SASHI MOHAN DAS Virgin forests have covered the hills of Guwahati since time immemorial. These hills, 18 in all, are vital components of the city’s environment and ecosystem and they add aesthetic value to the city’s landscape. Elephants, monkeys, leopard cats and a variety of colourful butterflies dwell in the jungles of these hills. Hundreds of medicinal plants are also found in these areas.
These hills were partly touched in 1972 after the capital city was shifted from Shillong to Guwahati, but gradually they have been denuded by way of unplanned and haphazard development. This is dangerous for the future generation. The hills are being cut for filling up low-lying places for construction works. Some government departments and private enterprises have also occupied vast areas of forest land and constructed multistoreyed buildings. Erosion is a natural process, but human activities have further accelerated it. The excess carrying away of soil from the hills and plains is a matter of grave concern that, in turn, renders them unsuitable for habitation.
Through the national forest policy, it has been rationalised that for an ideal situation, the hilly areas should be covered by at least 66 per cent and plain areas with 33 per cent of forest cover. This situation is expected to reduce soil erosion and land degradation. There is also the Forest Conservation Act 1980 and the Environment Protection Act 1986, which lay stress on rational procedures for diversion of forest area for non-forest development purposes and every developmental project of a certain magnitude needs to be cleared from the environmental angle. The guidelines and Acts have not been enforced in the reserve forests at all. Rather, when enquired, the comments made by the local people regarding these guidelines and Acts are quite unpleasant as illegal earth cutting and quarrying are frequent activities carried out every month. Even norms of green belt for construction of buildings are not followed. These records about how areas of reserve forests have been illegally cut are tampered with in the range offices.
From the ethical point of view, economic growth is not more important than the preservation of forests. Wilderness is the source of greatest feelings of aesthetic appreciation, rising to an extent almost of spirituality. Compared to watching television or being engaged in entertainment-seeking activities of electronic goods, the bounty of wilderness can help more in character formation. The necessity of appreciation of wilderness is in the process of gaining momentum in the present day. Wilderness is valued as something of immense beauty and is a reservoir of scientific knowledge still to be gained. There are arguments against pollution, the use of gases harmful to the ozone layer, burning of fossil fuels, destruction of forests, which could be couched in terms that are harmful for human health. The approach towards the hills of Guwahati is mostly human-centred. Human life is not comparable with any other life, and no intrinsic value is admitted beyond humans. The Guwahatians in a given area cannot be who they are, cannot live their lives to the fullest or realise their identities by being apart from the patterns of the plants and animals in that area, apart from the types of plants, apart from the climate, atmosphere and other conditions that nurture and preserve these plants and animals.
There are multidimensional approaches towards happenings and events in the hills of Guwahati, yet an ethical approach towards it is needed for better understanding of the problems. Especially, it needs to be understood from the perspectives of preparedness for a disaster like earthquake, flood etc., from the human-centred framework.
Human-centred approach towards environment is an illegitimate way of giving preference to human interest only. However, some sort of man-centred activities are unavoidable, but only ‘perspectival’ approach which is of objection, is the human interest at the expense of non-human animals and non-inclusion of intrinsic value to the non-human world. That only the human has reason, capacity of communication is factually incorrect. In this context a lot of examples like monkey and rhinoceros which are available in the forests of Assam, can justify it.
To move on, “sustainability” is a vague word. We generally assign an adjective before the word ‘development’ called ‘sustainable’, which is highly objectionable. Here sustainability becomes part of an image to generate and manipulate our production and consumption pattern. That is why, this is objectionable in the context of ecosystem because the word ‘sustainable’ is like the monkey dividing the cake in the well-known fable. This ‘sustainable development’ is lost at the time of every major natural disaster of the world and Guwahati being in the 5th seismic zone, is more vulnerable.
The movements on environment which have been going on in almost every corner of the world are null and void in many respects. In India itself, from the Silent Valley movement through Chipko movement, Narmada Bachao Andolan to Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti movement regarding environment, all are man-centred. We may gain short-term benefits, a luxury lifestyle in a high-rise sophisticated apartment by destroying our environment. But such boost may be futile in a fraction of second by a single jerk of an earthquake. Such recent occurrence of earthquakes is a laugh at the human development. Assam, particularly Guwahati, has become a vulnerable place where there is no open place for assembling during any major earthquake. This is because of the man-centred approach towards nature. The future environmental situation of Guwahati city should be directed by bio-centric and eco-centric intrinsic values. But the question arises whether the present planners, industrialists, educational heads in particular and citizens in general of Guwahati city are directed by these intrinsic values?