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Blindly ahead

Tarsh Thekaekara | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on July 17, 2015

Pollination is an ‘ecosystem service’ we humans derive from lands such as the Western Ghats Photo: Bhagya Prakash K   -  K_BHAGYA PRAKASH

Big picture No crop can grow without pollinators (such as bees) Photo: KR Deepak   -  K_R_DEEPAK

One size doesn’t fit all: India cannot follow the standard trajectory of otherdeveloped nations. We have a unique challenge with our high populationdensity that demands creative solutions to preserve our environment. Photo: Reuters   -  REUTERS

A farmer knows every corner of his land — what crops will grow best where — in a way that MNCs never can Photo: K Ananthan   -  The Hindu

In the environment vs. development debate, we forget that natural capital — forests, rivers, land — provide ecosystem services, without which we as a species would not survive

With the BJP government, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, pushing a development agenda, what everyone seems to agree on is that the environment, forests and wildlife have got the short end of the stick. Almost all the green laws are in the process of being subverted or completely rewritten to make way for industry. Statutory bodies like the national board for wildlife and forest advisory committee have undergone severe dental surgery and are left with no teeth. The only minister in the cabinet charged with protecting the country’s environment and forests thinks his ministry is a ‘road block ministry’, and is working towards speeding up environmental clearances. It’s no holds barred for ‘development’.

While the ‘greens’ are shouting themselves hoarse, the majority of urban India perhaps thinks this is inevitable. Conserving the environment is, of course, important, but as a developing nation we have to use our natural resources to develop. With almost 30 per cent of the country’s 1.2 billion people living in poverty, without basic needs — housing, electricity, clean water and proper food — being met, the ‘development’ challenge facing the government is huge. We are a democracy, and it’s the need of the majority that apparently counts, not a few elite conservationists.

But this is not the whole story. Humanity the world over depends on ‘natural capital’— it is the basis of all other forms of capital, growth, development and everything else. The forests, rivers, crops, land are the basis of life on this planet, and provide valuable ecosystem services, without which we as a species would not survive. We directly depend on them for food, fibre, fuel, raw materials for houses and shelter. We depend on our natural environment for regulating climate and rainfall, for water purification and cycling. Nitrogen cycling is vital for growing crops, flood protection, disease control, to give a few examples.

Falling apart

However, natural systems are breaking down around us. Take the Shola grassland systems across the Western Ghats, for example. The indigenous communities in the hills always valued the grasslands, but no one listened to them. They were considered ‘wastelands’ by the British, and were either planted over with exotic plantations of pine, eucalyptus or wattle trees, or given over to ‘development’. ‘Modern’ science now shows us that these grasslands are vital for water cycles. A rivulet that runs through a valley with natural grasslands on both sides will flow in a steady trickle all through the year, through the heaviest of rain and most of the summer. The grasslands act like a sponge that soaks up the water when it rains, and releases it slowly through the year. But when the slopes are planted with exotic trees, the rivulet becomes a torrential stream in heavy rain, causing immense erosion as it moves along, and will completely dry up in the summer months. All these rivulets come together to form the streams and rivers that flow out of the mountains and sustain millions of people across south India. But in our need to have more electricity, steel, aluminium and other minerals, dams and mining continue to eat into these hills. Of course, we need electricity and metal ores, but should it be at the cost of water?

Our food system is another case study where things are going badly wrong. No crop can grow without pollinators — an ‘ecosystem service’ we humans derive from natural capital. One of the first global valuations of ecosystem services in the journal Nature valued the ‘pollination pest control services’ for agriculture provided by bees and other insects in the US alone at $240 billion per year, and at 1994 prices. Modern genetically modified crops spread over thousands of acres intensively managed by agri-businesses cannot support bees, and they are dying out across much of the ‘developed’ world. It’s reached a point where bees are artificially reared, imported from other countries and released over the crops to pollinate it. And then they all die out with no suitable habitat. The next move is to try and develop robotic bees. Is this an exciting new development or sheer lunacy?

