By Raakhee Suryaprakash
Edited by Sanchita Malhotra, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
There is a clash between the Indian government and the pro-environment, anti-nuclear NGOs. A clash of the titans as both sides come equipped with media managers par excellence. With the media attention focussed on development vs. environment debate we need to take propaganda from both sides with a healthy helping ,not just a pinch of salt. Each side is out to paint the other green dirty! There is sustained effort on to make Green (both the colour of money and the colour of nature) a bad word. India is a developing country that has to sustain the livelihoods of over a billion at a time when the economy across the globe is slowing down even as a new government comes to grip with the realities of leading a diverse democracy in a highly interconnected world. The environment is also in equal disarray. Environmental refugees and migrated ones as well as the development displaced are challenges before governmental and non-governmental institutions.
The Bonn Climate Change Conference (June 4-15, 2014) ended in the previous month in an upbeat mood. Work is on to get governments to commit to the framework of the 2015 agreement to counter climate change. In 2015 the United Nations target goes from the Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals – that is environment-sensitive development will be central to the functioning of this important international agency. This transition reflects the aspirations of the citizens of the world, for we have been facing the effects of climate change in our weather patterns irrespective of where we are in the world – the developed North or the developing South; the “modern” West or the “traditional” East. Mother Nature is rapping our collective knuckles and it’s time to pay heed. The time to commit to positive action to save the planet is now for we have entered what Antarctic expert Anders Levermann calls “a new era of irreversible climate change.”
Power vs. Environment
No one who sweltered through power cuts in the humid heat of Chennai (as I’m doing right now even as I draft this article on my laptop) or dehydrated in the deadly dry heat of Delhi would ever choose the environment over power projects. Electricity powers the economy, and at this time of acute power shortages across the country even as summer peaks in the northern hemisphere the progress of our nation is at stake as well as individual comfort! Those of us secured from the vagaries of power cuts by toxic battery-run invertors or carbon dioxide spewing diesel generators have opted for an environmentally degrading quick-fix. In the era of fuel and climate crisis, diesel generators especially are at the expense of the planet. While protesting polluting thermal power stations and the health costs of nuclear power stations take heed of the pollution and fumes emitted by your trusty generator and invertors! Just as tiny drops make an ocean, the carbon footprints combined can be devastating at a time when the planet has reached tipping point – scientific research claiming “the need to tackle emissions to prevent a devastating rise in sea levels which would threaten small island states and coastal communities around the world.”
The rise in sea levels is a fact that has been hogging headlines past week before the month’s full moon (called the Honey Moon but its effect on the tides wasn’t sweet for coastal communities). Low-lying areas in Mumbai have been inundated by tidal flooding; fishermen in Tamil Nadu – at the midst of a staring contest with the Sri Lanka Navy – have opted to stay out of the churning waves. Fishing hamlets in the union territory of Pondicherry have also been flooded and over-reaching waves are keeping the inhabitants of my neighbourhood’s coastal slum awake at night for fear of being washed away overnight.
A zero-carbon emission nuclear plant functioning as it was meant to not to mention the multiplier effect of roof-top solar-power generating systems in homes across the nation feeding into to grid could have alleviated or prevented the present power crisis. But political will was lacking in implementing the latter and NGO interference delayed the former. In the power-struggle between the government and environmental activists the losers are the people and the planet. There is more than enough for everyone’s needs but not enough for anyone’s greed! The planet can easily sustain us all as long as we use the resources responsibly without giving into petty interests of those funding the turmoil.
Climate Change – Coming Soon to a “Theatre” Near You
Mankind has been exploiting nature from time immemorial. Just because that’s how things were always done does not mean that it’s OK or the right way to go. The exponential exploitation of resources across the planet has tipped the environment into a dangerous state. No one is safe from climate change. Here are some devastating climatic consequences that have been making the news:
(1) Heat wave – Delhi and Hyderabad – June 2014.
(2) A year after the Uttarakhand Deluge:
- Kedarnath Valley: 3,890 deaths in the June 16-17, 2013 deluge.
- The River Mandakini swept through Kedrnath Valley – thousands missing even today a year on.
- Holy river Ganga turns deadly.
