Thursday, March 7, 2013

Our Environmental Health

Dr M N Buch 
(Visiting Fellow, VIF)

Much as one loves India --- and I am xenophobic about it --- one cannot help but ask the question, are we a nation which worships symbolism more than substance? As a people are we given so much to tokenism that tokens salve our conscience, tokens dictate our policy and tokens are what we offer when faced with a grave problem. Let me give one example. Our national approach to women’s issues has been one of either total blindness or only very selective sight, which has caused us to fail in reading the very clear signals on the status of women. The first is the increasingly skewed sex ratio that every census indicates. In Madhya Pradesh there are 48 females to 52 males, that is, about 920 female to every 1000 males. This is much better than the figures for Punjab, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, where the average ranges from about 850 females per 1000 males to about 900 females for 1000 males. The male-female ratio shows no sign of improvement --- in fact it has worsened in those States where sex determination tests, female foeticide and infanticide are not unknown and where a girl child is considered a liability.

Then there is the question of literacy. The All India average is 82 percent male literacy against 65.50 percent female literacy. The corresponding figures for Madhya Pradesh are 80.50 percent and 60.00 percent respectively. Moving from literacy to education, that is, studying up to higher secondary and college, female drop out is high and female participation only a fraction of male participation. Add to this the narrow, retrograde, almost Taliban type attitude of the so called ‘khap panchayats’, or community panchayats, especially amongst the Jats and Gujars of Haryana, Western U.P. and Eastern Rajasthan. Here women are treated almost like male property to whom every aspect of personal deportment and behaviour, the social mores and the norms of moral behaviour are dictated by males. A woman either obeys or has to face penalty, ranging from being sent to Coventry, to being locked up, physically chastised, forced into marriage or even being deprived of her life. The excuse is that this protects the woman from sexual attack and also guards her from the temptations that often torment persons entering puberty whose hormones are overactive. No one seems to be bothered by the fact that the girl is thereby deprived of her right to choose her own future, to think and speak freely, to dress as she likes, to educate and express herself, to choose a mate, in short to lead her own life. Society can and must inculcate values and devise the norms and patterns of social behaviour, always within the bounds of civilised behaviour, but within these guidelines both boys and girls must enjoy equal rights.

Society has read none of these signals, which are strong, consistent and quite easily identifiable. Instead it took a rape in a Delhi omnibus and the subsequent death of the victim for society to suddenly realise that there was something seriously wrong with us. That rape and the plethora of rape cases being reported now are not the malady --- they are only a symbol of what is horribly wrong with our society. Women were treated as chattel by society, but because there was no symbolism attached to it, no one took notice. We have a token Human Rights Commission and a Women’s Commission but because both are tokens rather than strong organisations which can give justice to women, they salve our conscience without solving any problem. It took the real but symbolic rape of a 23-year old woman in a Delhi bus to galvanise society, cause government to proclaim an Ordinance for control of sexual crime and for the media to discover that rape is a crime. Since then the drums of jingoism have beaten non-stop but no one, women’s groups, government, educationists and social workers have found time to address what ails women. I see no signs of a Mahatma Gandhi type civil disobedience movement which would shame society into promoting gender equality. There is no Anil Bordia type ‘lok jumbish’, or people’s movement to educate children, to educate men in what gender equality means. All that would take effort and hard work. Tokenism is instantaneous, which means that instead of training vast numbers of women in skills which will bring them competitively into the job market, let us offer them a token all women’s bank. Will this suddenly create women entrepreneurship? Probably not, but we can smugly say “But we are doing something, aren’t we?”

This is not an essay on women and their rights. This is an essay on the environment. However, the opening paragraphs are not on women or on nature. They are on our blindness in reading signals, our inability or lack of desire to understand problems and our uncanny ability to offer sops and then forget the matter till the next crisis. What is true of our attitude to gender related issues is equally true of nature. House sparrows, crows, vultures, mammalian predators, even a large number of reptiles, are no longer seen. For example, my house, because of its green cover and that of its surrounding areas, has always been a bird watcher’s paradise. I have even seen a painted partridge in my garden, never seen by me in the typically partridge country of Morena, or in the magnificent forests of Madhya Pradesh. In the last three or four years I have seen no house sparrows, very few crows, not more than a couple of vultures, no golden orioles in the Bhopal skies, hedge rows and trees. There is the odd cry of anguish from a nature lover such as Bhalu Mondhe or Abhilash Khandekar, but that is about all.

Suddenly a tiger dies or a panther is snared by villagers. All hell breaks loose, task forces are formed, the T.V. channels run non-stop programmes full of twaddle and garbage. H.S. Pawar, the man who did more even than Kaliash Sankhla to save the tiger, is given the Padma Bhushan, the dust settles and we all go back to slumber --- that is, till one more symbol, a tiger, dies. The cycle of tokenism is repeated but soon dies down. The symbol is more important than the message.

