The Unhappy Compromise


Having bulldozed green laws in the name of development, the PM makes big promises and a small investment in biodiversity

Small step The PM committed just $50 million to save India’s biodiversity
Small step The PM committed just $50 million to save India’s biodiversity
Photo: PIB
Jay Mazoomdaar
Jay Mazoomdaar, Independent Journalist

PRIME MINISTER Manmohan Singh has committed $50 million (Rs 260 crore) to “strengthen the institutional mechanism for biodiversity conservation in India” for meeting the 2020 Aichi targets on conservation at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Hyderabad this week. He set aside another $10 million for capacity-building in other developing countries.

In case one wondered if this was a joke, the PM allayed such doubts by flaunting before the international community the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, which “empowered the best friends of biodiversity”, and also calling for a “happy compromise that will secure a future that provides ecological and economic space” for all. The developed countries, unfortunately, were not sold on the idea and did not rush to pledge funds.

It will require an annual investment of up to $440 billion for the world to aspire for the Aichi targets. According to the UN Environment Programme, loss of biodiversity already costs the world 3 percent of its GDP or over $2 trillion annually. The European Union alone loses around $450 billion. Footing the Aichi bill will not immediately reverse these losses. But business as usual will drain 7 percent of the global GDP by 2050 and may push the cost and scope of mitigation beyond us.

The global leadership is predictably indifferent. But who could have expected such sense of humour from our PM? After all, the Special Protection Group, which protects him, his predecessors at the South Block and the Nehru-Gandhi family, was allotted Rs 279 crore during 2011-12. So should it take more than Rs 260 crore to secure the country’s biodiversity from the growth graph unleashed by the State?

While the “country” gets “richer” and the displaced tribal waits for her turn, impatience with laws that safeguard the wilderness is threatening to quash the democratic process of decision-making. One popular argument is that the damage caused by single-minded development can be reversed once a country is rich enough to afford it. This absurd claim does not answer how one can replenish non-renewable resources, such as minerals, used up for growth; compensate for loss of ancient forests by planting saplings; or revive species gone extinct.

Japan, Asia’s most developed nation, lost more than 50 percent of natural coasts and around 40 percent of tidal flats due to land reclamation. Though the recent emphasis on conservation is helping a number of wild species of the archipelago, dozens have been lost for good and few of the hundreds of endangered ones may ever recover. In prosperous South Korea, 30 percent of mammals, 48 percent of reptiles and 60 percent of amphibians were either extinct or endangered by 1994.

Flowing through 10 countries, the Danube supported Europe’s most bristling ecosystem until the end of the 19th century. Then, massive regulation of the river, numerous dams, deforestation and pollution throttled the basin wetlands. The relatively less developed Danube delta has been restored in the recent decades. The white pelicans survived but even a reintroduction programme could not restore the range of the once omnipresent Danube beavers. The black poplar trees that lined the waters have vanished altogether.

Despite its advantage of low human population density, North America and Europe have forfeited much of their biodiversity. The US lost two sub-species of wolf, the eastern cougar, the Arizona Jaguar and innumerable smaller species. More than half of Europe’s land area is a biodiversity graveyard. These include vast agricultural fields where not even many wild flowers bloom.

Biodiversity loss is irreversible and it affects our food and health security. Money cannot buy it back but timely investment may arrest its slide. The PM’s prescription of “happy compromise” rang hollow coming soon after the National Investment Board, set up to safeguard development projects worth Rs 1,000 crore or more against green laws. But by investing just one-fourth of that benchmark in biodiversity, Manmohan Singh has honestly signalled where conservation stands in this new order.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.


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