A new study published on Thursday revealed "massive concerns" about the long-term recovery of Australian forests from the devastating 2019-20 "Black Summer" bushfires.
The study, which was published by Australian National University (ANU) and Griffith University, warned that early signs of recovery from the fires could be deceiving, reports Xinhua news agency.
It found that the drought that preceded the 2019-20 bushfire season was so severe that it reduced forests' capacity for regrowth.
More than 18.6 million hectares of land, mostly on Australia's east coast, were burned by fires that raged for more than half a year.
"It's wonderful to see the green growth back in the forests," said co-author David Lindenmayer from ANU.
"But there are some underlying issues that are creating real problems and I have massive concerns about what we will see there in 20 years time."
"Our ecosystems have not been geared up to deal with the high frequency and severity of these disturbances. It's burning far too often now," he said.
"This century we've had three megafires (over 1 million hectares) on the east coast, in 2009, 2014 and 2020. But in the century before that there was one, and in the century before that we also just had one."
Forests in the northeast of Victoria and south of New South Wales (NSW) were hit hardest by the fires.
A forests' ability to recover from fires is largely dependent on big trees that produce a majority of seeds, pollen, flowers and nectar.
"There's a big risk now the wetter forests across huge swathes of Victoria and southern NSW won't be able to recover," Lindenmayer said.
The "Black Summer" fire season destroyed thousands of homes and claimed 33 lives, including nine firefighters.
Nearly 3 billion animals were also killed or displaced, and the fires harmed many threatened species and ecological communities.
Decision to give away 243 acres of Shivalik Elephant Reserve forest land for the expansion of Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun is a matter of grave concern, triggering a debate on development and environment
The Uttarakhand Government’s decision to give away 243 acres of Shivalik Elephant Reserve forest land for the expansion of Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun is a matter of serious concern which once again opens the debate on development and environment. The State Government, considering the development motives in terms of economic and technological growth, has taken the decision of using the forest land. The encroachment is predicted to harm a cluster of things, yet certain immediate observable damage can be cited like the loss of 10,000 trees which can’t be compensated, limiting the free movement of wild animals due to shrinkage of forest area. Moreover, the proposed, expanded airport will be under the 10 kilometres eco-sensitive zone of the Rajaji National Park.
Protesting against this decision, different polemics have been made, such as: Forest and wildlife are sources of revenue generation in the form of tourism and thus employment generation and this infringement will dismay the fragile ecosystem of Doon. Nonetheless, all these arguments seem to be repetitively ordinary and thus anthropocentric, on the account of human benefit. There is a need for deeper analysis, based on ethical concerns. Concerning the issue, the fundamental question needs to be raised at two different levels: How essential is to expand the airport and should environmentalists fight against this proposal for the well-being of humans or the well-being of the wilds or trees or for the entire environment itself?
On the first question, the necessity of the expansion of the airport in the name of development seems to be obscure. The Government’s developmental plans should encompass the views of native indigenous of the area where the plan is supposed to be executed. However, here this has been flouted. This leads to a further question on development for whom and at what cost? From a purely human-centric calculation cutting down of 10,000 trees doesn’t necessarily enhance the economic status of the local people. Moreover, one can imagine the level of pollution that would harm them in future because of the deforestation and so-called modernity. Often major invisible harm is disguised in minor visible benefit. A developmental plan of the rule of power is imposed following solely technocratic conditions that in turn lead to the agony of humans as well as animals. Thus, morality is brought to fight against the unjust planning. Humans, animals and plants become the victims of the development project and it is essential to ethically examine the means (plans) and ends (consequences) before processing to execute it. In doing so, the Government can get a path to develop a new way of governing through which universal welfare can be achieved.
The second-level question is underpinned on the protection of the environment. Defending the protest of local people let’s begin with invoking a stance of social ecologist in terms of “regional turn in environmental thinking” because as social ecologist L Mumford says a strong regional centre of culture can be “the basis of active and securely grounded local life”. The local life is a broader concept that includes humans, animals and plants, all of them create a niche to accommodate each other for their wellbeing. Thus, protesting at an individualistic level grounding on the ethical concern directing towards individuals only would not be beneficial because it precludes either one of them — humans or animals or trees. Further, if we fight against the Government’s decision to protect the forest for the wellbeing of humans, then the instrumental value is credited to the forest and thus the day is not far it to be used for a different purpose. Rejection of anthropocentric option paves a path to ascribe intrinsic value to the forest through which absolute protection of forest can be demanded. However, the ascription of intrinsic value is in question to whom it should be ascribed to individual animals or species/particular animal species or the entire ecosystem.
