Developmental paradigm amidst Environment day, Biodiversity day in Covid era

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By Shankar Sharma*

Abstract:  Observing Biological Diversity day on 22 May and environment day on 5 June each year has become a sort of routine for what appears to be a purpose of fashion for most of our political leaders and bureaucrats, who participate in such functions without any commitment to protect the natural resources.  Between the International Day for Biological Diversity (IDB) on 22 May 2020, when the theme was “Our solutions are in nature”, to this year’s environment day on 5 June 2020, when the theme was “Celebrate Biodiversity”, our acts and omissions in India must have destroyed scores of biodiversity / wildlife habitats.  It is reported that the legally protected areas (PAs) in the country constitute only about 14% of the forest area and just 4.61% of its land mass.  Various policies and practices of the successive governments are directly resulting in the destruction of our natural forests even in such protected areas. Without a strong commitment to conserve and enhance the critical elements of nature, the human health and economic welfare of our communities will keep degrading at an alarming rate.

***

Yet another Biological Diversity day and World Environment Day have come and gone this year too. Many functions around the country would have been arranged; from a school going child to our political leaders many people would give speeches on the importance of a healthy environment; many ministers and VIPs would appear in photographic sessions while planting a symbolic tree sampling; ministers and govt. ministries/ departments make tall claims as to how they have cared for the environment etc.  All these and many more will go on as a sort of routine celebration, while the critical parts of our environment such as forests, wildlife and their habitats, marine creatures, rivers, swamps, birds etc. are being wantonly annihilated with or without the approval of our authorities; mostly with the approval or connivance of the authorities who are mandated to protect them.

Between the International Day for Biological Diversity (IDB) on 22 May 2020, when the theme was “Our solutions are in nature”, and Environment Day on 5 June 2020, when the theme was  “Celebrate Biodiversity”, our acts and omissions in India must have destroyed scores of biodiversity / wildlife habitats.  For example, just in the last few days before this year’s environment day, a group of people purported to be undertaking a geo-technical survey within a rare LTM sanctuary (a legally protected area, PA) in the core area of Western Ghats of Karnataka (as a preparation to set up a pumped storage hydel plant at the cost of about 350 acres of pristine natural forest of very ecological value to the humanity), might have trampled on scores of biodiversity species at this time of the beginning of the monsoon season which is also the most precious time of the year for germination and reproduction. This is as a consequence of the permission given by our authorities for such a study, despite repeated representations to the Karnataka state Wildlife Board headed by the Chief Minister, and to the National Wildlife Board, headed by our Prime Minister.  If statutory bodies such as State Wildlife Boards and NBWL cannot exhibit adequate sensitivity in caring for the biodiversity even in a legally protected area (PA) during the critical season of germination and reproduction, can we find fault with the common citizens of this country for not caring for the environment?

It is reported that the legally protected areas (PAs) in the country constitute only about 14% of the forest area and just 4.61% of its land mass. Even though it is reported that there has been an increase from 6 national parks and 59 wildlife sanctuaries in 1970, to 85 and 462 respectively in 1998 (Wildlife Institute of India, 1998), how these PAs are being protected should be a matter of concern. According to a survey carried out in the mid-1980s, over 65 percent of the PAs were characterized by human settlements and resource use (Kothari et al., 1989).  The pristine forest lands within such PAs are increasingly been diverted for non-forestry purposes. Recent examples of such disastrous policy decisions are: (i) favorably considering the application for diversion of hundreds of hectares of pristine forest lands in an LTM sanctuary in Karnataka for a pumped storage power plant, and (ii) another application for Uranium mining in a tiger reserve in Telangana.

If, despite 7 decades of serious  “developmental efforts”, through reduction of PAs to less than 5% of the land mass, has led to a political perception that the so called economic development in the country is not adequate, any further reduction in the areas of PAs cannot result in  betterment of our communities; instead much higher levels of community-wise disasters will be certain because of the destruction of biodiversity.

In view of the fact that the forest and tree cover in the country is officially reported to be only about 24% of the land area as against the national forest policy target of 33% of the land area, if our developmental paradigm does not ensure adequate protection of forest cover and biodiversity even in 4.6% of the land area, there can be no cause for celebration of the biodiversity day and environment day year after year, because such wanton abuse of nature has been going on continuously since decades with or without the approval of the government despite scores of credible scientific reports from around the world cautioning against such callous approach towards our natural resources.

