Thursday, 14 August 2014

A Glimpse into the Future: Developing a Community through Tourism

The site of lush green mountains; the rays of rising sun; the sound of falling water; the squeals of peacocks; and a huge fort on the top of hills, with all its pride peeping through misty curtains of clouds at a small village below. Sounds like a paradise for nature lovers and a coveted tourist’s destination. 
But is it? 

This surreal appearing place is a village called Khandar in Rajasthan, India near Ranthambore sanctuary; which is the reason for its little glory as a tourist spot. The magnificent fort called the Khandar Quila holds in its walls, the history of kings who reportedly have never lost a war.

Today, the ruins of this fort serve as a picnic spot for the villagers and shelter for wildlife. The green cover surrounding the fort provides rural population with wood and animal feed. During the monsoons, the hill provides direction to the falling rains which, after ground water, is the major water source for the village.

But like any other community, this one too faces many challenges. The rains that bring the place alive are also a cause of agony to many. As the village is located at foots of the hill, it gets flooded during high monsoons. Also, people are dependent on ground water for drinking and those who cannot afford a bore well and pump have to travel miles to collect it from those who can. Also, there is no proper waste management system. People dump their garbage in any open plot, which keeps on accumulating for weeks till it is removed by the district authorities or washed down by the rains. But being an environmentalist I believe these are not the problems that can’t be solved with community support.

Standing at the fort, I heard its history, saw the present and envisaged a future. A future wherein the community not only tackle its current issues but also utilize all the beauty it has been adorned with.
This place has all what it requires to be a tourist spot and it does attract many even today; so why not involve the community in it. Once the tourism starts generating revenues here, most of these problems would be solved. To start with; cleanliness is always a top priority for tourism, the waste disposal issue has be the first step. As most of the rural waste is organic, simple compost pits can be set up with the help of villagers. Other non-organic waste can be sent to nearest town Madhopur for processing and we can also bring in the concept of Eco-tourism. To solve the problem of flooding check dams can be a potential solution. They’d not only help in preventing the village from getting inundated but also be a perennial source of water for villagers.

Unfortunately, my visit there was very brief and I couldn’t dwell into the feasibility of this project but I’d love to explore. We’ve heard a lot of examples of community development from tourism, this can well be one. 

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Virtually Real

“Been forced to visit a village! L Miss u already Delhi!” I posted from the train to Rajasthan where I had to go to attend a cousin’s 25th marriage anniversary celebrations  in the ‘remotest possible’ village. After de-boarding the train at Madhopur station, I raised my hand to hail for a cab to my destination Khandar (which literally mean ruins!) but was smugly directed by a local, in a bright red dress with a lit beedi between his fingers, to a bus they call Dabba (box) for the reasons I discovered right after getting on it.
Pounds of dust in lungs, choked nose, 5000 bumps and half a mile walk later, I finally reached the place. It was a small house (concrete! phew!) at the foot of a hill range. There was a huge wrecked old fort on the hilltop sneaking through the mist; and the place, to my surprise, was indeed spectacular. I pulled out my phone to post its pictures and had a minor heart attack to see no signal and internet coverage. The instant thought was to go back but got haunted by the memories of the dabba. So, I searched for a bed, buried my face into the pillow and died there.

The next morning, I saw my sister standing with an earthen pot, a toothbrush and my shoes in her hands at 4.30 am! She told me to hurry up, as we are going to trek up the hill. I felt completely baffled -to astonished- to excited, all in a couple of minutes but somehow managed to pull myself out of the bed, and before I could realize we were all set for our ‘little picnic’.
The hill wasn't too steep and without any harness or anything we were at the fort within 3 hours to see the rising sun. I was craving to tweet some pictures when a cold breeze slapped me out of my virtual world. The birds’ chirping scooped out the entire city’s noise out of my mind. And of course, the floating clouds over the plush greens and hills were way better than my quiescent life on jammed roads. For that moment I was the queen of the fort who addressed the village, her village with open arms, high head and closed eyes.  For the first time I was in no hustle to click a perfect profile picture; I just stood there, breathing, alive, gaping at the real yet so virtual world. There at the fort, my cousin and her husband repeated their vows and got married again; and I, I was born again and this time in a real world.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Dear Mr Environment, Please let us develop (We will deal with you later…)