Supposed attribution of inherent value to individual animals precluding environment or to forest, excluding animals, leads to unpleasant consequences since both complement each other for their sustainability. Thus, there is a requirement for a holistic approach towards Doon’s valley to protect native indigenous and the forest. Implementation of an unexamined developmental project in the process of deforestation fails to satisfy all types of moral standards. Chopping thousands of trees and leaving innumerable animals homeless shows a lack of sense of “goodwill” and thus serves no adequate duties of humans towards the environment.
It also fails to bring an overall balance of good over evil — human suffering due to pollution and the scary behaviour of wild animals, as well as animals suffering due to the lack of food and dwelling place. Thus, this encroachment leads, in turn, to dire consequences. Furthermore, it prevents to show the virtuous character trait of the human. The conditions of flourishing human life are not necessarily limited within the intra-human species, it needs the ethical capability as well to consider the entire ecosystem as an end in itself.
Arguing in favour of destroying natural “wild”, which is not humanised, based on creating new forests through planting trees ignores the intrinsic value of natural wild which is unacceptable. Instead of being driven by the instrumental reason to achieve instant non-sacrosanct ends, we humans, including the Government, ought to do actions involving rules, rights, compassion, etc, to protect the environment, including ourselves.
(The writer is an Assistant Professor, Philosophy, Bengaluru Central University)
Under the Wildlife Institute of India-National Mission for Clean Ganga project ‘Planning and Management for Aquatic Species Conservation and Maintenance of Ecosystem Services in the Ganga River Basin for a clean Ganga’, Ganga River Dolphin Day was celebrated at six sites along the Ganga river namely, Bijnor, Brijghat, Prayagraj Varanasi, (Uttar Pradesh) Kahalgaon (Bihar) and Bandel (West Bengal). This is a joint venture of WII, NMCG and State Forest Departments, for sustainable tourism linking livelihood through dolphin conservation for ecotourism along the Ganga river. Every year 5th October is celebrated as Ganga River Dolphin Day as this day Ganga Dolphins were declared National Aquatic Animal.
On this occasion through a video message, Jal Shakti Minister, Shri Gajendra Singh Shekhawat congratulated the nation and informed that the population of Gagentic Dolphins has increased in recent years. He also appealed to the masses to join Dolphin conservation campaign while emphasizing the importance of biodiversity in rejuvenation of river Ganga.
The highlight of the celebration was the launch of the Ganga river Dolphin Jalaj Safaris by Shri. Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, Director General National Mission for Clean Ganga at Bijnor Barrage, Muzaffarnagar district, Uttar Pradesh. Shri Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, pointed out that such initiatives will go a long way in making the people aware of the biodiversity of Ganga river and importance of conserving our National Aquatic Animal. At the same time, the initiative will link local livelihood with Ganga conservation.
The Ganga Praharis in all the sites have been trained in biodiversity based eco-tourism and will take the tourist on boat rides to view Dolphin and other biodiversity present in the Ganga River.
“My Ganga My Dolphin” campaign was flagged off by World Wildlife fund and Uttar Pradesh Forest Department in association with NMCG. In this campaign, Dolphin census will be conducted in 250 km stretch from Bijnore to Narora, many community awareness campaigns will be carried out and young volunteers will be encouraged to enroll as Ganga Mitras. This Dolphin Day was an occasion to revive over all biodiversity of Ganga and not just Dolphins, to bring focus to this Shri Rajiv Ranjan Mishra also released three turtles at Hyderpur wetland and felicitated Ganga Mitras who are part of the initiative. Since 2012, UP Forest Department and WWF-India have been engaging with communities for identifying and rescuing turtle nests from riparian farmland. There was also discussion about making an interpretation center at Hyderpur and make it a Ramsar site.
Also, A Turtle’s Day Out, a story by Jeevanesh Sawhney and illustrations by Malika Arora was launched by Mr. Mishra at the event.
There has been noticeable improvement in the Dolphin population in Ganga river especially in the stretch from Bijnore to Narora. Local volunteers reported seeing many Dolphins in Ballia district during recent cleanliness and awareness drive on the eve of Gandhi Jayanti. Namami Gange mission is taking major steps to improve biodiversity of Ganga and her tributaries.
The Commissioner, Saharanpur, Shri Sanjay Kumar and Dr. Ruchi Badola, Scientist and Nodal Officer, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun were also present at the event.
In the midst of the pandemic, let us not forget about a disaster called human-driven climate change
Silicon Valley, home of many of the world’s most valuable companies, including Apple, Facebook and Google, woke up to some truly apocalyptic scenes. The blue sky had been replaced by an orange haze as wildfires burnt down some of the oldest temperate forests in the world and the US state of California reeled from the worst of such disasters in its history. The fires are so intense that they have now covered the length of the state and are spreading into the north as well, making this late summer the worst blaze season ever recorded. California is not unique. Earlier this year, the south-east Australian seaboard, where three-quarters of that nation’s population resides, literally went up in flames. Thus, two of the most famous bridges in the world, the Golden Gate in San Francisco and the eponymous Sydney Harbour Bridge, were both photographed with an orange background just a few months apart, highlighting how man-made disasters are taking a toll on the planet.
