Environment days come and go
But our blighted towns remain
And our stinking rivers flow.
Solemn declarations do we make
But they cannot change our fate.
While styles of lives are at fault
We fool ourselves by talk and talk
No lasting solution would we find
Unless we have a revolution in our mind.
Having watched the contemporary scene from the days of the Stockholm Conference (1972), I had penned the above lines on this year'sWorld Environment Day (June 5) which has just passed and was observed with usual fanfare. Instead of going through another ritual, it may have been better to take a stock of the situation and ponder over the fundamental reasons for the current paradoxes and perplexities and chalk out a new course for the future.
After the appearance of two path-breaking publications?Rachel Carson'sSilent Spring and the Club of Rome'sLimits to Growth?a realisations dawned upon a large section of the international community, that ?nations? farms, factories and vehicles? were turning into ?seed-beds of pollution? and causing rapid deterioration of environment all over the world. To deliberate upon the issue, a high-level United Nations Conference was held at Stockholm in 1972. Many Heads of Governments attended it. Smt Indira Gandhi was one of them. It was here that she made her famous observation: ?Poverty is the worst pollutant?, adding a new dimension to the issue.
Soon after the Conference, the United Nations Environment Programme was founded and hundreds of conferences, seminars and symposia were held on the subject all over the world. In 1983, Brundtland Commission was set up. In its report published under the title, Our Common Future, the Commission recommended a pattern of sustainable development. In June 1992, the UN Conference in Rio de Janeiro created a record in the massiveness of its attendance and publicity. Agreements on important issues were arrived at and Agenda 21 was drawn up for sustainable development. Then came the World Summit on Social Development (1995) Habitat II (1996) and host of other conferences on allied items?water, sanitation, soil, forestry, climate change, etc.
But what has been the net outcome of all these conferences? Paradoxically, more people are now living in absolute poverty, more are inhabiting stinking slums, more elements of life-support systems are under stress, more eco-systems are on decline, more species are facing extinction and more ominous looks the spectre of climate change than when the aforesaid conferences were held. That is why some critics have dubbed UN Conferences as ?festivals of hypocrisy?. In fact, these conferences could be likened to a mythical road on which the traveller moves two steps forward only to find that his destination has receded by four steps.
Take, for example, the Water and Sanitation Decade of mid-1970s and 1980s. During this Decade, national governments and international agencies committed themselves to ?making safe-water and sanitation accessible to all by 1990?. But, even today, that is, after 17 years of the deadline, 2.4 billion people of the world have no facility of sanitation and 1.7 billion of clean water. Likewise, the United Nations Conferences on Habitats, commencing from Vancouvre Conference of 1976, have been passing resolution after resolution, affirming their resolve to rid the world of slums and squatters settlements. But, all the while, these settlements have been multiplying. They now house a population of a billion people. A UNEP report, as recent as February 2007, reveals that rain forests in Indonesia and Malaysia are being cut at such a fast rate that in another 15 years, 98 per cent of them would be lost, resulting in increased greenhouse gas emissions to the extent of 20 per cent. All this is happening at a time when top level experts and international agencies have been warning repeatedly about the grave damage that could be caused by the climate change. The number of environmental refugees is already nearing 50 million. Bio-diversity losses, too, were sought to be reversed by 2010. But the recent data shows that the wind is blowing in the opposite direction. Today, about 60 per cent of the eco-systems are on decline and two out of five species, including a quarter of all mammals, are under threat of extinction.
On the last World Water Day?March 22?it was estimated that by 2025 about two-thirds of the world population would have to struggle hard to get adequate water. Even now, over one billion people have no option but to drink polluted water, the consequences of which cause death of about 3.5 of them every year. The Millennium Development Goals (2000) notwithstanding, 3,900 children die every day on account of water borne diseases.
The conditions in India, despite the much adumbrated rate of growth in the post-1991 period, are as distressing as in other developing countries. Almost all our rivers have virtually become sewers. Ganga, an epitome of our civilisation and a life-line of our economy, is one of the ten large rivers of the world which, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, are dying. Along with it would die the Ganga basin and the great Sunderbans delta which, besides serving as a home for the Royal Bengal tiger, nurses a good part of India'srich biodiversity?289 terrestrial, 219 aquatic, 1,276 fish and 31 crustacean species. Yamuna is even more sick than Ganga. Even during the period of operation of the Yamuna Action Plan, from 1993 onwards, its biochemical oxygen demand-load has been increasing. At Delhi, it is now little more than a poisonous gutter.
What is equally scary, the main source of water, the Himalayan glaciers have been receding at an alarming rate. During the period, 1971-2004, this recession occurred at an average rate of about 18 metres per annum. The water for irrigation is also running out fast. The International Water Management Institute has observed that in this arena, India is presently ?experiencing a colossal anarchy?. The Indian farmers are draining out their water resources with reckless abandon, ?certainly destroying their children'sfuture, if not their own.?
In the urban areas, poverty and pollution have become dominant features of urban life. A recent World Bank study has revealed that unhealthy urban environment are causing about 40,000 pre-mature deaths in four major Indian cities.
Undoubtedly, there has been a marked improvement in certain areas. The Green Belt Campaign which aims at planting one billion trees, under the leadership of Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dr Wangari Maatha, is an example of outstanding success in improving environment and arresting desertification of African lands. The other good example is of development of scores of city-forests in Delhi, under its First Master Plan, such as Hauz Khas, Tughlakabad, Siri. The city'senvironment have also seen dramatic improvement consequent to the introduction of CNG fuel in its fleet of buses, under the orders of the Supreme Court which has been showing commendable activism in this area. But all such positive developments pale into insignificance when seen in the context of the mountains of problems that have arisen and are still arising.
(To be continued)
(The writer is a former Governor of Jammu & Kashmir and a former Union Minister.)