Conservation

For investing in environment protection

Print edition : June 19, 2020

The great Indian bustard.

Waterhole for blackbucks built in the middle of the great Indian bustard core area by Forest Department in Siruguppa, Ballari. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Environmental experts voice concerns over ecosystem degradation and unbridled consumption of natural resources.

In a year when there has been tragedy and chaos the world over, the environment, a sector that takes a beating anyway, is facing more pressure following the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Energy-intensive development models, prioritising industry over all else, the misbegotten notion that progress is measured only by production and consumption, the deliberate and concerted hacking away of forests are all in the limelight once again.

There are examples the world over of the natural environment flourishing alongside development. Perhaps the most well-known example is Costa Rica, where ecotourism is based on conservation and a general social consensus exists on protection of the environment as an excellent investment. But this model calls for commitment from the government. The Indian government seems to be committed to taking the exact opposite path, which is borne out by the fact that Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar also handles the Heavy Industries & Public Enterprises portfolio.

There have been attempts to give forest and environmental clearances during the peak of the coronavirus crisis and a concerted effort to erode the National Board for Wildlife and make it a tool of the government rather than let it serve the cause of wildlife.

Concerns over this deteriorating atmosphere persuaded some of the country’s best-known environmentalists to release a statement on energy, species extinction, loss of biodiversity, erosion of natural defences, climate buffering mechanisms and other crucial issues.

Kishor Rithe, former member of the National Board for Wildlife, who is based in eastern Maharashtra where forests have seen deep incursions by coal companies, said it was “time to phase out coal-based power projects” and move to renewable energy sources. He said: “In 2012, the energy demand was more than the installed capacity in India and many parts of our country were facing load-shedding problems. Many players were applying for coal mining leases and thermal power plants. However, the energy sector has been changed in the past eight years. The power demand is 40 per cent of the total installed capacity today. On 24 March 2020, while industries were operating, the power demand was 146 GW [gigawatt] against the installed capacity of 369 GW. This includes 198 GW from thermal power plants, 88 GW from renewable energy sources like solar and wind and 83 GW from other sources like biofuel. This shows that the country can progress with renewable sources and other energy sources rather than the coal based thermal power plants. So this is the high time when we should phase out the thermal power in next four years.”

Bittu Sahgal, founder of Sanctuary Nature Foundation, said forest watershed of dams should be seen as “infrastructures, not impediments to infrastructures”. He said, “Maharashtra is India’s largest large dam builder, but every large dam catchment in Maharashtra is in tatters.”

Conservation Action Trust’s executive trustee, Debi Goenka, said mangroves, “one of the most important gifts of nature to mankind” that “clean polluted waters, sequester huge quantities of carbon … are a natural defence to extreme climatic events such as cyclones and tsunamis” but are still “destroyed under the guise of “development” projects such as Mumbai’s coastal road, the Navi Mumbai International Airport, the underground Metro 3 project in Mumbai, all examples of projects that have been planned without considering the impacts of sea level rise.”

Kedar Gore, Director of The Corbett Foundation and member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, Bustard Specialist Group, brought up the issue of species extinction with his plea for the conservation of the great Indian bustard and the lesser florican. He said only150 bustards and 700 floricans were surviving in the wild

Deepak Apte, Director, Bombay Natural History Society, focussed on marine life and the skewed population spike caused by overfishing, reduction in fish, and trade in marine fauna and how this compromised “sand cleaning and climate buffering mechanisms”.

Dr. Anish Andheria, president of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, said: “The COVID-19 outbreak has put tremendous pressure on terrestrial ecosystems. The forced reverse migration of people and unprecedented rise in unemployment rate has increased the dependence of people on forests and wildlife. Consequently, poaching incidents have escalated. On the other hand, the knowledge about zoonotic diseases has improved considerably. Conservationists and forest departments have their jobs cut out. They will have to do everything possible to strengthen the protection of the remaining forests, both inside and outside protected areas to reduce the interface between people and wildlife…. Special emphasis will have to be laid on curbing illegal trade in wildlife and bushmeat consumption within India. India will have to rally with other countries to put a stop on the International Wildlife Trade to halt the collapse of several wild species in their native countries and reduce the future threat of zoonotic diseases.”

One of the criticisms levelled at the environmental movement is that it is nature-centric and alienates people. A century or more of treating the natural environment as a resource to be exploited has resulted in the current degraded situation, so it is only natural that a firm stand will be taken by its defenders. Besides, in a tight situation the environmentalist, invariably, is forced to give way. This is what had happened in 2018 when the tigress Avni, who was still nursing her cubs was shot dead by a state-hired hunter. The tigress was blamed for 13 deaths and there was a refusal to consider any option other than her death.

Apte’s comments on marine life are relevant to the general state of environmental matters. “There is no one measure that will address these issues,” he said, “It requires systematic policy reforms. and highly trained enforcement agencies who understand the subject. The sustainability word is merely used to make policy papers nice but it is purely cosmetic.”

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