Everything we need in life—air, water, food, shelter—comes from nature. The farmers growing our food are at its mercy. And so is our economy. About 15 per cent of our $2 trillion economy is dependent on agriculture. If rains fail, crops wilt, inflation explodes, and GDP nosedives. People with little income do not buy stuff that makes the economy go round. With so much riding on the monsoon, you would expect everyone to do their utmost to safeguard the water cycle. Take a look around and see if anyone is concerned about it. If you are an economist, and especially if you are an economist, you will not miss the connection between nature, human well-being, and wealth. But this does not seem to concern anyone but activists who are branded anti-development for their troubles.
The chief rain makers are tropical forests. Their destruction weakens monsoons leading to lower rainfall. Forests, wetlands, sand dunes, coral reefs and other wild landscapes play different roles in regulating the elements. Wetlands control floods and sand dunes are bulwarks against the sea. Developers in Chennai, for instance, swallowed most of its wetlands, and one sharp downpour is enough for its citizens to cry “Floods!”
Human ingenuity is remarkable but not so remarkable that it can replace nature’s services. Nature gave Delhi clean air. But, like the Hindu mythological character Bhasmasura turns anything he touches to ashes, industry’s fingerprints are all over the city’s smog problem. Only a human mutant in a dystopian world could survive on smoke, dust, and automobile fumes.
The Wildlife Institute of India estimates 20 per cent of India’s geographical area is forested. But only wildlife-rich zones, less than 5 per cent, are governed by a specific law—the Wildlife Protection Act. Powerful forces have their eyes on these wildlife areas. Industries, the Centre and state governments want to put roads, mines, dams, and every other structure that epitomises ‘development’ into those places. When the law demands justification for the destruction of these landscapes, they lament that regulations are roadblocks to development. This myth is so prevalent that successive Union ministers for environment and forests measure their efficiency by how many projects have been allowed under their watch. They seem to forget their job description: protect forests.
We take pride in our history, food and culture, and take umbrage if anyone sullies them. But when industries encroach on our natural heritage, we call it development. What exactly is being developed? Have they done such a good job of developing 95 per cent of the country that they now want to get their grubby ashen fingers on the last remaining 5 per cent? What have they achieved with the 95 per cent that only the 5 per cent can improve?
Take, for instance, the interlinking of rivers. Until recently, the first project in this grandiose scheme was hooking up Ken in Madhya Pradesh with Betwa in Uttar Pradesh. The best part of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh is set to drown in this bid. Both rivers receive the same rainfall and share similar features, and yet like smarmy salesmen, the developers put a spin on it—one has gallons more water than the other. Since the facts of the project are so flawed and contradictory, the lobbyists use brawn to push it through. The environmental impact assessment does not pass muster and the relevant committees wave its forest and wildlife clearances through.
Wildlife is like the canary in a coal mine, an indicator of how well we care for our natural resources. When their existence is in crisis, human life, and indeed economy, become untenable. Conservationists are not only fighting to protect the ingredients that sustain life, they are demanding the wise use of resources for the benefit of future generations.
For this, they are constantly called to justify why their fight is not anti-development. For once, I would like to hear modern-day Bhasmasuras defend their predilection for destruction. It is time we called the current model of wasteful, reckless development what it is—anti-life.