Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire
Images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi out in the wilderness with TV show host Bear Grylls in an episode of Man vs Wild have gone wildly viral. Responding to the excitement, the Prime Minister has issued a statement saying, “For years, I have lived among nature, in the mountains and the forests. These years have a lasting impact on my life. So when I was asked about a special programme focussing on life beyond politics and that too in the midst of nature I was both intrigued and inclined to take part in it.”
Modi said “this show presents a great opportunity to showcase to the world India’s rich environmental heritage and stress on the importance of environment conservation and living in harmony with nature.” Grylls, on his part, wrote on Twitter that “People across 180 countries will get to see the unknown side of PM @narendramodi as he ventures into Indian wilderness to create awareness about animal conservation and environmental change.”
All this is of course wonderful. Perhaps awareness about animal conservation and environmental change will do for animals and the environment what drumming up awareness about cleanliness has done for hygiene. The efforts of stars such as Hema Malini in making Indians aware of the necessity of sweeping the floor to clean it, through photo ops, cannot be underestimated enough.
A little more awareness about environment conservation would certainly help India’s Environment ministry. In the last five years, according to a statement in Parliament by Minister of State for Environment Babul Supriyo, one crore, nine lakh, seventy five thousand, eight hundred and forty four trees in India have officially been cut for development purposes. These 1.09 crore trees were obviously not cut for firewood by 1.09 crore individuals with axes. They were cut using proper machinery and organisation, with government sanction, for other purposes.
The cutting of a crore trees will probably have no effect on the salubrious air we breathe in our cities. This is owing to a very important part of ongoing animal and environmental conservation, which is the conservation of cows. As we recently learnt from Uttarakhand chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat, the cow is the only animal that exhales oxygen. It is probable that cows are actually trees in deep disguise, because it was previously known to science that only plants and trees exhale oxygen.
Air and water are, I guess, small things that we must sacrifice if we are to become a developed nation. The imperatives of economic development and environment have been at loggerheads for centuries. Even agriculture requires a clearing of forests, and the cities we live in were built on what were once forest lands. Some amount of destruction of the environment is unfortunately a necessity for human life. The question is, what is necessary for human life?
Traditional human societies developed ways of life that minimised lasting damage to environment. They lived lives that were part of nature. It was nature that determined the ebbs of flows of lives lived organically as part of the environment. So, for instance, the ways of life that developed along the banks of the great River Brahmaputra, whose annual floods are a natural phenomenon occurring since time immemorial, were designed for that river’s ebbs and flows.
In the riverine areas all the way down to the Bay of Bengal, the ghat was and still is a peripatetic place that moved with the moods and seasons of the river. Buildings were constructed from bamboo, mud and straw; they were meant to be temporary. When the river rose, people and animals moved away. When it receded, they moved back. The reason floods have become such a calamity for animals and humans alike is that moving is no longer as easy as it used to be. Now the animals are trapped in Kaziranga and other such islands of nature; they cannot safely migrate to higher ground when the flood waters come, which is why you get images of elephants on roads and tigers on people’s beds.
Getting away is harder for the people too. Like the kulhads (earthen cups) in which we used to have tea once upon a time, ordinary people’s houses and shops in riverine areas were once completely biodegradable, made entirely from cheap and plentiful local materials such as bamboo and mud, and placed little stress on either environment or wallet. Like kulhads which were replaced by plastic, the home-made houses too were replaced by more “pucca” materials in the onward march of progress. There are now significant costs involved in construction. Economic pressures and dwindling land supplies also drive people to try and cultivate crops or raise livestock on even the sandbars in the middle of the river. It is no surprise that a flood is now a calamity.
The replacement of organic ways of life with plastics and a use-and-throw culture are ruining the world. The rivers and oceans now choke with plastic and the world does not know what to do with it. “Developed” countries export their trash at considerable cost in massive ships that travel to poor countries on the other side of the world. No doubt we also aspire to become a trash-exporter soon. After all, despite pretences to the contrary, we are following the same trajectories. The way of thinking about development in India under every government is exactly the same as it was in the West. There is one little difference: The West has learned to value its natural environment. We have not. We are repeating mistakes that the West long ago ceased to make.
On 17 July, news came that the Union Cabinet had cleared a proposal to build a controversial dam on the Dibang river in Arunachal Pradesh. The dam, proposed to be the world’s tallest concrete gravity dam, is on one of the three formative tributaries of the Brahmaputra. It will directly destroy about 5,000 hectares of forests in an area teeming with wildlife. It is also very likely to lead to adverse ecological impacts downstream. Further effects on the seismologically sensitive zone cannot be ruled out. It will diminish the Brahmaputra, one of the world’s last great free-flowing rivers, a river older than the Himalayas, and undoubtedly a very important part of “India’s rich environmental heritage”, about which the Prime Minister is raising awareness.
In this real-life episode of Man vs Wild, it is a memorable victory for Man. It will doubtless show to the world India’s “stress on the importance of environment conservation and living in harmony with nature”.
Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx
Updated Date: Aug 02, 2019 09:58:27 IST