Nisarga: Nature’s Warning

Nisarga: Nature’s Warning

Damage caused by Nisarga cyclone in Bhoste village, Raigad district of Maharashtra | Anil Hebbar

Earlier this month, the Nisarga cyclone caused substantial damage to Raigad and Ratnagiri districts on the Konkan coast and Pune district up the Ghats, with unprecedented wind and rain. This was nature’s warning that the currently operative warped development policies cannot continue forever.

Since the rainy season of 2018, the Western Ghats and the west coast have been suffering shock after shock. There were unprecedented floods and damage to property throughout the length and breadth of Kerala in 2018. These were brushed aside by authorities as a once in a century event. But for the country as a whole the 2019 monsoon was the heaviest since 1995 with a million people displaced and as many as 1,600 deaths. In 2019, northern Kerala experienced floods along with landslides that claimed 121 lives. Maharashtra too experienced sudden high floods leaving 430 people dead. Goa also suffered extensive damage from floods, though there were no human casualties.

Corona pandemic

As 2020 got under way, we had to face the Covid-19 pandemic and the sudden lockdown. An arresting sight during the lockdown was that of thousands of migrants walking along the roads to get back to their villages. For the first time the attention of the urban middle classes was drawn to the plight of these fellow countrymen. Even now they have not quite appreciated that many of the migrant returning to the villages were refugees of developmental activities that had earlier destroyed the natural resource base of their livelihoods: through submersion under reservoirs, or through pollution, mining and quarrying or by acquisition of their lands. Nor have the middle classes appreciated that they themselves were the beneficiaries of these developmental activities while all the costs were being thrust upon people like the migrants walking the streets.

Aerosol capital of the world

During the lockdown, people were happy to witness unpolluted clear skies over much of the country, except over the coal fired thermal power stations. With the lifting of the lockdown, this has quickly gone and the skies are once again hazy, loaded with aerosol particles. Given the present levels of global warming, the pattern of rainfall shifts when there is a heavy load of aerosol particles in the atmosphere, from a slow drizzle over 2-3 hours to intense rain over a much shorter period like 30 minutes. This increases the risk of floods and landslides. India leads the world in its load of aerosols, this being one cost that we have to bear locally while other consequences of global warming are forced upon the entire world. So many more floods and landslides may well be in store for us in the coming rainy season.

Coal, diesel and petroleum

Global warming is largely a result of continuing excessive consumption of coal, diesel and petroleum. The United State along with China leads the world in consumption of fossil fuels. We are blindly following in their footsteps even though it is clear that solar power, including guaranteed 24-hour power supply is now available at rates lower than those for coal power. India is aspiring to become a world superpower; going on promoting the use of coal therefore makes no sense economically. Atomic power is even more expensive. Besides, Nisarga was predicted to hit the Palghar district of Maharashtra where the Tarapur Atomic Power Station is located right on the coast. Had it hit Tarapur there could have been a major disaster leading to dispersal of dangerous radioactive wastes in the ocean waters.

Global warming

The last 40 years have been warmer than the average for the 20th century. Twelve of the warmest years all occurred after 1998. The world is already warmer by 1 degree Celsius. Water heats up more slowly than the air; moreover, there is an enormous store of water in the oceans that cover 70% of earth's surface and has trenches deeper than Mount Everest.

Nevertheless, ocean waters have now warmed enough to drive major changes. The frequency of cyclones over the Arabian Sea has been increasing over last few years but these were all going west towards Oman. In an unprecedented development a cyclone has now hit the Konkan coast south of Mumbai.

All over the world, the sea level has been rising more rapidly than had been expected. This rise is particularly pronounced in the tropics. At the same time, the ground is sinking in cities like Mumbai due to the weight of construction and the lowering of ground water levels because of overuse. The shallowing of the rivers, estuaries and coastal waters due to deforestation and mining is further adding to the woes.

Destruction of Western Ghats forests

The destruction of Western Ghats forests started with the British conquest of India beginning in 1757. The British were hungry for timber for construction of their ships, gun carriages and buildings, to lay the railway sleepers and as fuel for the railway trains. So, as soon as they subjugated India, they divested the village communities of all their authority, taking over their common property resources as state-owned resources, thereby destroying the system that had thus far preserved the country’s natural wealth.

The 1860 gazetteer of Ratnagiri district recounts that several ports on the west coast such as Dabhol and Harnai had by then become very shallow and dysfunctional due to sedimentation. Thus, the British had managed to thoroughly degrade the tree cover of Maharashtra Western Ghats in just over 40 years.

