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Destroying our environment for short-term political gains suicidal

Instead of taking urgent and concrete steps to confront this health emergency, governments make it worse by shearing the city of its tree cover.

   One evening in a private club in Gurugram, I asked one of our most erudite politicians, a guest speaker for that evening, why the environment was not a core issue in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. His answer was depressing but not shocking. He said issues such as air pollution, water and forests were important, but development had to come first. Yes, I said, but at what cost? I requested the politician to step out of the air-conditioned cocoon of the club, and our lives, to breathe in the toxic air in the city we live in. Gurugram, one of the most developed and most polluted cities in the world, is also the place where the very air we breathe can kill us. In 2017, at least one in eight deaths in the country was attributed to air pollution. India has the highest child mortality rate due to toxic air, followed closely by water contamination.
Instead of taking urgent and concrete steps to confront this health emergency, governments make it worse by shearing the city of its tree cover. Both in Delhi and Gurugram, thousands of trees have been destroyed with impunity. In Gurugram, more than 14,500 trees have been felled in the two years between 2016 and 2018, as per the official figures. The actual number can be higher. Nearly 13,000 trees have been cut down between 2015 and 2018 in Delhi only for government projects.
The water crisis is scary too. Twenty-one of India's major cities will run out of water by 2020. Delhi-NCR is among those cities, as is Bangalore and Hyderabad. The fact of the matter is that India is facing an unprecedented environmental crisis that threatens our health, livelihood and development, all of which are dependent on natural resources. Yet no political party gives the environment due importance or even has the vision of safeguarding it. I have worked as a conservation journalist and conservationist for nearly two decades. I can say with confidence that while no government in this period, including the earlier United Progressive Alliance(UPA) , has a stellar record of environmental concerns, the last five years have been the most destructive. Space limits me to list the reasons, but I will briefly elaborate on a few relevant issues.
In December 2017, the government eased pollution regulations for thermal power plants, one of the most harmful sources of toxic emissions, allowing them to release pollutants in violation of the earlier limits. A year earlier, the environment ministry removed air and water pollution regulations and withdrew the need to assess the environmental impact for the construction industry, one of the main contributors to pollution in Delhi-NCR. What especially worries me is the Bharatiya Janata Party's promise to fast-track the river-linking project, which will realign the natural flow of 37 of India's rivers and link them, as though they were pipes, by constructing canals. The idea is to dam the rivers that have 'surplus' water and direct the flow into 'dry' rivers. For one, there is no concept of surplus water in rivers, each drop performs an ecological function, like recharging groundwater, influencing micro-climate, diluting pollutants. Besides, which of our rivers, already heavily over-exploited for industrial, agricultural and domestic use, have surplus water?
The idea of linking rivers in a bid to solve our water crisis is hubristic, unscientific and a social and environmental disaster. Expected to cost a massive ?5,60,000 crore, it will submerge at least 27 lakh hectares of land, drowning fertile lands, villages, homes, forests, wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves.Why does this matter? Because, these are part of the common, collective natural heritage of the citizens of India. Forests bind soils, influence monsoons and climates, and nurture rivers - the bedrock on which our civilizations develop. Destroying our natural resources for short-term gains, which enrich a few, is suicidal. We are chopping the branch we are sitting on. So what should be our manifesto for our city? For that, stay tuned for my next column. (Prerna Singh Bindra is a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. She is the author of The Vanishing: India's Wildlife Crisis.



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