Arati Kumar-Rao and the Rivers of Environmental Change

Jun/15/2021 / by Jacqueline Emigh
Hilsa fishers in the Sundarbans

“Blindly adopting what may be good for the West in India, or even what may work in one part of India in another, has gotten us into the hot water we are in and will likely not stand us in good stead in the future,” said Arati Kumar-Rao, who’s been chronicling the impact of environmental change in India over the past nine years.

In 2012, Kumar-Rao, a former Intel executive and biophysicist, went off on her own into nature with a camera in hand, capturing her surroundings in words and photos.

Since 2014, she has spent much of her time gaining and sharing an understanding of the most populated river basin on Earth: the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna, across India and Bangladesh.

The photographer herself, Arati Kumar-Rao

The Lifeblood of a Land’

“Freshwater is the lifeblood of a land. How we treat our water speaks volumes about our understanding of its importance,” Kumar-Rao tells SEEMA. “Unfortunately, we seem to have a rather poor understanding these days. Rivers — from the source to the sea — affect societies in a million ways. Their health determines our future.” 

“To follow a river and understand how it connects — and therefore affects — societies along its course is to be able to begin to formulate policies that might work,” she says. “It is essential for us to study the river as a basin — as a large intricately connected system — to be able to craft good, meaningful, and appropriate policy.”

Kumar-Rao added the northwesternmost tip of the Indian subcontinent, the Union Territory of Ladakh, to her explorations in 2018, and the western coast of India in 2019.

Powers That Be’ Don’t Always Get It

In projects like The River Diaries and The Fresh Water Trail, she uses a series of vignettes to show how local wildlife and the livelihoods of rural people are connected to environmental events. The include oil spills, deforestation, industrial pollution, mining, declining biodiversity, water diversion through dam construction, and the onslaught of invasive species.

Through her first-hand accounts from the field, readers see fishermen losing their traditional way of making a living, families suffering water shortages and malnutrition, animals struggling against altered habitats, and people sometimes forfeiting the land.

Also in 2019, Kumar-Rao began work on a grant from National Geographic Society to document forced human migration, although the pandemic has paused her fieldwork.

“How we treat our landscapes directly affects livelihood,” she says. “What intrigues me most is how the ‘powers that be’ seem either willfully blind or ignorant about the deep connections between ecology and the economy.”

Siang district in Arunachal Pradesh, India

Early Influences

Kumar-Rao comes to environmental exploration from a varied career and a family background that blended philosophy and activism. In an essay for the Indian Memory Project, she once told about how some members of her family still live in a house built in 1910 by M. Hirayanna, her great-great-grandfather and a professor of Sanskrit. Her ancestor left behind “a priceless legacy in his writings on Indian philosophy – many of which are now textbooks and staples,” she says.

Kumar-Rao told SEEMA about how her own father’s role as an environmentalist sparked her interest when she was growing up in Bangalore. 

“He read to me from works of great land-ethic philosophers like Wendell Berry and Masanobu Fukuoka,” she recalls. “Listening to this, and to my father’s thoughts about how large dams affect landscapes, profoundly influenced the trajectory of my life.”

A photo of a fisherboy

Articles from National Geographic were another early influence. 

“The yellow-bordered magazine would come home each month. I would pore over the stories and imagine myself telling them,” she says.

It Was Time’

After high school, Kumar-Rao earned bachelor’s degree in biophysics in India, and then worked in a university laboratory for a while. Bored with the lab setting and up for new experiences, she took a job as a cub reporter in India with Society magazine. She subsequently traveled to the U.S., where she earned two master’s degrees – in instruction design using multimedia and international business administration – and launched a career in tech marketing.

“Every single thing I have done in life has informed me in some way or another. Each moment has been a teaching moment — and therefore a learning moment,” she says.

Kumar-Rao’s life turned in its current direction when, while working in tech marketing, she suffered a bout of typhus, followed by a relapse of the disease.

“Home and in bed for a couple months gave me ample time to re-evaluate my life choices,” she recalls “It was during this time that I decided to quit corporate life and do what I have always wanted to do — research and tell stories about our land. It was an important decision, as I would be trading in a steady and comfortable paycheck for the uncertainty of the life of a freelance storyteller – but it was time.”

Log collectors

Long-Form Photojournalism

As a writer and photographer today, Kumar-Rao practices what she refers to as long-form photojournalism.

“The news today seems to be full of crash, boom, bang, sink, drown, burn, explode. It speaks of events. There is very little by way of analysis,” she says. “This is particularly true when it comes to environmental issues and that does a terrible disservice to the issue at hand as we tend to focus only on the symptoms of a larger, deeper, and more insidious problem.”

“The problem may even lie spatially or temporally removed from the current ‘event’ or symptom. Unless we slow down, walk back the problem in history, follow the problem upstream and downstream, we will miss opportunities to truly address it.“

With three other journalists, Kumar-Rao co-founded The Peepli Project to further the work of “making connections beyond the headlines” by publishing long-form pieces about the environment.

Pay attention to local needs

In doing her research and telling her stories, Kumar-Rao often finds that the best environmental solutions are not always that mysterious or far away. 

A photo shot in the Sundarbans

“We need to maybe take a step back from the thinking that technology will solve all environmental problems. The solution is often far less glamorous, far less costly, and much more simple than those in power and international banks would prefer,” she explains.

How can other people help out with environmental efforts? 

“If we all pay attention, open our eyes and ears to what is going on around us, take the time to learn about what local needs are and what is appropriate and equitable in that milieu, and raise our voice against injustice or unscientific and inappropriate development, it will be plenty,” she says.

Listen to Yourself

Kumar-Rao advice to other women who are considering leaving the corporate world and blazing their own new trails in their chosen fields of endeavor?

Tongi fisherwomen

“If you have the means, do not let society dictate what you should and should not do. Listen to yourself, listen to what you really want to do,” she recommends. “If it needs upskilling, spend the time to get so good at it that they cannot ignore you any longer, and then go do it. Along the way, embrace people who could use a hand, take them along. Stay humble, keep learning, and never ever let anyone else define who you can be.”

This article appears in the June issue of SEEMA Magazine, check the rest of it out here!