Make no mistake, while wildfires are a seasonal occurrence and many happen thanks to natural events like lightning strikes, the severity this time was caused by human activity. The irony of the California fires being started after fireworks went awry at a baby “gender reveal party” should not be lost upon the parents. The fires, the destruction of wildlife and the associated dumping of carbon into the atmosphere mean that those parents have made the planet a much worse place for their children. No matter what your opinion is on Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, the fact is that the girl does have a point. We are damaging the planet and despite efforts lasting several years, we are still damaging the planet, albeit slower than before but not by enough. Global climate change is real. There is less polar ice than ever before. The Himalayan glaciers that feed a tenth of all humanity are receding fast. The seasons are changing and extreme weather events are devastating parts of the world not just in terms of human lives but through livelihood loss. Yes, resolving the global Coronavirus pandemic should be humanity’s top priority today as should be preventing the next such pandemic from occurring. But we should not forget the clear and present danger that climate change continues to be for humankind. Our efforts towards lower emissions through renewables and less conspicuous consumption have to be made stronger. Else the next house being burnt down in a wildfire or drowned in a Biblical flood could well be yours.
A species checklist shows that fish, birds, amphibians and mammals have declined by 84 per cent since 1970
The Living Planet Report 2020 has set off warning bells about the state of the global environment, one that may impact our lives more severely than the pandemic. It seems that the price of our burgeoning population, unplanned and unthinking expansion, selfish consumerism, senseless overconsumption of natural resources and greed is being paid by different species that we are supposed to share the planet with. However, as compared to forest or marine species, it is the freshwater species that are at the highest risk because a gargantuan 85 per cent of the Earth’s wetlands are already lost. So fish, birds, amphibians and mammals have declined by a whopping 84 per cent globally since 1970, threatening one in three freshwater species with extinction. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London track the abundance of 20,811 populations representing 4,392 species based on a number of data sets available globally. But this edition has got to be their red alert finding. The report on India is pretty damning as the size of our wetlands has shrunk to 0.03 per cent of our total geographic area. Despite all the talk about protecting our water resources and raising awareness, nothing seems to have worked as the number of polluted river stretches went up to 351 in 2018 from 302 in 2016. As a result, there has been a decline in the population of endangered species such as the Gangetic dolphin.
Worryingly, there is a 94 per cent fall in the species survivability index in Latin America and the Caribbean, which, like us, are facing fragmentation by hydropower projects and abstraction of water. There has been a 45 per cent species decline in Asia and Australia. It is high time we begin taking our responsibility towards the environment seriously, if not for the sake of the creatures we are supposed to share it with but for our own selfish selves. Because we may force the hapless species that inhabit this Earth into a corner because of our careless actions but in the end we will have to pay with our lives too. Water, essential for life, will become scarcer if we continue to destroy our riverine systems, wetlands and oceans. As it is we have become a water-stressed world. As more species become extinct, we will face scarcity of food from animal sources and zoonotic diseases like the present Coronavirus and pandemics will become more frequent, killing millions of us each year while destroying the world economy. So it is up to us to decide if we want to continue on this path of self-destruction.
Yet another savage outcome of human-elephant conflict in Kerala must propel us to get our act together. If not, animals will perish along with the environment
The murder of a pregnant elephant, which died in the Velliyar river in Kerala’s Mannarkkad forest division in Palakkad district on May 27, must rank among the cruellest killings of animals ever. According to the post-mortem report, the immediate cause of her death was drowning. Before that, she could not eat or drink for nearly 14 days following an explosion in her mouth that inflicted major, incapacitating wounds in the oral cavity. “This”, the report reads, “resulted in excruciating pain and distress in the region and prevented the animal from taking food and water for nearly two weeks. Severe debility and weakness, in turn, resulted in a final collapse in water that led to drowning.”
According to Kumar Chellappan’s report in The Pioneer of June 6, the elephant was injured as she tried to eat a coconut that had been stuffed with explosives to kill wild boars that ate up crops. The report further stated that the police had arrested P Wilson, a tapper in a rubber plantation, the previous day and were looking for the plantation’s owners, Abdul Kareem and his son Riyazuddin, and had charged all three of them under various sections of the Kerala Forest Act and the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Wilson has reportedly admitted that he had filled a coconut with explosives and placed it in the plantation to kill wild boars that regularly devoured/destroyed crops. According to reports, Wilson, following interrogation, had taken police and forest department officials to a shed inside the plantation, where the explosives had been worked on, and some remnants were found. In the event, instead of a wild boar, an elephant bit into the fruit.
