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Those Twin Peaks

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Recent debates miss the point that ecology doesn't necessarily have to be pitted against development.

The recent tragedy in the Himalayas is a sad reminder of how little we understand ecosystems in general and the mountains in particular. Concerns have been raised by all and sundry in the media suggesting rampant development and large-scale projects in the fragile Himalayan ecosystems of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh as responsible for this human misery. But that is only oversimplification of a complex problem, and the proponents of such theories provide little scientific evidence. There is little, but hearsay at their command. Surely, any economic development inevitably impacts the natural resources, but that is not the real problem. The difficulty lies with our handling of development, management and use of natural resources. In absence of clarity on this count most people tend to pitch environment and ecology against economic development. How prudent is the argument that humans and the natural world are adversaries? Michael Rosenzweig, a well-known ecologist, rejected such polarisation in his book Win-Win Ecology. He argued that conservation must find ways of blending the natural world into the world of economic activity. In the US, the author argued, numerous examples of successful meeting grounds between two opposing forces have been attained. Therefore, ecology doesn't necessarily have to be pitted against development. However, there is the contextual problem with Rosenzweig's thesis of coexistence of economic activity and nature.

Why cannot win-win ecology work for us in India? To put it simply, perhaps, it is a cultural and behavioural issue. Our response, as individuals and corporations, to laws and their enforcement are varied and vastly different from those in the west and even in some Asian countries. Still, many would argue that the demographic scales in India are the most important determinants of the mess around us. One fails to understand the relationship, but surprisingly no one is willing to link it to the culture of brazen flouting of laws - and sanctions if callous negligence if found. Developmentalists mostly don't consider ecology and the environment as serious issues and treat them as stumbling blocks to be circumvented at all costs. Because serious ecologists or environmental scientists don't have political muscle, they get relegated to irrelevance. Lobbying is not an option because scientists have little to offer by way of return favours to the powerful. This must change. We must learn to see that scientific enterprise must actively participate in political lobbying to achieve the goal of sustainability. But that demands robust science because decision-makers must weigh that against the hard currency of economic argument. Worryingly, high profile NGOs and quasi-scientists dominate the environmental narrative in India. Therefore, governments mostly respond to their limited understanding of serious issues. Enough noise, but little technical evidence, is often proffered to protest the damages wrought by wanton development.

Besides, the environmental appraisal system in India is marred with serious flaws. This includes study committee compositions, weak environmental impact statements and lack of enforcement of laws after projects have been cleared. Shockingly, even the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF), muddles things by putting in place misbegotten accreditation structures that end up doing alot more damage than good. That said, the few good environment management plans (EMPs) that form part of appraisals could be key to making winwin ecology work. Unfortunately, most project proponents treat even the best of EMPs only as a means to crossing over a hurdle. In practice, funds meant for environmental management and conservation are not made available as promised. The only exception being finances for catchment area treatment meant for state forest departments. However, the funds intended for afforestation and treatment of critically degraded areas are appropriated to nonproductive activities like buying cars and building guesthouses. There is no way of knowing how much money was made available or spent, and for which environmental activity.

Likewise, on an individual level, there is no liability on the part of ensuring land use control by the last mile administration. Who, for example, allowed mushrooming of buildings in the flood plains or river banks in the Himalayas? Lack of accountability is our single most disastrous error of negligence in the recent catastrophe. District-level authorities blame politicians, who in turn propound the right-of-people-to-economic-development argument. Obfuscation is complete and brazen;nobody even pauses to consider that carefully planned economic development could indeed take place within the four corners of law and ecology. If we learn to follow our civil laws and those of nature, we will soon find that win-win ecology could work for us.

To cite but one tragic example of what shouldn't have been: the building of the Kedarnath temple almost in the path of the Mandakini river may have been a workable idea for a few pilgrims, but the establishment of a crowded town in a glaciated valley overlooking large glacial lakes upstream was asure shot recipe for disaster.

The writer teaches at the University of Delhi

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