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What's wildlife worth? Ten rupees!

Is there any significance in the fact that India’s 1,000-rupee note depicts technological progress and industry, while wildlife and natural resources make it only to our 10-rupee note? After all, says Ashish Kothari, even as our decision-makers pay lip service to nature these seven days of Wildlife Week, they continue to sign away the very habitats that wild plants and animals thrive in

hooded grasshopper
Hooded grasshopper

Have you ever paid attention to the objects depicted on Indian currency notes? If you’re lucky enough to handle a 1,000-rupee note, you’ll see ‘India shining’…technological progress, industries, infrastructure. At half its value, the 500-rupee note depicts Indian history, symbolised by the Dandi salt march. Then there’s the 100-rupee note, with the most evocative vision of India’s geological formation, the Himalayan ranges. Indian democracy comes fourth, depicted by Parliament House on the 50-rupee note. And finally, the note that buys hardly anything these days, Rs 10, has on it India’s wildlife. The rhino, the tiger, and the elephant, to be precise.  

Any symbolism here? Someone in the corridors of financial power must have decided what to show on which note of what denomination. Is it simply a coincidence that wildlife gets the lowest value, while technology and industry get the highest?  

I have a sneaking suspicion that it is not mere chance. In the worldview of those who decide our economic priorities, it is industrial and technological growth that ‘creates’ wealth, not nature and wildlife. Such a worldview is tragically flawed. Its follies are  being realised even by many economists, as they calculate the losses inflicted on human society by pollution, biodiversity loss, and now climate change, all a result of the same industrial growth. They have shown how all these are a major drag on progress, and a cause of impoverishment for hundreds of millions of people.   

And yet, the message still does not appear to penetrate the minds of our decision-makers. For, even as they pay lip service to nature these seven days of the Wildlife Week, they continue to sign away the very habitats that wild plants and animals thrive in. Or fund programmes that pump enormous quantities of toxins into the air, water, and soil. Or delay decisions that could greatly strengthen the frontline staff employed to protect wildlife, or empower communities and citizens to do so.  

Consider the following:  

  • Diversion of forest land for industries, mining, dams, and defence projects has significantly increased in the last decade or so; of the total diversion since 1980, over 55% (totaling about 6 lakh hectares) has been after 2001. Over 70% of forest land cleared for mining since 1981 has been in the period 1997-2007.
  • Protected areas, notified to give priority to wildlife, continue to be subjected to destructive projects. For instance, the Gujarat state government recently proposed denotifying lands within Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary, Wild Ass Sanctuary, Narayan Sarovar Bird Sanctuary, Velavadar Black Buck Sanctuary and Balaram-Ambaji Sanctuary, for industrial projects. The Goan government proposes to do away with buffer zones around all its protected areas, to enable mining. Though some conservationists have protested, agencies like the National Board for Wildlife have approved several such projects with the questionable quid pro quo of project proponents putting in compensatory money (more on this below).
  • Outside protected areas, crucial corridors for mobile species like elephants continue to be broken by railway lines, expressways, urban growth and industries. For instance one crucial corridor in Uttarakhand has already been severed by an oil terminal, and another in Assam may face the same fate.
  • Also outside protected areas, sites that have been conserved by communities (unfortunately not recognised by the formal conservation movement) are subjected to destructive projects imposed by governments or private companies. In Orissa, for instance, several biodiversity-rich forests considered sacred or protected by local people, are being signed off to multinational or Indian companies.
  • Trade in many wildlife species flourishes, despite clear legal provisions against it. Undercover activists estimate, for instance, that over 370 species of birds are still being traded, dead or alive. Prosecutions of poachers are rare, and often not sustained, as in the case of the dreaded Sansar Chand, implicated in dozens of cases of hunting threatened species, but repeatedly let off by the courts.
  • Union and state budgets for wildlife conservation remain woefully inadequate. Though there is a reasonable increase in the absolute figures over the last few years, the percentage reflects a serious lack of priority: overall, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has got less than 0.5% of the total 2009-10 outlay, and wildlife less than 0.08%! In itself this is abysmal, but it is made much worse by the fact that the budgets going into sectors that affect the environment, such as infrastructure and rural development, are not ecologically sensitive. ‘Greening the budget’ remains very distant from the minds of our finance ministers.

It is said that India as a ‘developing’ country has done a great deal for wildlife conservation. But this presumes a contradiction between ‘development’ and conservation, which itself is false. Indeed this supposed contradiction is part of the fundamentally flawed path of economic growth we are following. It posits nature as either a barrier to be overcome, or as a source of raw material to exploit. It is a strange irony that the very elements without which we could not survive more than a few minutes -- air, water, food, and the biological diversity that  produces or sustains all these -- are the ones least valued in conventional economics.  

