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World Environment Day: Giving nature the right of way

The value of nature is invisible to us, and this affects every aspect of our planning, from roads to mines. It's high time we gave forests the right of way 

We don't have  time to fail our forests.
We don't have  time to fail our forests. (Istockphoto)

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On my last field visit to the Aravallis, a curiously bright creature ran over my toes.

The Aravalli hill range is all gentle undulations—slopes worn with time, mining and people—and its colours range from the bruised purple of slope-loving dhau tree leaves to the dull green of heat-adapted thorny ziziphus bushes. This critter, though, was a shocking red. And it looked like it had fallen off a Met Gala costume—altogether velvety, oval and fuzzy. This was the red velvet mite, which looks exactly like it sounds—a red, coat-button like arachnid that seems to be covered in velvet.

The surprise was that this arthropod, which lives under the soil or leaf litter on a forest floor, usually comes out after the rains, most reliably during the monsoon. This appearance was the end of May, when the weather had played a hard game with us all—temperatures in the National Capital Region and northern India had gone well beyond 45 degrees Celsius. There were shortages of electricity, water and patience. The heatwave was compounded by memes that this may well end up being the coolest summer of our generation, as all indications show climate change is only increasing in severity.

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A Bengal Tiger at the Bandhavgarh National Park.
A Bengal Tiger at the Bandhavgarh National Park. (Istockphoto)

The heatwave went on for most of May. It was a harsh, ripened summer, squatting in what used to be pre-summer, raw mango season. Potted plants died, birds fell out of the sky, mango crops withered, people died of heatstroke. And then, at the end of May, the sky coloured itself silver. Banks of clouds moved in and rent themselves apart to pour down cold, mountain-fresh rainfall. There had been squalls and thunderstorms in May but this was the real thing—the heat seemed to have stretched itself fully and finally broken its spine. And unexpected rain had triumphed.

The temperature dived below 30 degrees Celsius and sanity returned to our heated temperaments. The red velvet mites I was looking at had responded to this sudden spell of rain. Winged insects whirred about—these too were responding to the bizarre weather. And by all accounts, strange weather is the norm today—changing timings of fruiting, flowering and life cycles. Just this year, fires have seared the forests of the Sariska tiger reserve, cyclone Asani has brushed past east India (cyclones Tauktae and Yaas came just last year), and decadal heat records have been shattered.

The question is no longer if climate change is here. The question is how we are willing to respond to it. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group III report, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation Of Climate Change, found that average annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during 2010-19 were higher than in any previous decade.

Also Read: India's lessons from the latest IPCC climate report

The Indian pitta nesting in Delhi NCR.
The Indian pitta nesting in Delhi NCR. (Neha Sinha)

It is interesting, then, that India is attempting to change its suite of environmental laws, including the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, and the Biological Diversity Act, 2002. These make no mention of climate change, or fulfilling our globally agreed commitments for climate action.

Let us consider just one case. This is from the deep old forests of central India. The tiger lives here, and the elephant has recently moved in after decades of giving parts of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh a miss. This is the Sanjay-Dubri tiger reserve, and what a neighbourhood it is in. Sanjay-Dubri, in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, is connected to Bandhavgarh tiger reserve (Madhya Pradhesh), Guru Ghasidas National Park in Chhattisgarh and Palamau tiger reserve in Jharkhand. The entire landscape holds 141 tigers. And if provided proper prey base, it can hold up to 500 tigers, according to the latest, 2018 all-India tiger estimation conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India and the National Tiger Conservation Authority. To the south of this area is another astounding tiger landscape—which includes the Kanha, Bor, Satpura, Pench and Tadoba Andhari tiger reserves.

Recently, a mother tigress died in the Sanjay-Dubri tiger reserve after getting hit by a train, leaving young cubs in her wake. Yet, despite these threats—and the fabulous value of the area—the expansion and doubling of the Katni-Singrauli railway line inside the reserve has just been announced. Simultaneously, we have made serious global commitments for saving forests. This is symptomatic of what we are doing to our natural world—an endowment from one hand, a pinch from the other.

Also Read: World may soon pass the crucial climate threshold of 1.5°C

A tusker at the Dhikala forest, Jim Corbett National Park.
A tusker at the Dhikala forest, Jim Corbett National Park. (Istockphoto)

In Scotland last year, India became part of the Glasgow Climate Pact. Apart from a phase-down of coal, the mitigation aspect of the pact emphasises the importance of ecosystem recovery. The text of the pact “emphasises the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems, including forests and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems, to achieve the long-term global goal of the Convention by acting as sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and protecting biodiversity, while ensuring social and environmental safeguards”.

