Green India Response

Open Letter

Shri Jairam Ramesh

Minister of Environment and Forests

Government of India

New Delhi

July 15, 2010

Subject: ‘Green India Mission ’ with proposed outlay of Rs 44,000 crore

Dear Shri Jairam Ramesh,

It is heartening that your Ministry has taken up the ‘Green India Mission’ (GIM) for ecological regeneration and afforestation – a most vital and urgent task of our times. It is on the natural wealth of this land – particularly our soils, water, forests, biodiversity – that our collective survival and well-being fundamentally depends.

Implicit in the Mission aim is the simultaneous need to arrest or minimize the current suicidal degradation and depletion of our natural wealth, and the collapse of eco-systems that regenerate this priceless heritage – our ‘core capital’ for health and prosperity. Half-hearted measures will not help the ‘the dying goose that lays the golden eggs’!

The democratic process of public consultation and transparency you proactively bring to the Mission (GIM) – from its very inception – is encouraging. You must have received valuable inputs and perspectives from many people. It is only through such shared, open participation that the Mission can hope to succeed.

Introduction: As sought by you, I submit here below my own comments on the Green India Mission (GIM). I have also consulted and incorporated inputs from the veteran organic farmer, Shri Bhaskar Save, 88, acclaimed ‘Gandhi of Natural Farming and Growing Trees’, who has over 50 years of successful experience in combining ecological regeneration and self-reliance. His orchard-farm, ‘Kalpavruksha’ (in southernmost coastal Gujarat ) is a veritable ‘food forest’ — high yielding, low-cost, bio-diverse. Like a natural forest, it is a net supplier of water, energy and fertility to the local eco-system, rather than a net consumer! It also most efficiently sequesters ‘greenhouse gases’ like carbon dioxide at minimal expense, pointing the sensible way forward to ‘combat’, contain and cope with climate change.

Bhaskar Save’s outstanding contribution in developing food forests is his approach of simultaneous mixed planting of alpa-jeevi (short lifespan), madhya-jeevi (medium lifespan), and deergha-jeevi (long lifespan) crops or plants. This rapidly regenerates the fertility of the soil, maximizes irrigation efficiency, and provides continuity of food yield right from the first few months until the long lifespan fruit trees begin to yield abundantly.

The ecological benefits of widely adopting such integrated ‘food forest systems’ in India (or elsewhere) are enormous and far-reaching. With vastly increased biomass availability and microbial life in the soil, humus is regenerated. Moisture absorption, percolation and recharge of groundwater rises, aided by the passages created in the soil by the soil-dwelling creatures, micro-organisms and plant roots and fibres. Biodiversity increases, attracting birds, bees, butterflies… These, in turn, assist in the biological control of potential crop pests, or in improving pollination, and consequently, agricultural yields.

Included herein are inputs too from Bhaskar Save’s sons, Naresh and Suresh Save, who have followed in his footsteps. Besides tending their own (or others’) organic orchard-farms, they have helped create numerous community Vruksha Mandirs, temples of trees – grown and nurtured by the Swadhyaya Parivar in a spirit of bhakti and seva – for the benefit of local people and Nature. The main species are fruit/food trees, though a lot of biodiversity is integrated.

My own relevant experience of over 15 years has been in the regeneration of a collective natural forest (moist deciduous) in the foothills of the Sahyadris in the north Konkan Western Ghats, District Raigad, Maharashtra. Known as Van Vadi, this has regenerated magnificently – with a little help/protection from us. It is now one of the best forest patches between Matheran and Bhimashankar – dense, tall and rich in biodiversity. Our supplementary plantings have mainly been various traditionally useful indigenous species, particularly those that grow with minimal or no irrigation. We have also had very encouraging success with rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge; small-scale organic cultivation of vegetables, fruits, millets, rice; and non-formal environmental education and Nature sensitization. Every Dussera, Van Vadi hosts a week-long vanutsav (forest festival) of multi-generational community living, learning and sharing in Nature – without electricity or piped water.

