2019: The Year Of Environmental Awakening 
Demonstrators hold signs demanding action on climate change. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

2019: The Year Of Environmental Awakening 

BloombergQuintOpinion

On Dec. 15, a leopard was killed by a vehicle on National Highway 6 in Bhandara, Maharashtra. Bids for four-laning of the highway had been opened in 2011. Smooth, shining roads are a marker of progress; when we use these highways without accident we feel the state has arrived. But we aren’t the only ones using the land with roads and railways. We set lines on the ground for connectivity; these lines merge or cut other lines that exist in nature.

These are lines that connect other beings; lines we can’t see, but those that preserve, or persecute, other life.

Such as the path an elephant herd takes through a forest with a railway line; the corridor a leopard has to negotiate, and the way a tiger may move through a mosaic of fields, forests and highways to stay alive.

A tiger negotiating water bodies and tall grass. (Photograph: Neha Sinha) 
A tiger negotiating water bodies and tall grass. (Photograph: Neha Sinha) 

The Bhandara leopard dying is no one-off accident: on the same NH6, another leopard was knocked dead on Dec. 6. It’s not just leopards. This month, a video emerged: an elephant herd was trying to cross a four-lane highway in Coimbatore. This is as hard for the elephant as it would be for a human family—on foot. Imagine you are that family. There is a shining barrier in the middle of the highway because highways do not encourage pedestrians. If you manage to cross two lanes without getting hit, the barricade has to be dealt with.

An Indian leopard. (Photograph: Neha Sinha) 
An Indian leopard. (Photograph: Neha Sinha) 

The matriarch of the elephant herd did what a good leader should do: she broke the road barricade and monitored her family as they crossed the road through the new passage. A few months ago, a huge tiger waited at the side of a national highway in Maharashtra, trying to cross the upgraded highway. It sprinted across half of it. Then, it jumped somehow over the road divider; and sprang across the rest of the road.

A sad destiny for the national animal—running for its life on national highways.
A typical elephant herd. The mother and aunts take care of the young ones and they travel together through the fragmented landscape. (Photo courtesy: Aditya Panda)
A typical elephant herd. The mother and aunts take care of the young ones and they travel together through the fragmented landscape. (Photo courtesy: Aditya Panda)

For many planners who only use cars on highways, the chilling challenge of crossing a busy highway with metal dividers doesn’t exist. Those living closer to the land will know that India also belongs to tigers, elephants and leopards. And pedestrians.

Highways and railways, especially the ones near forests, need careful planning and should aim at bypassing forests.

If nothing else works, they need to provide mitigation – greened underpasses or overpasses for elephants and tigers. We also need sensor systems to warn railways if animals are crossing tracks.

This is not a kindness. It is a necessity. Between 2016-18, the railways say that 32,000 wild and domestic animals died on the tracks. There’s more to come, because more railway lines will be broadened or laid.

One can imagine planners or managers saying animals should be fenced in. This is no longer possible as wild habitats have been slashed, and animals have to move in order to survive and find food.

For me, 2019 is the year that showed that animals are tragic collateral damage for a road-driven country and the challenge is mounting, not lessening.

Instead of asking for Singaporean highways, we must customise Indian highways to meet local conditions. As human lines cut deeper into natural corridors, we can no longer pretend we haven’t created a problem.

2019 also goes down as the year for environmental awakening for more sensitive growth, as global commitments for the environment became hyper-local.

 Protesters hold signs during the Global Climate Strike demonstration in New York. (Photographer: Demetrius Freeman/Bloomberg) 
Protesters hold signs during the Global Climate Strike demonstration in New York. (Photographer: Demetrius Freeman/Bloomberg) 

Along with increased citizen’s movements worldwide for climate action, environmental protection and saving endangered species, citizens locally stood up—and stood out—against projects that did not respect local environments. Protests against tree-cutting became the moral fibre for personal environmentalism practiced by many Indians.

Not only did protestors for Mumbai’s Aarey forest, Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar, and Patrapalli in Odisha face physical encumbrances, courts, or jail, they were also criticised as being against national interest.

Residents protest against the cutting of trees in Aarey Colony area to make the car shed for the Mumbai Metro project, in Mumbai  (Image courtesy: PTI)
Residents protest against the cutting of trees in Aarey Colony area to make the car shed for the Mumbai Metro project, in Mumbai (Image courtesy: PTI)

This week, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, a man who holds public office, used his official twitter profile to criticise a private citizen of another country. That person, Greta Thunberg, is not a political rival nor salaried by the public; she is 17 years old and from Sweden, and has been rallying for climate action. Trump said Greta has an anger management problem. A few days later, Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro called Greta a brat.

Why do the leaders of two powerful nations care for someone who is not even a politician?  It is because Greta is seen as the face of an inconvenient environmental movement which demands growth pathways that are less carbon intensive and destructive. Vilifying her as insane or misled, vilifies environmental protests as a whole, in their eyes.

This delegitimisation of environmental protest as maniacal or politically funded suggests the state feels its citizens can’t think for themselves—and that they lose any agency after exercising their citizenship through voting.
A child holds a globe during the Global Climate Strike demonstration in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photographer: Patricia Monteiro/Bloomberg) 
A child holds a globe during the Global Climate Strike demonstration in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photographer: Patricia Monteiro/Bloomberg) 

Still, 2019 is the year when environment became personal for masses of citizens; and the politics and profit of neglecting the environment was exposed. And this is the year when the need for development having an Indian story became more evident than ever.

Highways, railways and industrial expansion must be mindful of where they are, understand topography and ecosystems and avoid destruction of wildlife. Trees can’t be felled like a pack of match-sticks, they mean something to those who may have no other recourse to nature.

As the citizen stands, so do other individuals for animals. In October, railway crew Uttam Barua and DD Kumar pulled the brakes on a NF Railways train in West Bengal, after they spotted an elephant crossing the railway track.

It is amazing to have individuals standing tall. But what we need are systems that stand for the environment, which do not need to rely on acts of individual heroism.
An elephant near a railway track in West Bengal. (Photo courtesy Aditya Panda)
An elephant near a railway track in West Bengal. (Photo courtesy Aditya Panda)

Road and railway expansions and projects that cut trees need authentic environmental impact studies and conversations with locals. Sensor technologies should be brought in the next railway allocation in the budget. This is not an exhaustive list.

The environment is not a footnote, says 2019.

One hopes 2020 will prove that.

Neha Sinha works with the Bombay Natural History Society.

Views expressed are personal. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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