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29 May, 2012

The struggle for survival

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Belying dark prophecies of the likes of Winston Churchill, India has survived as a political entity. Overcoming the global economic downturn, it has survived as a vibrant economic unit. But the challenges it is facing on the environmental front are proving to be tougher than the political and economic challenges.

There has been large-scale destruction of forests since the country gained freedom 65 years ago, mostly due to illegal felling of trees by commercial interests enjoying political patronage. The verdant states of Jammu and Kashmir in the north, Assam in the northeast and Kerala in the south are among the worst affected.

The latest official figures put India’s forest and tree cover at 78.29 million hectares, or 23.81 per cent of the geographical area. The government’s current policy envisages raising the forest cover to 33 per cent.

According to Director-General of Forests PJ Dilip Kumar, structural changes in the economy are needed to achieve the target. When more people migrate from villages to cities the fallow agricultural lands left behind by them can be used to grow forests, he says.

The official’s calculations are too simplistic. The developmental process that will create jobs and attract villagers to the cities will actually shrink the forest cover further, widening the gap to be filled. Many mega projects now in various stages of implementation are based on exploitation of natural resources located in forests or other ecologically sensitive areas. People living in these areas are already up in arms against the projects saying they threaten their lives and livelihood.

According to the latest ‘state of the forest’ report, in the last two years there was a net loss of 367 square kilometres of forest. Half of it was in the Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh.

Environmental Secretary T Chatterjee attributes depletion of Khammam forests to felling of eucalyptus by the paper pulp industry and clearance of forests by Left-wing extremists. The explanation is specious. Replanting goes on simultaneously with harvesting in plantations serving the paper industry. More than Left-wing extremists, who want places to hide in, it is the security forces, who are looking for them, that need to clear forests. 

Large-scale destruction of forests took place in the colonial period as the British administration, while laying railway lines, felled trees to make sleepers. The depredation yielded some unexpected dividends: the ruins of the Indus Valley civilisation at Mohenjo-Daro, now in Pakistan, and the Buddhist relics at Sanchi, in Madhya Pradesh, came to light.

Recognising the need to preserve the forest wealth, the British later initiated conservation measures. After their departure, things became lax, especially at the state level, and vested interests caused extensive damage with the connivance of corrupt political and bureaucratic elements.   

Prime minister Indira Gandhi, on her return from the 1972 Stockholm summit, initiated legislative and administrative measures to protect the environment. Her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, took steps to tackle the problem of pollution of the river Ganga, which sustains life in a large part of the country.

Globalisation threw out of gear even the weak implementation of the laws in force. The Report to the People on Environment and Forests, which the government released recently, paints a dismal picture of urban India, which is growing fast and expected to absorb millions of people from the villages in the coming decades.

The report admits that a critical deficiency exists in most cities in terms of facilities for collection, processing and disposal of waste. Existing facilities have the capacity to treat only 35 per cent of about 6.23 million tonnes of hazardous industrial waste generated annually. E-waste is currently estimated at 800,000 tonnes. Sixty per cent of it is generated by 65 cities. The Ganga continues to be a polluted river.

There is nothing in the report to indicate that the government has an action plan to tackle the serious urban problems it has identified. Much of it, of course, is beyond the power of the government at the Centre as the matter falls within the realm of the state governments and the urban and rural local bodies. They lack the resources to formulate and implement suitable schemes.

In the global debate on climate change, India, along with China, has been resisting the attempt by the rich nations to force reduction in carbon emissions, arguing it will hamper its developmental efforts. It has to look at the problem not only in terms of catching up with the developed world but also in terms of ensuring the survival of a large section of its own population.

Jawaharlal Nehru once asked, “If India dies, who lives?” Lopsided developmental priorities which threaten the environment invest these words with a new meaning.--Gulf Today, May 29, 2012,

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