Genesis of a crisis

  • 29/11/1995

WHEN Meghnaad, brother of King Ravana of Lanka, grievously injured Lakshman, brother of Lord Rama, Hanuman was sent to Gandhamardan Parvat to fetch the Mritasanjeevani Sudha, a life-saving herb. Unable to identify the herb from among the thousands that greened that locale, Hanuman brought the entire hill to the war front. This story is a serious statement on our biodiversity. Our ancestors had clearly indicated how immensely diverse is India's living resources.

One is inevitably reminded of this today, when the Save Gandhamardan Movement has scored a victory in its decadeold struggle. However, equally inevitably, this evokes anger and frustration about the callous negligence of most of our genetic resources at the hands of the authorities.

India is one of the 12 global centres of genetic diversity. There is evidence of our resourcesbeing exported to ancient civilisations in the Euphrates and Nile basins. Apart from the large number of animal species, we have 45,000 species of flora, of which 30,000 are almost invisible algae and fiingi, and the rest, flowering types. There are 2,000 species of forage legumes and grasses. However, till date, genetic research in India has been partisan towards crop plants, ignoring animal and fish resources, plants, trees, shrubs and grasses, especially in the and regions. Some 7,000 plant species are endemic to India, that is, this is their only home.

This priceless diversity is under attack from various fronts. Environmental destruction due to shifting cultivation, deforestation and developmental activities comprise one threat. Underdevelopment, poverty and pressure on land, which automatically lead to over-exploitation of natural resources, is another. Overgrazing is ruining our valuable and region grasskands. Water pollution is devastating aquatic life.

The main threat to crops is the constant emphasis on narvvwing down our genetic base to a handful of genes with b*Wy desirable qualities: the high-yielding varieties of seeds which have been the mainstay of the Green Revolution. That strategy might meet its goal of bountiful harvests, but the new psiefic varieties used in them have to be upgraded every few to sustain the logic of the strategy itself. As a result, we ow wiping out several indigenous varieties which may have en qualities. After all, Kerala has provided the world saline resistant rice varieties, and California's mildew t melons are genetic copies of Indian varieties.

Today, some of our most precious living resources are . being turned into precious memories. This is especially true of medicinal plants and orchids. Take just one such case: the Arcus calamus, known as vacha, which once abounded in the Manipur and Naga hills, has now to be imported by us. Yet, this plant forms the basis of as many as 51 medicines.

We are also neglecting our wondrous arid-zone grasslands. The sewan grass, which was once plentiful in the desert regions of Bikaner and Jaisalmer, was the centre of an entire lifestyle based on rural synergy. Thanks to sewan, the Jaisalmer area had been @nown as the land where rivers of milk and ghee (clarified butter) flowed. Sewan also helped develop the tharpakar and rathi varieties of cattle specially adapted to and conditions. High water-use and energy-use efficiencies are two crucial characteristics of this grass. The root stocks can lie dormant for years, and just a shower or two in the monsoon is enough to revive it. Sewan, truly, was the life of Thar.

In fact, the Thar Desert presents a unique paradox: with 71 persons per sq km, it is the most densely populated and region in the world, possible only due to its amazing floral diversity. It is home to 700 plant species, of which 6.4 per cent is endemic to it. Compare this with the Sahara, which has at best 3-5 per cent endemic plant species.

Yet, today the insistence on waterintensive agriculture, overgrazing, and intrusions due to massive urbanisation are destroying these grasslands, and with it, an entire lifestyle. And as some of our more conscientious conservation scientists are lamenting, the official visionaries of a better India are completely dazzled by the Northern preoccupations of biotechnological research. The whole focus is obviously wrong. Because no plant or animal species can be allowed to become extinct at man's whims. It is as self-destructive as it is unethical.

It is amazing how our policymakers are almost completely ignoring genetic research. Even the work on neem, the wonder-tree from India, has been grossly neglected- Financial resources available for this work remain very small and there is too much emphasis on government organisations.

What President Shankar Dayal Sharma said on the occasion of the Panchayati Raj extravaganza rings true here: that our urban planners do not know what is best for our villages or for biodiversity conservation. It is a sad commentary. And if the policymakers are serious about conserving the Gandhamardans we are still left with, there is no option for them but to reach out for help from our rural communities through the environmental NGOs.

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