Who cares about the environment? Some notes on the ecological crisis in India: Shashank Kela
JULY 12, 2015
by Aditya Nigam
Guest post by SHASHANK KELA
The past few months have been exceptional, in one respect at least, for the Indian press: a serious structural problem has actually been given the attention it deserves. The Economic Times continues to play a prominent part in discussing air pollution in Delhi – there is no other city in the world where it is so bad. Nor is this all: including Delhi, India now boasts thirteen out of twenty cities with the worst air. More recently, the uproar over supposedly high levels of lead in a brand of junk food led to a (very) few articles on groundwater contamination: after all, the reason why lead and other poisons get into food is because they are present in the soil in which crops grow. Another piece, in the Guardian this time, speculated that the recent Sahelian heat wave in the Deccan might be a symptom of climate change (an “extreme” climate event of the kind likely to become all too common).
These stories are only a tiny fraction of those that could be reported, for we are already in the throes of an unprecedented environmental crisis. Large swathes of our agricultural soils are contaminated or saline. Pesticide residues and heavy metals form part of our food. The air of our major cities is unfit to breathe. Freshwater availability is declining; most rivers, especially in the south, do not flow at all, or only seasonally, since their runoff is impounded in dams and used for irrigation (with very high rates of seepage and evaporation loss). Groundwater tables are falling as a consequence of over extraction and the disappearance of vegetative cover enabling percolation. The pattern of weather is being reset with gaps and lags – the available evidence indicates that the onset of the monsoon is changing and precipitation becoming more uneven. Our offshore seas are denuded of marine life thanks to trawler fishing at ever greater distances. Himalayan glaciers are shrinking with obvious long-term consequences for the hydrology of river systems dependent upon snow-melt. Sudden, destructive floods, exacerbated by embankments and dams, the building over of river valleys and floodplains, have become a regular occurrence.
The crisis of dryland agriculture goes back several decades: one of its most obvious symptoms is the rising spate of farmers’ suicides in regions like Vidarbha and Telangana. The fact that these have an ecological dimension is invariably overlooked: they are not merely the result of inadequate credit provision but an agricultural policy that promotes water intensive cash crops in landscapes environmentally unsuited to them. In other words, it rests on institutional choices and failures, and not just on the part of the state, for farmers enthusiastically accepted this strategy without seeking to mitigate its risks (through soil and water conservation, for example).
Other effects are visible in the reconfiguration of economic activities – the decline of artisanal fishing, and the paradox whereby trawler fleets are augmented despite declining fish stocks (once near shore stocks disappear, only large mechanized boats are capable of catching fish further out, setting into motion yet another cycle of depletion and local extinctions). And, of course, in chronic shortages of water and wood, the health hazards of prolonged exposure to pesticides and pollutants, whose burden falls heaviest upon the poor.
These effects remain all but invisible in the sphere of politics. The AAP government in Delhi – which ostensibly represents the reformist middle class dedicated to cleaning up the “system” – has shown no discernible interest in cleaning the capital’s air or addressing structural problems that bedevil India’s urban landscapes, from garbage disposal to water conservation and public transport, the differential price of diesel, the unchecked registration of cars. The AAP represents only one example of ecological indifference in a polity saturated with it. The BJP and the Congress have long promised to clean up the Ganga – other rivers don’t matter because they are not “holy” or not in the same way – but this supposedly central symbol of Hindu culture and myth remains saturated with raw sewage and industrial effluents.
This indifference whereby environmental issues are cursorily invoked and swiftly forgotten reflects a wider and more pervasive apathy. The truth is that the Indian voter displays little concern about environmental problems even when their effects upon his or her health and livelihoods would appear to be obvious. For example, it should be clear by now that building dams is not an effective way of dealing with droughts. Yet politicians never tire of promising to extend irrigation and these promises never fail to strike a chord with farmers. The only ones to complain are those who stand to lose their land – if they were in the catchment of canals their objections would presumably vanish; others living downstream, in a river turned suddenly dry, make no protest either. Meanwhile long-term strategies to collect and conserve water, whether by the state or rural communities, are conspicuous by their absence. It is hard to remember that the Deccan once had an extensive system of tank and percolation irrigation, so comprehensively have its traces and traditions been erased from collective memory.
