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India's environment: crises and responses.

India's Environment: Crises and Responses,

A second work, India's Environment: Crises and Responses, concentrates on forests, water resources, agriculture, genetics, voluntary organizations, cultural responses, and legislation. The first part ("The Crises") ends with an essay on urban ecosystems that is full of penetrating insights and crystal-clear formulations of startling validity. The second part ("The Responses") has an inspiring contribution by Sunderlal Bahuguna, the legendary leader of the "Chipko (Save Himalaya's Forests) Movement," on the direct action the poor can take to halt the ecological disasters caused by the rapacious rich. This book makes significant and valuable additions to the analyses of several aspects of India's econlogical crises and on the pssible responses to it by both governmental and nongovernmental agencies. I found it particularly strong on forests, water resources, and legislation.

About thirty-five years ago, one fourth of India's geographical area was dense natural forest (75 million out of a total of 305 million hectares). Today the figure is one-tenth, and forest land being depleted at the rate of 1.5 million hectares per year. Over the same period, the area afforested was less than 6 million hectares, almost all of it in monocultures of eucalyptus, teak, and chir pine. The remaining natural forest is highly concentrated in four areas: parts of the Himalayas, the mountain chain along the western coast of the Deccan peninsula (the Western Ghats), the central state of Madhya Pradesh, and the eastern state of Assam; vast areas of the country have virtually no natural forest left. Tracing the reasons behind this massive depletion, Vohra says:

There is no doubt that by far the greatest damage to forest resources has been caused by the inexorable pressures to satisfy the increasing demands which a developing economy creates for timber, pulpwood, firewood, and other forestry products. The satisfaction of these demands at continuously rising price levels by means of illegal and unauthorized felling proved to be a highly lucrative affair that soon attracted political patronage in much the same way as smugglers and other economic offenders have done.... Formidable mafias based on a triangular alliance between the corrupt bureaucrat, the corrupt politician, and the corrupt businessman emerged in all states and became a most powerful threat to the conservation of the country's tree cover.

The destruction of forests in the catchment areas of the major river systems has caused, and is continuing to cause, floods, soil erosion, and soil degradation of vast proportions during the annual monsoon season. A conservative estimate of the soil erosion rate is 12,000 million tons per year!

One consequence of clearfelling in the river catchment areas is the alternation of floods and droughts, both caused by the soil's inability to retain water once the forests are gone: water from the monsoon rains rushes into the river valleys with great force, causing devatating floods, but after the passage of the monsoon the rivers dry up because the catchment soil has not conserved water to release gradually. As Jayal points out. "The flood-prone areas had doubled by 1980 to 40 million from 20 million hectares in 1971, and the constantly expanding drought-prone areas now cover 59 million hectares." Until very recently the Indian government's response to these two interlinked problems was not one of flood prevention through forest conservation and reforestation, but flood control through dams. This solution reveals not only glaring ignorance among the decision-makers about cause and effect, but also an arrogant refusal to heed the warnings of those experts who had cautioned against indiscriminate dam building. Dunu Roy describes how instead of solving the problem, the "solution" has further aggravated it:

With increased siltation loads, reservoirs behind the dams began to fill up and dam capacities lessened. Consequently, dams had to discharge greater quantities of water than designed, leading to further flooding. Secondly, the silt began to settle in river beds as it was prevented from spreading into surrounding farmland because of embankments. Thus river beds slowly became even higher (and level with the surrounding area) and floods took on an even greater magnitude.... Thirdly, the land beyond embankments could no longer drain into the river and so became marshy and saline. In sum, the intervention by humans to control floods led to even greater environmental degradation as ecosystems had not been understood properly.

Ever since the early 1950s the government has indulged in a dam-building spree as the panacea for shortages of irrigation water and electricity. But now the consequences of this approach are becoming apparent. Jayal writes, "10 million hectares of canalirrigated land have become waterlogged and another 25 million hectares are threatened with salinity.... The rich alluvial plains of Punjab and Haryana suffer seriously from desertification induced by introductions of excessive irrigation water to make the green revolution farming possible." The government has now admitted that "in spite of the large investment made in the irrigation sector and the phenomenal growth of irrigation during the past thirty years, the returns from the investment, both in terms of yield as well as finance, are very disappointing. On the other hand, the states are losing more than U.S. $400 million per year on these irrigation projects."

But obviously the government either does not learn from its horrendous past mistakes, or does not care about what happens to the victims if these mistakes are repeated, as its approval of the nightmarish Narmada River Valley project in central India testifies. As currently conceived, this project comprises "329 large dams, 450 medium-sized structures, and several thousand minor structures" across the 1,300 km-long Narmada and its tributaries, and is supposed to result in "several million hectares of land irrigated, water supply to thousands of industries and households, several thousands of megawatts of power" and at a cost that is likely to reach U.S. $2.3 million by the time the project is completed sometime in the next century. If and when completed, the project will submerge 375,000 hectares of one of India's last concentrations of dense natural forest, forcibly uproot and move about 1 million people from their homes in the submerged area, destroy rare and invaluable flora and fauna, alter the regional climate, and initiate an ecological catastrophe whose dimensions can only be guessed at.

