Clean Ganga: Where experts fail politics deliver

At times political showmanship does more to improve environment than mere expert opinions. Nowhere it’s more visible than in the efforts to clean river Ganga. Last year while campaigning in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (two of the most important political provinces that can make or mar the fortunes of any political party in India) Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had promised that he would do anything to clean the river Ganga.
This is tricky pledge. It was first made by another Prime minister in bygone era. Late Shri Rajiv Gandhi, initiated the programme – Ganga Action Plan – to clean the river of its pollutants. However, 15 year long project ended achieving most of its objective expect for one – cleaning the river. Sewage treatment plants were in place. They were treating the sewage. Other actions like shifting polluting industries and closing down polluting units were undertaken but they didn’t produce the desired impact on the quality of water in the river.
The reason was simple and was echoed by all the environmentalists. They maintained, from the beginning, that a basic minimum flow of water was needed to ensure the river will regain its natural cleansing property. In the absence of natural cleansing property the river shall not be in a position to sustain its aquatic life (flora and fauna) which would further help cleanse the river and improve its water quality.
This simple but crucial fact was deliberately overlooked for the last three decades. The water from the river Ganga, Yamuna and their tributaries in the high hills of Himalayas were diverted for dams and canals.
A couple of chief ministers in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand recklessly pursued a dam building development path which was disastrous for the Himalayan region as well as alluvial plains downstream.
Now the new government after 14 months of planning and preparing for cleaning river Ganga has realised the simple truth of maintaining a minimum flow of water in the river. This has brought them face to face with an age old riddle – development or conservation.
The government and the policy planners have realised that to maintain minimum river flow in Ganga and improving its water quality it will have to stop construction of six dams that were given a go ahead in the higher reaches of Uttarakhand.
It has already ordered that any more dam activity should be undertaken keeping in mind the clause of minimum flow. It effectively means the dams will not be pursued as ground hasn’t been broken for all the six proposed dams.
How and from where did the government get the determination and clarity to pursue the path of conservation? The answer lies in the game of electoral politics. The cold calculation of numbers to ensure your pre-eminent position has forced the government to take such a bold step.
On the one hand is the state of Uttarakhand, the source of river Ganga and the site of dam building. It represents four parliamentary seats. While the lower riparian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar represent 120 parliamentary seats.
The river needs to be cleaned at least visibly in the next three years as the general elections would be held around that time. It is a short duration by any standards and minimum river flow is one of the easiest way to achieve it. The low hanging fruit that can be plucked right away.
The political cost of upsetting voters in 4 seats far outweighs the cost of alienating voters in 120 seats. A visibly cleaner Ganga ensures, at least theoretically, a favourable response from the voters during elections in these two states.
This calculation has given the government the courage to shut the doors on dam developers.
What lesson does it hold for the conservationists? Work on the people to make environment conservation issues vocal enough to catch a politician’s attention. Work on him to bite the bullet and commit himself or herself for a cause. Make the cause as emotive as you can and once committed to it they don’t have any option but to deliver.

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Sustainable tree plantation: Tap people’s power

