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 The blue sky had been replaced by an orange haze as wildfires burnt down some of the oldest temperate forests in the world and the US state of California reeled from the worst of such disasters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)
With a robust combination of the right policies, economic incentives and awareness campaigns, the problem of managing crop residue in an environment-friendly manner can be addressed
Delhi, one of the world’s most polluted cities, is in the news again for its worsening air quality as the Government has been forced to close schools and declare a health emergency. The much-loved winter months in other parts of the country are a nightmare for the residents of Delhi-NCR as the area gets enveloped in a blanket of toxic haze.
With the Air Quality Index (AQI) reaching new levels each year and going as high as 1,200+ (classified ‘Hazardous’) this month, the city is suffocating, literally. Apart from coal and construction dust, vehicular emissions and smoke from Diwali firecrackers, stubble burning by farmers in the States of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh (UP) are cited as the primary reason for this crisis.
While the Delhi Government has been trying to bring down pollution levels through its vehicle rationing odd-even scheme and by closing polluting factories and coal-based power plants among other things, biomass burning is something it has failed to stop. For this, it needs the cooperation of its neighbouring States and has no control over the farmers there.
Crop residue burning is a practice where farmers set their entire fields on fire after harvesting the rice crop, to make way for the next i.e. wheat. The sowing of rice is timed such that its intense water needs are met by the monsoon rains in the Indo-Gangetic plains and the crop is harvested just before winter starts. However, the result is a whopping 23 million tonnes of paddy residue in the fields that need to be cleared in a short span of 10 to 20 days, before the farms are readied for sowing wheat. If the farmers had more time between crops, they could have just left this biomass lie in the fields and let it turn to mulch, which is an excellent fertiliser. However, with such a short gap between the two crops, setting fields afire seems to be the easiest way to get rid of the stubble. This however severely degrades the ambient air quality of Delhi-NCR.
Taking cognisance of the consequences of stubble burning, the Government banned it in June, imposing fines on those who defied the diktat and recently the Supreme Court (SC) even pulled up the chief secretaries of the three neighbouring States and ordered them to ensure that farmers don’t burn crop residue anymore.
Nevertheless, the practice seems to have continued as growers contend that feasible, affordable and scalable alternatives are lacking. In an effort to encourage farmers to find alternatives to burning the residue, the SC had also directed the three States to pay Rs 100 per quintal of paddy straw to growers, but it doesn’t seem to have worked.
The atmospheric factors at play: People often wonder how a practice followed a few 100 km from Delhi-NCR has big implications. Here is the science behind this phenomenon. During winter, the region sees low wind speeds and temperature inversion — an atmospheric phenomenon where the temperature of the air near the surface is lower than that of the air higher in the atmosphere. Hence, when the pollutants from vehicular emissions and crop burning are released into the air, they are not dispersed but trapped in the lower layers of the atmosphere. As a result, the air quality takes a deep dive.
“Air pollution in cities like Delhi may be attributed to the growth of the metro and the pollutants from sources far away that get carried to the national Capital by the moving air or environmental conditions, which are unfavourable for the dispersion of pollutants,” said Prof Vinoj V from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bhubaneswar, talking about his study published in 2018. The study, among other things, had found that crop burning has been increasing at an alarming rate of 25 per cent since 2000.
It isn’t Delhi alone that takes the hit; other tier-2 cities in the region also seem to be affected by biomass burning for similar reasons. A 2019 research, which investigated the source of pollutants in 20 Indian cities other than Delhi, found that in places like Amritsar, Chandigarh and Ludhiana, crop residue burning, along with emissions from power plants and seasonal dust storms contributed to about 50-52 per cent of particulate matter.
In essence, the timing of winter-related atmospheric phenomena, coupled with the surge in emissions when the fields are set on fire, is a perfect pollution cocktail.
The health and economic costs of stubble burning: It is well-known that inhaling polluted air can lead to severe health conditions like lung cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, asthma, bronchitis and dementia. Not just this, air pollution also adversely affects crop yields in India. But, what really is the economic cost of stubble burning in these maladies?
A study, published by researchers at USA’s International Food Policy Research Institute and Oklahoma State University, pegs that number at $30 billion, including the economic loss and associated health costs. It found that about 14 per cent of acute respiratory infections, recorded in Haryana, Punjab and Delhi in 2013, could be attributed to stubble burning. Researchers estimate that living in areas where there is intensive crop burning increases the chance of acute respiratory infections three-fold, with children under the age of five being the most affected.
Crippled policies adding to woes: As most studies have pointed out, a robust combination of the right policies, economic incentives and awareness campaigns are the need of the hour to curb the “burning” problem of air pollution. Badly-designed policies could have unintended effects on air quality, as shown by a research from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in India and Mexico and the Cornell University, USA. It showed that groundwater conservation policies, introduced in 2009 in Punjab and Haryana, could have contributed to the rise in stubble burning.
