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GUIDE TO INDIA

ECOLOGY & ENVIRONMENT


With more than one billion people, rapid industrialization, limited infrastructure, ongo­ing deforestation and heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbi­cides, India's environment is under immense pressure. An estimated 65% of India's land is degraded in some way, causing a rethink about the heavy use of chemicals encour­aged during the Green Revolution of the 1960s when a quantum leap in agricultural output w as achieved.

These days, while there is no shortage of legislation designed to protect the environ­ment, corruption and flagrant abuses of power are exacerbating India's environ­mental degradation. Indeed some of the most inspiring conservation efforts have emerged from within grassroots community's intent on saving their homes, liveli­hoods and traditions.

In recent years drought has been a major problem throughout India, particularly in Rajasthan and Gujarat. This has had devas­tating consequences for the land and people.

Deforestation

India has a long tradition of venerating forests, and trees have always had their de­fenders. In the 18th century hundreds of men and women from the Bishnoi group in

Rajasthan risked their lives to save sacred khejri trees - which the authorities wanted in order to burn lime - and this resulted in a ban on cutting any trees near a Bishnoi village.

The Chipko Movement was begun as a localised protest in Uttarakhand (now Ut­taranchal) in the mid-1970s; it has now evolved into a more powerful force with women playing a leading role. 'Soil, water and oxygen - not timber' is the Chipko catch cry, and this has echoed across India as communities fight to save their forests.

India's first Five Year Plan in 1951 recog­nised the importance of forest cover for soil conservation, and subsequent policies have theoretically supported increasing forest cover. Despite the laws to protect forests, more are lost every year. There are many reasons why this has happened. One is that fuel wood, used by millions, is being re­moved from forests at a staggering rate. Ad­ditionally, as grazing lands shrink, domestic animals increasingly move into the forests, causing damage. Denotification, a process \~hereby states may relax the ban on com­mercial exploitation of protected areas, is an­other factor. States are supposed to earmark an equivalent area for attorestation, but con­servationists say this isn't always happening or the land set aside often isn't suitable. Smuggling is another problem in some areas, and forest rangers are generally ill-equipped to deal with tree poachers. On another front, invasive eucalyptus and other foreign plant species are swamping indigenous flora.

Many of the organizations mentioned under Conservation Contacts (see earlier) are involved in afforestation campaigns.

Water Resources

Arguably the biggest threat to public health in India is inadequate access to clean drink­ing water and proper sanitation. Agricultural, industrial and domestic water usage are all expected to increase nationwide, despite (poorly implemented) policies designed to decrease water usage.

Ground water (the source of 85% of rural drinking water and 55% of urban drinking water) is suffering from uncontrolled ex­traction and is vulnerable to contamination from leaching.

India's rivers, too, suffer from run-off, industrial pollution and sewage contamina­tion - the Sabarmati, Yamuna and Ganges are among the most polluted rivers in India.

Already some parts of India are facing serious shortages. In 2002 the monsoon failed in Rajasthan and Gujarat for the fourth consecutive year. Many lakes and rivers remain bone dry and the drought's impact on the rural economy has had pro­found ramifications, including increased rural-urban migration.

Air Pollution

Over the past decade, motorised vehicles have been a major source of air pollutants throughout India. In recent years there has been a drive to improve the situation - for instance, in Delhi taxis, rickshaws and buses that are more than eight years old are now banned and all taxis now use gas in­stead of diesel.

Meanwhile in Agra, the 4km area sur­rounding the Taj Mahal was designated as a traffic-free zone in 1994. This was followed in 1999 by a Supreme Court ruling that or­dered the closure of polluting factories in the area. Illegal buildings within 500m of the Taj were also torn down under the rul­ing. Unfortunately, the legislature was sanc­tioned without any provision for the people affected by it. Many factories were forced to close without compensation, and others duly signed up to government relocation schemes only to find that the sites set aside for relocation had little infrastructure. But there have been positive developments in Agra, most notably the introduction of non­polluting electric vehicles and even cycle­rickshaws designed to lighten the load on the driver.

Despite ongoing government pledges and laws aimed at curtailing toxic emissions, in­dustry accounts for significant levels of pol­lution around the nation, especially in the major cities. In fact, the worst disaster in India, indeed one of the worst industrial dis­asters in the world, was Bhopal.

Plastic Waste

Almost everywhere in India plastic bags and bottles clog drains, litter city streets, deserts and beaches and stunt grass growth in sanctuaries and parks. Innocent victims are the cows, elephants and other creatures that consume plastic waste, resulting in a painful death. The anti-plastic lobby esti­mates that about 75% of the plastics used are discarded within a week and only 15% are recycled. They implore individuals (in­cluding travelers) to restrict their use of plastic, and responsibly recycle bottles and bags.

Fed up with ineffective government ini­tiatives to address the plastic problem, an increasing number of local initiatives are being set up. In some parts of India shop­ping bags are being made from paper in­stead of plastic and there are places where plastic bags have been banned altogether. However, despite these laudable attempts, plastic bags still remain a problem. For more information see Responsible Tourism in the Facts for the Visitor chapter.