Kirti Manian (1.09): Hi Arati, a big welcome to you. We are super excited to have you with us.
Arati Kumar-Rao (1.13): Hello…it’s great to be here (laughs)
Kirti Manian (1.17): Please tell us a bit about how your career reached this part. You started off as a biophysicist. How did you get from there to becoming an extraordinary story teller?
Arati Kumar-Rao (1.28): It’s funny you know, growing up in India, that time we did not have the option of taking a Science and an Arts stream simultaneously or doing some combination of it, and so I had to choose between my love for Biophysics and a love for writing… I chose Physics. But after I completed my Masters, started working in a lab and I knew that it was not for me. And I actually quit overnight and went looking for a job & there was a magazine…a glossy magazine in Bombay at that time called Society, I think it’s still there. And the editor there just gave me a chance…like yeah, ‘Join from Monday’. So… (Laughs) I was happy and it ended up being an amazing learning for a year, you know. On the job, I was a cub reporter but it made me realize it’s exactly what I wanted to do, you know. So that was the switch!
Kirti Manian (2.20): That’s really good. You are now a Nat Geo Explorer- can you tell us more about the grant and where it has taken you? What challenges have you faced during the course of this grant?
Arati Kumar-Rao (2.35): Sure. I wandered a bunch since those days from Society. I went to the US and I was in corporate life for 10 years and came back here, and I was in a corporate here as well. And then I decided it was time for me to do what I really loved. So I quit my job and then I had to start from scratch because nobody knew me and I knew nobody and I didn’t have a body of work. And, so I had some savings from my corporate life and I ended up using all of it…blowing all of it (Laughs), going into the field and building a body of work. And I had decided early on that I was interested in reporting on under-reported issues that have to do with the environment, especially fresh water issues. And the reason I chose that was because I was privy right from childhood to raucous debates between my dad and uncles about the demerits of large dams. My father being wholeheartedly against it. And I kind of knew that there was a lot happening in that area in the world but also very much in India. I knew that I wanted to report on rivers and how we treat our fresh water bodies because they really are our lifeline.
And so I started going to the desert…that’s an odd place to pick, but I knew that there was a very ancient method of rainwater harvesting that was being resurrected in the desert. And so I started visiting the desert, I went there every month for about a year and half and I learnt the rhythm of the desert. And that’s when I realized that some of these stories… these stories that I have to do with the environment are slow burn and they are not something that I can go for a week to some place to report on. It has to be followed over time and it has to be followed over a season…sometimes over a year to understand what’s happening to the land. And I made a conscious decision to be a slow journalist and what that means basically stick with a subject, may be just one story but stick with it, until you can understand the implications.
Why we got to where we are, where we are going from here and so that was really important for me and I kept doing that… I think I stuck with it for about 5 years. This was 2013, that I went, started going to the desert and about 2018 is when I wrote for a grant and I got it and before that I wrote for many grants, (laughs) didn’t get it. So, it’s been tough five to six years. Then when I got this grant, it just opened the lot of doors, and that, that I think is really amazing, you know in terms of just how much you can reach out to people, when you know you have National Geographic behind you.
Kirti Manian (5.11): So, you talked about slow journalism and most of your articles veer towards this long form journalism. Do you think this is the right way forward for the average guy on the street to get to grips with the climate change narrative, so to speak?
Arati Kumar-Rao (5.25): You know, that’s a very good question and I must say that while yes, I do long form journalism, I am very active on Twitter and Instagram and on Facebook and so on. So, I completely realize that not everybody…a) is going to read in English and b) is going to read four thousand words or two thousand words, or whatever it is… right?
Moreover, there are so many things, so many tools today that are available to storytellers where we can actually bring so many aspects of the story out using those tools. Photography, videos, all of that. So, I don’t limit myself to words, I never have. I have always gone with the visual side of storytelling as well as the written- the literary, narrative, non-fiction side of it. And they have always been together. So even now, when I go out to do a story, I am doing both or all three things including video. And it’s really hard (laughs) because I usually work alone. But I can’t see myself doing it in any other way for two reasons.
One is there is a visual overload today. Everybody has so many images, but we are also…I am talking about extremely nuanced and scientific topic which is the environment, climate change and all of that. And very often one photograph misleads the viewer. People can think that something is happening, when really what’s happening is something very different. And so combining media, combining words, video, and photography, and art, and art too to reach as many people as possible is my goal. It’s not just one or the other.
