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Such a fine balance

india Updated: Aug 03, 2012 16:57 IST

It's common knowledge now. A flock of 300 Narcondam Hornbills, which are found only in the isolated Narcondam Island of the Andamans, might become extinct if the Indian Coast Guard builds its proposed radar installation. This will lead to an acute freshwater shortage, significant human presence and disturbance. The project is intended for India's security needs. But this idea of security leaves out many other aspects of security that India needs to ensure to be a stable entity. Such security is not rooted in defence but in environmental sustainability.

What threatens India today? We are experiencing an extraordinary battle over natural resources. From hundreds of villagers who fight corporate houses to tense inter-state water conflicts, water, land and access to the commons by the poor is an increasing source of violent conflict. State failure to provide health, education, food and opportunity has resulted in the take over of over a third of India by the Maoists, seeking alternatives to what people are stuck with. Pollution is so high, India is streaked with cancer belts, resulting in economic and manpower loss.

Literacy is so low, un-employable youth is a real fear. And a completely perverse sense of development has devastated rich bio-diversity hotspots. A proposed power plant near Tadoba, a rich tiger reserve, dams in the fragile North East and industrial scale activities along Orissa's coasts, where the Olive Ridley turtles once bred en masse, are only the tip of the iceberg. We're losing our natural wealth by assuming it is irrelevant to our security and well-being. Certainly, international political terrorism is a threat, but it is not the most severe obstacle to our survival. Recall the evidence that now shows the Harappan Civilization died out not due to invasions but environmental factors.

The Narcondam Hornbill's fate is germane to this more robust idea of security and defence. The isolated Narcondam Island, cut off from the larger sub-continent has barely been explored. We don't know the rich gene pool it stores, the wealth of diversity it contains, apart from this unique bird. We don't even know how the devastation of the Hornbill-a certainty if the RADAR is built-will impact this incredibly delicate eco-system. All we know, from several sources, is that the value of ecosystem services is estimated at twice the world's GNP.

We're clueless about what knowledge will be lost to us forever, but then, should we allow this loss? Letting the bird, and its ecosystem wither way will be against the spirit India's own claim to be a knowledge power. Should we not defend this knowledge base? Is there no moral imperative to prevent a species from becoming extinct? Would you throw away any single piece of jewelry in your locker? Every species we threaten reduces the robustness of human life itself.

For all these reasons, the Narcondam Hornbill's case is an open and shut one, every way we look at it. For the country's larger security, that radar project must be scrapped.

Bharati Chaturvedi is director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group

The views expressed by the author are personal