A word of caution. Before bursting into a round of applause for the police, one should remember that the accused are yet to be convicted and adequately sentenced. Since Indian elephants (Elephas maximus) feature in Part I (mammals), Schedule I, of the Wildlife Protection Act, their hunting “in a sanctuary or a national park” can lead to imprisonment of up to seven years and a “fine which shall not be less than ten thousand rupees.”
The award of the maximum punishment will depend on successful prosecution in courts, which, in turn, would depend on convincingly marshalling and weaving evidence into unfolding arguments. This implies thorough investigation and reflection thereon. This aspect needs to be emphasised as the Kerala Government’s and local bodies’ record in protecting animals and bringing their murderers and tormentors to book is by no means exemplary. In some cases, they are guilty of condoning or even sanctioning killing.
In fact, one wonders whether the Kerala Government would have ordered an investigation into the present case and made the kind of serious efforts it has to arrest the culprits, had the media not taken it up so strongly and waves of shock and anger not swept the country. Another female elephant had died in April in the Pathanapuram forest range area under Punalur division in Kollam district after trying to eat an explosive-laden fruit. It was, according to forest officers, treated adequately but in vain. The incident did not find any coverage in the national media until anger exploded over the pregnant elephant’s murder and was only mentioned in passing in a couple of reports even after that. An investigation has been ordered but nothing like the efforts made following the death of the pregnant elephant has been launched.
Poaching is rampant in the area. According to a report by Vinod Mathew in The Print (datelined June 5), 24 wild elephants have died of unnatural causes like poaching in the last five years in Kerala. If the Government was serious about stamping out the menace, it would have made recognisably determined efforts to bring the guilty to book in every case of elephant killing like the one in April. Besides, a telling commentary on the state of affairs in Kerala is the almost casual mention in several post-Palakkad death media reports that the explosive-laden coconut that killed the elephant was targetted at wild boars destroying crops.
Two points need to be made here. First, such savage killing of no animal can be justified. Second, the Kerala Government had permitted the killing of wild boars in May. The Print report cited above quotes Dr Asha Thomas, Additional Chief Secretary, Forest and Wildlife, Kerala Government, as saying, “There have been periodic demands from farmers that they be allowed to protect their crop and given the right to shoot wild boars. About a month ago, a Government order was issued that allowed the shooting of wild boars, subject to a number of clauses.” The clauses, according to her, included “certification by the local authorities that an area is suffering crop loss on account of sustained attack by wild boars and so on.” She added, “And once the permission is granted, only someone from an empanelled group of licenced firearm owners would be allowed to shoot. So far we have had only one such case.”
P Wilson, who allegedly stuffed explosives in the coconut that killed the pregnant elephant, as well as the two other accused in the case, Abdul Kareem and Riyazuddin, had, if the allegations against them are correct, either not heard about the conditions governing the killing of wild boars or thought these could be ignored with impunity. One needs hardly to be surprised if the latter has been the case. According to a report in the NDTV (June 5) by Sneha Mary Koshy (edited by Deepshikha Ghosh), villagers in the region often used firecrackers or explosives stuffed in food to protect their fields from wild animals like boar and the horrific practice had been widely condemned. Obviously, however, such condemnation had not led to deterrent punishments of the kind that would have halted the three accused in their tracks.
It is certainly important to protect crops. The need to do so, however, can also be cited as an excuse. A report by Adam Withnall in The Independent of the United Kingdom datelined June 5 quotes Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of the NGO Wildlife SOS, as saying that farmers continued to use “crude and inhumane” methods like fruit bombs “on the pretext of crop protection… despite crop compensation schemes available from the forest department”. According to a report by Shaji Phillips in The Indian Express of June 6, the Mannarkkad range forest officer, Ashique Ali U, in charge of probing the Palakkad killing case, said that the accused were in the habit of hunting wild animals and selling their meat. This, if true, would junk any claim that they were trying to protect their crops.
There are multiple reasons for growing elephant-human conflict. In many cases, humans are guilty of wanton provocation. This is clear from a report, datelined May 18, 2019, by Birdie Witten in the Mirror, the United Kingdom, which was brought to the notice of this writer by Sonia Jabbar, who runs a successful elephant conservation programme in North Bengal. The report is about a mother elephant, which had given birth near the dry bed of a lake, trying to get her newborn baby to stand, while a crowd of villagers watched and took photographs. Increasingly indicating her irritation through movements, she finally charged at the crowd as the latter started throwing stones at her and killed a 27-year-old man. Ten other elephants appeared in the area shortly afterwards, causing panic.