Early last year, roughly coinciding with the time that India was preparing for its participation in the COP26 climate summit, a discussion paper on the changes proposed in the Forest (Conservation) Act was circulated. It contained several curiosities. It didn’t seem as geared towards the conservation of forests (which is the mandate of the Act) as it was towards making exemptions to the law. For instance, the draft proposed a “right of way” for agencies like the public works department, the National Highways Authority of India and the Railways. The idea mooted was that these agencies be exempt from the provisions of the Act in the case of land acquired before 1980 (it’s important to note that the Railways is already exempted from the Environment Impact Assessment system).

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The draft also suggested excluding extended reach drilling and survey activities (for oil and gas) from the purview of the Act. It further said that construction activity in the forest should be allowed without hindrance—for zoos, forest training institutions and eco-tourism facilities.

These suggestions consider forests as LEGO blocks that can be moved easily for the construction of roads and buildings; that the cuts in the landscape can be papered over easily. Yet, roads and railways have serious impacts on forest and wildlife. They fragment the area, bring invasive species, noise and light pollution, and they kill wildlife, permanently slicing up a forest into blocks animals cannot move between. In short, this is active degradation, the very opposite of restoration. It is the opposite of looking at forests as a valuable carbon sink that helps us fight climate change.

Blak-faced langur in Bandhavgarh.
Blak-faced langur in Bandhavgarh. (Istockphoto)

The Union environment ministry recently announced the formation of a permanent body to reduce elephant deaths caused by railway lines. The body is mandated to coordinate between the railway and highway ministries. Given this context, the draft proposal to grant exemptions to eco-tourism resorts, training institutions and zoos under the Forest (Conservation) Act is ironic. It assumes these are “green” activities that can all be confined to “green” areas like forests. Yet, green activities can hide grey ones—construction means litter, pollution and forest fragmentation at the very least.

Tourism activities have introduced plastic in forests, which find their way into the bellies of animals like elephants. There is conflict at water sources between wildlife and people. The logical thing to do would be to use eco-tourism, zoos or safaris as a means to expand forests, acquiring new land to grow trees and green belts, rather than stressing already tense systems.

Also Read: How India is suffering every year due to deadly humid heat

The government has also proposed changes to the Biological Diversity Act, introducing these in Parliament last year. Here, through a proposed change in Section 7 of the Act, it seeks to exempt AYUSH practitioners and codified traditional knowledge (such as Ayurveda) from reporting to state biodiversity boards on their use of local biodiversity (for medicines, products). Yet, at a time of climate change, the availability of biological resources (flowers, fruit, seed, bark, etc.) is going to be stressed. Several plants or trees grow only in the wild and can’t be cultivated. We need to monitor how much is being extracted so we can set sustainable quotas. Indeed, it is possible to lose entire tracts of biological resources to summer forest fires. Both Ayurveda and wild products can flourish but this can only be achieved by recording how much we are using, not by throwing away the records.

The rationale here seems to be that forests come second to construction, and biological resources second to extraction. The larger logical fallacy is that we have a lot of time to grant right of way to everything other than forests.

In short, the value of nature still seems to be invisible to us, and this invisibility permeates almost every aspect of our planning.

Also Read: How climate change is changing the Indian monsoon

In an April 2022 judgement, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed that Sompeta, a site of rich, swampy wetlands and fishing grounds in Andhra Pradesh, be conserved, rather than allowing an industrial project. The same site was earlier proposed to be taken over for a thermal project. The court also called for treating wetlands mapped by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) as “bodies of water”. The NGT rapped states for not declaring wetlands in accordance with the Isro atlas, even though the Supreme Court had directed them to do so.

The question is, how should wetlands be treated? Like forests, which are seen as a place for oil, gas, railway and highway expansion, wetlands are treated as places for industrial zones, waste-dumping and housing. The NGT observed: “Even if the wetlands identified and mapped were not to be included as wetlands, then they will have to be treated as water bodies and steps will have to be taken to protect the same as has been observed by the Hon’ble Apex Court in M.K. Balakrishnan’s case cited supra and remove encroachments and restrain any activity in the wetland or water body, as it is necessary to protect the water bodies also as equal to wetlands, as they also play a great role in sustainability of the environment and provide valuable ecosystem services.”

Also Read: How climate change is wrecking the Himalaya

Looking at a wetland as a body of water that deserves to remain with water, a forest as a stand of biodiversity where trees should persist, and biological resources as exhaustible, is logical and correct. Yet, our planning devalues nature. We complain that the weather is unseasonable but it’s not, it’s we who are unreasonable. The most reasonable question to ask then is: Do we have time to fail?

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

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