The ongoing tussle over the Western Ghats points to a crippling blind spot.
EDITOR’S CUT By Shoma Chaudhury
BLIND SPOTS can be a crippling character defect in an individual. Scale that up to the character of a nation and you have an approximation of how disastrous it can be. “Ecological concerns” is one such major Indian blind spot.
The Supreme Court has just issued notices to the Central and Jammu & Kashmir governments on the Amarnath Yatra. With a cavalier disregard we accept as a national trait, the Amarnath Board has been allowing more than seven times the permissible limit of pilgrims to visit the cave. This year, that means almost 5.5 lakh pilgrims have gone up the fragile mountain in 20 days. Apart from the life hazard this poses for the pilgrims, there have been umpteen reports about how the natural snow lingam — the original reason for the faith — no longer forms on its own and is shored up with artificial ice. Soon, neither shrine nor mountain will exist anymore, stamped out by the polluting debris of Indian zeal. But this seems to ring no alarm bells for the protagonists: for most Indians, a crisis round the corner is no crisis at all.
It’s not just the Amarnath. Recently, TEHELKA has been carrying a series of reports on the impending death of the Ganga, the lifeline of almost all of northern India. None of the facts in those stories are unknown. The critical condition of the river — overloaded by dams, polluting industries, effluents, sewage, diverted tributaries, power projects, tunnels — is already visible, but clearly, neither religious fervour, civilisational memory, high nationalism, or even plain economic self-interest is enough to put some brakes in place. Why tighten the belt to make a meal last when the fattening is going well for the moment?
The ongoing tussle over the Western Ghats, deemed one of the world’s eight top biodiversity hotspots, is another devastating example of this myopia. In 2010, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh had commissioned an ecological panel led by Madhav Gadgil to prepare a comprehensive report on the region, jeopardised by over-development. By the time the report was filed, Ramesh had been replaced; the mandate had shifted. Under Jayanthi Natarajan, the ministry once again became a mere alibi for “growth” without rules. After months of stasis, the report was made public in March this year with a caveat that it had not been adopted and was being put through further consultation.
These prevarications are depressing. The report has advised zoning the Ghats into three categories. One in which no mining or disruptive development can be allowed; another where existing projects are allowed to function under the strictest environmental guidelines; and a third where development can continue. Predictably, this has triggered hard resistance from mining lobbies and their ventriloquists in power. So blind is this resistance, in July this year, when the Western Ghats was accorded UNESCO World Heritage Site status (a prestigious label that has helped protect scores of precious sites across the globe), Karnataka’s forest minister — mark the irony — went to the extent of decrying the tag because, according to him, it would bring only rules, no money. The terror of such attitudes becomes manifest if one stops for just a moment to think of what preserving the majestic Western Ghats means for India’s well-being and economic security. The Ghats are a key influencer in the monsoons; they are home to the famous Alphonso mango, the Nilgiri biosphere; hundreds of species of birds, animals, trees and forests older than the Himalayas, to name just a few of its priceless resources. Imagine an India without its monsoon, its lifelines of rivers, its coastlines of fish, its regenerative forests, its snowline sources of water and the ludicrousness of resisting conservation would become apparent.
But unfortunately, for many Indians, especially those who hold the levers of power, ‘ecological concerns’ and ‘biodiversity’ still mean nothing but impediments to an ATM machine not yet plundered of its cache. We are driven by the idea that clocks can be turned back: that we can use discriminately now and pay later. But the environment is not only about a face-off between developed and developing countries and who should pay the global climate change bill: it is a dialogue with ourselves.
Can we afford — economically — to use up our resources, then spend thousands of crores trying to resurrect them? Will it even be possible to resuscitate them? Take a dip stick: check where the Ganga Action Plan chaired by the prime minister has got so far.
These warnings may seem mere irritant thorns now, but it’s probably not an exaggeration to say, by 2050, the loss of India’s ecological resources will end up being one of the country’s greatest threats to national security.
Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.