direction to take. What inspiration will guide this South Asian nation, as it develops its people and resources? I criss-crossed India in search of answers.

The first element, earth, led me to Karnataka, Punjab, and elsewhere to explore where the human and ecological tolls of the Green Revolution are visible after forty years of intensive chemical agriculture. Water took me to the semiarid landscape of Rajasthan, where dried-up wells are being reinvigorated by villagers who lift their shovels and pickaxes to transform the land. I found the element of fire burning in cookstoves fueled by wood or dung and lit every day in most Indian households. The vultures that no longer flew through the air over India led me to a vulture breeding center in Haryana, a carcass dump overrun by dogs in Bikaner, and the sacred grounds in Mumbai where Parsis once laid out their dead on Towers of Silence for vultures to consume. Ākāșa, space or ether, called me to investigate population growth in Bihar, the state with one of the nation's highest fertility rates and some of its youngest brides.

Yet none of these stories could be confined by the terms I designed for them. To consider farming is to explore water as much as earth. The smoke from wood-fueled fires blackens the air and the lungs of women and girls. Each element led to the next, all inextricably linked.

The challenges facing India provide myriad reasons for despair, and some of the stories I found are more cautionary than celebratory. But in unexpected places I witnessed seemingly powerless people revitalize their environments and their lives. Across the subcontinent I met people who believe a better India is possible: an engineer-turned-farmer brings organic food to Indian plates; the award-winning Rainman of Rajasthan and villagers help a river run again; well-intentioned cookstove designers relentlessly pursue a smoke-free fire; a passionate pair of biologists coax vultures to reproduce; a young woman teaches girls about their bodies and rights as sexual violence erupts across India.

Some experiences only revealed their significance to me months or years later. In the gloaming of an autumn night in Rajasthan, on the way to an interview, I stumbled upon a village ceremony. Forty men sat on a large cloth that lay on the ground between two long rows of houses. The grey relief of the Aravalli hills towered behind them as the last of the day's light singed the sky. A man in his thirties sat before the group as an older man behind him wrapped rounds and rounds of white fabric upon his head. The mass of material fast became an enormous turban of nearly farcical proportions, more than two feet across and a foot and half tall.

The men sitting around me passed around hand-rolled beedis and smoked them. One by one, they handed a few rupees and their own contribution of white cloth to a man who would note it in a record book, and then pass it to the older man, who incorporated the material into the great turban by linking one piece of material to the next, ever winding.

Later, I learned that the younger man's father had died. The community members gathered were passing on the respect they once held for his father onto him. The weight of the cloth on the man's head was immense. He could barely stand when the ritual was over but he was lifted upright with the help of the men of the village. The women who had been standing on the periphery drew nearer, singing. Together, they all led him away downhill and faded like a mirage into the night.

The image stayed with me after I returned to the United States. It haunted me as friends' fathers died, and family and friends died, too. I had never witnessed such a profound expression of the emotional burden one carries upon the death of a parent, but that cumbersome cloth—so precarious, so weighty, almost comic—seemed to represent more.

As I investigated stories of economic progress and of blackouts and gang rapes, the more I experienced what I imagined that man had felt under his heavy burden. I carried the stories of the people I met, and felt the responsibility to share them. The earth also suffers, carrying the load of a precocious species that has proven the ability to despoil every recess of our land, air, and water but also holds the power to create other ways to sustain ourselves, should we choose. Each of us helps to shoulder this weight in some way. We are all accountable to the Earth, humanity, and our shared future. India's burden is particularly heavy. This book is India's story.

There are no miracles in agricultural production.

Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution

Silent Spring

"It looked like sugar." White. Crystallized. Tantalizing. That was Swaram Singh's memory of the first time he saw pure nitrogen fertilizer. "I remember the gram sewak," he said, referring to the village officer, "coming to the house with a cart full of urea, offering it for free." It was like crack for crops.

"Don't take anything they give you for free," Swaram Singh's skeptical grandfather warned. "It's like the tea that the British gave us, and now it's like a drug." But it was the 1960s, and Swaram and his brothers were young men, excited about the new chemistry, modern farming, the potential of a technological future, and the hope of release from the ceaseless cycles of agrarian life.

