Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
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Wealth : August 27, 2000

Exploiting nature's treasury

Valmik Thapar

Director of the Ranthambore Foundation, Delhi.

Prasanna Venkatesh/Wilderfile

The only way to understanding natural wealth is to illustrate how much of this wealth we exploit. By this I mean primarily what is available on forest land which forms 20 per cent of India's land mass. The Ministry of Environment and Forests put a figure of Rs. 50,000 crores each year as the value of what is exploited both legally and illegally. That is more than $10 billions. Some senior forest officers put the value of half a trillion dollars on the very basic timber and non timber products on forest land. And this does not include a value on essentials like water and rivers that are born in and flow out of natural systems.

If we quickly scan the nation, one of the great money spinners is mines, legal and illegal. In a small place called Jamua Ramgarh sanctuary near Jaipur in Rajasthan, the illegal marble mines are said to turn over from 20 sq. km of area Rs. 500 crores each year! In Goa iron ore and manganese mines net Rs. 900 crores each year for their owners. Dotted across the landscape are mines big and small. In Panna, Madhya Pradesh, diamond mines and white sandstone mines yield crores each year. If the mining industry turned over Rs. 48 crores each year at independence then today that turnover is Rs. 40,000 crores each year. If we turn to the Wild Ass Sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat then this is the land that is exploited for both salt and shrimps and 25 per cent of India's salt supply comes from the illegal exploitation of this sanctuary. At least a total of Rs. 300 crores each year is turned over from this area. The limestone deposits in and around Gir National Park probably cannot even be valued - their richness is evident from the fact that the cement and soda ash plants near the coastal areas of Saurashtra turn over Rs. 1,000 crores each year from the use of this raw product.

I don't even want to get into the natural world of the sea - the underwater serengetti - because just a glance at what is exploited would run into tens of thousands of crores each year. And if we surface to the forests, then there is that whole area of minor forest produce. Tendu patta or the leaves that make bidis amount to nearly Rs. 300 crores each year just from Madhya Pradesh. And it is enormously complicated to even assess how much timber is exploited from nature's treasury each year. Just from what is recovered and seized indicates that the timber business runs into thousands of crores each year and right from the Andaman and Nicobar islands to the rain forests of southern India.

Raman Sukumar/Wilderfile

I have not even got into the subject of medicinal plants. All over India and especially in the Western Ghats, accelerated exploitation of some of our most precious plants is taking place - we cannot even put values on it because few have gone deep into the subject and its final value to the user could be enormous. There are also vast encroachments in the Western Ghats for spice plantations and for tea and coffee. Again the money made from all this is huge but the big companies have put nothing back to safeguard the land or the forest. It is all about making the "Quick Buck".

Poaching and the illegal trade in animal derivatives is a business turning over billions of dollars each year from tiger and leopard skins to butterflies and even the nests of swiftlets in the Andaman islands. Bones, whiskers, claws, musk and nearly every inch of animals has a value. It is like an army of human beings on the march tearing apart the fabric of the natural world without a care or concern. We have few effective policies that govern this world and 50 years after independence we don't even have a land use policy. We are engulfed in a tragedy of over-exploitation that threatens our very existence.

Irrespective of how much we take from it, little is given back, little is put into the restoration of abused landscapes. Man cannot live without the natural world and its enormous wealth but we must learn how to give back because if we don't we will create an empty future for the unborn Indian.

It is a matter of regret that some of our most profitable industries have seriously impacted on the environment causing permanent damage. It has adversely affected the lives of the people - be it through the air they breathe or the water they drink. An environmental catastrophe is about to tear this country apart and millions will suffer. One of the great products of forest India are the 300 rivers and perennial streams that are not just born within but flow out to provide drinking water and irrigation for large tracts of land. As forest India has been excessively exploited great negative changes have taken place in our water regimes both underground and overground. And as businesses have flourished enormous amounts of pollutants have been discharged into the water. All in all we have created a time bomb for ourselves which will have to be deactivated if we are to survive.

Sanjay Saxena/Fotomedia

How do we begin? It is clear that while big business has made thousands of crores, not even a paise has been ploughed back. Also, that all the laws that govern the natural heritage of this country have been used and abused as governments have watched silently. A huge amount of research is required into quantifying some of the natural wealth in order to ensure that it survives the abuse of today. Innovative policy must come into being to protect some of this astounding wealth. Let us never forget that Rs. 50,000 crores to Rs. 100,000 crores is exploited from forest land - and the federal government only allocates Rs. 100 crores each year for its protection. This is the state of our planning and our Planning Commission. Our Finance Ministers don't even bother to mention this sector in their annual budgetary speeches. The most valuable asset of this country is totally ignored - relegated to oblivion. Prime Ministers have come and gone but few have taken note of the depleting natural treasury. Instead of serious think tanks to come to grips with the problem and formulate new and innovative policy our leaders have preferred to evade this vital issue.

We are one billion people and till we create a policy to protect some of our richest tracts of land little will be left. We may even have to enter a stage where a new federal ministry is required to be created just to deal with this issue. Until we do this and change course to reform the system the abuse will continue and we will be silent spectators to our depleting natural wealth.

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