Saturday, January 29, 2011

Statue for a legendary king

The other day a massive statue of Raja Bhoj, the legendary king who used to rule over Bhopal in central India more than a millennium ago, was installed in the city’s iconic Upper Lake on a bastion of Fatehgarh Fort erected in the 18th Century by Dost Mohammed Khan, the first nawab of Bhopal. The vital statistics of the statue are quite impressive. Weighing seven tons with a height of 32 feet, the gunmetal statue took as many as seven and a half hours to reach the site of installation after which a crane especially summoned from another central Indian town, Gwalior, hoisted it on to the bastion. The VIP Road that snakes its way along the Upper Lake for quite some distance and acts as the main north-south artery of the town was blocked for several hours for the purpose, giving rise to traffic jams of enormous proportions in the older parts of the city. The statue, however, is still waiting to be unveiled.

One of the favourite projects of the current Minister in Madhya Pradesh of Urban Administration and Development, Babulal Gaur, the plan to erect the statue of Raja Bhoj was conceived more for adding another attraction for tourists than for paying tributes to the Great Raja for his gift of the Upper Lake to the townsfolk on which 40% of them currently depend for fulfilling their water needs. The minister has been bitten by the beautification bug and has been going the whole hog to beautify a few select areas of the town and the Upper Lake at great avoidable cost even as a very large part of the town suffers from utter lack of basic civic amenities. The amount of Rs. 30 lakh spent on the statue would have taken care of many roads in quite a few colonies where every day the residents have to deal with several civic problems including broken down potholed roads with sewers overflowing on them. Worse, quite incredibly, the minister has tied up with Indian Navy to have a de-commissioned battleship berthed near the old Yacht Club of the nawabi-era, again curiously, for enhancing the beauty of the Lake and attracting tourists. It is needless to say that Bhopal has had hardly anything to do with the Navy barring its wing in the local National Cadet Corps.

If homage had to be paid to Raja Bhoj, perhaps, serious efforts to conserve the Lake would have been a far better way of doing so. The Raja had given the town a lake of enormous proportions once having a spread over a few hundred square kilometres. It has progressively shrunk and today is a pale shadow of its former self at around sixty-odd square kilometres. What the Lake is in dire need now is of measures that would ensure its survival so that it is not only able to delight the local citizenry with its presence but also provide succour to them in various ways. It does not need any more cluttering up of its banks with statuary or curios for people to gather around to gawk at them.

Enough damage has already been done to the waters of the Lake by the tourists, merry-makers and, now (water) sportsmen and women. The Lake Conservation Authority that came into existence as a successor body after the completion of the 9-year long ineffectual Rs. 267-crore Bhoj Wetland Project has had occasions to arrange and host many seminars of limnologists and other environmental experts with a view to eliciting opinions regarding effective conservation of this important water body, a Ramsar site to boot. In practically every such seminar the experts have been talking of reduction of human pressure on the Lake. Always the view that stood out was that tourism pressures should be reduced and collection of large number of people on the banks should be avoided. The simple logic for these suggestions were that more the people, greater is the garbage generated and greater the pollution of the waters – which eventually end up as drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people.

But, no, nobody has the time to listen to the voices of reason and mature intellect. Eateries – a strict no-no near wetlands – have been opened up, motor boats have been plying with impunity and even a floating restaurant was clandestinely launched before the necessary approvals were obtained. Egged on by the politicians, the local Tourism Development Corporation has developed another boat club, a suspension bridge, an eatery at Prempura, another corner of the Lake, where elaborate arrangements were made by the Wetland Project for post-festivals immersion of effigies of gods and goddesses. While the pressure of effigies has eased off a bit, the pressure of tourism is slowly building up. And, Gaur has under his department several proposals for “vikas” (development) of the Lake and its catchments forgetting that the water body does not need “vikas” but only measures for its conservation.

There seems to be no end of pressures on the Lake. Now it is coming from another source – the local department of sports. The Lake was recently appropriated for holding competitive water sports for which hundreds of competitors and onlookers had collected at the Boat Club. Inevitably, the Lake shore collected a lot of filth. The government’s departments couldn’t care less. After all, despite the Wetland Project and subsequent feeble efforts, drains are still spewing sewage and other noxious fluids into it. They, probably, think a bit more of filth wouldn’t harm it.

