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Mainstream, VOL L, No 20, May 5, 2012

Give Top Priority to Avoiding Irreversible Loss

Sunday 13 May 2012, by Bharat Dogra


While several environmental threats and losses require our immediate and urgent atten-tion, top priority should be given to those large-scale threats which are of an irreversible nature. In the case of such threats, once the damage has been done it may not be possible to reverse or undo the damage. The harm to the environment may then be not just large-scale but in addition it is also likely to be permanent.
Of course, the biggest worldwide threat of climate change is also likely to be an irreversible one. It has been argued that when greenhouse gas emmissions and the resulting global temperature rise move beyond a certain ‘tipping’ point then we may enter a phase of climate change that is likely to be irreversible. Beyond that phase, even strong action to reduce GHGs may not prove particularly helpful.
However, as this is a global phenomenon and India’s actions alone can have only a relatively small impact on checking the possibility of irreversible damage, here we are not discussing this issue. Here we are concerned with those irreversible threats which at our own level we can still control in India.

Three such large-scale threats of a more or less irreversible nature have emerged. Firstly, there is the threat from the spread of GM (Gene-tically Modified) crops. Secondly, there is the threat from a very large-scale project of inter-linking of rivers (ILR) and thirdly there is the risk from a spate of new nuclear plants particularly those concentrated in coastal areas. Technically speaking, only the threat of spread of GM crops can be called completely irreversible. In the case of the damage from the two other threats when the work is being done on such a massive scale, then at a practical level it may not be so easy to reverse the environmental damage. So in this sense the harm caused by these two projects can also be irreversible.

The spread of GM crops is supported by very powerful forces in India having very top-level contacts and support in the government. This shouldn’t obscure the extremely serious and irreversible threats from these.

A group of eminent scientists from various countries, who constitute the Independent Science Panel, have said in their conclusion after examining all aspects of GM crops: “GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. Transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, and hence there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture. Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns that, if ignored, could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment. GM crops should be firmly rejected now.”

How can our government ignore such clear scientific opinion on the hazards of GM crops provided by an international group of eminent scientists? What this statement says very clearly is that GM crops are not safe and these can contaminate all other normal crops as well. In other words, all farmers will be affected by these hazardous crops. Even those farmers who totally reject GM crops will have to face their hazards.

THIS threat becomes very serious and of a permanent nature when we remember that it is almost impossible to fully recall GM crops which have been released once. As Professor Susan Bardocz has noted: “GM is the first irreversible technology in human history. When a GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) is released it is out of our control; we have no means to call it back.... Since GMOs are self-replicating, releasing them might have dire consequences for human and animal health and for the environment and can change evolution.”

More recently, 17 distinguished scientists from Europe, the USA, Canada and New Zealand wrote to the Prime Minister of India warning against “the unique risks (of GM crops) to food security, farming systems and bio-safety impacts which are ultimately irreversible”. This letter adds: “The GM transformation process is highly mutagenic leading to disruptions to host plant genetic structure and function, which in turn leads to disturbances in the biochemistry of the plant. This can lead to novel toxin and allergen production as well as reduced/altered nutrition quality.”
Unlike in the case of GM crops, the construction of canals can be rolled back (although at a very high cost) and dams can be decommissioned, but when this work is taken up at a colossal level then we are justified in saying that a significant part of the damage may be irreversible in practical terms. Also once two rivers are linked and their waters mixed up, any resulting damage done to biodiversity may also be irreversible.

According to a recent statement signed by 65 citizens (including some of the best qualified and eminent persons to comment on this issue), “This is a reckless and major redesigning of the geography of the country. The related ideas of a ‘national water grid’ or the ‘networking of rivers’ give evidence of profoundly wrong thinking about rivers. Rivers are not pipelines. The grand design consisting of 30 projects involving upwards of 80 dams is bound to have major environmental/ecological consequences, which might even be disastrous in some cases.”

According to a paper written by Himanshu, who was a member of the experts’ committee on this project officially constituted in 2005, “This paper estimates that based on available information, the ILR (Interlinking of Rivers) will require at least 7.66 lakh hectares land and will displace at least 14.8 lakh people. In addition, ILR will need at least 20 lakh hectares of land for the canal network. ILR will also need at least 1.04 lakh hectares of forest land as per available official information.”
India has embarked on a very ambitious programme of nuclear power, inceasingly based on importing more and more Light Water Reactors (LWRs). Looking at the entire dimension of the projected nuclear power development programme, It is important to note some recent comments of Dr A. Gopalakrishnan, a former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Government of India, also Chairman of the 15-nation IAEA Drafting Committee for the International Convention on Nuclear Safety (1994). This is what Dr Gopalakrishnan wrote very recently: “The projection of the DAE (Department of Atomic Energy) is that India will then be able to use the additional plutonium from these imported LWRs to augment the power generation through fast breeder reactors by approximately an additional 340,000 MWe. With this addition, the DAE projects india will have a total of about 655,000 MWe nuclear power generation by the year 2050. That will be 655 nuclear power reactors each of 1000 MWe capacity, stringed along a total coastline of about 6000 kilometres. The country has about 109 six-reactor nuclear parks, spaced along the coast every 55 kilometres apart! What a mad programme! Even without Fukushima happe-ning, should we be subjecting our future gene-rations to such a crazy, high-density nuclear programme in 2050...?”

The critical question before us is: what’ll be the impact of this on the fragile and already threatened ecology of our coastal areas which is known to be of crucial importance in the entire environmental chain? What will be the impact on the livelihood of fisherfolk, farmers and other people of coastal areas? How much irreversible damage is likely to be caused particularly with the rising risk of cyclones in these times of climate change?

The author is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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