Profit and ruin along the Western Ghats
It is one of the world’s top biodiversity spots, and also one of its most corrupt places
One of my daughter’s baby books was That’s Good! That’s Bad! by Margery Cuyler. For everything that happened, there was a flip side—good for bad, bad for good. Life is often like that. Sitting here looking out at possibly the planet’s most beautiful view—a monsoon Maharashtra landscape—I’m trying to apply that lens to events in this rural valley. Let’s see if there’s a proper cosmic balance.
This area is one of the world’s top biodiversity hot spots. The Zoological Survey of India reports that last year alone, 349 new species of flora and fauna were discovered in India; 22% of those were in the Western Ghats. Scientists discovered 14 new species of dancing frogs here. Some males blow out their throats while perched on a rock, and wave their legs alluringly in the air. Just the thought of it drives me mad with desire, so I can imagine what it does to the female frogs.
But: This area is also one of the world’s top corruption hot spots. Therefore, terms like “agricultural land” and “reserve forest” are as easily disposed of as the styrofoam cups that picnickers enjoy tossing out of their cars on to the frogs’ courtship arenas. Earth-moving machines busily plough up the forests faster than we can find all the wondrous creatures within.
Just a few years ago, we owned the only vehicle within 5km. Now, all the surrounding villages are full of cars, vans and motorcycles. Pregnant women no longer die in bullock carts on the way to hospital, and panicked village residents don’t come knocking at midnight if someone is vomiting or having a seizure.
But: Most of the money for these cars came from selling land, land that was either forest or rice field and that now belongs to “farmers” from Mumbai who wouldn’t know what part of a buffalo to milk if presented with one.
These days, there is no shortage of jobs for local residents, whether their last name is Thombre or Jadav. Resorts are booming, concrete posts are marching across the landscape like a conquering army, daily wages are going up for men and women alike. There’s more disposable income all around.
But: The more cash there is, the more pollution grows as people use soap instead of ash to wash clothes in the river and buy more consumables in plastic packaging. Wives must deal with husbands who patronize the many liquor stores that have sprung up faster than monsoon mushrooms in nearby villages. I’ve seen more drunk people weaving along the local roads in the last two weeks than in the previous 10 years, and it’s not even festival-time yet.
Three tiny Katkari girls wave happily to us from a hillock where their families have lived for a few generations. They are wearing bright pink and yellow.
But: All the money flowing in, all the mobiles, all the motorcycles, rules and regulations have not changed the hatred of all the other castes towards the Katkaris.
Development in the 21st century is confusing. But one thing is very clear indeed. Whatever the short-term gains individuals are reaping here, money rules. Money trumps all; customs, respect, any sense of the long view. Destroying forest habitat to make a buck? So what? For the government too, development is a priority.
Money (that’s good, that’s bad) and power (that’s good, that’s bad); here’s one story. An old woman owned a piece of land nearby. After she died, a local resident here, politically well-connected enough to pull some strings and fiddle with some paperwork, took over the land, shaved a hill in half (that hill was home to a type of Habenaria, a wild ground orchid), and put up a hoarding. The hoarding shows a Western-looking couple and child in a Western-looking house, with a background of monsoon waterfalls. The reality is a bunch of poky little asbestos dwellings already covered with black mould (it’s very tempting to write more about the fascinating hoardings along the road. One, I swear, shows a gay male couple with a baby, but probably it’s meant to be three generations of alpha males. And what’s with all the Indian men with blonde women in the ads for Luxurious Living?)
This particular project is wrong on every possible level. Aesthetically, well, you just have to look at the sad little houses. Legally, the land didn’t belong to the developer in the first place. But so what, he knows the people in power. One day the old woman’s son found out what was going on. No problem. The developer gave him a cut and carried on. The houses use stolen electricity; they just tap the local power lines. Recently, the police appeared with a notice that the houses shouldn’t be there at all, no matter who owns the land: It is right next to an ancient archaeological site, and no building is allowed nearby. But the policemen left without a fuss, and with well-greased palms.
I know it’s selfish and unrealistic to resent change, especially in a place where so many people have been marginalized for generations. But I question whether all the paunchy men racing around in their SUVs handing out cash are really changing things for the better. Surely there are ways to improve people’s economic conditions without destroying their worlds. At the moment it looks perilously as though farms, forests, frogs and the girls on the hill are all secondary to the rush for profit and progress.
Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.
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