Saturday, 1 December 2007

Rainbow warriors: India's environment heroes


Published in the Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle - Sunday Magazine November 2007
By Syed Akbar
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"There will come a time when the Earth is sick and the animals and plants
begin to die, then the Indians will regain their spirit and gather people
of all nations, colours and beliefs to join together in the fight to save
the Earth." Ancient Native American prophecy.
----------
This ancient Native American prophecy, though talks of the
Red Indians or the so-called Rainbow Warriors, is turning out to be true
in the case of India, with the country throwing up dozens of eminent
environment activists, who had made a difference worldwide.
Dozens of eminent environmental activists from the country have been feted by the world recently, for the tireless work they are undertaking to protect our fragile planet. They include this year's Nobel peace prize winner Dr R.K. Pachauri, Time magazine's "environment hero" industrialist Tulsi R. Tanthi, wildlife conservationist Dr Ullas Karanth who has won this year's Paul Getty award, activist-ecologist Vandana Shiva, environmentalist-researcher Sunita Narain and "dam buster" Medha Patkar to name a few.
There are many others who have been inspired by these bold men and women. They stay behind the scenes, but do their best to protect Gaia or Mother Earth.
India, with 16 per cent of the total world’s population and 1.8 per cent of the global forest cover, naturally has to take the lead in environment protection. It is doing so now after years of chanting the slogan of development at all costs. And the green effect has climbed upwards. Policy-framers such as Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy have also been taking up environmental issues in earnest.
Dr Reddy, for instance, took bold measures to save Kolleru Lake, Asia’s largest fresh water body, from ecological death. It was an exhibition of rare political will, worthy of an Al Gore. Thanks to the chief minister’s tough stance, the lake is fresh and pristine again. For the first time in three decades migratory birds from Siberia are flocking to Kolleru.
"This is the first time I have spotted the Siberian cranes and other migratory birds after 1977," says a delighted local zoologist R.C. Pani. "The lake, with its vast stretch of water and unique aquatic life, is now a haven for birds again. It has been saved," he adds.
And long before Al Gore, there was another politician who changed the way governments think about nature — former Environment Minister Maneka Gandhi. She meticulously drafted the steps the environment ministry should take to protect the green cover and the fauna braving derisive talk of being an eco fundamentalist.
A green vision
But the crowning achievement of our rainbow warriors is the change they brought to the common citizen’s perception about environment, forests, pollution and climate change. From a fringe slogan, environmental concerns have come centre-stage, thanks to these men and women.
Because of their efforts, people now talk knowledgeably about pollution, chemical pesticides, artificial fertilisers, sustainable development, forest protection, restoration of natural water bodies... This has succeeded in building up pressure "from below" in a democratic manner, which has forced policy changes up above.
"A lot of issues have been brought to the fore including water scarcity, water pollution, declining forests and even air pollution," says Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment, who received a Padma Shri in 2005. She is also the head of the Tiger Task Force formed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. "But difficult issues such as pollution in industries and cities are a lot harder to tackle. They still lack societal approval," she adds.
Travelling alone
There is still a long way to go. But our rainbow warriors are not ones who tire so easily. Time was when green activists were thought to be freaks raising purposeless slogans. It took decades of sustained campaign to make the world recognise that the planet is fragile and has to be sustained.
Like most people who think ahead, environmentalists too have faced their quota of derision. It is their commitment which kept them going. Take Dr Ullas Karanth, for instance. The second son of legendary writer Shivarama Karanth often had to cross swords with authorities in his mission to protect the tiger.
A master’s degree holder in wildlife biology from the University Of Gainsvelle in Florida, Ullas is obsessed with tigers and their safety. "Ullas realised that the habitat of the tiger was a natural forest," says Praveen Bhargava, trustee of Wildlife, an NGO devoted to environment. "By preserving the tiger, the forest — the biggest fixer of carbon dioxide and the prime factor in global warming — could be saved too," he adds.
Perfecting the (tiger’s) pugmark method, Ullas revealed that there are only 1,300 to 1,500 tigers in India, while the earlier studies had put the figure at a little more than 2,800. His research also revealed that if the prey position — enough number of deer and other animals — was right, a breeding tiger needed 15 sq. km for itself in India.
"A tiger needs about 50 to 60 deer a year," he says. "It does not kill mindlessly. Tigers die as they live — wildly," Ullas said. And to protect their habitat was his mission. His efforts finally persuaded the government to amend the Wildlife Protection Act.
Similarly, Tulsi Tanthi brought a revolution in non-conventional energy not only in India but also in Germany, China and the United States and Nobel laureate Rajendra Pachauri brought climate change to the agenda of many nations. He is also the founder director of the India-based environment think-tank, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).
Tulsi’s wind energy company, Suzlon, the fifth largest wind turbine manufacturer in the world, has a turnover of more than $9 billion. The company operates one of the largest wind farms in the world, at Sinban in the hills of eastern India, producing 600 mw of wind energy.
Pachauri’s efforts during the past three decades forced governments to sit up and make better laws to protect the environment. He has been active in several international forums dealing with the policy dimension of tackling climate change.
"I was not expecting any awards for my effort," says Pachauri, chairman of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. "With this award, the issue of climate change will come to the fore. The Norwegian Committee wants to stress that something should be immediately done to mitigate the threats to nature which are near and real," he adds.
He accepted that the developed countries were the major culprits in global warming. "But the levels of emissions are so high that both the developed countries and the developing countries will have to reduce emissions and take drastic measures," he says.
Wars of the future
Our rainbow warriors are always on the battle front. Many of them are getting ready for the United Nation’s Climate Change Convention to be held at Bali (Indonesia) this December. This is expected to shape the world’s environmental outlook for the next few decades. Both Dr Pachauri and Sunita Narain are set to play a major role at the Bali conference.
Within India, the misuse of forest wealth is another big area of concern for the activists. It is estimated that 70 per cent forests have no natural regeneration and 55 per cent are prone to fire. Pollution in cities is another major problem. The challenge ahead is really big.
"What we need is a change in the way the politicians think, plan and act," says Dr T. Patanjali Sastry, who has been working in coastal Andhra for decades. "The tendency to separate development from environment should go. They are not separate entities," says Sastry.
"What we need to do is to manage economic growth in such a way that we minimise environmental damage," adds Sunita Narain.
She points out that tough measures have to be taken to address major concerns like climate change. "All over the world people are trying to implement soft measures, but these are not working anywhere," she adds. "Even Nobel Prize winner Al Gore is recommending soft measures," she says.
The feted environmentalists as well as their unknown compatriots have forced Central and State governments to revise their environment priorities through their untiring campaign. And results are trickling in.
There is now a small increase in forest cover and reduction in water and air pollution. There is planned urban development and stringent norms for industries.
The Central Pollution Control Board has been forced to take up a nation-wide programme to ensure that the air we breathe and the water we drink are clean.
Moreover, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has set for itself a target of increasing the forest cover to 33 per cent by 2012.
But the rainbow warriors are not content to rest on their laurels. They will march on, to make the old Red Indian prophecy a reality. At stake is the planet itself.

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