By Vishnu Makhijani
Coronavirus might have given nature a break in the sense that people are increasingly staying at home, thus bringing down pollution levels, but sustainability needs to be ingrained into our planning DNA for long term solutions to environmental apathy and deterioration – pandemic or no pandemic, says green activist, thought leader and author Meghaa Gupta, whose new book traces the impact of events like the Bhopal gas tragedy and the smog in Delhi on the overall quality of life.
“To my mind, this pandemic is like an epoch and its after effects will be with us for a long time. It’s anybody’s guess whether in the long term it will have a positive or negative impact,”…. but unless “sustainability is ingrained into our planning DNA, there can be no long term solutions to environmental apathy and deterioration – pandemic or no pandemic,” Gupta told IANS in an interview on her fourth book, “Unearthed – An Environmental History of Independent India” (Puffin).
“I just hope that seeing the resurgence in nature because of the change in our lifestyle influences the government and the people to think more seriously about conservation. The only major silver lining I see are young people who have grown with decades of environmental education in school and are genuinely passionate about protecting the natural world – and a handful of older people keen to egg them on in this game-changing pursuit,” added Gupta, who has previously compiled a book on environmental courses and careers for students for TERI.
What also needs to be kept in mind is the flip side.
Nature might have been granted a break because people are staying indoors, factories are not working to full capacity, roads are not jam-packed, travel has come to a grinding halt, pollution levels have dipped and it’s no longer unusual to hear the twitter of birds, “but one can’t guess whether this will continue after a vaccine is developed and the old normal is restored” Gupta pointed out.
Medical waste “continues to pile up relentlessly, anti-environment brigades are working hard under the cover of the pandemic to wreak havoc on natural sites. The Internet is abuzz with containment of voices against the 2020 Environmental Impact Assessment Draft. Activities of stakeholders too have been impacted”, she cautioned, adding that public discourse “is vital to sustaining environmentalism in society and bolstering the work of various bodies in this field”.
Noting that the fear psychosis created by the coronavirus and its immediate health and economic fallout has diverted even more attention from these causes, Gupta said major meets like the COP 2020 (the annual UN conference on climate change) have been postponed.
And “as nations battle the spread of the virus and a faltering economy, funding support too is likely to get impacted, while “many natural parks are struggling to keep themselves going in the face of negligible revenues from tourism” she added.
Bittu Sehgal, one of India’s foremost environmentalists and editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine, says the book “should be essential reading not only for children but also our political and corporate leaders. Understanding the history of this country post-Independence is vital. We cannot blame our current environmental crisis on our colonial past alone. An acknowledgement and deeper understanding of where we have gone wrong will hopefully help us forge a new chapter in our country’s environmental path – one in which we opt for small and micro-hydel schemes instead of large dams, one that relies on sustainable land-use practices to improve agriculture, one that appreciates the immense biodiversity values of our wildernesses, one that chooses to develop ‘nature capital’ rather than exhaust it”.
Children being “the most powerful agents of positive, environmental change”, they “not only have the legitimacy, but the fire to actually take the small and large actions vital to the task of reversing the ecological rot that adults have in mind for the planet,” Sehgal writes in the Foreword.
How did the book come to be written?
Starting out as a journalist in 2008, Gupta began writing on education and careers, among other things. Even after she switched over to publishing in 2010, she continued freelancing and wrote many stories for the education supplements of newspapers like The Hindu and The Times of India, as well as magazines like Careers360.
The TERI commission came in 2013 and in putting it together, she found herself drawn into the field and was “inspired by the phenomenal work of environmentalists who continue to quietly protect the planet despite the unimaginable apathy they often witness”.
As she researched and read more, the book started taking shape inside her head and she “finally had a good sense of what should go into a book on independent India’s environmental history for children and lay readers. Puffin loved the idea and commissioned me to write the book” Gupta said.
To that extent, the book is a welcome addition to the narrative on environment in the country and Gupta would do well to take a relook at the scenario a year from now.
(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)