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Environmental prophet

Bittu Sahgal | New Delhi |

Each one of us has to make different decisions in our life, based on circumstances that challenge our values and purpose in life. Like the North Star, I use Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s life and lessons to find direction. I have been working to protect India’s natural heritage for over three decades now and while I cannot hope to actually achieve Gandhiji’s high standards, whenever there is a fork in my life, whenever self-doubts arise and whenever cynicism tries to deprive my life of meaning, I turn to Gandhiji and somehow the answers emerge, the light shines. Not so long ago, sparkling rivers, productive forests, rich soils and fish-rich coastlines were the order of the day in India. These were gifts that nature had handed over to those who occupied the Indian subcontinent centuries ago. As recently as the turn of the last century, primary forests clothed perhaps half the subcontinent. If you then cast a hundred seeds about indiscriminately, half of them were likely to take root because our soils were fertile, our climate moderate and our water sources abundant. Creatures such as bats, elephants and birds were the gardeners of India’s Eden. They transported seeds, maintained nature’s balance and, over millions of years, crafted the paradise that is now in our hands. This was the land that Gandhiji freed from the clutches of colonial rule, the land that attracted conquerors from afar. The East India Company had designs on this bounty. They wanted timber for the British shipbuilding activities and spices, textiles and dyes to trade across the world. This was why they colonised India. In the process of meeting such narrow objectives they brutalised natural India, sapping the life-blood of ordinary Indians. This is why our struggle for Independence had to be fought. This is why the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose sacrificed their lives. It was this very natural larder that enabled our ancestors to live a life of peace and tranquility. It was this well-watered, rich-earth land that fed our children and enabled our elders to turn their minds to abstract thoughts, the fount of our cultures, religions, philosophies, art, music and learnings. I cannot help but feel that, were he alive today, Gandhiji would have been forced by inner compulsion to launch yet another satyagraha. This time against us, the ‘haves’ who learned the art of colonialism from the British. He would have forced us to acknowledge that our lifestyles had turned us into the very colonisers we once fought. How different India would have been, had Gandhiji been alive today. If we had him at the forefront of the human rights and environmental movement he would have travelled from village to Indian village to consult with the people. Instead of dispensing knowledge to them, he would have learned from them their technologies for survival and sustainable development. He would then have prevailed upon the rest of us in urban India to set an example of simple, ecologically sound, living for the benefit of all the citizens of the world. Gandhiji has provided solutions to our current environmental problems much before such problems manifested themselves. He was an environmental prophet whose precious life was probably squandered on a generation who, even decades after his death, has failed to recognise his true worth and that of the nation he left in our charge. Nothing symbolises our lack of appreciation of the gifts of nature more than the fact that more forests are being cut on the Indian subcontinent today than ever before in the history of the subcontinent. Not surprisingly, galloping soil sterility has overtaken millions of hectares of once-fertile farmlands. And there is not one river in India whose water we can safely drink. Landslides and floods are the order of the day and crippling droughts make a mockery of the projections of economists. Our Gross National Product (GNP) and per capita income have gone up, but our Gross Nature Product has gone down. On top of all this, the fish catch in our oceans and our inland waterways is falling. Millions of once-self-sufficient fisherfolk and farmers therefore stream into urban centres in search of survival. Here they are forced to live in urban slums. For three decades Sanctuary Asia, the magazine I edit, has been documenting and leading what we believe is India’s second freedom movement – the one that seeks to protect our children from – inter-generational colonisation. But our environmental canvas is not without its pinpoints of light. Young persons are more assertive than they used to be. The level of ‘environmental awareness’ has reached dizzy heights in India today. Paradoxically, however, the degradation of our surroundings has plummeted to unfathomed depths because people, fixed in their ways, refuse to listen to the voice of the young! Nevertheless, young businessmen, doctors, tour operators, traders, even some politicians have started to join forces in the belief that the true development will only be achieved when the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat is pure. It should be the purpose of all development in India to restore health to our ravaged land, to restore quality to the water we drink and productivity to our soils. But only the very naïve would believe that this miracle will unfold without a fight. And this battle, like Gandhiji’s will need to be fought peacefully and strategically. With our water and food security on the verge of collapse, we must search for ways to defang the ill-effects of industrial development – pollution and resource impoverishment. These options make economic and ecological sense. And, as Gandhiji would surely have forcefully pointed out enroute to the long climb back to environmental sanity, they are also the shortest line to delivering health, happiness and social justice to all.

(Bittu Sahgal is the editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine)