An Article on ‘Ecological Concerns’ by Hasmukh Shah, Chairman, Gujarat Ecology Commission, Vadodara

Gujarat Ecology Commission
GERI Campus, Race Course Road, Vadodara - 390 007. INDIA

Ecological Concerns

Ecological Concerns
- Hasmukh Shah

GUJARAT exhibits a wide variation of geo-climatic environments. It is endowed with a great diversity of natural ecosystems ranging from deserts (including scrub-forests, grasslands, ranns) and coastal (including mangroves, coral-reefs, estuaries) to forests (including dry deciduous, moist deciduous and evergreen). These ecosystems harbour important habitats for a variety of plants and animals, including several rare and endangered species. Economically, Gujarat is one of the richer states of India. It is believed that the state is, or would soon be, the number one industrial state of the country on several counts, including the proportion of workforce in industry and per capita industrial output. Also, with over a third of its population living in urban areas, it is among the more urbanised states with a network of about 225 urban centres. The high levels of industrialisation and urbanisation also means larger demands for energy, water, land and infrastructure. As industrial activity gathers momentum in some of the less industrialised areas such as the coastal belt, ecologically important and fragile areas will face serious threats. Some of them like the thorn forests in Narayan Sarovar, the habitat of the Asian wild ass, the breeding grounds of flamingos or the rare coral reefs in the Gulf of Kutch are the last remnants of their kind. The demand for natural resources and their products in urban areas is high, especially resources such as fuel, timber, procured food and their products. Earth work, changes in drainage pattern, plantation, construction and waste disposal place stress on the natural ecosystems, resulting in a process of degradation and pollution of the area. Economic development has not been an unmixed blessing anywhere. While several sections of Gujarati society enjoy an improved quality of life, the predominance of polluting industries - such as textiles, chemicals, hydrocarbons, pharmaceuticals and cement - have an adverse fall out. The extensive withdrawal of ground water in certain areas, overall hydrologic imbalance and population and livestock pressures have led to process of desertification,

increased soil salinity, drying up of traditional water sources and depletion of bio-diversity. Gujarat’s ecological health therefore, is a matter of some concern. Two major controversies have contributed to sullying the image of Gujarat as environmentally insensitive. One, the opposition to the height of the Narmada dam, and two, setting up of the Sanghi cement plant in anerstwhile protected area. Effective action on the part of NGOs and CBOs in the state, extensive public interest litigation resulting in strong judicial pronouncements, remedial actions initiated by the state government, setting up of institutions such as the Gujarat Ecology Commission (GEC) and the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology (GUIDE), excellent work in watershed management and recharging of wells, overall increase in green cover and other positive developments have unfortunately received little attention. Let us examine the state of Gujarat’s ecological health, particularly with respect to key elements such as air, water, land and bio-diversity. Air quality in urban centres is far from satisfactory. The sulphur oxide (SOx) concentrations considerably exceed the norms (80 and 60 micro grams per cubic metre for industrial and residential areas respectively) in the industrial areas of Ahmedabad and Vadodara. Similarly, the nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels in Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Surat exceed maximum permissible limits (80 and 60 micro grams per cubic metre) for industrial and residential areas respectively. Particulate concentrations are higher than permissible in all the three cities (360 and 140 micro grams per cubic metre for industrial and residential areas respectively). Further, even in rural areas, with the use of fuelwood and crop residues as fuel, there is considerable pollution in terms of suspended particulate matter (SPM) and noxious gases. Rural women bear the brunt of this pollution. Kirit Parikh observed that since more than 80% of the rural population depend

