The Millennium Special

The Past

The Present

Bittu Sahgal Bittu Sahgal

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The environmentalist on the threats to our environment

I have major ambitions for India. I want better health for millions, cleaner water, better nutrition, a strong economy, faster movement of goods from one end of India to the other, lesser commuting time within mega-cities, more power production, less garbage, smiling children and a strong, self-reliant economy. But doesn't every politician and economist claim to have similar ambitions?

Before concluding this piece, I will share some of the realistic solutions that environmentalists and social scientists have to offer and will contrast these with the unrealistic manner in which transparently self-serving planners operate.

I must add here that I also want tigers, elephants, snow leopards, whales, dolphins and birds and butterflies of a thousand hues to thrive in India… as they once did. Rather than using GDP levels, inflation, or stock markets, I believe our long-term economic interests would be best served by ensuring that we use good ecology as a compass to chart our national development directions. This would deliver us those all-elusive targets -- health for all, equity, self-sufficiency and national pride.

India was a land of sparkling rivers, productive soils, rich forests and shining coasts. We really had it all. On the cusp of a new millennium it is time to step back and take stock. Have we managed our assets well? By converting much of our natural heritage to oil, chemicals and concrete, are we leaving our nation in a better state for our children?

Such emotive issues actually require unemotional debate. On the eve of a new century, we need to examine the course in which our development destiny is taking us so that we can correct our course in the entirely possible event that we are drifting far from where we imagine we are headed. Please view in this light the views I express below are some of the most misunderstood developmental issues with which our nation grapples.

Assets as heritage: What constitutes a nation's real assets? I would list productive soils, clean rivers and wells, a moderate climate, fish-stocked seas and lakes and forested lands are prime among our assets. But most economists seem to disagree. If you take them to the Kanha Tiger Reserve, they will take out their little calculators and say that the entire 2,000 sq km forest adds only $ 5 million to our GDP because that is the sub total of the value of the timber extracted from here to build roads, the tourism billing and the amount paid to forest guards. This figure is multiplied many times over just two kilometres from the tiger reserve where a beetle infestation of sal trees prompted the Madhya Pradesh government to cut down millions of valuable trees! So? Is this how economists's calculators work? That unless you destroy an asset, you can't claim that the nation has developed?

The concept of assets as heritage is lost on economists and the businessmen and politicians who use them to meet their own narrow ends. This is the root of my grouse with them and I am in search of individuals of all persuasions who are willing to sit over the next few years to resolve small and large conflicts so that we can bring harmony and united purpose to national development. In the process, I pray, the tiger will survive and all children will flourish.

But first our differences.

Green Revolution: A myth. It has browned our bread-basket, the Punjab and Haryana. More than 50 per cent of the flood-irrigated soils of this region are about to go out of production. Many mothers in Punjab feed newborn infants 40 times the level of DDT considered safe by the World Health Organisation, WHO.

The Green Revolution was conceived with the lofty purpose of ridding the world of hunger forever. In less than three decades the wisdom of a thousand years (traditional farming), which was based on respect for soils and seeds, was overrun by agro-industry which 'mined' soils through the application of mega-doses of water, fertilisers and pesticides.

'Super seeds' were now genetically engineered. These produced more bulk, but were weak and prone to pests and disease. The Green Revolution has started to turn dirty brown because of water logging, soil salinity and pesticide poisoning. The original idea was to bring water to soil to improve its productivity, but this has turned out to be a tragic joke because food irrigation in poorly drained soils has served merely to kill the very soils it was meant to enrich.

Today organic farming is starting to make a comeback, but institutions like the World Bank and their co-conspirators -- the large pesticide, seed, and fertiliser multinationals, are fighting such trends by backing ill-conceived projects like the Narmada, which threatens to poison the citizens of Gujarat and send India into an eternal debt trap.

Greenhouse Effect: Balance gone wrong -- a lethal byproduct of the Industrial Revolution. The earth's climate is affected by a complex mix of factors including solar radiation, atmosphere, polar ice caps, the sea, plants, animals and even rocks and earth. For eons these factors existed in rough harmony and the climate was maintained within tolerable variations. When solar radiation hits the earth's atmosphere some of it is reflected out, but most enters, warming our planet and making it hospitable to life. The earth in turn emits infra-red radiation, thus cooling itself. Some of this infra-red radiation is trapped by 'greenhouse gases' including water vapour, which act as a sort of blanket, or heat trap.

Excessive generation of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (burning fossil fuels), cholorofluorocarbons (CFCs, used in refrigerants and solvents), methane (emanated by paddy fields and even cows!) and nitrous oxide (burning of biomass and fertilisers use) serve to alter the delicate climatic balance, leading to global warming. This threat to life on Earth is serious.

Nuclear Power: Warped idea of science and development. Background radiation exists everywhere on earth. But by exposing humanity to extra, persistent, high and low-level radiation through reactors, wastes and other toxic by-products, the proponents of nuclear power are bequeathing increased ill-health and cancer risks to generations unborn. Radiation affects cells in two ways -- the affected cells may either die, or be altered. By altering cells their ability to 'rest' is destroyed, thus causing uncontrolled multiplication - cancer. And if perchance the damage takes place in a germ cell (sperm or ovum), the genetic mutilation will result in defective offspring.

Nothing, absolutely nothing can justify such risks to humanity from the malignant nuclear ambitions of a powerful few. Recorded civilisation as we know it is merely 5,000 years old. Wastes will remain toxic for anywhere between 25,000 and 250,000 years. What is worse, we may not even be able to communicate to future generations that a particular site is toxic. Besides, no one event talks of the risks to society if such sites become the focus of terrorist attack, a very likely possibility given the increasing violence in human hearts. In my opinion, the very idea of generating electricity through a process, which causes random cancer, is tantamount to murder by proxy and should be repugnant to any civilised society.

