E-Pao! Features - It's a matter of Life!

It's a matter of Life!
By: Konthoujam Khelchandra Singh and Kanchi Kohli*

It's simple yet it's complex. Vibrant, yet so basic. Strong, yet often helpless. Next to us, yet sometimes unreachable. The essence of our lives, the extent of our being…. its the variety of life!

In a more technical usage, it's called biodiversity, with bio meaning life and diversity signifying its varied presence around us. It's the different food we eat, the habitats we live in and in the customs we follow. It's the bird on the tree next to our house, or the fungus that grows on bread. Its what makes us what we are, and shapes the way we live.

India, is rich in biodiversity, always has been. The mountains, the rivers, the forests, the streams, all have a unique composition. However, not everywhere, they are intact, in their climax state. Not all places where has the diversity of life been allowed to retain its true self.

Fortunately, there still exist parts of the country where biodiversity continues to exist in plenty. The North East region is one of them with almost 64% of its geographical area under forest cover. The altitudinal variation here ranges from flood plains of Brahmaputra to high Himalayan peaks Infact it is said that one third of India's biodiversity is in North East. With more than 225 tribal indigenous communities, the North East is a treasure house of biological and cultural diversity. All the different ecological systems are home to a large variety of indigenous wild as well as cultivated crops, plants and animals, much of it being unique to the region.

All this and more…. is enough for it to be recognised as one the 18 mega biodiversity hotspots of the world.

However, the diversity of life in the northeast, brings with it, its own range of issues. Human intervention, governing policies, developmental process etc, have placed before the northeast, some serious questions. While they have been debated upon for some time, not many conclusions have been arrived at.

One attempt to achieve a comprehensive state wide analysis on biodiversity related issues is just about being completed in the north east region. For the past two years, all the north eastern states have been involved in a task to prepare the a biodiversity strategy and action plan. These documents highlight the extent of biodiversity in the regions, the causes for its loss (if any), the ongoing processes to save/enhance the biodiversity and present strategies and action points to deal with the causes for loss recognised earlier, or any looming threats.

This exercise is being carried for 8 states (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura), 4 substate sites (West Garo Hills in Meghalaya, Chedema in Nagaland, Karbi Anglong in Assam and Rathong Chu valley in Sikkim) and as the well as one for the entire ecoregion. The first drafts of all these plans are ready and are going through the process of widespread feedback. This plans are being prepared as part of India's National Biodiversity Strategy and Action plan (NBSAP) project of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). While all the northeastern plans will be stand alone documents they will also be reflected in the national level action plan being compiled.

One of the most consistent efforts of the NBSAP process has been to involve maximum number of people and the planning process in the northeast has attempted to use various methodologies to achieve that. From more conventional methods of workshops and seminars to more innovative ones like biodiversity festivals and public hearings have been used. It has not been possible to involve one and all in the process and not all the states have faired equally well. But the products in the form of biodiversity strategy and action plans are there for all to build upon.

Here is an attempt to present a two key issues emerging from the northeastern biodiversity action plans.

Almost all the Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans (BSAP) have recognised jhumming or shifting cultivation as a 'burning' issue for the northeast region. An average, 3,869 sq. km area is put under shifting cultivation every year and an estimated 4,43,336 households earn their livelihood from it. A majority of the indigenous tribal communities have been practicing this kind of agriculture to achieve a level food security and for their families. At the same time there have been several studies, which indicate that in the present context, such an agricultural practice has an adverse impact on the biodiversity and environment of a particular region. The debate continues, with differing opinions. The recommendations emerging from the various BSAPs clearly present this.

"Adoption and popularization of modified shifting cultivation practices for biodiversity conservation in north-east" is the top priority in the next five-year suggests the Northeast Ecoregional BSAP. The Arunachal Pradesh BSAP suggests a "proper analysis of this practice and evolving a method for enhanced production through Jhumming….". On the other hand the BSAP for Assam indicates "shifting cultivation is very much responsible for the degradation of local flora and fauna. At the same time, it also reduces the soil fertility and accelerates the rate of soil erosion". Tripura BSAP points out that, "various measures adopted to halt the practice of jhumming have not been able to wean away the tribal people from this practice. It is therefore important to adopt integrated programmes involving all development departments". Mizoram recommends that for "increasing productivity, a clear policy to control jhumming cultivation needs to be evolved by the State, as the present policy has not given desired results. Simple or appropriate technology with minimal financial involvement should be introduced to the farmers keeping in mind the position of the poor farmers". Manipur BSAP presents that alternatives to shifting cultivation should be adopted.

Another debatable issue vis a vis the biodiversity conservation is the large number of mega hydro electric projects proposed to be constructed. The reason, the 'development' of the region. It is stated further, that much of this power will be sold to generate revenue for the northeast. At what cost…. that's a different issue? Most of these projects are likely to have serious implications on the rich biodiversity of the northeast, with large tracts of land likely to be submerged. While in most cases it is purely a loss of habitats, in a few others it is livelihoods of people, which are at stake. Strangely, true and correct information on this is seriously lacking.

As part of the Mizoram BSAP preparation, the state nodal agency organised a public hearing to discuss the mega hydroelectric projects with reference to the state. It is from this forum that the action "big dams should not be encouraged and hydel projects should not be done in ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs) though the State has vast hydropower potential", emerged. It also recommended that alternatives like wind energy, solar energy, micro hydel and run of the river projects need to be explored more seriously. The Arunachal Pradesh BSAP suggested that an appropriate policy code should be developed to restrict the height of dams and promote mini and moderate hydel projects only. The need for critical surveys of the impacts of such big projects (Eg-Tipaimukh Dam Project at the confluence of Barak and Tuiva rivers in Churachandpur district, Manipur) is indicated in the Manipur BSAP. Nagaland BSAP also highlighted that Doyang and Lokimero projects are bound to cause adverse impacts on the biodiversity of the state. Sikkim BSAP also identified that Micro / Macro hydel projects as one of the threat to the biodiversity of the state and indicated that the detailed project reports of such mega projects are not in consonance with natural resources of the area.

It thus becomes very critical to look at these trends of thinking and give them their due regard. No standardized definition of development can apply to the northeast or for that matter for any state in the northeast. Whether it is jhumming or damming, they all need to be viewed in a very contextual manner, recognizing the feasibility in relation to the cost of the loss of biodiversity. The loss, to be measured not only in the present economic value, but for the next 20-30-100 years, blending it with the social and cultural costs as well. Only then the true value of biodiversity would be understood and subsequently addressed.

This has been a mere glimpse of a range of issues, which are presented in the 13 BSAPs from the north east alone. Each one of them (with their limitations) presents very interesting set of action points, which need a larger debate and discussion in the north east. But for those involved in the process of making these BSAPs there is a concern things don't get limited to discussions alone; that these processes don't merely becoming pretty documents on a reference shelf. They are recognised and given their due regard. In simple words, it is time they get implemented! That these biodiversity and livelihood concerns find their way into the plan priorities for the north east!

Is someone listening!

* The authors are members of Environmental Action Group, Kalpavriksh based in Delhi and are presently working with the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan process.

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