Ecological Concerns

on such non-commercial energy (NCE), the magnitude of pollution in the kitchens is significant. The cumulative effects of pollution in rural homes is high and serious enough to merit greater attention. Large parts of the state (north Gujarat, Kutch and Saurashtra) are drought prone with low and erratic rainfall. High variation in rainfall—in terms of locales, timing and quantity - within the state results in skewed availability of water resources. It is evident that the water needs - agricultural and industrial - cannot be met from the water available in each region. Large scale and ‘mega’ irrigation projects have thus become central to the solution of the problem. It is in this context that the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Project (SSNP) has captured the imagination of the people of Gujarat at all levels, from the grass- roots to the highest levels of political decision-making and evokes strong support within the state. Unfavourable geomorphologic conditions not only create shortage of surface water but also result in poor ground water recharge. Evaporation rates are high, varying from 1.9m/year in south Gujarat to over 2.3 m/year in Kutch and northern parts of the state. As a result, the ground water resources are relatively limited and almost fully exploited in some parts of the state, Despite (the fall in ground water tables, efforts to drill more bore wells show no sign of tapering off. Due to the discharge of effluents from industrial estates and disposal of untreated sewerage, the lower stretches of the Sabarmati, Khari and Dhadar rivers have become highly polluted as have the Mahi, Narmada and Tapi rivers. While the water quality in most rivers is unsatisfactory in terms of the Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD), of greater concern, perhaps, are the levels of coliform countan indication of the large quantity of untreated sewage that is dumped into these rivers. The State Pollution Control Board and the state government have initiated several steps to control the increasing water and air pollution. The main sources of waste water are the municipal areas and the chemical industry estates. It is necessary that the requisite facilities for collection, treatment and disposal of effluents, such as common effluent treatment plants, be established in the industrial areas. Further, there is a marked decline in the quality of

ground water in many parts of the state. The entire coastal belt of Gujarat is beset with problems of high salinity. A high fluoride content, associated with the geochemical nature of rocks, affects nearly 15 districts. The heavy withdrawal of ground water has only worsened the situation. The net sown area in Gujarat during 1994-95 was around 96,087 sq km, i.e. less than 50% of its total geographical area. While the introduction of high yielding varieties helped increase grain yields to significant levels wherever irrigation water, fertiliser, agricultural machinery, pesticides and related inputs are provided, the droughts of 1985 and 1987 made clear that without abundant water these new varieties produced less than the old native ones. Extensive monocultures devoted to a single variety are far too susceptible to insect and disease attacksdespite or because of the massive use of pesticides. Further, the water intensive cropping patterns have introduced new vulnerabilities like soil erosion and soil degradation in a number of areas. Remote data sensing reveals that more than 78,000 sq km or 40% of the total area is degraded. Studies carried out by GUIDE (1996) concluded that the process of desertification is on the rise in Kutch and Banaskantha districts. The area under forests is nearly 10% of the total land area of the state as against the national average of 18%. The per capita forest area in the state is 0.06 hectare as against the all India average of 0.13 hectare. Between 1950 and 1975, a nearly 4.1 million hectares of good forest was lost, including to agriculture. Bio-diversity forms the basis of life and development and plays an important role in protecting the resilience of ecological systems. Unfortunately, there are no major studies on the bio-diversity and natural history of Gujarat. Scattered studies carried out in universities and other institutions are rather limited in scope, confined to a few species or a group of species in select areas. Recently the Gujarat Ecology Commission estimated that records exist for about 7040 microbial, 4300 floral and 2700 faunal species in the state or five, eight and four per cent respectively of those estimated for the country (GEC, 1996). The floral richness is mainly attributable to the variety of niches available. There are nearly 2,200 species of higher plants belonging to 902 genera

Ecological Concerns

and 155 families representing 12.9% of the floral diversity of the country. A large number of mangrove species — as many as 27 - have been identified in (the coastal regions of the state. The published records indicate that 53 species of plants are rare and restricted to certain localities only. We now examine the conflict of interest in the exploitation of natural resources. Different perceptions lie at the roots of any conflict and Gujarat is no exception. It may be worthwhile to reflect on the reasons for such differential perceptions. Despite a history of a fractured socio-political set up Gujarat enjoys a legacy of outstanding leadership. This has contributed to the emergence of different schools of thought on development, ranging from the traditionalist to the postmodernist, who not only set different goals but also propagate the adoption of diverse routes. The state also has a strong organisational ethos traditionally passed on through a variety of nongovernmental organisations that work for social, cultural, economic, and even religious purposes. These community groups and organisations have, therefore, provided a ready vehicle for the acceptance and propagation of the different ideological schools. Developmental efforts in the state have obviously failed to take due cognisance of this multiplicity. Instead of trying to forge a certain level of consensus with different stake holders on important issues, state planning relied mainly on the verdict of the people’s elected representatives. Any dissent was viewed as politically motivated, fit to be ignored. A natural corollary of this being reduced communication, it led to serious restrictions in the availability of information. Lack of proper information or only partial information often lies behind misinformation campaigns, which make for an environment of mistrust and ultimately to situations of conflict. The levels of concern among the entrepreneurs for their products and by-products (chiefly wastes) are often quite different. This corporate insensitivity has led to serious conflicts in many cases. The case of Maradiya Chemicals at Sayla is a classic example of how toxic effluents were released in the open, creating serious problems of land degradation and contamination of ground water. For people in the neighbourhood, the productivity of land and the