Last week the road transport ministry gave a go-ahead to the Green Highway (plantation and maintenance) Policy. The policy among other things (hopefully) will finally end the 40 year old practice of planting eucalyptus along the road. It is a legacy of an era where environment concerns were at best cursory. Many environmentalists blame late Sanjay Gandhi for eucalyptus mania.
He promoted it for some time for sure, however, to be fair to the man, he was quick to realise his mistake and told his sycophantic supporters and ready-to-please bureaucrats to stop the practice but by that time it was too late. Nurseries were full of them and a whole business model had developed around plantation of these trees. He was soon voted out of power and didn’t survive for long after his return three years later. So the practice of planting eucalyptus became the default setting for the ministry of road transport.
It is in this regard the policy should be viewed with relief and hope. What happened almost 40 years ago was an aberration and not the rule. Some recommendations of the policy make it clear that trees providing shade will be planted as the first line of defence. In the second row fruit bearing trees would be preferred. This has been done keeping the unruly behaviour of half of our population (male) in mind.
Imagine a mango tree on the roadside loaded with its sweet cargo being assaulted by a group of youngsters with stones and one of their missiles misses the target and lands on a speeding car –Boom!
The policy also makes a distinction that where land is at premium and only one row of saplings can be planted then those species that offer shade, fruit or flowers and are aesthetic will take precedence over any other. These will be jacaranda, gulmohar, amaltas, kachnar and others.
However, as they say, devil lies in the details. The policy paper says that plantation would be delinked from road building. It means the road builder will not be under pressure to plant trees. The work would be undertaken by a specialised agency. It is not clear whether the money for plantation will come from the developers or the government will come forward to foot the bill.
In either case the developer would be a gainer. Facts emanating from the ministry and compiled by many NGOs suggest that the developers, both government and private, have been reluctant tree planters. So if they are let off the hook by freeing them from the responsibility of plantation they would cut any number of trees secured in the belief that it is someone else’s job to plant it.
Another issue is of specialised agencies. There are no specialised agencies in the field of highway plantations. There are chances of large scale bungling with NGOs and fly-by-night operators forming companies and minting money.
The better option is to involve locals. Our government has stopped involving people in solving tricky issues. In the age of crowd sourcing it is working towards centralising everything. This approach keeps a large part of the workforce away from decision making. It also discounts the possibility of engaging with the enormous bank of age old wisdom locked with the local elders who know about the flora and fauna of their land. It will not work — least of all the clause of 90% survival of saplings being planted along the highway.
The best option is to ask the road developers to deposit the plantation money with the government. This corpus should be used to fund village panchayats and cooperatives to either setup a nursery or upgrade the one they have. Villagers should be asked to plant a stretch of road depending upon their population and ability to tend to the saplings.
On an average a village can take care of one kilometre of road. As India has more than 600000 villages, there is enough manpower to take care of at least 600000 kilometres of road that maybe built over a period of 100 years.
Second the government should get into an agreement with the local cooperatives that the land will stay with the government or the developer but the yield of fruits, flowers and wood from the fallen trees (due to decay or storms) will belong to the village panchayat. They would have the exclusive right on it and they can either use it for their own purpose or sell it.
This agreement should be in the form of a 30 year lease agreement with a clause to renegotiate it at the end of the term. Thirty year lease is necessary as many trees would take close to 15 years to reach the age of maturity where they would start giving full benefits.
People’s participation and economic incentive in plantation is the only way long term sustainable development of green cover along the highways can be ensured.

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Incremental changes in agriculture can yield monumental benefits