Flamingos near Jamnagar
Flamingos near Jamnagar

So what is wildlife really worth, if not Rs 10? Actually it’s impossible to answer this, other than saying it is priceless. How does one put any kind of credible rupee figure on marine algae that produce much of our oxygen, or forests that quietly maintain water cycles we depend on, or birds and insects that pollinate and help reproduce billions of plants? Or, to make life even more difficult for the number-crunching economist, who can estimate the cultural value of the peepal and neem and banyan and elephant and nilgai and honeybee, considered sacred or revered by tens of millions of people? And finally, can we ever put a rupee value on the intrinsic right of all species to survive, any more than we can on the right of the human species to continue inhabiting the earth? 

Some years back economist Robert Costanza and his colleagues estimated that the natural environment was worth 33 trillion dollars, more than the combined Gross National Product of all countries put together. A systematic assessment of the economic value provided by ‘ecosystem services’ and other benefits of biodiversity, and of the economic losses incurred when we destroy ecosystems, is being finalised by a global team under the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project (www.teebweb.org). The preliminary figures again run into trillions of dollars. Several figures of comparable magnitude have been put out by environmental economists in India, for instance in an exercise commissioned as part of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan process, and in a series of recent reports by the Green Indian States Trust (www.gistindia.org).   

Assessments of this nature do help to highlight, especially to hard-headed decision-makers, the importance of conserving nature. But they are also seriously problematic in that they reduce nature to monetary amounts, and however mind-boggling these amounts may be, they still miss out on the intangible cultural, spiritual, and ethical values. This can also be downright dangerous. The Supreme Court has laid down that every project proponent wanting to divert forest land has to pay a compensatory amount (called Net Present Value of NPV) of Rs 1.57 lakh to Rs 8.57 lakh per hectare. The intention was perhaps not to make forests a tradeable commodity -- in fact an expert committee set up by the Court in its 2006 report explicitly warned against this --- but this is precisely what it has become in practice. So the richer you are, in theory (and often in practice), the more your ability to ‘buy’ off forest land. Tens of thousands of hectares of forest have thus been ‘sold’ off for dams, mining, industries, and so on, by our learned judges and the mandarins of the environment ministry. Tragically, this even has the concurrence of some conservationists sitting in institutions of power, many of whom vociferously oppose the granting of even an acre of forest land to an adivasi for cultivation.  

Since 2002, a whopping Rs 11,000 crore of NPV has thus accumulated into a Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). In July this year the Ministry of Environment and Forests announced that it would start disbursing this money to states, for afforestation and regeneration of forests. Conveniently hidden in this is the fact that one can simply never recover a natural forest once it is submerged by a dam or scooped out by a mine; what will replace it will be an impoverished plantation.  

These measures will not save nature. If wildlife and biodiversity are to get their due, if we are to fully respect their irreplaceable contribution in keeping us alive and healthy, we have to make some fundamental course corrections. It’s not only about bigger wildlife budgets and more staff, though these will certainly help. It’s more about incorporating the full cultural, spiritual, ecological, material, and economic value of nature as a core component of planning. It’s about working out a long-term land use plan for the country, in which areas crucial for ecological and livelihood security are permanently off-bounds to damaging ‘development’ projects and urban growth. It’s about reorienting all our economic sectors in such a way that the environment is as much a consideration as capital, labour, and materials. It’s about giving much greater attention to understanding the dynamics of thousands of species of plants and animals that surround us (or that we increasingly surround!), and then being responsive to their survival needs. It’s about focusing as much on the small, unglamorous species as the megafauna (again, it is symbolic that the Rs 10 note has three biggies, no insect, reptile, or even bird). And not the least, it’s about building partnerships with communities that live in or use natural ecosystems, rather than treating them as enemies of wildlife. This means combining their immense ecological knowledge with modern wildlife science, recognising their own conservation practices (there are thousands of community conserved areas in India), facilitating livelihood options such as employment as wardens and wildlife tourism revenues, creating institutions of co-management, and other such ways of making conservation truly a mass movement.  

So, should wildlife be depicted on the Rs 1,000 note rather than the Rs 10 one? No, not really. I’d rather not have it on any currency note at all. Valuing wildlife through commercial symbols is not going to save it. De-commercialising our society, might.  

Infochange News & Features, October 2009