It’s an exciting time to be an Indian — our country is poised on the edge of accelerated economic growth. But this is not possible without a stable environment. It is essential, therefore, that we focus on protecting our natural infrastructure, which forms the bedrock of our economy.
The flow of benefits from our ecosystem is immense — it supplies clean air, water and climate security. Globally, 200-300 million people depend directly, or indirectly, on forests for food. Some studies suggest that ecosystem goods and services account for over half the ‘gross domestic product of the poor’. This is particularly significant for India where 200 million people live in and around forests, relying heavily on these ecosystems for their daily survival. More than 600 Indian rivers either originate from, or are fed by, tiger landscapes and these habitats supply water to cities hundreds of kilometres away. The Corbett Tiger Reserve, for instance, forms the catchment area of the Ramganga reservoir that provides 190 million cubic-metres of drinking water to New Delhi. In Maharashtra, Nagpur is dependent on the Pench Lake, harboured in the Pench Tiger Reserve, for its water supply. The economic repercussions of neglecting the environment are severe.
The rights of women and children, too, are inextricably linked to environmental issues. In rural areas, women walk several hours every day to get water for their families. As wells dry up, girls are more likely to be pulled out of school to help their mothers with collecting water. The World Bank estimates that 21% of communicable diseases in India can be linked to unsafe water with diarrhoea causing more than 1,600 deaths every single day.
This begs the question — what should India do? As with all effective solutions, the answer is simple to give but difficult to implement. We need to start at the very source of our policy-making, designing laws and programmes that are holistic and recognise the interconnectedness between the environment and development. This needs to percolate to the ground level particularly in landscapes where communities and wildlife live in close proximity. The key lies in finding solutions that allow communities access to the same benefits as you and me, while safeguarding the precious natural resources they live alongside. Environmental impacts and appropriate mitigation measures need to be inbuilt in projects, not tacked on as an afterthought to secure a clearance from the ministry of environment and forests.
The challenges lying ahead for India are not easy but there is immense potential to transform them into opportunities. We must involve forest departments, local communities and other stakeholders to find solutions that benefit both people and wildlife. It is a long road but one which we must travel together with all stakeholders.
Hemendra Kothari is founder and chairman of the Wildlife Conservation Trust. The views expressed are personal
Full coverage: Fight for clean environment