quality of water resources is of prime concern for the simple reason of survival. There are many other such cases, even in GIDC industrial centres, which have provoked the local people to take up cudgels, chiefly through agitation and public interest litigation. Though pollution remains a major rallying point against many of the industrial units, the spin-off from such debates often broadens the scope to include questions related to allocation of natural resources, equitable distribution of wealth, protection of wildlife and conservation of traditional systems. Serious concern is expressed when water is made available for industrial purposes. Similarly, when bulk quantities of mineral resources and forest produce are diverted for commercial use, questions are raised about the rights and aspirations of the local people. While these issues directly impinge on human welfare, a major concern has emerged about the protection of wildlife and conservation of traditional systems. The protracted legal battle on the issue of denotification of the Narayan Sarovar Sanctuary is a case in point. While the government rightly perceives the industrialisation of Kutch as a major step towards the uplift of this backward area, prominent environmental NGOS and individuals also rightly see it as the destruction of the last major chunk of wilderness in the state The conflicts revolve around threats to natural habitats conservation of rare and endangered species and accelerated pressures on a fragile ecosystem . The issues raised while opposing the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam provide a classic example of differential perceptions of development at the local level as against the larger interest of the state or nation. Activists stress issues related to human resettlement, the use of forest areas as current means of livelihood for the local people, and the breakdown of traditions. While the state is committed towards a just and comprehensive rehabilitation programme, the conflict around Sardar Sarovar has, nevertheless, opened up and perpetuated debates on a much wider front. Finally, some sections question the entire approach towards development that is currently being followed in the state. They propagate the adoption of organic farming systems, greater reliance on local resource management, enhanced participation in decision-making processes at all levels and so on. Against this backdrop the government is working

Ecological Concerns

for the accelerated economic development of the state more successfully than in most other states. The major players in this drama are the politicians, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, people whose land has been acquired and who suffer due to water and air pollution, NGOs/CBOs, media and the judiciary. The politician has shown greater concern for economic development as compared to protection of environment in the belief that industrialisation will generate more employment and higher revenues to the state - both politically important. The argument is that if the choice were between the survival (salt workers) and survival of the wild ass, the former would get preference. Or, if the choice were between a large cement plant generating employment and revenue on one hand and a few chinkaras or a dry thorn forest on the other, the cement plant would get precedence. When the life span of a government is short (Gujarat has been ruled by seven chief ministers and once by a governor in the last five years) and elections become more frequent, political will gives place to political survival. The politician does not consider the long term implications of his decisions. In fast changing fortunes the politician has no time to look for solutions which can provide for coexistence of agarias and the wild ass or the cement plant and the dry thorn forest with acceptable adjustment on both sides. There are few politicians in the country who understand the complexities of environmental issues and their long term ramifications. This is largely because there has been little effort to inform people or their elected representatives on environmental issues, as was done by Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s for economic planning or about the use of science and technology to improve agricultural productivity. Unfortunately, the politician is often kept at an arms length by the environmentalist. Rarely are elected representatives invited to workshops, conferences and seminars on environment. The politician no doubt has his own priorities of survival. But it must be conceded that rarely does a minister turn down a good environmental project if it is packaged with an orientation in favour of adivasis or the landless. The message, as one civil servant put it, is to correlate the environmental interest with that of the politician’s to provide employment or access to resources like fuel and fodder to the poor.

The bureaucrat’s job is to articulate the legislation, policies and programmes. While the politician incurs the wrath of environmentalists, the bureaucrat prepares the defence. By training he is expected to carry out the policies of the government and not the personal wishes of political masters. But in reality political pressure builds up with obvious consequences. Also, in the value system that has evolved over five decades, most bureaucrats prefer to work in departments dealing with industrial development or finance. There are few takers for agriculture and even less for education or health. Barring some honourable exceptions, the department of environment is rarely the first choice. Nevertheless, some officers have tried to do justice to the given charge as disciplined soldiers, some have even suffered in the process. Recently, the position of the bureaucrat in Gujarat has been rather unenviable, as he has to spend considerable time in dealing with litigation leaving less time for developmental work. The entrepreneur wants a prime location for his unit irrespective of whether it is within or near a protected area, tourist site, near a holy shrine, or close to an urban area. The state government, in its eagerness to attract investment, is inclined to oblige the entrepreneur. However given current regulations, the entrepreneur has to agree to all the conditions to protect environmental quality. In practice, some of them do take short cuts, or transgress the laid down limits. Some companies, making huge profits, have not hesitated to pump their highly toxic effluent into the earth with disastrous consequences. When such units were sought to be shut down, often the plea was to keep them going to protect the interest of workers. In such cases the entrepreneur’s concern for his workers, who are normally denied even minimum safety equipment, is rather touching. Very few units have on their own followed rigorous environmental standards. The people who lose their land are the worst sufferers since they forever lose the ownership of the means of production. The compensation that they receive is often used up in non-productive pursuits. There are no schemes for a profitable deployment of compensation. In some cases, mainly public sector, one member of the land loser’s family may get a job. But other owners as well as the landless become unemployed. They are generally not equipped to find a place in the new industrial society.

