Saturday, May 9, 2009

Another environmental mishap of Madhya Pradesh

Environmental matters in India seldom get priority. This is more so in the states where they are mostly kept on the back-burner. The central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh, for example, once thickly forested and wetter than many Indian states, has had a series of environmental mishaps because of its governments’ lackadaisical ways.

The world is aware of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, known as the world’s biggest “Industrial Disaster”, when a lethal gas leaked out from the now-defunct Union Carbide factory on a cold December night in 1984 killing hundreds and maiming thousands. The local environment was so fouled up that the affected people are still suffering from the after-effects of the poison they were exposed to. The post-mortem of the disaster had revealed that the tragedy was eminently avoidable had the authorities been a little more proactive. “Whistle blowers” had blown their whistle repeatedly, and every time more and more loudly; and yet the government was not shaken out of its lassitude.

That was 25 years ago but things, apparently, haven’t changed in the meantime. Something similar happened in the case of disappearance of tigers from Panna Tiger Reserve. A long-time researcher of Panna tigers, Raghu Chundawat, had blown the whistle way back in 2005 about missing tigresses of Panna. His repeated public and, presumably, private pleas fell on deaf ears. The Wildlife wing of the MP Forest Department (MPFD) continually remained in denial mode, i.e. until October 2008 when the newly-created National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) advised the state to relocate a tigress from Bandhavgarh. Though two tigresses were relocated into the Reserve in quick succession from neighbouring parks, yet the revival of the big cat in the Reserve is uncertain as the lone tiger that was to be provided female company has now become untraceable – a sad denouement for a state that is known by its sobriquet “the Tiger State”. Needless to say, tiger is the flagship species of India’s wildlife conservational effort. Besides, on its survival depends survival of India’s forests and concomitant ecological, food and water security.

The NTCA has, lately, appointed a Special Investigation Team to investigate the reasons for disappearance of tigers from Panna. Not to be outdone, the Forest Department, too, wants an enquiry of its own. This, undoubtedly, is the right approach. Not only the professional wildlife administrators and the government should know the reasons for a disaster of such a magnitude, even the people have a right to know how and why efforts made over last few decades to conserve tigers at their expense have, in substance, come to nought.

What, however, appears intriguing is that there appears to have been no effort so far to investigate another disaster – the one that relates to drying up of the 1000-year old Upper Lake in Bhopal. This, too, is a major environmental disaster which could prove to be catastrophic for the city in the future. The Lake today is not even a pale shadow of what it was last summer. Its vast spread of water, once virtually like an ocean, has now been reduced to the size of a small pond. Having lost 90% of its water, huge expanses of its bed now lie exposed – bone-dry and looking increasingly sinister by the day. Once the lifeline for 40% of the city’s population, it has now ceased to be so, being unable to contribute to the city’s water supplies. This did not happen even in 2002 when it suffered a double whammy. Not only was the rainfall inadequate, huge leaks had developed in a dam designed to hold the water.

Although the authorities preferred to turn a blind eye, many had foreseen the oncoming calamity. Individually and collectively people of the town have been raising the issue of utter neglect of the Upper and Lower lakes, the two lakes which, together, make up the Bhoj Wetland, a Ramsar Site. Bhopal Citizens’ Forum, a socially-conscious group of citizens, had filed a petition in 2007 with the State Human Rights Commission on the neglect and lack of effort to conserve the Wetland. The Commission got all the connected departments/agencies to respond to the petition. While the petition is still pending, the government departments/agencies, seemingly, did precious little during the interregnum.

Before that, around the turn of the Century, a World Bank-funded study conducted for economic valuation of the Wetland by an Environmental Economist of the prestigious Indian Institute of Forest Management had predicted that unless enough care was taken of it, it could die in another thirty years. It, perhaps, did not take into account the indifference of the state government to such mundane matters. Although submitted to it, the government gave the report its coldest of shoulders, thereby whipping the Wetland to gallop towards its end faster than predicted.

Inadequate rains are being touted as the reason for the calamity. The local Met office had put out that Bhopal and its catchments had received only 70% of the average rainfall during the last monsoon. No one is buying the official line. Reports have since appeared of the Lake’s feeder channels being encroached upon and dammed. There are evidences which are now coming to the fore of official apathy and ‘non-management’. Currently the management – if at all it can be called that – of the Wetland is so diffused that it is difficult to pin-point responsibility. No one knows who is in charge. Although the local municipality has been designated as its custodian, it has not been administratively and financially empowered. Besides, its writ does not run in the areas that are in the Wetland’s catchments as they fall outside the municipal limits.
A feeling of fear pervades the city that the Wetland may ultimately disappear. If that were to happen, its implications will be enormous. The Lower Lake that it feeds, too, will disappear. Already, it has shrunk appreciably. Also, the underground aquifers will dry up causing much of the green cover of the town to wither away. While the micro-climate of the town will be adversely affected, the disappearance of the Lake will seriously impair water-availability for an ever-rising population. More importantly, it will broadcast to the whole wide world the inability of the state and central governments, despite running two back-to-back Japanese Bank of International Cooperation-funded multi-million dollar projects, to conserve a water body that they got recognised as a site under the Ramsar Convention.

As in the cases of other environmental disasters an enquiry is necessary to ascertain reasons for the current pathetic state of the Wetland. Only such an enquiry can establish whether it was caused by natural, human or systemic failure. Such an investigation by a body of experts may also identify the systemic shortcomings in management of the Wetland and suggest effective mechanisms, with clear demarcation of institutional and individual responsibilities, to prevent such mishaps of this scale in the future. Above all, such an enquiry will predicate the state’s resolve – so far unseen – to purposefully deal with matters relating to environment.
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