In this larger context, the global crises heaped on us by COVID 19 can be seen as an appropriate time to review many of our policies. If the sane and repeated warnings by the scientific community, including the UN body of scientists in the name of IPCC, to provide adequate care for the environment have not been effective enough on our government, similar warnings w.r.t the pandemics such as Corona on few important aspects of our life may be more effective.  We can do so by looking at some of the critical sectors of society.

Biodiversity and Human Health

The definitive linkage between ecological health, biodiversity health, climate change and human health have become too obvious not to ignore taking the same into objective account in our policy decisions. So much so that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on S&T, Environment, Forests and Climate Change is known to be working on a report “Environment, Climate Change and Public Health”.

There is a growing concern of the scientists over the issue of how we are treating the nature around us.  One such concern is: “Humanity’s “promiscuous treatment of nature” needs to change or there will be more deadly pandemics such as Covid-19, warn scientists who have analysed the link between viruses, wildlife and habitat destruction.  Deforestation and other forms of land conversion are driving exotic species out of their evolutionary niches and into man-made environments, where they interact and breed new strains of disease, the experts say.

As per these reports, apart from extreme climate events like floods, droughts and cyclones which have affected the lives of many millions of people, climate change is seen to be at the root of serious health problems. All the three pandemics of this century — SARS (2003), H1N1 (2009) and COVID-19 this year have the stamp of climate change on them. They were caused by viruses originating in birds or animals. Ebola, Zika and Nipah viruses also belong to this category. Many animals shift from their natural habitats to human environments and transfer new viruses and diseases to human beings. Covid-19 is the latest warning.

Whereas COVID19 has created a scenario of global health crises, and whereas it has led to total death of about 200,000 so far, it is glaring to note that another crisis of global air pollution, which is known to shorten life expectancy by an average of three years or 8.8 million premature deaths a year in 2015, according to a recent study, has not acquired the seriousness it deserves. It does not need an environmental scientist to link the air pollution to an unacceptable level of loss of biodiversity.

A number of scholarly articles / reports corroborating such a linkage have been appearing in recent years:

Human Health

Effects of Global Warming on Wildlife and Human Health

Surely the link between abusing animals and the world’s health is now clear

‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?

Asia’s rapid urbanisation, deforestation linked to deadly viruses

Here’s what the coronavirus pandemic can teach us about tackling climate change

It is very scary to know that according to Dr Seth Berkley, a medical epidemiologist, any of the 30 thousand and odd corona viruses that are in WHO data base can spill over in the coming years bringing yet other pandemics.  It may seem obvious to scientists and environmentalists that human health depends on healthy ecosystems. But as one science based article states: this is rarely considered in policy decisions on projects that affect natural ecosystems – such as land clearing, major energy or transport infrastructure projects and industrial-scale farming. If we are to constrain the emergence of new infections and future pandemics, we simply must cease our exploitation and degradation of the natural world, and urgently cut our carbon emissions.  Hence, it is high time that policies are informed by good science and not political whims or expediency of befitting corporate houses.

Some statements of importance in these literatures of are:

“As habitat and biodiversity loss increase globally, the novel corona virus outbreak may be just the beginning of mass pandemics.”

“According to the World Health Organization, the adverse health effects brought in by loss of biodiversity far exceeds dangers of implication of climate change to human health. Health professionals should advocate for the preservation of biodiversity as it has a powerful impact on frequency of disease transmission in the community. Scientists have said protecting ecosystems like wetlands and forests is crucial because they store planet-heating carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help address climate change.”

“… But environmental change also has direct human health outcomes via infectious disease emergence, and this link is not customarily integrated into planning for sustainable development.”

“Scientists have said protecting ecosystems like wetlands and forests is crucial because they store planet-heating carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help address climate change. Decision-makers are also increasingly concerned, putting “biodiversity loss” as one of the top five risks the world faces, according to a 2020 report from the World Economic Forum. A landmark global science report said last year that a million animal and plant species were at risk of extinction, including medicinal plants and insects that pollinate crops.”

Keeping all these facts in proper perspective, it will not be irrational to ask whether various wildlife boards, both at the centre and states, and the EAC have become irrelevant since they are seen as abdicating their Constitutional mandate to protect the wildlife and the associated biodiversity.

Biodiversity, economic growth and prosperity

One scientific article has said: “The continuing loss of biodiversity will undermine our ability for poverty reduction, food and water security, human health and the overall goal of leaving nobody behind.”