Years after the 1992 Earth Summit, I thought we are pass the argument that environment is not an impediment on the path of development but is one of its derivers. And this is what India has stood for in almost all the summits after that. Of course as a developing nation, development would ostensibly be our first priority, but not at the cost of environment.
But recently, Rahul Gandhi shook this belief of many environmentalists. Gandhi, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) vice president who’s also a running candidate for prime ministerial election 2014, grumbles how environmental ministry has barricaded all the big development projects leading to slow economic growth. In his speech at FICCI on 21st December 2013, he criticized the The Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) for not giving timely clearance to many mega projects. He quoted- “Many of you have expressed your frustration with environmental clearances that are delaying projects unduly. There is excessive administrative and judicial discretion. The loopholes are so big you can drive a truck through some of them!” He said “many projects are still stuck - some for good reason and some for no good reason at all.”
(I hope while making such a decision for the country, he accounted the 5.7% loss in GDP every year India suffers for neglecting environment.)  

The consequence: Jayanathi Natrajan, who has been heading the environmental ministry from July 2011 – Dec 2013, steps down from the post to ‘strengthen her party in Tamil Nadu’; and gets replaced by M Veerappa Moily - giving a room for development. Now, the new ‘pro-development’ environment minister is been giving clearance to the projects that were scrapped by the National Green Tribunal (NGT and the MoEF, projects that have hefty environmental and social impacts, projects that attract huge foreign capital and accelerate development. On his ‘project clearing spree’ for 2014 elections, Moily has cleared six long-stalled development projects worth Rs. 19,000 crore in the first eight days (highest ever) of his term and about a dozen projects till now which includes biggest ever FDI project for India- $13-billion POSCO Steel plant in Odisha- which was blocked due to forest clearance, mining and thermal power plant projects. 
Interestingly, Jayanathi Natrajan, herself had cleared many projects during her tenure when she replaced Jairam Ramesh on similar grounds. According to an analysis done be Centre for Science and Environment, “the rate of forestland diverted went up significantly in January 2013; whopping rise of 42 per cent compared to 2012 and only 3.5 per cent projects were rejected; half the rejection rate of forest clearance projects since 1981. Ministry is granting clearances even to projects that have earlier been denied clearance or were at abeyance -- by diluting clauses.”

Rather than moulding our development policies to take care of environment and hence growth and economy, we have been changing our environmental policies to favour just development, and apparently a rather unsustainable one. Encironmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notifications have been amended many times to ensure clearance of many projects like Navi Mumbai airport. And we all have seen what happens to those who try to do their work a little more sincerely. Durga Shakti Nagpal was suspended for trying to stop the sand mafia and thereby harming the fragile river ecosystem. Dubbed as ‘Mr Green’-Jairam Ramesh, environment minister for two years was ‘promoted’ to ministry of rural development for his revolutionary policies that put environment before the development. And now, Natrajan had to ‘resign’ even after giving clearance to many projects for allegedly holding back mega development projects. What would be next, disabling the MoEF and NGT? After all, for how long could we keep development at par with environment in just papers and talks? It would be so much easier if we could just exterminate the environment ministry.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

From One Utopian World to Another

20 years back at the 1992 Earth Summit/United Nations Conference on Environment and Development; the United Nations showed a new path for development to the callously growing world- “sustainable development”- a development that doesn’t compromise on the need of future generations to meet the needs of today’s generation; a development in which society and environment are at par with economy, a development that will ensure that the human race continues to thrive without killing the earth and the fellow species. It was appreciated and accepted by many developed and developing nations who signed to commit to sustainable development. But astonishingly, it took 20 years to set goals for the same. After discerning a little progress towards it, the UN at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) decided to set goals called the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in 2012. These are the most important and talked about outcome of Rio+20; which marked 20-years of 1992 Earth Summit. And what has happened in these 20 years? We have made electricity at the cost of river and people’s lives, raised buildings at the cost of trees and developed cities at the cost of the ecosystem. To be precise, we have reached nowhere close to the ‘sustainable development.’