Kirti Manian (7.06): So you talked about social media & visuals right? Visuals play such a big role, especially on social media. Like you said it’s just one photo right and then how you interpret it kinda becomes the story.
Do you think people can, you know, get visual fatigue like say, especially when you talk about the environment? And we’ve repeated images of every year - there is potentially a flood that happens in lots of corners of the planet. And it's the same images that get thrown at them, do you think people get tired of this?
Arati Kumar-Rao (7.34): Again, an extremely good question. That’s why you need slow journalism because the floods are happening, but the floods are a symptom of a problem. You are only seeing something that’s caused by something probably spatially and temporally very far removed from the flood itself, the actual event itself. And this quick social media post and get out kind of the culture, it floods us with the images but it doesn’t give us context. It doesn’t give us the depth of the knowledge that you need to understand what is happening.
That’s why I have tried very hard...I rarely post pictures of floods but if I do post a picture of flood, it’s very clearly why this is happening you know, I make sure I say that or even point to structures that are the cause of floods or just policies or things like that, that are the causes of flood. Polar bears, I mean yeah, everybody knows that Ice caps are melting, yes but climate change is much more than the ice caps melting. It does have for e.g something simple, right if you look at the X amount of rainfall that falls in ‘A’ place in Karnataka where I live, the total amount of rainfall in a year has not changed. So everybody is saying, ha so what?
But it’s the pattern, the rain has started falling when they are not cultivating crops. It’s not falling, when they are cultivating crops, that’s when they need the rain. So while the total amount of rainfall falling in ‘A’ place is the same, the patterns have changed, and so it’s really hurting life. And that also a climate change. That is climate change. And so, the kinds of photographs, and I feel a lot of that is because of, maybe the narrative is controlled by a certain group of people, or a certain geography which is why we see certain things over and over again. But if we look and do the homework for where we are, and see how climate change is affecting us over here in myriad ways…so many ways.
Trees in Bangalore are flowering so way out of time and out of whack, with what they normally flower, you know. The same thing is happening in other parts of the world and our country as well which all have implications for fruiting, for birds and for migration of animals, for lots of different things. And so there are lots of aspects to climate change. And the same thing, that’s pushed by a few very well-known media outlets and people almost does a disservice, because yes it does cause fatigue. People just roll their eyes when they hear climate change. But, you know it’s going to affect where your next lentils or rice comes from or doesn’t come from, you know.
Kirti Manian (10.14): Yeah
Arati Kumar-Rao (10.15): It’s important to understand that, I think all of us story tellers need to do a better job in broadening the discussion and bringing in more voices and photographs from different places and really getting to the crux of why some of this is happening and what we can do about it.
Kirti Manian (10.34): So, in terms of that, what do you think about the quality of the climate narrative being reported in India, in the media and is there something you would like to change about that?
Arati Kumar-Rao (10.43): (Laughs)…yes, lots of it! (Both laughs) I would like to change it all. You know again, lots of aspects to it, there is red and there is the whole concept of green energy, and then coal, and you know all of that right, as well as the other things we spoke about how climate change is affecting life on the ground.
But even these other things like oh, we have to plant trees. Those are bumper sticker slogans… you know, trillion trees whatever. On ground, a) something like that is extremely detrimental and b) our milieu where we are - India, we have so many different ecosystems, and you can’t for example plant trees on grasslands and expect it to be okay. That is absolutely wrong and that’s not how it works. So, understanding what’s happening, what’s right for our country and not just our country as a whole. For e.g. what’s right for may be Gujarat is not right for Rajasthan even though the neighboring places because you have biogeographic regions that change between those two states.
So, understanding the land, understanding our geographies and reporting from that space then is far more the meaningful than just… oh, yeah we have to decrease our carbon footprint and therefore we go and cover ¾th of the deserts with because its wasteland first of all, you target the desert because its ‘wasteland’ which it isn’t and you cover it with solar panels and think that you have done a great thing. But you know that you have destroyed an ecosystem in the process or you have taken over land from people-pastoralists who now don’t have a livelihood because their grazing lands have gone.
So there are so many aspects to this that we need to pay attention to that I feel we are not paying attention to.
