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There is no serious talk on huge constructions

The Joshimath example shows that by stripping nature of its agency, we may be laying the ground for greater conflict

A young Indian elephant with its mother.
A young Indian elephant with its mother. (Neha Sinha)

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Cracked towns, a giant safari, a “tamed” beast: Recent environmental headlines range from shocking to misleading, and the issues require a re-look.

The holy town of Joshimath in Uttarakhand, beset by large structures and shouldering the huge under-construction Vishnugad Pipalkoti dam, has been cracking and sinking. Karnaprayag, another pilgrim spot in the same state, has also reported cracks in buildings. In 2013, Uttarakhand witnessed a flood which killed thousands of people and swept away buildings (and parts of dams). Since then, there have been declarations of safety audits but no real progress. Last year, the World Bank, which is funding the Vishnugad Pipalkoti dam, agreed to look at the environmental damage caused by the hydroelectric project following complaints by residents of Chamoli—dam construction was depositing muck by the truckfuls in the area, including near the old and revered Laxmi Narayan temple. And almost 50 years ago, an expert committee had warned that Joshimath is built on a landslide zone, and major construction should be avoided.

Despite the death of our fellow citizens, the obvious destabilisation of land on mountains, and climate change, there is no serious conversation on stopping huge constructions that change the area further.

This leads us to an understanding of the other environmental headlines: We excel at false equivalence, deeming anti-environment decisions as the “natural” course of things. In the Great Nicobar island in the Indian Ocean, over 130 sq. km of India’s best forests—primary rainforest, something out of James Cameron’s Pandora—are going to be cut. This is to make an airport, a port and a transshipment project, a township. Tribals are likely to be displaced. But this is coated in a sheen of virtuosity: As compensation for this forest loss, trees will be planted and a safari will be created in the Aravallis in Haryana.

In one of my previous columns, How Would Hagrid Plan A Safari In The Aravallis?, I wrote about how much of this safari project is making enclosures, keeping animals in them, and recreating exotic locations such as coastal areas, underwater zones, aquariums and fountains.

There isn’t anything wrong with a safari per se. What is wrong is that the safari will displace valuable native habitat (the Aravallis are amongst the world’s oldest mountains. They have been mined and denuded so much that just a remnant exists today). What is worse is that this native habitat will be a proxy for the verdant native habitat of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. This is an equivalence that meets no standards of truth, or even approximate truth. Recently, a 15m, or nearly 50ft, tree, the Pyrostria laljii, was found in the Andamans. It is laughable to think that the often stunted, soberingly short trees growing in the Aravallis’ naturally arid, thin soil could be a proxy for the giants of the Andamans. Or that a safari with an underwater exhibit could be a proxy for the endemic animals of the islands, found nowhere else but on the island chain.


A red-headed vulture in Uttarakhand’s Himalaya.
A red-headed vulture in Uttarakhand’s Himalaya. (Neha Sinha)

I will go to the Aravallis to see the Nicobar megapode, joked a birdwatcher friend. More accurately, another remarked that he could slap me and apologise to my cousin.

In Kerala, a similar false equivalence is playing out. A wild elephant in Wayanad that was at the centre of conflict with people has been caught. This in itself is a good thing—animals which go rogue must be contained or put down. Yet an eerie fate awaits this animal. A life of work. Instead of taking the tusker to a zoo (or putting him out of his misery), they have taken him to a camp to be beaten, tied and trained to live a life as a working beast. We use elephants for various things in India—the forest department for patrolling undulating, dense land against threats like poaching, temples for exhibitions, and so on. But to take a wild elephant opportunistically for a working purpose is a false solution. It’s like expecting a man-killing tiger to pull a cart (or jump through hoops). If it is necessary for the forest department to keep elephants, they need to be bred and maintained methodically, with stud books, notes on parents’ temperaments, mother and child health, medical cards, and more.

Taking a rogue wild elephant for work is like expecting a mountain to bow to an ill-situated dam, or an island forest to grow in a desert—it stems from the idea that managerial solutions, usually made to compensate for damage caused by construction projects, are fair or natural ones.

In stripping nature of its agency and replacing it with proxies, we may, in fact, be laying out a greenwashed carpet for further, more intense conflict. As the Joshimath headlines begin to fade, what we need is precaution before construction, not regret after the fact. We need trees to be counted as interconnected parts of pristine forest in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, providing a web of life for creatures most Indians have not seen (even as we queue up to see exotic, foreign animals in safaris). We need to see an adult wild elephant as a wild animal, not a tame (or even tameable) one.

But we have set out to write the fate of mountains, islands and animals, and the last chapter seems to be one of false equivalences.

James Cameron’s blockbuster, Avatar: The Way Of Water, has won hearts and smashed box office records worldwide. In the movie, a sequel to Avatar, we visit Pandora, a planet with a pristine set of sea and forest ecosystems, endemic wildlife, and communities of people working to save land, sea and animals. The movies are a diatribe against colonialism and extractive, capitalist uses of nature. But they also set forth an indigenous philosophy of abundance: that living with nature in its bewildering, enriching ecologies is better than stripping it of its innate workings. It also suggests a bond between people and animals—a mammal that resembles a whale-shark is shown to have culture, language and sentience.


A Scaly-bellied woodpecker in oak forest in the mid-elevation Himalaya.
A Scaly-bellied woodpecker in oak forest in the mid-elevation Himalaya. (Neha Sinha)

It is ironic that we applaud a fictional film but are living out the reality of destruction of another marine animal, the leatherback turtle—the world’s largest turtle. Conservationists have asked for relocation of the Great Nicobar transshipment project because it will build over India’s largest known nesting site of the leatherback turtle. This has fallen on deaf ears.

Fact is indeed stranger than fiction. I only hope that we can pause to reconsider not just the fact of planned destruction but also the stories we spin as compensation.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species.

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