Indianama

The end of nature: Why India is becoming a drier, hotter and angrier country

India is losing its trees, animals and traditions, as it forgets its bond with nature.

Every day, as I left home and walked along the footpath near my house, battling cars that try to occupy it, I glanced irritatedly at the little mess of leftover rice-and-god-knows-what that I shuddered at and jumped over. I was delighted when the WhatsApp group of the local residents’ associations posted photos of the dirty patch I encountered and others like it. The unanimous decision: We will ask residents to stop creating this mess that attracts dogs and crows. Why, I mused, must people make this mess on our already crumbling footpaths?

I got my answer the next week, and it made me feel guilty, ashamed and ignorant. You see, the reason people from my neighbourhood’s last surviving little houses put the rice out was because they were acting on fading impulses and memories from a gentler and greener time – when nature was a part of daily life and Bengaluru was a city of trees and gardens big and small. “Bengaluru residents have not just been aware of the biodiversity of their gardens, but have made active efforts to support this biodiversity,” writes Harini Nagendra, a professor at Azim Premji University, in Nature in the City, her evocative exploration of the city’s natural history. “More than half of the residents engaged in practices such as placing a plate of warm rice (often with ghee [clarified butter] added outside the kitchen to feed crows, while they left water baths for birds in the summer, and sugar and milk for ants and reptiles.”

No smart cities without nature

Having experienced Bengaluru’s lush past since my family first came here 47 years ago and having lived through innumerable gardens that my father tended, I was aware of the broad brush strokes of the city’s changing history. But Nagendra’s book merges disparate brush strokes to paint a big picture of the ancient relationship between nature and a city of nine million that is now, simultaneously, the epitome of Indian metropolitan prosperity and chaos.

Nagendra’s book made me realise how far nature has receded from our lives. Butterflies, birds, reptiles and mammals are on their last legs in all of India’s cities. As they and the greenery that sustains them fades, it is important to realise that the smart-city era can never be realised without a sustaining natural environment. Indeed, the absence of nature is making our lives more unbearable. We may ignore the correlations and causations – or simply be ignorant, as many policy makers are – but scientists are clear about the devastating effects that the end of nature is having on India, within cities and without.

Nature’s diminishing effect is most obvious in physical terms: As trees, lakes and open spaces disappear and are replaced by closely spaced multi-storeyed buildings – increasingly violating zoning and setback laws – Indian cities are turning into “heat islands”, environment researcher Max Martin wrote in IndiaSpend in July 2016, after a review of scientific studies in five cities.

“Trees, shrubs, grass and soil absorb heat and cool the land, but since these are increasingly absent in Indian urban design, and what existed is being cleared, what’s left is concrete and asphalt, which soak in and intensify the day’s heat, staying hot for many hours at night,” wrote Martin. The result: warmer nights and hotter days in Delhi, Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram, Guwahati and Kochi, according to a number of independent studies that Martin reviewed. It goes without saying that roads and cities bereft of trees are hotter, more starved of water and ever more difficult to endure. And that, as science keeps reminding us, makes us stressed, angry and depressed.

India joins the sixth extinction

Outside the cities, India’s assault on nature has been more widely documented and reported: the loss of forests and wildlife and the effect this is having on a variety of things: monsoons, livelihoods and traditions. To be sure, the end of nature is not specific to India.

The world is facing the most widespread extinction since the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years, warns the Living Planet Report, 2016, released last month by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Zoological Society of London. “The evidence has never been stronger, and our understanding never been clearer,” wrote WWF director general Marco Lambertini. A variety of living creatures – mammals, reptiles, fish, amphibians – are disappearing at a rate 100 times faster than is normal. The number of vertebrate species fell 58% in just 42 years, and it is estimated that 66% of animals will be gone over the next four years. Worst hit are the world’s freshwater systems, which have lost 81% of their animals, which are indicators of the health of these systems. As these animals disappear, so does the freshwater, and that is why growing stresses and conflicts over such water supplies are skyrocketing.