Swaram was beanpole thin when I met him, dressed in a white cotton kurta and an emerald green turban. His legs were so slender that when crossed, they looped around twice, one foot hooking under the opposite ankle. He was a Sikh, like the majority of Punjabis, many of whom also shared the surname Singh. He had unruly grey-tipped eyebrows, a white beard, and deeply set eyes with irises ringed with the blue of early cataracts. We sat together in the courtyard of his house in Karamgarh, a village his forefathers had established 160 years earlier, southeast of the city of Bathinda, a few hours from the Pakistan border. A neem tree that Swaram's father planted at the family homestead in 1951 to mark Swaram's birth shaded us from the sun, and a creamy white cow that no longer gave milk but remained a precious commodity for its manure stood a few feet away. Swaram's family had farmed for six generations without chemicals, until the carts of urea nitrogen fertilizer arrived on their doorstep.

It was the dawn of the Green Revolution, a post–World War II initiative that introduced widespread use of high-yield, water-intensive, and fertilizer- and pesticide-dependent crops to farmers across Mexico, the Philippines, India, and the world. Factory-made nitrogen, first developed in 1909 by a German chemist named Fritz Haber, captured the elusive element that is essential for plant growth from the air. This synthetic nitrogen proved essential for bomb making during modern wars and for growing food in modern times. It completely transformed agriculture in the twentieth century. So much so that today, almost half of the nitrogen found in the muscle and organ tissue of our bodies originated in a fertilizer factory.

In the beginning, the urea and the aerial sprayings of pesticides cost the farmers nothing, and the hybrid wheat seeds that arrived from the West were subsidized. The government drilled bore wells across the land of Punjab, and water gushed out of pumps run with free government electricity. Farmers had nothing to lose.

Punjab is named for the five rivers that run through her (punj means five and ab is water in Persian): the Jhelum and Chin, the Ravi, the Beas, and the Sutlej. All are tributaries to the mighty Indus River, but collectively they were still not adequate to provide for the needs of Punjab, the breadbasket of India, during the Green Revolution. The boundless irrigation combined with those first applications of synthetic powders worked magic on the fields. Instead of leaving fields fallow, patiently looking skyward for the coming of monsoon rains, farmers planted successive crops, rounding out the days between the wet kharif and dry rabi seasons. Those were heady days, times of growth and promise of more after perennial seasons of famine and near-famine that had visited and revisited South Asia for centuries.

"When grandfather found out what we'd done," Swaram Singh said, "he told us we'd regret it."

International agribusiness companies targeted this small northwestern state forty years ago and today Punjab produces nearly a fifth of the nation's wheat and 42 percent of its rice, though it inhabits a mere 1.5 percent of India's landmass. It also accounts for 17 percent of the country's pesticide use, and now the landscape is as silent as Rachel Carson's unnamed town in Silent Spring, eerily bereft of the mewing calls of peacocks, India's national bird, or the songbirds that were once abundant. In the fields, women and children pluck cotton with nimble fingers for the equivalent of one US dollar a day, while men walk barefoot through the rows with pesticide sprayers lashed to their backs. Where productivity soared for several generations with the thick application of pesticides and fertilizers, yields are now flat.

Since the Green Revolution's arrival in the 1960s, four billion people have been added to the world's population, seven hundred million of them in India—a country that has experienced ninety famines in 2,500 years of recorded history. The last occurred in 1943 in Bengal, when several million people perished. It led Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, to declare soon after Independence in 1947, "Everything else can wait, but not agriculture."

Another specter spurring the Green Revolution was the memory of an India dependent on imported food. In 1967, millions of Indians relied on foreign aid to eat, but by 1991 India was more than self-sufficient in food production, having doubled its agricultural returns during the 1970s and 1980s because of Green Revolution methods. Yields of rice and wheat multiplied. But imports had not ceased. They had merely shifted form. Instead of foodstuffs, India brought in foreign fuel, farm equipment, fertilizers, chemicals, and seeds. The research and development behind each new advance came from outside of India's borders. Is India's much lauded achievement of food self-­sufficiency a deception, her reliance on food imports swapped for an addiction to fertilizers and patented seeds that must be purchased from abroad season after season?

