How to strike ecology-economy balance

As states scramble for ways to gear up growth, decision-makers will give short shrift to those pointing out that further environmental damage will lead directly to a possibly far worse pandemic a few years down the line. What this government has not realised is that there’s money in protecting the environment. One estimate puts this at $26 trillion, even as sustainable companies outperform their peers.

How to strike ecology-economy balance

Ecosystem health: The best way to stop a pandemic is to start protecting wildlife habitats.

Tara Kartha

Former Director, National Security Council Secretariat

The Prime Minister and his advisers’ primary focus is clear. Discussions are on to further ease the lockdown with the objective of reviving the economy, even as the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb. The sombre advice from the bureaucrats of the Health Ministry is simply this: India will have to learn to live with Covid-19. It’s not going anywhere soon. Meanwhile, state governments are looking for bailouts, as is the industry, and there are simply no bright spots anywhere in the economy.

With this focus, it was hardly surprising that Prakash Javadekar, wearing his hat as Environment Minister, proudly announced that his ministry had cleared projects in 11 states. His other hat would have approved. The minister is also in charge of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises. In most other countries, this would be seen as a conflict of interest. But not in India, and certainly not in the present climate. The Environment Minister’s job is clear. Get projects cleared as quickly as possible to generate employment and kickstart growth. And he is doing it with both hands.

Twitter has exploded with wrath at this hasty handing out of clearances, that will destroy thousands of acres of forest at a time when protecting the environment is absolutely vital. Expert opinion indicates that the best way to stop a pandemic is to start protecting wildlife habitats. That’s not a vague recommendation. There has long has been definite proof that biodiversity and health of the ecosystem will prevent pathogens from leaving the wild.

European countries have understood this, and have sworn to tailor economic packages towards prioritising the environment. Italy has already begun to redesign its cities to preserve its new pollution-free status. Germany’s recovery is based on reduced emissions. That is quite a difference from the past. For instance, emissions climbed after the financial crisis of 2008 as countries raced to recovery. That, unfortunately, seems to be the path India will follow. But there’s a way to have both growth and the environment. It just needs a reimagining of the economy.

Consider Javadekar’s triumphantly cleared projects. One of these is the construction of a railway line in Telangana which will cut through the tiger corridor, destroying about 168 hectares of prime forest land. But here’s a possibility. The section of track through the tiger corridor could be elevated. That’s already being done in Rohtak for the simple reason that it is far too expensive to acquire land in a busy town. Cutting down forests may look a lot cheaper on paper. But the ‘price’ of forest land needs to be recalculated at this point, when it is starkly clear that preserving forests equals preserving human life. For decision makers and bureaucrats, that needs to be translated as ‘saving forests is cheaper for the economy’.

Check the model in Goa where badly planned roads have destroyed livelihoods, which means that the state gets less revenue, not more. This model also needs to be applied to the highway expansion through the Mollem Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa. Go over the forest, and watch your air get cleaner and your incomes rise.

Then, there is the disastrous clearance of hydel projects in Uttarakhand that will slice off a staggering 768 hectares of forest land. Another is the Etalin project in Arunachal Pradesh, home to one of the cradles of biodiversity, and so staggeringly beautiful that it would make other countries green with envy. That project will not just fell some three lakh trees, but will effectively destroy the Dibang valley, key to the climate and stability of the North-East. The state falls in the Zone-5 category of seismic activity, which means it is highly prone to earthquakes. So is much of Uttarakhand. Environmental degradation contributed to the devastating floods in 2013 which caused losses in billions. Even today, there is a precipitous fall in land value and tourism.

But neither the state nor governments at the Centre acknowledge this. Jindal Power Limited has made some token concessions to get a project it has been pushing since 2014. Here’s the alternative: Jindal is already into healthcare with its top-notch facility in Bengaluru. That’s peanuts for the group. But the forest can be a goldmine if used as a source for medicinal herbs and cures, with potential breakthroughs in research. Much of the Himalayan belt has already been grabbed by shrewd European pharma companies, which, for instance, are selling turmeric concentrates at hefty prices, after sourcing from Uttarakhand. Research will reveal more, but the trouble is Indian companies spend next to nothing on research, which is why we’re nowhere near a vaccine for the virus.

Other projects cleared include a superhighway between Mumbai and Nagpur which also destroys fragile ecosystems. As states scramble for ways to gear up growth, decision-makers will give short shrift to those pointing out that further environmental damage will lead directly to a possibly far worse pandemic a few years down the line. What this government has not realised is that there’s money in protecting the environment. One estimate puts this at $26 trillion, even as sustainable companies outperform their peers. Investors are moving away from fossil fuel portfolios and large dams, which destroy far more than they deliver, with the Narmada Dam being a prime example.

We desperately need more forest cover, not less, given that barely 4.9 per cent of total land is earmarked as ‘protected’' as against the 17 per cent committed in the Convention on Biodiversity. That was signed in 1993, together with a multitude of other multilateral pieces of paper that allow bureaucrats and political leaders to travel to exotic locations, and nothing much to show for it. That may now change, as countries are forced inch by reluctant inch to move forward in reinvigorating the environment.

But implementation will always be a national effort, and to get the best advice on how to proceed towards higher economic growth hand in hand with the environment, the PM needs to insist on the inclusion of just one phrase in all proposals, which is ‘not a tree shall fall’. Bureaucrats backed by the industry will say this is asking for the moon. It is not. It is far easier and more growth-oriented. 

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