One consequence of our deeply fissured social structure is that collective effort tends to focus upon capturing the institutions of state, and networks of patronage associated with them, to the exclusion of co-operative action to solve local problems. The myth of the village community, whether peddled by Gandhians, socialists, right wing ideologues or imperial officials, has always been just that – a myth. A plethora of studies confirm what can be deduced by the experience of living in a “caste” village or small town for any length of time: the interests of one’s neighbours don’t matter unless they happen to belong to the same caste. Group affiliation is the true marker of economic and social co-operation, and this is true the higher up the social hierarchy one goes. There is nothing more absurd than the binary opposition of Bharat and India, for the dominant farming castes have long treated land more or less like a unit of capital and agriculture as a springboard for accumulation and investment.
One reason why pre-modern irrigation systems collapsed so quickly is because they were maintained by the forced labour of Dalits. The breakdown of traditional systems of labour management and control in the countryside, though far from complete, must be reckoned as an unmixed blessing. What is striking is that no alternative systems of repair and maintenance were, or could be, devised – instead farmers turned enthusiastically to canal irrigation and borewells. And perhaps the reason why the poisoning of soil and water meets with such universal indifference is that the impacts are differentially experienced – the felt interests of those who happen to occupy a neighbourhood or settlement rarely coincide.
The time honored way of discussing ecological issues (followed thus far) is to quantify their human impacts – as though we were the only species who matter, or that other species, whether animate or not, matter insofar as their existence is related to our well-being. Thus bees matter because they pollinate crops, the health of the oceans matters because it affects fish stocks, forests matter because they sequester carbon dioxide, climate change matters because it affects the weather to which we must adapt, and so on ad infinitum. This kind of anthropocentricism is ugly, but hard to avoid. It has even spawned a branch of ecology called ecosystem services, dedicated to quantifying the manifold ways in which the environment supports our well-being, productivity etc.
It is worth pointing out that by the time the human impact of any environmental problem becomes visible, its effects on other living organisms are likely to be considerable. Apart from this there are actions that cause no particular damage to us, or only what is considered permissible in relation to their economic benefit, but whose effects on other forms of life can be crippling. Organochlorine pesticides affect a range of organisms including raptors at the top of the food chain. An anti-inflammatory drug widely used by farmers to treat livestock has driven three previously common species of Gyps vultures to the verge of extinction. At the other end of the spectrum, it is clear that whenever a sufficiently large number of living organisms are affected, human impacts must follow as night follows day. This is true of the current rate of species extinction, which points to levels of ecological stress that are already affecting us.
‘Today, amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals; it’s been calculated that the group’s extinction rate could be as much as forty-five thousand times higher than the background rate. But extinction rates among many other groups are approaching amphibian levels. It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion. The losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific and the North Atlantic, in the Arctic and the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys.’
The difficulty is in relating the first order of impacts (minuscule or none) to the last (severe). It is a series of ostensibly innocuous local actions whose impacts seem minimal (and economic benefit obvious) – clearing forest, intensified application of fertilizers and pesticides, overfishing, burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, building dams and so on – which cumulatively add up to produce an intractable problem.
In India, habitat loss has already reached levels well beyond the alarming. Our near shore seas have been despoiled by trawler fishing – a technique that involves scraping the seabed, killing far more organisms than fish actually caught. If the crisis of overfishing is a global one, India’s over exploitation ranking remains ‘far worse than the global average’. Our major rivers no longer exist as rivers except where snowmelt maintains a perennial flow: meanwhile sand mining destroys what is left of their habitats. The Ganga’s fishery is dying, strangled by the Farraka Barrage and dams on its main stem and tributaries; the river dolphin seems set on a spiral of extinction (there are fewer and fewer stretches of the river where they can live and feed without getting entangled in fishing nets). The Deccan’s grasslands have been overgrazed and built over. The rainforests of the Western Ghats – like all tropical mountain chains, a hotbed of diversity – have been reduced to patches (from where new species of frogs and insects are still being discovered). Large swathes have been overrun by invasive exotics like lantana introduced during the colonial period. The fragile ecology of the eastern Himalayas is threatened by dam building. The examples of short-sightedness, greed and waste could be multiplied endlessly.
