Vandana Shiva

Why are we so rapidly destroying nature and culture in India?

By Dr. Vandana Shiva

I write this column on World Environment Day, 5th June, 2013 from Bhutan where I am working with the Government on the transition to 100% Organic Bhutan. I am also working with the Bhutan Government  to redefine the economic paradigm to focus on the happiness and well- being of its people and the health of its environment,instead of narrowly defined growth as GDP.

80% of Bhutan is forest. All streams and rivers are healthy and living. And this is a result of a conscious policy to protect nature and culture. From the local to the national level policies are dedicated to “promotion of sustainable socioeconomic development, preservation and promotion of culture and conservation of bio-diversity in pursuit of a happy society.”

In the beautiful valley of Bumthang in central Bhutan, the government plans to set up a Gross National Happiness Centre, and I have been invited to be on its Executive Council.

To reach the site of the centre which is surrounded by protected conifer forests we had to cross the gushing river in a basket on a rope bridge.

The forests and rivers took me back to my childhood in Garhwal and Kumaon where my father served as a forest conservator, and we trekked across the Himalaya through healthy  forests and across gushing rivers and streams. I could not have imagined as a child that our precious forests and rivers which have sustained us through the centuries would disappear in my lifetime because we would blindly start chasing a mirage of growth.

Forty years ago, the women of Garhwal stood up for their forests  and started the Chipko movement. They said that the real gifts of the forests were soil ,water and pure air, not timber,resin and revenue. After the 1978 floods, the government was forced to recognize that the costs of deforestation in terms of floods was much higher than the revenues collected from logging. In 1981, a ban was put on logging above 1000 metres in the Ganga catchment.

In 1982, the Ministry of environment asked us to do a study on the ecological impact of mining in the Doon Valley. In the 20 years of mining, I had watched our streams and rivers disappear.

Our study showed that the limestone left in the mountains contributed more to the economy than its extraction through mining, because limestone is an  aquifer and holds water in its cavities and caves. Friends of the Doon  mobilized citizens of Doon Valley .In 1983,the Supreme ordered the closure of the limestone mines, and all the polluting industry dependent of it. Doon Valley was declared an ecologically sensitive zone, and a Green Valley.

30 years later ,  in violation of all laws,  the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand signed an MOU with Coca Cola to set up a plant in village Charba in Western Doon. Where ever Coca Cola goes, it brings a water famine and pollution. This was the case in Plachimada in Kerala, where women started a movement and shut down the Coca Cola plant.This is the case in Mehdiganj near Varanasi .Each plant uses 1.5 to 2 million liters of water per day. This can create scarcity in the most water abundant region.

On 29th May 2013, citizens from across India and Doon Valley joined a solidarity rally of the Charba community to stop the Coca Cola plant. More than 1200 people traveled from the Dakpather barrage on the Yamuna , from where Coca Cola is supposed to take water , to the village where it wants to set up its plant. On the way , the community participated in a Chipko movement by tying rakhis on trees that would have to be cut to make way for Coca Cola.

Today our forests and rivers are dying. And as a society we don’t seem to care, even though every community whose land, forests and water are being grabbed are rising in revolt . It is probably the biggest ecological movement in our history.

Tagore had called the Indian civilization the Aranya Sanskriti, and distinguished us from the Western industrial societies based on brick and mortar. The economic  and political powers do not think twice about chopping down forests for mines , and trees for concrete jungles.

The Government has been caught in multiple scams, including Coal-gate. For its illegal coal mines, the government has been willing to invade our protected forests and the homes of our forest communities. When the protector becomes the predator, how can India’s forests survive? And when the tribal’s and forest dwellers try to protect their forest homes from the predatory invasions of a corporate state, should we not pause and think about the future of our forests, our tribal’s, our democracy and the principles that made us an “aranya sanskriti”. Should we not look deeper at the roots of violence in our tribal areas?

How could we so completely have forgotten the foundations of our sustenance, our forests and rivers?

How could we have forgotten what it means to be a forest civilization and a civilization where rivers are our sacred mothers?

Why do mining corporations , real estate corporations, dam corporations (and they are the same corporations) get priority over India’s Constitution and laws, the fundamental rights of Indian citizens, and environmental laws meant to protect nature? How have reached a situation where the Government rewards ecological criminals , and criminalises citizens working in defense of their ecosystems and the livelihoods and sustenance they provide?

There are after all Forest Conservation laws meant to protect our forests. There is a Panchayati Raj Extension to Scheduled Areas Act ,PESA, that recognizes the rights of tribal communities , and their sovereignty over their land and forests.

The justification is always “growth”.However, no short term economic policy can trump the long term economic policy of protecting the ecological foundations of all economy. Everywhere in the world , specially in Bhutan,the scam of “growth” is being recognized. All it measures is commercialization and commodification of resources, and hence is actually the rate of extraction of resources from local ecosystems and local communities. In  should therefore be interpreted as measuring ecological destruction and  the creation of poverty, not as measuring wealth. The real meaning of “wealth” is well being. A process that destroys nature and dispossesses local communities , and hence destroys well being, cannot be  justified as wealth creating. What it does lead to as a result of ecological and social exploitation , and the conversion of nature’s resources into cash, is the concentration of cash in the hand of a few.

And this cash can then be used for kickbacks and buying political influence, to further erode nature, people’s rights and  democracy.

This is the vicious cycle we have got trapped in . And only people’s movements in the defense of nature and their rights can break out of it.