Comments

1) Mission Target: The proposed treating of forest as well as non-forest land – both public and private – under the Mission (GIM) is a welcome acknowledgement of the widespread need for ecological regeneration in India. Out of an estimated 266 million hectares in the country that offer any significant potential for vegetative growth, at least 150 million hectares are suffering from serious water and wind erosion of their topsoil, indicating poor land care, and more particularly, the lack of sufficient green cover, especially trees and perennials. Thus the GIM target of 10 million hectares for afforestation/ eco-restoration over a period of 10 years, though itself challenging, is woefully inadequate. With 150 million hectares bleeding their fertility, treating just a million hectares a year on average is plainly too little, too slow.

2) Soil Erosion Loss: The Government’s own figures indicate that India is losing at least 12,000 million tonnes of fertile topsoil (or significantly more) every year through water erosion alone, washed away from largely bare lands lacking plant canopy – to buffer the impact of rains – and plant roots to bind the soil against run-off. If we put an economic value of a mere ten paise per kg on such topsoil (though even lifeless sand used in construction costs more), the total economic loss of fertility to the nation works out to Rs 1,20,000 crore each year! Ironically, this is the amount the Indian government spends annually just to subsidise chemical fertilizers instead, which further compound soil degradation and the collapse of its cohesive structure, worsening erosion.

It is thus readily apparent that even a most conservative and partial estimate of national economic loss in the absence of ecological remediation is at least 30 times more than the proposed average outlay of Rs 4,000 crore per annum (excluding research and administrative costs) under the Green India Mission.

If we assign a somewhat more rational – though yet conservative – value of Re 1 for each kg of eroded topsoil, the recurrent economic loss to our nation would be a staggering Rs 12 lakh crore washed away every year! This is 300 times more than the proposed outlay for preventive measures under the Green India Mission, while our children are still taught in school that Nature takes 500 years to build an inch of fertile topsoil – our most indispensable ecological ‘capital’.

Government soil scientists point out that if erosion continues at its present runaway rate, “all future work may be the reclamation of soil rather than its conservation and management!” Significantly, soil erosion rises a hundredfold or more in lands denuded of vegetation, especially in high rainfall, sloping or hilly areas, which must have a ground cover of trees and perennials to bind and anchor what remains of their topsoil.

3) Groundwater Depletion and Water Scarcity: With the upper, rich and absorbent layer of our soils increasingly drained away each monsoon — in the absence of adequate vegetation – there is a marked decline in the recharge of our groundwater by the rain soaked into the earth, while withdrawal has increased over 20 times since 1950. As a result, aquifer levels have fallen precipitously all over the country, resulting in serious water scarcities, while raising the spectre of an even drier future. And this, in a country where 60 years ago, most regions had an abundance of groundwater within easy reach.

To address the looming water shortages, a mammoth Rs 560,000 crore ‘Tughlaqian’ proposal was floated to ‘interlink’/divert our rivers, with scant consideration of even higher ecological and human displacement costs. A far more sensible, holistic and economical option instead, is to restore at least 30% ground cover of mixed, indigenous trees and forests, with multiple benefits. This is the essential task of ecological water harvesting – the key to restoring an abundance of groundwater. As Bhaskar Save points out, “We sadly fail to realise that the potential for natural water storage in the ground is many times greater than the combined capacity of all the major and medium irrigation projects in India – complete, incomplete, or still on paper! Such decentralized underground storage – entailing no construction cost for storing or distributing – is far more efficient too, as it is protected from the high evaporation losses of surface storage.”

4) Silted Water-bodies, Heightened Floods: Inevitably, the lateral runoff of rainwater, carrying huge quantities of topsoil with it, results in much of this fertility silting up our dammed reservoirs and other water bodies, correspondingly diminishing their original water holding capacity, and thereby aggravating floods in peak monsoon. Human suffering apart, that’s at least a few thousand crores of additional ecological damage and economic loss, every year – even without adding the proportionately wasted expenditure in building the dams and resettling displaced people. It is hardly a secret that India has been suffering both progressively worse droughts and worse floods.

