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THE CULTURAL DIMENSION OF ECOLOGY

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Ecological Degradation Due to Exploitation of Natural Resources and Development

Ramakar Pant and Rakesh Khanduri

There is a story related to the environment, in which a boy who was a very good painter made a big painting of a scene. There were big mountains covered with trees, except a few in the far background which looked snow-covered. From one of the mountains flowed a beautiful river. Down in the valley could be seen a few cosy cottages surrounded by gardens, a few butterflies, some birds soaring high in the air and little children playing happily in the open fields. Indeed it was a beautiful painting.

The boy had a little brother. He also wanted to try his hand at painting. As soon as he got the chance, he picked up the brush and painted the mountain all black. The sparkling blue-white water of the river became brown, and with just one stroke of his brush, the flowers and trees and butterflies disappeared. His older brother was heartbroken. The only consolation was that the child who destroyed the painting was so small that he had done it in ignorance. Though it would require a lot of time and effort, the painter could paint another picture.

Something very similar is happening in our lives. How many of us have looked at nature’s beauty, a thousand times more beautiful than any painting can ever be, and realised how fragile it is? Just like the child’s stroke of the brush, one action of ours can destroy this beauty — be it the mountains with their forest cover or the sparkling streams and rivers of life-giving water, be it the immense sand deserts or our oceans which are teeming with life; be it our lush green rain forests or the stark beauty of our cold deserts. But, and this is an important but, there is a major difference. While the painting was spoiled by an ignorant child, our earth and its environment are being spoiled by adult humans. Even more significant is the possibility that if nature’s system or what we call the environment is destroyed, the effect may be fatal for many species.

Environmentalist and social activist Shri Sunderlal Bahuguna once pointed out that the agony of the present-day world is the offshoot of an illogical and indiscriminate spoliation of the sources of the earth and nature by man for his meaningless material development that is leading him fast towards destruction.

Environment: A Concept of Wholeness

The environment is a concept of wholeness (nature), with non-living and living components interdependent among themselves. It is aptly defined as ‘the sum total of all conditions and influences that affect the development and life of organisms’. This comprehensive definition stresses totality, and every living organism from the lowest to the highest, including human being, has it own environment. The word ‘nature’ in the Gita also conveys the idea that it does not belong to anyone but everyone belongs to it, like a family does not belong to anyone but everyone belongs to the family. Like in a family, in the environment also interactions between its different constituents are expected, and these interactions sometimes might lead to hazardous situations. Interaction is leading to the faster deterioration of the environment.

Traditionally, our understanding of the environment was holistic. A shloka from the Isha Upanishad goes, ‘the whole universe together with its creatures belongs to the Lord (nature). One can enjoy the bounties of nature by giving up all greed’. Implicit in this thought is that no creature is superior to any other, and human beings should not have absolute power over nature. Let no one species encroach on the rights and privileges of nature. The element of sustainability is ingrained in this, because the emphasis is on using nature without greed. Once the element of greed enters, exploitation starts and we cease to utilise nature for the good of all human beings.

Traditional cultures have always lived in harmony with their natural environments. Nature and humankind (prakriti and purusha) form inseparable parts of the life support system. This system has five elements: air, water, land, flora and fauna, which are interconnected, interrelated and interdependent. Deterioration in one element affects the others.

Traditional social ethics placed great emphasis on the values, beliefs and attitudes that helped man to live in harmony with nature. The Bhumi Suktam in the Atharvaveda is said to be the most impressive and eloquent testament of ecological values that can be found anywhere in world literature. These and similar texts from diverse cultural traditions throughout the earth express a world-view which is informed by the spirituality inherent in nature and stress the holistic and harmonious relationship between humanity and nature.

In the Manusmriti (5.45) it is written that ‘he who injures innoxious beings from a wish to give himself pleasure, never finds happiness, whether living or dead’. Reference to ecological concerns is also found in Charaka Samhita, Vimansthan, 3.2. ‘The destruction of forests is most dangerous for the nation and human beings. Vanaspati has a direct relation with the well-being of society. Due to the pollution of the natural environment and the destruction of forests, many diseases crop up to ruin the nation’.

During Ashoka’s time (272-232 bc), perhaps for the first time in the history of the world ecological concerns became state concerns. His imperial edicts laid down rules of conduct that had to be obeyed with respect to the environment. Non-compliance was met with punishment.

