The Mother of our Rivers

Posted by: Bittu Sahgal on

It was dry and very hot. At around 3.30 p.m. on a May day, temperatures hovered around 45 degrees C in the shade and the perspiration evaporated almost as fast as it appeared. But this did not bother me. From the bamboo thicket to our left we had heard the bell-like alarms of a sambar deer. A tiger was about.

Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes went by. The silence of the forest was broken every once in a while by the calls of koels and barbets. Every once in a while a Paradise Flycatcher would swoop down to grab a beakful of water from a muddy pool 30 metres from where we had parked our vehicle. The atmosphere was somnolent. And more than once I caught myself nodding off.

Suddenly, straight ahead of us, a smallish animal walked out from behind its cover and ambled slowly toward our vehicle. Girish Vashisht, then a Forest Ranger with the Tadoba Tiger Reserve (now an ACF in the Pench Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra), whispered: Bachha he (it's the cub). Soon enough the little one walked into the tiny waterhole. It was followed by two of its five-month-old siblings. As the cubs gamboled about in the cool slushy water, their mother kept a watchful eye (on her cubs and on us!) from behind a bamboo clump.

The secret of this tiger family's success was the remarkable job Project Tiger had done in protecting the tiger's forest home. I was in Tadoba in Maharashtra's Vidarbha area, the heart of what is loudly proclaimed to be a drought-prone belt. Interestingly, none of the over 50 villages living immediately downstream of the tiger reserve ever had to be supplied with tanker water. The same is true of communities living close to several parks and sanctuaries around India.

But such statistics are not well documented. In fact our government spends more money on flood and drought relief than on forest protection, though the umbilical connection between healthy forests and water regimes are well known. Nothing demonstrated this better than the sight of the pure, blue Tadoba Lake, full of water even in the second week of May 2003. Meanwhile, in nearby Nagpur and other state capitals, politician after shortsighted politician was making a beeline for New Delhi to ask for "drought relief." Not once did they ask why our nation's once fabled water sources were fast vanishing.

World Environment Day 2010 is a good time for us to focus on the fact that forests are essential to our country's biological, ecological and economic sustenance. Without them we have no hope at all of either fighting, or even adapting to the worst impacts of climate change. We need to internalize the fact that forests are finite and that their destruction will lead to a falling human standard of life. This is not a difficult proposition for our children to accept. Across India millions of Kids for Tigers and their teachers are closely monitoring the complex issues that govern the hydrology of the Indian subcontinent. Jungle nadi ki maa he (The Forest is the Mother of the River) is their recurring theme, one that finds resonance with both ancient tribal beliefs and modern scientific conclusions.
Unfortunately, today on World Environment Day, 2010 new industrial project threaten thousands of hectares of forest lands. These include hydroelectric, irrigation, mining, road and rail, thermal and transmission line projects. Over 240 new large dams in the Northeast, each with a forest destruction capacity that exceeds the Sardar Sarovar Dam, are being aggressively pursued by the same politicians who readily ask for drought relief at every opportunity. In two short months we will hear them asking for flood relief. This largesse will be met from our hard-earned tax money.

And if natural forests and ecosystems continue to vanish, the frequency and intensity of floods and droughts will continue to rise.

So why do we continue then to "celebrate" World Environment Day, which was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972 to mark the opening of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment? According to the officials the day is "one of the principal vehicles through which the United Nations stimulates worldwide awareness of the environment and enhances political attention and action."

Speaking for myself, celebration is really the wrong term to use in association with World Environment Day. Nevertheless, participating in the various events, initiatives and projects that good people have planned does make a lot of sense because there are still a vast number of people who simply have not "made the connections."

As I see it, around five per cent of India's population is conscious of the need to specifically protect our forests and wildlife. Another five percent know very well what the issues are, but they profit from environmental destruction. The future lies in the hands of the 90 per cent who are sitting on the fence right now. It is this huge constituency that we must win over. This includes children, mothers, teachers, scientists, journalists, farmers, workers... everyone really who cares for tomorrow.

The fact that 2010 has been declared as the International Year of Biodiversity by the United Nations makes it all the more important for young TCSers to lend their strength to the mission of protecting India's natural heritage.

Apart from cutting our own individual energy, paper, water and organic waste, it would be a major step in the right direction if each one of us could write to newspapers, legislators and opinion makers to point out that protecting biodiversity is the best way of sequestering and storing carbon and thus fighting climate change.

This small contribution may seem insignificant, but every little bit of help you give strengthens the frontline warriors who are fighting so hard to protect YOUR world.
One good thing to say to ourselves on June 5, 2010 World Environment Day:

"Protecting the environment is not a spectator sport. I am a player."