Oases of happiness
Robust collaboration between government and people is imperative to conserve natural resources
A few months ago, Naxalites killed an MLA and an ex-MLA for their illegal mining activity that was damaging crops in the tribal area of Araku in Andhra Pradesh. And now, the National Green Tribunal has slapped an interim fine of Rs 100 crores on AP government for its silence in the illegal sand extraction from Krishna river basin. These striking instances are among those routinely happening in the country involving the enemies of the environment – mafias of land, sand, mining, forest, and business, who hobnob with those in governance. Thanks to the pro-rich, Big Brother government, we have hit the rock bottom in performance to save our environment.
In George Orwell's novel 'Nineteen Eighty Four,' the mysterious Big brother employed his notorious secret agents on his own citizens and used his propaganda machinery to keep them on tenterhooks for an ongoing but non-existing war with an enemy country. The present state of affairs in our country is close to what George Orwell had conjured up.
Although Vedic culture envisages living in harmony with nature, under a Hindutva-government, India stands at a shameful 177 out of 180 countries in the Global Environment Performance Index of 2018. It only shows our apathy to environmental health, ecosystem vitality, etc., that determine sustainability. On the contrary, the top scorers like Switzerland, Denmark, etc., exhibit long-standing commitments to issues such as health outcomes related to drinking water and sanitation, preserving natural resources, including marine ecosystems, and decoupling greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from economic activity.
In a country where billionaires can quickly become multi-billionaires, but 60 per cent are defined poor, it is not surprising that we are far behind in achieving any of the Sustainable Development Goals. India scored a pathetic 5.75 per cent in air quality as against over 90 by Switzerland and Japan; cities are facing a multi-pollutant crisis. In spite of the Har Ghar Jal Yojana, over 82 per cent rural households have no tap-water connection; and 47 million live on contaminated groundwater. According to CSE's water and sanitation experts, although 72 million individual household toilets have been built under the Swachh Bharat scheme, funds meant to popularise them have not been spent, rendering the scheme ineffective; and in urban areas, about a million families are still waiting for their construction. Further, as against the 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022, only 9 per cent of the roof-top solar target has been met so far. Even the Centre's Ujjwala Yojana for LPG distribution has not done any meritorious work. Forestland diversion for non-forest purposes has only increased; Central government cleared an average of six projects a day in 2017. Even money allocated for containing forest-fires is lying unused. With the closure of regional branches of NGT in 2018 due to staff crunch, handling of environment-related crimes – over 20,000 pending in courts and quite many under investigation – has only become casual.
As against this dismal performance and other failures, we only keep hearing about the bravado of the Big Brother – tallest statue, surgical strike, Shakti missile, demonetisation, a high figure of GDP, the highest integrity, unity of the nation, etc.
Intelligence failure in Pulwama attack and disquiet defence veterans writing to the President against using armed forces for politics, corrode the sheen of surgical strike. It is space scientists who toiled for decades to achieve the results. Demonetisation, apart from the traumatising people, has led to the closure of lakhs of small businesses and industries and loss of millions of jobs. Even the high GDP growth projected is being contested as fudged, since it has not produced any jobs. The tallest claim of integrity is also in question. It appears the Rafale deal is turning out to be a noose for the culprits – the insolvent Anil Ambani and his well-wishers in the political establishment.
When it comes to unity in our multi-cultural society, there is a shameful silence of the leadership on communalism and cow-vigilantism. By playing with words, the subtle message of LK Advani, that it is not the ethos of BJP to dub opposing voices as anti-national, is being projected as a compliment. Further, their propaganda machinery trying to foist Modi Biopic and the NaMo TV on the country, and senior IAS officers of PMO seeking shift for the lack of organic relationship with the bureaucrats, only indicate the all-pervading Big Brother atmosphere. And, of late, although Pragya Thakur is a prime accused in Malegaon terrorist violence and is on bail on medical grounds, nominating her to contest elections is an audacious low of BJP in the promotion of communal hatred. People are nonplussed and distressed.
In such a state of mind, no one realises that, right now, humanity is standing on a precipice; human health and ecosystems are in grave danger.
