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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 25, June 11, 2011

Diversity, Life and Culture

On The Conclusion Of The International Year Of Biodiversity

Tuesday 14 June 2011, by C M Bhandari


This article was received by us several months ago but could not be used earlier due to unavoidable reasons. It is now being published as its contents are still of considerable relevance.


Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilisation.

—Aldo Leopold

It is estimated that there may be somewhere around 30 million species of plants and animals—many of them are yet to be discovered. These life-forms came into existence through the processes of adaptation and evolution in the earth’s environment. The humankind is one among these, and his actions during the last few decades have created conditions where a large number of these life-forms and the environment which supports them are threatened.

With the growing awareness in this context a Convention on Biodiversity was created, the deatails of which were completed in 1992 culminating in an UN-sponsored Conference on Environment and Development (The Earth Summit) in Brazil. By the year 2009 almost 193 countries have already signed the Convention.

The year 2010 was declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Biodiversity. The main objectives of this declaration were:

(1) to raise awareness of the importance of conserving biodiversity for human well-being and promote understanding of the economic value of biodiversity;

(2) enhance public knowledge of the threats to biodiversity and means to conserve it;

(3) encourage organisations (and through them individuals) to take direct or indirect biodiversity conservation activity.

We do have the satisfaction of realising the importance of biodiversity, and like many other UN-sponsored years it may finally be confined mostly to records. It is not clear if assigning the year to biodiversity would make any difference to the ground reality. The net effect will be counted by the number of seminars, lectures and meetings as also by the publications. Each of these activities would put an additional burden on the environment, and environment has a direct role in preserving life in all its myriad forms. What is happening at the international level requires a large canvas to focus upon. I will focus on the Indian sub-continent. This is more so because the happenings here are closer to us and many of our immediate concerns are linked to it. In the backdrop of the UN-sponsored biodiversity year celebrations various kinds of activities were organised around the world. India too contributed to this effort by organising “CMS Vatavaran:

Environment and Wildlife” in eight different cities: Ahmedabad, Bhubaneshwar, Hyderabad, Patna, Port Blair, Shimla, Shillong, Trivandrum.

Life on the planet has evolved in innumerable forms. Out of some 30 million life-forms some are already known, others are in the process of being discovered. A glance over these diverse life-forms leaves us dazed:

Insects discovered so far number around one million whereas those yet undiscovered may take the number to five million.

A rough estimate of plants and animals among those already discovered are:

Plants 2,70,000
Mushrooms 72,000
Vertebrates 56,000
Algae 40,000

Invertebrates are many times more than vertebrates. Eco-degradation has already started showing its signs and many of the plant and animal species are threatened. It is estimated that by the year 2050 almost 30 per cent of these species may become extinct. The areas which are still undisturbed by man have a flourishing diversity of plant and animal species. However, changing weather pattern has put such areas at risk too. The preservation of that diversity must be our goal, as different species have a right to exist. This planet is the mother earth for all creation just as it is to humans. Let us rejoice in this panorama. This by itself should be reason enough for respecting and maintaining life in all its variety, not only because it may be useful to the humankind. Add to this the advantages for the humankind, and the need for their preser-vation becomes all the more important. Only a few examples will suffice to bring the point home.

Cone snails are known for their variety and attract shell collectors all over the world. There are nearly 700 species of them, each of them producing dozens of different toxins. These toxins are interesting from several angles including research as they bind themselves to cell surfaces nicely initiating a variety of processes within. Of the 400 shark species that existed around a century ago, almost half have become almost extinct. Sharks produce steroids with immense potential in producing antibiotics.

There is a definite linkage between the occurrence of disease and biodiversity.1 Recent researches and detailed data analysis have brought home some unpleasant facts. A few examples will not be out of place. West Nile virus is transmitted from birds to humans, and in places where diverse species of birds are present the virus is less abundant than otherwise. Mosquito is responsible for transporting it from birds to others. Usually present in Africa, West Asia and the Middle East, this virus has made its presence known in the US since 2000. How the biodiversity of bird species is effective in checking this virus is somewhat unclear but researches have shown that the presence of diverse species of animals is helpful in its control.

One more example is of interest. Lime disease is spread in humans by the bite of ticks found in forests. It comes to the larval tick from the white-footed mouse. In a degraded forest area the white-footed mouse is most abundant and chances of the tick getting infected and posing a threat to animals and humans increases. In an area where various animal species are present the chance of bacteria being transported to humans will get reduced. This bacteria was noticed in the New York-New Jersey area two decades ago.

