Remember, the face of Surat

When the floods struck the surprised people of Surat, famous for its diamond-cutting industry, no one had any doubt that more than the wrath of the rain god their misery had a lot to do with the callousness of its rulers. Not only did they not anticipate the impact of the rain in the adjoining areas, including Maharashtra, they failed to quantify how much water should be released from the dam. If there was a man-made disaster then this was one. Colonies were inundated. Oil refineries were closed down. The floods caused losses worth Rs 21,000 crore. And this was just one city of India. In 2006 alone, scores of cities and millions of people have been devastated by rains that the government and local  authorities have not been able to forecast. Desert towns that had not experienced rains for hundreds of years have been flooded. The Brahmaputra Valley that has nestled areas like Cherrapunji—the wettest place on earth once upon a time—has been experiencing a harrowing dry spell. The truth is that the world climate is changing due to global warming caused by the greenhouse effect and the Indian establishment seems stunningly clueless.

Worse, it multiplies the impact of the climate changes by first, not anticipating it and secondly, not making policy corrections that would limit the greenhouse impact. And lastly, by creating big dams that submerge large areas, bring about irreversible ecological changes and displace hundreds of thousands of farmers, without a humane or imaginative socio-economic rehabilitation policy.

The major cause of anxiety is that the government is not taking cognisance of how climate changes can impact economic development. It shows a similar disregard to nature as displayed by the rich, industrialised West that substantially contributed to depleting the ozone layer by releasing substantial greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Howsoever much the rich West may accuse the third world countries of these harmful emissions, a priori, it is possible to establish that those who have higher level of consumptions and waste, drain nature many times more. The resistance to Kyoto Protocol by the United States stems from a mindset that does not want to curb the rapacious profit-seeking behaviour of its short-sighted businessmen. Economic slow-down consequent to signing the protocol is given as the reason for staying away from moves to save the planet.  Hence, what gets promoted is the iniquitous nature of economic policies that forget that human being is at the centre of policies for sustainable development.

In some places, projects that displace human settlements and cause incalculable harm to nature are promoted. Forests that are so critical for transforming Co2 and creating oxygen are routinely destroyed for profit, or to make way for industrial hubs or mines. It would be interesting to know what would be the value of a hacked tree in 10 years’ time. This should not only be from the standpoint of the cost of wood in 2016, but also about the quantum of oxygen it would create and Co2 it would neutralise. Similar analysis is needed whenever decisions are taken that hurt ecology and people. Profit for large corporations in the short run should be seen in the context of the heavy costs society and nature have to incur in the long run. There has to be a dispassionate analysis about how the gigantic Sardar Sarovar Dam damages or helps the people of Gujarat or Maharashtra. The same approach is needed, as the Centre and states patronise hundreds of special economic zones. Areas that were devoted to agriculture would now be manufacturing or real estate hubs. The government and private corporations would have to create structures that are not only ‘climate change- proof’, but also don’t destroy the life and habitats of the indigenous people. There are lessons to be learnt from the man-made disaster in Surat.