This incident happened in West Bengal. Kerala is not the only State where elephants are maltreated. In the last couple of days, three elephants were apparently poisoned to death in Chhattisgrah. Such crimes are becoming increasingly frequent throughout the country because human encroachment into animal habitats is growing, thanks to a swelling population. It is not just new farms and human settlements but the entire range of projects — roads, rail tracks, power transmission lines, mines, industrial plants — undertaken in the name of a skewed concept of development catering to advertisement-driven compulsive consumption. Animals will perish and the environment ruined if the process continues unreformed. Finally, with their supportive linkages of life forms gone, humans will face extinction.
(Writer: Hiranmay Karlekar; Courtesy: The Pioneer)
Wildlife parks across India have been told to keep a close watch on tiger clusters and report any abnormal behaviour
As if the human dimension of the crisis was not enough, turns out the zoonotic Coronavirus is now affecting the animal world and is jumping from its human host. Sometime ago, Hong Kong had reported the case of a dog owner passing on the virus to his pet which died. But reports were contradictory, claiming that the dog could have also died of old age. Be that as it may, the virus strain, which has been traced genetically to a pangolin at a wildlife market in China, is now jumping from humans to other animals. Following reports that a tiger at Bronx Zoo in New York tested COVID-19 positive because of his asymptomatic handler, India, too, has kept its zoos, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves on the “highest” alert, asking authorities to watch the big cats on a 24x7 basis for any abnormal behaviour and take “immediate preventive measures to stop transmission and spread of the virus from human to animals and vice versa.” With 2,967 tigers, India is currently home to 75 per cent of the global tiger population. Of course, the national lockdown has meant that there is no tourist traffic at our sanctuaries but forest and zoo staff would have to be particularly careful about not spreading the virus in case one among them is remotely affected. Just two days ago, there were reports of how inmates of the Delhi zoo were feeling spirited and free without human spectators. Reports have come in of how penguins had been let loose to meet their other aquatic friends at a US water park. Perhaps, this is a reminder for us that we need to leave the animals in the wild as our proximity to them now is threatening their existence. In fact, the rapid inter-species jump of the virus in such a short time indicates how lethal it can become in threatening existence as we knew it.
This news has predictably sent alarm bells ringing across the globe, especially among pet owners, wondering if they should stay away from their furry friends in case of an infection. The standard distancing protocols hold good for animals as well. But then there is another fear of pets getting infected somehow externally and transmitting the virus to their owners, which has already resulted in a lot of pet abandonment in the US. The Bronx zoo went so far as to say that there is “no evidence that animals play a role in the transmission of COVID-19 to people other than the initial event in the Wuhan market, and no evidence that any person has been infected with COVID-19 in the US by animals, including by pet dogs or cats.” The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention has also claimed that there is no evidence of a pet anywhere in the world transmitting COVID-19 to a person, a fact corroborated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), too. The outbreaks happening now are the result of people passing the virus to one another. Also, various pets have reacted differently to an infection of their owners. Turns out it was in Hong Kong again that one pet was infected by his owner but another dog living in the same home didn’t. More pet cats have been affected though. In fact, they might be more susceptible to COVID-19 than dogs, according to one study conducted in China. As part of experiments, researchers placed infected domestic cats next to cats that were not infected. The researchers later found that one of the previously healthy cats caught the virus after being near the infected felines, most likely through respiratory droplets. Dogs in the study, on the other hand, seemed to be more resistant to the virus and did not pass it to one another. There was no evidence that the cats shed enough of the virus to give it to people. But the study has not been reviewed and had a very limited sample size. Besides, they were given high doses of the virus and all the human-transmitted cases of pets have shown a weakened strain. These are not real life scenarios, according to virologists. At the moment, it is only us who are posing a threat to the animal world. Looks like the animals we claimed and confined on our terms need to be freed from ourselves.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)
Wild animals straying into city streets during the lockdown show how we have stifled our biodiversity
They say the Coronavirus is Nature’s way of reclaiming its space on its terms for all the degradation of its splendour and resources by humans. So cities across India, that are at a standstill, with no vehicles or people across vast swathes, are witnessing unfamiliar sights of wild animals straying from the natural sanctuaries they have sought out around the peripheries. From Italy to Japan to Thailand and even in India, the roads, that perhaps were once their transit corridors, are now part of their return journeys. In Japan, herds of sika deer, that you got to see only at the tourist hotspot called Nara Park, were seen wandering the streets. In Italy, one of the worst-hit countries by COVID-19, people spotted sheep and horses wandering around without a shepherd or rider. In Spain, more wild boars are having a free run in quiet, deserted streets. Back home, too, there are plenty of videos of animals frolicking on city roads. In Punjab’s Chandigarh, a sambar deer was seen walking on a zebra crossing. And in northern Kerala’s Kozhikode, the critically endangered civet, a species not seen since the 1990s, casually strolled past police patrol. Closer home, in Noida, nilgais are literally wandering the street in front of an otherwise busy mall. In the mornings, the twitter of the heron, the mynah and unseen birds soothes our souls.
