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Wednesday, Nov 13, 2019

Preserve nature. It’s our best bet for the future

It’s time to protect water courses, vegetation, and ensure that there are no heat islands, addition of aerosols

analysis Updated: Oct 13, 2019 19:25 IST
Madhav Gadgil
Madhav Gadgil
People protesting outside MMRCL office against building a making metro car shed inside Aarey Colony, Mumbai, September 13
People protesting outside MMRCL office against building a making metro car shed inside Aarey Colony, Mumbai, September 13(Satyabrata Tripathy/HT Photo)
         

Abutting Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), the only area of wilderness in any Indian city, is the Aarey Milk Colony (AMC). It is a part of the once-malarial, sparsely-populated region, which retains its substantial natural forest cover. Even though it was recorded as a wasteland, it was covered by a robust deciduous forest, rich in wildlife. The adjacent hills now constitute the SGNP. The AMC was established in 1949 to shift the cattle out of the city. Of the total area, 160 hectares were set aside to grow fodder and erect cattle sheds. The remaining portion has been leased at various times to different organisations, and trees were cut without provoking protests.

What then has changed? Why are we seeing protests against the felling of trees, and the unseemly haste with which the government has decided to decimate the forest cover? The mood of people has changed with the growing frequency of natural disasters, including floods and landslides that killed 1,673 people during this year’s monsoon. People are no longer buying the argument that this is the inevitable cost of development, aimed at improving the quality of life. They are beginning to conclude that the world is reaching a tipping point, and if the business-as-usual attitude continues, we could be helping to precipitate a catastrophe.

Is there adequate evidence then that environmental degradation is aggravating the difficulties that we are facing? The unequivocal answer is, yes. The world is getting warmer, with more water vapour in the air, leading to more frequent and intense rainfall. Even more significant are effects at the local level. Vapour in the air condenses when there is an updraft, when sea winds hit the Western Ghats. Elsewhere, air rises when the ground heats up. This happens wherever original vegetation is replaced by the cement and concrete of cities and highways. Moreover, India has the world’s highest levels of aerosols. As water vapour in the air, laden with aerosols condenses, it initially forms a myriad small water droplets. These then coalesce to form larger heavy water drops that lead to intense rain over short periods. Such rain leads to more ferocious floods, and increased chances of landslides, of breaching of bunds, and the collapse of buildings.

The severity of the consequences also depends on the ground cover. This was clearly demonstrated in case of landslides in the Wayanad district in Kerala. The affected areas had been stripped of the natural evergreen forest to be replaced with plantations. In such locations, only the trees belonging to flagship species of natural forest with their strong network of roots stood their ground, while others were swept awaty. So, the claim that we would make up the loss of cutting down 2,000 trees from the catchment area of Mumbai’s Mithi river by planting 20,000 trees elsewhere is untenable. Similar ridiculous claims have been made while cutting down mangroves that protect the sea coast, and serve as nurseries for fish. The compensatory planting of exotic species such as like Glyrecidia in some dry tracts in no way compensates for the ecological functions of the original vegetation.

Another untenable claim is that the metro rail is the right solution for the problem of air pollution. For metro rail to make any real dent, there should be the promotion of a modal shift from the use of private automobiles to the use of the metro rail. For this to happen, other government policies should also push such a shift. However, this has not happened, and is not likely to. All available data shows that the trend of more and more automobiles coming on to the city roads has continued, unaffected by the commissioning of the metro rail in Delhi and Bengaluru.

In Bengaluru, meticulous data on aerosols compiled during the construction and subsequent years of operation of the metro rail shows that the level of aerosol particles has been steadily increasing with each year by year, with the accompanying decline in air quality. Furthermore, while the rate of decline in air quality significantly increased during the metro construction phase, the trend of worsening of air quality continued unabated. There was no statistically detected signal of any halt in the downslide once the metro rail began functioning.

Clearly then, the claim that it is reasonable to inflict some damage, however limited, on the environment for the metro project is unjustified. A significant conclusion of the Bengaluru study of air quality was that the worst victims of increasing respiratory disorders during the metro construction phase were children.

We must now think out-of-the-box and embrace new policies. These should incorporate some of the following elements: No further disturbance of water courses anywhere in the country; no further disturbance to any of the remaining natural vegetation anywhere in the country; no further growth of urban heat islands; and no further addition of aerosols to our atmosphere.

Madhav Gadgil, Emeritus Scientist, National Centre for Cell Science, S.P. Pune Unviersity
The views expressed are personal