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Posted at: Dec 3, 2017, 1:53 AM; last updated: Dec 3, 2017, 1:53 AM (IST)

Slow death on the riverbed

Photographer Arati Kumar-Rao says it is important to understand local geographies and work with the land, not against it

Neha Kirpal

Photographer Arati Kumar-Rao says violent conflicts make headlines, but ‘slow violence’ is neither spectacular nor explosive. Slow violence,  a term coined by Rob Nixon, stands for a violence that remains invisible, imperceptible — of the kind inflicted on communities by ecological degradation and climate change. She says it unfolds over temporal scales and its true implications manifest over generations. “People affected by such slow violence die a little, everyday.” And it is these people that Rao documents through her photographs as also her writings.

Rao says she has always been concerned about environmental issues, but she got down to devoting herself to these concerns in 2014. She left her corporate job to follow rivers and life and death along them.

The landscapes she travels in, in the eastern part of the Ganga-Brahmaputra river basin, are being severely degraded by slow structural changes, often by dams and barrages or “development” which occur upstream or downstream of a certain place. Ironically, the people who have to bear the brunt of this degradation are those who depend upon the land and rivers for their livelihood.

“I am telling stories of these people and these landscapes. The real causes of the degradation never make the headlines — only the symptoms, erosion or floods or droughts do. Consequently, only the symptoms get addressed. I want to change that,” says Rao, who recently won the Anupam Mishra Memorial Medal-2017.

Rao says her goal through deep research and extensive documentation is to walk these “symptoms” back into the history of the land. “It is important to realise how temporally and spatially displaced interventions can continue to cause damage years later. I want to highlight the need for keeping upstream and downstream socio-ecological effects of dams, barrages, coal plants, etc., in mind during the planning stages of development and build in such a way as to not deny millions of people their livelihood.”

She visits and revisits places. “The only way to be effective in such documentation is if I revisit places over time and see how changes are affecting lives and biodiversity.”

We ask her if she feels nature treats us the way we treat nature... and she, kind of, agrees. “If we build against nature — which is the kind of building that is happening all over the world now — we are going to regret it down the road. It is immensely important, now more than ever, to understand local geographies and work with the land, not against it,” says Rao. 

The one lesson that she learned from the work that late environmentalist and water conservationist Anupam Mishra did in Rajasthan is that “if you respect the land and nurture the bond with it, you can ride out the worst of times.”

But does she see people learning the lessons? “There are pockets of people seeing the light and walking towards it, all over India. There are also those who refuse to see. We just need to make sure that the former outnumber the latter.”

A contributor to major national and international magazines, Rao likes to call herself a slow journalist. While she has begun working on her first book about environmental degradation, she will be continuing with what she is doing. “I follow stories over time. I will be working on documenting the Ganga-Brahmaputra region for many years to come.” 

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