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Posted at: Jun 10, 2018, 12:04 AM; last updated: Jun 10, 2018, 12:04 AM (IST)

Is it all downward from here?

India dropped 36 positions to 177 in 2018 on the Environmental Performance Index. Time to assess where we went wrong

Lt-Gen Baljit Singh (Retd)

THE images of acute shortage of drinking water in Shimla, kilometre-long queues of residents awaiting the arrival of water tankers to purchase a rationed few litres numb the senses for a few minutes. Incidentally, not so far away, around Kasauli at the same time, hectares of forest cover is burnt to cinders by multiple fires triggered partly by the phenomenon of climate change, an offshoot of degraded natural environment. Add to these, pictures of dead fish floating on the banks of the Beas, and we can make sense of why India plummeted 36 positions from 141 in 2016 to 177 in 2018 on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a biennial report produced by researchers at Yale and Columbia Universities in collaboration with the World Economic Forum.

As I turn over these images of human helplessness, arising from the cumulative environmental excesses of the past 100 years, my mind involuntary flashes back to the three-page letter written 164 years ago (1854) by the Red Indian Chief Seattle to the “Great White Chief” in Washington (the US President Franklin Pierce). That native American had poured out his anguish over the reckless environmental degradation set apace by the unregulated and burgeoning settlements of America’s nuevo colonisers. That script is now acknowledged as a rare cerebral exposition on ecology and environment in most academic circles, the world over. Take, for instance, Chief Seattle’s concerns on tampering with the natural flow and the chemistry of water of America’s rivers which would merit him an instant PhD today:  

“Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.... The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children.... The shining water that moves in our streams and rivers, is not just water but the blood of our ancestors.... The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.” 

The ringing alarm bells

Whether it is the prevailing strife for drinking water in Shimla or the fact that Day Zero for Cape Town in South Africa (when most taps in the city will run dry) is also anticipated to happen in 2018, or the extreme levels of pollution inflicting urban lakes in Bengaluru — turning their sewage-contaminated water into mosaics of soap suds — or the prevalent toxic levels of air and noise pollution in the National Capital Region, they are warnings for sure of environmental Armageddon. But this is no time for petty and destructive criticism, nor indeed for ill-will or blaming others. We must face the collective failure and summon up science, technology, innovations and finances to recreate capacities of our social, economic and political institutions, which will prevent further degradation of both — the natural and the living environment. Also, we must assess the promises we made to ourselves in the past and how far we have fulfilled them.

It appears that post the stroke of the midnight hour on August 14, 1947, when the world slept and we Indians awoke to life and freedom, we had the confidence, vision and passion to create a matrix of prosperous India. Our leaders were men of learning and earthy wisdom who understood that political freedom is circumscribed by reasonable economic prosperity and amiable populace. However, it is doubtful whether they had full understanding of how and how much the demands of the two world wars and of the British industrial complexes in the UK had strained India’s non-renewable (minerals) and renewable (timber) resources to damaging limits, unmindful that natural environment is complex, fragile and only marginally resilient.

It is also doubtful whether they had reckoned that unbridled growth of population would enlarge the scars of environmental degradation to the point of no return. Their failure in comprehending the absolute necessity of inter-dependence between natural and living environment was evident in the absence of a ministry in India’s first cabinet, charged with ecological and environmental security issues.  

Bursting at the seams

Nevertheless, it is to the credit of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that in his first Cabinet, the Ministry of Health and Family Planning was entrusted to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, which would shortly focus on policy and planning to balance India’s demographic footprint in consonance with ecological security and environmental imperatives. In time we had the interesting slogan “Hum do, humarey do” and the endearing illustration of a charming rustic couple flanked by a cherubic girl and boy which left a permanent, optimistic imprint on every mind! But regrettably for a variety of reasons (including three wars in 18 years), the combined pressures of ever-growing numbers of humans (a whopping, nearly 40 per cent increase since 1947) and domesticated cattle (about 50 per cent of the world’s total), together impacted India’s ecology and environment much beyond recuperative capacities of nature’s growth cycles. 

So today, the increasing needs of our growing population are fast encroaching upon the green cover, irredeemably. Our forests must simply be preserved because of a variety of benefits as well as their crucial influence on climate. Forests are one among the primary symbiotic agents of  earth, the only living planet where the root systems of trees entwine into sponges, both as checks against excessive soil erosion, and more importantly also for the subterranean storage of rainwater. And of course, they are a major source of timber, fuel, fodder and food, besides being the fundamental carbon-sinks and noise pollution absorbents. On ageing, they decompose in the natural cycle and in the process add to the top soil which alone nurtures and sustains the green cover and agriculture. A widespread campaign is necessary to bring home to our people the need to conserve land, its mineral and plant resources and animal life. 

With an eye on the future

In India’s political history, no one better understood the essence of nature’s symbiotic dynamics in the scheme of life  than Indira Gandhi. Even though she had no formal education in the natural sciences, yet in her keynote address to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development at Stockholm in June 1972, she made a profound statement that “Man often forgets that he is part of this Earth... and that his survival depends on the maintenance of nature’s balance. Thus the utilisation of resources must go hand in hand with conservation... The natural resources of the earth, including the air, water, land... must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning or management, as appropriate... man’s capability to transform his surroundings, if used wisely, can bring to all people the benefits of development and the opportunity to enhance the quality of life. Wrongly or heedlessly applied, the same power can do incalculable harm to human beings and the human environment...” 

It may not be out of place to single out Indira Gandhi as India’s messiah of environmental concerns because she chartered with missionary zeal a slew of parliamentary legislations focused on ecology and environment: The Wildlife (Protection) Act, Forest Conservation Act, Environment (Protection) Act, Air Pollution (Control) Act, Project Tiger, Project Lion, Project Crocodile & Gharial, Pigmy Hog Initiative, Water (Prevention and Control of) Pollution Act, Central Pollution Control Board, creation of MOEF, Ganga Cleaning Project, entire network of national parks, reserves, sanctuaries, biosphere reserves and so on. 

At about the same time, a specially constituted Parliamentary Committee was in the process of formulating a charter of Fundamental Duties and it proposed in the manner of the Biblical Commandments 10 obligations upon each citizen. The seventh commandment (Article 51 A (g) of the Constitution) not merely articulates an ecological and environmental paradigm, but also goes way beyond by demanding from its citizens to “have compassion for all living creatures”; thus flagging India as perhaps the only nation to have such an ennobling philosophy of nature conservation, that is, “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment, including  forests, rivers, lakes and wildlife and to have compassion for all living creatures.”  

Need for implementation

There is no denying that the comprehensive package of legislative enactments had a positive impact on slowing down environmental degradation. However, the  implementation of environmental intents into accomplishments remains an elusive dream. Over time and in compliance with the Stockholm Declaration, it was also mandated that every new development project proposed in India, whether by the private (for example, Vedanta Limited’s Tuticorin plant) or public establishments, and especially those in the vicinity of ecologically sensitive zones, will be scrutinised for Environmental Impact Assessment lest they impose an adverse impact on the prevalent ecology and living environment. Sadly out of myopic political intentions, of late the EIA instrumentality has often been waived and at times bureaucrats and ministers have been eased out of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), for standing by their science-backed convictions.  

When the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development met for the second time in June 1992, at what was called the Rio Earth Summit, the Indian delegation was led by Kamal Nath, the then Union Minister of Environment and Forests. And there was one statement by him which is worth recalling and pondering over: “unless environmental awareness becomes a preoccupation with the people of India, no amount of governmental intervention can prevent India’s ecological collapse.” 

Is anyone listening?

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