Colonial India


We gave importance to dams, factories, chemical agriculture and plantations after Independence, instead of focusing on conserving our natural environment. Unless reversed, our future generations will pay heavily for this lack of foresight.

LSo you thought colonial rule in India was over? When the British departed from Indian shores, the fact is they left behind the tools of colonial trade. New masters thus began to wear old jackboots. The brown sahebs of urban India soon began to colonise rural India. This is how the proverbial rich got richer and the poor poorer. Meanwhile, the Pinkheaded Duck, Mountain Quail and Asiatic Cheetah met their end when India’s once-vast forests began to retreat under the combined assault of timber merchants and the teeming millions, who Jawaharlal Nehru exhorted to clear forests to till new land.

Soon, tea and coffee estates began to replace pristine forests in the Nilgiris and the Northeast at a blistering pace. Terai grasslands and forests gave way to sugarcane watered by dams that had wreaked their own independent destruction elsewhere. Coal mines opened up a wide swatch in central India. The sandalwood forests of peninsular India became almost as prized as gold. All this was great news for Indians with their eyes on thus-far-denied riches. Jawaharlal Nehru was actually sympathetic to the cause of nature protection. But he rationalised the destruction of vast forests to give Indians the development, he believed the British had denied them. For all his sensitivity, therefore, he was the architect of the destruction of natural India.

The instruments of Nehru’s destruction were large dams, which are still being financed by the World Bank. Nehru called them the temples of modern India. Associated with such mega-projects were coal mines and thermal plants, both largely established in the heart of forested and tribal lands. For the millions who were displaced by such projects and who had to migrate to live in the squalor of urban slums, they were doom machines. Nehru died before he could correct these flaws, which even he recognised were the Achilles heel of his utopian industrial dream. But no visionaries emerged to alter India’s flawed developmental course.

Though Indira Gandhi provided the political support that enabled Parliament to enact virtually all the legislation that protects our forests and endangered wildlife today, her concerns did not extend to the protection of our rivers, soils and air from industry. Dirty factories therefore fouled sacred rivers and pure lakes, wells and streams that are even now used as sewers to dump lethal toxins. As Indians prepare to face the years ahead they must confront one very stark fact. Each one of us has only half the water that was available to our parents in 1947, and supplies are plummeting. What is worse, even the precious little we have is being polluted by industry, chemical agriculture and careless municipalities. In places like Kutchh, water tables have fallen by hundreds of metres. Coastal aquifers are becoming saline in every Indian state. Streams and rivers are running dry because of deforestation. A vicious corollary of this tragedy is the death of our soils. Long fed on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, vast areas of Punjab, Haryana and Western U.P. cannot any longer support crops.

It should become the purpose of all development in India to restore health to our ravaged land, to restore quality to the water we drink and productivity to our soils, before we are forced by nature to take such protective action. The sooner we start the long climb back to environmental sanity, the better. Unfortunately, despite the frequent elections, not one political party seems interested in leading our nation away from the environmental nemesis looming large. Not one recognises that good ecology makes for good long-term economics. Future generations will, therefore, have to spend huge sums to clean up the mess we are bequeathing them – nuclear reactors and their waste, toxic aquifers, ruined lakes and rivers, deforested slopes and flood-and-drought-ravaged plains.

There is still time to take advantage of nature’s self-repairing mechanisms. But we must contend with the fact that horizon-less planners – who want to build nuclear reactors on tiger forests, highways through wetlands and chemical complexes in fish breeding mangroves – will not see the light till it is too late. If they prevail, we can be sure of one thing: history will not forgive us and our children will not remember us well.


Bittu Sahgal

The writer is Editor, Sanctuary magazine