The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, February 11, 2001
Time Off

The fate of trees
By Manohar Malgonkar

THE periodic international conferences on the threat of global warming are pure burlesque shows; full of hot words, dire predictions, elaborate scientific presentations, ending up in disagreements...

Meanwhile, global warming goes on, and nothing can prevent large chunks of the earth’s surface — coastal Bangladesh, for instance from being swept away in the foreseeable future.

In fact, it might be already too late to save some of the threatened areas. All we can do is to slow down the pace a bit, but that will need a determined effort on the part of all the major nations of the world: They will have to make drastic reductions in the use of fossil fuels and, at the same time, initiate programmes for massive reforestation of waste lands.

And, of course, save such forests as are already there. In brief, use your car only when you must, and go and plant trees. A peculiar aspect of these conferences on global warming is that the normal ranking order of the nations of the world no longer holds good.  Here, by and large, the affluent nations are the guilty parties and ‘developing’ countries the finger-pointers. Here Uncle Sam does not play his customary role of headmaster, but finds himself in the cage as the principal accused: the nation most responsible for the alarming acceleration in the pace of global warming.

For their part, the Americans, while they’re in complete agreement with the view that something must be done to temper the pace of global warming, absolutely refuse to so much as consider lowering their quite horrendously excessive use of fossil fuels. Instead, they say, they will buy up rich rain-forests in the poorer countries — such as Bolivia — and make sure that they are not destroyed, and that should be accepted as contribution to the aims of the conference.

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In other words: I’ll burn up as much petrol as I damn-well want to; but I’m perfectly willing to make amends for my overindulgence by saving a forest in Bolivia — which will ensure that particular source of breathable air is preserved for posterity.

The future of mankind is inextricably linked to that of trees The logic is that of Alice in Wonderland, but somehow close to orthodox Hindu ideas of punya and paap: spiritual merit or demerit, which you earn by good deeds or bad deeds. The pluses cancel out the minuses: a black-money deal washed away by feeding a cow for a year — that sort of thing. Why should we feel guilty about using too much fossil fuel so long as we make amends by saving those rich forests in Bolivia?

Oh, well. These are no more than debating points; a smoke-screen of words, a part of the game plan for nations with guilty consciences. But one thing that everyone seemed to be agreed about was that the only way of slowing down the pace of global warming was to create new forests.

Create forests? But how? Have we not, in India, sought to do just that, and failed — failed miserably? Every year during the rains, a day is set aside for Vanamahotsava: a festival of forests. We see a positive orgy of tree-plantings. Ministers in all sizes and shapes in the big cities, and armies of bureaucrats in the moffusil, are seen holding watering cans over knee-high saplings while grinning wildly for the photo ops. If only a half of those baby trees had reached maturity, India would have been smothered in jungles.

It didn’t work — but then no one expected it to. Vanamahotsavas were, after all, festivals — days for celebrating our veneration of trees — not to create new vanas — dammit. We’re a country rich in inherited forests, aren’t we?

Alas, not: We were rich in forests once; but no longer. Ever since Independence, we have gone on savaging our forests with such fury that today, only truncated and moth-eaten bits still remain.

One such inherited forest area was that of the Western Ghats; recognised as a veritable treasurehouse of gifts from nature, packed with a variety of wild life, animals, birds, trees: 3500 different species of wild flowers — a staggering 27 per cent of the national total — were to be found in the Western Ghats.

All these years, the Western Ghats were all but abandoned to the uncontrolled demands of commerce: enormous dams were put up, populations shifted at will, rainforest hacked away for timber and their habitat blasted out for iron and manganese ores, their river system made to serve as drains for the effluents of industry, their very skies filled with foul smells and soot.

But only lately, those responsible for conserving the nation’s natural resources and beauty spots, seem to have woken up to the fact that, unless the rot was stopped, the Western Ghats, too, might become a lost cause — a gone case, to be made a subject for post-mortem investigation along with similar failures: lost Ganga, lost Yamuna, lost terais, wetlands, tigers, vultures.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests has published a policy statement entitled ‘Guidelines for Biosphere Reserves’, and in it singled out the Western Ghats as a hotspot because they possess an "exceptional concentration of species and high levels of endemism...(which face) exceptional threat of destruction. So, three cheers for the new mantra: ‘Biosphere Reserves’. Whatever is still left of the Western Ghats will be saved from further despoilation.

But will it? — because the three states which, between them share the Western Ghats, have their own agendas for their future, and these have little or nothing in common with Central Government’s plans to create biosphere reserves.

The alarming dissimilarities of viewpoints between the F & E Ministry on the one hand and the state governments on the other, was highlighted by the case of a Coke Oven plant that the Karnataka Government had ‘cleared’ in 1996, and, as it were, pushed forward once again in 1998 — just when the Centre was thinking out ways to forbid the setting up of pollutive industries in what were considered hotspots.

Now a Coke Oven plant is classed as a ‘Dinosaur’ industry, meaning that it is an outdated method of producing gas and electricity, and because of its devastating effects on the surrounding landscape, it is ranked high among what are called The Dirty Dozen of pollutive enterprises. And this particular plant was to be a truly gigantic version, spread over 830 acres, burning up three million tonne of coal every year, sopping up all water from a minor river plus 40 million litres a day from another, spewing out ashes and soot in vast quantities, and tar and chemical wastes into the river system.

And against all norms of locating such an industry as far away from prime forests and wild life sanctuaries, this one was to be put up in the middle of a rich forest, and on the edge of a lake as well as a wild life sanctuary.

The howls of protests from the several local environment groups were dismissed as being anti-progressive. Then, after four years, the promoters themselves, for purely commercial reasons, backed out of the venture. If they had gone on with their plans as scheduled, the biosphere reserve formula would have come too late to have saved this particular section of the ghats.

"Blame the environmentalists," was the official reaction. They have torpedoed our best-laid plans for developing this neglected district and to create hundreds of jobs for the unemployed!

Home This feature was published on February 4, 2001