Environment, biodiversity and Gandhiji : Balakrishna Pisupati

The Hindu Photo Library
“The earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed” Mahatma Gandhi at Sewagram ashram, Wardha.
The Hindu Photo Library
The challenges and opportunities before mega-biodiverse India, which is set to influence the global agenda on this front

The world is preparing to celebrate yet another milestone in 2012 through the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD). This marks the 40th anniversary of the Stockholm Summit (1972) on human development and environment, and the 20th anniversary of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, or the Earth Summit 1992). There cannot be a more important event in this decade to define sustainable development and what it means for the common man, as we constantly define and re-define living standards and poverty indicators at the local, national and global levels.

India should take pride in being one of the few countries in the world that genuinely engages in debates related to environment and development. This engagement comes from both its challenges and opportunities. With a current economy that is resilient and an ecology that is fragile, India is still looking for ways to achieve sustainable development as it was defined at the Stockholm Summit — development that is economically sound, socially relevant and environment-friendly. Recent debates on whether development should be at the cost of environmental degradation or environmental protection at the cost of development are still fresh in memory. Hopefully, these will continue for years to come since India’s development story is still to mature to give any definitive answers. The only caution here is not to learn the lessons too late.

India’s interest in leading the global agenda on environment in general and biodiversity (the variety of life on earth that ranges from all the plants, animals, microbes and other living systems) in particular is globally recognised. Being a mega-biodiverse country, India is sitting on a much larger treasure trove than any other country. This treasure is genuine, and will be perpetual if we invest in its safe-keep and ensure that it is held by the resource-poor rather than the rich. The country is yet to wake up to understand the potential of this natural capital and invest in safeguarding it so that biological resources could transform the country’s economic equations completely. With such an opportunity, India’s response to leading the global agenda on this particular issue has to be recognised.
Major event

This is perhaps why it is going to host one of the largest environment/biodiversity events in the history of humankind: the 11th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD-COP 11) in October 2012. With almost near-global membership, the Convention on Biological Diversity is hailed as the most progressive multilateral environmental agreement that offers a unique opportunity to operationalise the principles of sustainable development. India will influence the global agenda on this issue to a significant degree from 2012 until 2014. Preparations are in full swing to live up to the expectations of the world with regard to India’s role and relevance in the conservation of natural resources, their sustainable use and the equitable sharing of the benefits of such use. But is this role something that India took upon itself recently? Perhaps not.

The Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps foresaw as early as in the 1920s the developments in the context of sustainable development in 2012. As writers and philosophers, and admirers and critics of Gandhi admit, here is a man whose vision was so forward-looking and inclusive that almost all of what we intend to define and re-define, and at the same time struggle to realise, was noted, analysed, linked and suggested by this great human being decades before.

As a countdown to CBD COP 11 (October 2012) and an insight into the relevance of what Gandhiji said and practised in relation to managing the environment and natural resources, this article attempts to find better meanings to what was said by him, and relate his vision to today’s realities and challenges as well as opportunities that exist for India.

John Arden said: “To not to think of dying is not to think of living.” Environmentalism is perhaps a good example to relate this to. Environmentalism is facing a huge challenge of not only being relevant but also being influential. Global assessments indicate that though biodiversity provides for almost all the goods and services for our living, it has not found its way into the lexicon of the common man yet. It is a resource that is given, under-valued and over-utilised. Biological diversity underpins the very survival of humans on earth, and is the basis for development and peace. However, natural resources and biodiversity are exploited to such an extent that resources are lost forever, unlike elements of climate change that can be reversed through mitigation and adaptation action.

Gandhiji’s famous quote, “the earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed,” is such a perfect summation of the principles of ethics and justice, as elaborated under justice in exchange, distributive justice, corrective justice and retributive justice. India is perhaps one of the first countries to enact a national legislation that considers these principles through the Biological Diversity Act of 2002.

Distinguishing between the needs and wants of human society, the Gandhian vision and philosophy are finding new breath in today’s discourses related to reducing consumerism, respect for nature and ensuring equitable development. CBD COP 11 will focus on biological resources and their role in livelihood security. The agenda for a ministerial discussion during the CBD COP 11 meeting will focus on conserving natural resources that underpin securing lives for the local people. Gandhiji’s focus on sustainable development came decades before we understood the meaning of such development. Sanitation, maternal health, primary education, gender balance, reduction of hunger, and ensuring partnerships for development formed the basis for Gandhi’s life and practice long before the Millennium Development Goals were designed. His antyodaya approach is something that will remain the basis for sustainable development not just in 2012 but many decades and centuries to come.

The issue of inter-generational equity that forms the basis of our discourse on sustainable development was aptly captured by Gandhi thus: “The earth, the air, the land and the water are not an inheritance from our forefathers but on loan from our children. So we have to hand over to them at least as it was handed over to us.” The practice today is exactly the opposite for many. Enjoy what you have as tomorrow is not certain. How do we reconcile such change of attitudes?
Time to commemorate

On his 142nd birth anniversary, let us commemorate his ideals and principles by reflecting on the following in the context of our preparations to tell the world that India is proud to have a profound philosopher whose vision about conservation and development will shape our world for the coming centuries. Let us move our environmental management and conservation action to the rural villages where it means and matters to people, practise reducing multiplicity of wants, balance rural development with urban growth, ensure democracy and governance to manage our natural resources, act in a decentralised manner, and practise the economy of permanence.

We do have a great tool in hand to achieve this. The Biological Diversity Act of 2002 that deals with decentralised governance and management of biological resources, attempts to work at the level of the panchayat to make rural livelihoods secure, suggests balancing of conservation with sustainable use, applies the principles of ethics and equity, and promotes the economics of permanence through varied partnerships. Where we tend to fail is in ignoring such tools and frameworks that we have in hand and continuing to search for the perfect solution outside such a framework.

(The author is Chairman of the National Biodiversity Authority based in Chennai)

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