What Price a Mangrove?
World Environment Day
A crowd had gathered to watch the debris of a palatial house swept away by a flood. One observer commented on the fragility of construction materials. Another probed on the ways in which compensation could be sought for the damage. A third anguished on the vagaries of nature. A fourth looked up at the skies to watch the hovering birds, with nary a tree to perch on!
As this piece is being written, we are in the midst of a third disaster, Cyclone Nisarga and on the eve of the World Environment Day. Much has been written about the Covid-19 pandemic and the havoc it has created. What is fast disappearing from public memory, among the grim images of internal migration and patchy relief efforts, is that the origin of the pandemic lies in destruction of natural habitats of wildlife that forces pathogens from the animal ecosystem to cross over to humans.
Cyclone Amphan is barely a couple of weeks old and has already vanished from national consciousness.
-We have forgotten the near irrevocable destruction of the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem in the Sundarbans, a World Heritage Site, the size of the state of Goa.
-We have forgotten the over 100 lost lives and the damage of increasing levels of salinity on livelihoods of people living nearby who depend on farming and freshwater fishing.
-We have forgotten the over $ 15 billion of economic damage, roughly 10% the GSDP of West Bengal alone.
-Millions have been forced to migrate in the times of Corona, when physical distancing is being advocated.
The Sundarbans have, over a millennium, had the reputation of being the last line of rugged defense of the city of Kolkata.
Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement has referred to the incestuous nexus between lustful profiteering and wanton destruction. He has also in a recent talk, referred to the “masala culture” in Indian mainstream media that prevents honest and insightful coverage of environment linked disasters. Naomi Klein in The Shock doctrine has argued how Power benefits from Disaster. The pandemic and the policy responses the current regime have shown – the overturn of hard-fought labor policies in some states and the cavalier environment approvals to dozens of projects in “Ecologically Sensitive Zones” – indicates its preference for Disaster Capitalism.
The areas that escaped the devastating impact of the 2004 Tsunami were areas that had healthy mangroves on their coastline that acted as Nature’s last defense against a sudden natural calamity. It is well known that mangroves additionally act as natural filters of pollutants, massively large reservoirs of carbon, sources of marine food security and zones of unparalleled biodiversity. Loss of mangroves at the least release such large amounts of carbon that “designer plantations” and even natural rainforests cannot compensate. In fertile biodiversity hotspots like the Sundarbans, the Indus Delta, the Irrawaddy Delta and the Mekong Delta, the mangroves support the livelihoods of tens of millions of people.
Despite our collective knowledge of the conservation impact of mangroves, they are being hacked for so called infrastructure projects. The Bullet Train project alone will destroy over 50,000 mangroves, as admitted in the Maharashtra Legislative council. To make way for the Coastal Road, an area roughly a fourth the size of Bandra, will be reclaimed, making Mumbai’s coastal façade vulnerable to natural calamities.
Further, the dumping of its debris into the Arabian sea will destroy the livelihoods of the fisherfolk who depend on the marine rich inter tidal zone while meant only for 2% of Mumbai’s residents (essentially the motorists) while debiting its humongous cost to all its direct and indirect tax paying residents through toll-free use. The Bombay High Court judgement of 2019 on the Mumbai Coastal Road was unambiguous in its view that “the traditional concept that development and ecology are opposed to each other is no longer acceptable and that sustainable development is the only answer”
Mumbai coastline stands naked and vulnerable as the Cyclone Nisarga approaches. It’s possible that it spares Mumbai from its wrath. Indeed, the City will be fortunate. But it should not see that as a symbol for even more reckless development.
The Honorable Chief Minister of Maharashtra has managed the Covid-19 crisis with equanimity and empathy for her citizens showing rare transparency in the process. He has the unique opportunity to show statesmanship as he reviews ongoing and new development projects.
In the desire to reboot the pandemic affected economy, he must demonstrate that development and ecology can indeed be winning partners and that the Marathi Manoos cares for inter-generational equity as much as he does for affluence and prosperity
Cover Photograph Derek Monteiro