“Natural ecosystems provide the foundations for economic growth, human health and prosperity. Our fate as a species is deeply connected to the fate of our natural environment. As ecosystems are increasingly threatened by human activity, acknowledging the benefits of biodiversity is the first step in ensuring that we look after it. We know biodiversity matters. Now, as a society, we should protect it – and in doing so, protect our own long-term interests.”

A statement from World Economic Forum says: There is great potential for the economy to grow and become more resilient by ensuring biodiversity. Every dollar spent on nature restoration leads to at least $9 of economic benefits.

According to IUCN, the World Conservation Union, the monetary value of goods and services provided by ecosystems is estimated to amount to some US$33 trillion per year.

A World Bank report of June 5, 2013 has highlighted how the environment has suffered in India consequent to the past decade of rapid economic growth. It says: Although the past decade of rapid economic growth has brought many benefits to India, the environment has suffered, exposing the population to serious air and water pollution. The report finds that environmental degradation costs India $80 billion per year or 5.7% of its economy.  Most importantly the report also says: A low-emission, resource-efficient greening of the economy should be possible at a very low cost in terms of GDP growth. A more aggressive low-emission strategy comes at a slightly higher price tag for the economy while delivering greater benefits.

The draft ‘National Resource Efficiency Policy’ (NREP), 2019 by MoEF&CC says: “In the endeavor for economic growth, natural resources have been largely indiscriminately exploited, adversely impacting the environment and biodiversity. Further, cross linkages between resource use, climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss has been scientifically well established. Meeting the demand for products and services, of rising population with increased aspirations has led to mostly indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources and would further lead to increased pressure on resources resulting in environmental degradation, thereby raising sustainability concerns.

It goes on to say: “India, as one of the fastest growing economies with GDP at 2.6 trillion USD, has increased its material consumption to six times, from 1.18 billion tonnes in 1970 to 7 billion tonnes in 2015, however this economic growth has been coupled with inherent cost on natural environment. The material consumption is projected to more than double by 2030, in order to provide for increasing population, rapid urbanization and growing aspirations. The projected pace of economic development is going to put pressure on the already stressed and limited resources and may lead to serious resource depletion and environment degradation affecting the economy, livelihoods and the quality of life.

The IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), assessment has shown the strong interrelationship between climate change, the loss of biodiversity and human well being.  Climate change has been identified as a primary driver of biodiversity loss, already altering every part of nature. Likewise, the loss of biodiversity contributes to climate change.  For example, when we destroy forests we emit carbon dioxide, the major “human-produced” greenhouse gas.  “The dual emergency of nature decline alongside climate breakdown means transformational action is needed.”

In order to meet the enormous quantities of additional energy required to support the large number of industrial and commercial activities, as a consequence of high GDP growth rate paradigm, very many conventional technology power plants (such as coal based, nuclear based and dam based power plants) are being set up demanding large swathes of forest and agricultural lands; enormous quantities of fresh water and construction materials such as sand, steel, cement, wood, chemicals etc.   Such power plants are closely associated with many kinds of pollutants such as GHGs (green house gases which are responsible for global warming), coal ash, and nuclear wastes.

For decades the question asked was what would be the economic costs if the environment was given more importance over development. The COVID-19 pandemic gives the world an opportunity to think about the economic cost if we only talked about development and did not take the environment into consideration.

Some of the scholarly articles:

What is biodiversity and why does it matter to us

5 Reasons Why Biodiversity Matters – to Human Health, the Economy and Wellbeing

Why Biodiversity Loss Hurts Humans as Much as Climate Change Does

Strategy of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 

 Sixth mass extinction of wildlife accelerating, scientists warn

Human society under urgent threat from loss of Earth’s natural life

UN draft plan sets 2030 target to avert Earth’s sixth mass extinction

Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture

A wealth of scholarly articles has been published on the intricate relationship between biodiversity, food and agriculture.  FAO says: “Biodiversity for food and agriculture is indispensable to food security, sustainable development and the supply of many vital ecosystem services. Biodiversity makes production systems and livelihoods more resilient to shocks and stresses, including to the effects of climate change. It is a key resource in efforts to increase food production while limiting negative impacts on the environment. It makes multiple contributions to the livelihoods of many people, often reducing the need for food and agricultural producers to rely on costly or environmentally harmful external inputs.”