With the combustion of fossil fuels incessantly pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the globe is getting warmer; even dangerously close to the rise-limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Increase of these molecules abets an addition of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen monoxide, which cause acid rain. This acidity is further supplemented by oceans since they absorb about one-third of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to become warm and more acidic. The acid rain changes the pH value of water in rivers and lakes, creating conditions conducive
for the growth of algae that not only deprive the aquatic organisms of oxygen but also cause many diseases like gastroenteritis to humans.
Moreover, global warming causes melting of ice and a rise in sea level; a rise of two to three feet would displace about 4 million people. If the extreme El Nino event of 2015-16 was any indication, we are in for more natural disasters – storm surges, wildfires, heat waves, severe droughts, say, environmental scientists. Such calamities heighten the risk of pests and vector-borne diseases, like malaria, dengue, etc. Furthermore, the toxins of industrial waste contaminate water for drinking and agricultural purposes, while artificial fertilisers spoil the soil itself.
When such grave threats are looming large on humanity, instead of acting in a rush, our mafias calmly continue with their indiscriminate deforestation, illegal mining, sand extraction, etc. No doubt there is unrest among victims, providing fertile grounds to Naxalites. And, in the cross-fire between them and the government forces, it is innocents who are killed.
Even then, in their doggedness, the Maoists do not realise that their target of overthrowing establishment through violence would only lead to anarchy or authoritarian rule. As such, without freedoms, East European countries are unhappier than the poorest democracies. And, with strong symptoms of authoritarianism, India is also among the unhappiest countries as per the World Happiness Report. The killings of BJP MLA in Bastar for developing road network and a poll official in Odisha to intimidate voters are thus an anti-thesis of the cause espoused – change the lives of the marginalised and poor, stop corruption and exploitation, and protect the environment. Since they command a mass base, it would be prudent to convert their cause into a peaceful national movement. There are numerous success stories.
The Chipko movement, with the tactic of 'embracing' trees, awakened people and governments to save the Himalayas. In the recent past, once Vizag Central Jail was shifted out, mafias colluded with the government in power to build a commercial complex. But, it was a peaceful agitation and support of court that saved this 25-acre prime land for a park. In the same city, a huge 125-year-old banyan tree was about to be butchered for protecting an old railway guest house that came in the way of widening a road. However, school children and activists saved it through a Chipko-style of agitation; the railway building was demolished.
In yet another peaceful mass movement, Medha Patkar and others have apprised the nation about the woes of displacement of tribal and other people, as well as the damage to the environment. The Narmada Valley project, although has high ambitions of providing electricity, drinking water, and irrigation facilities to a large number of people, has compromised on the ecological aspects and the trauma of people. The demand is for alternative methods to provide these facilities, using smaller dams and renewable energy, without destroying the habitats of people and the environment.
While forests are health-keepers of our environment, water bodies are no less important, since polluting them and illegally extracting sand affect agriculture, fish and drinking water. We do not wink an eye-lid even to pollute the sea with dumps of plastics, garbage, and debris, which harm marine life. Since we limit ourselves only to praying to river goddesses, 'Namami Ganga' has remained mere rhetoric; and Yamuna, Godavari, and other rivers are also crying for help. But, elsewhere, Danube, Thames, etc., are pristinely clean, not because they are revered as goddesses; but because people and the governments alike treat them as precious natural resources.
In this context, NGT levying an interim fine of Rs 100 crore on AP government appears to be exemplary. But, given the fact that sand mafias act in nexus with those in government, it amounts to a penalty on the already suffering tax-payer. The culprits are allowed the last laugh.
It is time a strong partnership between government and people evolved to save our rivers, forests, and environment, as tried in Sikkim. They have redefined 'modernity' and the goals of development, to widen it to a sustainable, just society based on harmonious, non-exploitative relationships. They achieved not only 100 per cent in organic farming, but also commendable afforestation. Justifiably, Netizens call it the 'Switzerland of India.'
We need such Oases of Happiness across the country. Will the political parties bid for it in these elections?
(Dr. N Dilip Kumar is a retired IPS officer and a former member of Public Grievances Commission, Delhi. The views expressed are strictly personal)