Agriculture is the problem as well as the solution. Since humans settled down and began agriculture they started tempering with the nature. However, within decades or in some cases centuries, nature would strike back and drive humans from one piece of land by way of prolonged drought followed by nasty floods.
The pattern would vary from case to case but the holding story was the same. The migrant population would wander a while and then hit upon a new patch of virgin land, settle down and begin a new cycle of growth and prosperity.
However, in the 20th century as the population exploded the option of packing your bags and move to greener pastures steadily waned. The exploding population ensured that those who had land better hold on to it and try to make do with whatever was available. This led to intensive farming, technology oriented farming and then industrial farming.
Every nation came up with its own version. US had large mechanised farms and Communist Russia experimented with collective farming. No matter which path a society took the agriculture in the 20th century started reflecting three distinct trends – increased pressure to up the yield, proliferating use of technology and constant expansion of cultivable land.
These trends led to phenomenal increase in per hectare yield and helped many nations beat crushing poverty and rescue a large part of their citizens from extreme hunger. However, it also had some unintended consequences that started impacting the environment.
The pressure to increase per hectare yield forced governments and farmers alike to keep increasing the farm inputs. Cases of unrestrained use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides etc led to a point where the farm produce became unfit for human or animal consumption.
In India, anecdotal evidence is visible in the wholesale markets of Central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh where farmers from the granary of India, Punjab, come each season to buy wheat for their domestic consumption. These farmers never use the wheat grown in their own fields as they know it is contaminated due to heavy use of fertilizers.
Aided by technology many farmers started growing crops that were traditionally not meant to be grown in their own land. A classic example is Saudi Arabia. The country flushed with funds started growing wheat in a desperately arid land using water from its meagre underground aquifers. Similarly, in India many arid areas stopped growing drought resistant hardy crops like maize, gram etc and switched to wheat.
The traditionally water sufficient areas opted for high yielding varieties and stopped experimenting with the large variety of seeds available to them. The high yield variety needed twice the amount of irrigation than the earlier varieties. Initially everything went well. Then the crops started failing as the ground water receded, and the pests became out of control due to single variety being used year after year and their increased immunity to pesticides.
Farmers responded with higher use of fertilizers and pesticides thereby contaminating the soil, underground water and surface water in the canals.
While the land was being squeezed for the last remaining fertility, the farmers and the governments were furiously expanding agriculture’s footprint. The buffer zones like, wetlands, fallow land, wasteland and marginal forest lands were being diversified for agriculture. As the intermediate zones between the agricultural land and the forests kept decreasing the threat to forest denudation increased too. It also substantially increased the human-animal conflict. The corn growers and ranch owners of Brazil were responsible for destruction of a large part of Amazon forest. Similar stories, though not as spectacular, were reported from across the world.
Suddenly the profession that satiates our hunger became the top destroyer of the environment around us.
Today our need to fill up our tummy or tickle our taste buds is spelling doom for the environment and contributing to widespread carbon emission, the chief cause of climate change.
The question is how can the environment be saved without compromising on our food security? It should begin by looking at the institution of minimum sale price (MSP). A mechanism developed by the government of India to help farmers by firewalling them against the manipulations of the touts in the wholesale market.
However, the system has a lacuna. It sets the price of wheat and rice at a higher level than any other crop which incentivises farmers to go for broke in their attempt to grow these two crops. India has witnessed a steady decline in the total sown area for many other grains and pulses but has seen the total acreage of wheat and rice grow by leaps and bounds even in areas that can’t support any of the two crops.
The system should change a bit and should be dynamic. Right now the warehouses are full of grains. The backup is so huge that India can withstand two consecutive droughts. So there is a need to better manage our land and its yield. A new responsive system can be developed whereby farmers can be asked to grow some other crop as wheat and rice are in plenty. Similarly those areas that can’t support these two crops but have traditionally supported other crops should be given incentives to wean them away from their addiction to wheat/rice.
The government of India has started a scheme of soil health card. This card will help the farmers find out what kinds of nutrients are needed in the upcoming sowing season. This information should be linked to the distribution of input subsidies. Every farmer should be given cash equivalent to the need assessed by the scientists. If implemented and followed in the right spirit it can fundamentally alter the habit of indiscriminate use of urea and other fertilizers.
It would bring down the unnecessary chemical load soil faces every year in many parts of the country. During the 1960s the policy planners, politicians, scientists and the farmers all joined hands in a rare show of solidarity to turn Punjab (the north western province of India) into a bead basket. The spirit of “green revolution”, as it is known, needs to be revived albeit with a twist.
This time the laboratory has to come to the farm and instead of one-size-fits-all solutions of yesteryears it should work in every region with diverse group of farmers to evolve strategies to increase their per hectare yield. Using information technology, big data, nano-technology, bio-technology and marrying it with age old wisdom of the farmers will help them create hyper local solutions.
Once the per capita yield increases the need to use the entire land available will decrease as more would be achieved in lesser hectares of land. Then sincere efforts should be initiated to reclaim the buffer zones.
These small incremental steps will go a long way in decreasing the chemical contamination of the land, save underground water in many arid zones, will offer an increased diversity of grains as well as help the natural buffer zones to flourish. This in itself would be a fundamental improvement from our present state and go a long way in re-establishing the natural balance we have disturbed for so long.

