Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
EARTHSCAPES: May 20, 2001
Develop and perish?
Humanity entered the 21st Century with two strongly contrasting views on the future. One pointed to a new millennium filled with the hope of information technology, genetic engineering and revolutions in health and medicine; the other showcased the irretrievable destruction of our life support systems through toxic wastes, global warming, land degradation, climatic change, and the loss of biodiversity. The former suggested that humanity was the best thing that could have happened to the earth, the latter said it was the worst.
Which viewpoint one tends towards is likely to be partly dependent on one's place in society. Are you one of India's lucky ("hard-working") citizens, who subscribes to an English newspaper, avoids the vagaries of Mumbai's or Kolkata's or Delhi's or Chennai's weather by travelling to an air-conditioned office in an air-conditioned car and curses the slums that line the road you travel on? Or are you one of the villagers whose fellow tribals were shot dead by the police, because you happened to be protesting against the takeover of your ancestral lands and forests by a foreign mining company in Orissa? Or, for that matter, while resisting displacement by a dam in Jharkhand, dispossession by a commercial trawler in the waters off Kerala's coast, or loss of your forest and agricultural lands by a tourist resort in Maharashtra?
That's a silly question, you'd say, for such a villager would surely not be reading Folio. Very right. Even less likely to be reading this article are any of the species of plants and animals which, solely due to human destructiveness, are today facing the final prospect of extinction. Not one or two, but thousands of them, as humanity's bulldozing effect on natural ecosystems undermines their very basis of existence.
But then the victims of what we educated people call "development" do not need to read this article, as much as we ourselves do. For it is our middle and upper classes that benefit from this development and clamour for more and more of it. More big dams, more power stations, more superstores crammed with more consumer goods, more expressways that can take us to our destinations faster, more of everything . . . except, perhaps, wisdom?
The cost of development
Worldwide, the commercialisation of agriculture, the growth of the industrial economy, and the more recent push towards globalisation, have all taken a heavy toll of biodiversity and the livelihoods of those directly dependent on natural resources. Conservative estimates put the global loss of forest, fisheries and agricultural productivity, caused by over-exploitation, pollution, and other factors, at tens of billions of dollars. This does not even take into account the loss of critical ecosystem values (especially hydrological) and the social, cultural, and non-quantifiable economic losses, which could be even greater than the financially quantified ones. For India, only piecemeal estimates are available: for instance, the Tata Energy Research Institute estimates that forest degradation causes the loss of about Rs. 57 billion worth of loss in wood produce alone. If one were to add to this, the loss of non-timber forest produce (absolutely critical for the survival of tribal and other rural communities), the damage would be astoundingly high. Possibly even greater is the loss relating to the destruction of natural habitats which results in an increasing cycle of droughts and floods and more erratic rainfall. Forestry, fisheries, and agriculture account for over 30 per cent of India's GDP, yet the biological diversity that forms their base gets virtually no place in the budgets and plans for these sectors.
If you thought that as an urbanite, you are immune to this, think again. Were it not for the reservoirs that protect reservoirs providing Mumbai with at least 30 per cent of its drinking water, its citizens or municipality would have to pay through their noses to bring water from longer distances. Cut down the forests of the Shimla water catchment sanctuary, and that city will die for lack of water. Where mangrove forests along Orissa's coasts had been destroyed for "development", the cyclone that hit this state in 1999 caused hundreds of crores worth of damage; where these forests were still intact and acted as a buffer, the damage was contained.
The impact of the neglect of biodiversity in development planning can be seen in several sectors:
Agriculture: The Green Revolution's stress on promoting monocultures of "high-yielding varieties", has yielded significant production increases. However, the cost has been greater, and we are now paying for it. Foremost is the rapid erosion of crop and livestock (including poultry) diversity, especially from farmers' fields and the pastoralists' pastures. This loss of diversity has undermined the stability of farming systems, led to loss in soil fertility, made farmers more dependent on markets and outside agencies, reduced nutrition once obtained from "wild" foods on farms (e.g. fish and prawns in traditional rice fields), increased the need for expensive and poisonous chemical fertilizer and pesticides, and eroded the genetic diversity on which continuous crop and livestock development is based. The impact is greatest on tens of millions of small farmers and pastoralists. The current draft agricultural policy fails to integrate these issues, focussing as it does on high-yielding hybrids and varieties, large-scale agro-processing, and other such strategies that have already eroded biodiversity and sustainability.