5) Loss of Precious Biodiversity and Food Insecurity

The earth has an estimated 80,000 edible species of plants, most of them growing wild in nature. But with the spread of modern industrial agriculture, less than 30 plant species (of a very few varieties) now account for more than 95% of the human diet of the planet as a whole. And just 8 crops provide three-quarters of all human food! This short-sighted dependence on a very narrow genetic base, combined with the hazards of chemical-intensive, energy-inefficient, and water-guzzling mono-cropping, greatly heightens our vulnerability to food scarcity and famine, while malnourishment (imbalanced diets) with an excessive load of toxicity is already widespread, as also hunger resulting from food supplies being unaffordable or inaccessible to many millions of Indian people.

To get a glimpse into the great natural wealth of India , one only needs to look at the 12 volume encyclopaedia, appropriately titled ‘The Wealth of India’, a great source of reference published by ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research). Another, more concise source of reference is the ‘Useful Plants of India’ (also published by ICAR), which provides condensed information on over 5,000 traditionally useful plant species found in India .

So how does one put an economic value on the loss of India ’s immensely rich biodiversity, the traditional knowledge of which has historically catered to almost every conceivable human need? Globally, just the market value of medicinal products derived from genetic resources of wild species exceeds $ 40 billion every year, while scientists confess that they “have taken only a preliminary look at some 10% of a conservatively estimated 250,000 plant species. Our Western Ghats and North-Eastern states are among the world’s ‘hotspots’ of such exceptionally rich, and still barely discovered, but increasingly threatened biodiversity.

While our crop/plant diversity and intra-species genetic variability has been dwindling over the past several decades, an even more debilitating quantum leap in such loss is on the cards if the proliferation of inherently unstable (and contaminative) GM crops is not strictly curbed. It is a shame that ‘modern India’ has been so careless in protecting our real priceless wealth that cannot be produced in factories, but which is so critical for the survival and well-being of all living creatures on this land, including us humans.

6) Increased Vulnerability to Climatic and Rainfall Fluctuations

It is uncontroversial that the extensive growing of single crops for sale to distant markets, rather than diverse crops – including trees and perennials – for directly meeting local needs, is far more precariously susceptible to variations in rainfall and climate, leading to total or near total crop failure. With mixed planting of diverse crops, and the conservation and regeneration of other uncultivated useful/edible plants and trees, some may fail, but several others will still survive and yield well, even in a year of poor rainfall.

7) Energy Inefficiency and Depletion of Fossil Fuels

Topping the list in the efficient harvesting of the daily renewed supply of the sun’s energy are our dense, ‘multi-tier’ natural forests, with their manifold higher energy conversion into biomass. The kind of bio-diverse ‘food forests’ and horticultural food gardens grown by Bhaskar Save and others, come a close second. Next in energy efficiency (ratio of calories harvested to calories expended) are the organically cultivated poly-cultures of field crops with minimal or zero external inputs, and near total recycling of crop residues to check soil fertility from falling. With the inexorable depletion of increasingly expensive fossil fuels, it is only these 3 options we have to fall back on.

Modern, chemical-intensive and mechanized agriculture is so wasteful of energy that it commonly consumes more than ten times as many calories in growing for each calorie of food produced. Chemical fertilizers consume huge amounts of fossil fuels in their production. So does the production and operation of tractors, harvesters, etc. If we add the huge amount of energy consumed in transporting fertilizers and food over hundreds or thousands of miles, the gross ‘energy inefficiency’ of the modern, industrial system of agriculture is even more stark.

It is high time we realize that we have mined in a single century many, many millennia of solar energy, originally received from the sun, and buried in the earth under high pressure. More than half of all the fossil fuel consumed in India is imported from the Persian Gulf. If Israel attacks Iran, and Iran is able to effectively block all oil shipped out of the narrow Strait of Hormuz, the whole world may suddenly wake up to the fact that we have been living in a fool’s paradise.