But there are good things happened as well by the dint of which we have managed to thrive till now. One of them is the signing of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were adapted in 2000 as United Nations Millennium Declaration for global development. The new SDGs are being considered to be the follow up of these. These goals focused on eliminating poverty, hunger and diseases; reducing child mortality; promoting maternal health; achieving universal primary education and ensuring sustainable growth with the help of global partnership by 2015. SDGs overlap MDGs in many ways and are supposed to cover the inadequacies of MDGs.

Since, 2015 is not very far and yet more than half of the signing countries are still to achieve more than half of the MDGs; the success of SDGs is also being questioned. Even though people are debating over the potential of MDGs, their worth in providing a vision for development can’t be neglected.  The MDGs might not have been able to achieve a hundred per cent result but they have shown positive outcomes in many countries. Countries like China, and India has reduced their poverty by many folds. UN MDG Report says “For the first time since poverty trends began to be monitored, the number of people living in extreme poverty and poverty rates fell in every developing region—including in sub-Saharan Africa, where rates are highest. The proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day fell from 47 per cent in 1990 to 24 per cent in 2008—a reduction from over 2 billion to less than 1.4 billion.” Also, many sub Saharan countries have shown improvement in primary education. The report also says that “the world has met the target of halving the proportion of people without access to improved sources of water.”

Inspired with the success, the UN has set six SDGs that aim to eliminate poverty and achieve harmony with the earth. It includes thriving population by providing ‘sustainable’ food security, secure ‘sustainable’ water, clean energy and healthy ecosystems through apposite governance.
These might seem to mirror the MDGs but the word ‘sustainable’ here is enough to make a difference. Consider the 1960s Green revolution of India, which is an archetypical example of the shortcomings of myopic and ‘unsustainable’ vision. Before 1960s India was dependent on America for feeding its large population. But with the onset of green revolution in 1960s with high yield crop varieties, improved irrigation, use of insecticides and pesticides; India was not only able to meet its demand but also thought of exporting some of its produced wheat. But the then achieved food security has started to threaten the population of today. Over extraction of groundwater is leading to ground water table depletion in many places, misuse of fertilizers and pesticides is rendering land saline and inadequate for cropping and due to their over-use the pests are gaining resistance. Though India achieved food security but is still paying a heavy cost and this is what sustainable development aims to avoid. The goal of ‘sustainable food security’ is expected to seek food not only for current population but also for the future generations without compromising with the nature and its species. It should involve a broader vision, an ability to see the past, the present, and the future.
There are many challenges in the paths of attaining sustainable food security as there is a huge disparity between urban and poor. Equity in allocation of food resources is a huge issue in a world where 25,000 people, including more than 10,000 children, die from hunger and related causes every day and about 854 million people worldwide are estimated to be undernourished mostly in developing world. (UN) Whereas of all the food produced all across the world, 50 per cent of it is wasted. According to UNEP, “the rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes) every year.” It also says that in the developing nations the food loss is mainly at the producing end due to improper harvesting techniques. While in the developed nations, the losses are high at the consumer end. “In the United States 30% of all food, worth US$48.3 billion (€32.5 billion), is thrown away each year.” Thus the sustainable food security goal should not only focus on increasing productivity but also ensure zero food wastage.

While the Open Working Group; a 30 member intergovernmental task force; is still working on the goals, their methodology and implementation; the expectations from these SDGs are only increasing. We can only hope that these ‘action –oriented’ goals might just achieve what the MDGs could not. Though late, they might just lead us to our goal of sustainable development, which apparently isn’t an easy task; but is enough to raise some hopes.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Food for All?

