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Home > 2023 > How Development Has Become Nature’s Enemy | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 25 & 26 , June 17 & June 24, 2023

How Development Has Become Nature’s Enemy | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 17 June 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy




Indian Landscapes on the Brink

by Arati Kumar Rao

Picador India

Pages: 240

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9395624434

ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9395624435

Man’s unending penchant for ’development’ is triggering a disaster of epic proportions all across India – and probably in much of the so-called developing world.

This is why gigantic projects have deepened the very problems they were supposed to resolve, why urban landscapes have turned a veritable foe for birds, insects and biodiversity, why encroachment of ancient lakes is causing punishing floods, and why superfluous knowledge enforced from above callously destroys long-held wisdom about land, water bodies, deserts and mountains.

Take Farakka. Between 1963 and 1972, a period that saw three prime ministers, a 2.64-km-long barrage was built, with a feeder channel that pushed water into the Hooghly. The project was the brainchild of a British expert.

But the Hooghly is a tidal estuary. The river gets saline water inflows from the Bay of Bengal that are 78 times the volume of the most robust monsoon freshet. Such a weighty volume of water washing up-river, carrying with it suspended sediment, was too much for the water from the Ganga to push back out. The outcome? The Hooghly remained unnavigable for sea-going ships, and Calcutta’s status as the port of choice diminished. The Farakka Barrage, says author Arati Kumar Rao, not only failed to accomplish its stated mission but created a far more sinister problem. Indeed, it has wreaked havoc across northern Bengal.

An environmental photographer, writer and artist, Bengaluru-based Arati Kumar Rao journeys to far corners of India documenting the misguided decisions, willfully ignored warnings and disregarded evidence that have brought the country to a point of no return — almost. Her commitment to nature is evident in her passion for environment. She feels for all living beings. She is a great writer too because she uses words to transport you to wherever she heads.

The National Waterway I will prove to be another disaster. It will run from Haldia in West Bengal to Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh along the Hooghly, Bhagirathi and Ganga, involving more barrages and heavy dredging of silt. Dredging disrupts and scoops out many kinds of fish from their breeding and feeding grounds, derailing their survival. The already endangered Gangetic dolphins too will face a crisis; already they have started dying from propeller hits. If all this wasn’t enough, ships carrying fly ash have capsized in the Hooghly, spilling their toxic loads into the river and contaminating it for its own denizens and for people whose livelihoods depend on it.

Environmental problems affect humans in the long term if not immediately. A disruption in one place can affect landscapes and lives hundreds of miles away. With rivers and streams now being mined for rocks and boulders, the fish is deprived of safe places. Eventually, no water will mean no fish and no fish will mean no money to fishing communities, causing scarcity and hunger. Desperate for food, some fishermen resort to unsustainable fishing methods that accelerate the further depletion of fish populations. Millions of fishermen across South Asia are today drowned in debt.

Indeed, fish stocks have plunged to 70-90 percent in the years after the Farakka dam came up. The famed hilsa has virtually disappeared. Dams and weirs, concrete barrages, canals and diversions, pollution, increased sedimentation due to deforestation in catchments, destruction of wetlands that are breeding grounds for fish, and overfishing have turned out to be the biggest threats to migratory and non-migratory fishes and biodiversity across South Asia. Indigenous fishes in South Asian river systems have collapsed. Many species may have been lost.

If you think that misguided development takes place only in the periphery of India, you are wrong. A proposed eight-lane highway smeared over the Mumbai coastline has already begun to smudge out the intertidal zone. Mumbai stands to lose out on its rich marine biodiversity. It will also affect the fishing community.

Human tripping has taken place even in fully literate Kerala. The state has built seawalls over half of its 590-km coastline, exasperating the problem they were meant to solve: coastal erosion. So, progressively, the coastline erodes every year, creeping closer to homes in one of the world’s most densely populated zones. In many areas, fishermen struggle for a living. But there is no stopping the seawalls!

Sheer poverty has forced more than seven million fishers, crab catchers, honey collectors and farmers to engage in a daily struggle for survival in the Sundarban which straddles West Bengal and Bangladesh. Women collecting prawn have had their thighs chewed off by crocodiles; some have lost legs. Each year, over 50 fishers are taken by tigers, leaving behind hundreds of women dubbed ’tiger widows’. And why do people go to deeper into dangerous areas? Because waters in the buffer zone are devoid of fish or crab.

In the extreme north, Ladakh is suffering. Winter temperatures have risen by about 1 degree Celsius over the decades. Snowfall has become increasingly unpredictable. Glaciers have disappeared; others are shrinking in size. Ladakh, the author points out, is sparsely populated and plays no role in effecting climate change but bears the brunt of it.

Construction of dams both by China and India will seriously disrupt life and environment in Arunachal Pradesh, damaging the ecologically fragile hidden lands valued in Buddhist tradition. The ’development’ will also affect vital forests, towns and hamlets. After climbing up a hill held sacred by Buddhists, Arati Rao laments: "With every step there is a sense of reverence, with every other step a sense of impending loss."

A loss indeed. The urban Indian’s love for concrete and high-rises has already caused widespread damage to numerous species. Bengaluru, the author’s hometown, once had over a thousand lakes; now there are just 80, down from 280 in the 1960s. Water bodies have been reclaimed for ’development’. With the cascading chain of lakes designed to drain the land and recharge groundwater irreparably broken, built over and choked, the result is massive floods in India’s Silicon Valley.

Is there a way out of this mess? Yes, says Arati Rao, if – and this ought to be a big if — we listen to ancient wisdom and agree to undo centuries of slow violence perpetrated on nature. According to her, much of the sub-continent still has its ecological assemblage in some semblance of intactness, giving it a fighting chance to make itself resilient in the face of change. All we need to reclaim even broken cities like Bengaluru is a willingness to go back to basics, to understand and acknowledge the local geography, and an inclination to work with the land rather than in defiance of it.

It sounds simple but will it work out this way? If the pace of the post-1991 liberalization is any guide, it is unlikely to. The earlier governments had participants who had some sympathy for nature; the present dispensation seems positively opposed to anything that obstructs ’development’. In any case, environmental blemishes can get corrected only if there is a free and frank media. That has already become a casualty in modern India.

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