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Up in Smoke

Up in Smoke

Way back in the 1970s, of all the absurd ideas that scientists, in search of funding, came up with, the Frankenstein Award would surely go to the guys who wanted to spray coal dust on the polar ice caps to “speed up ice melt.” This, they said, would “improve” the Earth’s weather by reducing the climatic extremes between the poles and the equator. 


After being rejected in the corridors of world power, the idea inevitably arrived in India, almost two decades later, when some equally absurd scientific advisors appointed during the Rajiv Gandhi regime actually pushed to spray coal dust on Himalayan glaciers to “solve the problems of drought in the northern plains.” 

Both ideas were dropped (as was a proposal to shave 15 m. from the top of the Western Ghats because the clouds would always get stuck there and be unable to deliver rain to Karnataka!), not because better sense prevailed, but because of the cost involved. Something like 1.4 billion tonnes of coal dust was needed to coat the poles with just 4/1000th of an inch. And India had no foreign exchange to blanket its glaciers in coal, or to shave off the Western Ghats.

When environmentalists decried the ambitions of such people who had been gifted much power and little wisdom, they responded as such people invariably tend to respond: “Why are you behaving so negatively? Can you prove that melting the ice caps will be harmful?” 

Presumably, Lord Nicholas Stern, Al Gore and Dr. Rajendra Pachauri have presented today’s would-be Frankensteins with enough empirical data to answer such stupid questions, but this does not stop the list of absurdities from growing. Mumbai city, for instance, is actively considering hacking hundreds of acres of irreplaceable mangroves in the Mithi river because “they are coming in the way of water that has to exit to the sea.” 

Chattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand continue to entertain proposals from all manner of politicians to solve the Naxalite problem by “cutting forests in which the criminals hide.” After crushing corals for years to feed cement factories, Gujarat now wants to dam the estuaries of Saurashtra to replace sea water with sweet water from its (highly polluted) rivers. 

And the latest brainwave has come from Chattisgarh, which says it wishes to cut 5.7 million “extra” trees in its state, because leaving 80 to 90 trees standing per hectare is more than enough to look after the forest ecology. 

What on earth are we to do with these people? According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (no paragon of virtue itself), two billion tonnes of carbon enter the atmosphere each year due to forest loss, which amounts to around 25 per cent of all man-made emissions of the greenhouse gas CO2.

According to the FAO, such forests store around 283 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon in their biomass alone, and the total weight of the carbon stored in forest biomass, deadwood, litter and soil put together amounts to roughly “50 per cent more than the amount found in the atmosphere – adding up to one trillion tonnes.” 

Clearly, we need to prevent this carbon from going up in smoke. For this, we need to curb deforestation and the incompetent leaders in whose hands we have left our forests.

Bittu Sahgal

February 2008


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