In terms of feeding people, the Green Revolution did work. Its methods quickly became seen as conventional, though there was little that was traditional about them. They provided a level of food security and food sovereignty for the young nation. But at what cost? India holds a fifth of humanity in her embrace. Is it madness to explore alternatives to the package the Green Revolution presented?

The question is urgent. By 2030, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations predicts the world will need to generate 35 percent more calories than we do today just to feed ourselves. Add to that the 2014 prediction by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that crop yields are expected to decline over the next century, some dramatically, as temperatures warm. Relatedly, India's worsening air pollution—skies clouded with black carbon, a chemical element that affects both precipitation and radiation, and ozone, which is directly toxic to plants—has been found to cut wheat and rice yields by half in some places. A changing climate will bring with it both drought and deluge, or dangerous swings between the two, along with even higher temperatures.

The farmers in Punjab are standing at a crossroads. Many maintain that they stepped into a bright technological future, and they refuse to look back. They say that stories about epidemic rates of cancer, polluted waters, and decreasing crop yields are overblown bits of collateral damage in the war against hunger, exaggerated by alarmist media and rabble-rousing activists. But a growing number are turning to organic agriculture, from lifelong farmers who've never left their fields to educated idealists with advanced degrees and romantic agricultural ambitions who have arrived on the land from cities. They are shunning synthetic fertilizers created in factories and seeds spliced with genes in labs, and forgoing chemical controls to keep weeds and pests at bay. Instead, they are choosing to improve the overall fertility of their farms' ecosystems, focusing on good tilth—the fundamental health of the soil—and using biological controls such as natural beneficial predators to fight the pests that threaten their crops.

Could India begin to emerge from its silent spring?

As Pure as Mother's Milk

On July 17, 2013, schoolchildren in the village of Dharmasati Gandawa in Bihar leaned over their stainless steel plates to scoop up the food served by India's school lunch program. India's Midday Meal Scheme feeds 120 million children each day. For many of India's poor, it's the best—and sometimes only—meal they get all day. But to the children in Bihar, the food tasted bad. They complained. One cook alerted the headmistress that the food tasted funny and was told that everything was fine, and so the children were instructed to eat. They obeyed.

Within twenty-four hours, twenty-three of the children were dead and dozens more sickened. Investigations revealed that the oil used to prepare their aloo and rice curry had been kept in a container that once held the agricultural pesticide monocrotophos.

This devastating event in Bihar revealed a nationwide problem that stems from the wide use of biocides in myriad forms, in cities and villages, in homes and fields. India today resembles the United States of the 1950s, an era when chemicals were widely under-regulated, and safety protocols from protective gear to safe handling were nonexistent or minimal and easily disregarded. The poor printing quality of India's pesticide labels often renders specific application and proper use instructions illegible, and with only 63 percent of adults literate, even the clearest directions are often useless. Since some chemicals did help—to reduce pests at home or in a field—it was easy to believe that using more chemicals would help more. Farmers in Maharashtra's Guntur and Warangal Districts sprayed cotton up to thirty times in a season when optimum recommendations suggested half that. If there was native Desi knowledge about how to grow food, it was eagerly jettisoned during the Green Revolution. The memories of famines were too recent, the desire to move forward too strong.

But nearly eighty thousand Indians are now dying annually from the widespread use of pesticide chemicals, many of them developed in the West. From 2004 to 2008, one hospital in Bathinda, Punjab, recorded sixty-one deaths from accidental inhalation of pesticides. But too often pesticide poisoning is a deliberate invitation to death—suicidal farmers ingesting the same chemicals they use on their crops in order to end their lives. Suicide can be a way to escape the crippling debt acquired in the new era of agribusiness, and these deaths have reached epidemic levels. By some estimates, more than a quarter of a million farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995.