The other day I had the ‘ honor’ of attending a ‘big fat Indian wedding’ in a five star resort of Jaipur. With more than 2000 guests, the wedding was ostentatious beyond my expectations. Apart from the resort and its decor  what caught everyone’s attention was – the food. With innumerable varieties of Indian and continental varieties of delicacies, the food, certainly stole the show. With so many options available it was difficult to decide what to eat and what to leave and in the quest of deciding on the best food item, a lot of food ended up in the bin.  People would fill their plates beyond its capacity; and their stomachs beyond its digestive capacity and would still manage to land some amount of food into dust bins.  
But in a country with over 1 billion population out of which 30 million people suffer from hunger and more than 46% of children are underweight, is it OK to throw away food like this? In a country where people don’t even get one meal a day, is such wastage of food by the affluent lot justified?
India is still considerate of their food as compared to the opulent countries like America-   throws away 40% of the bought food; uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of US solid waste where it accounts for almost 25% of methane emissions accelerating global warming. Australians throw out more than 4 million tonnes of food every year: close to a thousand kilograms per household. About one-third of food purchased in the UK is tossed out every year and the world as a whole wastes about 300 million tonnes, which is more than the total net food production of Sub-Saharan Africa- enough to feed the estimated 900 million people hungry in the world. This is the scenario when one in every seven people goes to bed hungry and more than 20,000 people die of hunger every day.
Considering these figures it wouldn't be wrong to say that whatever food insecurity we are facing today, can be attributed to improper distribution and management; and not solely on production failure. Things like this put a huge question mark on our efforts towards sustainable future.
It is time we change certain habits that are not good for our earth and its people because it is our small efforts that brings large difference in the society. Think at least once before you order your food and twice before you throw it away, it would not only save your money but also will save earth’s precious resources.
There are certain communities that have taken initiative to reduce the food wastage. 1098 is one such child helpline in India that collects extra food from people.

Think, eat- save.
Keep your plates full, but not at the cost of others’.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

A Student’s perspective on Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2013

From 31st January to 2nd February 2013, the shining marbles of the Taj Palace, New Delhi hosted the shining marvels of the world that flew down to New Delhi to discuss the sustainability and resource management issues. The 13th Delhi Sustainable Development Summit was organized by TERI -The Energy and Resource Institute with the theme of “The Global Challenge of Resource Efficient Growth and Development.” The event was inaugurated by Dr. Manmohan Singh (Current Prime Minister of India). It was concluded by renowned ministers- Salman Khurshid and Montek Singh Ahluwalia. It was attended by country heads of Seychelles, Guyana, Kiribati and Finland, Ministers of countries like Bhutan, Poland, Thailand, Qu├ębec, Nigeria, Maldives, Japan and many other ‘environmentally concerned’ countries. The event was also value-added by the presence of Noble Laureates Dr R K Pachauri (Director-General of TERI) and Carlo Rubbia (Scientific Director, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, Germany). Also, it was supported by leading corporates and was covered by worldwide media.

Amongst all these big names, in the dark of the hall, dressed in formals (many for the first time), handing over the mikes, rushing the people inside, distributing the papers, managing the paper work, running for autographs, were us- the student volunteers. Students- who were more enthusiastic than anyone else. Students- who felt a little out of place among those titans. Students- who were largely unacknowledged during the whole event. Since it was our first experience of participating in an event of this magnitude, I would like to share my views as a student on the summit. 
For me as an environmental studies scholar, what could be better than listening to our PM Dr. Manmohan Singh, an economist, talk about ecology and sustainability? It was great to know how well aware our political leaders are about the rising problems of climate change and are willing to take the necessary steps for betterment of global environment. When you hear governmental personnel of countries like USA and Japan (among the largest GHG emitters) and of small island nations like Kiribati (vulnerable to climate change) ardently supporting ecology and environment, you ought to believe that the world’s on the right track of the sustainable development. But it being the 13th summit makes me wonder, how many more such conferences do we need to have to actually do something impactful for the earth. When are we really going to walk the talk, in fact to be at the par with the rapidly changing climate, we might need to ‘run the talk’ and perhaps even that would not be enough.