Parables not only embellish a tale, they even enliven it and make it more interesting and, therefore, more understandable. Let me introduce a parable. The Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management (IIITM), Gwalior became the first educational institution in India, perhaps the world, to set up a butterfly conservatory. When asked why an I.T. institute was interested in a butterfly park the Director of IIITM (G) said that the butterfly may be a symbol, but in fact it was an indicator of the environmental health of the campus. A butterfly needs clean, pesticide free vegetation on which to roost, breed and feed. It needs a combination of flowers with nectar, roosting plants, water, relative safety from predators and above all an atmosphere free of pesticides, air pollutants and chemicals. The tree clad campus provides the habitat for mammals, avifauna, reptiles and insects, including butterflies. More important, because all these, especially butterflies, are seen in large numbers it means that the air is fit to breathe, the water clean, the variety of flora moderates the micro climate and the whole campus is healthy for students, faculty and staff alike. If the butterflies disappear the signal would be that all is not well and remedial measures are urgently required. Unlike the tiger the IIITM (G) butterfly is neither a token nor a mere symbol. It is true indicator of health.

Twenty years ago India’s tiger population was over 4000. Madhya Pradesh (including Chhattisgarh) alone had about 1800. Today it is estimated that about 1800 is the total tiger population of India. The situation in one sanctuary alone, Sariska, caused government to set up an expert committee, headed by Sunita Narayan to study and report on the situation and suggest remedial measures. My view is that the committee missed the wood for the trees. That is because our conservationists have developed a siege mentality, a feeling that if Rome is to be saved from the Vandals, the Goths and the Visigoths, then it must build a ring of defensive forts so that the enemies could be kept out of Rome. A purely defensive posture never builds an empire. Let us take our own example. Every invader has succeeded in defeating our Rajas and their armies, whether he be Alexander, Mohammed Ghauri or Babar. They had the advantage of aggression, mobility, of a choice of where to concentrate and attack the defenders who had, perforce, to spread thin in order to guard the whole territory. We may have won a few battles, but we lost every war. Except, of course, when Chanakya mentored Chandragupta Maurya who then went on to consolidate feudatory states. He took the war to Nicolas Selutor, the Greek commander who had been left behind by Alexander to rule his Indian territories. Chandragupta did not shelter behind the walls of Patliputra. Instead, he brought the Greeks to battle at a place of his choosing, defeated them and liberated India. Aggression and firm action brought success.

The second example is of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He expanded the Sikh kingdom, crossed the Indus at Attock, captured the Vale of Peshwar and conquered the whole of what is today Khyber Pakhtunwa Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, right up to Jamrud and Landi Kotal. But for him the land of the Pathans would not have been part of British India and would not have been inherited by Pakistan. In order to keep the predatory Pathans at bay, Ranjit Singh took the war to their homeland and thus secured Punjab against foreign intrusions. Ranjit Singh did not believe in tokenism.

To return to our forests, there is a very pessimistic group of conservationists who feel that soon the only place where wildlife will exist, especially the tiger, is the sanctuaries. With great respect to them, for some of them are my gurus, I beg to differ. The sanctuary syndrome is part of the siege mentality and is bound to fail. When Fateh Singh was Director of the Ranthambore National Park it was considered the leading tiger reserve because, with the relatively thinner forest cover, it offered easy tiger sighting, which fact was fully exploited by the extroverted Fateh Singh. One year brought a terrible drought to Rajasthan, villagers breached the boundary of Ranthambhore and there were major clashes between forest staff and villagers. The villagers were considered poachers, intruders and worse. My considered opinion is that the foresters and conservationists were blind because they did not read the strong signals emanating from the situation.

Let us consider what the signals were. There was a drought which, along with other areas, affected Sawai Madhopur District, in which Ranthambhore is located. The land was parched but the protected tiger reserve had grass and water because the park authorities had undertaken storage, conservation and water harvesting measures. Unable to see their cattle starve or die of thirst the villagers entered the park. When they were stopped, force was used against them and they were ousted. Their natural reaction was, “The Park is for the tiger, our cattle would endanger the tiger, therefore, our cattle can die so that the tiger thrives. If the tiger is liquidated our cattle can once again enter the forest. Therefore, eliminate the tiger, poach him out of existence”.
This is a signal that our conservationists either cannot or do not read. Wildlife, like humans, requires a habitat, or home. It must be spacious, clean and rich in bio-diversity. It must have a whole hierarchy of plant and animal life so that from largest predator to the lowest lichen or moss the habitat has food. Around 1978-82 the Madhav National Park at Shivpuri, at one time the home of tiger, reported a total absence of predators. The fear was that the ungulates and other herbivore would proliferate and destroy the forest through overgrazing. But one phenomenon that was observed was that there had been a drastic fall in new born and young fauna. The animals were just not reproducing. After the 1983 monsoon a pack of 23 ‘dhol’, or Deccan Red Dog, invaded the park. They are the world’s worst predators and have been known to run down, kill and eat even elephants. They cut a swathe of destruction through the park and the Director sought my permission to shoot them as vernin. This I refused. No doubt that during their sojourn in the Madhav National Park the dhols did kill a number of herbivore and created terror, but obviously 23 dhols could hardly eat every wild boar, deer, antelope, rabbit and porcupine in the park and after a while they also moved on to wherever they intended to go next. The very next monsoon a miracle was seen because the park was inundated with hundreds of new born fawn, boorlets, rabbit and hare. Without danger the herbivore reproduction rate had fallen but under stress of real danger survival of the fittest had kicked in, the reproduction rate soared and the balance was restored.

