A month ago, I had written how Indian
environment ministers spend little time
on the larger questions of natural resource
management - issues dealing with the mainte
nance and enhancement of the health of our
lands, water resources, forests, air and wildlife,
and the disposal of our wastes. These issues
seem so large and complex and require such
major policy interventions that most ministers
and bureaucrats find it, comfortable to devote
more time to politically profitable, media-avoured and immediate issues of project
clearance. Unrelenting pressures from international conferences and treaty obligations force
them to use up a more-than-required share of
their time tackling global issues.
But questions of natural resource management are equally pertinent. They gradually
magnify and acquire critical dimensions, even-ually sapping the health of both the people and
the economy. Sometimes, whole civilisations
fade away; history is replete with such examples.
I raise this issue once again before our readers because a few weeks ago, I saw the dramatic
results of such neglect in Uzbekistan: the Aral
Sea catastrophe, which the UN Environment
Programme says is the world's second largest
environmental disaster after Chernobyl. I haw
tried to present the details of that horrific catastrophe in this edition, along with an interview
with a courageous scientist, Oral Ataniyazova
who is battling the post-disaster health hazards.
I felt that the most apt delineation of the
disaster - philosophically speaking - came
from Michael Glantz, a political scientist from
the us. He placed it in the category of "creeping
environmental problems" - problems which
don't hit you suddenly, like an earthquake, a
flood, a Chernobyl or a Bhopal. They are the
cumulative results of small changes that have
been allowed to take place because of the lack of
political will to see how the ground is steadily
slipping from under your feet, until you find
yourself facing a precipice. By then, your own
momentum forces you down the precipice; you
have theoption to begin thelongjourneyup only
if you still survive after billing rock-bottom.
I hope the Aral Sea case will be read
carefully by our readers, especially in India.
This is because the same degeneration is taking
place everywhere. As such, there is nothing new
about the steps that led to the Aral Sea crisis,
but what is amazing is the ability of a society
and a government to disregard it for so long.
The Aral Sea calamity has arrested the
world's attention only because of the region's
unique ecology. It was a large and beautiful sea,
with a closed basin. Thus, the sea became the
victim of every disastrous activity, particularly
the withdrawal of water and the use of toxins
for cotton cultivation. The dramatic result is a
fast disappearing and highly toxic sea - engen-ering an extraordinary range of diseases,
including a variety of cancers - besides an
India is also using massive quantities of poisonous chemicals in certain agricultural pockets and diverting a lot of river water. The results
have been less drastic, because our rivers drain
out into an open ocean system. But there are
innumerable "creeping environmental problems". Consider Delhi, for instance. Its air was
much cleaner just 10 years ago, but now it is a
toxic hell. With all the new cars coming into the
city, just wait for what it will be like in precisely
five years. A crisis is approaching, but are we
doing anything about it?
The decline of our forests has been slow but
steady. An attempt had been made to arrest this
decline in the '80s. But as T N Seshan, former
environment secretary and the present Chief
Election Commissioner, queried at a recent
meeting of NGos, what about the pledge we
made soon after independence, to raise our
green cover to 33 per cent of the country's land
area? Since then, we've lost much of our forests.
If, however, we had achieved our aim, so many
degraded farmlands would have been under
trees that our paper industry would have faced
no dearth of raw material.
Take yet another case: the waste disposal
from our cities. Again, the creeping problems
have reached such a magnitude that the waste is
all around us... our rivers (like the Yamuna) go
dead wherever they meet a city and every sip of
water is a toxic brew.
The solution lies in either our ministers
finding the time to tackle these problems as
unrelentingly as they creep in upon us, or an
alternative governance system, or the civil
society must take the lead in a big way.
Otherwise, as somebody put it, in the long
term, we are all dead. This may happen to us
not just individually but collectively as wen. Let
there be no mistake, because we are already living with several stark examples of such creeping
environmental problems - Kalahandi and
Palamau, for instance.