While most of the sessions seemed enriching to me, some speakers and sessions managed to stand out. Amongst them was the energetic words delivered by Mr Bittu Sahgal who accentuated environmental services and lack of measuring instruments of their importance. Larry Brilliant’s presentation was also very informative and talked about sea level rise and its possible impact on India and Bangladesh.  It was a fateful moment for us to see two Nobel Laureates in conversation- Dr R K Pachauri and Carlo Rubbia discussing future of renewable energy.  Among the parallel running thematic tracks ‘Learning from Green initiatives in Asia’ was quite distinguished and provided a sneak view of the environmental efforts being taken by developing nations like India, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam.

Events like these provide a platform for exchange of knowledge, best practices and policies. Survival stories of small islands serve as an inspiration to the more developed countries. The event concluded on 2nd February with countries looking forward to sustainable development, food and energy security with equity and it was a huge success. We hope to have more of such inspiring summits in our country.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Climate Change and Human Health

Images of melting of glaciers, isolated polar bears, raising temperature, distorted lands and even of drowning world swoops across when we hear (or Google) the term- climate change. Although almost everyone today is familiar with this bigger picture or the large scale impacts of climate change, we still are missing on the finer grains. We consider climate change as a distant phenomenon that is affecting the earth but is still to touch us on an individual level. The consequences of climate change are not limited to sea level  and melting of glaciers but it also have direct as well as indirect impacts on human health; some of which are already apparent. A 2008 survey of local public health directors in the United States found that a majority of the respondents have already identified existing public health impacts of climate change within their jurisdictions.[1]
Climate change is likely to cause extreme weather events cyclone, flood, fire, draught; etc. which may cause Possible fatalities and injuries and Damage human communities. 
Heat Waves are expected to increase in frequency and intensity due to climate change. Water and Vector-borne diseases are projected to increase in no. Climate is one of several factors that influence the distribution of vector borne and zoonotic diseases (VBZD) such as Lyme disease, Hantavirus, West Nile virus, and malaria.  Climate change is also likely to influence the production of pollen and other allergens associated with asthma and allergies. There is evidence that climate change may slow down the repair of the ozone layer, extending the risk associated with increased UV exposure. [2] One possible direct impact of climate change on cancer may be through increases in exposure to toxic chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer following heavy rainfall and by increased volatilization of chemicals under conditions of increased temperature.
These are only some of the direct impacts of climate change; it may also affect human health in many other ways. Climate change is likely to increase the costs of production of food through potential effects of increased extreme events, particularly reduced rainfall and availability of water associated with drought and long periods of drying climatic conditions Without additional adaptive measures this may result in a decrease in general health and well-being and increases in diet-related conditions such as diabetes and obesity. Also, Increase in the number and severity of extreme events without any further adaptation, will almost certainly result in reduced access to essential goods and services, including medical treatment. Changes in climate also projected to have implications for occupational health and safety. Changes in distribution of bacteria, insects, plants and animals can have environmental impacts on water, land and air quality that have flow on health effects. Climate change is expected to cause mental health problem as well.
Apparently, changing climate possesses many threats to human health that vary from allergic reactions due to air pollution to serious cancer due to exposure of UV light, from physical health to mental health, from heat waves to increased vector-borne diseases. It may alter the weather pattern and affect the food supply. There is still time to adapt. Adaptation to climate change is already taking place, but on a limited basis. Societies have a long record of adapting to the impacts of weather and climate through a range of practices that include crop diversification, irrigation, water management, disaster risk management, and insurance. But climate change poses novel risks often outside the range of experience, such as impacts related to drought, heat waves, and accelerated glacier retreat and hurricane intensity. (IPCC, 2007)
Although specific limits will vary by health outcome and region, fundamental constraints exist in low-income countries where adaptation will partially depend on development pathways in the public-health, water, agriculture, transport, energy and housing sectors. Therefore, adaptation strategies should be designed in the context of development, environment, and health policies.

[1]  (American Public Health Association (APHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), April 2011)

[2]  (Jeff Spickett, Helen Brown and Dianne Katscherian, 2008