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Exchanging wastelands

Exchanging wastelands
It occurred to me on my last trip out of Bombay as I breezed over the old Bombay Pune road, that it had been quite some time since I had seen an actual village on the side of the highways. The kind where you see rolling fields, banana and coconut groves, ponds with quacking ducks and little children staring at you with big eyes. That must have been a long time ago and in another country when Premchand and Bibhutibhushan were still breathing, writing stuff that now dozes in children’s curriculums.

Instead, today, an half hour’s drive out of any Indian metropolis yields the sight of seedy broken down sooty dumps. Some have yellow tires hanging over them so you know they are puncture repair shops, others sell building materiels with cement company ads painted crudely on their whitewashed brick walls. Dhabas with little colored bulbs strung across their fronts with the ubiquitous rusty luridly painted trucks parked haphazardly outside, sell liquor to the truckers. There is no escaping the filth scattered around, an amorphous meld and mélange of plastic bags, drums, tarpaulin and asbestos. There is hardly any shade. The Horn-Ok-Please fractured geography of Wasseypur is common to all our small towns and villages.

Huge signboards and banners on either side of the highway advertise cheap one night stand getaways with 'conference halls', luxury villas with sundecks and 'sweet homes in the midst of nature' with exotic continental names like 'Coliseum', 'Palazzo' and 'Le Manor'. The European continent of course, not this one.

But if there is a yawning chasm between the sordid squats on the sides of the highway and the gated communities of faux Corinthian pillared monstrosities behind which the nouveau riche get away from the halitosis of poverty, there is yet another one, a greater discordance still, between them both and the ones who rightfully claimed the land before the first bulldozers moved in and devoured its greenery. And every so often there is a rude reminder that in the unsustainable and unplanned urban sprawl that we call 'growth' in the narrow economic sense, all is not well.

A few days ago in Bombay, a leopard from the adjacent Sanjay Gandhi National park entered a verandah of the upmarket Royal Palms residential complex and scared the living daylights out of the residents, forcing them to lock up their kids inside while they made frantic calls to the police and forest officials. Now they are attending awareness workshops and setting up camera traps to track the leopards’ movements. In Pune, there have been a recorded number of 13 monkey bites last year and the number of attacks is growing. With humans grabbing every little piece of space left, it has become hard for wild animals to find a home and food. There is easy prey in cattle, garbage and if they are lucky, the odd human child or two.

I look out of the window. The hills near Malshejghat look like they have paid a visit to a very bad barber. Elsewhere stone quarrying and land clearing is evident. These are the Western Ghats, one of the 14 areas of the world with rich biodiversity and one of the three biodiversity hotspots in India, gravely threatened due to deforestation, indiscriminate felling of trees, quarrying and encroachments. The abundant vegetation that thrives here forms almost 27 per cent of the flora of India and is home to at least 325 globally threatened bird, amphibian, reptile and fish species. During the monsoons between June and September, the continuous Western Ghats chain acts as a barrier to the moisture laden clouds. Older than the mighty Himalayas, the Ghats start near the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra, south of the river Tapti, and run about 1600 km through the five states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, finally tapering out at Kanya Kumari.

In 2006, India applied to the UNESCO MAB [Man and The Biosphere program] for the Western Ghats to be listed as a protected World Heritage site. Last week the UNESCO finally declared it to be a world heritage site and it was promptly opposed fiercely by the Karnataka government due to the vested interests of its power and mining lobby.

In Karnataka about 2,482 acres of forest land, mostly reserve forest areas, have allegedly been encroached upon by prominent government agencies, corporates, religious institutions and several individuals in and around Bangalore, according to forest minister CP Yogeshwar.

And in Maharashtra the authorities are refusing to accept and make public the Madhav Gadgil report and its recommendations on the Western Ghats, saying that it will bring 'development' to a standstill. What is the price of this development? Maharashtra has lost over 1.9 lakh hectares of forest land. Areas that were forests less than 15 years ago have little sign of green cover today.

State forest minister Patangrao Kadam is clueless about the disappearance of this land. He doesn’t have far to look. The rapid urbanisation that is taking its toll on forests has also seen the buffer zone vanishing. Malad, Bhandup, Vikhroli and Thane on the fringes of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, one of the few green lungs of Bombay is filling up with housing complexes that ironically advertise 'green and eco-sustainable living'. Over the past few years, around two lakh hectares of forest land has been allotted to the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation.

As I enter the outskirts of Pune I notice a plethora of signboards rising up from the wasted earth selling you log cabins, wooden chalets and 'simple' concrete bungalows in the 'lush and pristine' Amarja Hills. How long will they remain pristine when everyone rushes in for their share of green heaven? I feel a mixture of resigned anger and hopelessness as I remember Lavasa, the picturesquely planned hill station developed by HCC, facing charges now of illegal land acquisition and encroachment, allegedly with full collusion from government agencies. There will be many Lavasas if we do not act now. If one goes by official figures we have lost one third of our total forest land in India over the last 20 years to the regularisation of illegal holdings. The Royal Palms incident is but illustrative of only one layer of the human environment interface. The overlap between urbanisation and environmental transformation will eventually have disastrous consequences for those who believe they have triumphed over nature. They will have exchanged one wasteland for another.

Gautam Benegal is a writer, film-maker and cartoonist.
Gautam Benegal

Gautam Benegal

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