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Open fight over sustainability

May 30, 2013 15:49 IST

Millions of people are still struggling to meet their basic needs for food, water and livelihoods and eco-systems are also being devastated, both by industry and competition for survival at the base of the economy, notes Rajni Bakshi

Indian flagWhile the violence of guns gets more media attention the war between votaries of sustainable development and those who favour rapid industrial growth rages on.

One of the most heated arenas of this confrontation is currently the Western Ghats.

Last week, the renowned ecologist Madhav Gadgil issued an open challenge to Dr K Kasturirangan, a Member of the Planning Commission who looks after science-related matters.

Kasturirangan is the former head of the Indian Space Research Organization.

In an open letter to Kasturirangan, Gadgil has sharply articulated how much we have to lose if we do not opt for policies that foster sustainable development.

In a study done for the Ministry fo Environment and Forests, Gadgil and other ecologists had advocated a graded approach with a major role for grass-roots level inputs to safeguard the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats.

Instead, says Gadgil, Kasturirangan is advocating that roughly one-third of the Western Ghats be retained as a natural landscapes while two-third is thrown open to development including mining projects.

“This amounts to attempts to maintain oases of diversity in a desert of ecological devastation” writes Gadgil in the open letter.

“Ecology teaches us that such fragmentation would lead, sooner, rather than later, to the desert overwhelming the oases.

"It is vital to think of maintenance of habitat continuity, and of an ecologically and socially friendly matrix to ensure long term conservation of biodiversity rich areas, and this is what we had proposed.”

Above all, Gadgil is disturbed that Kasturirangan’s report “shockingly dismisses our constitutionally guaranteed democratic devolution of decision making powers, remarking that local communities can have no role in economic decisions.”

For instance, while the Government has not acted against the illegal pollution by industries already in the area, it has deployed police to deal with peaceful protests against pollution.

These are not merely skirmishes in the war between sustainability and heedless economic growth. Such confrontations take on a special significance because the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals reach their end-point in 2015.

The global community is now in the process of working out a framework that will replace, and hopefully enhance, these goals.

The purpose of this exercise, being undertaken within each country, is to design development frameworks that can more effectively raise standards of living and also ensure ecological sustainability.

At present India is losing out on both tracks -- human well-being and sustainability.

Millions of people are still struggling to meet their basic needs for food, water and livelihoods and eco-systems are also being devastated, both by industry and competition for survival at the base of the economy.

The consensus at last year’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as ‘Rio+20’, was that the world will do better if ecological sustainability is made the basis for growth.

This would mean that people have equitable access to nature and natural resources -- in ways that ensure conservation, make ecosystems more resilient, provide adequate food, water, energy, and homes.

‘Development and Ecological Possibilities for the Post-2015 Framework’ an Oxfam report by the ecologist Ashish Kothari has made recommendations for achieving these goals.

Kothari recommends that both the Indian government and civil society should, among other things:

  • Make an assessment of various visions and frameworks being proposed globally so that India can learn, adopt, and evolve its own framework.
  • Consolidate information already available on trends in sustainability and unsustainability.
  • Initiate public discussions and consultations, involving all sections and in particular local communities in rural and urban areas.

Of course, as Kothari concludes, creating such a comprehensive framework of sustainability is easier said than done.

Some of the key obstacles identified by Kothari are:

  • Despite the enormous strides in science, the understanding of ecological dynamics remains limited.
  • There is a chasm between modern and traditional knowledge, which prevents the insights and information of the latter from being available to today’s decision makers.
  • Current political governance systems mostly centralize power in the hands of a few and there is an inbuilt resistance to major change in centralized political systems.
  • At present, corporations make enormous profits from the currently unsustainable economic system, coupled with their hold on most nation-states and their lack of accountability to the public.
  • There is public apathy towards ecological issues.

Gadgil’s open challenge to a senior member of the Planning Commission must be seen in this light. Gadgil, who has received many international awards and also been conferred both a Padmashri and a Padma Bhushan by the President of India, is known for his calm and considered views.

He is not a man given to exaggeration.

So alarm bells should be rung when Gadgil writes that current government policies remind him of how some British agents used to claim that that India's sacred groves were merely a contrivance to prevent the East India Company from claiming its 'rightful property', namely our forests.

It would appear, Gadgil writes in the conclusion of his letter to Kasturirangan, “that we are now more British than the British and are asserting that a nature friendly approach in the cultural landscape is merely a contrivance to prevent the rich and powerful of the country and of the globalised world from taking over all lands and waters to exploit and pollute as they wish while pursuing lawless, jobless economic growth.”

Rajni Bakshi