Although rice is a lucrative crop for farmers, it is water-intensive. Hence, the ‘Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act’ and the ‘Haryana Preservation of Subsoil Water Act’ banned the transplantation of rice before monsoon to conserve groundwater. As the monsoon arrives in these States in July, the crop is harvested in early November, forcing farmers to clear their fields as soon as possible for wheat sowing. Using satellite data, the study found that prior to 2009, about 40 per cent of rice was harvested by late October and this number declined to 14 per cent after the law was enforced. The number of fires went up from 490 per day during late October prior to 2009, to 681 per day, peaking around early November. The average daily PM2.5 concentrations in November were also found to be 29 per cent higher after the groundwater Acts were passed.
With the clamour for alternatives to stubble burning increasingly being heard, science may have solutions, as shown by a 2019 study. It analysed 10 alternatives to stubble burning and found that contrary to what farmers believed, these methods were not only environment-friendly, but also profitable. Among them is using Happy Seeder, a machine that can sow wheat despite the presence of rice straw in the fields. This yielded nearly 10-20 per cent increase in profits or about Rs 11,498 per hectare on an average. The profits come from lower land preparation cost and the reuse of the crop residue, which increases soil moisture and benefits the long-term health of the soil.
However, these benefits come at a cost of Rs 2.4 billion — necessary to produce about 16,000 Happy Seeders to cater to 50 per cent of the rice — wheat cultivation areas. With a meagre subsidy of Rs 2,000 provided by the Government for purchasing machines to manage crop residue, machines like Happy Seeders are unaffordable to many farmers, leaving them with no options but to set fields on fire.
As most of these studies have pointed out, with a robust combination of the right policies, economic incentives and awareness campaigns, the pressing problem of managing crop residue can be addressed. It is about time that policymakers took note of such insights and acted to provide us all with clean air to breathe — a basic necessity of life.
Writer: Spoorthy Raman
Courtesy: The Pioneer
Issues like conditions of forests, prey base, livelihood of fringe forest dwellers, tribals and so on need to be taken up on a priority basis so that the big cats don’t come in conflict with people
On the occasion of the International Tiger Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the 2018 Tiger Estimation report with great fanfare and broke the news of a significant increase in the tiger population of India. He termed the success of tiger conservation efforts in India as “baaghon mein bahar hai,” a take on the popular Hindi film song from yesteryears. According to the estimation report, the tiger population has increased from 1,400 in 2014 to 2,967 in 2019, a solid growth of 34 per cent. It is a remarkable achievement for the country that in spite of several hiccups in conservation, it has three-fourth of the world’s tiger population and has emerged as the safest habitat for the big cat. Highlighting India’s conservation efforts, Modi said that the target to double the tiger population by 2022, which was set in 2010 in St Petersburg by the international community, was achieved by India four years in advance.
The tiger census, one of the world’s largest, was carried out over an area of 3,91,400 sq km in 3,17,958 sample habitat plots. As many as 26,838 camera traps located at 141 sites covered over 1,21,337 sq km of forests and snapped more than 76,000 pictures of the big cats.
This estimation seems quite reliable given the meticulous planning, use of cutting-edge technology and analytical tools. This time human errors were minimised and figures were based on recording of actual field data digitally through the mobile phone application M-STrIPES (Monitoring System for Tiger-Intensive Protection and Ecological Status). The sighting of tigers and other animals was recorded and geo-tagged. One of the keys to success was the adoption of a landscape approach across five tiger habitats, i.e. the Shivaliks and Indo-Gangetic Plains, Central India and Eastern Ghats, Western Ghats, the North-East and the Sunderbans. National Geographic prepared a documentary on this census, highlighting the hard work done by the field staff and other officers.
The increase in tiger numbers in the country has basically been due to the hard work put in by the foresters and positive attitude of villagers apart from policy thrust and priority attached to conservation by the Centre and State Governments.
The impact of improvement in overall forest management and technological back-up was also felt. However, we must also remember that the tiger is a prolific breeder and once its numbers started growing, a good prey base and habitat ensured that the population would register good growth. But the nation must give equal credit to villagers situated near tiger habitats as without their cooperation, protecting the feline species would have been a pipe dream, as is the case in many other countries. However, the increased tiger population has brought with it more responsibility and challenges for forest departments as tigers can only prosper in healthy environs that would support their prey base.
Incidentally, the highest number of tigers, 526, was located in Madhya Pradesh (MP), followed by 524 in Karnataka and 442 in Uttarakhand.
Sadly, Chhattisgarh witnessed a big decline from 46 tigers in 2014 to 19 in 2019 and is a cause for concern. Similarly the results in Bihar, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Mizoram and Arunanchal Pradesh are not very encouraging and the situation may become critical in other areas also. Shockingly, no tigers were reported in Buxa, Palamu and Dampa tiger reserves.
