As Indians we care about the immediate and not the important. All our focus is on resolving the immediate crisis facing us. We don`t worry too much about the important issues that could prevent long-term crises. Perhaps, this is key reason why we lurch from disaster to disaster. Whether it is collapsing homes in Mumbai or flash floods in Uttarakhand.
Society and government react to sudden disasters but not to slow disasters. A flash flood or a an earthquake is a sudden disaster. Everybody reacts even though none is adequately prepared for it. The natural reaction is to blame it on nature or big business or lax government. Few think about individual responsibilities that we as citizens bear.
Thus slow disasters are ignored. Ground water pollution, cheap construction quality, overdevelopment in natural spots. But these environmental issues rarely grab our attention.
The Astrakhan tragedy is a grim reminder that managing and protecting the environment is not about big projects alone. Protecting the environment requires a constant sensitivity to the needs of the local ecosystem in everything we do.
Every personal and institutional action has an environmental impact. Do we pause to consider this in our daily lives or do we just leave the regulation to some nameless officers in a distant department?
From saving and harvesting water in our homes to reusing paper and other materials at office. Everything is about protecting the environment. All these small acts add up to either improve or worsen the ecosystem.
In Astrakhan, there has been scant regard for construction laws. There is a big debate over the need for big dams in a seismic zone. The Himalayas are young mountains that can`t bear the weight of development like the Alps can.
Did the local authorities keep this in mind while allowing homes, hotels and shops to be built? Why didn`t they push back when there was pressure to build beyond the prescribed limits.
Each town and city should strengthen the process of assessing its immediate environment. What it can support and what it can`t. All development activity must flow from this plan. State governments, local bodies must shoulder the burden of protecting the environment even as they allow development to continue.
An important part of managing environment is education. Consumers, citizens, builders and officers must be equally aware of the responsibility that they have. For this, a process of constantly educating people about the importance of protecting the environment is needed. We protect the environment by taking hundreds of positive steps. This must be as much a social message as cultural and environmental. Sadly, few people practice what they preach.
Bhutan is a good example of an entire society working together to protect its environment. Its people take care not to pollute. The government restricts the inflow of tourists and holds a tight grip over construction activity. Not just environmental, even the sensitivity of cultural heritage drives development. Builders have to abide by strict rules on how structures will be designed and constructed.
There is no reason why local political and community leaders can`t enforce such rules in India. Enough power and authority rests with local bodies to be sensitive to the environment.
Unfortunately, these bodies are either bullied, undermined or remain incapable of such enforcement. The citizens don`t seem to care too. They would rather build an awkward, dangerous structure in a prime location for personal benefit and risk their lives by breaking rules.
Unless this attitude is fought with tough regulation, the urgent will always overshadow the important.
The author tracks India`s political economy and its engagement with the world. @pranjalsharma
(The story was first published on July 03, 2013 in DNA newspaper)