Set against this narrative of devastation is the emergence of an independent conservation movement, which, in turn, reflects a gradual rise in environmental awareness amongst a tiny fraction of the middle class. There are more birders and butterfly watchers, more wildlife photographers, more aspiring ecologists, independent conservation organizations like the Nature Conservation Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Society. English language newspapers carry more environmental stories, there are nature clubs in many cities, and the preservation of tree cover in urban environments – the Delhi Ridge, the IIT campus in Chennai – is the subject of organized, if intermittent, campaigns.
It would be easy to overemphasize this phenomenon – the truth is that environmental consciousness (despite the passage of time and ink spilled since Chipko and Silent Valley) remains nascent, fractured and, in reach, minuscule. Ecological considerations remain notably absent from the discourse of the organized left, and, more importantly, of progressive, broadly left-leaning intellectuals: environmental issues are rarely discussed in Kafila, for example. Moreover, the range of issues and movements to which the term environmental is applied obfuscates more than it clarifies.
Since the turn of the century there has been a noticeable spike in ecological research, and a lively debate on the science and practice of conservation. Its importance lies in connections sought to be made with wider issues and perspectives – matched by a near total lack of dialogue with groups and organizations who might conceivably be enlisted in the cause of conservation. This paradox, as we shall see, is not the fault of conservationists alone, but a symptom of the general deafness that afflicts politics on every plane.
Amongst ecologists, a sharp difference exists between those who subscribe to what has been called the fences and fines approach – the strict policing of protected areas and the exclusion of human activity from them – and those who advocate a more inclusive, landscape-centered paradigm: one that supports protected areas, but looks beyond them to the wider landscapes of which they form part; to engage with people living in these landscapes, the problems of poverty and social justice, and seek their consent, however grudging, to conservation goals on pragmatic grounds. This view holds that an exclusionary approach to conservation will not work in the long run and is unlikely to meet important conservation goals either.
Intellectually, the proponents of participatory conservation have the best of the argument. It seems eminently sensible to suggest that one should look beyond protected areas, if for no other reason than that many species consistently overflow their boundaries. The wider landscape must be taken into account, and here it is futile to talk only of forest corridors or treat them as a technical problem requiring much the same solutions. Human pressures on reserved forests are of a different order and magnitude to those on protected areas and require a more nuanced approach. Nor is it only, or even primarily, a matter of forests. Tigers, leopards, elephants and wolves move across cultivated landscapes; in riverine and marine environments the very notion of a physical boundary becomes absurd. If conservation is to move beyond a few flagship species, human use must be reconciled and reoriented towards conservation goals to a greater or smaller extent.
Participatory conservation embodies the recognition that conservation for its own sake must be combined with a utilitarian appeal to the interests of the poor in order to be effective: the difficulty lies in finding this common ground. Meanwhile the state faithfully echoes the viewpoint of exclusionary conservationists, with the key difference that it obdurately refuses to allow scientific expertise to inform its operations. The true extent of forest cover in India remains a matter of educated guesswork because official data makes no distinction between trees and forests, or indeed between different kinds of forests – less managed and more, those where timber trees such as teak are still planted and those where forestry operations have been abandoned.
The problem of nature conservation starts with the forest department – a fact most ecologists are loath to recognize. Deeply authoritarian and undemocratic, chronically understaffed, its field staff badly trained and badly treated (and prone to corruption and abuse of power), it has historically been an agency dedicated less to protecting forests than generating revenue from them. Nor is this solely a colonial legacy – forestry operations (which alter the composition of natural forests by planting commercially valuable trees) and logging were amongst its major remits as late as the 1980s: in the end, judicial intervention was needed to scale them down. Ecological science in India has always been circumscribed by the department’s power to grant or withhold access – though the situation is better now, it remains reluctant to allow any meaningful role to independent scientists, even Indian ones: witness Ullas Karanth’s critique of its latest method of counting tigers.