Kirti Manian (12.25): Was Sundarbans kind of a starting point, or is it something that’s happened through the course of your journey. Your images from there, they feel so profound to me. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Arati Kumar-Rao (12.40): Sure, Sundarbans came because I was working around rivers. And I had decided to concentrate on the Ganga Brahmaputra Basin. And the delta of that largest basin in the world is the Sundarbans. So that’s how it happened and I first went to Sundarbans on the Bangladeshi side and it was breathtaking. The whole place, it blows your mind away. And then a few months after that visit was when the oil spill happened in Sundarbans. So I had to go back to Bangladesh because I wanted to see what had happened to all of these places that I had just seen a few months ago which was just beautiful. And then it was painted with this black stripe of thick oil.
So yeah, Sundarbans was almost like a large part of my river diaries which is still continuing work and documenting the basin and how changes are affecting the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin. There are again so many aspects to Sundarbans that most people going there as tourists and wanting to see the Sundarbans tigers… the Bengal tiger, that’s in the Sundarbans, they don’t even realize the kind of place they are in and how treacherous it is and how people try to eke out a living in that region. It’s again many-faceted. It’s something that I will continue doing for probably the rest of my life and have lifelong friendships with people who’ve lost so much to the tiger and to government policies and everything. So, it’s something I will continue doing and it’s not a story that’s over for me. It’s a crazy place, you know we think it’s so beautiful, but it can be so treacherous as well.
Kirti Manian (14.13): One of your # on Twitter, I noticed it yesterday, where you say #RiversAreNotPipes. Can you elaborate a wee bit more on this please? Does this relate specifically to state policy or is it happening overall in India?
Arati Kumar-Rao (14.32): Yeah, it’s happening overall in India. It’s the whole river linking policy where we assume that one river in the north of the country is the same as another river in the south of the country and you can join them with a pipe or canal and everything is okay. And the whole concept of surplus water in a basin, and that water should not go waste to the sea. All of these things are concepts that are flawed.
If you ask any hydrologist worth his salt or any ecologist worth her salt, anybody who has done work and understood the land, they will tell you that this is completely misguided, what’s happening in India. And I think that particular hashtag was born out of this news that Karnataka wanted to divert its west flowing rivers into lakes and every village have a lake which is fed by river water and it’s such a flawed concept because where does the river get its water from? It gets it from rain right, and this rain is stuff that falls to varying degrees in many places, and we can do very well, trying to catch the rain that falls on our land, to catch every drop that falls on our land and be self-sufficient, decentralized in that sense with water supply but be very happy with the amount of rain that South India gets.
And so this very notion of taking one river somewhere, diverting it and bringing the water somewhere else a) it's causing a lot of destruction to the ecosystem that the the river is in and b) it can create havoc with even the ecosystem that it’s coming to, for e.g the whole Indira Gandhi Canal which is again a huge pipe, if you think about it in that way, which is diverting Himalayan water which is from the Satluj from Punjab at Harike, all the way down to Jaisalmer and what has ended up happening is a) there is not enough water to reach Jaisalmer b) the agriculture in Jaisalmer due to that kind of - the soil is experiencing salinity and water logging because that’s not supposed to be in that way, the desert was never meant for that kind of agriculture. And c) the district that had never seen a mosquito is now the highest incidence of malaria in Rajasthan because of water that has come there from, you know, putrid water/stagnant water, there is not enough water to be replenished, all kinds of problems right?
This is just one instance. It plays out everywhere, all over the country. And it’s basically because we are not understanding what the function of the river is. You are saying that you should not let river water go waste to the sea, how do you think your fish nurseries which are estuaries are going to thrive if you take all the freshwater that comes in from the river?
And a much worse example is… take the Sundarbans for e.g Sundarbans is sinking. We call it climate change and sea levels rising. But there is a much bigger problem. There is a dam upstream which is diverting water to fields and stuff like that which is also holding back the silt which is what builds deltas. With every season of flood, it brings the silt and drops it on the delta, so that the delta can fortify itself from the sea and storm surges. But now we are withholding the silt, withholding the fresh water, so of course it’s becoming more saline and its sinking. And then, we blame climate change. So, climate change is also becoming this convenient scapegoat when the proximal cause of many of these issues is man-made policies and man-made things, structures like dams and so on…and diversions.
