Environment as sacred

Plants help keep the earth cleaner and greener. More trees mean improved air quality, climate, and biodiversity. As per a recent UN report, the per capita strength of trees in various countries is as: Canada: 8953, Russia: 4461, USA: 716, China: 102 and India: 28, the lowest in the world. No wonder that in every 5 years, our environment becomes hotter by 1 degree C. The situation is very worrying, indeed. Unless each one of us plants at least 5 trees in the coming monsoon and take care of these like our own children, we may be doomed both as a nation and as a civilization in very near future.

Philippines, a small country by comparison, where the situation is also not so grave, has already made an enactment that no graduation degree will be awarded unless the aspirant plants 10 trees. But here in India we seem to be content with the announcement by the Minister of Environment that he would continue to push PM’s vision of addressing climate change and other issues.

The UN Secretary General’s special representative on disaster risk reduction, Mami Mizutori, has warned that climate change is very much with us already. According to her, climate related disasters occur weekly. We notice the major disasters, among which she lists the current drought here in India, but she says “lower impact events that are causing death, displacement and suffering are occurring much faster than predicted”.

In keeping with our universal ethos of Vasudev Kutmbakam (the world is a family), we may be in a position to prevent further damage to environment or at the very least, arrest it by invoking our old cultural values, which are now finding acceptance all over the world. Our ancient scriptures attach great sanctity to the environment. The deification of the natural phenomena led to a complete harmony between man and nature inasmuch as the rivers, trees, forests and mountains are regarded as fundamental to life on earth. The practices to be followed as part of the religion or conduct of life led to the preservation of trees and promotion of plantation, respecting the rivers, mountains, forests and consecration of tanks. Association of birds and other animals with various gods and goddesses as their vehicles ensured the protection of the animal species.

Our ancestors had a minimalist approach towards life, and would encourage simple living and high thinking. Not taking from mother earth more than what is absolutely necessary for survival and the tradition of not trampling upon groves meant to honour local gods, the tradition of planting cocoanut trees on celebratory and auspicious occasions as followed even now by some tribes, the religious status conferred on huge trees like Bhad, Peepal, Neem, Jamun by calling these holy and earning  “sawab” by planting these, were the environment friendly steps taken by our ancestors at a time when the world around us was not even aware of these noble deeds, that were and still form a part of our culture.

What causes degradation of environment is all known. We have laws, rules and regulations to combat each cause but still the situation is abysmal. The buzzwords of the modern environmental movement “Reduce”, “Reuse” and “Recycle” aimed at three actions, all focused on reducing needs and hence the consumption, and thereby also reducing the waste, whether through the conservation of raw materials and energy, or the reuse and recycling of the products, are no longer enough. We have to be very active in regenerating the depleting and lost resources.

We can play our part immediately by reducing waste by watching what we buy and reconsidering what we do with it once it is no longer useful to us. Like swachata we can help form several simple habits to adopt that will allow us to consume less in general, including water and electricity. Being green saves us money, and also gives us a sense of satisfaction from making environmentally friendly choices, at the same time. It was indeed heartening to see the 107 year old barefoot lady from Karnataka receiving Padma Shri for her missionary work of having, with the help of her husband, planted and looked after 8,000 badh trees in an area of 4 square kilometers. If the barefooted lady can do it, what prevents us from becoming environment friendly, or at the very least, not doing anything that damages it.

I distinctly remember writing on paper first by pencil and then writing over it again in ink to save paper. The books would change hands at the end of every academic year to be re-used by siblings, cousins, friends, neighbors and even strangers. The Arithmetic by Tej Ram had come down to me from the days of my father, who had bought it as a second hand to use it for himself during Matriculation and preserved it for my elder brother; keeping it in use during the interregnum by lending it to his nephews and nieces. My mother preserved for eight long years the shoes my elder brother had used, to be used by me during my school days. Even clothes used to get passed on from sibling to sibling. We had watches that changed hands from one generation to another, cars that served several decades.

If we take the case of paper production as an example, it is currently estimated that when you use 8333 sheets of paper, there would be one tree less in this world. 1000 magazines of about 100 pages each would mean cutting down six trees. Even by our conservative usage, India reportedly consumes 10 kg of paper per person per year. One can imagine the onslaught on the plant life by a population of nearly 1.3 billion, and counting. Thank God, India has caused far less per capita damage to the world environment as compared to the developed and even some developing countries.

Unfortunately, globalization has taken a toll on our culture of environment- friendliness. Consumerism and the thinking that a cyclist does not help push up the GDP go against the very grain of our culture. Human greed couched in sweet words led to unbridled exploitation of the resources of Mother Earth. Variety is the buzzword to justify overproduction, and  durability is no longer a respected idea. “Use and throw” is the latest mantra.

The Fable of the Bees published in 1714 is an interesting story of a hive of bees that hypocritically complained about their vices, particularly their gluttony and dishonesty. The Lord of Bees, Jove, stripped them of their vices. They could no longer consume superfluously, nor negotiate in the market, for their commitment to frugality and honesty prevented them from doing so. Soon enough, aspects of community that were once vital began to lose relevance. The institution of law collapsed because it became unnecessary and the concept of luxury was deemed ridiculous. This led to decay of the hive, for the purging of vices from their society led to unemployment and stagnation. A once thriving beehive degenerated and was soon lost to oblivion.

This fable strikes a chord in today’s post-liberalized economy. The Indian middle class is much like the beehive. Driven by economic independence, it now forms the the social fabric of the country. It is touted as the ‘consuming class’, and is infamous for its commitment to materialism. Perhaps if we liberate ourselves from the shackles of binaries, we will discover a whole new field that operates within different shades of grey and forms the foundation of discursive regimes. For virtues and vices aren’t two ends of a spectrum; they coexist, feed off each other and in the process, redefine themselves. Thus, while the tag of a ‘consuming’ class may seem gluttonous and superficial, in itself it holds a plethora of meaning if we willingly accept the grey zone that fills the void between extremities of black and white.

It is time that we get sick of acquiring loads of stuff. As a society we would do well to exercise options available to us from bartering and repairing to making do with what we already own.

Sanjay Thakkar, CEO at Euro Exim Bank Ltd.  got economists thinking when he said : A cyclist is a disaster for the country’s economy; he does not buy the car and does not take car loan, does not buy car insurance, does not buy Fuel, does not send his car for servicing and repairs, does not use paid Parking, does not become obese; yes,…..and well, damn it !!  Healthy people are not needed for economy. They do not buy medicines; they do not go to Hospitals and Doctors; they add nothing to country’s GDP. On the contrary, every new McDonald outlet creates at least 30 jobs – 10 Cardiologists, 10 Dentists, 10 weight loss experts apart from people working in McDonald outlet. Choose wisely: A Cyclist or a McDonald?

Bhushan Lal Razdan, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh. Razdan is a plantation enthusiast.