Monday, November 8, 2010

Madhya Pradesh - India's environment-unfriendly state

The other day, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, chief minister (CM) of the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh (MP), came out with a startling statement. Speaking at the Panna Tiger Reserve he asserted that he was not in favour of creating a buffer zone for it. One could not “destroy” Panna only to let the tigers “survive”, he said. He further asserted that humans were more important than tigers.

Apparently, he has played into the hands of his political cronies who have mining interests in the areas that fall in the proposed buffer and have been opposing the creation of the same. The CM seemed to be quite oblivious of the fact that a national legislation, the Wildlife Act, makes creation of buffer zones mandatory for all tiger reserves. These zones are vital as they allow tigers more space and the freedom to move freely in the sanctuary and help in avoiding man-animal conflicts. The CM also appeared to have forgotten that only last year Panna had lost all its tigers and a multi-million rupee project was conceived by his government to relocate to it tigers from Kanha and Bandhavgarh Reserves. If he holds survival of tigers unimportant, why did he have millions of rupees spent from the public exchequer for these relocations?

This unpleasant episode indicates how poor his understanding is of the importance of tigers in the Indian forests and the ecosystems they sustain in the context of prosperity and wellbeing of the very humans he considers so important. He has opted for short-term gains. Seemingly, he is not equipped to appreciate the fact that the industrialisation of the state that his government is chasing will be jeopardised if tiger does not survive in the forests of the state. He has, apparently, never paused to think that disappearance of tigers from the wild would be the nemesis of the forests, eventually threatening the state’s water sources, its food security and even its industrialisation.

Unfortunately, his government has, of late, taken several steps that threaten the existence of tigers in the state’s forests. Permitting tourists in core areas, approving widening of a highway that fragments tiger habitats of Kanha and Pench reserves are instances that are only illustrative. No wonder, the state topped the charts last year with 13 tiger deaths out of 59 in the country and is likely to better its record in 2010.

That environment has lost its due importance and the necessary priority with the current government of Madhya Pradesh became apparent last year. In its preceding avatar the BJP government under the same leadership was so interested in matters relating to environment that the chief minister had a proposal formulated for declaration of Bhopal as a Global Environment City (GEC). The genesis of the idea was traced back to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984 that came to be known as the world’s worst industrial disaster. It caused immense environmental damage and the city acquired notoriety worldwide that despoiled its image. With an intense desire to refurbish that image, the chief minister went to the length of discussing his proposal with the Prime Minister and, later, constituted a committee under the chairmanship of the well-known urban administrator, Mahesh Buch. Eventually, however, nothing came off the proposal. The committee met several times spending a lot of public money but its report was such which its chairman did not deign to sign.

Since then the government seemed to have lost its way and given up nurturing environment. It forgot all that it had put in its proposal for making Bhopal a GEC and adopted measures that were contrary to its own proposals. The most brazen example of this attitudinal change was the Bhopal City Development Plan 2021 that was released late last year. The Plan was an attempt to hand over this beautiful and green city to the building mafia. Instead of nurturing the city’s environmental assets as it had earlier proposed, the Plan tried to play with its ecological health. Land use was mercilessly changed and a stench of massive corruption pervaded the city and the state. Farm lands, banks of lakes, hills etc., that were to be conserved under the proposal for conversion as GEC, were put up for grabs. It was only the civil society which, rising as one man, made the government backtrack and virtually cancel the Plan.

Reckless urban expansion, however, is continuing all over. In Bhopal, for example, the surrounding fertile farm lands in thousands of hectares are being gobbled up for construction of gated complexes for the rich. The land mafia is having a great time. These high-end complexes are dependent on groundwater, levels of which are plummeting every passing year. And, the very hills around the city that were proposed under the GEC for “ecological amelioration” are being de-greened and handed over to public and private builders. Worse, so far the government has failed to enforce adoption of any “green” measure on them.

Besides, for want of a dependable and decent public transport system the residents of these far-flung complexes will have no alternative but to be car-dependent, adding to the already substantial carbon emissions. Bhopal stands second in the state after Indore in these emissions. Rising air pollution is common in all major cities of the province for which it has so far been “business as usual”. No comprehensive attempts to curb the rising emissions have been attempted now that the country has become the third biggest carbon-emitter after China and the US. Looking at what is happening in the urban centres one tends to think that environment impact assessments of even large public or private residential projects need to be made mandatory.

Progressive urbanisation in the state has been accompanied by a massive failure in civic administration. This was reflected in the recent “Rating of Cities” that was carried out under the National Urban Sanitation Policy. The cities of the state figure way down in ratings, with the capital figuring at 253 out of 423 cities rated on the basis of data collected between December 2009 and March 2010. In fact, the civic life of the people in urban Madhya Pradesh is in tatters. The scourge of plastic continues. Instead of banning it like several other states and save on import of crude petroleum, attempts are being made to feed used plastic to cement kilns. That plastic is polluting and chokes drains causing floods is being glossed over.

The state’s water sources are also in a sorry state. River Narmada, the main river of the state, is being heavily tapped for both urban and agricultural use and yet it is progressively losing its discharge which, in any case, is polluted. A ruling party biggy, who travelled down the river from its source to its confluence with Arabian Sea, witnessed to his dismay not only shrinkage of forests at its source but also a flow that had appreciably gone down that receives during its course through the state a large volume of industrial and urban effluents. Despite his report nothing much has been done to take care of the River. Such, however, is the condition of most of the state’s rivers which have reduced flows and have become veritable sewers.

With no glacial-melt the state is dependent on forest-fed rivers. Forests are, therefore, vital for the state in all its economic activities, including industrialisation. That is precisely where the significance of tiger lies. Its survival in the forests of the state is critical for its prosperity and well being in the long term. Clearly, the chief minister has been barking up the wrong tree.