QUO VIDIS

At no time in recent history has the future of humans and of the world they inhabit been so much talked and written and thought about as now – in the times of this pandemic. As we collectively ask and aptly, “QUO VIDIS”? (in line with the epic Quo Vadis).

This COVID pandemic seems to be changing everything – the present of course, the past as we saw and interpreted and misread and messed it and the future as we never intended or dreamt it to be. Inequality, social and economic as a temporal cross-cutting thread in History, is now looming, quite suddenly as perhaps the biggest and most important challenge the post-COVID world needs to address and resolve sustainably. And this is a global issue and opportunity for nations to seize or let go, as they will. But the answers will be found locally, even in times of super centralization. As always, time is running out, even for lockdowns. Climate Change is knocking more urgently on our obduracy with every passing season or storm while we ambulate from one non meeting to another COP, endlessly and pointlessly. It is also clear that given the inequality among nations, appropriately co-ordinated global responses and convergence to address climate change and the Corona crisis is unthinkable in the foreseeable future.  Or is it, Mr. Trump notwithstanding?

The news that within India the spread of the pandemic has been least in better forested states of the Himalaya, the NE and tribal tracts of Central India is noteworthy, (Rajit Sengupta, DTE, April 2020). Perhaps it provides a clue to what the future needs to look like? Numerous writers and commentators have sounded yet again our ramifying disconnect with Nature in general and Forests and Wildlife in particular, as a major reason that unleashed the corona and other viruses in the first place. We also know that our most deprived brethren have lived in and off the forests for Millenia, demonstrating a concept of sustainability unthinkable in today’s neo-liberal reckoning.

Of the many lessons being learned one that stands out is the need to re-define our relationship with the natural world. Air, Water and Wild biodiversity form the basis of human existence on this planet, yet have become victims of myopic politics driven by the unequal world we live in and its lopsided tugs. The indicators for national economic wellbeing need to become different from whether there is a monthly rise or fall in the sale of automobiles.

To dwell briefly on our existential trinity and why we cannot mess around with it anymore.

AIR: In the last year or so, air purifiers have been added to fans and ACs in middle class homes in many of our cities, further widening the divide between the few and the millions. Outside, wearing masks in Delhi and other cities is now an older and more widespread necessity. But it’s like a call for social distancing inside slums and city ‘chawls’ where, as the Covid crisis highlights, most of urban Bharat lives. The AQI has been worsening across much of urban and aspiring Bharat, in dystopian small towns and unregulated, squalid peri-urban sprawls which are the places that already house and are destined to absorb much of the imminent rural to urban exodus. In this exodus the migration is of a permanent kind. No going back to the village as is happening with uncared for migrants now. Could making and maintaining the air breathable for all become a post-Covid priority?

WATER: We (the vast majority) are staring at a worsening water crisis over much of the country. The water problem is more due to inequitable distribution because of policies that skew water availability (at very low cost) for the rich farmer, city mansion dweller and industrialist. Further, the drinking water supplied through pipes is not potable. Do we expect that the vast majority of a soon-to-be 5 trillion-dollar economy to have no free access to drinkable water? The free drinkable water comes from Springs especially in the hills. The Niti Aayog says over 200 million people depend on Springs, but these are drying and dying. We lose most of our rainfall (4000 billion cubic meters) as runoff and then suffer (few may hay) droughts and water shortages for the rest of the year. The post-Covid Water-Action agenda appears clear. The question remains, can we actually conjure fresh management capacity to do simple things like holding the rainwater and rejuvenating springs on a country wide scale?

BIODIVERSITY: From a people’s perspective the important biodiversity is the one they use (and have been using), for self-consumption or for sale. These are often wild foods (including animals), fruit, mushrooms, tubers, various medicinal plants and so forth. The decline and loss of such produce historically sourced from forests or grasslands / pastures is well known, with many species no longer commercially available due to earlier over-exploitation and thus leading to use of substitutes and / or adulterants in the plant based pharmaceutical and other markets. Claims to increment in forest cover do not reflect what is available to people inside these forests!

At another level, terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity at ecosystem, species and genetic levels is vanishing faster and faster (we, have no clue really, not even Red Lists at national level)! With each gene and a species gone, the intricate web of life gets irreversibly diminished, however, imperceptibly. Accelerating extinction is happening we are told of species we do not even know! Yet, old growth natural forests located within Protected Areas continue to get diverted. As recently as 15 April, 2020 the MoEF &CC approved 31 projects (in the middle of the Corona crisis) for diversion of forest land, of which 16 were through national parks, sanctuaries and tiger corridors duly cleared by the National Board for Wildlife, which incidentally has not met even once in the last six year and is ironically now being considered a big threat to India’s wildlife!

Can we change the way we work?

So, if we are looking at radically changed instruments through which we view, review and manage our natural resources, a bold re-structuring of our present arrangements beginning quickly with long, long overdue administrative and financial reforms seems top priority.  Revamped processes of recruitment, training and human resource management are put in place. For example, re-structuring and gender balancing of the Forest Departments (specialized cadres?) to be able to manage forests with the people (women?), respecting and working with community rights as under FRA. In situ and ex situ conservation and management of wildlife and biodiversity and protection and management of wetlands (they are orphans right now) outside Protected Areas, are key unresolved areas that come to mind immediately.

A major weakness of the government system is its defensive mind set in the face of any criticism, no matter how legitimate or constructive. This is so because Government from colonial times is used to working alone as masters and not being questioned by subordinates and ‘out-siders’. This is also a major reason why people’s voice and knowledge is not reflected and incorporated in planning and execution of schemes. Govt schemes are very rarely owned by people they are meant to benefit. There is also much corruption, unmentioned, ignored and therefore unacknowledged, that eats away into desirable outcomes or sustaining changes forcing the ‘system’ to keep hiding a lot of information and telling lies. A possibility to get good NGOs, CBOs, VOs and the like involved could bring dramatic improvements in governance and transparency. So, are we going to get civil society into the loop in the post-Covid world? 

What Must Change?

A less unequal and fairer world can begin with making the Air breathable, the Water drinkable. This must happen quickly and not come at a price the poor cannot afford like bottled water and purified AC air. Access to clean air and water is foundational to any health for all agenda. It is a civilizational imperative that spaces earmarked for our natural wealth and biodiversity must flourish and grow unhindered. The forest and other ecosystems management becomes people centric to get connected people to conserve and enlarge them. If we are unable to pull this off, then how on Earth can we make ourselves a level playing field? Which alone can ensure and sustain a better and more equitable world.

Nodnat - is a pen name that the writer with deep knowledge of Himalayan flora and fauna and a keen environmentalist has adopted. He hails from Kotgarh, in Shimla Hills and retired as Principal Chief Conservator of Forests from Himachal Pradesh forest department.

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