Despatches from the front

Despatches from the front


Sudarshan Rodriguez, Dakshin Foundation

Degraded by habitat destruction

India’s coastline extends to around 7,500km with a wide range of ecosystems characterizing the coast—estuaries, lagoons, mangroves, backwaters, salt marshes, rocky coasts, sandy stretches and coral reefs. Marine and coastal ecosystems are some of the most dynamic and complex systems and our understanding of them is weak compared with other ecosystems.

Coastal ecosystems face several conservation and management challenges, as explained below.

Habitat destruction: The driving force behind coastal degradation has been large development and infrastructure projects along the coast as well as unplanned and unregulated growth in coastal areas in violation of existing laws. Aquaculture, which was introduced as an ex-situ measure for harvesting marine species, especially prawns, is solely responsible for destroying large tracts of productive coastal land and mangroves.

Ineffective fisheries management and over-exploitation of bio-resources: Large-scale mechanization in the fisheries sector, introduced nearly 50 years ago, has had a huge impact on fish resources. There is also poor enforcement and monitoring by the fisheries department, in spite of legislation being in place. Living bio-resources found in the coastal zone are heavily exploited. This includes banned species such as sea cucumbers, molluscs and sea horses.

Pollution: The coastal zone receives waste generated by a number of point and non-point sources, especially sewage, industrial effluents, sediment, and agricultural chemicals, notably fertilizers and pesticides.

Weak implementation of laws: Since the 1990s, over 25 amendments were made to the main legislation to regulate development on the coast, the Coastal Regulation Zone notification, most of which have considerably undermined its efficacy, resulting in threats to coastal biodiversity and habitats. There has been a lot of construction activity along the coast, much of it completely illegal, and there has been no one to take stock of these violations in most states. This is coupled with the lack of awareness and sensitivity towards the issue of marine and coastal biodiversity among the judiciary, policymakers, decision-makers and administrators. There is also a move by the government to amend the law and undermine the existing measures in favour of unsustainable economic interest.

Fishing communities and rights: Over 10 million fisherfolk in around 3,000 hamlets inhabit India’s coastal regions. In the past few decades, fisherfolk have mobilized and organized to demand their rights from the state. Individual or community rights still do not exist and, in 90% of the cases, the communities do not even have titles and deeds for their houses and settlements. The lack of a formal recognition of rights and access of space in the coastal governance framework will only lead to conflict and undermining of fishing community livelihood and social needs by corporate and non-coastal interests.

Sudarshan Rodriguez heads the programme on communities, networks and conservation at Dakshin Foundation.  His work focuses on trans-disciplinary action research, traditional governance institutions, community sovereignty and commons. Comment at


MD Madhusudan, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore

Need to preserve natural capital

While giant economies have been shaken by the global downturn, India has retained a growth curve that continues to rise at 7-8% annually. The upward wave we have been riding over the last decade seems to have no crest. But it is in the contradictions inherent in this laudable growth that I believe the greatest threat to India’s forests lies.

Our forests are under immense pressure both from the beneficiaries of this growth as well as those who have tasted none of its success.

Paying the price: Forests are under pressure both from the beneficiaries of the economic growth as well as those who haven’t tasted its success. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

At the same time, the largest sector of India’s economy and one that is still fundamentally land-based—agriculture— struggles to keep pace with other sectors. Even as we speak of inclusive growth, disparities between our farmers and their urban cousins have grown.

Agricultural credit remains elusive, production risks continue untrammelled, as do market risks. In the resulting frustration and desperation, one of the most important coping mechanisms our rural poor have is to turn to natural resources from forests. They do so every day, leaning on our forests for everything from food and fibre to fodder and fuel. And the truth is that we have done little on the ground to reduce their need for the forest.

Yet, I do not think that this threat is without remedy. For both the winners as well as the losers, retaining healthy forests, and using lands outside wisely, preserves natural capital, which must be deployed as carefully as financial and human capital. Neither farmer nor tycoon can afford the erosion of capital. And when that capital is our forests, it is not merely the sustainability of our enterprises that is in question, it is the very future of our life that hangs in the balance.

M.D. Madhusudan is with the Nature Conservation Foundation (Mysore). Comment at


Anumita Roychowdhury, Centre for Science and Environment

Cities need mobility, not cars

Our cities are in a mess and the clutter will grow. Recent number crunching by global consulting firm McKinsey and Co. Llc predicts an urban population in India of 590 million by 2030—nearly twice the size of the current US population and 40% of the total projected Indian population. Cities, which account for 70% of India’s GDP (gross domestic product), will drive the economy. But these same cities are on a toxic spiral, urged on by growing wastefulness, energy use and car mania. The current obsession with car-based infrastructure and urban sprawl will only increase car dependency, travel distances, energy and the pollution intensity of travel.

