G’nY. What would be the impact if the Aravalli were to disappear—made extinct by humans?
C R Babu : If the Aravalli ranges were to completely disappear, the immediate consequences would be felt in three ways. First, since the Aravallis act as a barrier between Delhi-NCR and the Thar Desert, with their extinction, we will witness the increased movement of desert sand dunes. Along with desertification of the Indo-Gangetic Plain,a host of ecosystem services that these ranges provide—temperature control, trapping dust and pollutants, habitat for flora and fauna—will be lost. Second, acute water scarcity will arise in the east of the Aravalli, caused by a loss of aquifers that are recharged by the hills. This will lead to problems of groundwater recharge and availability. Third, the rainfall patterns will also be affected. It is important to note that all of the factors behind the vanishing of the Aravallis are human-induced. Mining and other developmental activities are the main culprits.
G’nY. What is the importance of biodiversity for any nation—what does it really do?
C R Babu : Biodiversity is the sole factor that is responsible for a thriving ecosystem. If biodiversity is lost, then the very essence of a balanced ecosystem is lost, which provides us with four major services. First, we have the provisioning services which are related to the food and water we consume, the fuel we use for cooking, the clothes we wear and the drugs or medicines that we need. These are
all derived from an ecosystem and more importantly from where biodiversity exists.
Second, vital life supporting services, such as nutrient cycling, soil formation, primary productivity are possible only in the presence of biodiversity. Nutrient cycling is the earth’s natural recycling system, where both organic and inorganic matter is broken down into nutrients. Soil formation is vital for any plant life to grow. Primary productivity is responsible for generation of nutrients. Imagine a place where all biodiversity in the ecosystem has been lost. None of these functions will be performed and life itself will cease to exist.
Third, biodiversity in an ecosystem is also important for the regulation of climate, for controlling diseases, drought regulation, water purification, etc. Finally, cultural and spiritual values are tied with an ecosystem where biodiversity is present. These services are inextricably connected to human well being.
G’nY. What kind of biodiversity changes are we seeing in the Aravalli region—from Delhi
C R Babu : If one moves from Gujarat to Delhi, observing the changes that are taking place on a day to day basis, it is easy to see that it is not just one or two components of biodiversity—say, for example, specific species of plants, that are being lost. Whole ecosystems are vanishing in the Aravalli. Take the case of the Aravalli ranges near Udaipur. There is no trace of greenery or vegetation in these regions—only barren rocks can be seen.
I will elaborate the importance of greenery in the Aravalli. Since the western side of the Aravalli falls in a rainshadow area, most of it is desert. But the eastern side of the Aravalli receives plentiful rainfall. A number of interconnected factors are responsible for this. The eastern part of the Aravalli are a point of confluence for monsoon winds from the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian sea and the resultant rainfall is responsible for the luxuriant vegetation present in the area. The vegetation and rainfall are interdependent; in the absence of vegetation, adequate rainfall cannot take place, and vice-versa. It is this rainfall that is the source of water for cultivation of crops in the nearby states. The loss of ecosystems that one can witness all along the Aravalli—from Delhi to Gujarat, of which vegetation is one part, will have considerable impacts on rainfall in states like Haryana. Already, drought alerts are being frequently seen in the Indo-Gangetic plain.
G’nY. Do you think the livelihoods of thousands who depend on mining and real estate should be jeopardised at the cost of intangible benefits from the environment?
C R Babu : I agree that development is important, both for the livelihood of people and boosting the gross domestic product (GDP) of India. Using natural resources—of which the Aravalli has plenty—is one way of strengthening GDP growth. But the country also needs biodiversity for GDP. The question is how to balance this need for natural resources and biodiversity. For this we need to create a resource management plan that stresses on extraction of resources in a manner that does not impact the environment—what we call sustainable development. Presently, no measures have been taken in the form of legislation or policy to promote sustainable development. This is why we repeatedly see environment and development being pitted against one another.
If you visit any of the mined out areas, be it in Rajasthan, Odisha, or Chhattisgarh, you will find only continuous extraction of resources without any consideration of what short and long-term impact it will have on the environment.
Coming to the question of livelihood. It is not that stopping mining activities, etc., that are causing irreversible damage to the environment will lead to large scale deprivation for people employed in these areas. In fact, once mining activities are stopped and an ecosystem is restored, it needs to be brought back into the control of local people. I will cite the example of Purnapani, a small mining district about 40 km from Rourkela, where we restored a mining area after it was abandoned in its barren state by the Steel Authority of India (SAIL). After the closure of the mines, the people living in areas nearby had to travel many kilometres to earn their livelihood. But since we restored over 250 acres of the barren land to a rich forest, people have taken up silk worm farming and honey bee extraction. This project, sponsored by SAIL and Department of Biotechnology, took us a decade to complete, but the results are there for everyone to see. The area is now home to five storied tropical rainforest ecosystem.
G’nY. Do the Supreme Court and High Court judgements hold any value as far as the Aravalli are concerned, as they are more often than not openly flouted?
C R Babu : Whatever protection the environment is receiving in current times is because of the judiciary. The Supreme Court, National Green Tribunal and various High Courts have all played an important role in protecting the environment of the country. The problem is that only court orders are not going to suffice if we want to preserve the environment. In the case of the Aravalli, unless court orders are complimented with legislations from the local government, sanctions imposed by courts are likely to go unheeded. In the absence of legislation, various individuals and organisations flout the court orders. Unless we develop strict legislations that define the extents or limits of mining activities in the Aravalli, these ranges will certainly vanish.
G’nY. Can the Aravalli be restored?
C R Babu : Most definitely yes. The Aravalli, wherever they have been degraded, can be restored to their original state of vegetation. This can be done on a pattern similar to the work that has been undertaken at the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, situated at the South Central Delhi Ridge. This area was earlier nothing but mined pits of varying shapes and sizes. Almost 80 per cent of the land was barren. Over a time period of 11 years, we made efforts to restore the 690 acres to a forest ecosystem. Similar projects need to be undertaken wherever the Aravalli has deteriorated, be it in Gujarat, Delhi or Haryana. We also need people to realise that saving the Aravalli means saving the entire north Indian region. A whole movement needs to be developed on these lines.