T.N. Khoshoo writes, quoting Gandhiji in Mahatma Gandhi: An apostle of applied human ecology, that ‘it is an arrogant assumption to say that human beings are lords and masters of the lower creatures. On the contrary, being endowed with greater things in life, they are the trustees of the lower animal kingdom’. The delicate and holistic balance that exists in nature has to be respected and maintained.

The Himalayas, the proverbial ‘Third Pole’, have always remained a source of fascination and inspiration for different people and have been deemed to be the cradle of civilisation in the subcontinent. There seems to be general agreement that the ecology of the Himalayas has been endangered. The Himalayas have exercised a great influence on the environmental conditions of northern India and the people living in the Indo-Gangetic plain. They have prevented the monsoon winds from crossing over Tibet and forced them to precipitate most of their moisture on the Indian side in the form of rain and snow. This unique ecology of the Himalayas, which has such an extensive and pervasive influence on the life of our people, needs to be preserved, conserved and qualitatively upgraded.

The developmental activities of man such as the construction of high dams, roads, exploration for minerals and mining activity and the quest for arable land have to face the challenge of intensified dynamic process, commonly referred to as geographical hazards. Natural resources are being exploited in the name of economic development. Indira Gandhi’s interpretation is that the real conflict is not between environment and development but between the environment and reckless exploitation by man in the name of efficiency. We have to live a life according to the rhythm of nature. Human inference in natural environmental conditions often gives these dynamic processes catastrophic proportions, leading to disasters and irreparable damage to the natural balance of the ecosystem.

It is not just concern about the extinction of the big cats, but concern for all inhabitants and non-living resources. We have to stop this undeclared war against nature. Human beings are at the crossroads. Careless application of technology is leading to eco-degradation and pollution. Gandhiji emphasised, ‘The earth provides enough for every man’s need but not for every man’s greed’.

Sustainable development is, therefore, a concept of good and sound economic growth that can be maintained indefinitely with damage to the environment. Good environment generally begets good economics.

The words ‘economics’ and ‘ecology’ have the same root, oikos, which refers to a house. While economics deals with financial housekeeping, ecology deals with environmental housekeeping.

Studies have shown that the perspectives of ecology are different from those of economics in that the former stresses limits rather than continuous growth, stability rather than continuous ‘development’. The ecosystem is the basic unit which has biotic and abiotic components that form an interrelated, interconnected and interdependent system. The most important characteristic of an ecosystem is that it is dynamic, evolving and auto-sustainable as long as it remains reasonably undisturbed and there is incoming sunlight. The equilibrium of an ecosystem is disturbed by external stimuli such as natural cataclysmic changes and ever-increasing human activities dictated by socio-economic growth. The basic difference is that the socio-economic system, in contrast, is hitched only to one species, human beings. In an ecosystem, different species of plants and animals including human beings and micro-organisms form an interacting system. Thus, the economic process is unidirectional and human beings can only progress forwards. Conflict between the ecosystem and the socio-economic system arises from unidirectional and unlimited human wants to meet genuine needs as also greed. This has caused ecological crisis, which in other words means human exploitation of resources at a greater rate than can be normally regenerated under natural conditions.

Central Himalayas

The central Himalayas comprise eight hill districts of Uttar Pradesh, namely Chamoli, Pauri, Tehri, Uttarkashi, Dehradoon, Almora, Nainital and Pithoragarh, spread over an area of about 52,000 sq km. The people of the region are poor, ignorant and backward but the environment has made them simple, honest, hard- working, cheerful and courageous. The region is quite rich in religious and cultural heritage. The Hindu shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri and the Sikh gurudwara at Hemkund near the famous valley of flowers attracts pilgrims every year. People come not only on pilgrimage but also to escape the stresses and strains of urban life, to relax and to enjoy the beauties of nature.

Forest: a Womb

The term ‘forest’ applies not only to trees but also to scrub vegetation and grassland. It is aptly defined as ‘a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and extends generously the products of its life activity; it affords protection to all beings, offering shade even to the axeman, who destroys it’. Trees and forests are also important for deep psychological reasons. In returning to the forest, we are returning to the womb, not in psychoanalytical terms but in cosmological terms. We are returning to our origins.

For centuries forests and the people living around have complemented each other, the latter deriving their livelihood from the farmer, who in turn maintained the ecological balance and environmental quality together with conservation of soil and water. The hill people utilise their traditional knowledge to use forest resources without destroying them. From the forest they get fuel for cooking, fodder for their cattle, fruit, timber for building their houses and medicinal herbs for curing diseases. The forest helps in maintaining the flow of perennial springs, in bringing rain, in keeping the soil and water conserved, in preventing landslides, thereby giving protection from this natural calamity. It helps regulate watershed management so as to maintain the fertility of the soil, control droughts and floods, and preserve wildlife.