Tourism and water sports have become a deadly mix for this legendary Lake. With the complexes of Sports Authority of India and others coming up in Bishenkhedi the birdlife on it has taken a hit. Even Asad Rehmani of Bombay Natural History Society had said that Bhopal was considered by his organisation an important bird area hosting, as it was, large flocks of domestic and foreign bird species. All that now seems to be in the past. The ones which migrate from distant lands have deserted this wetland and have not been showing up in the same numbers.

Twice in the last decade – in 2002 and in 2008 – the Upper Lake came close to extinction, mostly because of the negligence of the authorities. It was only the pressure of the civil society groups that forced government and other authorities to take steps for its restoration and revival. Even currently the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum has been pressing the government to shed the current diffused management of the Lake by several departments and create a suitably empowered autonomous authority of, inter alia, experts and representatives of the people. Despite representations in this regard to the chief minister and the chief secretary such an authority continues to remain elusive.

Now that the Wetlands (Conservation & Management) Rules 2010 have been notified by the Ministry of Environment & Forests things may improve. Hopefully, the state government will appreciate that a statue of Raja Bhoj and a battleship, by themselves, are not going to conserve the Lake. What is needed is a serious effort to prevent contamination of its waters, mitigation of the human pressure on it and securing its catchments to ensure that they not only enhance precipitation but also prevent noxious fertilisers and pesticides to flow into it from the surrounding farms.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Kanas National Park sets an example for india

China is generally known for the environmental degradation that it has wrought in its various regions in its quest for rapid economic growth. Reports of extensive desertification, contamination of its rivers, air pollution, acid-rains and so on frequently emanate from the country. That it has been taking firm steps to protect and nurture its natural assets – of late, with greater vigour – is, however, not so well-known. It has created numerous national parks in several batches since 1982, with the last and the seventh batch of national parks coming into existence in 2008. As on date the country has as many as 208 national parks. Massive investments are being made to modernise these parks, conserve their ecology and to provide good and sufficient facilities for inland and foreign tourists.

The Chinese are pretty thorough in whatever they do. This was amply exhibited during the last Olympics held at Beijing. In their pursuit of thoroughness they can go the whole hog as they have a couple of trillion dollars of foreign currency reserves to back them up. Besides, an authoritarian way of governance, too, helps. In so far as national parks are concerned they seem to take care of every aspect to ensure that the environment is preserved and the human impact on it is minimised, the locals are taken care of and tourism flourishes. This approach is exemplified by the Kanas National Park, the latest addition in the, seemingly, ever-growing list of Chinese national parks.

Not many would have heard of Lake Kanas, around which Kanas National Park has been created. Established in 2008, the Park is located in Xinjiang province in north-west China and is, perhaps, the world’s largest at around 10,000 square kilometres. It is a vast area much of which is inaccessible. The park is in the shadows of the Altai Mountains that spread across Central Asia, beginning in Russia, stretching through Mongolia and Kazakhstan and ending in Xinjiang. It is scenic with jagged peaks, forests of birch and fir, grasslands that bloom in summers and rivers that flow by with their crystal- clear waters. It hosts a rich wildlife, inter alia, of birds and bears and is inhabited by nomadic Mongol and Kazakh herders.

What India is currently trying to do in its national parks the Chinese have already done it. We are yet to demarcate the core and buffer areas in all our national parks, and at places, such as in Madhya Pradesh, there are even misgivings about delineating such areas for reasons not exactly scientific. The Chinese have divided Kanas National Park into three zones – the “core zone”, the “experimental zone” and the “buffer zone”. The 1700 square kilometres “core zone” is totally barred for entry of people and is inviolate, limited human activities like research or “exploratory tourism” are allowed within 7800 square kilometres of “experimental zone” and tourism is allowed only in the “buffer zone of 500 square kilometres” which has been open to tourism for some time and has already been environmentally disturbed. The “Buffer Zone” has also been the home to the natives of the area, Tuwa, an indigenous hunting and herding community of Mongol stock, numbering less than 2000.

More importantly, the administration has already determined the carrying-capacity of tourists in the park, according to which the buffer could support a million tourists in a year without in anyway damaging the park’s environment. The number of tourists has already touched around 700,000. The administration, not as lax as in India, is not going to allow the number of tourists to go beyond the one million mark. Tourism is important as, indeed, it is for every administration. Although, the Chinese people are now much richer than what they were a couple of decades ago and have become peripatetic yet there is no show of indulgence towards them. Obviously, interests of conservation of the park have been retained as of prime importance.