Another scholarly article says: “Biodiversity helps regulate the nutrient cycle and water (e.g., floods) and mitigates impacts of climate change. The provisioning of clean water and diverse food supply makes it vital for all people. Biodiversity at all levels, including the diversity of genes, species, and ecosystems, is being lost at alarming rates. Pollution, nitrogen deposition, and shifts in precipitation further affect biodiversity. Biodiversity loss and global food security are hence two major challenges of our time.”

Some of the scholarly articles:

The state of the world’s biodiversity for food and agriculture

Biodiversity and food security: from trade-offs to synergies

Food security through biodiversity conservation

Food security: Why is biodiversity important?

The Importance of Biodiversity to Food and Agricultural Systems across the Globe

Biodiversity and pollution / contamination of air, water and soil

Global air pollution shortened life expectancy by an average of three years or 8.8 million premature deaths a year in 2015, according to a recent study. Tobacco, by comparison, shortened life expectancy by an average of 2.2 years or 7.2 million deaths. HIV/AIDS reduced life expectancy by an average of 0.7 years (one million deaths), while diseases carried by parasites or insects shortened life expectancy by 0.6 years (600,000 deaths), according to the study.  All forms of violence — including war — cut life expectancy by 0.3 years (530,000 deaths).

The pollution / contamination of air, water and soil have reached alarming proportions in many parts of the country; serious health issues have arisen to many communities; vulnerable sections are denied access to the life saving natural resources such as fresh water, forests, fishing and grazing grounds etc.

As per NITI Aayog the air pollution is at crisis level in north India. In a study by Yale and Columbia Universities, India holds the very last rank among 132 nations in terms of air quality with regard to its effect on human health.

Air pollution is linked to increased risk of depression for our population. A study report from Greenpeace India, “Coal Kills” has found out that in 2011-2012, emissions from Indian coal plants resulted in 80,000 dto 115,000 premature deaths and more than 20 million asthma cases from exposure to the associated pollution.

As per some studies, total quantified energy subsidies for fossil fuels in India, which are primarily responsible for air pollution, have varied from INR 1,51,484 crore (USD 23.0 billion) to INR 2,15,974 crore (USD 35.7 billion) between FY2014 and FY2017, which have been a huge drain on our economy denying the much required support to critical sectors such as poverty alleviation, health and education etc..

The World Health Organization says air pollution is a “silent public health emergency”, with more than 90% of the world’s population breathing toxic air.

14 of world’s most polluted 15 cities are in India;  Kanpur tops WHO list.

Cutting air pollution can prevent deaths within weeks; the US Clean Air Act is estimated to have saved $2tn in the 25 years after it became law; 32 times more than the associated costs.

Some of the scholarly articles:

Air pollution reduces life expectancy more than war, diseases: Study

Air pollution at crisis level in north India: NITI Aayog

Surface And Groundwater Pollution Are Pushing India Towards A Water Crisis

It’s time to clean India’s polluted rivers 

An objective overview of India’s environment

It is reported that: “The latest EPI ( Environmental Performance Index) report released on the sidelines of the WEF conclave at Davos puts us at third from the bottom- at 177 out of 180 countries, a decline of 36 places since 2016 ( when we were at 141). We do even worse in the index of air quality, at 178 out of 180. The country is turning toxic in just about every indicator- its waters, air, pollution, health- but of particular concern is what the governments- centre and states- are doing do its green cover and forests.”

According to a new study by the WRI (World Resources Institute) the country lost 1.6 million hectares of tree cover, and 16 million trees, between 2001 and 2018, of which 9.4 million trees were felled in just the last four years.

If 500 projects in forests and Protected Areas can be cleared by the National Wildlife Board between 2014 and 2018 (as per media reports), which is one reason why the country has lost about 120,000 hectares of primary forest in the last five years, what can we say about the commitment of our country in the upkeep of the environment.

There is a critical and urgent need for widespread and effective consultations with all the stakeholders, including the concerned CSOs, domain experts and scientists, on how we can meaningfully move towards a healthy environment for flora, fauna and our communities.

In view of all these facts/projections our country is in urgent need of a thorough review of our developmental paradigm and welfare oriented priorities, while keeping the true health of our natural resources in firm focus, instead of rhetorically celebrating the Biological Diversity Day and World Environment Day year after year; for the sake of future generations, if not our own welfare.

*Power policy analyst

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