Massive deforestation in the Himalayan region is the important factor in ecological degradation. Non-availability of certain species, decline of fodder and wood resources, loss of the habitat of wildlife, soil erosion, recurrent floods and drying-up springs and seasonal streams and climatic changes are the consequences of man’s activity. It is obvious that there is something wrong with the management of these vital resources.

The deforestation which has taken place due to commercial exploitation of trees for timber, resin, medicinal herbs, etc., the developing of new agricultural fields, over-grazing by animals, the coming up of new habitation (e.g. because of the construction of the Tehri dam), the building of roads mainly after the China invasion of 1962, tourism development and other development activities, increase in the population (men as well as animals), all have had an adverse affect on the environment and have brought about ecological imbalance.

The forest has gone away from the villages. It is reported that there is a scarcity of fuel, fodder and fruit. Medicinal herbs are going to be extinct. The adverse affects noticed by us were that due to deforestation in the villages of Garhwal there is watershed failure, which has resulted in both drought and flood conditions, soil erosion, landslides, changes in the microclimate, increase in the silting rate which has caused a rise of the river beds, loss of wildlife, drying up of natural springs on which the villagers depend for drinking water.

The Chipko movement took place in April 1973 in Mandal near Gopeshwar of Chamoli district. It is a grassroots non-violent and non-political movement. It is purely an ecological movement which has brought the women of the region in the mainstream of public life, and it is guided by common rural folk and not by professional leaders. ‘Chipko’ means to cling to the trees to save them from being cut. It awakened among the people the need for the protection of the forests.

One aspect of the deteriorating forest ecology is the large-scale replacement of natural forests by the plantation of only commercially profitable trees. These man-made forests are not capable of working in the same way as the natural forests for maintaining the ecological balance. In some instances they may do positive harm. For example, in the Himalayan forest, the oak tree is regarded as the farmer’s best friend because it absorbs water for a long time and releases it slowly. This gives rise to springs around which hill villages have been established. Its leaves are used as fodder, it has a leafy canopy and a rich undergrowth of grasses which protect the soil from being directly struck by rain, and its wood is used for making agricultural implements.

Now it is being replaced by pine trees because of their commercial use. The pine tree has not the capacity to retain water, which has resulted in the drying up of springs, creating a scarcity of drinking water. It has no canopy and no undergrowth, thus leaving the mountain slopes fully exposed to erosion by rain and wind. Its leaves are not used as fodder, and they are inflammable and acidic, which makes the land infertile. But in order to extract resin from the trees the planting of pines is going on.

Forest Fires

Forest fires are another cause of the destruction of trees, vegetation, thick layer of humus and animals. The two major causes of forest fire are:

  1. Intentional fire: The forest is often set on fire by the villagers during the summer season to get a good growth of grass following the rains. The fire burns the debris that is lying on the forest floor and hence the grass is able to grow well in the rainy season. Sometimes it spreads and destroys vast tracts of valuable trees. The forest is also set a fire by the forest department to clear it of dry vegetation in order to avoid the risk of a huge fire. Firing is done from top to bottom by cutting fire-lines at regular intervals to control the fire. Villagers also set fire to pine leaves falling on the surface as they inhibit the undergrowth.

  2. Accidental fire: Fire is also caused by man’s carelessness. Unextinguished campfires of trekkers and picnickers, forest labourers throwing away burning cigarettes, bidis and matchsticks, villagers burning the unwanted material on their fields during summer, throwing away of torches used by travellers to see their way in the forest at night, and acid applied to increase the yield of resin. This acid may be spilled on the dry needles of a pine forest, thereby leading to forest fires.

The flow of air in the hills is upwards, which is responsible for huge fires, and a fire may go beyond control if it spreads from the bottom of a hill. It is easily controlled if it is from top to bottom. Too much dryness also helps in spreading fires.

There are several traditional methods of controlling fires: by beating the branches of trees on the fire, by throwing soil and water on it, and by cutting a fire-line to prevent its further spread.

Removal of leaf litter by the villagers to spread under their cattle and for use as fuel is responsible for soil erosion, disturbances in the hydrological cycle in the hill areas and of organic manure in the soil. But at the same time too much accumulation of dry leaf litter increases the risk of forest fires.

