Lead India to scale new heights in conservation

prerna-singh-bindra

Prerna Singh Bindra | June 3, 2014



Let me begin this letter with a confession - and my sincere facilitations and congratulations on the country's mandate, and your election as prime minister, which you will be by the time this letter is published. I confess I am not a political animal, but my engagement with politics is active, given that my life's work – wildlife conservation – must be done within the political arena, and is impacted more by the political and economic environment than anything else.

First, I would like to extend my congratulations on Gujarat's efforts to save its pride, the Asiatic Lion, particularly when threatened and imperilled by poachers. It is truly an example to emulate, and hope that given your national stature now, you will protect with the same ferocity, India’s pride: the tiger and the elephant, which are our national and national heritage animal respectively; and the Gangetic dolphin, annotated as the national aquatic animal. India’s biodiversity, however, extends far beyond such charismatic ambassadors. We harbour many other equally beautiful, rare, endangered – and in some cases, endemic creatures – the Great Indian Bustard, snow leopards, hangul, dugongs, lesser florican, gharials, and vultures to name just a few. Each of them is intrinsically linked to our culture, and represents the natural heritage, which we must safeguard for future generations.

Their future is precarious, and entrusted, at least in the near future, with you. India holds them in stewardship for the world, and Mr Prime Minister, we hope, and believe you will not let them down, and your words in your victory speech, “of taking all along”, also encompasses rare – and mute – denizens under our care.

I am encouraged by your promise to revive the Ganga. It is heartening indeed that you share our pain at the pathetic and polluted condition of a river we worship as goddess. We have much hope that you will achieve this task, and not for the Ganga alone, but other life-giving and revered rivers that flow across our country. A word of caution here: the Sabarmati is not a model to follow and emulate. I have largely grown up in Ahmedabad and seen the death of the river, and then seen it flow again… but from the waters of the Narmada. The Sabarmati is also India’s third most polluted river (Ankleshwar’s Amlakhadi, Ahmedabad’s Khari and Vapi’s Damanganga also figure high in this dubious distinction). The Ganga, however, tops the list, if only because she carries the burden – and the waste – of so many more people than the Sabarmati. According to some studies on water quality by the central pollution control board along ‘polluted river stretches’, the Sabarmati’s water is not even fit for bathing.

As spiffy and beautiful as the waterfront in Ahmedabad looks – it is just that: beautiful, and well, just another place to hang out in, like a mall or a multiplex. It does not conserve the river and in fact, encroaches on its vital floodplains.

Cleaning the river is an infinitely more challenging and tedious task, requiring difficult decisions and tackling the mess of industrial and domestic waste, toxins and filth that we spew into our waters, reducing them to filthy drains.

While on rivers, let me tackle another sensitive topic: river linking, an ambitious and flagship project of your government. One appreciates that the sentiment behind it is noble, but the fact of the matter is, it won’t solve India’s water crisis, only deepen it, and at a tremendous cost. This '5.6 lakh crore scheme (at 2002 costs) envisages 30 river links, a network of canals traversing a massive 15,000 km; and shockingly, has had no serious, or even perfunctory scientific or environmental impact study. Its basic premise of huge water surpluses in river basins is flawed: most basins are today heavily over-exploited by industrial, agricultural and domestic usage –with raging water wars between the three.

Nor can flood waters be channelised. If the ‘donor’ river is in spate (usually in monsoons), so would be the other river, necessitating huge storage facilities. Construction of canals and large reservoirs would also mean submergence of arable land, villages and the social cost of displacement of people – by some estimates over five lakh by the canals in peninsular India only. It will drown large swathes of forests; including tiger forests as in the case of Ken-Betwa, a priority project, which is expected to submerge over 100 sq km of the Panna tiger reserve –where incidentally the Madhya Pradesh government has strived hard to revive tiger population after its local extinction.

With such massive alteration, there is an acute danger of seismic hazards in the Himalayan belt and loss of livelihood for communities dependent on rivers. It will destroy the river’s ecosystem (each river has its own ecological entity with unique biodiversity), and could well mean the end of many species such as the gharials, Ganga hilsa, Brahmaputra cat fish, and Gangetic dolphins.

A quick word on your push on renewable energy. While it is appreciable, green energy projects must also be assessed and evaluated, as these, particularly wind energy concentrated in grasslands, deserts and ridges, are devastating critically endangered species like bustards, floricans, wolves, and raptors.

Last but certainly not the least, I take up now my biggest fear and pray for a patient ear. The plank for this election has been ‘development’, and while I am all for it, I strongly advocate that India strive for sustainable development in the truest sense of the word. Yes, the country must grow, but does growth mean that we suspend and get rid of environmental and forest regulations? Will such growth really be so? No, if we are to go by the World Bank, which has said that India’s growth is already negated, with 5.7 percent of GDP erased due to environmental damage. Sir, environment, forest and wildlife laws put in the checks and balances essential for clean air, water, soil, recharging ground water, a stable monsoon and take the heat off climate change – deforesation contributes about 20 percent of global emissions. An unhealthy population, a bad monsoon, weather extremes depress the GDP, and cause havoc in the lives of millions who depend on a stable and sufficient monsoon for their livelihood. The recent hail storm in Maharashtra, with the losses upwards of '40,000 crore, or the destructive nature of hydropower projects that has been linked to the floods that raged through Uttarakhand last year are testimony of the tragic consequences of disregarding environment concerns.

Do not be under the misimpression, Sir, that the previous government in power was too kind to the environment for its own, or the country’s, good. Oh yes, to give them due credit, it was the Congress regime in the 1970s (and early 1990s) that provided the legal and policy framework to protect tigers and other wildlife, coasts as well as put checks and balances on pollution and ‘collateral damage’ from industry, mines and so on. But these have routinely been disregarded, and over the past decade, even if the media and India Inc have spread the myth of ‘green hurdles’, they don’t exist. Read my lips, Sir: green hurdles are a myth. Environment clearances were granted over 95 percent of projects, and the rate of rejection for forest clearances crashed to a mere four percent in the first half of 2013. For key sectors like coal and thermal power, clearances given exceed capacity and production targets. The problem clearly lies elsewhere.

It will be prudent, Sir, then to look at reasons other than environment for relatively slow growth. Our country, and its systems, are simply too complex to pin the blame on just one factor – environment, or if you would rather, pesky animals like tigers, or those who strive to protect them. The BJP manifesto speaks of reframing environment laws and rules in a manner that leads to speedy clearance. It calls for single window clearances, fast-track highways, development and heavy infrastructure and investment of the remote border areas and the rich biodiversity hotpots of northeast India. These, especially with a weaker regulatory regime, will wreak havoc with the environment, biodiversity and crucially our water catchments. Natural resources are finite, and how will the country grow when forests have been razed and the minerals exhausted, and rivers over-dammed, and drained, and the Himalayas crumbled under the weight of our thoughtless ambitions?

It is my earnest appeal, not as an environmentalist but as a citizen of this country: don’t shake our strong ecological foundations. It may reap short-term gains and temporarily boost the GDP (which is a faulty measure at best of a country’s development, as it ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality, and is in fact in the process of being ‘dethroned’ by the UN, which is looking at sustainable development growth as an indicator). In the long run, it will devastate, fragment, and destroy natural forests, rivers, mountains, and wildlife.

I have the faith, that you will have wisdom and vision for a strong India – not for the next five, 10 or 15 years, but for the next 50, or 100. Other countries have looked up to India as a pioneer and leader in conservation, from the times of Emperor Ashoka, to contemporary India, and we expect that here too, our flag will continue to fly high, indeed scale new heights.

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