So rivers are not pipes, that’s a big thing for me. And it’s also you know, again comes back to this fundamental, very engineering outlook. Maybe this thing works for Europe. Maybe the Rhine and the Thames and all of those rivers, they are not silt carrying rivers which our subcontinent has. And so maybe this is the kind of system that the British thought would work is good for them but it’s not good for us. It behoves us to start thinking about how our land work, what’s good for our resilience, you know in the face of looming climate change.
Kirti Manian (18.38): Very, very interesting indeed! I am going to move a little bit away and you did slow walking with Paul Salopek, so that seemed like a challenging yet fun. And were there any instances that stand out from your time spent with him?
Arati Kumar-Rao (18.53): Oh, yeah…summing everything (both laugh). First of all, we decided to start walking through the Indian desert…the Thar Desert during summer. So we were walking at 49 degrees for 3 days, and so all of that was really interesting. But more than that, I think, meeting Paul who is a two time Pulitzer Prize winner and you know extremely well regarded in the journalism circles and as an explorer. He is a National Geographic fellow.
I think spending time with him, I learnt how accessible, even people like, I mean people who were at the top of the game can be, and how humble they are and how open they are to experiences. And there have been numerous instances when we’d be walking and things would happen and we look at each other and we realized that we are joined by this…because he is a white guy and I am Indian girl, I mean we are completely different, right. Our experiences through the same landscape even was very different. Our observations were very different.
But there were these times, when the things would happen, you know just exchange glances and know that all kind of joined in one massive fabric of humanity which you know, there’s this commonality between us and how we perceive the world. And that I think was, was beautiful. Even today, I mean, I was supposed to speak to him yesterday, but I could not make it, you know. It’s when we pick up the phone, it’s like we never left off, you know. Walking through a landscape a day in and day out, we did 600 kms through Punjab and Rajasthan together and then another 100 in Manipur. I think that kind of forges a bond, of shared experiences that’s like no other. And you also are walking through a landscape and you get to really understand it. And I think it opened my eyes to what those landscapes are… and how the people who live there, you know.
We went through places that you would never see in the news and sometimes, were not even on Google Maps. And so the people are like… “how would we go from here”?. We actually walked through dunes, over dunes and places. We used to ask people and they were like “why are you guys here, you know. You should be on a main road”. We were like ‘no, no no, who don’t want to be on the main road. We are happy being off the road, but tell us how to get to some place. And there were places that they had never seen a white guy since Independence.
Kirti Manian (21.15): Oh my god!
Arati Kumar-Rao (21.15): Yeah, so it was fabulous. That experience, of seeing your country through his lens but also seeing your country like you would never have seen it otherwise. Who’s going to walk all the way from Wagah to Jaipur, you don’t do that every day and it was just invaluable … taught me so much!
Kirti Manian (21.34): And how did people take this idea of slow walking like when you, if you met people and you talked about it. I mean, even if you say slow journalism or slow walking, by definition- it’s understood it’s going to take time. So how do people… especially given like, now everything is instantaneous, you want everything instantly……?
Arati Kumar-Rao (21.55): So for e.g we’d be in this village and we would ask them how to get to the next village and they say,
Villagers: Yahan se chale jaao (take this route and go ahead)
Arati and Paul: We were like nahi nahi, kitne kilometres hain (no no, how far is it from here kilometre wise?)
Villagers: Gaadi aayegi abhi, pakad lo aur jao (The vehicle will come now, you can get it from here)
Arati and Paul:Naheen, paidal jaana hai (No, we would prefer walking)
Villagers: Then they would look at us and say, Faridkot tak paidal jaana hai?!! (You want to walk to Faridkot!!!??)
Then we were like yes(!) and they would be like, they would look at each other and think we are like absolute idiots. Because there was Paul, there was me, there was our little donkey Raju and there was the donkey handler. And they would look at us like where have these people come from, what are they doing?