The choking haze of pollution and growing illnesses are the scary evidence of urban growth. The International Energy Agency warns that cars will also drive energy demand. Currently, one-third of our urban population in three mega-cities accounts for nearly half of the carbon emissions from transport. Parking needs are devouring urban commons—10% of urbanized Delhi is wasted as parking spaces.

Can we make our cities livable? Make public health, urban design quality and community well-being the basis of this growth?

Our future depends on the choices we make today. And the choices are clear in our densely built cities, where the bulk of all travel trips have short distances—5-10km. In fact, walking and bicycling make up more than a quarter of all trips in major cities and greater than half in small towns. Public transport and para-transit modes meet more than three quarters of the passenger demand for motorized transport. Protect and scale up this strength, and ensure equity in allocation of road space to all users.

Make the change real. Leverage the emerging policy opportunities—reform-based agenda of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and the clean air action plans. Cities must deliver on public transport reforms, control pollution sources and pursue innovative measures to restrain the car bulge. There is no other way.

Look at Delhi. With less than a quarter of households owning cars, and despite the largest road network, life’s ebbed out of its streets. Road widening and flyovers have not helped.

The signpost is clear: Cities need mobility, not cars. Scale up alternative mobility choices, set the post-2010 road map to leapfrog vehicle technology, and redesign cities to promote safe mobility. Cities must interlink a full range of actions that form the big solution.

Anumita Roychowdhury is associate director at Centre for Science and Environment. Comment at


Himanshu Thakkar, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People

Dammed, destroyed many times over

What is a river? It is not just a channel carrying freshwater, but a hydrological, geomorphic, ecological, biodiversity rich, landscape level system that serves as a key part of the freshwater cycle, balancing dynamic equilibrium between rainwater, surface water and groundwater, and providing a large number of social and economic services to the people and ecosystems all along its watershed. This does sound a bit complex, but then, a river is a complex and beautiful system, which does many things along its course!

What is the state of our rivers today? Briefly, most have been dammed and thus destroyed many times over, most are so polluted that there is no river in the Indian plains with even bathing quality water.

Many erstwhile perennial rivers are dried up over vast stretches for an increasing number of days in a year. As a result, most big rivers are unable to provide ecosystem services to its people. There are some exceptions, like most of the rivers of the North-East.

Some major, easily discernable threats to the rivers include: large dams (existing, under construction and planned) and diversions; hydropower projects of all kinds and sizes; pollution; destruction of forests, local water bodies and wetlands (a river is a report card of the catchment); excessive extraction of water and sand from rivers; excessive groundwater extraction; the interlinking of rivers plan; climate change that will impact temperatures, glaciers and monsoon; seawater ingress; and finally increasing water demand (due to increasing population, urbanisation, industrialisation and standard of living), which will lead to greater freshwater abstraction.

But the biggest threat to the rivers is government attitude. It has a monopoly over river governance, which is characterised by being callous, apathetic, non-transparent, unaccountable (to people), non-participatory and non-responsive, with an inability to learn any lessons. It ascribes no value to rivers or its services and considers it only to be a medium to be exploited without any need for its sustainable existence. The pollution control machinery can best be described as corrupt; there is not even a single success story of pollution control of a river in India. There is no law in this country which requires that rivers must have freshwater flow all round the year, the exception being Himachal Pradesh. The water resources establishment does not even count the services provided by the rivers when it sanctions their destruction in the form of dams, hydropower projects, encroachment of floodplains or diversions. The way the National Ganga River Basin Authority has been constituted and has functioned so far, inspires no confidence.

Is there hope? Yes, wherever people have taken the cause of the river in their hands, they have succeeded in rejuvenating or cleaning it up. Two good examples are Kali Bein (Punjab) and Arwari (Rajasthan).

Himanshu Thakkar is coordinator South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

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Kanchi Kohli, Kalpavriksh Environment Action group

Development, exploitation of resources threaten variety

The myriad complexes of species, habitats and their interactions is what has come to be known as biological diversity. This diversity transcends both wild and domesticated landscapes spreading across deserts, mountains, coasts, wetlands, grasslands and many other ecological systems. Human associations with biodiversity have over years evolved in many ways through spiritual, cultural, economic and social dimensions. This has led to the development of knowledge, practices and livelihoods that continue to remain deeply integrated with the existence of biological diversity in and around living spaces.

Today, it is no longer a startling revelation to say that biodiversity is under threat. Even though the forms of this threat may take varied dimensions, one can seek to understand them in two specific flows. First is the loss of the very habitat that gives biodiversity its form and space for survival. The last decade has seen the upsurge of huge investments into India, seeking to establish operations for mining, power generation, infrastructure expansion and so on. What each one of these activities requires is the use of land, water and eco-scapes, which in turn come under severe stress of destruction or degradation. Laws and regulations which were to ensure that environment impact assessments (EIA) are carried out prior to any approvals, have failed. There are many stories of EIA reports being incomplete, biased or even fudged and in spite of that permissions are granted to clear fell forests and build over the coasts. And what is ironic is that biodiversity and more importantly agro-biodiversity hardly ever figures in these impact assessment exercises.