Water resources development: Development of water resources for irrigation, drinking water and other purposes, has been fixated on mega-projects. Big dams and irrigation projects have submerged several hundred thousand hectares of forests, displaced millions of people who have in turn put further pressure on natural resources, and led to damages in downstream aquatic and marine habitats. The proposed National Water Policy makes some of the right noises regarding sustainability, but does not centrally integrate biodiversity and livelihood concerns. The relationship between watersheds and biologically diverse catchments, for instance, remains neglected.
Tourism: One of our most rapidly growing industries, tourism, has led to deforestation, enormous waste generation, and cultural pollution. Even "ecotourism", the latest buzzword, is more a greenwash than anything else. The 9th Plan does not deal with ecological aspects of tourism in a major way. Critical gaps remain in devising truly ecologically friendly modes of tourism, and in promoting the livelihoods of local communities based on more sensitive tourism.
Energy and infrastructure: These are perhaps the sectors in which integration of biodiversity concerns is the weakest. Environment impact assessment procedures remain weak and ineffective (see box). In the last decade or so, the greatly accelerated thrust towards increasing road, rail, and other infrastructure, to meet the demands of the liberalised economy, has also resulted in a renewed attack on biodiversity-rich areas and on the natural resource base of millions of people.
Such attacks on India's natural resources are not a matter only for the board-room discussions of wealthy upper class "environmentalists". Witness, for instance, the repeated agitations by millions of fisherfolk along India's coast. Their main demands: ban commercial trawling in Indian seas, stop all commercial shrimp/prawn farming, implement the Coastal Regulation Zone stipulations restricting destructive activities upto a certain distance inland from the sea, and promote traditional sustainable modes of fishing. The connection between biodiversity in the seas and their own livelihoods, was very clear to these fisherfolk, but had been ignored by those in government who plan fisheries development.
Do we have an alternative?
Are environmentalists only the "no-no" brand of romantics and misguided anti-nationals that the proponents of today's development model label them to be? Not quite. Even while protesting against this model, many environmentalists, community activists and sensitive academics, scientists and government officials, are pointing to concrete alternatives, which enhance human welfare in tune with the dynamics of nature. Some examples:
* In agriculture, hundreds of farmers and groups are successfully enhancing biodiversity while also increasing productivity and employment potential through organic farming systems. In Zaheerabad area of Andhra Pradesh, Dalit women have demonstrated that biologically diverse farming, linked to a people-centred public distribution system, can considerably enhance livelihoods, employment and the nutritional status of the poorest people (see article on Agriculture, in this issue).
* In water development, experiments in diverse agro-climatic conditions show that decentralised water harvesting with catchment protection can provide enough for drinking and agriculture, while actually regenerating and maintaining biological diversity. In Alwar district of Rajasthan, for instance, several hundred villages have boosted agricultural production and eradicated drought, through a network of small checkdams (johads), regenerated catchment forests, and helped revive disappearing wildlife populations.
* In tourism, residents of the Rathong Chu and Khangchend- zonga region of Sikkim have moved towards an ecologically sensitive model of visitation that provides sustained benefits to local people and fisherfolk at sites in Goa have protected turtle nesting sites as these attract the discerning tourist.
* In industry, several experiments with small-scale units using natural dyes, medicinal plants, non-timber forest produce and other biological resources, are demonstrating that sustainable use is possible and desirable. In the Biligiri Hills of Karnataka, for instance, the Vivekananda Girijan Kalyana Kendra has worked with Soliga tribal cooperatives to manage sustainable harvests of medicinal plants, and process them into saleable products.
There are, however, some sectors of our "globalising" economy that remain largely immune to the demands of sustainability. In energy development, for instance, scientists like A.K.N. Reddy and groups like PRAYAS have suggested alternatives focusing on efficiency in production and distribution, and non-conventional sources, but these remain neglected by the decision-makers. Infrastructure development, in particular ports, expressways and so on, have a long way to go to build in environmental concerns.
For the first time, a comprehensive attempt to build an alternative development vision based on biodiversity concerns, is taking place under the ongoing National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. Voices from the grassroots, from practitioners of alternative development strategies, from those who understand the workings of the system and how to change it, will all get built upon in the preparation of this plan. A working group may be set up to integrate biodiversity across all the sectors of the upcoming 10th Plan. If this happens, it could send a clear signal to all central ministries and State governments, that it is time they took biodiversity and nature seriously. The NBSAP could be one small step in the right direction. Ultimately, however, it is only strong citizens' pressure, of the kind mounted by millions of fisherfolk in relation to the fisheries policy, that will alter the course of destructive development our country has taken.
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