While the wild animals may be testing newer territories, most of the urban species like street dogs, cats, monkeys and stray cows are not having it so good. Dependent on food waste generated by eateries and restaurants and home clearances limited in a time of crisis, these creatures are going hungry. Except for some samaritans, city animals and birds have been forced to fend for themselves foraging in garbage dumps. They are also a vulnerable lot as they could get the virus from humans instead. We cannot ignore them as they are part of our eco-system too. This is our wake-up call, for co-existence, co-dependence and the dire need to reverse our relationship with the sentient world. We care little for the natural world though ancient texts tell us about protecting and nurturing every creature or jiva, not exploiting them selfishly. Can a Coronavirus-free world ensure that endangered species do not go extinct? Can we limit indiscriminate human action that is causing much damage to the entire ecosystem and biodiversity? Can our cities develop mini sanctuaries and forests within them so that the animal world can thrive? Predatory food chain behaviour is not working, we must change that to accommodating the lesser species for our well-being.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)
The Finance Commission must be lauded for including forest cover in the mix for allocation of tax resources. States must respect this and do their bit in conserving it
One of the keys to improving Centre-State relations and ensuring development is even-handed and judicious distribution of tax revenue and other forms of earning between the federal and State Governments. The Finance Commission of India is a unique constitutional body that is periodically set up under Article 280 of the Constitution to define financial relations between the Central and State Governments. It lays down a set of principles that determines the method and formula for the distribution of tax proceeds between both Governments.
A majority of the taxes such as Customs duty, income tax, service tax and Central excise are collected by the Centre. States were given the mandate to provide economic and social services to the people. They are empowered to levy income tax on agricultural earnings, professional tax, value added tax (VAT), State excise duty, land revenue and stamp duty. Hence, the Finance Commission was created to address issues of vertical and horizontal imbalances of federal finances in India.
The 15th Finance Commission, which was established to decide on the devolution of taxes and other receipts to the Centre and States for the next five years beginning April 2020, submitted its recommendations before the Central Government last December. The Commission used the population data of 2011 while making its recommendations and for the first time, in addition to income distance, population and area and forest cover, it used two additional factors — demographic performance and tax effort — to determine the tax pool of States.
The Commisson’s usage of the 2011 population figures gave rise to considerable controversies. While the 14th Finance Commission had taken the 1971 census as the base with a weightage of 17.5 per cent and assigned a weightage of 10 per cent to the 2011 population figures, the present one has kept the weightage of 2011 population at 15 per cent and has given additional 12.5 per cent to demographic performance. The use of 2011 data has benefitted some States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar while others have been disadvantaged.
Most States in southern India, except Tamil Nadu, feel that they are suffering because of their policy of population control. They believe they will get a smaller share of the pie if the population dispensation is applied. However, according to the Economic Survey, 2016, inter-State labour mobility averaged 5-6.5 million people between 2001 and 2011, yielding an inter-State migrant population of about 60 million and an inter-district migration as high as 80 million. Apart from the southern States, Assam, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab and West Bengal, too, saw a dip in population compared to the 1971 census. The 15th Finance Commission was critical of the Union and State Governments’ tendency to finance spending through off-budget borrowings, too. On this front, it called upon both to phase out off-budget liabilities.
Irrespective of the surrounding controversies, the Commission made it clear that it wants to play a key role in fostering sustainable development. It must be noted that the 14th Commission had accepted it as a criterion to determine the share of taxes to various States. This is why “forest cover” was assigned 7.5 per cent weightage. The 15th Finance Commission sought to raise the area cover to 10 per cent in order to reward States that have “provided ecological services” to the country.
However, it is distressing that none of the States has been liberal in granting funds to the forest department commensurate to the contribution the forests have made in getting funds. The enhancement of funds to States — from 7.5 per cent to 10 per cent — if implemented, can go a long way in protecting the country’s ecological frontiers. This can also lead to the economic well-being of the people and the country and help consolidate forest resources as well.
The importance of the maintenance of forest-like buildings and roads was first recognised by the 13th Finance Commission, which earmarked Rs 1,000 crore and called upon the States to manage ecology, environment and climate change, consistent with sustainable development. This fund was kept at the disposal of the Government of India and was released to States on a project basis. This helped a great deal in maintaining forests across the country.
