It has been reported that a Panchayat in Kerala has done what the entire might and resources of the Indian union could not—revive a whole river. The Kuttemperoor river in Alappuzha district had ceased to exist a decade ago, smothered by effluents, sewage, plastic, weeds and devoured by encroachments. The villagers of Budhanoor Panchayat, with no budget but plenty of commitment and voluntary labour, spent months clearing out the old river and the river has recharged itself and is now flowing again! It will now sustain the livelihoods of thousands of families. No thanks to the governments, state or central.
I am not surprised. The current government has demonstrated a remarkable insensitivity to the environment, even though the prime minister is supposed to have spent years in the Himalayas during his salad days. How else does one explain the government systematically dismantling the regulatory framework built by the previous governments to protect our forests from a pillaging industry, and according approvals to projects that can only devastate the environment? I refer to three projects that have been sanctioned recently.
The first project is the highway to connect the “Char Dhams” in Uttarakhand: Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, which today are finally accessed on foot only. All these are located above ten thousand feet and in the most fragile geological landscape. The construction of roads will involve the felling of at least 4,000 deodar (cedar) trees, many of them hundreds of years old, and result in the dumping of millions of tonnes of soil and debris in the river valleys, choking them and causing landslides and floods. Has the Centre forgotten the Kedarnath disaster of just four years ago?
And, as if this was not enough foolhardiness, the Centre has now announced that it shall also build a broad gauge rail line (at the cost of `40,000 crore) to further connect these pilgrim destinations! Any sane person will only rebound in horror at this situation. This 300 km line will lead to even more despoliation of forests and excavation of the mountains. Moreover, the four Dhams are already reeling under an unbearable human footprint and anthropogenic pressures, the glaciers there are already melting at an alarming rate because of loss of green cover and man-made warming, pollution is already stifling these rivers. These places have crossed their carrying capacity long ago. And this myopic government wants millions of more people to converge there!
The third ill-advised project is the linking of the Ken and Betwa rivers in Madhya Pradesh to provide irrigation to an additional 6.35 lakh hectares in Bundelkhand. This has always been a controversial project which is being rammed through the supine Forest Advisory Committee without even conducting a full fledged EIA( Environment Impact Assessment). Shocking figures of the devastation it will cause are emerging only now: 6,017 hectares of prime forest land shall be diverted and more than 18,00,000 trees will be axed. Most of this forest land—5803 hectares—falls in the Panna tiger reserve, which is a critical tiger habitat.
A spineless National Tiger Conservation Authority says that the loss of this area will be made good by planting an equal area. This is a farrago of untruths (as Shashi Tharoor would no doubt have dubbed it); in the first place, what is being destroyed is an ecological habitat which contains 1,255 species of plants, 34 mammals and 280 bird species, whereas what the government will provide is a poor, sterile plantation at best. Poor, because (and this is the second codicil) the survival rate of plantations is rarely more than 40 per cent and compensatory afforestation has been a failure throughout the country, though it has enriched many a contractor, politician and government official. Sterile, because it takes dozens of years to create a habitat, by which time the native flora and fauna here would have disappeared permanently.
We live in a country already on the brink of environmental catastrophe as borne out by successive droughts; heat waves which have killed more than 9,000 people in the last seven years; farmer suicides (3,00,000 in the last twenty years, according to NCRB) which show no sign of abating; one and a half million deaths every year due to air pollution. We have lost an astounding 10.60 million hectares of original forests in just the last 14 years, more than 60 million people (mainly tribals and the poorest of the poor) have been displaced (developmental refugees?) since Independence by projects that benefit urban India. Sixty per cent of our blocks are water stressed, we are killing off our wildlife faster than they can adapt—the list of endangered species has more than doubled in just two years, going up from 190 to 443 (IUCN figures).
It is, therefore, no surprise that the World Bank Index of Environmental Quality places us at 155 out of 178 countries. According to a new method of calculating a nation’s Ecological Footprint (biologically productive area in hectares a country needs to fuel its resource consumption and absorb its waste) India is the third worst country in the world, after China and the USA, needing 1.30 billion hectares for the purpose—land that we just don’t have. Our biological footprint, therefore, is in deficit by 0.67 hectares per person. What this means is that India needs approximately 800 million more hectares of land than we have to absorb our consumption and waste. On a per capita basis even Pakistan and Bangladesh are better placed than us.
The litany of environmental degradation in the country is long and depressing, and it is getting worse under a government that apparently can’t see beyond GDP or think beyond vote shares. We will pay a heavy price in the years to come for our willful depredation of natural resources, but who cares as long as the next election is won?
Avay Shukla served in the IAS for 35 years and retired as Additional Chief Secretary of Himachal Pradesh