There was one time when we didn’t yet have Raju with us. It was just Paul and I walking. We just reached this place and there was no hotel. It was a really tiny village in Punjab and there was no hotel or anything. And they said yeah, the hotel is in Firozpur. And we said, how far is Firozpur? It was about 12 km away and it was dusk already. And they said, yeah just take a taxi and go. We said, no…no no we can’t take a taxi, because we are walking. We’ll have to walk there and we can’t do another 12 kms. Then, they looked at us and why would you have to walk to Firozpur? They were like, there are so many buses, (laughs) there are so many taxis. I can get my motorcycle, …we can take you anywhere you want. (laughs)
I think people found the whole concept of walking from place to place in such a time, ridiculous. But it was also funny. Because we were walking and then there would be a car that would drive along side for us for a while and say are you sure you are okay. Do you need any help? Can I get you anything? There would be people who would drive ahead to the dhaba and bring us back water, bring us back juice, you know.
Kirti Manian (23.27): Wow!
Arati Kumar-Rao (23.27): So I think, while on one hand, people thought that we were absolutely dumb/crazy, they almost adopted us and they wanted to look after us. It was really nice. So, yeah, it was … I think the whole concept of walking through a landscape is alien, because of how car brained we’ve become. That’s the very Paul Salopek word. He calls everybody car brained (both laughs).
But it’s also how much we miss when we go in a car, you know. How much you see when you’re walking… you slow down and to a story teller, that is invaluable…its invaluable. If anybody asks me today, what is your advice to somebody starting out in story-telling. I would tell them to buy a pair of walking shoes.
Kirti Manian (24.09): Hmm…invaluable advice (laughs)!
Arati Kumar-Rao (24.12): Yeah, it really is. I mean it has to. You just have to do it that way, if you want to understand a place or a story.
Kirti Manian (24.19): It sounds wonderful! It’s absolutely wonderful! So we heard that you are working on your first book. Are you allowed to talk, you know about it?
Arati Kumar-Rao (24.25): A little bit… yes. It’s just more of what I do i.e move through landscapes and see how things have changed and so on. If all the stars are aligned and I do my work (both laugh)../. If my editor is hearing this, she is going to be rolling her eyes because I’ve already bought more time off her. But, yeah it should be out towards the end of this year or early next year the latest.
Kirti Manian (24.53): Sounds brilliant. So you also co-founded the PP project. What were the project’s origin? And you know, I am sure our listeners would like to know more about that.
Arati Kumar-Rao (25.02): Yeah, so my editor Prem Panicker, I met him again on social media… all of my work has come through social media. All of my contacts, my sources almost everything has been through social media…so I really, I am quite wedded to the medium (laughs). But you know when he and I met way back in 2012… late 2012. I had told him that what I want to do is tell stories on the human pace of life. And he at that time had thought- ’what’? He was then the editor of Yahoo and he however when 2013 dawned, and I went Rajasthan for the first time, I called him from there and said, ‘you know I can’t come back with the story right now. I need to come back to this place over and over to be able to see it’. He said how long do you think that's gonna take? I said probably a year. And he said… Hmm… (Both laugh).
So I said, no give me this chance! And he said I will publish it whenever your story is ready. So I of course, spent the money out of pocket but in that process, mine through Rajasthan and afterwards River Diaries, where Yahoo commissioned me to do River Diaries, we both realized that you cannot really tell what is happening in a country if you don’t stick with something. It’s almost like beat reporting, when you go out and if you are looking at one topic over time, to see how things are shaping up. And Peepli is the essence of that.
So we had 3 of us, Rahul Bhatia, Kalyan Verma and I, who were out in the field doing our work but essentially, concentrating on one topic…one large topic but looking at how various communities and ecosystems negotiated their lives through time, you know. So, we realized that if policy makers want to understand something, they need to know where we have come from, you know. So what’s the history of this place and that’s the right way to do it.
So we really wanted to build a robust site with about 4-5 vectors - ‘Fresh Water’ was one, Kalyan’s ‘Nature Without Borders’, which is human and wild animals relationship in India, that’s a big one. And development which was Rahul’s forte and then build it up to, you know, include law and women’s issue and public health and so on. And then be able to start seeing how the picture builds of what India is because you are going to start finding for example my work on fresh water is going to intersect with health, is going to intersect with women, is going to intersect with laws, is going to intersect with nature.
You are going to find these patterns coming out and we really wanted an in-depth reporting medium where it’s not just one day, one lake is on fire and you scream about it and you forget about it for 3 years, that kind of thing. You follow, you follow and see what’s happening to actually effect change -that was our goal.
