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To Adapt or to Dominate?

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By Roli S

In Hindu belief, River Ganga was created when Vishnu, in his incarnation as the Dwarf Brahmin, took two steps to cross the universe. Ganga then descended to Earth so she might wash over the ashes of the 60,000 ancestors of King Sagar to purify them and permit them to ascend to heaven. There was a problem though that, if Ganga merely dropped from heaven, her swirling waters would do untold damage. Therefore, Shiva offered to absorb the impact with his hair, which he did, rather cautiously taking a thousand years. After safely summoning the Ganga to Earth, Bhagiratha guided the Goddess across India, where she split into many subsidiaries, and successfully washed the ashes of Sagara’s ancestors in her sacred waters.

This is the story that I have grown up listening to. I have always believed that no river is without power and Ganga is the mother of all rivers!

As a teacher who has taught, both, geography and economics, many a time I have found myself forgetting this story, as my job was to equip my students with knowledge about the course of the river, work done by the river, landforms made by the river, etc. I also had to tell my students about the numerous Multipurpose River Valley Projects and the irrigation and power generation potential of those rivers. The project will irrigate so many square kilometers and can generate so many megawatts of power was the knowledge and information I had to constantly give to my students.

I remember that when I started teaching geography in the mid-90s, the textbooks of geography did not have a chapter on Disaster Management. It was added much later to the NCERT book in which various Natural and Manmade Disasters, hazards and mitigation measures, etc., were discussed. During my classes, I used to pitch to my students the need for power generation growth along with the economic growth to take our nation forward. Often, I would find it very difficult to convince my environmentally conscious students about the compulsion to tame our natural assets like rivers.

Every time a disaster like the one that took place recently in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand happens, I am reminded of the many discourses in my geography and economics classes. On a larger scale, I feel that the policy makers of a developing nation like India must also be facing the environment and development interdependency challenge. When the overriding policy priority is economic growth, expanding the reach of energy and transportation infrastructure and making them available to an increasingly urban population and industrial workforce, major land-use changes are unavoidable.

But a disaster like the one in Chamoli district makes one think about the role of reckless development at the cost of human lives. A disaster happening in Chamoli is especially heartbreaking because one of the most successful and popular movements, the ‘Chipko Movement’, to safeguard trees and environment of the country, had started here. But the understanding of the complex ways in which economic development and environment variables interact is still evolving. However, the cumulative and unstable nature of that interaction poses obvious challenges for policymakers.

In a very real sense, the future of the planet rests with the efforts of the developing world like India. Already, the share of rich countries in total global population is less than one sixth and almost all of the additional few billion people to be added to that population over the next decades will reside in the developing world. Developing countries will be central to any international action to protect “their future” and I sincerely hope that the understanding and an environmentally responsible action comes from the state of Uttarakhand, the divine land where both ‘Mahadev’ and ‘Vasudev’ reside, where worship of nature and natural endowments comes commonly and instinctively to its people.

We all know that by the year 2050 another few billion people will be living on the planet, most of whom would be urban dwellers in the developing world putting pressure on the existing resources. A necessary part of the solution to strike the balance between development and environment lies in lowering the level of harmful emissions released into the atmosphere and controlling reckless deforestation.

In the bid to adopt the modern development process, the relationship between human society and nature has transformed over a period of time and now, instead, of merely adapting, humans have begun to dominate the environment. The result has been ever increasing demands on the environment in the service of expanding output.

This takes me back to my geography class where my students sought eagerly the answers to questions like “How can employment guarantee and energy security be achieved without harming the environment?”

I believe that the answers have to come from the people of the state of Uttarakhand, the birth state of river Ganga and Yamuna. I hope the people and policy makers of the state and the country will be as gentle in handling the river as Shiva was when he absorbed Ganga in his hair and as patient as King Bhagirath was when he guided its flow across India. I also hope that people do not anger King Himavat or the Himalayas, if they want to remain safe from fury of the kind they experienced in Chamoli district. Nature’s fury is but a lesson to mankind to realise how helpless, clueless, and vulnerable it is- stay humble, give thanks, and enjoy every moment of life there is and know when to check the greed.

(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher Trainer, Author and School Reviewer based in Thane.)