Kedarnath. Then Kashmir. The earth ploughed up into a shambles, death and destruction everywhere, multitudes plunged into misery on a scale that moved the world. Yet, these were the lesser tragedies. The bigger one is that there will be more Kedarnaths and more Kashmirs, for we are too selfish a people to learn lessons from experience. We plunder nature, upsetting the systemic order on which life on the planet is balanced. When catastrophe strikes, the price is paid by ordinary people, not the privileged plunderers. So plundering resumes. This is the tragedy of those who refuse to see that by destroying our todays we cannot build our tomorrows.
The causes of recent disasters tell their own tale. In mountains and planes, geography had provided for excess water to escape through natural drainage channels like rivers, low-lying wetlands and crevices between rock formations. Under the pressure of development these escape channels steadily disappeared. Half the lakes in Srinagar have been filled up and converted into residential and commercial areas.
This is an all-India pattern. In Udaipur, the city of famous lakes, encroachment was so blatant that the Rajasthan High Court declared lake shores as "no construction zones". That was in 1997. The court order was so widely ignored that encroachment in shores and catchment areas steadily increased: 374 hectares in 2002, 665 in 2006 and 863 in 2009. Builders could defy the court openly because they had political backing. Bangalore has no rivers, so its founders and progressive maharajahs had built a string of lakes, locally known as tanks. There were 280 tanks in the 1960s, and only 80 in 1993. Vembanad lake in Kerala is not only majestic in its spread and beauty; it is also the livelihood of thousands of families living on its shores. But the lake has shrunk from 366 sq. km to 200 sq.km. and what is left is so polluted and silted up that experts predict the possibility of the lake drying up in the next 50 years. Hyderabad city was devastated by floods in 2000 because water bodies like Masab Tank were turned into residential areas. Bombay city was ravaged by flash floods in 2000 as the Mithi river, traditionally a storm water drain, had become a stagnant sewer. Even as the construction boom blocked the natural escape routes of water, "heavy rain events" dumped vastly increased quantities of water on earth because of abnormal increase in carbon emissions. In some Himalayan regions rainfall has been 400 percent above normal.
Much of the construction-prompted destruction takes place with government support, the magic word being "development". In the Manmohan Singh government, after Jairam Ramesh took some steps to protect the environment, he was removed from the ministry. When his successor, Jayanti Natarajan, tried in her own way to protect some forests, she was removed too. According to Manmohan Singh, industrialists and investors must have all the freedom to do what they like with geography because they assured GDP growth, nothing else mattered to the economist.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi rode to power on the very slogan of development. He has been taking bold steps on many policy fronts. How will he tackle the conflict between development and nature? His Ministry of Earth Sciences recently launched a plan to study the increased frequency of extreme weather events in the country. That was a good sign. A bad sign was the reconstitution of the National Board for Wildlife avoiding the mandatory number of non-government specialists. The Supreme Court stayed the decisions of the new Standing Committee. Other bad signs: The Ministry of Environment and Forests announced several controversial concessions to the coal industry. Laws pertaining to environment and forests are being examined with a view to "bringing them in line with current requirements". The National Green Tribunal, boldly independent till now, is suddenly under pressure.
A country can be industry-friendly without destroying nature. The US, after obliterating a lot of forests in the early years, now ensures 33 percent forest cover. In India it is 21 percent although the National Forest Policy mandates it to be 33 percent. Unlike the US, we have the backing of an ancient culture. All we have to do is to pay heed to the laws clearly outlined in the Arthasastra. Namely: "For cutting of the tender sprouts of fruit trees or shade trees, a fine of six panaas will be imposed. For cutting their minor branches, twelve panaas and for cutting the big branches 24 panaas shall be levied". That's wisdom.