Other countries have banned the organophosphate monocrotophos because it has "high acute toxicity," according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which pressured India to bar the use of the pesticide in 2009. India ignored the warning, and the chemical, still legal, proliferates in India.

In 2011, India's agriculture minister Sharad Pawar acknowledged that sixty-seven pesticides prohibited in other parts of the world were widely used in India. Even after a global ban on the manufacture and use of the highly toxic pesticide endosulfan was negotiated under the Stockholm Convention in 2011, India remains its largest producer and consumer. In 2014, the government grudgingly agreed to phase out use by 2017.

These life-altering chemical combinations that humans have introduced to the earth's ecosystem in the past century are everywhere. Studies have detected known carcinogens such as heptachlor and ethion in the blood of Indian citizens. The insecticides endosulfan and malathion have been found, in levels far exceeding WHO standards, in the breast milk of nursing mothers. Other pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), flame retardants (PBDEs), dioxins, and other synthetic chemicals have also been found in breast milk. Many act as endocrine disruptors, which mimic estrogens in the body and initiate a harmful cascade of biochemical changes to the endocrine system, influencing fertility and causing cancer. Some of these modern-day chemicals pass from the mother to the fetus in utero, setting the stage for later-life cancer of the child, or even the child's children another generation down.


  • “This is investigative journalism as story: fact-filled but optimistic, rueful and inviting. The author writes with warm intelligence, and she challenges readers.… In each chapter, as well, Subramanian offers specific antidotes as anecdotes, narrating in a measured, conversational, welcoming voice… Each of the stories is comprehensive while nimble, as well as provocative. Promising prescriptions to five of India's baneful environmental cases—right thinking and accusatory in all the right places.” —Kirkus Reviews

    “The result of her immersion in the efforts of so many dedicated individuals is a hopeful narrative about good people doing hard work to improve the lives of others. Subramanian's strong journalist ethic shines through in the penetrating questions she poses and the baleful eye she casts on those who would shrug off her perceptive observations about the clash between traditional practices and modern life. A significant and valuable inquiry into twenty-first-century India.” —Booklist

    “By embedding numerous facts and data about India's inhabitants into her engrossing narrative, Subramanian has created a work that belongs in all environmental collections.” —Library Journal
  • "Subramanian's writing brings a positive approach to India's problems...Throughout this book, Subramanian takes us on a true journey of learning and she does it in a quiet, thorough, and knowledgeable manner. She educates us on the evolution of the problem and finally, through small narratives of those she met along the way—everyday farmers, wives, volunteer workers, and government employees, we learn of how they have embraced the progressive ideas as ways to save India's ecology." —New York Journal of Books

    “What happens in India may turn out—even more than China—to be the key to the kind of environmental future the planet faces. Very few people are qualified to tell the story with as much clarity, compassion, and character-driven power as Meera Subramanian.” —Bill McKibben, author of Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist

    “This is a necessary book. And Meera Subramanian is the perfect person to be writing it.” —Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

    “A River Runs Again is at once sweeping and intimate—a smart, informative, richly reported book full of memorable characters.” —Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
  • "Meera Subramanian's A River Runs Again tells five tales of India at the crossroads – a filigree of cautionary and celebratory stories – voiced with dignified passion...Subramanian navigates these rough waters between baneful emergencies and precarious signs of enlightened attitudes with the right degree of cautious optimism." —Christian Science Monitor

    “Exemplary...Subramanian's writing is thoughtful and often lyrical as she balances current science with narrative journalism from her travels, switching modes to great effect. While reporting on environmental issues can sometimes overwhelm or burden the reader with guilt, Subramanian thwarts this risk by providing refreshing glimpses of individuals and organizations working against the problems India faces. Her work is engaging, informative, and eminently readable.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

On Sale
Aug 25, 2015
Page Count
352 pages

Meera Subramanian

About the Author

Meera Subramanian is an award-winning journalist whose work has been published in New York Times, Nature, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and elsewhere. She is an editor for Killing the Buddha and earned her graduate degree in journalism from New York University. Subramanian received a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Fellowship for her work on A River Runs Again. She lives on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and can be found at meerasub.org and @meeratweets.

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