The administration has, at great cost, even relocated 30 kilometres away a number of hotels that had come up on the shores of Lake Kanas before the area was designated as a national park. Tourism close to wetlands always is harmful. No wonder the lake has been rendered free from their deleterious effects. At the new site of hotels also preservation of the environment was given its due importance. Attempts have been made to keep it clean and green by making provision for treating sewage and arranging for proper disposal of the garbage that is generated.

Again, with a view to reducing the human impact on the ecology of the park, the Chinese administration is moving the Tuwa from their scattered hamlets in the mountains to a central Tuwa village. They are being made to give up their traditional way of life for the sake of environmental conservation and lending a helping hand to promote tourism. They will no longer be hunters and herders and, instead, will earn their keep by taking active part in the tourism trade. Not only will they be taking tourists on horse-riding expeditions, they will and are also being encouraged to open shops and restaurants. They are also being encouraged to extend their homes in order to accommodate tourists to provide the visitors with an ethnic experience. In fact, the engagement of Tuwas in the tourist trade of the park has already commenced. The provincial tourism organisation engages some of them as drivers, cleaners, guards, etc.

The various measures taken by the administration has already started paying dividends. Swans, which had disappeared from the Kanas Lake, have now returned. Likewise, other rare animals have also returned to the buffer zone. Although it is generally admitted that some key species are decreasing due to the degradation of the habitat, yet the area has begun to get repopulated by, among others, brown bear, snow leopards, red deer, many species of birds.

Kanas National Park holds out a very good example to the Indian authorities for management of national parks and other protected areas. Although India has a far longer history of conservation of its ecologically sensitive natural sites, yet it has not been able to prevent their degradation that has occurred over time. Unfortunately, In India there are certain holy cows which it refuses to get rid of. Tourism is one. Howsoever damaging it is the authorities, leave alone banning it (like China), wouldn’t even control it. Whether it is a so-called holy river, a Himalayan glacial area of fragile eco-systems, an important wetland – like the one in Bhopal – or a tiger-reserve, tourism of the most malefic kind is winked at, even promoted, for the sake of generating revenues. Worse, the guardians of the Indian forests and wildlife fight court-battles to continue uncontrolled tourism in core areas of tiger reserves which the national government seeks to keep free from human interference. More importantly, despite availability of recommendations of experts in regard to carrying-capacities of tourists in the national parks, these are hardly ever acted upon. Then again, hotels and resorts may be crowding around the reserves, even choking the wildlife migratory corridors (like in the Corbett Tiger Reserve), yet none would ever try and relocate them away from these protected enclaves. It is the powerful vested interests that call the shots. As regards the forest-dwellers, steps are taken only to relocate them and that too far away from their native surroundings – never ever trying to integrate them into the efforts to conserve the parks, make use of their innate knowledge of the local biodiversity or to take their assistance in providing to tourists a different experience.

It is time the country changed its attitudes towards conservation of its natural assets. Taking a leaf out of China’s experience it needs to improve governance within the national parks, which will be good for our natural assets – or whatever is left of them – as also for the country.

(The piece was inspired by a feature in the May 2009 issue of Geographic magazine, the monthly periodical of the Royal Geographic Society)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Towards sustainable transport

The news has just come in that Beijing municipal administration has decided to restrict the quota of passenger vehicles for 2011 to 20000 a month. The monthly quota will be distributed among fleet buyers and first-time private buyers of passenger vehicles. Only permanent residents of Beijing as well as those in police and military services would be eligible to buy new cars in 2011. Government agencies will not be allowed to buy new vehicles during the next five years. With immediate effect buyers of automobiles that are replacing old vehicles will be allowed to continue to use the previous license plates and won’t be subject to the quota system for new plates. Under the regulations, the issue of new license plates will be otherwise subject to a quota published annually by the municipal government with 88 per cent allocated to first-time individual buyers and 12 per cent to business buyers on a monthly basis via a lottery system.

The city has imposed the quota in an effort to tackle its traffic gridlock and rising air pollution. By 2012 Beijing will have 7 million vehicles on its roads against its current 4.8 million. This is unimaginable from what Beijing was like in 1982 when I happened to spend a week there. Roads were devoid of private vehicles. One would occasionally see government vehicles, the lumbering clones of Russian sedans, in ones and twos. Buses and electric trolley-buses were aplenty. More plentiful were people on bicycles. As the offices would wind up for the day at 6.00 PM they would unleash thousands of cyclists on the roads.