8) Global warming and Climate Change

Considering the huge spurt in burning millions of years of stored solar energy by the human activities of just a few generations, compounded by the carbon dioxide and ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions retaining the heat within the earth’s eco-system, it is not difficult to understand the phenomenon of climate change that the earth is presently witnessing, foreboding potentially disastrous consequences.

Unabated industrialization, urbanization and consumerism are obvious culprits. Additionally, it is estimated that the present day (industrial) system of agriculture is responsible for 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, 60% of methane emissions, and 80% of nitrous oxide emissions. The latter, produced by the use of heavily subsidized synthetic nitrogenous fertilizer, is said to be 200 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

9) Unsustainable Distress Migration to Cities

The mounting degradation of our natural resources, and correspondingly rising costs of farming have made modern agriculture both ecologically and economically unviable. India ’s National Commission on Farmers (NCF), chaired by Prof MS Swaminathan, declared that 40% of Indian farmers would like to leave farming. So high is the level of their frustration and fatigue. Unless their problems are urgently addressed with vision and determination, this portends a potential quarter billion (250,000,000) villagers – ecological and economic refugees – streaming into urban slums in search of any available work to fill their bellies.

Has the government even remotely considered what it would take to provide a quarter billion sustainable livelihoods to absorb the threatening urban-swell? While some yet maintain that further urbanization, even if it is distress migration, is good for economic growth, the hard reality is that an average urban dweller consumes at least 3 times more resources than a country-based villager. With our limited per capita resources of land, water, energy and food, continued urbanization is definitely not viable – ecologically or economically.

10) Reappraising Tasks and Targets: The above appraisal of the multitude and magnitude of critical problems India faces, poses the question: whether re-afforesting/ regenerating a million hectares a year will make any significant dent in the face of the unabated degradation, destabilization and destruction we currently witness? Can one arm of the government remain blissfully unaware or unconcerned of what another is doing? Can our basic life support systems remain peripheral and subservient to unbridled and blinkered economic ambition, far exceeding – indeed subverting – reasonable aspirations for well-being?

At Van Vadi, nestling on an ecologically sensitive watershed ‘keyline’, we have seen in recent years hundreds of acres of neighbouring lands illegally clear-felled of all trees and vegetation, their roots dug out, and the earth leveled to a barren moonscape with deep-ploughing JCBs. All by speculative ‘developers’ seeking to resell ‘N.A. house plots’ at fancy profits, without any provision for water supply, drainage or waste disposal.

With no plant roots left at all to anchor the topsoil of the denuded areas, much of it is washed away by torrential monsoon downpours to silt up our streams and rainwater harvesting storages, necessitating considerable labour every year in de-silting by us. One neighbouring dam reservoir, built by the Government for adivasi villagers inhabiting the plateau above us, is almost completely filled up with eroded topsoil, with little space left to hold any water. The villagers have complained to the District auithorities but no redress is yet in sight.

Elsewhere, vaster areas of land are threatened by mining interests, hydro-electric projects, ‘Special Economic Zones’ (SEZs), etc. It is now time that the government uses its wide-ranging land acquisition powers to create Socio-Ecological Zones instead. Why, for instance, cannot the government acquire the lands illegally denuded by ‘developers’ in our Van Vadi area for the purpose of forest regeneration or for setting up a plant nursery or training centre under the Green India Mission?

Your Ministry and Government need to scale much higher and wider your sights for a green, ecologically resurgent India , according it utmost priority. Continued ecological degradation must not outpace regeneration. Even in cold economic terms, it is glaringly evident that there are colossal, poorly accounted costs in the runaway erosion of this country’s natural wealth. Conversely, the sustainable economic and political gains from regenerating our ecological capital are enormous, promising a measure of health, peace and dignity to all!

The challenges we collectively face are huge. They demand an integrated thrust, cutting across all sectors of Indian society and polity – to raise the level of awareness and motivation needed for achieving the desired change.

For the sake of all of us, we wish the Mission (GIM) great success, and offer our heartiest support. Do please call upon us for any elaboration, clarification or help that may be needed.

With sincere regards,

Bharat Mansata

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