A year of despair and hope

PRODUCING a newspaper or a newsmagazine is something like an unending string of little miracles. As technologists designing new machines well know, "if anything can go wrong, it will."

The same happens with us too, all the time. Yet, the publication must and does come out regularly and, more or less, on time. The key reason is team work. With this issue, Down to Earth completes its first year. And, as the reader can expect, the entire team here is happy and excited.

When planning Down To Earth as a newsmagazine, we had two concerns: One, are we fully aware of the rapid changes that are taking place in the world"s technological systems, the kinds of opportunities and problems that these changes are likely to generate, and are we debating enough which of these we want to adopt or letting ourselves through inertia be swept away by a technological tide? Two, deeply conscious of the fact that our very foundation, the Earth, is eroding and its life forms threatened, what are we doing to reverse this trend.

Documenting change in the fields of science and environment is not easy. At one level, important changes are taking place in our villages, farms and forests, and it is critical that we understand them to mobilise our people to green the Earth and develop self-sustaining production systems. But we also know that in an increasingly integrated world, we must keep a reporter"s eye on what is happening in glittering capitals such as London, Washington, Tokyo and Geneva. As the well - known author of How the Other Half Dies, Susan George, once stated, "If you want to help the poor, study the rich."

It is probably a sign of our times that India"s minister of state for environment and forests, Kamal Nath, now travels abroad more often than even the external affairs minister -- so important have environmental issues become in international diplomacy. And, it is to fill these critical information gaps that we started Down To Earth one year ago. Without reliable and rapid flow of information, we cannot take appropriate action. Every government needs a strong public opinion to stand behind it when it takes bold actions, or to prod it, when bold actions are needed.

We are a social and environment magazine. But we have tried not to lock ourselves into those issues as if they were two little ghettos. We have tried to survey all aspects of human life, survival and growth, but with the two eyes of environment and science. In other words, we have tried to make connections -- between environment and economy, between ecology and society, between technology and world integration, between North and South, between cultural and ecological diversity.

Clearly, when we started, our task was difficult and we were repeatedly asked: Will there be enough germane material to bring out a magazine fortnight after fortnight? And will we be able to maintain standards? The answer probably lies in an examination of the highlights of Down To Earth"s coverage in its first year -- a journey through a world that is frightening, disgusting and worrying but, at the same time, fascinating and full of hope and promise.

We have covered disaster stories, from dam bursts in the Himalaya to volcanic devastation in the Philippines. Horrendous as these natural disasters were, even worse have been human-made disasters. Barren lands, degraded hills, polluted cities and polluted rivers like the once-beautiful Damodar. Like many parts of Eastern Europe, the Damodar valley has become the hapless victim of massive coal extraction and heavy coal-based industrialisation. Though the valley has subsidised the entire nation"s industrialisation, it has itself been subjected to such extreme degradation that its future has been jeopardised.

And who is the culprit? Each and everyone of us. None of us has ever paid the ecological costs of consuming coal from the Damodar valley. This form of subsidy, which can destroy entire regions, is something that the that Union finance minister Manmohan Singh has yet to review.

We have reported the poverty and desperation that results from degrading resource bases and featured the unhappy lot of numerous people, including the traditional woodcarvers of Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, whose handicrafts are appreciated throughout the world but who find it difficult and expensive now to get even a minimum supply of the sheesham wood they carve so skilfully.

That supply follows demand may be a truism for marketwallahs, but for the poor, the market usually tends to play truant. In such situations, conflicts are inevitable and we have reported the struggles of various people to protect their habitat, such as those sparked by the Narmada and the Tehri dams; the fisherfolk of Chilika, taking on a powerful corporation wanting to exploit the lake for quick profits; the frequently violent disputes between traditional and trawler fishing crews in Kerala, and, the people of south Goa citing their right to prefer serenity and beauty as they oppose the development promised by the proposed Konkan railway route.

If development is oppressive, so can be bad environmental management. There was no dearth of skirmishes around national parks and sanctuaries. The most fascinating has been the protest by animal-loving, vegetarian Gujjar Muslims, who face displacement from the Shivalik forests and the destruction of their centuries-old, forest-based culture and livelihood. The Gujjars are not just resisting displacement but are also demanding that the management of their forest be entrusted to them. They promise they will do it more efficiently than government foresters. Will the government find the courage to create the country"s first people"s park?

