The Environment Day arrives again on 5 June bringing increased sensitivity and heightened anxiety on continuing failure of the state in preventing environmental crimes such as pollution, deforestation, mining and poaching of wild animals. One would ritually attend a number of colloquiums and seminars discussing ineffective laws and leadership in environment protection to expedite environmental justice and fix penalties for crimes. The day might again miss its focus from a much-needed attention to a most prodigious, remorseless and legitimised environmental crime that has been in the forefront to scrap, scar and scorch our one and the only planet we venerate as ‘mother earth’.
World War II introduced our planet to a new form of heinous nuclear crime when two B-29 bombers turned to ashes within seconds the complete flora and fauna of two flourishing Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their water bodies dried out, agriculture and infrastructure disappeared. More than a lakh people died within those first few minutes but exposure to nuclear radiation continues to kill the rest of the world even today. Earth is not stationary; it revolves and rotates subjecting every other nation including the aberrant to radiation-related diseases, incapacity, lack of productivity and death.
The Vietnam War was another apocalypse to a pristine evergreen habitat with enormous biodiversity. As America sprayed Agent Orange and Napalm over a dense canopy of forests to de-foliage trees, those 166 species of mammals such as tigers, rhinoceros, elephants, deer and enigmatic khting-vor were devastated notwithstanding thousand other non-mammals like porcupines, rabbits, lizards, snakes and around 400 species of birds, as per the IUCN records, who were nesting on those trees. This part of the Asian habitat is a rare instance of a non-montane ecoregion having an intact habitat suitable for a longer survival of both plant and animal species. More than 16 million tons of munitions which were used in the war left land infertile due to burning top soil, bomb-released sharp metal scraps called shrapnel which brutally sliced off not only the enemy forces but a very large number of wildlife. Thus war made the task of poachers and loggers easier who further benefited due to an increasing war-led fragmentation of erstwhile intact habitat. Phenomenal number of species was lost within those years and those remaining faced enormous vulnerability.
The persistent armed conflict of overt and covert nature has damaged the beautiful valley of Jammu and Kashmir called ‘a paradise on earth’. The Siachen Glacier located at a height of 5,400m in the eastern Karakoram range in the Himalayas has been holding more than 216,000 tons of load of Army and its weaponry and this excludes a ton of human waste added every day. Due to constant shelling many glaciers are shrinking faster. The main source of water for Kashmir’s biggest river Jhelum is the Kolahoi glacier which has already shrunk by 23% since 1962 and its subsequent impact on local agriculture has been so severe that it has decreased its productivity by 39%. A 2020 study by earth scientists of the University of Kashmir and Nichols College, USA, has indicated a relatively larger damage to glaciers in Kashmir region as compared to the rest of Himalayas. Besides, an inability to prevent easy access to small weapons, machine guns and light bombs to militants in armed encounters prevent and even close down a large number of conservation programmes in the Valley. The story of critically endangered Hangul conservation in the Dachigam National Park is well known as this beautiful deer which once roamed free in large numbers from Chamba in Himachal Pradesh to Kashmir Valley is on the way to extinction.
In the recent war over Gaza and also the previous one in 2014 the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) Rapid Assessment Survey had warned about a severe depletion of water table, top soil, and food crisis. To this be added an increasing number of permanently disabled and orphaned children, sexually abused left alone women and injured elderly leave behind a trail of environment-humanitarian crisis which makes recovery difficult. These wars, however short in duration, always leave behind explosive remnants of war (EWR), polluting permanently the land that produces food and water. These EWRs include carpets of non-exploded tank shells, missiles, aircraft bombs, rockets, bullets, shrapnel, fuses, gas canisters and flechettes. Humanity has still not been able to remove or rectify the impact of World War II global military trash, half-sunken ships, excavated mines and bombed cities and forests. When the USSR was disintegrating and détente was being achieved after a long period of Cold War hostilities, there were still more than 48 small wars going around the region. Yugoslavia disappeared as Serbia and Croatia bitterly fought for their nationhood. The Chechnya war in which 48,000 soldiers and 2 lakh civilians were killed was called a victory in the Khasavyurt Accord Treaty of Moscow and Russian federal troops had to withdraw. Will this victory have any meaning to victims of war crimes, sexual violence, flesh traded children and scattered families which threw vulnerable populations to bloodbath just to claim a nationalist victory. These fights for small terrain of lands such as for the Gaza where million plus children require psychosocial and prosthetic support to live their future is a human carnage much bigger than that of climate change.
Environmental destruction due to wars begins much earlier before actual warfare. The whipping of hatred, stirring up divisive feelings of nationalism, patriotism and glory to a race are the first step to retarding progress as it diverts resources from the welfare of the poor to the factories of warfare. Citizens are asked to sacrifice their today for national victories which war would bring to them. The interests of a dominant political party is carried forward by its spokespersons who never sacrifice for wars except their time on TV channels to repudiate truths about neighbourhood policies which sometimes generate artificial conflicts to serve atavistic instincts in a society. The real sacrifice is that of communities where large numbers of their most courageous and healthy young men are slaughtered in battlefields to provide an illusion of victory to others. As wars progress, anxiety, grief, fear and horror of losing husbands, sons and brothers loom over families. As a school kid I was exasperated to hear and see a large number of women wailing, crying and running after the three-ton Army trucks carrying soldiers from Bareilly Cantonment to the fronts during the 1971 war. Most of these women knew that they were gone. Only politicians and hate disseminators told them shamefully that they sacrificed their lives for their nation.
Enmity springs from our limited exposure to global environmental realities within which we live and find love, bonding and togetherness beyond national, religious and racist territories. Our blindness to such therapeutic human existence is our own drawback not anaemia of geo-political solutions which are in plenty if politicians apply the cardinally mature principles of political governance.
Wars, as George Bernard Shaw expressed, ‘do not decide on who is right but who is left’. The shrinking options over planet earth consummated by the current pandemic has led us to tough decisions such as ‘who shall live, when not all can live’. These prophetic words by James E. Childress in 1970 were written in the background of problems faced by doctors while they have to select patients for scarce life-saving resources on grounds of ‘social worth’. This suggests that shrinking resources of earth may make our governments more regulatory, more despotic and increasingly pro-rich. The Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO declares that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” The strongest environmental movement to save this planet must begin through the generation of humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity which exposes them to their across the boundary fellow-humans.
The author is president, NDRG, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.
The Vietnam War was an apocalypse to a pristine evergreen habitat with enormous biodiversity. As America sprayed Agent Orange and Napalm over a dense canopy of forests to de-foliage trees (see photo below), those 166 species of mammals such as tigers, rhinoceros, elephants, deer and enigmatic khting-vor were devastated notwithstanding thousand other non-mammals like porcupines, rabbits, lizards, snakes and around 400 species of birds, as per the IUCN records, who were nesting on those trees (photo above).