Environment losses in GDP success story
It is one story that none of India’s top economist wants to talk about. The cost India had to pay to pursue high GDP growth rate, especially in terms of environmental degradation.
India had lost 8.30 lakh hectares of forest cover, equivalent to size of countries like Austria and Sweden, since 1981 to allow industrial and mining projects. Half of the industrial zones of the country are pouring hazardous chemicals in air and ground fatal for human health. Two of them, Sukinda in Orissa and Vapi in Gujarat, are among world’s top five polluted areas, according to Time magazine.
Like everywhere, the burden of the GDP growth cost is borne more by the poor than the neo-middle class and rich, who garner maximum gains from economic prosperity. Majority of Indian forests are inhabited by tribal communities, bottommost on the deprivation table, and most industrial workers are among lowest income generators (NSS survey 2009-10).
That is the probable reason that their voice remains unheard in the power corridors of Delhi, where continuously policies have been pursued to destroy environment for sustaining high growth rates.
Another anti-forest salvo was fired this week when a Group of Ministers decided to scrap the policy declaring certain forest areas inviolate for mining activity and instead asked the environment ministry to consider mining proposals on “case to case basis”. In simple terms, the ministry will have to process mining projects even in most dense forest areas, which former environment minister Jairam Ramesh had declared out of bounds for any industrial activity.
The ministry’s record of the last five year demonstrates that protecting Indian forest, which houses 12 % of the world’s bio-diversity, has been its least priority. A Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) report released on Thursday showed that the pace of approving projects in forest areas has doubled in the last five years. In fact, 25 % of forestland (2.10 lakh hectares) diverted for development projects since 1981 was during this period with a clearance rate of 94 %.
Such a colossal loss is not easy to rejuvenate as a forest once destroyed takes no less than 30-50 years to be reborn. Environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan has admitted that the task is not easy considering the poor track of Indian industry in compensatory afforestation.
Does environmental loss hampers life an ordinary citizen? Yes, as forests helps in maintaining ground water table, balances the abrupt changes in temperature, stores carbon dioxide and releases oxygen thus purifying air. For the country, forests have indirect benefits such as preventing soil erosion, minimizing impact of floods and home to thousands of medicinal herbs. But, forest does not matter for number driven economists as its direct contribution to GDP is less than 0.5 %.
It is also because very less is known of Indian forests in vast Himalayas range and Western Ghats with just about 20 % of species being known to the outside world. Our forests also have world’s finest wildlife, which, unfortunately, is depleting as compared to numbers 30 years ago.
As Sunita Narain, Director General of CSE puts it “forests is a baton passed from one generation to another” and today’s policy-makers cannot be allowed to destroy them.