However, the actual spending on forests by States, after the 14th Finance Commission grants, has not been very encouraging when compared to the intention of the criterion to strengthen forest cover base. The State of Forest Report 2019 released by the Forest Survey of India recorded a marginal increase of 5,188 sq km in total forest and tree cover in the country. However, it gave a dismal picture in tribal areas (where the forest cover has gone down by 741 sq km). With regard to the disappearance of higher girth class trees in forests due to poor regeneration and protection, the report, if examined critically, indicates the urgent need to spend money on natural forests. Yet another important issue that needs to be dealt with is to address the concern of States, which have less forest cover. We need to step up efforts to cover more areas through agroforestry, farm forestry, block plantations, urban and peri-urban forestry among other efforts.
Efficient fiscal management goals of the Commission cannot be achieved unless we have an effective monitoring system in place. The 15th Finance Commission should follow the pattern of the 13th Finance Commission, which recommend inter alia that a portion of the divisible pool of tax within the forest criterion should be retained with the Government of India to be sanctioned by the Ministry of Finance and Environment, Forest and Climate Change, for the maintenance of forests.
It would be appropriate to ensure third-party monitoring of the use of the grant to States so that misuse or arbitrary or unauthorised use of the funds can be checked. Further, for monitoring and evaluation of the works undertaken through the Finance Commission Awards, States should opt for certification of forests. This can help promote sustainable forest management and at the same time provide space for international markets for procurement of forest products.
Further, the Commission should put a complete ban on the freebie culture of politicians, who are more interested in votebank politics. If need be, it must ask the Government to amend the Constitution. The Prime Minister must think about curbing the freebie culture sooner than later. At the same time, the Election Commission must ensure political consensus on this. A group of retired forest officers had sought time from the Chairman of the Finance Commission to submit a memorandum on these issues so that the Commission’s own recommendations lead to desired effects on the country’s economy and on conservation of forests, water and bio-diversity. A forest governance policy must pay attention to the multiple ways in which our green cover is valuable.
(Writer: VK Bahuguna; Courtesy: The Pioneer)
With shrinking habitats and a reduced prey base, translocating this cat species isn’t a good idea
Following the green signal by the Supreme Court, India will soon be reintroducing cheetahs into the wild by flying in the carnivore from Africa, over 50 years after the animal was declared extinct in the country in 1952. That it was a tragedy and a big loss to our biodiversity that we hunted and caged the beautiful animal into extinction, is undisputed. But the fact remains that the cheetah is the only big cat to have gone extinct in India. What is lost is lost. Now we need to focus on the other large carnivores that we still have and try and save them the best we can. And given our meagre resources, can we really afford to take on this project? We have 20 species that are on the brink, with the Asiatic lion, tigers, Indian wolf, the great Indian bustard, the Asian wild buffalo, Jerdon’s courser and the red panda being among them. Except for 50 reserves that come under Project Tiger, the allocation for all wildlife habitats and 21 endangered species was a mere `497 crore between 2017-20. Over 10 years ago, the cost of the cheetah project was estimated at `300 crore. So, where will we get the funds to conserve the cheetahs from? Will we rob the snow leopard of its chance of survival to pay for the cheetah’s reintroduction? Also, what is the guarantee that the exotic, yet very vulnerable cat, will be able to survive in India?
As it is, the number of cheetahs is on the decline globally with just 7,100 left in the wild, having been driven out of 91 per cent of their habitats. Asia has been the worst offender where its decimation is concerned. India’s last spotted cheetah died in 1947. There are less than 50 of them left in Iran and now the majority of this shy and secretive feline lives in six southern African countries. Have all the proponents of the idea of bringing the cheetah back thought why the animal is on the verge of becoming extinct elsewhere? It’s because this cat is hard to protect. Being the fastest animal in the world, cheetahs need a very wide range for hunting prey. So according to researchers, an estimated 77 per cent of a cheetah’s habitat would be outside protected zones, making it difficult to keep them safe from poachers, vehicular traffic and rural populations. This is also a very big impediment to monitoring its progress and well-being. This problem is further compounded by the man-animal conflict. India certainly doesn’t have the prey base or the ranges required for the survival of a translocated species. Unless we want the cheetah to die here, this idea doesn’t seem good enough.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)
At a time when there’s a drought of good news in the country, a report from Jharkhand that the construction of an airport has been halted to ensure the jumbo corridor isn’t affected is welcome
At the time of a drought of good news in the country, there comes one to celebrate. The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has halted the construction of an airport at the site of an abandoned World War-II airstrip near Jharkhand’s Dhalbhumgarh town. The reason? It would disrupt an elephant corridor used by 200 pachyderms.