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Only species on a lonely planet

Let’s consider a scenario. There is only one species left on the Earth. This species is us – Humans.
Imagine that the most successful species (humans) have in the dog-eat-dog world of natural selection, propounded by Mr Darwin, out manoeuvred every other species and following the principle of winner-take-all-losers- die have killed every member of every species amidst chest thumping bravado and loud cheers.
Imagine we have killed all the mammals, amphibians, fishes, birds and destroyed a large part of their natural habitat. We have poisoned the seas so that there is no hope in the hell for the survival of any life that is left in its bosom. Now we are the sole masters of the planet and its riches and we don’t have to share it with any other cretins. What will happen then?
Let’s begin with the seas. The phytoplanktons the building blocks of life in the sea are destroyed due to acidification and other environmental pollution. The disappearance of the lowest of the lowly creatures as far as ocean food chain is considered will deal a body blow to ultra small fishes that feed on it. They will start dying in droves. Their disappearance will make the survival of larger fishes untenable. They will be wiped out. The Ocean flora that survives on the complex interplay of these species for pollination and growth will start decaying.
A time will come when there will be no sharks, no sting ray, no manates, no whales and no dolphins. There will be no coral reefs, no giant turtles, no huge migrations no yearly celebrations of a species arrival or departure.
On the ground the bees, the butterflies the small birds that pollinate plants and increase the biodiversity will be gone. The building block of growing diversity and increasing natural green cover would be lost. The loss would be felt in steady decline of the green cover.
Small birds that feed on the larve of insects will be gone. Insects and pests will grow and further damage the forests, mangroves, stand alone trees and finally crops.
In the absence of tree dwelling animals and birds, the natural carriers of seeds from one part of the forest to the other would be lost. Forests will become vulnerable to pest attacks. They will start declining and before long they would be gone too.
With oceans becoming a desolate place and shrinking forests falling silent, humans will face their first brush with loneliness.
Fishermen won’t go to the sea. They won’t sing a song for a better catch. Their women will never sing a song for their health, safety or arrival with loads of fine food. There will be no Hemingway to write “Old Man and the Sea” as there will be no one going to the sea.
Fishing villages will never smell of drying fish. Packaging plant will shut down and restaurants in big cities would see their menu cards becoming shorter and bland. Taste would be a casualty for the rich, poor will pay with their vocation.
There would be no honey, soon there would be no fragrance, there won’t be pine cones in fire place or wood for your furniture.
Poets and writers will have no inspiration to write. People will have no place to go as tourist. Hikers will hang their boots, anglers will trace their steps back to their home with heavy heart, never to return.
Children will never know the joy of riding an elephant or feeding a duck. They would never be able to make a distinction between a rose fragrance or a lily.
The world of sounds will forever be muted as rambunctious sounds of macaques, shrill sounds of birds and lion’s roar would all be lost.
Humans will live in the cities with their SUVs, ACs, TVs, refrigerators and go to the malls but the society and its imagination as well as expression would keep getting poorer with every passing generation.
It is then that the nature will turn against the humans. The sulking “super power” will challenge us for one final duel by unleashing pathogens, virus and pests that we couldn’t kill.
We would fight back with genetically modified food crops, heavy use of pesticides, inscetisides etc but there would be a limit. We will have to barter between saving our food production without poisoning it to an extent where it becomes a poison pill. The choice will be hard as the opponent would be battle hardened and drug resistant.
It would be a fight to the finish where there would be no winners.

