How we're killing India's environment

If the foundation - the legal framework - that secures forests and wildlife is weakened, there is little hope.

 |  5-minute read |   09-01-2015
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The first column at the dawn of a new year should ring in cheer… but well, you wouldn't like me to begin the New Year with untruths, would you? For the wilds there is little to ho-ho-ho about this season. Indeed, our already imperiled wildlife has been presented with a new set of threats, which jeopardise their very future. My "worry-list" could fill a book, but here are a few that are top-of the-mind:

Our suicidal belief that environment is a hurdle to our development and growth: If we believe this, we have to be a nation of morons. Do we want to move around with respiratory face masks as done in Beijing (it's pretty much a fashion accessory there) or would we prefer to breathe clean air? Can we survive for a day - forget a lifetime - without water? And super(wo)men Homo sapiens might be, we still can't manufacture H2O. It is our mountains, forests, nature which give us this gift. It is wetlands and grasslands which replenish groundwater. It is the tiger and other such apex predators that maintain a healthy ecosystem - forests from which flow hundreds of our rivers. It is the dolphins and the gharial and otters which maintain, and thrive in clean rivers which are our lifeline.

Strong business lobbies and politicians have perpetuated this myth of "green hurdles" - as they stand to gain easy control over precious natural resources like water, minerals and land. And so, we are lulled into believing that all such rules and laws that govern clean air, water, soil - that protect wildlife and forests are irritants; that tigers, elephants et al, are pests - and that we need to do away with them so that we can hurtle down the path of growth.

Incidentally, more than 95 per cent of all projects get environment clearances. So, would you still define the environment as a hurdle?

A subset to the above point: the mandate of the ministry of environment, forests and climate change is to protect and conserve environment and forests; and counter climate change. Why then, all we hear is how it will facilitate approvals, remove forest hurdles, invite investment; while conservation finds little mention. We need growth, yes, but with vision, and without trampling on the environment.

The government is poised to overhaul five key laws that govern India's environment, forests and wildlife. A high level committee headed by TR Subramanian was appointed to review the laws, and give recommendations to amend these. The analysis of the report, released end November, requires a separate column; suffice to say while the text is lyrical, the intent, worrying. The overriding objective here appears to enable and facilitate speed in giving clearances for infrastructure, industry etc with the report specifically citing the need to make "doing business easier in the country". Amendments to that effect have been suggested. A new overarching law has been proposed, based on the principle of Uberrima Fides ("utmost good faith") in industry, to assess impacts, self-regulate, monitor and generally believe the fact that they are good boys abiding by the law and saving the environment. Call me one of little faith, but given the dubious past record, this is a sure recipe for disaster.

If the foundation - the legal framework - that secures forests and wildlife is weakened, there is little hope.

There are other policy moves that will harm wild animals - like easing rules for roads, canals, and power lines to cut through forests. The sum total of all this giving clearances in wildlife habitats means that we are pushing wildlife into a corner, until there is simply no room for them to live.

Wildlife Crime: It's big. Smuggling of illegal wildlife derivatives is second only to narcotics and arms - and the three are frequently linked. The scales and nature of the crime - it is known to finance terrorism - has had US President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron take note and commit to help curb the crime. We in India, with a wealth of natural treasures, are failing to take the gravity of the crime on board, and empower institutions and authorities to tackle it. Even as our tigers, elephants, leopards - and lesser known animals like the pangolins are killed and reduced to skins and bones, and sold in South-east Asian markets.

gibus-690_010915020100.jpg The endangered Great Indian Bustard.

Extinction: I would love to be wrong here, but we could well lose some of our mega-fauna very soon. Many species are at a tipping point - the Great Indian Bustard (fewer than 100), Kashmir Stag or the hangul (fewer than 200), the dugong (fewer than 500), the gharial (less than 200 breeding adults). Their populations continue to decline, and successive governments have failed to take the urgent action and initiatives necessary if we want them to remain on Earth. But do we care? I wonder how many readers even know of these species... they are beautiful, and each play a critical role in the ecosystem.

And here is when I get to my greatest apprehension, last but certainly not the least - apathy. Of ignorance, or choosing to be ignorant; of caring, but not going that step further to show we care. It's all very well, to point fingers at the government, but we are equally responsible. The government, especially in a democracy like ours takes its cues from the electorate, the people. If we, the people don't raise our voice, and let our leaders know that rivers, mountains, forests, and wildlife matter, then we simply have no right to do what we do best - blame the politicians.

Writer

Prerna Bindra Prerna Bindra @prernabindra

Though a city-dweller, Prerna Singh Bindra is at home in the forests she is committed to protect. Her book, The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis, was released in June 2017.

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