II—Indian Scene

IN North India the Dengue fever has come up with a vengeance. In the bygone era it was not so prevalent. There must have been a nature’s balance mechanism which kept this in check. No detailed study has ever been done but it appears that certain plant and bird species present earlier might have become nearly extinct in that area. The same is true of viral encephalitis in the Terai belt of eastern Uttar Pradesh as well as the occurrence of avian and viral flu. It is true that our awareness level was then not sufficient but taking that into account and all said, the frequent and uncontrolled reappearance of diseases has something to do with loss of diversity of birds and plants. Bird diversity is directly related to plant diversity as birds of different species need different kinds of plant life for nesting. One need not go very far to locate the problems and their sources. The almost vanishing vultures are the outcome of the frequent use of drugs injected by cattle owners who have been using these drugs frequently to get more milk. Vultures feed on these animals after their death and under-standably become victims of the drugs’ toxic effects. Frequent use of insecticides has vanished the sparrow, and the crow too is now endangered. Fifteen years ago living on the banks of Ganga at Allahabad one could hear the jackals’ howl. Now it is not easy to hear that even if you stand the whole night at the river bank. The river bank is now an assortment of cemented structures rather than of plants and animals.

Twenty years ago a visitor to Haridwar and adjoining Rishikesh could see from a distance the scenic landscape inviting the onlooker to come. It was an amazing view. The serenity, purity and splendour of the entire set-up was overwhelming. Two years back anyone who revisited the area could see no glimpse of the Laxman-Jhula and the river from the road above, there were only structures, man-made with cement and iron and bricks, defining the line of sight. Religion here looks like the biggest industry. The entire beautiful river valley between Rishikesh and Haridwar is an assortment of buildings, and no view of the river is possible from the road. Think of our great shrines at Badrinath and Kedarnath. Hundred years ago people visited the region on foot. Now there are roads taking you everywhere and cemented structures at those heights. The river is being polluted right from its source.

The Indian way of life had a close proximity with nature. Rivers, mountains had a special place and most of the rivers supposedly have a mythological connection. Mother earth or motherland is a common concept in all cultures, yet assigning a divine status to rivers, mountains and even trees is of purely Indian origin. It is worth noting that the most fascinating Godly figures in the Indian psyche are those of Lord Shiva and Lord Krishna. One lived on mountain- top instead of a palace. The other spent most of his childhood as a cowboy. This fascination persists even to this day in the Indian psyche even with a different lifestyle with metropolitan cities, skyscrapers and malls. A way of life that flourished in proximity with nature, and was truly defined by nature, is facing the danger of irreversible eco-degradation. The biggest congre-gations in human history were held at the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. Even to this day every twelfth year this tradition continues and collects a crowd of around ten million people. In a sense our cultural upbringing had ecological overtones, knowingly or otherwise. We only need to reinvent our role in the scheme of things.

The Balancing Act

IT is obvious that the future of this land depends much upon the action we decide to undertake at present. A proper balance between develop-ment and conservation has to be conceived, planned and implemented. There has to be an action plan at the level of States and also at the level of the Centre. Just as the plant and animal life is facing the threat of degradation so are the mountains, rivers and forests. The great Himalayas, without which the Indian economy and culture are unthinkable, are under threat. The threat is partly global but much of it is local too. The effect of global warming can be checked only by the concerted effort of the world community. However, the problems at the local level need immediate attention of the government and people. The governments are best suited to take necessary action in this regard. However, by her/himself none amongst the politicians is inclined to take up deeper issues and confine her/himself to the problems of immediate concern on which survival depends.

What then is important is the existence of pressure groups to persuade the government bodies to undertake the necessary steps. In a democratic set-up such pressure groups can create meaningful contribution not only in develop-mental programmes but also in conservation. An example will not be out of place. In the United States the idea of setting up National Parks was taken up as far back as 1850-60. Many conservationists had been active even during those days and emphasising the need for a conservation movement. They kept on writing about their concerns in magazines and at times directly to the government authorities about the need to take up definite steps towards conser-vation. John Muir was on the forefront of this movement. In the states of California and Wyoming he had witnessed nature in its pristine glory and emphasised the need to let it remain unharmed by human actions. He made a proposal to make laws such that certain defined areas be declared National Parks. It was the time of Civil War in the US, a bloody war which continued for almost four years. The conditions were pretty chaotic with uncertainty about the outcome of the war. In spite of this the then President, Abraham Lincoln, not only found time to go through the proposal, he set up a committee to look into the matter and on its recommendation declared the Yellow Stone area in Wyoming and Yosemity valley in Sierra Nevada, California as National Parks. The Grand Canyons too were conserved by such actions. That a country which was at war with itself could take decisions of this kind shows a remarkable degree of diversity of interests in the governing elite and also among the people who could create the necessary conditions. Today there are around fiftyseven National Parks in addition to state parks there. This kind of activity is given top priority in many countries.

