It’s that time of the year again. April 22, World Earth Day. An occasion for the media to devote some cursory space for the green news of the day/week/month/year. For politicians to grow a thin green veneer and spout green rhetoric, corporations to promote their green CSR programmes, well-intentioned individuals to organise tree planting and clean up programmes, and educationists to talk about the importance of protecting our planet for the next generation.
And for ‘activists’ such as me to bemoan how little is really changing!
Sadly, once the day is done, we will all go back to ‘normal’ mode. And that ‘normal’ is the problem. The drive towards sustainability in our lifestyles is not – can not -- be a one day event. It has to be part of a fundamental change in the way we view our planet, and the place of humans - us - on the planet.
It serves no purpose for us to ‘be good’ for one, two or even ten days in a year, if the remaining 300-odd days are spent destroying the planet that sustains us – with politicians pushing destructive ports, dams, mines and chemical industries, corporations ignoring sustainability in the quest for yet another million bucks, and you and I consuming recklessly, without a thought for the consequences of our actions.
Earth Day was first observed in 1970, 40 years ago, to raise awareness about environmental challenges. Since then, green awareness has increased exponentially. And so has the rate at which we are destroying our planet; spiraling carbon emissions, overfished and lifeless oceans, dammed and dying rivers, forests cleared for mines or commodities. All to feed the great god of consumption, a god no one – including most activists and NGOs – dares to challenge.
So what am I reminded of on Earth Day 2010? Thanks to my preoccupation with India’s coasts and marine health, it is the slew of ports and coal power plants proposed all along the coast of mainland India that’s preying my mind.
Take Orissa for example - a state with amazing beaches, a vibrant and diverse marine fishing community and some amazing marine diversity; all undergoing rapid changes thanks to the state’s ‘over-industrialisation’ policy which could see over 10 new ports along this 480 km long coast. Orissa is also famous for having some of the last remaining mass nesting grounds for the Olive Ridley sea turtles in the world. If even a few of these ports come up, these nesting and breeding grounds will gradually vanish.
Before you dismiss this as the usual green alarmist rhetoric, think about this. Just last week, a tiny oil spill (7000 litres) from a small ship carrying coal from Indonesia polluted the waters and beaches at Rushikulya, a marine turtle mass nesting site. Right now, more than a week after the spill, and despite clean up efforts, the beach is still smeared with oil, and the waters are still contaminated. In a few days the turtle eggs under the sand will start hatching and tiny hatchlings will struggle to the surface and then try and make their way to the sea.
Hatchlings, like any other newborn, are amazingly vulnerable and delicate. Under normal circumstances fewer than one in a thousand will survive to see adulthood. Something tells me oil smeared sands and hydrocarbon laced waters aren’t going to make the odds any better.
The ship in question, the Malavika, a small cargo vessel owned by Essar, was berthed a few kilometres off the Gopalpur port, which itself is a few kilometres south of Rushikulya. Needless to say, the spill could have been much worse. A bigger ship, a bigger leak… and we could have said goodbye to the entire Rushikulya turtle hatchling class of 2010!
So what’s the solution? For starters, there’s no need to cover every inch of India’s coastline with ports. The government’s shipping policy envisages over 300 new ports along the Indian coast – that’s one every 25 km or so! And you can bet that many of these will be in ecologically critical areas.
That’s why conservationists and turtle researchers are unanimous in recommending that there should be no more ports within a 25 km radius of ecologically critical areas, such as mangrove forests and significant turtle nesting sites and breeding habitats. There are just a handful of these on the Indian coast, surely we can manage to avoid building ports near them? Orissa’s Dhamra port, currently under construction, is just about 12 km from the mass nesting beaches at Gahirmatha. Once this port is operational, it will cater to huge Capesize vessels, with huge fuel tanks and even larger cargo holds. God forbid, but an accident involving one of these monsters could ruin Gahirmatha – and the Bhitarkanika mangrove forests - forever.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests, under the dynamic Jairam Ramesh, is promising much in terms of needed improvements in coastal governance. Will the Minister deliver in 2010? Will the much awaited new Coastal Regulation Zone Rules contain measures to protect critical coastal areas from ports, thermal power plants and other large infrastructure projects that our development model perpetuates? Can we move toward clean energy sources and lifestyles that are more respectful of the natural limits of the planet we live on? Or will India’s development juggernaut continue to ride rough shod over ecological and planetary boundaries?
If it does, Earth Day 2050 could look very, very different to the next generation!
Its time that we all – politicians, media, corporate moguls and aam janta - reclaimed Earth Day, Environment Day and all the other days and put them where they belong – not as one-off events, but as reminders of what our daily life has to be. Until we begin to look at incorporating sustainability into every facet of our life and every day of our existence, we’re doomed to more droughts, floods, water riots and environmental calamities.
So, unless we have plans to move to another planet, every day has to be Earth Day.
(Ashish Fernandes is a Campaigner with Greenpeace India.)