Pound foolish

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Wednesday 15 November 1995

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 impoverished population.

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.

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