It isn’t often that an extensively annotated study of a serious subject receives a great deal of attention and even makes it on to the bestseller lists. But thanks in part to Arundhati Roy, this did indeed happen to Out of This Earth when it was published last year. It has been at the top of my reading list ever since it came out: partly because one of the co-authors, Felix Padel, is an old friend, and partly because the subject – the impact of bauxite mining on the forests and indigenous peoples of Orissa – is of obvious and pressing importance. But this is not a book to be lightly picked up – at 720 pages it is considerably longer than Felix’s great-great-grandfather’s masterwork The Origin of the Species.
The wait was well worth it: Out of This Earth is an amazing book – a monumental exploration of a subject that is of critical importance, not only to the people who are directly affected by aluminium mining, but indeed to all of us (I had no inkling for example, that there may be a connection between aluminium products and Alzheimer’s disease. I have since rummaged through my kitchen, throwing out everything made of aluminium, including foil).
I confess I had no idea of the pivotal importance of aluminium – in the chemical and geological composition of the environment, in finance, in the armaments industry, and indeed, in the political-economy of the contemporary world. Nor did I know that the hidden costs of producing aluminium are twice those of producing steel (each ton of aluminium requires 1,378 tons water).
The book demonstrates that despite all the talk of ‘reform’, ‘competition’ and ‘free markets’, the global aluminium industry is a cartel – and one that was established moreover, through Washington’s active efforts. There are eerie parallels and continuities with Britain’s role in the 19th century opium trade: the East India Company declared war on China in the name of Free Trade even as it was enriching itself through its opium monopoly in Bengal. Although the book does not point to this continuity, it does point to others: ‘India’s economic policy, and to a considerable extent its legislation too, is still controlled from London, as firmly as in the days of the East India Company and Raj, though this power is more hidden now, and operates through financial control and debt.’
Out of This Earth also demonstrates that under the fig-leaf of democracy, a ruthless corporate takeover is under way in India, at a terrible cost to the environment and to ordinary people. ‘Rural India,’ write the authors, ‘is becoming like what rural Nepal was a few years back – a battleground of violent warfare between Maoists and the counterinsurgency forces.’
The book would, I think, have benefited from some tightening: it serves up some unnecessary recapitulations of Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and others, and it sometimes strays very far afield, into explorations of such matters as the true meaning of Advaita-Vedanta and the etymology of the word ‘company’. But on the other hand it wouldn’t be what it is if it didn’t have this digressive, History-of-the-Universe quality, and I for one, found myself cheering when it took a time-out to expose some economists, like Jeffrey Sachs, who are feted in the US as anti-poverty ‘crusaders’ despite having brought ruin upon several countries.
Out of This Earth is, and is clearly intended to be, a deeply disturbing book - yet it is not without many interesting digressions. I was particularly pleased by the many mentions of the great Oriya writer, Gopinath Mohanty: his novel about the forest-dwellers of Orissa, Paraja, is, to my mind, one of the classics of modern Indian literature.
I never had the privilege of meeting Gopinath Mohanty, but a few years ago, while visiting IIT Kharagpur, I happened to meet his son. He told me that Gopinath Mohanty had died some years before, in California, while visiting one of his children. I was both saddened and surprised to hear this – it seemed a strange fate for a writer who was so deeply tied to the soil of Orissa. But the world is indeed a very small place, and this is something that Out of This Earth reminds us of at every turn.