Business Today

Pitfalls of progress

Kartikeya V. Sarabhai        Print Edition: Jan 8, 2012

The planet's environment is stressed. We consume more than what the planet is able to produce. Already we need one and a half Earths to sustain current consumption levels.  Unless there is a major shift in the path we are on, we will need over two planets by 2030. With a population of 1.2 billion and one of the fastest growing economies in the world, India's impact on the environment and natural resources is huge and rapidly growing. What we do, the choices we make, and the development strategy we adopt will be critical not just for the environment of India, but that of the world.

Like most of the world we are becoming increasingly urban. The success of the Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) in Ahmedabad is an example of what we can learn from societies that have developed before us. But many of the decisions we take repeat the errors made in the west. As a result, urban India has more and more transport and mobility problems, air pollution is on the increase, waste management is a crisis, water is increasingly polluted and water tables have dropped. Poor living conditions of the urban population and inadequate sanitation facilities further illustrate the issues of the development path we have chosen.

One of the successes of Independent India has been its ability to feed its people. The green revolution has increased production of major food crops from around 50 million tonnes at independence to over 240 million tonnes. "But today" as the Prime Minister recently pointed out "we find that the regions of the country which witnessed the green revolution are suffering from problems of environmental degradation."  Even in 1992, it was observed that "many of the gains of the first few decades had come at the cost of India's biological and environmental 'capital'. Intensive agriculture had led to problems like land deterioration, water depletion, pest infestations and loss of genetic diversity of crops. Excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and poor drainage led to pollution in several rural areas."  The rapid growth of urban areas, many of which are located in good agricultural areas and the highway networks put further pressure on land. We still do not have a good policy for protecting the best agricultural lands from being diverted to other uses. While land for agriculture decreases, the projected food grain demand by the end of the decade, is expected to touch 280 million tonnes. We will thus have to grow at 2% per annum in food production compared to about half that in the past decade.

There has also been pressure on agricultural biodiversity. The rich variety in virtually every type of food grain has been one of our key strengths. Each variety captures the cultivation experience of centuries and these varieties were usually grown to meet specific local needs and ecosystem realities. Through a project at Centre for Environment Education (CEE), 25 varieties of Nagli (a Finger millet, one of the eight millet species of India) grown in South Gujarat were collected. Each variety had different properties and stress ability to survive in different soil ecosystems. The knowledge system around each of these included not only how to grow the particular variety but also the properties of each and what they were good for. When these varieties are lost, we also lose this knowledge base. At the micro level, the food security system of this country becomes that much weaker.

India has a good record of creating a network of protected areas. India is one of the worlds 'Mega Diversity' countries. Protected Areas today cover 4.74% of the country's total land area and include 94 national parks and 501 wildlife sanctuaries . This focus on wildlife has not been matched with the need to protect crop and domesticated animal diversity. Even for wildlife, having a protected area is not enough. Despite 'Project Tiger', the Tiger has again become threatened. And not all wildlife live in protected areas. The Vulture population in the country has declined over 90% in a relatively short period of time. The cause, it turns out, is due to the cumulative effect of the use of the drug diclofenac sodium given to cattle. Recently several hundred flamingos died in Kachchh by accidently touching a high tension electric wire. So while the pressure on the Tiger may be due to direct reasons, in several other cases the loss is a result of human activity not directed at the species.

To arrest this, research and continuous monitoring is required followed by appropriate action. But ultimately it is the citizen's awareness and will along with good policies that will give India's environment a chance to survive in the way we know it today, even as our economy grows rapidly.


The author is Director, Centre for Environment Education


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