The state’s refusal to engage local communities in dialogue ensures their hostility to protected areas: poaching, grazing and wood collection are symptoms of this covert war. All the forest department can do is attenuate it through punitive action. Participatory conservationists must work with it while seeking to overturn this pattern of hostility. The experiments are few and far between: a project in the high Himalayas that works with local communities, persuading them to set aside part of their commons for wild ungulates in return for an annual payment made into the village fund. The results are promising: local populations of bharal and ibex, the natural prey of snow leopards, have increased; as a result rates of predation on domestic livestock have gone down. The basic idea – to increase the natural prey base of this unique predator and diminish the hostility of local communities towards it – seems workable.
In the Valparai plateau of Tamil Nadu conservationists work with plantation companies in order to restore rainforest fragments on their lands (and replace exotic shade trees with native varieties). The idea is that these restored fragments will act as corridors for a variety of animals moving between surrounding forests and increase species diversity. This project is dependent upon corporate goodwill (the returns for the companies involved come principally in the form of positive publicity); arguably its most important result has been an innovative system of emergency lights, SMS alerts and TV broadcasts to warn local people of elephant movements, minimizing the possibility of potentially fatal encounters.
Another project works in the densely cultivated landscape of western UP, where patches of wetlands set amidst fields and maintained primarily for fodder, play host to a large population of sarus cranes. The goal is to understand the mechanism whereby farmers allow these birds to coexist and identify potential threats with the aim of staving them off. Yet another NCF project in Arunachal Pradesh employs a team of local watchers, paid a small wage, to guard and monitor hornbill nests in community forests around the Pakke Tiger Reserve. Each of these projects has a hard conservation component in terms of research or protection or both. Apart from this, there are any number of tourism based initiatives whose goal is to provide local communities with a tangible stake in conservation.
Yet these experiments, valuable though they are, are only a tiny fraction of what should be possible in a country of India’s size and diversity. One reason is that the participatory conservation movement – such as it is – is still in its infancy. Another stems from the lack of dialogue with groups that might have interests in common: adivasi organizations, for example. The inherent conflict between the right to use natural resources and the goal of conserving them did not prevent some conservationists from welcoming the passage of the Forest Rights Act. Yet the two sets of actors continue to talk past each other. Adivasi organizations take the position that adivasi use of forests is sustainable because based on a traditional corpus of knowledge, without bothering to reflect that these practices may have broken down or become irrelevant in altered ecological circumstances. Conservationists tend to ignore a long history of dispossession and environmental devastation caused by the state: it makes little sense to blame local communities for deforestation without recognizing the nature of their alienation and its causes.
Adivasi movements present an idealized, unitary picture of adivasi traditions, pasts and futures. The reality, as always, is more complex and messy. Most adivasi communities contain more than a few members who see education as a gateway to a very different kind of life – one of white collar jobs and urban occupations. In other words, they do not see their future as being on the land. There are other communities who continue to measure their future in terms of the traditional forest based economy.
Given the fact that forests are now a scarce resource, of much more than local value, their future cannot be decided by local communities on local considerations alone. This is, if you like, the theoretical or philosophical argument. Besides, state ownership of forests goes back more than a century and a half now, and there is little possibility of this changing either on ideological or pragmatic grounds. The best that can be done is to reform forest management, giving local communities a real voice in the process. Since it is evident that traditional methods are no longer sufficient to ensure sustainability, it makes sense to figure out ways of reconciling subsistence use with conservation in specific contexts. There are, after all, more reserve forests than protected areas in India, and it is preferable that these be managed co-operatively than destroyed wholesale by mining, dams and the like.