Soil: an Anchorage for All

Soil is the receptacle of all that lives. The hymn dedicated to the earth in the Atharvaveda (12.1.12) sums up the traditional attitude of reverence:

Impart to us those vitalizing forces

that come, O Earth, from deep within your body,

Your central point, your navel; purify us wholly.

The Earth is mother; I am son of Earth,

The rain-giver is my father; may he shower

on us blessings!

Soil is our most valuable material heritage, the basis of all terrestrial life. As an ecological factor, soil is of great significance, for it affords a medium for the anchorage of plants and a depot for minerals and water.

Normally, soil is constantly generated and enriched when an ecosystem is left undisturbed or minimally disturbed. However, due to loss of vegetal cover, there is a progressive loss of soil due to erosion, together with attendant consequences like landslides and siltation.

Water: Flow of Life

Water is yet another important element of the life support system. Water is also the home of aquatic life. The presence of aquatic life is an indication of the well-being of water. The personification of water is integral to the Indian ethos. All rivers are feminine and so associated with fertility (except the Brahmaputra, which is male). Most important of all rivers is the Ganga, and her sacredness is enshrined in the myth of gangavatarana or the descent of the Ganges.

According to Indian mythology the Ganges was brought down to the earth and the nether world by the penances of Bhagirath, descendant of Sagara, king of Ayodhya, to atone for the sins of his ancestors and to bring them once more to life. Lord Shiva’s matted locks acted as a breakwater to gentle the rush of water which would otherwise have split the world asunder. The ecological message of this myth is as apparent as the physical reality of the course of the Ganga. The rich Deodara forests are associated with the breakwaters of Shiva’s matted locks, through which it meanders.

The region receives plenty of rain, but due to deforestation there is a failure of watershed which results in the unchecked flow of water during the monsoon to cause a sudden swelling of streams in rivers so that there are floods in the foothills and even in the plains, and droughts in the villages located on the slope of the mountain. A watershed is a natural drainage area draining off water to a common point which ultimately meets with a river. Integrated development of watersheds thus takes care of water, crops, fuel, fodder and livestock with a view to develop the overall economy. Several NGOs with people’s participation are trying to reset watershed management by planting trees on the top of the slope to retain the water, building tanks of cement and alkathene to save rainwater, building check dams on the streams to break the velocity of gushing water which brings silt along with it.

The region has a number of rivers, streams and springs, but the people are unable to use the water since it flows in deep channels.

Thus the people used springs for drinking water and gulas for irrigation and other daily needs. The skill of the people is reflected in the canals (gulas), the gravitational channels which they make to divert stream water to various levels in the difficult hilly terrain. They also run small water mills, using the power of the falling water. The water mill is locally known as gharrat, which grinds cereals and spices.

Impact of Development

Development in the region is the other major feature of the ecological crisis, which takes different forms such as the coming up of dams, building of roads, tourism development, etc. Quarrying, mining and blasting operations also give rise to landslides, which not only block traffic on the roads but sometimes form lakes by the temporary blockade of rivers. When the water exerts pressure these burst, causing devastating floods, sweeping away roads, bridges, agricultural land, etc. For example, the Alaknanda flood of 1970 was of a similar type. Such floods are a constant threat to highways, villages, streams, dams, agricultural land and tourists.

The limestone industry in the Doon valley has caused severe damage to the environment — loss of topsoil, lowering of the water table, deposition of dust on plant surfaces, emission of gases from the kilns. Processing of limestone in the kilns leads to the emission of CO2, CO and SO2 gases. Plants show defoliation, chlorosis, necrosis, etc.

The coming up of big dams like the Tehri dam, which submerge large fertile areas which are so scarce in the region, and standing on a seismically active zone having many thrust and faults, may also be responsible for an ecological crisis.

The traffic of vehicles alters the composition of vegetation. Building of roadways in the mountain system creates disturbances. This does not mean that roads in the hills are not important, but they need to be constructed in consonance with the nature of geological formation. The construction of a hill road involves felling of existing protective vegetation, cutting and blasting otherwise stable hill slopes, and the rolling down of the resultant debris which in turn destroys vegetation and causes severe erosion resulting in extensive slope failures. These are often termed as landslides. The phenomenon of landslides is not linked with road making alone but also with land use in general.

