In recent days I have been involved with a number of conflict resolution exercises across the country to try win support for wildlife conservation and environmental protection. My thesis to the groups that I have met has been that setting aside parcels of wildernesses for nature is the best way forward for India to become a "developed" country.
And the underlying backing for this belief is the indisputable fact that protecting forests, protects water sources.
I was quite taken aback to see the spontaneous responses of corporates, including some that we have been battling for years. But even more spontaneous has been the response of teachers. These hardworking professionals across India have been mute witness to the manner in which moral and environmental degradation has taken sway over the lives of the children in their charge. They know that most adults are using "development" as a fig leaf behind, which they are playing lethal games that amount to colonising the very survival of generations unborn.
As a realist who has worked for over three decades to inject a sense of environmental responsibility into India’s developmental machine – to defend what I consider precious – I can see very clearly that there are two divergent routes available to Indian corporates in the days ahead – the genuinely green path, or one lined with what has come to be known as ‘green wash’.
The process is simple; meet a minister or senior bureaucrat; point out how expensive the process of environmental protection is; strike an underhand deal… and then get the legislation or rules diluted! Alternatively, make absurdly false statements in Environmental Impact Analysis reports; ‘convince’ bureaucrats to accept the falsifications; get projects cleared, ignoring their toxic consequences.
The bottom line? Most Indian companies still consider environmental protection to be one of a long line of bureaucratic ‘hassles’ that require ‘handling’. Preventing emissions and effluents from fouling the environment thus lies hidden somewhere between filing income tax returns, and evading octroi charges. And, when serious problems take place, the solution of greasing palms and waging PR wars to confuse the public become the predictable options of choice.
It is this tragic reality that people like me are attempting to change. And the tools of our trade involve sustained public pressure in combination with engaging sensitive individuals who are in positions of power.
Will this effort succeed? Or will it go the way of all well-intentioned dreams to land up discarded on the rubbish heap of conservation history?
I really have no clue. But of this I am confident – the environmental problems that are building up are so severe, so easily understood that the penny has to finally drop. Those corporates that do not get the message will become social outcasts in the communities in whose midst they are located and upon whom they ultimately depend.
The water litany
The most obvious environmental cause and effect example that comes to mind is the connection between deforestation, floods and droughts. Seeking short-term gains, forests are being extirpated at an alarming rate in virtually every state of India. In this assault on the Indian nation, sadly, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) at the Centre is playing a destructive and tragic role.
They are the ones that conspire to fabricate impact assessment reports. They are the ones who facilitate the breaking or the bending of laws. The Supreme Court knows this and has taken the MoEFCC to task often. But in this once-purposeful ministry there are all too few bureaucrats who have any pride left. They are asked to kneel and prefer to crawl before politician and financial masters.
Ancient Indians believed that ‘Jungle Nadi ki Maa Hai’, or ‘the Forest is the Mother of the River’. There was a solid foundation for such a belief, which scientists are now able to confirm through extremely complicated hydrological studies. But the essence is simple: forests sponge the monsoon rains across the entire subcontinent. In the Himalaya, they slow down snowmelt. This allows water to percolate into huge underground aquifers, which feed our wells, lakes and rivers, which in turn supply us with water through the year months after the rains have stopped. Additionally, forests, grasslands and scrublands also hold the soil in their roots, preventing excessive erosion at the hands of wind and rain.
It is straightforward: the above hydrological services are responsible for India’s water and food security, which in turn is the foundation of our economic security. If we resolve our conflicts, the long-term benefits will be reaped by corporates well into the future.
Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine