Be selfish to save urban biodiversity !

        Abhilash Khandekar

We at TNV are ” An Informal Pressure Group of Environmentally Restless People”. We have restored the 140-year old Sirpur Lake – the latest Ramsar Site of August, 2022. It took us more than 25 years to restore an urban wetland with more than 189 bird species that have been found there in a recent survey.

Our experience of working with Indore Municipal Corporation taught us how difficult it is to protect natural heritage of the city as the engineers, contractors, and municipal officers were just not interested in the welfare of the spatial ecology and aquatic biodiversity. This led to the idea of raising voice for urban biodiversity conservation that has multiple stake holders. 

Now that India is in a position of having surpassed China in population, cities have become more important than before. If we want liveable cities, we have to green them not keep them brown.

A number of architects, forest officials, civil engineers, urban planners, students and Government officials (Municipal Commissioners and CEOs of Smart Cities) who attended the two-day event came out wiser or one at least thought so!

I often say we must save biodiversity to save ourselves! Meaning, in other words, if the wonderful biodiversity around us disappears, it would directly impact human beings and their activities. So let us be ‘selfish’ to protect it.

It is exactly 30 years ago, as some of us know, that the first global summit on biodiversity protection was held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. It came to be popularly known as CBD 1992 (Convention on Biological Diversity). The world had just woken up to a series of threats the planet had started facing and the United Nations had already organized the first Earth Summit in the same city around the same time.
In a way, 1992 was a watershed year for environment and nature across the world.

It is, however, unfortunate, that India required to be reminded by the UN agencies to conserve its centuries-old natural precious treasure of forests, medicinal plants, rivers, wildlife, birds, bees, butterflies, reptiles, grasslands, marine life and lakes through the CBD. As the growing Asian economy which was set to take a big leap of physical development in the forthcoming decades, the year 1992 was just the right time to look inwards and start protecting the biological diversity that India had been known for. 
But India took a decade to frame its own legislation and then came the landmark Biological Diversity Act 2002 (which actually commenced in 2003-04). Government soon constituted a statutory body National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) at Chennai around that time.

Considering the widespread assault on the natural resources spread across the country, it was also imperative to set up state-level agencies that were formed in the shape of State Biodiversity Boards from 2005.

Conserving the Urban Biodiversity: A daunting task!

Instead of going into the background of the Act, its section 41, it’s tardy implementation etc, I would like to focus on the conservation of urban biodiversity, which I feel is a much more neglected area in our country. Who is to blame? The authors of the Act or the implementation agencies? Or both? It is because no one is heard talking of protecting the urban biodiversity anywhere!

My experience of conserving an urban wetland Sirpur and its biodiversity has taught me and my team of TNV a lot over the last 25 years. It’s not so easy, rather a much daunting task.

Unfortunately, as urbanisation is picking up at a frightening speed in our country, I see cities turning brown and desertification is increasing on the fringes which needs to be addressed quickly by all concerned. According to State of the World’s Trees report (Sept 2021) by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), there are 17, 510 tree species threatened, of the total 58,497 known species in the world. And it’s a dangerous trend in times of climate crisis.

And what is the status in India? Here, the report quotes, a total of 413 tree species are facing extinction, of the 2608 varieties found in India (Indo-Malaya and Palearctic region). There is no need, I suppose to explain the importance of trees or the role they play in absorbing carbon emissions.

In addition, or as a corollary, traditional and modern water sources have begun to dry up fast. Aquatic diversity is also facing problems. All this is intrinsically linked to each other and cannot be separated.

And that is precisely and directly impacting the biodiversity in our ever-expanding cities. But no one seems to be bothered! Cities are burning beyond expectation and they are turning more and more barren over the years.

I would like to state here that MP CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan, is the only politician with big stature, who is planting a tree-a-day and has tried to make it a popular movement in the state for people to come forward and plant trees on their own. But then, such examples are very few and far between

Before conceiving the idea of an urban biodiversity conference, I spoke to at least 10 present and past municipal commissioners and almost all of them agreed that it was something that they could never look into during their tenures as city bosses, despite their good intentions. Although the Act mandates maintaining Peoples’ Biodiversity Registers (PBR) by local self-governments at all tiers, it has not been done in most states. I checked in Madhya Pradesh, where the scenario is not very satisfactory but in Gujarat some work has been done. It was thanks to the petition in the (NGT) by one Chandra Bal Singh which helped activate the MoEFCC and others in 2016 as the performance and implementation of the BDA (Biodiversity Act) was very dismal then.

We can take the example of Chennai or Bengaluru lakes (a recent article in Frontline has again underlined the plight of lakes in the Silicon Valley of India. Or take the example of the once-beautiful gardens and hillocks of Pune city or talk of any city in Uttar Pradesh and we have the same answers. Everywhere we see a depressing situation with mounting population numbers and unchecked encroachments and constructions, backed by selfish contractors’ lobby. At times, one wonders why can’t municipal officials act on illegal encroachments that shrink our wetland areas or why development authority officials do not use their ‘authority ‘ to save old trees in the cities? Is there anyone who is actively involved in protecting birds or butterflies in our big cities in the official set-up? I would like the newly elected Mayors and councillors (of MP) to commit themselves to the cause of urban biodiversity conservation.

The Biodiversity Act was brought in some 20 years ago only to save all this and many other natural resources mentioned above. It is the duty of all of us to mount pressure on the authorities—both executive and political–to save the precious biodiversity. Because there is no tomorrow!

The root cause lies in the system of city governance. The Smart Cities, started with much fanfare, have actually proved to be counter-productive because in many cities they were found cutting down old trees ruthlessly in the name of retrofitting etc and to make the City Smart.

The Municipal Corporations, the development authorities and other construction agencies such as PWD, PHE, Housing Boards, or NHAI or state Road building corporations etc are only involved in firefighting or listening to the political masters in their efforts of governing cities or building infrastructure. Urban biodiversity conservation is not at all their priority and that is a pity. The conference was aimed at turning focus on that. A former forest officer who was a Member Secretary (executive head) of the State Biodiversity Board conceded frankly that nothing much (encouraging) was happening in the board and it was just a decorative piece in government’s monolithic system.

I am, however, told that in Kochi or in Hyderabad, Delhi-based organisation ICLEI-South Asia is working on drawing up a City Biodiversity Index, the way Singapore had done some two decades ago. Delhi has also one from INTACH. If that works well, perhaps some indicators would be available about loss of biodiversity in our cities and how to check them. National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) has prepared a kit to train municipal officials and has made training manuals and WWF has worked in Nagpur and other cities. Such developments hold hope for the future. The Government of India also started the National Mission on biodiversity and Human Well- being (NHBHWB) to improve biodiversity science in all areas. 

The State Biodiversity Boards were to formulate State Action Plans and help local bodies maintain biodiversity registers, form committees and undertake training on how to conserve traditional knowledge strewn all over and then benefit the society. But I am given to believe that the ground level situation is far from satisfactory. Not much has been happening on that front, barring in few states. Like protecting of the forests, protection of biodiversity can’t be left to Biodiversity Boards alone. Other agencies and people must also come forward. Because they also benefit from it.

Why the municipal corporations are not being made responsible for conserving urban lakes, large parks, trees, birds and shrubs in the city? Can’t they hire professionals who are competent in this area? Do the urban agencies’ officers and heads ever sympathise with trees and wetlands beyond their call of duty? Do local governments have funds enough to undertake massive biodiversity protection drives with a clear focus?  Or they are only meant for constructing and constructing unendingly and making cities unliveable and barren? Do urban planners think of green causes first and keep certain grounds/fields open for decades in their planning process like the ‘no-go’ areas? Are open lands, grass lands, small ponds, wild growth pockets in cities an eyesore for our private developers? Surely, not for me!

We hope to find answers to all, or some of these questions, through such conferences where best brains meet. I also feel, district collectors can do a lot. If they wish, they can turn around cities, they have the requisite powers. What is missing, perhaps, is the willingness and capacity-building of the concerned officials.

We were always taught to appreciate and preserve beautiful trees, fragrant flowers, chirping birds and large parks having tremendous aesthetic value and cultural importance in this country till a few years ago. Today, there are no takers for trees, much less for birds, bees and butterflies in urban areas and that is a sad commentary. This is my personal observation. Some of you may also be thinking on these lines.

The Biological Diversity Rules 2004 stipulate that every local body shall constitute a Biodiversity Management Committee (BMC) within its jurisdiction (Under Section 22). But have they been formed all over the country? Especially in urban areas? My inquiries reveal that urban biodiversity actually has no takers and therefore the shoddy implementation of the Act’s provisions like section 41.

The CBD had categorically stated in 1992 that conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of the components of the biodiversity and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the genetic resources were the objectives of CBD. It was also hoped that “conservation of biodiversity would be a common concern of the population”. In fact, 2011-20 was celebrated as the Decade of Biodiversity by UN. In 2010, the first Cities and Biodiversity Outlook was released and the picture was not rosy.

Looking back, nothing of that has been achieved in these years and resultantly urban biodiversity is under severe threat. Some senior officials in the government admit in confidence that engineers, contractors and various construction agencies’ heads just don’t understand the importance of urban biodiversity, and they have been almost fully unaware of the Central Act of 2002.

In this backdrop, The Nature Volunteers (TNV) organised the 1st National Conference of Urban Biodiversity Conservation (NCUBC) at Indore, the commercial capital of Madhya Pradesh. Many experts deliberated on this serious issue and pondered whether or not our cities would have their own ‘green future’. Policy interventions, use of technology, public awareness, synergy between departments, using of new tools and so on should be brought into play, they suggested. Delhi’s School of Planning (SPA) underscored the importance of master planning process and advised for instance that biodiversity be introduced at the planning stage.

I am glad to share that the ‘Indore Declaration’ was also released on 6th August and handed over to Dr VB Mathur, chairperson NBA Chennai. This has set in motion an important debate on issues on which Governments and people have to act together – fast and meaningfully in a given time frame.

The 15-16 point Indore declaration has been sent to different states to pave way for generating further debate and to ensure urban biodiversity becomes a priority in India.

The author, Abhilash Khandekar is a veteran environmental journalist and Co-Founder of TNV, Indore

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within the content are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the website or its Editors.


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