* We may worship the Ganga and yet, denied the freedom to flow, she stands diminished — a shadow of her mighty, mystical self
* In humanity’s hubristic rampage to subjugate and bend nature to our narrow, selfish interests
* We have a brutal history of incarcerating animals in menageries and circuses for our amusement and whims
The Ganga is India’s mother river, the longest, the holiest. Her purity washes away our sins, and as we leave the Earth, our ashes are immersed in her for our souls to gain salvation. She once flowed fast and furious, cascading from the Bhagirathi, which in turn gushed out of Gaumukh — the ice cave now retreating and melting — to spread across the vast Gangetic basin, nurturing and nourishing millions.
Today, in large tracts, the Ganga has mutated into a filthy trickle, shackled by hundreds of dams — about 600 in operation or proposed, and a thousand if one counts her tributaries . The dams have stilled her waters so much that there is no Ganga — what is a river, after all, without its water or flow — for eight months in a year. As dams and embankments rein in the river, the aquatic life it nurtures shrinks.
The endangered Gangetic river dolphin, once found across the Ganga and its tributaries, now occupies only a fraction of its original range; the golden mahseer, a fish so majestic it is called the ‘tiger of the river’, is dwindling rapidly as barrages block its passage to the spawning grounds. Some such as the gharial, an ancient crocodilian species, have all but vanished from the river .
We may worship the Ganga and yet, denied the freedom to flow, she stands diminished — a shadow of her mighty, mystical self.
In humanity’s hubristic rampage to subjugate and bend nature to our narrow, selfish interests — to conquer mountains and train rivers, mine the earth and the sea, exploit and destroy forests, imprison and consume wildlife — Homo sapiens forget that we are part of nature too.
Animals are sacred as well, from the snake to the elephant, and it is these deep cultural connections that have helped conserve wildlife in India. But gods can fall. The elephant is the living incarnation of Lord Ganesha, the harbinger of good fortune. Like most animals, the elephant is a migrant; travelling great distances for better sustenance and to strengthen its bloodlines by seeking mates far and wide. As a copious consumer of water and vegetation, it knows that it cannot burden a place for too long, so it travels and, through its dung — neatly packed fertiliser — it plants diverse forests as it goes, shaping healthy ecosystems. But the elephant is now hemmed into tiny sanctuaries and forests by trenches and fences, rail tracks and highways, and expanding human habitation. When it tries to break free, it may be harangued and hounded, killed by accidents — as in the case of six elephants run over by a train in North Bengal in 2013; or poisoned like the pregnant pachyderm in Palakkad, Kerala, in May this year. The conflict between humans and elephants is a complex one, rife with loss and tragedy for both. In curtailing the elephant’s migration, an instinct embedded in its DNA, we only aggravate the problem, making an essentially peaceable, empathetic, intelligent animal into a stressed, aggressive one. The chains may be invisible; nonetheless, they chafe, and tie this mighty beast down.
We have a brutal history of incarcerating animals in menageries and circuses for our amusement and whims — training and terrorising tigers to jump through fire, bears to balance on balls, and roosters to fight unto death. Though, it is not always a menagerie or a cage that holds an animal captive. When its habitat is destroyed, it gets pushed into a corner, curbing its freedom, threatening its very existence.
A particularly poignant case is that of the Great Indian bustard. Fewer than 150 survive in the world, almost all in the Thar desert of Rajasthan. The rest of the arid grasslands it favoured across the state, and further in peninsular India, were trashed as wastelands, used and abused for everything from mining to renewable energy projects. The birds are rapidly losing ground, while the sky above is criss-crossed with high-transmission lines that scorch the birds as they fly unknowingly into the deadly web of wires, which they are not equipped to negotiate. In Kutch, Gujarat, not a single male bustard survives; that makes the clutch of remaining five to six females a population doomed to die.
When we contain and tether wild animals to fragments of habitat, it not only condemns them to a slow death, it also curbs their natural, biological instincts: Mating, bringing up their young and perpetuating their kind. We diminish the nature of animals and their freedom to be.
Nature, globally, is being annihilated at unprecedented rates — a University of Queensland-led international study in 2017 shows a tenth of the Earth’s wilderness has been destroyed in 25 years, and one million species face a complete wipeout, as per a 2019 UN report.
As I write this, it is five months and counting since I have been free to move wherever I fancy; the pandemic has kept humanity across the globe shackled, unable to meet others of our kind, or shower physical affection on our loved ones.
A friend argues that it is the revenge of the animals. No, definitely not. Unlike what might be portrayed in a certain kind of cinema, animals don’t plot revenge on the wrongs we do them. They only seek the freedom to live, and be, as ordained by the natural order.
India’s Constitution promises its citizens liberty; surely as fellow denizens of planet Earth, and the oldest residents of the country, don’t animals deserve and command a right to life, liberty and dignity?
And what about the rivers? It’s not just the Ganga, but bumper-to-bumper projects threaten most of India’s rivers: Globally, as per the World Wildlife Fund, fewer than 70 of the world’s 177 longest rivers remain free of man-made obstructions, which makes freshwater habitats the most endangered ecosystems.
Prerna Singh Bindra is a conservationist, writer and journalist