Another problem pertains to wider questions of economic policy. Exclusionary conservation can afford to ignore these by fighting specific threats on a case by case basis. Insofar as participatory conservation seeks to tackle the landscape as a whole, its proponents must confront the question and nature of economic growth. It is true that ecologists alone can hardly suggest a solution to the impasse created by an economic system predicated on infinite growth and rising levels of consumption. Over two and half centuries we have reshaped nature in the way that no species before us had the capacity to do, condemning a staggering array of life forms to extinction. Yet perhaps a modest beginning could be made if a branch of ecological science were to dedicate itself to studying growth from the viewpoint and in the interests of non-human forms of life – the obverse of ecosystem services theory.
In practical terms, conservationists could begin talking to other groups seeking reform from different perspectives: indigenous communities are an obvious example. From yet another starting point, conservation organizations in Great Britain intervene regularly on questions of agrarian policy. It is true that room for similar interventions in India (where state involvement in agriculture takes very different forms) is limited, but a dialogue with the nascent organic farming movement might in time pave the way for more tangible suggestions. But this depends upon the willingness of at least some conservationists to abandon an exclusive focus on practical, effective action to invest in a process whose possibilities are distant and as yet undefined.
There are two possible approaches to the environmental crisis, of which climate change forms only the most pressing symptom. One is to point out that the human race – or much of it – simply cannot survive in the long term by destroying the physical environment with the recklessness that we are doing. A subset of this argument is that the impacts of the crisis are bound to fall disproportionately upon the poor and vulnerable. The second viewpoint holds that we have no moral right to reshuffle nature on this gigantic scale, and play God with other organisms and forms of life with whom we share the planet, condemning them to extinction for our convenience. There have been at least five mass extinctions in the millenia since life developed on earth – a background against which human history is but an eye-blink in time – but this does not make our effect on the planet any less unprecedented, since the sixth, already well advanced, is the work of a single species. Personally speaking, I belong to the second camp, but, human nature being what it is, the anthropocentric approach seems the only plausible one.
In India the grounds for pessimism are many. There is, to begin with, the very discourse of economic development, the illusory hope of catching up with China in GDP growth and remaking the country – finally! – into an economic and political superpower. Historically speaking, India’s rates of growth from the early ’50s to the late ’90s were relatively modest – yet the ecological costs of building a middling industrial capacity proved immense. Now, of course, we’re poised on the cusp of “Chinese” rates – between 5 to 8 percent annually. Unlike China, much of this growth will be concentrated in the services sector rather than manufacturing, but the environmental toll in the shape of ports, roads, mining, real estate development and so on is bound to be much greater than in the past. The Modi government’s attempt to shut down Greenpeace and its attacks on other NGOs on the grounds that protesting against the effects of economic development is tantamount to treason reveal clearly enough which way the wind is blowing.
The second factor is demography. The usual argument holds that it is not numbers that matter but the distribution of wealth: in India they form twin aspects of the same problem. Since human activity of any description leaves an ecological footprint, the greater the number of people the greater this footprint. Meanwhile averaged out consumption conceals yawning distributional gaps. The middle-class aspires to Western standards: as its size grows, so too will resource consumption. At the other end of the spectrum, the ecological costs of scavenging rise proportionately as commons available to the poor shrink. Historically, countries that have invested significantly in social sector spending show lower rates of inequality and population growth. This kind of investment has always been anathema to our elites: therefore the size of the unorganized sector is likely to grow in lockstep with that of the middle-class. In environmental terms the prospect is far from reassuring.
Another is the structural problem of our institutions, which makes reform extremely hard to achieve. Democracy works only at the level of the electoral franchise while the actual machinery of the state remains obdurately opaque and unaccountable. This renders any honest discussion of actual problems – the shambles of education, health or the environment – all but impossible. Meanwhile research in a range of disciplines like archeology, paleontology, ecology etc. suffers as state institutions are starved of funds and expertise, while foreign institutions are discouraged from trespassing. Under the BJP, the trend of turning away overseas scholars who happen to hold inconvenient views is assuming alarming proportions and attracts much less attention and protest than it should.
