A wish-list on environment from new government

All parties have given environment a pass in their poll campaigns and manifestos. So, here is a list of demands from the next government

prerna-singh-bindra

Prerna Singh Bindra | May 2, 2014




We are in the last leg of the elections—the world’s largest such exercise, and looking to formulate a new government. Whatever be the result, the job of this column is not to speculate on the same–there is little doubt that India will see a shake-up in leadership.

My preoccupation has been how much of the electoral debate or manifestos of political parties have focused (or not) on the environment, which was the subject of my column in the magazine’s April 1-15 issue. Given that the ‘E’ word was largely ignored by PM candidates, and in party manifestos, I do not envisage a bright future where environment and conservation issues are central or even a serious priority of the forthcoming government.

Still, hope burns eternal and I have put together a six-point agenda, a wish list if you please, for the new government if we are to conserve our wildlife, and for a secure ecological future.

I have tried to keep this simple and brief.

1. Conservation of existing forests rather than emphasis on ‘greening India’ and recoginising that conserving forests is key to tackle climate change
:

Forests sequester and store carbon, nearly 300 billion tonnes, that would otherwise contribute to climate change. When we cut, degrade and destroy forests this carbon is released into the atmosphere. Deforestation is a major cause for global warming, accounting for upwards of 18 percent of global emissions. Conserving old growth forests, and avoiding deforestation, therefore, is seen as a highly cost-effective option to mitigate climate change.

Simple, right? But somehow this science has escaped our esteemed policy makers who continue to divert and destroy biodiversity-rich forests (under the benign garb of development), while ‘greening India’ gets priority as part of its high level national action on climate change. The mystery of why we undertake this futile exercise of first cut-and-destroy, then plant-all over, will get solved when we realise that this ambitious afforestation programme of 6 million hectares has a budget of a whopping Rs 46,000 crores.

It is of little consequence that such planted monoculture plantations have zero or negative ecological value and the trees planted have a survival rate of just ten percent.

2. Acknowledge that environmental health is linked to that of the economy and there can be no growth if we mess up ecology:

We are not asking you to listen to pesky doomsday environmentwallahs. We would however, want you to take note of the World Bank, as strong an advocate of unsustainable growth as any, when it says that environmental degradation is costing India around 5.7 percent of its GDP annually. Incidentally, 5.7 percent is the projected growth rate for the coming financial year. If you know your math, the collateral damage of development—air, water, soil pollution, resultant health impacts, etc—pretty much nullifies our GDP. Development comes at a cost. Consider the industrial town of Vapi (Gujarat), a toxic hell hole, which is among the most polluted cities in the world. Or the fact that air pollution is the sixth biggest killer in India. Easy as it sounds, we cannot think, “Hey, let’s grow now, and clean up later.” Even China, a development model we like to emulate, with air that can’t be breathed thinks so. It is not just cleaning up its act but has announced to “battle pollution to save the nation’s future”.

So the next Mr/Ms PM, please take note: Green laws and regulations that protect our forests, rivers, wetlands, coasts and regulate air, water, soil quality are not irritants or hurdles on the merry path to growth. They signify ecological security.  It is suggested to strengthen and not dilute the processes of environment, forest and wildlife regulations and clearances (as envisaged in some manifestos) while at the same time making them transparent, accountable and time bound, keeping in mind the period required to understand impacts of proposed projects on environment and biodiversity.

3. Conserve protected areas and consolidate crucial wildlife habitats:

Barely 4.5 percent of India falls under the protected area network. Even within this tiny area, there are highways, railway lines, canals, reservoirs, temples, townships, irrigation colonies, dams and mines. Sanctuaries, national parks and tiger reserves are the last refuges for our endangered wildlife. We cannot afford to devastate and fragment them further. These areas are no-go. Period.

We also need to regulate land use in other important wildlife habitats and wildlife corridors by bringing these under the umbrella of eco-sensitive zones. This is crucial not just to protect large ranging species like tigers, elephants, snow leopards, bears in the long run, but also to contain human-wildlife conflict that is escalating causing severe damage to both people and wildlife. Ill planned development breaks wildlife corridors that interconnect wildlife habitats.

4. Recognise the gravity and scale of wildlife crime, and empower institutions to combat it:

It has long been established that illegal wildlife trade is an organised crime, second only to arms and narcotics in scale, and is annually calculated at over $25 billion worldwide. The trade is a known source of funding for global terrorist activities. Importantly, India is a major supplier of wildlife and its products—from tigers to pangolins to snow leopards to otters to tokay geckos. To deal with this serious crime we have a woefully underequipped and toothless wildlife crime control bureau (WCCB). To give an idea, the WCCB has one inspector for the entire northern region, and the bureau does not even have the power to access call details directly which is crucial to crack crime cases. Let us not even talk of the status of the frontline staff which more often than not possess obsolete weapons but are not even empowered to use them during duty along the lines of other law enforcement agencies.

Well, one understood, sort of, while we stood by as our precious wildlife, including the national animal were decimated to feed voracious Chinese appetites. But one did hope that the government would sit up and follow suit now that the western world, including the heads of state of the USA and the UK have taken on board the gravity of the crime and committed to tackle it. But we are still waiting.

5. Use of CAMPA funds for consolidation of wildlife habitats:

This is complicated. But let me try and simplify it. The compensatory afforestation fund management and planning authority (CAMPA) is a corpus of funds essentially paid by the user agency as net value compensation for the diversion, use and destruction of natural forests for mines, industries, infrastructure, power projects, etc. Therefore, it is but logical that these hefty amounts (since we have destroyed huge tracts of forests, the CAMPA kitty is upward of some Rs 11,000 crore) be used to protect wildlife and its habitat within and outside protected areas.

This has been advised by the ministry of environment and forests and is in consonance with the directions issued from time to time by the supreme court but somehow we are not getting around to doing it.

Incidentally, what India allocates for wildlife (besides Project Tiger which has a separate budget) including critically endangered species, and some 570 odd PAs is a mere '80 crore annually, which is less than 0.2 percent of the annual budget.

6. Protecting eco-systems:

Particularly grasslands and wetlands, which we have defined as wastelands possibly because it is easier to raze them over for projects of ‘national importance’ like malls, multiplexes and housing complexes, need to be protected. Both grasslands and wetlands are of high biodiversity value and host rare species like bustards, wolves, blackbucks etc.  Importantly,  grasslands play a crucial role in preventing erosion of topsoil, recharge ground water, an ecosystem service also provided by wetlands which also sequester carbon, control flooding and support local livelihoods.

My last and earnest appeal is for the elephant, revered as the lovable Lord Ganesha. We officially recognised our cultural ties and declared it the national heritage animal in 2010; we also acknowledged its role in our parallel culture, Bollywood, and launched a Haathi Mera Saathi campaign. Satisfied that we had done our bit to ‘save elephants’, we then rested easy; or rather, we systematically went about decimating its habitat for mines, railway lines and highways, refusing to give even its crucial habitats some protective cover. The loss and fragmentation of elephant habitats, and the resulting escalating human-wildlife conflict is one of the saddest stories in conservation.

I have focused largely on wildlife conservation,  which is not to undermine other vital issues such as policy on water, renewable energy, conserving rivers, etc. Just a word on the Rs 6,00,000-crore river linking project, the next big thing to solve the country’s water crisis: forget it!

(This story appeared in the April 16-30, 2014 print issue)

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