Friday, September 5, 2008

The Mad Hatter’s PARTY

Bittu Sahgal
on how politicians have brought India to the brink of ecological ruin

The Mith
i River mouth has been blocked by what should be called the Mithi dam, which goes by the name of the Mahim Causeway, built by dumping rocks to narrow the entrance of the river into the Mahim bay. This year, instead of installing a ‘stent’ to widen this blockage, in their wisdom, the city of Mumbai has instructed its engineers to clamp it. As you read this, bulldozers are dumping more rock and mud to narrow the exit. In an era of climate change when Mumbai is threatened with climate change-caused infrastructure losses of over Rs 2,00,000 crore, the latest news suggests that salt pan lands that hold millions of tons of sea water are to be filled up to make way for buildings. Here, in mismanaged Mumbai ‘they’ also want to destroy mangroves to allow flood waters to escape into the sea. The chief minister of Maharashtra, it appears, has asked his lieutenants to study the possibility of sand being stripped from beaches because he was informed that it was ecologically ill-advised to take it from rivers. And Maharashtra’s environment minister would have us sell the last few remaining open spaces in Mumbai to builders to defray Maharashtra’s debt.

Such amazing thought processes are part of a planning legacy in India that has brought one billion people to the brink of ecological ruin.

Way back in the 1970s, of all the harebrained ideas that scientists in search of funding came up with, the Frankenstein Award would surely go to the guys who wanted to spray coal dust on the polar ice caps to “speed up ice melt’’.

This, they opined, would “improve’’ Earth’s weather by reducing the climatic extremes between the poles and equator. After being rejected in the corridors of world power, the idea inevitably arrived in India, almost two decades later, when some equally harebrained scientific advisors appointed during the Rajiv Gandhi regime actually pushed to spray coal dust on Himalayan glaciers to “solve the problems of drought in the northern plains’’.

Both ideas were dropped (as was a proposal to shave 15 metres from the top of the Western Ghats because the clouds would always get stuck there and be unable to deliver rain to Karnataka!), not because better sense prevailed, but because of the cost involved. Something like 1.4 billion tonnes of coal dust was needed to coat the poles with just 4/1000th of an inch. And India had no foreign exchange to blanket its glaciers in coal, or to shave off the Western Ghats.

When environmentalists decried the ambitions of such people who had been gifted much power and little wisdom, they responded as such people invariably tend to respond: “Why are you behaving so negatively? Can you prove that melting the ice caps will be harmful?’’

Presumably Lord Nicholas Stern, Al Gore and Dr Rajendra Pachauri have presented today’s would-be Frankensteins with enough empirical data to answer such stupid questions, but this does not stop the list of absurdities from growing. Mumbai city, for instance, is actively considering hacking hundreds of acres of irreplaceable mangroves in the Mithi river, because “they are coming in the way of water that has to exit to the sea’’.

Chattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand continue to entertain proposals from all manner of politicians to solve the Naxalite problem by “cutting forests in which the criminals hide’’. After crushing corals for years to feed cement factories, Gujarat now wants to dam the estuaries of Saurashtra to replace sea water with sweet water from its (highly polluted) rivers.

And the latest brainwave has come from Chattisgarh, which says it wishes to cut 5.7 million “extra’’ trees in its state, because leaving 80 to 90 trees standing per hectare is more than enough to look after the forest ecology.

What on earth are we to do with these people? According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (no paragon of virtue itself), two billion tonnes of carbon enter the atmosphere each year due to forest loss, which amounts to around 25 per cent of all manmade emissions of the greenhouse gas CO 2. According to the FAO, such forests store around 283 gigatonnes of carbon in their biomass alone, and the total weight of the carbon stored in forest biomass, deadwood, litter and soil put together amounts to roughly “50 per cent more than the amount found in the atmosphere—adding up to one trillion tonnes’’.

Clearly we need to prevent this carbon from going up in smoke. For this we need to curb deforestation and the incompetent leaders in whose hands we have left our forests and environment.