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'Education will have to emphasise conservation'

Mar 23, 2010

In the news recently for saying that India has no proper system of ringing or bird banding to help keep a track of migratory birds coming to the country, Pune-based ecologist and ornithologist Dr Prakash Gole elaborates here on issues concerning birds, animals, environmental awareness and climate change

A well-known ornithologist, Dr Prakash Gole works and resides in Pune and is the author of the acclaimed book ‘Environment and Ornithology in India’ published in 1995 and ‘Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development in India’ published in 2001 which, incidentally, was considered a provocative book because it disagrees in many respects with the state of environmentalism in India and advocates a change in the current environmental beliefs and prescriptions along with technological models.

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Dr Gole is also the founder of the Ecological Society, the genesis of which can be traced to 1982 when a group of like-minded environmentalists, including Dr (Mrs) Swati Gole, Dr and Mrs Wadia, Dr S V Bhave, late L G Rajwade (former chief secretary, Government of Maharashtra) and others held discussions and formulated plans to set up a trust to further ecological research and education. In a lecture held recently, Dr Gole came down heavily on our inability to track migratory birds, an issue on which his perspective is presented below along with what he has to say about other environment-related topics.

Huned Contractor: What is your personal observation about migratory birds coming to India?

Dr Prakash Gole: In recent times it has been observed that there has been a substantial decline in the number of migratory birds coming to India. There are many factors responsible for this but what adds to the helplessness is that India has no proper way of keeping a track of its migratory birds because no ringing or bird branding is carried out and that makes it near impossible to carry out a proper study. Mostly the ones that have decreased in number are the migratory ducks.

Huned: What are the reasons for this decline?

Dr P. Gole: The primary reason is that a huge number of these birds are hunted in Afghanistan and Pakistan while on their way to India. The other reasons include bad weather and habitat loss. In Pune, for example, the ducks would generally come to areas like Pashan Lake, the Vir Dam and along the Mula-Mutha rivers. But urbanisation has begun to take its toll and the numbers have dwindled over time.

Huned: Is global warming responsible in the change of migratory patterns?birds migratory.jpg

Dr P. Gole: Global warming does play an important role because of the change in climatic conditions that lead to changes in geographical patterns. For example, the Ladakh region has gradually been changing from being a cold desert to a wetland and the number of black-necked cranes found here has gone up from a handful to more than 30 since these birds nest in the marshes.

Huned: In the larger scheme of things, what is your take on environmental conservation?

Dr P. Gole: Human activities affect ecology. Historically human civilisations have destroyed forests, ravaged mountain slopes, polluted water and air, and have perished as a consequence. Even today our development plans directed to enhance the economic well-being of our people affect and drastically modify ecology, mostly in an adverse manner and as a consequence imperil our own lives. We therefore need to make concerted efforts to prevent any further damage as well as restore the damage already inflicted on ecology. And this can happen only when all of us become aware of the damage that is being caused by us.

Huned: How would you relate this to India?

Dr P. Gole: Several global studies have indicated that India is particularly vulnerable to climate change and is likely to suffer damage to agriculture, food, water security, human health and coastal population. We should realise the gravity of the situation before it blows out of proportion and get our act together towards restoration of the ecological balance.

Huned: Is that why you set up the Ecological Society?

Dr P. Gole: Concern for the degrading environment is what led to the founding of the Ecological Society. Over the years we have been working on very specific projects to prove that ecological imbalance can be restored. For instance, we have restored a forest area in the catchment zone of the Panshet Dam near Pune which covers an area of 50 acres. A lush green forest with wetlands and wildlife has been created and this has been considered a model project, acclaimed even by the Society for Ecological Restoration, USA. The US government had sent its representatives to especially look into the carbon sequestration importance of the restored forest.

Further, in partnership with the Irrigation Department of the Government of Maharashtra, we initiated eco-development work in the catchment area of the Chaskaman Dam for promotion of local fishery development, protection of the river basin and wetlands.

In 1992 we prepared a management plan for the Ujni reservoir, 100 kms east of Pune. The aim was to protect the breeding and foraging sites of water fowl while providing the resources to people to satisfy their basic needs. We have also launched a competition in rural areas titled ‘Nirmal Ganga Abhiyan’ for the best-managed stream. This is an attempt to reach out to people in rural areas and encourage them to restore streams on their own initiative.

Huned: What has been your personal contribution to ornithology?

Dr P. Gole: I have been at the forefront of a countrywide project to assess the status of the largest flying bird in the world i.e. the Sarus crane. This is a pioneering study of man and bird inter-relationship in India which has been recognised by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. I have also been a part of a project to rediscover the wintering area of the rare black-necked crane, a globally endangered species. This rediscovery has been applauded by the International Crane Foundation and resulted in setting up the first People’s Sanctuary for Cranes in Arunachal Pradesh.

Huned: What then is your perspective about the relationship between humans and wildlife conservation?

Dr P. Gole: It is necessary to properly demarcate the current protected areas.  In demarcating non-government land, it is necessary to see that the movement of wildlife will not be restricted. Comprehensive database of land records based on specific land use should be maintained in public domain for traceability and transparency. The number of visitors to forests and ecologically sensitive areas should be restricted based on the carrying capacity of the area. The guidelines, procedures and processes recommended by the Indian government in the matter of creating and maintaining inviolate areas, critical wildlife habitats, corridors and buffer zones need to be strictly followed.

Huned: Your book ‘Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development in India’ suggests that there should be a different approach that environmentalists need to follow. What is your perspective about this subject?

Dr P. Gole: I believe that the current economic beliefs and prescriptions along with technological models will have to change if sustainable development is to be the goal. Education will have to emphasise conservation and restoration of natural resources and not their exploitation and destruction. Scarce resources such as land and water cannot be conserved and equitably distributed through greater storages and fertilisation.

It is only through understanding the ecology of streams and rivers, protecting various habitats and their vegetation and thereby enhancing the quantity and quality of these resources that the goal can be achieved. Multipurpose management of reservoirs, coupled with wetland development, will go a long way in protecting biodiversity. Biodiversity conservation in critical habitats like sea coasts, hills and mountains as well as protected areas should get the highest priority if sustainable development is to become a reality.

Huned: What is your take about creating environmental awareness among children?

Dr P. Gole:The government at all educational levels has made environmental education compulsory. However, the stuff dished out in the text books on environmental education deals mainly with certain concepts like the eco-system and how to control pollution and waste. Natural resources, ecological variations in different regions and how life has evolved adaptations to these etc are only marginally discussed. In primary schools the emphasis should be on building up stories, skits, poems etc to explain different topics. In secondary schools, rather than concepts and theories, the emphasis should be on examples and case studies.

At higher levels concepts, theories and their practical applications can be introduced. I believe that there are three cardinal principles that should be observed to be able to bring about the necessary change. These are: a) Human beings should respect general and particular restraints imposed by nature, b) Human beings should respect the right to life of all non-human beings - they be plants or animals and c) The current generation of human beings should safeguard the interest of future generations.

Huned: What about carbon footprints which has been the hottest topic in recent times?

Dr P. Gole: Assign acceptable levels of carbon footprint to individuals and businesses and provide incentives for consumption within quota, and penalties/taxes for over consumption. For instance, a minimum amount of energy required for a reasonable quality of life can be accessed at a subsidised rate and any consumption more than that must be priced at the actual realistic price (inclusive of environmental cost). Local self-government bodies should decide local energy and natural resource generation and management policy, local production, consumption and recycling and waste management.

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