The airport near Dhalbhumgarh was to be the first of 400-of-its-kind, which the Airport Authority of India proposes to build throughout the country. Its halting represents one of the rare occasions when a concern for animals has won out against a grandiose plan for so-called development. The disruption of the corridor would have forced the elephants to look elsewhere for passage, including urban and semi-urban areas, thus taking them to new places and creating new dangers of elephant-human conflict.
The resultant casualties would have had an adverse impact on Jharkhand’s elephants, whose numbers have been declining. From 772 in 2002, the figure came down to 624 in 2007. It increased to 688 in 2012 only to come down to 679 in 2017, according to the elephant census titled, ‘Synchronised elephant population estimation India 2017’, released on August 12 (World Elephant Day), that year.
The causes, related to conditions created by continuing human encroachment upon and activity in elephant habitats, include habitat loss, electrocution by contact with sagging and/or low-hanging high voltage transmission wires, running over by trains, conflicts with humans besides poaching, poisoning and old-age related medical problems. According to a report in May, 2017, 32 elephants had been killed by electrocution and 22 in train accidents in Jharkhand until then.
One hopes that the decision to stop the construction of the airport will not be reversed under pressure and will prove to the precursor of many similar decisions concerning all animals. Elephants, doubtless, need particular attention. They have been listed in Schedule One of the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972, which gives them the highest level of protection. Project Elephant was launched in 1992 to protect the Asian elephant (the category to which Indian elephants belong), its habitat and corridors and address the human-elephant conflict. The elephant was declared India’s National Heritage Animal on October 22, 2010.
Yet serious challenges remain. Almost all the factors adversely affecting elephants in Jharkhand apply to the species throughout India. The most important of these is habitat loss, caused principally by continuing human encroachment. This is clear from the Elephant Task Force’s report, Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India, submitted on August 31, 2010. Dwelling on how various elements contribute to habitat loss and the latter’s impact, it states, “Large developmental and infrastructural projects when not planned or located with adequate care are fragmenting habitat[s], while other local pressures degrade them.” It further states, “The physical presence of the roads and railway lines in the habitat creates new habitat edges, alters the hydrological dynamics and creates a barrier to the movement of elephants and other animals, leads to habitat fragmentation and loss, apart from death due to train and vehicular hits.”
It adds, “Rail and an increase in road traffic operates in a synergetic way across several landscapes and causes not only an overall loss and isolation of wildlife habitat but also splits up the landscape in a literal sense. Various developmental activities also come up on either side of the highways and railroads, thereby further fragmenting the habitat and increasing biotic pressures.”
With shrinking habitats, elephants searching for food raid cultivated areas, devouring and destroying crops. Attempts to turn them away constitute an important cause of human-elephant conflict, which is taking a growing number of lives. Replying to a question, Babul Supriyo, Union Minister of State for MoEFFC, told the Lok Sabha on June 28, 2019, that 2,398 people had died since 2014. According to other official statistics, a total of 1,465 people were killed between the years 2013-14 and 2016-17. In turn, people kill 40 to 50 elephants every year, apart from those slain by poachers for the ivory of the tusks.
Habitat loss also forces elephants to move into other areas. They are now seen in States like Manipur, Mizoram, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and the Union Territory of Andaman & Nicobar Islands, where they had not been present earlier. Other factors have also contributed. A major drought in Tamil Nadu had caused herds of elephants to cross over to Andhra Pradesh where they had no presence for over two centuries. The result is an extension of the area witnessing human-elephant conflict.
The impact of habitat loss is compounded by that of elephant corridors, which account for much of the rail and road accidents. According to the report, Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India, train accidents had killed as many as 150 of these behemoths since 1987. According to a Ministry statement in the Rajya Sabha, 49 elephants were killed in railway accidents between 2016 and 2018.
The Elephant Task Force’s report has recommended several measures to protect habitats and prevent elephants from being killed in road and rail accidents. These include the announcement of principles of forest area, railway track and highway management, the grant of mining licences and rules governing the drawing and maintenance of power cables through forest areas.
Besides these, attention has to be paid to nurturing elephant reserves as the basic management unit for their conservation in the country. At present, there are 32 of these across India, covering over 69,000 sq km. The problem is that more than over 40 per cent of these is not under Protected Area or Government forest. Hence, the main emphasis has to be on managing land use patterns in the areas outside the preserves to reduce human-elephant conflict. Also, the havoc bush fires continue to play in Australia reminds us of the need to be ready to cope with such calamities which have been taking a severe toll in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh and may occur in other parts of India thanks to climate change.
All this will require huge expenditure and effort. The Government must not balk from either. Besides, it needs to reach out to organisations like Wildlife SOS, TREE Foundation and Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, which have been doing outstanding work in rescuing and nurturing elephants.
(Writer: Hiranmay Karlekar; Courtesy: The Pioneer)