India in Peril | People & Places | Smithsonian

India in Peril

Rakesh Jaiswal, founder of ecofriends.org, talks about the country's growing list of environmental problems

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What will it take for a nationwide environmental movement to succeed in India?

The environmental awareness has increased, but there's no movement as such on a national scale. I don't think it's appropriate to call it a movement if a few hundred people participate, protest, demonstrate on some issue in a country which has more than a billion people. We can't imagine a nationwide movement till there's a demand from people everywhere and from every walk of life for a clean environment.

What are the main obstacles to environmental clean-up?

India is faced with numerous natural hazards, multiple health hazards, various combinations of poverty, population explosion, increasing materialism and consumerism, industrialization, urbanization, poor infrastructure, energy crisis, poor agricultural practices and so on.

An estimated 60 percent of cultivated land suffers from various forms of land degradation. The water resources are heavily contaminated. Rivers and lakes are dying. Various animal and plant species are endangered and on the verge of extinction.

We have the best of environmental laws and regulations in place but very lax implementation of these laws and regulations. Environment and pollution related issues are a low priority for the government, industries and people.

What used to be a horrible air pollution problem in Delhi has been dramatically improved by only allowing natural gas buses within the city. Do you think that is a success story?

The air quality has improved in Delhi. Everyone, the government, the civil society organizations, the media claim this. People also have this perception. It's not only CNG [clean natural gas]; various factors have played a role simultaneously. The metro, shifting of industries from non-conforming areas, cleaner fuel (low sulpher diesel and lead free petrol), stricter emission norms. CNG may have played a bigger role.

Are there cultural or religious beliefs in India that advocate caring for the environment?

Nature is worshipped in India. Air, water, rivers, animals and trees are treated as deities. But simultaneously air is polluted, rivers are profaned, tigers are poached, elephants are killed for tusks.

There are polluting social practices which have done the damage most to river Ganga. People consign dead bodies to river Ganga with a belief that the departed soul will be salvaged, go to heaven.

Government sponsors the river pollution on a massive scale. There are bathing festivals on certain occasions when millions of people flock to the river to have a holy dip. Much more resources have been spent in organizing these festivals than in cleaning the river.

What were Gandhi's thoughts about conservation?

Gandhi's thoughts about conservation are based on some of his basic principles like non-violence, simple living in harmony with nature. He was critical of western consumerism and materialism. He was of the opinion that the modern western civilization which equated consumerist lifestyle and abundance with development was self-destructive in nature.

Gandhi said Earth has enough to satisfy the needs of all the people, but not for satisfying the greed of some people. Gandhi also emphasized to keep in view the future generations before using up natural resources by the present generation.

Do you think population growth is a major factor in increasing environmental destruction?

Population growth is the most important factor in increasing environmental destruction. India's population grows by 1,815 [people] per hour.

Though India launched a family planning program long back, but this has failed to have any impact. The literate, educated and financially well-off people have voluntarily adopted small family norm. But the majority who are poor, illiterate and uneducated don't even think about family planning. Government started forced sterilizations in 1975 which led to the fall of the then government.

It's being predicted that soon we'll overtake China [in population size].

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