Ecological Concerns

The neighbourhood communities who are victims of air and water pollution and soil degradation have for long suffered silently. In many cases the village wells and other water-bodies have been contaminated. In some cases sustained air pollution has caused diseases. Land degradation due to solid waste disposal or release of non-treated effluent and settling down of fine particles due to air pollution is evident in several areas. Unfortunately, when these people agitate local leaders or toughies are brought into the fray. In some cases common community amenities are provided on a modest scale to assuage feelings. NGOs in Gujarat are largely engaged in spreading awareness or in formulating and implementing specific projects in identified areas. Some. like the Centre for Environment Education (CEE), Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), Shree Vivekananda Research and Training Institute (VRTI). Development Support Centre (DSC), Sadguru, Mahiti-Utthan have an excellent track record of creating awareness and/ or implementing projects of far reaching importance in certain areas. Their success in informing people or their representatives, sensitising (the bureaucracy and the entrepreneur or projecting the interests of neighbourhood communities has however been rather modest. Only in the recent past have NGOs and CBOs successfully taken up the cause of environmental pollution and projection of neighbourhood suffering as in the case of Sanghi Cement, Maradia Chemicals, Jetpur Sari dyeing units, Vatva-Odhav-Naroda industrial estates and industries around the Narmada estuary. Besides the NGOs listed above, mention may be made of the Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC) and the Manaviya Technology Forum (MTF) in taking up the cause of neighbourhood communities. Though the media has highlighted environmental issues, the priorities and emphasis of the vernacular and English language media differ. The electronic media has helped to create general awareness about the wonders of nature, but local issues affecting the life of the viewer rarely get aired. Also, consistency or objectivity in environmental reporting is rarely discernible. Negative stories get wider coverage while positive developments are seldom reported. NGO and CBO activism and extensive litigation with regard to industrial pollution in the mid-90s has, after initial resistance, led to several positive

developments in Gujarat. Industrial units have realised that they cannot pollute the air and water and indiscriminately discharge toxic waste. Though not necessarily out of concern for the environment, the industry has, due to judicial pronouncements, initiated measures to contain pollution within permissible limits. Some industry associations have taken the initiative to set up common effluent treatment plants (CETPs) in their estates. Gujarat now claims to have the highest - almost 95% -compliance in pollution control in 17 CPCB classified industries. The first hazardous waste disposal site in the country has been commissioned and 17 others are being developed. Treatment of hazardous waste at three locations has been completed for the first time in India. CETP’s are in operation or under construction at 14 industrial estates. Gujarat is the first state to commission a GIS based hazardous waste tracking system. There are several other initiatives which have been taken up by the state government and GPCB. Studies of carrying capacity of certain areas have been undertaken. As a result there has been a sharp drop in litigation and closures. Gujarat is also planning to set up an institute on the lines of NEERl. All this does not mean that everything is well on the pollution front. While action on various pollution litigations has been initiated, their success will depend on rigorous monitoring and deterrent action against erring units. It will be an acid test for all the regulatory mechanisms as well as of NGOs, CBOs and the media. While the ground realities are not ideal, there are clear signs of improvement. Gujarat started this decade as perhaps the state with the most unenviable record of industrial pollution. But it is likely to end it on a much more positive note. Compared to other states, Gujarat is poised to emerge as a cleaner state in terms of industrial environment within a decade. The real concern however is about non industryrelated ecological degradation, despite the excellent track record of NGOs in watershed development and recharging of wells. The increase in salinity, accelerated desertification. loss of marine biotic wealth and the depletion of bio-diversity are areas of concern, particularly since the process is gradual and decision-makers may wake up to the danger too late.

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