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Consume with care

On the Environment Day, last week the UN secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, said the world should pursue the goal of sustainable development where people increase their quality of life without increasing environmental degradation. He was articulating this year’s World Environment Day theme — seven billion people, one planet, consume with care.
Actually the operative word is care. However, both Ban ki Moon and United Nations Environment Programme are not the first ones to forward this concept. The idea that mindless consumerism will rock the civilisation boat has been around for quite some time.
Long before sustainable development became fashionable an Indian Economist professor JC Mehta of Allahabad University forwarded the theory of minimisation of want. He termed it — “wantlessness”.
He was not only an economist but a philosopher. He maintained that the economic model based on constant growth was unsustainable as the Earth’s resources were finite and would take centuries to replenish. So the best way to live well was to want less, preserve what we have and buy thoughtfully.
I don’t know whether MIT researchers ever got the chance to lay their hands on Prof Mehta’s paper, they nevertheless tread the same path almost 30 years later. In 1972, funded by Volkswagen Foundation, they undertook a study to find out if the population and economic growth kept increasing exponentially with resources remaining static what would be the outcome.
The research paper which eventually came out as a book – Limits to Growth – generated sharp reactions. People attacked it for various reasons, its premises, its lack of data etc. However, many economists later accepted the fundamental premise that indefinite growth was an unsustainable concept and would collapse sometimes in future.
The world kept moving at its own pace. The global economy kept growing, consumerism expanded and the national economies measured their success by the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) figures. No one knew how to break this spell of constant growth mantra and few cared about it.
Another 37 years passed by before Tim Jackson came up with a revolutionary premise – Prosperity Without Growth. In a book by the same title he said that the input inflow of raw material should be restricted in incremental as well as absolute numbers to give the environment a breathing space to recoup itself. He called it decoupling.
It makes a lot of economic sense. If the resource input is decreased the cost of producing a product will decrease. However, care will have to be given to keep the overall consumption of resources in check.
These days carbon intensity per unit of GDP is coming down yet the absolute carbon emission is increasing. It is because the total consumption of resources is on the rise albeit at a lower rate. This defeats the ultimate purpose of bringing down the global emissions in absolute terms.
To achieve the goal of carbon emission reduction and environment protection the second part of the equation – the consumer will have to be engaged. Consumer behaviour will have to be addressed and the throw away culture will have to be reined in.
It is in this regard that consume with care has been the right theme chosen by the UN and will act as a clarion call for all the consumers around the world to work on their habits and contribute in saving the environment.

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Urban green cover: Stable planning more important than plantation drives

The Indian central government yesterday (June 3, 2015) announced a massive tree plantation drive to combat climate change. The intent calls for celebration but if the content is anything to go by, the scheme is well on its way to the dustbin of history.
Many such schemes have been introduced earlier too at the state level or by non government organisations (NGOs). However, they have all met with little success. The present scheme aims to first undertake tree census in 200 towns across India and ask the people to plant trees wherever land is available. For this purpose they have asked urban local bodies to find out how much wasteland is available with them that can be used for this purpose.
The catch in the scheme is that apart from Delhi no other metropolis (Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Bangalore) have the luxury of space. The tier 2 and 3 towns are further pressed for land. Whatever land is available hangs in a precarious balance due to the needs of ever expanding population and haphazard development.
Even in Delhi the situation is far from ideal. The capital of India has two satellite towns on its southern (Faridabad) and south western (Gurgaon) edge. The space between the three cities used to have lush green patch of forest on the oldest mountain range — Aravallis.
This forest is under tremendous stress due to illegal querying, stone crushers and real estate builders. However, the real reason is expanding population and its basic needs of housing and other resources.
Constant upgrade of infrastructure (road expansion, metro work, housing projects etc) has seen thousands of trees being chopped off in the last one decade. Metro rail has been the biggest culprit. By a rough count in the first two stages of its construction it chopped off 30000 trees. Many of them were more than 50 years old.
Anticipating this large scale expansion of the city the town planners in Delhi made a law of compensatory plantation. For every tree cut another 10 would have to be planted. However, the plantation can be done at designated spots or where the land is available with the forest department or the government.
Here lies the catch. You cut a tree in one locality and plant a tree some 30 kilometres away. It is not going to benefit the locality. Secondly the residents are not going to see whether the plantation was undertaken or not. Most importantly no one knows how many of these planted trees survived and grew up to become a tree.
The metro rail has undertaken compensatory plantation but that has been on the outskirts of the city. As they have brought down 30000 trees they should have planted 300000 trees. However, the jury is still out about the claims and the efficacy of their efforts.
Similarly during the earlier Congress rule Delhi would undertake plantation drive during monsoons. By the fantastic numbers flashed in the government advertisements every year, Delhi should have turned into a rainforest in the 15 years (1998-2014) they ruled the city.
Nothing of such spectacular brilliance ever happened. And the much touted increase in Delhi’s green cover was also debunked as mere statistical jugglery.
These incidents have proved that mere plantation is not enough but a constant vigil and care of the planted trees till they come into their own is of critical importance. How many trees will survive the first six months will decide the quality of green cover an apartment, a neighbourhood or a city will have in the next 5 years.
The reality visible to every Delhi citizen is that trees are being mercilessly cut, its green belt or the ridge area is constantly shrinking and the land available to the forest department itself is shrinking in real terms.
As the pressure of population is increasing even those areas that were earlier earmarked for planting trees and have been developed as parks are now overtaken by development activities. The deer park in Hauz khas, the government park sector 13 RK Puram and a small Delhi Development Authority in the eastern neighbourhood of Mayur Vihar-1 in Delhi have all been overtaken by metro work and they will finally be a part of metro stations or storage facilities.
If Delhi with its open spaces is facing such severe problems imagine the stress faced by cities like Amritsar, Kanpur, Varanasi, Ranchi, Raipur, Itanagar etc.
Apart from follow up on plantation another bigger problem with Indian urban centres is that no one knows when and how the land use pattern would change. Constantly growing residential and other infrastructural demands can make one dispensation earmark an area for park and force the other, with equal ease, to turn it into a parking lot.
In such a scenario where long term planning is anathema and deal-as-you-go planning is the norm people can keep planting trees around the country every year in every nook and corner but it won’t serve any purpose.

