A global responsibility
The pandemic allows us a moment to rethink how dystopic our relationship with our planet and fellow inhabitants — plants, animals, et al — has become
On June 5, 2020, Dalai Lama took to Twitter and called upon citizens of the world to have what he said, "Global responsibility and a proper inner environment within each of us", which he believed, "Will contribute to the conservation and protection of our common mother, the Earth, ensuring the survival of life, as we know it, in all its diversity, beauty and sustainability". He was indicating towards developing a compassionate heart and nurturing a feeling of mutual coexistence amongst nature, human and wildlife. Sadly, on May 27, a pregnant wild elephant that strayed into the Mannarkatt forest ranges in the Palghat district of Kerala from the Silent Valley National Park in search of food was fed pineapple stuffed with crackers and left to die. This poses a serious question on the conservation of 'biodiversity' which coincidentally also happened to be the theme of World Environment Day 2020.
Such appalling incidents are just a small example of what happens to many of the animals who, in desperation or unknowingly, run into human habitats. The obvious question is why do these animals move out from their natural habitats to fall into a larger trap of human viciousness? The answer, as always, has to do with human activities. Human penetration into natural surroundings for greed in the name of development despite adequate legislation pushes animals into a scenario where they have increasingly riskier encounters with humans. But
our actions have now steadily started reaping a toll on our own existence as well.
COVID-19 has brought forth discussion of how climate change is making such pandemics more common. Scientists have argued that climate change is melting permafrost soil that has been frozen for thousands of years — releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain dormant, are springing back to life. We are ignoring the warning that as the Earth warms, more permafrost will melt opening a Pandora's Box of diseases.
Human progress has pushed us in an uncertain direction in regards to our relationship with our environment. But this was not always the case. There is historical evidence of ancient people and tribes protecting their forests and keeping them hidden from the outside world.
Forests like the sacred groves of Mawphlang, 25 kilometres south-east of the Meghalayan capital Shillong offer the finest example of myth and modernity in perfect harmony. The people believe that their Sylvan deities live inside these groves and that they would be offended if anyone causes damage to the plants and animals there. Even the fallen branches and fruits are not collected for firewood or for consumption. This belief has protected the forest so far.
Also, the Dehing Patkai (Dehing name of the river that flows through the forest and Patkai is the hill at the foot of which the wildlife sanctuary lies) reserve is believed to be the last remaining contiguous patch of rainforest (also known as the Jeypore Rainforest) in the Upper Assam region. Saleki which is also a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve includes sanctuary covering 111.19 sq km of rainforest and several reserve forests in Sivasagar, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts of Assam.
While there is a dispute over the proposal for use of 98.59 hectares of land from the Saleki proposed reserve forest land for a coal mining project by North-Eastern Coal Field (NECF), a unit of Coal India Limited and the matter is sub-judice, it isn't wise to comment on the legalities of the said matter.
But it needs to be mentioned that being a completely virgin rainforest, this sanctuary is very rich in biodiversity with almost 47 mammal species, 47 reptile species and 310 butterfly species that have been recorded. The different trees of this four-layered rainforest are laden with many exotic species of orchids and bromeliads. There is an abundance of ferns, epiphytes, wild banana, orchids, arums, climbers and linas in this humid forest habitat.
Such forests have maintained the balance between human, nature and other species, and, therefore, human intervention — that has caused enough damage to natural habitats — will further be disastrous.
A taste of what may happen if industrialisation is allowed in such ecologically sensitive areas is highlighted by the disaster which is still underway at the Baghjan oil field in upper-Assam. On June 9, five well operated by Oil India Ltd in Tinsukia district caught fire. The well in question had been leaking gas for two weeks before this. The company had placed its hopes on containing the potential disaster by way of a 'water umbrella', a system that constantly sprays water in the surroundings of the well but it proved ineffective. Tragically, the locals from the Baghjan village have now been displaced and are rightfully protesting the negligence of the OIL in maintaining safety protocol at the well site and having a lax response when the leak was detected. While OIL tries to play off their responsibility in this incident, the fire rages on, so intense in its fury that it's visible 30 km out. At the end of all this, while compensation packages may help locals restart their lives in the area, many environmental experts have deemed the ecological damage to the nearby Dibru Saikhowa National Park and Maguri-Motapung Beel wetland as irreversible in its effects with carcinogenic oil condensate being spotted as far as 5 km from the site of the disaster. Questions will have to be answered as to why an oil well was allowed in such close proximity to an ecologically sensitive area and why the company operating it was allowed to be so lax in its safety measures.
The pandemic has brought forth a picture of a world that now stands at odds with our actions to exploit it. There is perhaps a ray of hope in that more people now are aware of the big and small impacts their actions have on the environment and the world around them and the existence of such conscience has peaked in 2020. This may well be because this pandemic has given us a taste of how easily nature can uproot our fragile modern existence. Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director, IMF recently said that "The best memorial we can build for those who lost their lives in the pandemic is a greener, smarter, fairer world." Are we really moving in this direction?