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February 20, 1998


Issues '98/Zafar Futehally

'We must create a sense of national integration'

A country has its own mechanism in the way it works. Despite politicians making statements one day and changing them the next, the country's machinery continues to work, industries manufacture, farmers sow and reap, the corporate sector goes about its business.

I would like the next government, and future governments, to focus on two things. The first of these is environment, on which I see four aspects:

a. Our laws on pollution, the water and pollution acts, the forest act, are all well conceived. In fact, the head of the Central Pollution Board in Delhi, D K Biswas, has been doing some excellent work for the last 20 years. What the government needs to do is provide the infrastructure in terms of manpower, technical strength, transport, etc, to implement these laws. Before making any new laws, they must read the existing laws carefully and just take a firm decision to execute them.

To cite an example. In India we use very poor quality diesel, the sulphur content of which is a great pollutant. Over one million automobiles, including two-wheelers, exist in Bangalore today. You can imagine the extent of pollution. When we are aware that the diesel quality in India is poor, we must take care not to use it in the form it is. Delhi recently hosted an automobile show where they introduced a slew of cars which run on diesel. This saves the purse of the individual, but what about the environment?

b. No one is serious about the way land is used in our country. Nature has designed our country in such a way that we have the best rainfall pattern in the whole world, almost 40 to 50 inches, though it is not evenly distributed. But we still get the highest amount of rainfall in the world -- 2,000 million acre feet of rainfall. If we cover all the mountains not with exotic trees like eucalyptus or pine, but with native trees such as banyan and peepal, which have broad leaves that can hold water unlike the exotic ones, we can harness the total advantage of rainfall.

To do this, the future government must be very firm. They must cloak the entire Vindhyas, Himalayas and places like Kodaikanal and Ooty, with local species trees. If not in 5 years, then in 25 years, India will be transformed.

The West keeps saying we should preserve forests because a good forest cover affects their existence, offers genetic interdependence, and so it is in their interest that we should preserve the forests. In which case, why don't they sponsor part of the infrastructural network needed to implement the existing water, air, forest and land acts?

I expect the future government to make an imaginative ecological rehabilitation programme, a long-term one, say for the next 50 to 100 years, for our country.

Our farmers will not have any problems because if we protect our land cover, rainwater gets stored. And if used in a proper manner without soil erosion, there will be enough water available for streams and rivulets to flow down the mountains 365 days of the year. And wherever there is water, farmers can grow their beans or potatoes.

In the present scenario, rain water is wasted as it erodes the soil (the tiny-leaved exotic plants cannot retain the water) and after a few months, we suffer from a drought. Another reason is we don't plan the crops according to the land suitability. For instance, paddy which absorbs a lot of water is grown around Bangalore which receives just 30 to 40 inches of rainfall; alternatively, it could be planted in Maharashtra which has 80 inches rainfall and jowar can be planted around Bangalore.

c. Our estuaries must be protected. Estuaries (where a river meets the sea) are said to be the most productive, fertile areas, in any geographical land mass, and rare and unusual fish spawn in such areas. Today, we allow industries to set up plants near rivers that the industries use as conveyer belts; they just externalise their costs and internalise their profits, destroying the ecosystem at large. Industries must not be allowed to set up factories close to rivers and estuaries.

d. I am not in favour of developing atomic energy, as suggested by one party. In my opinion, just one failure of an atomic experiment can ruin millions of people and harm generations of people, plants, animals. It is unethical to impose this on our unborn progeny.

Why don't we harness newer ways to sustain ourselves and our populace? We have hardly harnessed solar energy from sunlight, why don't we do it on a larger more productive scale?

The second aspect where the government should focus on is to create a sense of national integration, which is probably the most difficult thing to achieve today. Let us decide what we would like the Indian to represent 25 years hence, carve out a blueprint for him, and through education and schools hone that sort of a person.

We Indians have a lot of good qualities: we imbibe from the West but still retain our roots; our respect for elders; sense of tolerance of varied cultures, cuisines, vegetarianism to a point; yoga, village craftsmen who have an eye for beauty; etc.

Instead of bringing about any change overnight, we should bring it about gradually, over 25 to 50 years. Such a change will have a greater likelihood of succeeding, and a better Indian will emerge in the future.

The politicians should set an example, though they will be the last people to do so.

Zafar Futehally, the wellknown environmentalist, spoke to Madhuri Velegar.

Issues '98

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