The only grounds of optimism lie in comparison with other countries. Our environmental record is better than China’s – helped by strong cultural taboos on food (reducing hunting for meat over much of the subcontinent) and the fact that our polity has traditionally been less centralized (making wholesale social and environmental engineering more difficult). Unlike Latin America, we are free, for the most part, of the curse of natural resources. There is a lot of coal and iron, but not a great deal else: therefore the pillage of natural commodities for sale is muted. This does not mean that our social conflicts are different from those of Latin America, only (for now) a bit less violent. In Peru, mining companies can legally hire the police and army to protect their operations. Bolivia has opened its national parks to oil drilling and mining, Brazil has ridden the commodities boom sparked by Chinese demand. Everywhere there are reports of superdams, highways, and mining projects, with governments seeking to crush resistance to them in familiar fashion.
In comparison with the developed world we don’t do too shabbily either, despite a deep rooted indifference to nature. In the UK, birdwatching is extensive enough to underpin scientific research. According to a distinguished ornithologist, Britain has ‘better and more extensive data on the year to year and long term changes in British bird populations than at any time previously, than in any other country in the world, and for any other group of animals and plants’ – thanks to ‘the combined and co-ordinated efforts of volunteer birdwatchers …. [monitoring] bird populations …. on a national scale.’ Yet a large and dedicated community of nature enthusiasts has not prevented alarming crashes in the numbers of common bird species due to habitat loss and modern farming techniques. The British landscape has been intensively managed over many centuries – to the point where there is little in it that can be described as wild (in the sense of being untouched by humans). As the cradle of the industrial revolution, it experienced all its ecological impacts undiluted by hindsight. One of the few things that we can legitimately take pride in is the fact that the Indian record on species extinctions is much better than the European, American, or indeed the Chinese.
Climate change has long since invalidated the argument that India has every right to wreak as much environmental havoc as developed countries once did, for its effects are unknown and potentially crippling. The earth’s oceans sequester most of the heat generated by carbon emissions; the Pacific was the original sink, but currently it appears that much of this trapped heat – as much as 70 percent of all heat absorbed during the last decade – has been transferred to the Indian Ocean by oceanic currents, with unknown consequences for the monsoon. A recent report warns of the risk to the circulation of monsoon winds as the differential between land and sea temperatures falls.
The ecological crisis is a global one, created by a mode of production incubated by capitalism but not restricted to it. Any possible remedy must be global in scale to match the disease. Yet remedies can only evolve in local contexts as groups in different parts of the world look for similar solutions to similar problems. In India, a beginning could be made by breaking down interdisciplinary boundaries and establishing a dialogue between ecologists and different groups of citizens. For, when push comes to shove, the prescriptions of ecological science can only be realized in the sphere of politics – climate change is an obvious example, and the very nature of the crisis involves transcending old binaries. What we desperately need is some form of green or green-pink politics embodying an unblinking recognition of the disastrous nature of current rates of ecological change while addressing the urgent concerns of poor communities.
In the longer term, of course, when set within the geological time scale of the earth’s history and the evolution of life, the human species is as insignificant as the dinosaurs. We cannot wreck things completely – we will flourish for a few million years and (hopefully for other living organisms) vanish. But, more than any species before us, we have become stewards of the planet thanks to our ability to re-engineer nature on a truly planetary scale. If this stewardship is not to end in utter shambles, we had better begin trying to set things right.
Shashank Kela is the author of A Rogue and Peasant Slave: Adivasi Resistance 1800-2000, a study of adivasi history and politics. He writes occasionally on current affairs and ecology, and can be reached at shashankkela at gmail dot com.
 Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New Delhi: Bloomsbury ,2014), pp. 17-18.
 Aaron Savio Lobo and Rohan Arthur, ‘Trawling the Shorelines: Fished Out and Squandered’ in Nature without Borders, p. 53.
 See Nature without Borders, edited by Mahesh Rangarajan, M D Madhusudan and Ghazala Shahabuddin (New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2014); Making Conservation Work, edited by Ghazala Shahabuddin and Mahesh Rangarajan (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2007).
 Various papers collected in Nature without Borders.
 See Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (New Delhi: Three Essays Collective, 2008).
 Ian Newton, Bird Populations (London: William Collins, 2013), p. x.