Indian industry has grown phenomenally over the last thirty years, both in volume and diversity of production. This applies as much to modern manufacturing as to mining and thermal electrical power generation. It is geographically concentrated in the areas around twently cities in about ten states, and, in the case of mining, to a few districts in the states of Bihar, Orissa, and West Bengal. These industrial cities and mining districts are now ravaged by the pollutants and poisons pumped into the air, the water courses, and the soil by the factories, mines, and thermal power stations. Their environments contain unacceptably high concentrations of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, acid rain, benzopyrene, heavy metals, and trace elements, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, manganese, vanadium, flourine, and berylium. The State of India's Environment points out that "the chairman of the Central Board for the Prevention and Control of Water Pollution said in a newspaper interview in June 1984 that out of 48 thermal power plants surveyed, 31 had taken no pollution control measures. The pollution control equipment was functioning adequately in only six out of seventeen plants which had installed it." Buch quite rightly castigates the whole of Indian industry for "its utter disregard for social responsibility."

Soon after independence (1947), the government of India decided to invest heavily in electricity generation through nuclear power reactors and associated research and development. Ever since their inception, the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), which come directly under the prime minister's office and are directly accountable to him, have enjoyed immense political power. DAE has been able to command very large economic resources, cut rapidly through the red tape that under normal circumstances paralyzes almost all government organizations, freely import foreign nuclear technology, and rapidly train hundreds of Indian scientists and engineers to top-level capacity in the nuclear field. The first atomic power station, which went into operation in 1969 at Tarapur, was built as a turnkey project by two U.S. companies, General Electric, and Bechtel, with U.S. financial and technical assistance. Since the completion of the two Tarapur nuclear power reactors in the state of Maharashtra (TAPS I and II), three more reactors, all heavily dependent on Canadian technology, have been brought on stream--two in Kota in Rajasthan (RAPS I and II) and one at Kalpakkam near Madras in Tamil Nadu (MAPS I)--while five more are still under construction. The combined installed capacity of the five completed reactors is 1,095 megawatts, which is only about 2.5 percent of India's total electrical power capacity. They are all plagued by great operational and safety difficulties and are working substantially below capacity (on average about 50 percent). For instance, RAPS I was shut down in 1982 following the discovery of cracks in the end shields and has not yet been reopened. Through press reports and commissions of inquiry, it is now clear that the Indian nuclear power reactors pose an environmental hazard of rightening proportions, both actual and potential. The case of Tarapur, the "jewel of the Indian nuclear crown," illustrates the dangers to which workers and the environment have been subjected. To quote from The State of India's Environment:

On May 9, 1983, The Times of India carried a front page report which claimed that workers at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS) had been subjected to radiation exposures much in excess of the permissible levels. The report claimed that the Tarapur plant had broken "several world records" in radioactive pollution and exposed more than 300 men to does exceeding the 5 rems limit. On May 12, Homi Sethna, then chairman of IAEC, called a press conference. He did not deny the substance of the report or the specific details of exposure mentioned in it.

By 1980, the number of failures, emergencies, and accidents at TAPS had totalled 344; by 1985 an average of five such "unusual occurrences" were taking place every month. In 1980, in order to contain an accident in TAPS which could have easily escalated to a core meltdown, it was imperative to retrieve an "ice plug" of liquid hydrogen from the reactor floor. "The DAE got hold of unskilled and illiterate laborers from a nearby village, and made them get into the highly radioactive water in order to retrieve the plug. No one knows what radioactivity doeses the men received, but it is reasonable to conclude that they must have been very high." "TAPS is 200 to 500 times [radioactively] dirtier and more expensive in human-rem terms than the minimally acceptable hazardous nuclear reactor."

Given the abysmal sfety record of the Indian nuclear power reactor program, the hazard posed by the proposed Narora atomic power station which is situated on the banks of the Ganga River in the state of Uttar Pradesh, on an earthquake-prone site with no stable rock foundation and a water table only 4 meters below ground level, defies the imagination. If an accident occurred at Narora, the Ganga would become highly radioactive (in addition to its already being one of the most heavily chemically polluted rivers in the world) and the hundreds of millions of people who live along its banks would be at risk, to put it mildly.

What then can be done to halt India's environmental devastation? At an absolute minimum, much more research and publication activity along the lines of the two excellent books under review is needed. However, without vigorous and positive intervention by the central and state governments, and willingness to use this knowledge to save what is left of the Indian environment, the future looks very bleak. Fortunately, in a democracy like India, with a multitude of political, economic, social, and cultural forces available for mobilization, the people of various social classes can act together to exert intense pressure on the government and the ruling classes.

The peoples' campaigns have successfully halted the further deforestation of parts of the Himalayas and the Western Ghats (the Chipko and Appiko movements), stopped the dam-building projects at Silent Valley, Lalpur, Bedthi, and Vishnuprayag, and moved the petrochemical complex away from a site near Bombay, thus demonstrating what can be done by "people without power" when they organize to protect their immediate environment. Such peoples' campaigns, assisted by socially concerned scientists, community leaders, journalists, and administrators, need to be launched and sustained all over India. There are signs that this is beginning to happen, as witness the many voluntary and non-governmental organizations which have come to life across the Indian subcontinent in the last ten years.

The crux of the environmental question in India (and other countries as well) is ably formulated by Anil Agarwal:

It is the poor who are affected the most by environmental destruction. The field experience of voluntary groups confirms that without the rational management of our environment and that conversely environmental destruction will only intensify poverty. Environmental destruction goes hand in hand with social injustice.... The rich are small in proportion but they consume a very large proportion of the world's resources and seem to be steadily increasing their share. This group is no longer living on the resources of its ecosystem and depends on an extraordinarily extensive use of the world's natural resources.... The rich destroy the environment not only by their own consumption but also by forcing the poor into a situation where they survive only by overexploiting their environment.
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Author:Bhagavan, M.R.
Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1986
Previous Article:The economics of feasible socialism.
Next Article:The state of India's environment, 1984-85: the second citizen's report.

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