The second most crucial threat is the singular outlook of understanding biodiversity as a commodity. The use of biodiversity in medicines, food, and even trade is not new. But there has been a massive shift in the scale at which biodiversity is being sought out and traded. Today, biodiversity has also found a place even in Free Trade Agreements under negotiation between nations. Large-scale exploitation of single species in the wild or replacing indigenous varieties in cultivated spaces can do irreparable damage to the future survival of any of the elements of biological diversity. Indiscriminate trade in species continues and cases of biopiracy remain undetected. Energies worldwide are used to negotiate the best possible benefit sharing that can be arrived at, in instances of loss of diversity or proprietary ownership of what was otherwise common heritage.

As each year passes, the biodiversity problem only deepens as its scope is reduced to a commodified realm and its habitat up for sale.

Kanchi Kohli is member, Kalpavriksh Environment Action group.

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Ritesh Kumar, Wetlands International

Water, food needs will pose challenge

The deteriorating status of wetlands worldwide was confirmed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment finding of 2005, which concluded that their degradation and loss was more rapid than any other ecosystem on earth. Not surprisingly, the assessment also concluded that the status of freshwater and coastal wetland species was declining faster than other ecosystems. While comprehensive estimates for India are not available, the annual rate of loss of wetlands has been projected at 2-3%, though several sites are undergoing much faster degradation.

Critical challenges to wetlands in the coming decades will emerge from the pressure on water and food security in the country. Stresses on wetlands will increase as new structures are put in place to harness water, and more areas intensively or extensively cultivated. Several wetlands are at risk from interventions which do not consider the impact of developmental projects, for example, dam construction, on wetlands. Greater understanding and awareness is required on the ways wetlands contribute to water and food security, and consider them as ‘natural infrastructure’ which can help realize our various development goals. Cross-sectoral and ecosystem-based management approaches such as river basin-scale management, and integrated coastal zone management which consider trade-offs between different wetland ecosystem services are more likely to ensure sustainable development than the existing sectoral approaches.

We cannot manage what we do not measure. While promising growth estimates are being put up for our economy, there is no assessment of the decline in ecological wealth which happens as a consequence of unplanned economic development. It is high time natural capital such as wetlands is included in economic accounting and their depreciation factored into growth estimates. Equally important is factoring in the economic contribution of a full range of wetland ecosystem services in developmental planning and decision making.

The direct and indirect pressures due to climate change are undoubtedly key factors in determining the health of our wetlands. However, much of the debate at present is focused on assessing the impact of climate change on ecosystems such as wetlands. We should instead use such natural ecosystems and biodiversity as a mitigating force to fight climate change. In particular, much of the climate change adaptation options being considered lie within conservation and effective management of ecosystems such as wetlands, which can help address water and food security challenges in multiple ways.

Ritesh Kumar is director, Wetlands International-South Asia. Comment at


R Sreedhar, Mountain Environics

Hydroelectric projects, tunnels may wreak havoc

The Himalayas constitute a vital ecosystem for the entire subcontinent. In the past few decades and more specifically in the last decade, unprecedented changes have been taking place in the region that are drastically impacting the ecosystem.

First is the series of hydropower projects that are in various stages—and by the current count there will be more than 500 in the Himalayas —that will completely change the nature of the riverine systems. River flow will become intermittent as the discharge from power projects will depend on optimizing power production, making downstream flows more erratic.

Many of them involve extensive tunnelling and this will add to the seismic vulnerability of the region. Already there are prognostications that the Himalayas are ripe for an earthquake of 8-plus magnitude. Among the numerous such projects that are being built is the totally unnecessary Renuka dam, which is to bring drinking water to Delhi, submerging 33 villages and part of a wildlife sanctuary. Saving the water being lost in the current supply system and rationalizing delivery could easily provide the same amount.

Apart from the destruction of mountains for the construction of such projects and the roads that will service them, mining is another threat to several parts of the Himalayas. Extensive destruction has already occurred in some parts and several projects currently under way in the name of economic development will totally destroy the local environment.

The next major concern is crop vulnerability. While the erratic weather is itself an immense burden on farmer, there is the added threat of animals into whose habitat man has encroached. Monkeys and wild boars make horticulture and cropping immensely risky in the mid- and high hills, while nilgai commonly invade farms in the foothills.

Added to this is a growing number of weeds that make agriculture a back-breaking task especially for the women.

Mindless urbanization of the mountains is another concern. All the hill stations that were known for their beauty have been wrecked by imposing the same models of urbanization and management of urban ecosystems. Several pilgrim centres have also become “ugly small towns" and the process is extending into various other sites with mass tourism.

There is possibly very little scope for a strong enough correction, given our leaders’ inability to think about the cumulative impact on ecosystems and the livelihood of the local community. Better wisdom will need to prevail.

R. Sreedhar is director, Mountain Environics. Comment at