We must all be players

Posted by: Bittu Sahgal on

It was dry and very hot. At around 3.30 p.m. on a May day, temperatures hovered around 45 degrees C in the shade and the perspiration evaporated almost as fast as it appeared. But this did not bother me. From the bamboo thicket to our left we had heard the bell-like alarms of a sambar deer. A tiger was about. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes went by. The silence of the forest was broken every once in a while by the calls of koels and barbets. Every once in a while a Paradise Flycatcher would swoop down to grab a beakful of water from a muddy pool 30 metres from where we had parked our vehicle. The atmosphere was somnolent. And more than once I caught myself nodding off. Suddenly, straight ahead of us, a smallish animal walked out from behind its cover and ambled slowly toward our vehicle. Girish Vashisht, then s Forest Ranger with the Tadoba Tiger Reserve, whispered: “Bachha he” (it’s the cub).

Soon enough the little one walked into the tiny waterhole. Followed by two of its five-month-old siblings. As the cubs gamboled about in the cool slushy water, their mother kept a watchful eye (on her cubs and on us!) from behind a bamboo clump. The secret of this tiger family’s success was the remarkable job Project Tiger had done in protecting the tiger’s forest home. I was in Tadoba in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha area, the heart of what is loudly proclaimed to be a drought-prone belt. Interestingly, none of the over 50 villages living immediately downstream of the tiger reserve ever had to be supplied with tanker water. The same is true of communities living close to several parks and sanctuaries around India. But such statistics are not well documented. In fact our government spends vastly more money on flood and drought relief than on forest protection, though the umbilical connection between healthy forests and water regimes are well known. Nothing demonstrated this better than the sight of the pure, blue Tadoba Lake, full of water even in the second week of May 2003. Meanwhile, in nearby Nagpur and other state capitals, politician after shortsighted politician was making a beeline for New Delhi to ask for “drought relief.” Worse, they wail on about the need to rip Tadoba up to get to the coal above which tigers walk, little appreciating that this is precisely what is causing Vidarbha's once fabled fresh water sources to vanish.

National Wildlife Week (October 2-9, 2010) would be a good time for us to focus on the fact that forests are essential to our country’s biological, ecological and economic sustenance. Without them we have no hope at all of either fighting, or even adapting to the worst impacts of climate change. We need to internalize the fact that forests are finite and that their destruction will lead to a falling human standard of life. This is not a difficult proposition for our children to accept.

Across India millions of Kids for Tigers and their teachers are closely monitoring the complex issues that govern the hydrology of the Indian subcontinent. Jungle nadi ki maa he (The Forest is the Mother of the River) is their recurring theme, one that finds resonance with both ancient tribal beliefs and modern scientific conclusions. Unfortunately, on National Wildlife Week, 2010 apart from a thimbleful of far-thinking politicians such as Jairam Ramesh, our valiant Environment and Forests Minister, the rest will probably remain content with planting a sapling (destined to die!) at the nearest zoo, or energetically cutting a ribbon to inaugurate a wildlife workshop they have no intention to attend. Meanwhile, during National Wildlife Week we can expect all these stalwarts and more to busy themselves with demands for new and deadly industrial projects that will threaten thousands of hectares of forest lands and aggravate our climate crisis.

Such projects include hydroelectric, irrigation, mining, road and rail, thermal and transmission line projects. Over 240 new large dams in the Northeast such as the Lower Subansiri Project, each with a forest destruction capacity that exceeds the Sardar Sarovar Dam, are being aggressively pursued by the same politicians who readily ask for drought relief at every opportunity. The very same politicians have been heard asking for flood relief in recent months. And they will get it too, all from our hard-earned tax money. Without a shadow of doubt, if natural forests and ecosystems continue to vanish, the frequency and intensity of floods and droughts will continue to rise. So why do we continue then to “celebrate” World

After 30 years and more of communicating environmental home truths through Sanctuary Asia, I am astounded at the number of  people who simply have not yet “made the connections.” As I see it, around five per cent of India’s population is acutely aware of the need to protect our forests and wildlife. Another five percent know very well what the issues are, but they profit from environmental destruction. The future really lies in the hands of the 90 per cent who are sitting on the fence right now. It is this huge constituency that we must win over. This includes children, mothers, teachers, scientists, journalists, farmers, workers… everyone really who cares for tomorrow. The fact that 2010 has been declared as the International Year of Biodiversity by the United Nations makes it all the more important for young Indians to lend their strength to the mission of protecting their own natural heritage.

Apart from cutting our own individual energy, paper, water and organic waste, it would be a major step in the right direction if each one of us could write to newspapers, legislators and opinion makers to point out that protecting biodiversity is the best way of sequestering and storing carbon and thus fighting climate change. This small contribution may seem insignificant, but every little bit we contribute to the battle strengthens the frontline warriors who are fighting so hard to protect our world.

At the end of the day, protecting the environment is anything but a spectator sport. We must all be players.