In less than thirty years not only the number of cars in the city has become unmanageable with persistent traffic jams – sometime even well after midnight – they have also caused untold misery to the locals by way of rising air pollution. Around 2005 the city was declared as the “air-pollution capital” of the world with 400,000 thousand premature deaths due to it. Having paid a heavy price for the break-neck pace of economic growth, the measure that has now been taken has come, perhaps, a trifle too late.

A leaf has to be taken out by India from the experience of Beijing and its efforts to set things right in this regard. It is now time such measures are taken in India too. With multiplying cars in metros, cities and towns, big or small, and our failure to correspondingly enhance the number of traffic managers, the traffic has gone haywire and jams on the roads have become the order of the day, causing avoidable air-pollution, wastage of precious renewable fuel and inconvenience to people.

Time was when in the early 1970s the country had only three manufacturers of cars and, all taken together, used to produce around 20000 cars per annum. But in 2007 this number shot up to around 1.8 million. The number should be much more for 2010 as Suzuki, the biggest player in the market, is now planning to cross the one million mark. There are a number of manufacturers inducing a fierce competition. All are pumping more and more vehicles into the roads that are already chockfull of cars. The range on offer is mindboggling – from Tata’s Nano, costing around one hundred and fifty thousand rupees, to a Rolls Royce that costs several millions.
With the rapid economic growth and the rise of the Indian middle classes cars have become the favourite means of locomotion. Multiple cars – and, of course, multiple two-wheelers – in middle class families have become common. Public transport having been mostly non-existent and unsuitable for most of the middle and higher classes, they have been driven to personalised transport. Parking at home and office or places of business and commerce have become a severe problem forcing authorities to provide the necessary facilities at great public cost. With hardly any effective mechanism for pollution control, old, polluting cars jostle for road-space with the newer ones neutralising the beneficent effects of the latter. No wonder, pollution levels are high in practically all urban centres, meting out a double whammy to the government by way of sick, unhealthy, listless personnel on whom it has to spend large sums for their healthcare.

A check on further proliferation of motorised vehicles in urban India is urgently needed. Almost every urban centre, big or small, is witnessing a rise in the number automobiles. Delhi, for example, was adding in 2007-2008 a thousand vehicles every day to the already congested roads. With greater prosperity the number should be more now. Even the 2007-2008 figure was more than what Beijing has mandated now towards addition of new vehicles, though it has created far more road space than what Delhi has done so far despite the recent hectic road and fly-over building activity for the Commonwealth Games. A clamp down on new vehicles in Delhi is, therefore, indicated, more so now that the BRTS (though still incomplete)has largely proved a success.

The problem with Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, etc should be, more or less, similar to that of Delhi. All these must be adding nearly as many vehicles as Delhi every day. Likewise, the smaller urban centres are also experiencing this kind of an overabundance of motor vehicles on their respective utterly inadequate roads causing problems for everyone, including the commuters, traffic managers and other connected authorities.

The time surely has now come for municipalities of each such centre to determine on a scientific basis the number of vehicles they can conveniently manage on their respective roads without causing environmental, health and other related socio-economic problems and then issue necessary fiats. Besides introduction of measures to dis-incentivise commutes by personalised transport have also become necessary. Such measures have been taken in various parts of the world. Several options are available. I recall for instance, thirty years ago we could not get into Singapore’s High Street unless we were four in a taxi. That also applied to personal vehicles. Then, of course, there is the Congestion charge levied in Central London and its other busy areas.

One, however, fears that the country’s municipal administrations, apart from being lethargic, are also hugely susceptible to pressures exerted by vested interests. It might, therefore, be a good idea to enact a national law that binds the civic administrations to take suitable measures depending on the needs of the individual requirements of each. While doing so it might also be necessary to mandate by law phasing out of old, decrepit, repaired and reconditioned vehicles.

Simultaneously, however, there is a need for expediting the introduction of decent, dependable and adequate public transport in all the urban centres where facilitating mass transit has become a dire need. It must be remembered that India is urbanising at a much faster clip than any other country. Greater urbanisation means more people in urban centres who cannot but have a need to commute. Provision has to be made for their mobility – by a means of transport that is sustainable. Although the government at the Centre is conscious of this fact yet the progress made so far is not quite reassuring. Despite its existence for five years the Urban Renewal Mission has made very little progress.

One fears unless a massive effort is made to move people within our ever-expanding towns things are likely to get out of hand. As somebody has said in the prestigious environmental periodical “Down to Earth” it is now time urban India boarded the bus.