But that kind of reporting, you know where you are day in and day out in the field for months together and you still probably not publishing but you want to come back to tell a story... There are very few outlets like National Geographic does things like that, where it sends out the reporter for a year or two and then they come back with a story. So you need a lot of resources to be able to make that happen and unfortunately that’s where we ran up against the wall because we could not find funding.
But I think, India, given where it is and what it wants to achieve, we really need to understand the issues deeply and for that ….that kind of journalism is imperative.
Kirti Manian (28.28): Has any of your work kind of impacted policy or has it impacted the people, like you know people have come up and said because of what you have done that this has happened. Has that scenario ever happened with you?
Arati Kumar-Rao (28.39): It’s in varying degrees. Those things take time. And I think if Peepli had continued and we had stuck with it, there would have been quite a few those kinds of issues able to point to and say this has happened but I do know that for e.g. my stories around rain water harvesting in Rajasthan were deeply appreciated by the people. Because they understood what’s happening and they started realizing what they can do in their own places and very decentralized. The person who came up to me was in Delhi. But they understood how they can apply it in their own lives and there was a TED talk I did which again you know… I kind of connected what was happening in Rajasthan, also applies to maybe what’s happening in Bangalore where water is going dry. A lot of those things, you see resonating in people and things happening to effect change.
In terms of policy itself, I think Peepli came in 2015 and we have had a new government in 2014 onwards. I think it’s been a different kind of trajectory that they are on and it’s going to be an uphill task to be able to influence policy in a big way. But I think little wins, even in terms of consumer habit change or understanding of an issue and therefore an NGO taking up something somewhere else, a lot of those kinds of things we are seeing, because of such reporting. Kalyan has seen it happen with his elephant’s story for example and so on.
So I think little changes yes, but to affect big policy…that’s our dream and I think we need the backing of you know Propublica or something where you can actually go out and do something with. And not be afraid of running out of budget. Be able to tell the story in a way that makes people sit up and not ignore it anymore.
Kirti Manian (30.25): Going with that, what do you think, Indian audiences need to understand much better about what’s happening with the environment and climate change. Is there anything unique about what’s happening regarding climate change in India?
Arati Kumar-Rao (30.36): What we need to understand, is I think, what is right for the West may not be right for us. And the fact that we need to have the intellectual honesty to look at what our land is saying to us. So for e.g growing paddy in Punjab is not necessarily a good idea. Growing sugarcane in parts of Karnataka which are semi arid-dry land is not a good idea.
So, I would love for the Indian audience to ask questions, you know, not just to adopt. For e.g. someone says let's plant a billion trees and everybody goes and says… oh yeah, let's plant a billion trees and save the Kaveri. And, let’s ask questions, is that a right thing, let’s listen to science, let’s listen to the scientists who are in the field who are working. Let’s try and understand or sift the propaganda from what’s real and what’s true. If we can ask those questions and begin to ask those questions and not just take what somebody who is very powerful, or very rich or somebody you think is somebody who can be believed… instead of blindly believing them, just question everything. I think we really need that right now!
We are living in odd times, you know where news is, can be true, it can be completely fabricated, it can be somewhere in between. I think if we give up that scientific temper that we should all have in terms of asking –why or where...let’s just go and dig up three more sources, go and dig up, do a little bit more research to understand things. I think it will help us in the long run.
Kirti Manian (32.12): Lastly any last words, for our listeners. Is there something that we should be doing… maybe it's on social media or maybe it's on the ground, what would you suggest?
Arati Kumar-Rao (32.24): Yeah, I think, I would just say that don’t lose your connection with the earth because the minute you start believing that your water comes out only out of a tap and it’s not connected to say something far away in Coorg, you are going to lose the plot. So, I think you know just following things back to origins, just understanding the connectedness of the world and how we connect to each other and to various things. The destruction of a single animal/insect somewhere could very much affect what you eat you know, what comes on your table. So connections I think…you know make those connections and understand that you know if you change one thing in some place, be sure it’s going to affect a whole host of things because everything is connected.
Kirti Manian (33.14): Thank you so much Aarti. I have had a wonderful time talking to you.
Arati Kumar-Rao (33.18): likewise Kirti…likewise (both laughs)
Kirti Manian (33.21): Thank you so much.
Next cohort starts
* If you work at a non-profit, let us know when you apply