Goa’s communidades

In contrast, Goa’s green mantle was largely intact till 1961 when the Portuguese left. The Portuguese had also attempted to divest village communities of their authority but had to retract when that led to a serious decline in agricultural production and loss of land revenue. They then instituted a regime called “communidade” (Portuguese for the Konkani name Gaonkari) that substantially left intact the traditional authority of village communities. So, under the continued care of local communities Goa had remained verdant and the Vasco da Gama port had not silted up. It began to silt up after 1961 as clear-felling and replacement of natural vegetation by exotics by the forest department as also mining gathered pace. In addition, the mining overburden as well as some of the ore stacked on river banks for transport by barges got washed off into the waterways. Today, Vasco da Gama port is being dredged to facilitate its development as a coal port and this dredging is destroying the fish and shellfish resources.

West coast scenario

The disastrous consequences that the Konkan coast has experienced as a result of the cyclonic storm accompanied by storm surges are due to degradation of the coastal environment by human interventions. Luckily Nisarga struck during low tides, had the tides been high there could have been far greater damage. The entire west coast is today afflicted by blatant violations of coastal regulatory zone and pollution control regulations. This is happening by construction of highways that are destroying the remaining tree cover, and by unpopular projects like the Vasco De Gama coal port in Goa, Tadadi coal port in Karnataka and the Vizhingjam coal port in Kerala. All these so-called development projects are bound to be seriously damaged in the coming years because while Nisarga was the first cyclone—defined as a storm with a strong centre of low atmospheric pressure, known as an "eye", and accompanied by very heavy winds—to hit the west coast of India, it will not be the last one. Many more are highly likely to hit the west coast in the coming years inflicting colossal economic damage.

Coastal mangroves

What then should we be doing? First and foremost, we must recreate the protective shield for our coastline. Mangroves flourish on the muddy seashore where rivers and streams join the sea. These mangroves not only dampen the impact of the storm surges, but simultaneously nourish the marine fish and shellfish resources. These mangroves are being destroyed all along the coasts of India. As always happens the government records are falsified to deny the very existence of mangroves in many places. One such is the Pen taluka of Raigad district in Maharashtra. Some scientist friends of mine are experts at interpretation of satellite imagery and I asked them if they were not aware of the mangrove forest on the Pen coast. They told me that they were indeed fully aware but being obedient servants of the Government of India, they were forced to turn a blind eye. Where it is impossible to deny the existence of mangroves, our honourable ministers state that destroying some mangroves does not matter because it will be compensated by planting 10 times as many trees on some barren wasteland elsewhere. This is like telling a farmer that they will confiscate his Jafarabadi milch cow and compensate him with 10 white leghorn chicks.

Shield of Mastwood trees

Parts of the seacoast are rocky; others have sandy beaches. So, there is no mangrove to shield them. But in the pre-British times the local communities had erected a protective shield of tall mastwood trees, Calopyllum inophyllum (Surangi in Marathi, Honnemara in Kannada, Punna in Malayalam, Punnaga in Sanskrit) all along the coastline. These are ideally suited for masts of the ships, so immediately after their conquest the British extracted all these mastwood trees destroying the very effective protective shield for the coast. We must therefore regenerate the mangroves and recreate the protective shield of the mastwood trees to face the challenges of increasing assaults of nature on our coastline in the coming years.

Hind Swaraj

Our people at the grassroots would surely welcome such a development.

India’s strength lies in its democracy. Our Constitution declares that it is the people of India that are sovereign. Only 10% of Indians are employed in the organized sector; the remaining 90% are in the unorganized or informal sector, many of whom are "ecological refugees". They would heartily welcome programmes of ecological restoration. To tap this potential, we must pursue genuine democratic decentralization and empower local communities, whether they be in the villages or city mohallas. This is what Mahatma Gandhi had so eloquently pleaded for in his “Hind Swaraj”. Today a large fraction of the young people from among rural, pastoral, fishing and tribal communities have received a modicum of education. If they visualize these possibilities and work together, then we can indeed translate the Mahatma’s dream into reality.

Promise of modern technology

The increasingly powerful social media can play a vital role in such an endeavour. Of course, social media is a two-edged sword and can sow the seeds of discord just as it could bring people together. Hopefully they will increasingly come to serve the purpose of unifying the Indian people to strive to rebuild India’s much abused ecology. If we can accomplish this, then one day India can come to be like Switzerland, notable both for its verdure and its direct democracy.

The extensive forest cover of Switzerland has developed over the last 150 years. Prior to that 96% of that country’s lands had been deforested and there were disastrous landslides. This led to a public awakening and set in motion a process of restoration of the tree cover. But this regeneration has been all managed by local communities – not by any government department. Working together, small communities of Switzerland revived the country’s ecology.

Vikas ko janandolan banayenge

India is today engaged in pursuing deceptive economic growth by mindlessly liquidating its capital of natural resources while further accentuating inequalities and social discord. Inevitably we are being penalized by manifold manifestations of nature’s wrath. There is then no option but to genuinely implement the professed objectives of “Sabka sath, sabka vikas” and “Vikas ko janandolan banayenge”.

Madhav Gadgil, Ecologist, nature lover and staunch believer in democratic decentralization, Pune
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