The ecological cost of highway to my village

How construction of a road led to economical, cultural shift in my village in Jaunpur 

By S P Singh
Published: Tuesday 25 February 2020
Road. Source: Piqsels

In developing countries, construction of roads is often synonymous with development. It has something for everyone — political parties enjoy several benefits; a young person on a vehicle enjoys the thrill of speed; contractors enjoy dealing with money; skilled and unskilled labourers get employment, and so on.

Revenue collection grows manifold with toll. In some areas, road construction taxes are between Re 1 and Rs 2 per km for a car.

Speed thrills people. Champion of a 100-m race is celebrated. A bullet train in Japan cheers up an Indian in Dehradun. Everybody is in a rush to reach their respective destinations. Despite a spike in road accidents, conversation on speed control remains elusive.

In a scenario like this, open and wide roads offer relief to many. In my village in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, land owners (called ‘thakurs’) were paid around Rs 100 crore for a kilometre of road that would be constructed through their fields. An individual was paid anywhere between Rs 20 lakh and Rs 1.5 crore.

The amount was surprisingly high — nearly four times the market rate. They were also paid for mango trees — some as old as 200 years — which had to be cut. They had developed cavities which eventually became homes to several birds and animals.

Going ahead, it seems that more than a generation will have to live without trees. As past records indicate, mango trees will be replaced by trees in commercial nurseries. Near Varanasi airport, which is about 20 km from my village, palm trees are among the most planted species. Its presence, however, is irritating in a climate identified with broadleaved forest of tall trees.

Among cultivated trees, mangoes were worshipped in my village. People believed that those who cut green mango trees could not sustain even two meals a day.

But now, ironically, those involved in cutting of mango trees are getting richer. The myth is lost.  

But, did my fellow villagers use the money prudently?

Only a few families invested the money in buying land, which was mostly sold to shopkeepers. The land was barely put to cultivation, for it did not fetch great returns. Subsequent to money transfer, over 20 cars and 25-30 two-wheelers were purchased in the village — but were not put to economic use.

In three years, over 70 per cent of the money was exhausted, and consumption of liquor increased manifold. The cars purchased provided safe places for drinking. Several gambling points emerged, even as access to quality education remained dismal.  

Air conditioners, refrigerators, and cooking gas have become common in my village. A clean cooking energy source is a passive development, but it has increased the cost of living as firewood became outdated. Many landowners constructed houses larger than what they needed. Because of the use of wall paint, firewood burning was done away with.

How will people adapt to the economic condition when the bubble bursts? Most farmers have big houses and second-hand cars to maintain. They now have to buy gas cylinders from their own earnings. Land holdings have become too small for them to live on.

Trees have gone, and so has clean, cool air. Now, people will need more air conditioners. Rural landscape had already become structurally poor because of replacement of tall sugarcane fields by wheat and rice crops. Following closure of sugar factories, sugarcane cultivation was stopped on regional scale.

Cultivation of ‘arhar’, a tall crop, has been drastically reduced — due to grazing by stray cattle which lived on these crops. In fact, stray cattle damage leguminous crops, resulting in reduction of nitrogen in soil. The de-domesticated cattle, in fact, may prompt people to abandon farming, as land holdings are already non-viable.

The money provided temporary richness and increased consumptive traits. It allowed people to put at bay the stray cattle menace and simplification of rural landscapes. However, with cash exhaustion, people have begun to ruminate on these changes.

Constructional activities can be integrated with environment, but that would call for more understanding of sustainable development than our planners and contractors possess.

It is crucial to educate people to help them understand repercussions on such a lifestyle on biodiversity, domestication of livestock and soil nitrogen depletion.

A road can pave the way for promoting roadside biodiversity spots. If densely populated India can have road as wide as in the United States, why can it not sustain rich biodiversity with which our country is naturally blessed with?

It is not only about loss of a few thousand mango trees, but also of a culture that evolved around mangoes. I remember my parents would not eat dal without unripe split mango in it. Each mango tree had a name, as did cows and buffaloes. Now some of them are de-domesticated, and get shelter on the widened roads during rainy season.

Domestication of plants and animals was the Sapiens’ great discovery, now we are unlearning it. A six-lane drive is not the direct cause of all these, but the way it is being developed is. 

De-domestication of animals is a new phenomenon, with marked ecological and social implications. Nearly 80 per cent of domestic breed of camels and donkeys are gone, and male cows are not needed anymore.

De-domestication and its impacts need to be researched at a global scale. We have not even begun to acknowledge the miseries of de-domesticated cattle. Domestic animals have been integral to agriculture.

Should we not acknowledge domestic animals that have been with us for over 10,000 years? Can we create heritage sites retaining the elements of our life with domestic animals? With wide roads and de-domestication of animals, we are marching towards sophisticated nomadism wherein every individual is emotionally isolated in a globally connected world.

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