The diclofenac-vulture is another classic example. A cheap drug that acts as an anti-inflammatory and painkiller, diclofenac was extensively used for livestock in the 1990s. Vultures that fed on diclofenac-treated carcasses died, and we saw a spectacular 99.9 per cent reduction in vulture numbers across South Asia. Everyone agreed that this was unfortunate, but it didn’t bother us. However, vultures, in their inconspicuous way, unknown to most of us, provided an essential service — of cleaning animal carcasses, vital for a country like India, which is home to half a billion livestock. With no vultures to clean up and dead animals piling up, the population of feral dogs shot up to 18 million. But they are not as efficient. They make a mess by scattering animal bones and rotting tissue, spreading diseases like rabies and polluting water bodies. And there are other unquantifiable losses — the Parsis’ towers of silence and Tibetan sky burial rituals depend on vultures. These communities now grapple without key functions of their traditional funeral customs.

So what?

Again the average urban Indian will say, ‘Yes yes, all that is fine and conservation is vitally important, but do you deny the fact that we need to develop? Look at all the western nations and how well they manage their environment while also leading lives of comfort.’ But India cannot follow the standard trajectory of other developed nations for two reasons. First, we have a unique challenge with our enormous population that demands more creative solutions. Everyone knows we are the world’s second most populated country. But what fewer people recognise or talk about is our population density — 400 people in every square kilometre. The US, supposedly the land of the free and the benchmark of what the whole world is aspiring to become, has about 35 people per square kilometre. China has 140, and our other BRICS allies also are a long way off — 40 in South Africa, 25 in Brazil and eight in Russia. We are clearly not like anyone else, and so we must carve our own path.

There is just no space in our country to ‘develop’ along the western industrial model. We will soon run out of all our natural resources, including the very essence of survival — food and water. Second, almost every ‘developed nation’ lives well beyond its means, using other countries’ resources while sometimes managing to conserve its own. We are also trying our best to copy the same unsustainable model of development, with land grabs in Africa by Indian corporations. But we are still eating into our own limited natural resource base faster than ever before. The Indian forest policy recommends that the safe amount of forests that the country needs is 33 per cent of the country’s land. We are now at about 20 per cent, with natural forests being cleared (and in the best of cases replaced by monoculture plantations) at an alarming rate.

The democracy argument put forth for the primacy of development is also not entirely true. Few Indians benefit from this development and growth. India is unique in terms of what most of its people do for a living. Ninety three per cent of the employable Indians fall into the unorganised category. And 50 per cent of the population is engaged in farming, with small agricultural plots sprinkled all over the country on which people grow their own food. This means we are a country of self-supporting entrepreneurs, who don’t depend on the state to be ‘looked after’.

Some say that ‘farming by the masses’ is inefficient, that modern industrial-scale agriculture is the way forward, but that’s proving to be untrue in many instances. In Africa, many large corporations find they are unable to replace the intricate knowledge and skills that small farmers have over their land. And in less-than-perfect conditions (like low rainfall) industrial farming is not viable. A farmer knows every corner of his land — what crops will grow best and where — in a way that MNCs never can. Farming by the masses could possibly be much more resilient than the industrial-scale farming by large corporations. Is our model of development working for 93 per cent of the population?

The developed world is moving on and looking for alternatives, but we blindly follow the impossible trajectory they began many decades ago. All the development we are now pursuing is essentially to make room for large corporations and big business. There will, of course, be ripple effects and trickle-downs, but the growth being talked about is most likely going to improve the lot of the top seven per cent, and possibly pull a few more people into this category. But it’s not aimed at the poorest of India, those most in need of development. NGOs, people’s movements and civil society groups are all labelled ‘anti-development’ and are currently feeling the wrath of the state unleashed upon them.

Let’s be honest, even most of us urban elite who directly benefit from the corporatisation of India (who like to call ourselves the ‘middle class’) have rural roots if you go back a few generations. Though we have more money, ‘purchasing power’, live longer and have vastly improved some health indices, we also know that our agricultural grandparents or great grandparents ate healthier food and lived less stressed-out lives. It’s a classic emperor’s new clothes story — everyone else is forging blindly and unhappily ahead and so we must too.

Social activist Bunker Roy made an interesting observation about our current ‘barefoot government’. For the first time in our history of being independent, we are not ruled by an elite who has been ‘brainwashed at Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, the World Bank or the IMF’, but have a Prime Minister and cabinet who are arguably from majority India. There is an opportunity to redefine the global notion of development, one that is not based on expanding levels of consumption, but genuinely improves the quality of people’s lives without destroying the environment. But it’s not going to be easy. India Inc funds almost all the political parties, and the world’s largest democracy is fighting to stop the slide towards a corporatocracy.

(Tarsh Thekaekara is a biodiversity conservationist working with The Shola Trust)

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Published on July 17, 2015
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