While coverage of conflict, despair and degradation may have given our columns a depressing look, we have not forgotten the dictum of Barbara Ward, one of the founders of the world environmental movement, "We have a duty to hope." So we have scoured the country for signs of hope, for individual acts of courage, for social innovation, for people"s management. And reported the extraordinary Priya Ratna Mishra, who has inspired villagers in Palamau to pool their degraded land and plant it with crops, shrubs and trees that bring them returns every six months instead of the six years that is normal for plantations. In Udaipur we met Bhanwar Lal Sharma, a local vaid (traditional healer), who has developed so safe and successful a surgical method to remove the guinea worm that the UN flew him to Ghana to demonstrate his technique to doctors there. We have found a children"s group in Karnataka that wants to manage and develop its own forest and a voluntary agency in Alwar promoting the traditional Rajasthani water-harvesting system called johad.

Hindi poet Mahadevi Varma once remarked, "You cannot take a step forward unless one foot is firmly rooted in the ground." The same is true of societies -- those which completely neglect their traditions, tend to stray. Which is why we found ourselves drawn to Chittaur fort and its elaborate water harvesting system amidst its formidable fortifications on top of the hill. It"s not in water harvesting alone that community enterprise exists in Indian tradition. As we informed our readers, even use of the humble cow-pat is governed by village rules that also dictate its ownership. In several parts of India, once a twig or pebble is left in the centre of the pat, no one else can remove it.

Environmentally-sound science can play a critical role in bringing about desirable change. The science report that aroused most interest was on neem, whose values have been known in India through the ages, but needed the imprimatur of Western science to be accepted as a panacea for a whole series of global problems -- from pest eradication to population control. It produced perhaps the quote of the year, by an Indian cigarette manufacturer, promoting neem"s use on tobacco farms in Andhra Pradesh, who said; "We don"t want residues of synthetic pesticides to get into the lungs of our cigarette users and affect their health." Australia is embarking on a programme to plant neem by the million and make it the world"s biggest manufacturer of neem chemicals. An extremely unequal exchange for the horrendous eucalyptus that India received.

Recognising India"s traditional insularity, Down to Earth also looked closely at our neighbours and found that they, too, have paid a heavy pollution price in the pursuit of development -- gas masks in the Kathmandu valley because of severe pollution, a degraded Thar desert in Pakistan and a dying Indus delta because of numerous dams and canals upstream. The Mohana fishing community, whose roots reach back to the early Indus civilisation, are leaving their homes in the delta.

In the West, we found an interesting debate emerging on the links between economics and environment, and new ideas like green budgets and ecological tax reforms. It is very unlikely that Western countries will deal with the ecological crisis through controls on consumption. No Gandhian response should be expected from it. But it is more likely to reduce ecological impacts through technological transformations and improvements in materials and energy efficiency.

But how does a market economy send the right green signals? The argument that is emerging there is that industrialisation has been built on labour-saving devices at the expense of increasing energy and materials-intensity leading to severe threats to the biosphere. Therefore, taxation systems should now be so devised that use of materials and energy gets heavily taxed, while economic goods like savings and incomes are encouraged. A world is needed in which GDP is rising continuously, but use of energy and materials is restrained. With the economy moving more towards services and knowledge-based industries like computers, this is already happening slowly in the German economy. But can a similar macro-economic change take place in a developing country in India at its current stage of economy?

The fact is ecological costs are clearly something that all of must learn to pay. Who does not like fruits? But in the banana, orange and apple belts of India, there is overuse of groundwater, heavy use of pesticides and deforestation. And, heavy government subsidies.

The grossest inequities are of course global. We reported the Rio conference in l992, fully conscious of an iniquitous world. The North has extracted resources cheaply from the South and in the process mounted up an extraordinary ecological debt. In our editorials and articles, we repeatedly said, "If the market is what we must live with, then the North and of course the rich in the South must pay the full ecological costs of their consumption." Simple calculations show that the North ought to pay several hundreds of billions of dollars every year for its use of our share of the atmosphere, for the destruction of ozone layer, for the use of our biodiversity, and for the ecological costs of producing goods such as tea, coffee, bananas, chocolate, peanuts, prawns and pineapples, without which life in Europe would be so different.

Has anybody been listening to us? Its hard to say. But a Dutch university magazine did write: "We recommend you read Down to Earth. We are not sure you will like reading it. But it is important that you do."

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