Nature not only sends signals, it shouts them and it projects them, all loud and clear. Pune is a plateau in the Sahyadris, cupped by hills all around. The hills are barren, whereas in Shivaji’s days they were so thickly tree covered, had so much wildlife, that the Moghuls were very hard pressed indeed to move troop and guns over them to attack Shivaji. That is why the Mula and Mutha Rivers ran full of clear, clean water. The deforestation of the hills, their capture by builders their being buried under brick and concrete has changed the climate of Pune. The summer capital of Bombay Presidency was known for its greenery and equable climate. Today the prevailing colour is brown, black and grey because the hills have no vegetation, the rivers are filthy sewers and the climate has changed from equable to trying. Everyone blames the fast multiplying population. It must be accommodated but there are urbanisation options available which can both accommodate people and yet protect the environment. That merits a separate paper.

All this is minor compared with what we are doing to our watersheds. The Himalayan rivers are rain fed and are charged by snow melt. They all originate above the tree line and whereas the health of the forests in the catchments of feeder rivers which flow down below the tree line is vitally important so long as there is snow and it melts these rivers will have some perennial flow. However, the rivers of peninsular India are totally rain fed and if their catchments are deforested the rivers will have no dry season flow at all. At Uttarkashi the dry weather flow of the snow fed Bhagirathi is six percent of peak season flow. At Mandla, Hoshangabad and Mortakka the dry season flow of the Narmada averages 12.50 percent of peak season flow. This is because the forests of the Upper and Middle Reaches of the Narmada may be under stress, but are still reasonably dense. They slow down velocity of flow from the hills and permit both permeation of the sub-strata and ground water recharge and, through root zone treatment, arrest surface erosion and also purify the water. Throughout the year there is flow of recharged sub surface water into the rivers, which explains the relatively high percentage of dry weather flow.
The watersheds of peninsular rivers must be protected, nay, enhanced and improved. Government had launched a very successful mili-and-micro watershed programme in the late eighties of the last century and many of our drought prone districts benefitted immensely from it. Take Jhabua which, with Palamau, epitomised drought. My institute, the National Centre for Human Settlements and Environment (NCHSE), has been participating in the progtramme and our experience has been uniformly encouraging. In treated villages seasonal migration has drastically reduced, all wells are recharged, there is adequacy of fuel and fodder and agriculture has improved. In four villages of Para Block the hills of Khardu Badi, Khardu Chhoti, Kushalpura and Jakhela, about 3000 acres in all, were brought under protection and afforestation. Today they are beautifully wooded and teem with wildlife. Village Jakhela alone has over a hundred peacocks. I have run into a panthress with four cubs and have seen the fresh pug marks of a tiger. In a totally barren area, with no vegetation at all, whence came the wildlife? Certainly not introduced by any of us, which proves my point ---- create the habitat and it will soon have denizens, even tigers. The misfortune is that the proven successful watershed management programme has been subsumed by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, whose objective is employment generation, not asset creation. The consequences are disastrous.
What we need is an aggressive policy of afforestation, a Hari Singh Nalwa conquering the frontier. Expand the habitat and many things will happen. Dead rivers will revive. Fuel and fodder availability will improve and villagers will become more responsible in how to harvest the forests. Drought will be tackled and agriculture would prosper, together with animal husbandry. More important still, wildlife will make a comeback. The presence of butterflies on the IIITM (G) campus is a barometer of the health of the environment in the campus. The presence of wildlife will be the proof positive of the state of our total environment. But is that happening? Well, so far tokenism seems to be winning. A few trees are transplanted in Delhi because a road widening scheme is being undertaken. Someone organises a mohalla tree census. All very good. But does NHAI emulate Sher Shah Suri, who built the Grand Trunk Road, but planted so many trees that in the old days a drive along it was like passing through an endless cool, green tunnel? Instead we have some central verge plantation --- very pleasant on the eye, but incapable of sheltering even one butterfly. With the unplanned urbanisation eating into green field areas, with development taking place in conflict with Nature rather than in consonance with it, with greedy land developers eyeing all land as a calf to be slaughtered for profit, no wonder we are increasingly facing an environmental crisis which is growing into a monster. Should not citizens at large read the signals, eschew symbolism and insist on real, meaningful action?

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