Bad weather for conservation

Posted by: Bittu Sahgal on

Trekkking through the Western Ghats forests of Bhimgad in Karnataka, I paused to take in the vista before me. I was at a height and thick forests stretched to the horizon all around me. I had just visited the only recorded site in the world of the endangered Wroughton's Freetailed Bat and the walk back was hot and strenuous. A rushing crystal pool beckoned and in no time at all the cool waters had washed away dust, sweat and tiredness. As I bathed, I drank the sweet water and thought to myself how blessed we were. This was the land that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had fought to free from the clutches of colonial rule. This was the land that had originally attracted conquerors from afar. This was the land I too was born to protect.

Not so long ago, sparkling rivers, productive forests, rich soils and fish-rich coastlines were the order of the day in India.  These were gifts that nature had handed over to those who occupied the Indian subcontinent centuries ago. As recently as the turn of the last century, primary forests clothed perhaps half the subcontinent.  If you then cast a hundred seeds about indiscriminately, half of them were likely to take root because our soils were fertile, our climate moderate and our water sources abundant. Creatures such as the bats and the elephants and birds that shared their home, were the gardeners of India's Eden. They transported seeds, maintained nature's balance and, over millions of years, crafted the paradise that is now in our hands.

The East India Company had designs on this bounty.  They wanted timber for British shipbuilding and spices, textiles for global trade.   This was why they colonised India.  In the process of meeting such narrow objectives they brutalised natural India.  They also unleashed terrible human rights abuses that organisations such as Amnesty International, were they then around, would have probably denounced vociferously on a daily basis. 

This is why our struggle for Independence had to be fought.  This is why the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose (its his birthday today!) sacrificed their lives.  Unfortunately, when the British left India, they did not take with them the tools of colonisation. These were quickly picked up by a very privileged class of brown sahebs who did an even better job of colonising and destroying the subcontinent's natural treasures.  Like deprived children in a candy shop, a whole new generation of Indians bought the dreams of development sold by our British masters.

Urban India began to colonise rural India. And the rich and powerful began to colonise the poor.

Thousands of dams were constructed without once pausing to establish whether or not the nation was truly profiting from them. Mines were dug indiscriminately. Pesticides such as DDT were sprayed in such massive doses that instead of insects, humans began to die from the poisons. Nuclear reactors were built without a thought to where the lethal waste they would continually produce could be dumped. The process is on-going.

As for our forests, almost anyone with an axe, bulldozer or lackeys at their disposal began to cut unprotected timber for sale to the highest urban bidder. Ditto for those who wanted bauxite, lignite, coal, or iron ore. Tigers, elephants and migratory birds began to be shot, trapped and otherwise killed by "free" Indians who claimed it was their human right to emulate their erstwhile colonial masters.  This monumental damage was not the result of some transient insanity.  It went on for decades.  And the pace is faster today than ever before, even though the ecosystems being sacrificed are the equivalent of life rafts on a sinking Titanic. This, together with the dogged refusal to recognise the truth -- that India cannot possibly 'develop' on the basis of a carbon heavy economy -- is the root cause of the climate crisis that has begun to hit India. And it is typical of our shortsighted politicians to quibble about a date by which Himalayan glaciers might melt, rather than deal with the inevitability of such a melt, which will leave millions of our people defenceless against the wrath of nature. 

Susan Solomon, former Co-chair of the IPCC team that produced the 2007 physical science report and is a climate researcher with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)  provides food for thought for climate skeptics and the business as usual brigade who have taken to sniggering and sniping at those who advocate preventive climate action to ward of the worst impacts ever sinch the IPCC's unfortunate 2035 gaffe:  "The IPCC's team of scientists would not have said that warming is unequivocal based on a single line of evidence -- even if it came from Moses himself."