- The rivers Alaknanda, Pindar, Bhagirathi, and Kali all flooded – 169 dead, 4,021 missing, property destroyed.
- Uttarakhand chief Harish Rawat estimates that Rs. 4000 crore more than the Rs. 8,000 crore already sanctioned by previous government is needed for reconstruction – the cost of ignoring the environment in this Himalayan state.
(3) Muddled Monsoon and Winter
- The supposedly hottest period of the year, Agni Natchatram in the Tamil Calendar (Mid-May), began with cloud bursts in Chennai.
- Hong Kong, Asia’s financial hub, has had more rain in May than its annual rainfall according to a BBC Weather report.
- According to another BBC report, droughts have a death-grip over large parts of East Asia and the controversial North Korean leader is blaming meteorologists. But mankind as a whole playing fast and loose with our duty to protect the environment is to blame!
- The frozen Niagara, Great Lakes of Chicago, and the sea around Manhattan this winter.
- Unseasonal rains and floods in Britain and Bosnia.
- Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan (no one spared from America to Asia).
(4) India’s Snow Day – Sea Day:
- “At the Boatkhali Kadambini Pre-primary School on Sagar Island in the Sunderbans, classes stop for five-six days each, twice a month, during June to August. Sea water invades the classrooms to a height of one-and-a-half feet, rendering teaching impossible.”
- “Sea level rise, which was little over 3mm a year between 1985 and 2000, increased during the first decade of this century, land subsidence included, to a staggering 12mm a year.”
- “What we are seeing today in the Sunderbans are glimpses of India’s future. Sea level rise in much of India’s 7,500-km coastline would very likely be as much as Sunderbans’ present 30 years from now.”
This is just the trailer. If concrete actions are not taken individually and institutionally then as said in my favourite Bollywood quote “picture abhi bhaki hai [it’s not over yet]!”
Sustainable Solutions – A Win-Win!
According to the infamous IB report anti-development protests slowed down the country’s GDP by 2%-3%, the NGOs hit back by quoting statistics from The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI): 7% loss to the GDP due to environmental destruction. Before blaming the government and laughing at environmental activists we need to remember that in a face-off with Mother Nature we face annihilation. So each one of us needs to be the change we want to see in our world and each change will inspire more change!
There are some phenomenal programmes, activities, and enterprises already at work that are economically sound – generating many jobs – while being environmentally sustaining. All that’s needed to universalize such projects are political will and individuals making the green choice! The new Indian government’s announcement promising solar power to Indian homes by 2019 is a step in the right direction. Incentivising and sustaining Carbon Neutral and Carbon Negative innovations, industries, and enterprises would also be a positive policy decision that’d cover both the economy and the environment.
Eco-pilgrimages need to be the commitment from pilgrims, tour organisers, and the government to ensure that last year’s devastations in the Char Dhams are not repeated. The potential multiplier effect is phenomenal when you take into account that just between the first week of May and the second week of June 2014 some 3,00,000 pilgrims visited Char Dhams, they in turn affect the livelihoods of 7,00,000 Uttarakhand natives.
In the international arena, the first Tang Prize touted to be Asian “Nobel” winner is former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland for her work as the “godmother” of sustainable development. This emphasises the priority given to environmentally sound development – a basic requirement in a world tipping into economic and environment crises!
“IB’s report on NGOs farcical, says rights activists,” The Hindu, Saturday, June 14, 2014, p. 15
“Uttarakhand: a year after the deluge,” The Hindu, Monday, June 16, 2014, p. 13.
“Hard choices at Copenhagen,” Jairam Ramesh, MoEF – June 2009-July 2011, The Hindu, Tuesday, June 17, 2014, p. 8.
“A year later, no lessons learned,” Kavita Upadhyay, The Hindu, Tuesday, June 17, 2014, p. 9.
Raakhee has a Master’s degree in International Studies and a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry but is passionate about writing and researching ideas that change the world for the better. She is in the process of launching a social enterprise SUNSHINE MILLENNIUM that aims to help India’s off-grid rural areas achieve the Millennium Development Goals by setting up of solar-powered millennium development centres. Her work has been widely published both in print and online media.