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Heatwave: Wake up!

A couple of days ago India’s leading English daily – The Times of India’s headline screamed that the country was in the grips of second deadliest heat wave.
Overall it has claimed more than 2300 lives, mostly in the southern states of Andhra and Telengana. Globally it is the 5th deadliest heat wave with all the five falling in the last one and a half decades.
These figures, maintained in the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), Brussels, Belgium, point towards a growing trend which is hard to ignore.
Off the 10 deadliest heat waves in the last one century 6 have been witnessed in the past decade alone. Even the three (US, 1980, Greece 1987 and India 1998) were all part of the gradual warming of the globe that gained momentum from 1975 onwards.
The 1936 US-Canada, heat wave is the only exception. Not only the incidence of chronic heat waves have increased, their geography has shown a marked expansion and the impact on human life too has been devastating in terms of sheer numbers.
Take the case of all the heat waves that were recorded in the last century. Together they killed a little over 5000 people. These (India, the US plains and Greece) areas have traditionally been places which experience high temperatures during summers.
However, the new century has witnessed a new phenomenon where heat waves are hitting areas hitherto known for their cool climes. Heat wave in Europe (2003) is its biggest and deadliest example till date. It killed more than 71000 and in a repeat killed 3400 in 2006.
In 2010 it struck in the far north in the humid continental climate zones of Russia and claimed 55000 lives. It also led to raging forest fires that destroyed millions of hectares of forest land.
Moscow which is famed for its cold weather experienced a temperature of 38.2 degree on July 29, 2010. This was its hottest day ever in 130 years since record were being maintained. The spell of temperature in access of 30 degree lasted for a whopping 33 consecutive days.
Even this year the northern most state of the US, Alaska, a sub arctic area, has experienced a temperature of 32 degrees centigrade.
Not only the temperatures are rising but the beautiful spring seasons are shrinking too. In Delhi the spring season is now a short whiff and temperatures start soaring almost immediately as the winters ebb.
All this points towards a logical conclusion — the world is warming and warming fast. Those who still use the language of future tense while talking about climate change are living in fool’s paradise.
It is here knocking at our doors and showing us a glimpse of what is in store for the future.

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