Of course it would be unjust to make undue comparisons. We have a much larger population and the land available is less. It is not possible to abandon our developmental programmes and for that land is a necessity. We do have our own National Parks, but the steps taken towards that end are inadequate. I will take an example of Uttar Pradesh where I have spent most of my time. Although one of the largest States in the country, there are not many National Parks there whereas there could easily have been a dozen, and that too without harming the process of development. It may not be possible to allocate large areas for parks but then there could be a larger number of moderate or small size areas reserved where the main emphasis remains on conservation.

Benefits to Humans

WHAT we eat depends on what is available or what we grow. What is best for human health may vary from culture to culture and from one society to the other. Yet there are some common factors.2 There is a Chinese saying: Eating what stands on one leg (plants) is better than eating what stands on two legs (chicken), which is better than eating what stands on four legs (pigs, sheep).The legless fish can be counted in the same scheme and is a good food. Larger food variety is better for health. Different colours of food items are also extremely useful. Each colour may indicate a different antioxidant. These chemicals protect against different chronic ailments.

I remember two typical food items in the Kumaon region: the black soyabeen (bhatt) and the pulse known as gahat. These were regularly used as pulses and formed an integral part of food items. Black soya has rich protein content and is easy to digest while gahat is useful in a different context altogether. Water in hills is usually hard which is not bad for health but may contain salts which are likely to give rise to stone formation. Gahat has ingredients which can help dissolve the stone forming chemicals. This is part of nature’s balancing scheme.

This is just to indicate that the plant species that have evolved over thousands of years have a purpose and a pattern. The effect of globalisation is homogenising food as well and the net outcome is that locally relevant plants and pulses are sidelined. The black soya and gahat are not available elsewhere and not easily available even locally. However, I could find black soya in the United States.
Population Pressure

OBVIOUSLY one of the primary reasons for the cause of ecological degradation in India and elsewhere is due to the ever-increasing population as also the consumer culture. In almost all developing countries this is true; yet it is strikingly so in India. As a country, we have probably one of the highest population density. The rate of population growth has not slowed down significantly. There is no conscious effort of any kind in that direction. Let us look at some hard facts:

(1) We may be the most populated nation in the world in a decade’s time and yet no conscious effort to check the population is in sight.

(2) Degrading environment has put tremendous pressure on our fragile eco-system.

(3) In our set-up it is difficult to take decisive steps due to political compulsions.

(4) The brand of politics and politicians are not in a position to think of issues beyond their own political survival.

(5) The intelligentsia too has no vision as a group to steer things in the right direction.

Even if we think hard, no short-cut solutions are ready at hand. In spite of these drawbacks even a small step—the very first step in the right direction—is the need of the hour. We owe this to ourselves and to the coming generations.

Travelling from New Delhi to Mumbai the train covers almost one thousand two hundred kilometres. One does not notice in this vast expanse the thing called wilderness. From Delhi to Kolkata the fifteen hundred kilometres do not present anything like a forest or wilderness. Leopold’s3 words ring in my years:

‘Our civilisations have been hammered out of this (the wilderness)’.

All life has evolved out of wilderness.

Quoting Leopold again:

‘Wilderness is never a homogeneous raw material. It was very diverse, and the resulting artifacts are very diverse. These differences in the end product are known as cultures. The rich diversity of the world’s cultures reflect a corres-ponding diversity in the wilds that gave them birth.’

All cultures have their origins in wilderness. The wilderness that gave birth to our culture has more pronounced connections with it. The pressures of life and living have eroded much of that connectedness and the erosion goes on unabated. Diversity originating from the same wilderness is the hall-mark of the Indian psyche, and acceptance of the same has been built in the scheme of things. Biodiversity is the victim of civilisation and it is strikingly so in the Indian context.

The cultural diversity too is on the verge of extinction. The information revolution has forced the world to a stage where uniformity seems to bulldoze everything. I wonder at the extremely rich diversity of languages around the world and within India. One hundred years from now most of the languages would survive only in books and on traditional platforms.

How can we save the cultural diversity as also the biological diversity without stopping the wheel of development? We may have to redefine the process and meaning of development. The big challenge before us is then three-fold:

(a) to conserve biodiversity;

(b) to conserve nature as far as possible in its pristine form;

(c) to save cultural diversity in spite of globalisation.

Do we have the time to reflect on this theme? Can we as citizens and members of the intelli-gentsia educate4 ourselves better and form pressure groups persuading governments to take meaningful steps in the right direction.


1. J.S. Sachs, ‘A dose of diversity’, in National Wildlife (World Edition), Vol. 48, No. 5, p. 22, August-September 2010.

2. M. Pollan, 2009, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, Penguin Books.

3. A. Leopold, 1949, A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, London.

4. C.M. Bhandari, ‘Deep Transpersonal Ecology: Gandhian Connection’, Mainstream weekly, October 3, 2009.

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