However, a word of caution for MP, Uttarakhand and Karnataka which have shown a boost in big cat numbers. They must control the increasing man-animal conflicts as a larger tiger population means increasing competition for food, water and space. Issues like conditions of forests, prey base, livelihood of fringe forest dwellers, tribals and so on, need to be taken up on a priority basis so that the big cats don’t come in conflict with people. Further, water sources will have to be improved on a war footing to combat climatic vagaries.
The Ministry of Environment’s Compensatory Afforestation Planning and Management Authority (CAMPA) recently released Rs 47,000 crore to States. Even if the annual interest earned on this amount is used in a well-planned manner, it can solve the monetary and resource crunch faced by the forest department.
There is also dire need to synchronise the working of forests, rural, tribal affairs and Jal Shakti Ministries. The time is ripe to make some innovative and forward-looking changes in the governance of these subjects.
(The writer is a retired civil servant)
Writer: VK Bahuguna
Courtesy: The Pioneer
The effects of habitat destruction, overexploitation of natural resources and degree of climate change is continually threatening the survival of wildlife species. To protect and reverse this effect, the government needs to take quick action.
By any standard, forests around the world are the last barriers between mankind and the ill-effects of climate change. How the human race has so far managed to stay outside the grasp of worsening environmental conditions is a miracle and can be attributed to the neutralising capabilities of the forests and their inherent wildlife.
But the health of our forests largely depends on the health and the number of wildlife species they host. It is also a fact that this insurance cover against the vagaries of environment is now depleting at a rapid rate. There has been a 53 per cent decline in the number of forest wildlife populations since 1970, according to the first-ever global assessment of forest biodiversity by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Wildlife is an essential component of natural and healthy forests. They play a major role in forest regeneration and carbon storage by engaging in pollination and seed dispersal. Thus, the loss of fauna can have severe implications for forests’ health, the climate and humans, who depend on forests for their livelihoods, said the WWF report titled, Below the Canopy. Until now, forest biodiversity had never been assessed but forest area was often used as a proxy indicator.
The new findings were based on the Forest Specialist Index, developed following the Living Planet Index methodology — an index that tracks wildlife that lives only in forests. In total, data was available for 268 species and 455 populations of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Of the 455 monitored populations of forest specialists, more than half declined at an annual rate of 1.7 per cent, on average between 1970 and 2014.
While the decline was consistent in these years among mammals, reptiles and amphibians (particularly from the tropical forests), it was less among birds (especially from temperate forests), said the report.
Further, the report found that just the changes in tree cover — deforestation or reforestation — were not responsible for the decline in wildlife populations. Other major threats were habitat loss, forest exploitation and climate change. In fact, the loss of habitat due to logging, agricultural expansion, mining, hunting, conflicts and spread of diseases accounted for almost 60 per cent of threats.
Nearly 20 per cent of the threats were due to overexploitation. Of the 112 forest-dwelling primate populations, 40 were threatened by overexploitation (hunting), the report showed. Climate change, on the other hand, threatened to 43 per cent of amphibian populations, 37 per cent of reptile populations, 21 per cent of bird populations but only 3 per cent of mammal populations. More than 60 per cent of threatened forest specialist populations faced more than one threat, the report noted.
Not only are forests a treasure trove of life on earth, they are also our greatest natural ally in the fight against climate breakdown. Protecting wildlife and reversing the decline of nature require urgent global action. The need is to preserve harmonious land use in our region, including forest management and protect the most valuable surviving ecosystems. Given these circumstances, there is an urgent need for global leaders to kick start an action plan immediately to protect and restore nature and keep our forests standing. Only a quarter of the land on earth is now free of the impacts of human activities.
In a bid to conserve nature, world leaders have agreed to launch a ‘New Deal’ for Nature and People in 2020 in China. The new set of commitments will likely draw together a global biodiversity framework with reinvigorated action under the Paris Agreement and the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goals.
The state of affairs of our forests is not at its best phase. Nations across the world are aware about the growing problem of disappearing forests and wildlife, which is becoming extinct. India, too, is no stranger to this situation but unlike the global forum, our country is yet to take concrete steps that can ensure that our forest remain replete with ample flora and fauna. The annual forest reports and allied data show that since independence, India has lost quite a lot of forest cover, mainly due to man-made reasons than climate change. The usurping of forest land by land mafia is emerging as the biggest reason. This situation is made worse due to poaching activities, which put an end to wildlife.
How can the Government or the judiciary stem the loss of green cover in India and prevent wildlife from poaching remains to be seen. The Government must ensure that Indian forests are treated with priority and protect the wildlife within. Unless immediate measures are taken, the loss for our country would be permanent and the green barrier that stands between us and impacts of climate change would be gone forever.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)
Writer: Kota Sriraj
Courtesy: The Pioneer