Tourism

The Himalayan region is considered to be abundantly suited for tourism since it offers all kinds of attractions to tourists. A paradise for anglers and a challenge to hikers. The lush green valleys, emerald meadows, vast icefields have now started showing abrasion due to increasing human activity. Tourism brings a large number of people together, which leads to marked changes that are detrimental to the ecosystem as a whole. Tourism is found in the form of pilgrim tourism and for pleasure and adventure. To accommodate the large tourist influx, hundreds of new buildings are being constructed every year. The tourist activity has to be in consonance with the principles of conservation of nature and with the protection of associated resources. Unplanned development in the Himalayas is causing irreparable damage. The problems of litter, noise, erosion, destruction of fauna and flora have become acute. The garbage problem is another Himalayan task to solve. Litter and garbage piles are all around, as we have noticed during our visit to Gangotri.

Thus tourism development is another big problem in the region. Dhabas (roadside hotels) are coming up frequently right from Gangotri to Gomukh, which is responsible for the rise in temperature; grassy trails have started in Rudranath, Madhmaheshwar and Tungnath due to trekkers and mountaineers. A number of people visited the hill stations every year mainly in the months of May, June and October.

Observations

Suggestions which may help in maintaining the ecological balance in the Himalayas are: afforestation should be encouraged by planting mixed trees, both conifers and broad-leaved. Monoculture of trees should be avoided; on the higher slopes cultivation of agricultural crops should be stopped. Instead of agriculture, crop trees should be planted. To stop the over-exploitation of the forest by government contractors for resin, medicinal herbs, timber, etc., there should be a total ban on cutting of trees on mountain slopes and in catchment areas. Instead of big dams, small dams and hydro-electric power stations can be constructed. For a very small village a hydro-electric generator can be installed in the water mill. The region has plenty of water, which can promote the growth of fisheries. Promote horticulture and small-scale industry in the region, which will provide job opportunities to the local people. Promote sulabh sauchalaya and bio-gas plants for recycling biodegradable material. To reduce the pressure of the growing population on natural resources, they should be provided LPG gas, kerosene oil, solar cookers. Preventive measures have to be taken to avoid the chances of forest fires. In the summer of 1995 the fire in the central Himalayas has made the air polluted and caused a rise in the temperature, loss of vegetation, animals, etc.

There should be a check on quarrying, mining and blasting operations. Efforts should be made to develop more hill stations as tourist centres in the region to avoid the overcrowding of tourists in the well-known hill stations. Kilns with filter devices and higher chimneys should be constructed to minimise the effect on the environment. Any sort of development should be in harmony with the environment, and renewable resources like ground water and forests should be used at a rate at which they are being replenished by nature.

References

Chadha, S.K., (ed.), 1988, Himalayas: ecology and environment. Delhi: Mittal Publications.

Chaube, S.K., (ed.), 1985, The Himalayas: profiles of modernisation and adaptation, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers.

Dewan, M.L., 1990, People’s participation in Himalayan eco-system development. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.

——— and B.D. Joshi, (eds.),1993, Vedic philosophy for Himalayan eco-system development. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.

Dhar, T.N. and P.N. Sharma, (eds.), 1987, Himalayan energy systems. Nainital: Gyanodaya Prakashan.

Gupta, Krishna Murti, (ed.), 1990, Himalaya: man and nature. New Delhi: Lancers Books.

Jayal, N.D. and Motwari Mohan, (eds.), 1986, Conservation, tourism and mountaineering in the Himalayas. Dehradun: Natraj Publishers.

Khoshoo, T.N., 1988, Environmental concerns and strategies. New Delhi: Ashish Publishing House.

———, 1995, Mahatma Gandhi: and apostle of applied human ecology. New Delhi: Tata Applied Research Institute.

Negi, S.S., 1990, Himalayan forest and forestry. New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company.

Nitya Nand and Kamlesh Kumar, 1989, The holy Himalaya: a geographical interpretation of Garhwal. New Delhi: Daya Publishing House.

Pokhriyal, H.C., 1994, Human environment and socio-economic development in the Himalayas. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

Prakriti, 1993, Information brochure on an exhibition on man in harmony with the elements. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Qasim, S.Z., 1993, National policy for integrated development in the Himalayas. New Delhi: Planning Commission.

Raha, M.K., (ed), 1987, The Himalayan heritage. Delhi: Gian Publishing House.

Rajan, Madhu, 1993, ‘ Man against nature? The Tribune, New Delhi, 20 June.

Rustomji, N.K. and C. Ramble, (eds.), 1990, Himalayas: Environment and Culture. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study; New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company.

Shah, S.D. Bhatt and R.K. Pande, R.K., (eds.), 1990, Himalaya: environmeent, resources and development. Almora: Shree Almora Book Depot.

 

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