There is no better place to realise the extent of those stresses than in Karnataka, where reservoirs in the lush southern territories – ironically called the Malnad (from male nadu or land of rain) – are almost empty. At a time when dams should have had plentiful water for farmers and electricity generation – thermal power plants should be powering down for maintenance – the unseasonal dryness has currently left the state with a dilemma: How will it implement Supreme Court orders to share water with its neighbours from its principal river, the Cauvery, and avoid widespread brownouts in the months to come?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The Western Ghats’ blank spaces

Whether tensions with Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery or with Goa and Maharashtra over the Mahadayi (or Mandovi) in Karnataka’s north, the conflicts over the freshwater these rivers supply have the same point of origin: The Western Ghats, a 1,40,000 sq km swathe of damp forests and hills larger than Chhattisgarh, running from Gujarat to Kerala. It is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, a cradle of forests, animals and water, interlinked in a vast, intricate web of life. That web is being torn apart with unprecedented speed.

Over 90 years, the Western Ghats lost a third of its forests, according to this paper released in 2016 by scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation. The forest area lost is equivalent to nine times the size of Goa. Innumerable species have been lost, many before they were discovered. The Indian Space Research Organisation scientists recorded forest loss until 2013. Since then, more tracts of forest have been removed, particularly in the Cauvery basin. There are no official records of recent devastation, only the occasional newspaper report, such as the clearing of forests in the coffee-district of Kodagu for a power line in 2014, when estimates of trees felled ranged from 2,247 (the Power Grid Corporation) to 21,000 (the forest department) to 50,000 (trekkers, locals and activists).

As the forests of the Western Ghats are brought down, India loses its biotic capital, which is a national strategic reserve, as much as food stocks, gold and foreign-exchange holdings and the nuclear arsenal. The Ghats are – still – stuffed with undiscovered animals and plants, many hidden in the rain forests in the heart of the Ghats.

In his 1992 book, The Diversity of Life, the great US biologist Edward Wilson wrote of the unsolved mysteries of the rain forests:

“They are like unnamed islands hidden in the blank spaces of old maps; like dark shapes glimpsed descending the far wall of a reef into the abyss. They draw us forward... The unknown and prodigious are drugs to the scientific imagination, stirring insatiable hunger with a single taste. In our hearts we hope we will never discover everything.”

In our hearts, we know we never will discover everything in the Ghats – a place so rich that discoveries, sometimes, come at a rate of many species a night – not because of some romantic urge but because they are being slowly, quietly decimated. These forests are home to 1,500 species of flowering plants, 500 animals and an unknown number of fungi and insects found nowhere else on earth, but the interest generated by this biotic capital goes beyond beauty and wonder. The Western Ghats are a giant sponge, absorbing water as it falls, giving life not just to forests but sustaining peninsular India’s major rivers, the waters of which drain a fourth of India and give life to 245 million people across five states. That is more people than live in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

The most dire warning about the declining health of the Western Ghats came more than four years ago, when the Indian government banned the release of a report of a 325-page scientific study, Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, and forbade its 14 authors, which included some of India’s best biologists and four government officers, from discussing it.

“Our nation is evidently at a crossroads today, with grave misgivings on continuing with business as usual,” said the report, which I quoted from when I wrote about it in 2012. Unlike many government-appointed committees, the authors – headed by the learned and eminent biologist Madhav Gadgil – took their job seriously, questioning the unscientific basis and practice of India’s environmental forest policies, introduced by the British 150 years ago, I wrote. The report offered two examples of how this system is manipulated: One, a fake claim in the 1970s made by India’s forestry establishment that 23% of the country was forest. A satellite scan ordered by the then secretary of the Space Department, Satish Dhawan, revealed India’s forests to be 14% of its area; the final figure was settled at 19%. Two, the paper tigers of Rajasthan’s Sariska Reserve, where officials fudged figures to show there were 17 tigers in 2004. There were none.

Since data are routinely falsified and short-term gains for governments and industries are now India’s chief environmental priority, it is no surprise that the remedial measures suggested for the Western Ghats will never be implemented.

The battle to join broken bonds

While many argue that the assault on nature is, well, natural given the living room that a country of 1.3 billion requires, this justification does not consider the long-term harm we cause to ourselves. “Faced with unprecedented growth, socio-cultural heterogeneity and inequity, we do not know what the future holds for nature in the new urban Indian,” writes Nagendra. “While the focus of the country appears to be on ‘smart cities’ as viewed through a technological lens, we need to understand that nature provides the most intelligent routes to a smart city.”

Back in Bengaluru, she sees hope in the “intense affinity” for nature that has survived the destruction, an affinity demonstrated in areas as diverse as slums, middle-class homes and wealthy apartment complexes. That affinity leads citizens of the city to come together and wage intense battles to save what is left and attempt to regenerate what has been lost. Now, more than ever, we need to recall our broken bonds with the natural world. Our future depends on it.

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