Ignoring such views, the Nuclear Power Corporation propagate out and out lies. One such lie is embodied in a series of advertisements they released in response to public opposition to their programme. It read: "reactors are housed in double containments and provided with foolproof triple back-up systems." If the NPC can back their claim of foolproof containments with sufficient evidence I shall publicly apologise for calling them liars and shall, furthermore, eat my proverbial hat in public at a time and place convenient to them!

Pollution: Inevitable outcome of illogical, bizarre industrial growth and chemical agriculture. Most modern diseases can be traced back to some form of pollution or other. Because the human body is such a remarkable machine, we tend to forget that its capacity to tolerate abuse is finite and is being over-stretched. Notice the nagging cough that keeps coming back? And the chronic 'stomach' problems? How about 'allergic' colds, and skin rashes of varying types? These are but some of the minor 'gifts' of pollution.

More serious and traumatic by far would be the loss of a relative to cancer, or one whose liver finally collapsed under the assault of concentrated toxins, or the deformed baby whose mother was callously exposed to metals, or banned chemicals in her diet or environment. Children, elderly persons and the infirm are most prone to pollution.

Rivers: Children of our forests. The rain falls for a few short months, yet rivers run for a full year. Gravity works together with the topography of the land to channel water. By soaking the rain like a wet sponge, 'communities' of natural plants manage to staunch the rain, and then send trickles of water continuously downstream, long after the monsoon is over. Much of the water finds its way through cracks and crevasses in the land to fill underwater reservoirs or aquifers. It is these aquifers which supply our wells. By cutting forests, we force the water to 'run off' in the form of a flood. Later in the dry season, when we need the water most, we are faced with drought. A river is thus only as good as its catchment forests. Building a dam across a river whose forests are devastated, is like building a thermal plant which can obtain no fuel for six months of the year!

Industries and chemical agriculturists treat rivers, lakes and other waterways as free drains, into which their toxins are released. As a result of such callous, criminal acts, fresh water is becoming more and more scarce in India. In a few decades, society will probably be forced to jail offenders for destroying precious water sources -- perhaps the death sentence too may become acceptable to society as punishment for such crimes.

The World Bank: A deceitful money lender trying desperately to convince its victims that it is in the market to perform a social function. To those who care about the earth, the World Bank-IMF combine has come to be recognised as a modern day, economic tool of colonisation. Economic muscle helps convert Third World natural wealth such as forest lands and rivers into flippant Western consumption items such as hamburgers, disposable cartons, toilet paper, diapers and even tomato sauce!

In the process of conducting their nefarious commerce, the bank has become one of the world's most visible human rights offenders, financing projects which they know will devastate defenceless people, including tribals. Indian projects, such as the Narmada dams, or Singrauli, could never be executed in countries such as the US, Great Britain, Japan, France or Germany, ie, the countries which control the bank's policies.

In the near future, some Indian economists, lawyers, social activists and environmentalists are considering the possibility of trying the World Bank for environmental crimes against humanity. India's solution to the World Bank plague is similar to that of the deadly disease, AIDS, but it seems to escape our economists -- just say No!

Tribals: Futuristic citizens of the earth. No, this is not some romanticised notion of the 'proud savage.' It is not tribal technologies -- how to hunt, fish and gather honey -- that we will need to imbibe tomorrow; it is their attitudes to resources, which hold the key to human happiness and survival. Let me explain. Kokigele, an Onge tribal youth in Little Andaman, walks two hours into his jungle, cuts one length of cane and returns to camp. He then begins to strip it to weave a bamboo basket. The cane falls short, so he proceeds the next morning to make a second trip for yet another length. When I asked him why he did not cut two lengths in the first place, he replied, "If I was able to finish the basket with one cane, then the second would have gone waste!" When I contrasted this with my own consumptive ways, I quickly got the picture.

Wildlife: Heart stopping means toward an end. Nothing can describe the rush of adrenaline that courses through the system on seeing a tiger in the wild -- quiet, confident, supercilious, perfect. But admiration cannot be the motivation to save a species. Using animals, nature 'plants' forests, grasslands and wetlands -- the crucibles of human civilisation, and survival. An elephant, for instance, eats fruit in one part of the jungle and drops seeds elsewhere. Each day these mammoths thus plant fruit trees, which their progeny will use. Birds and squirrels perform a similar 'indiscriminate' planting function.

Animals, other than humans, do not possess the technology to destroy nature. And in nature, nothing goes waste. Thanks to a recycling system, so perfect that the human mind cannot even comprehend it, every animal serves to enhance the fertility of the soil upon which all life, including that of Homo sapiens, is dependent.

The way ahead: It should become the purpose of all development in India to restore health to our ravaged land, to restore quality to the water we drink and productivity to our soils. But perhaps we are all waiting for nature to force us to take action. With our water and food security on the verge of collapse, we will ultimately be forced to look away from present industrial goals of development. We will be forced to improve generation and transmission capacities of existing power infrastructures, rather than build new projects. We will have to resurface roads, repair culverts and strengthen shoulders rather than build new highways. We will have to reline canals, improve the condition of catchment areas of existing dams before building new ones. And we will have to feed all our hungry children before allowing a pampered minority to chomp down on McDonald's burgers (to the accompaniment of disposable cartons, aluminum Coke cans and indigestion).

To my mind, these options make economic and ecological sense and the sooner we start the long climb back to environmental sanity the better.

Bittu Sahgal is editor of Sanctuary magazine.

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