The upcoming dialogues on global warming and the state of the urban environment are grist for the mill in today’s media. But they ought not to detract from a critical dimension of the new century’s ecological dilemmas, one in which India will be a key arena.
This country, after all, is not only home to one in six humans on the planet. It is also a habitat or breeding ground, refuge or migration point for as many as 1,200 bird species and at least 500 mammals—in addition to around 25,000 varieties of flowering plants.
How the fabric of life sustains itself amid demographic and economic expansion is a global issue. India, like other tropical countries blessed with such an array of riches, is one of the places where the equations will either work or wilt.
Much attention and debate centres on the predator that became the national animal in 1972—the tiger. Coterminous with her own ascendancy over her party and country, Indira Gandhi also saw the tiger as a symbol of unity in diversity. Its conservation in its forest home against poachers and, more importantly, against those who menaced its prey and habitat was a major milestone in changing official attitudes.
The larger project of conservation was thus founded on a simple premise: to set aside a part of the landscape and waters to nature. This may make sense for more than symbolic reasons. As the scientist James Lovelock, who formulated the famous Gaia thesis suggests, wild lands are vital as laboratories where science studies nature.
This is both a safety valve and a treasure trove. The latter is all the more true given the wider ecosystem functions of such lands. Most parks and sanctuaries are in forest India, often in the highlands of the peninsula and the Himalayan foothills and other hill ranges. The vegetal cover and trees are vital to bind down topsoil, additionally many are vital for livelihoods. This flora would include the tendu and the palas, the sal and the mahua.
Clashes of livelihood and conservation have been exacerbated by not one, but two competing trends. Adivasi and other marginal people see the forest as homestead and resource catchments and often suffer from displacement (rare but often deeply damaging to their incomes and self- esteem) and exclusion (more common). Counter to this is the inability of the forest department to lock out large land claims such as those of infrastructure and mines, dams and townships from zones designated as ecologically critical.
Here, it is crucial that the new minister of state for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, has explicitly stated that it is not his remit to dismantle the regulatory structure. He may well have been referring to the gamut of “brown” issues, of air and water pollution regimes. But vis-à-vis forests and biological diversity, this can be a shot in the arm.
But to do so, India has to take on board the critical inputs of sciences that have flowered since the early 1970s of the Indira Gandhi era. India, far more than any other developing country, has first-rate ecological sciences, whether in renowned centres such as the Indian Institute of Science or the newer Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation.
These works and pilot initiatives based on them have helped defuse human-animal conflicts. They can do much more. The entire protected areas in idea are but 5% of the landscape, some 150,000 sq. km in all.
Beyond them there is ample scope for resource sharing and partnerships that combine livelihood and conservation. These will require more initiatives on the lines of the 2006 forest rights Act of the first Manmohan Singh government. Yet, these initiatives must be about more than simply granting land titles—they must encourage economic activities that enhance rather than cripple ecological systems.
But for science or partnerships to work, it will be vital to lock large infrastructure out of critical ecological zones. This is neither Luddite nor impractical.
As became evident in the Kudremukha Tiger Reserve, Karnataka, ending iron ore mining not only kept the ecological integrity of the tiger habitat intact, but it also relieved farmers downstream of having to deal with slurry-laden waters unfit for irrigation or consumption.
The key to such growth—that balances the aspiration to industrialize with the retention of biological systems that function—will be a formidable challenge in the new century.
This implies that conservation is much more than about endangered species or vanishing landscapes. These are necessary, but are a small part of the larger quest for striking a balance.
Larger initiatives for landscape and waters have to be thought of in the long term. Restoration of ecologies is still a new craft, but it needs to move beyond mere reforestation. Here, insights from the humanistic disciplines—and planners—built with local knowledge are a must.
Ecological integrity will hinge on a careful mix of science and citizen initiative. This alone can safeguard India’s achievements in conservation while removing the warts.
Mahesh Rangarajan is co-editor of Making Conservation Work (Permanent Black, 2007) and an environmental historian. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org