Can we build an alternative society?

A wastepicker sorts through waste (source: Chicu)
A wastepicker sorts through waste (source: Chicu)

Riverside apartments are in great demand these days. This has led to a surge in the number of apartments built along rivers that flow through urban areas. These same 'premium' apartments are encroaching on the river's channel and are therefore most vulnerable to the floods that they help create by constricting the river. This harm extends beyond the apartments in question.

The sandy plains next to the river are the primary source of recharge for the area's groundwater. In Lucknow, these are known as 'Khader' and they replenish the aquifer that all of Lucknow depends on. For a long time, these plains were not settled-upon and so were free to recharge. Now however, Gomti Nagar is established squarely on the Khader. This has simultaneously increased withdrawal and decreased recharge. Polluting the Gomti also pollutes the aquifer from which Lucknowis withdraw their drinking water. 

This circle of wastefulness led the speakers at a day-long seminar organised by the Babasaheb Ambedkar University to label humans 'the spoilt brats of a rich parent'. They discussed issues including the social and environmental objectives of an ecologically sustainable society and inclusive green growth among others.

Boasting a 'lake view', city apartments destroy the very water bodies that they charge premium prices for.Social objectives include wealth equity, health for all, growth and happiness. Environmental objectives include effectively managing natural resource, reducing pollution, using green technologies and managing environmental risk. Inclusive green growth needs to take into account social equity, economic efficiency, technical reliability and environmental sustainability.

In an ideal world, we would leave to the next generations at least the same resources and capacities that we have inherited. However, for the better part of the last century, human endeavour has focused on maximising the use of the natural resources available to us. 

small boats used for ferrying are moored at the Ganga near Bitthoor. River bank farms are seen on the far shoreWe are now searching for ways to use these resources while respecting nature's claims on them too. The concept of assessing and ensuring adequate environmental flows in a river was born out of this search for sustainable resource use.

This is a difficult search if we consider our history. Measures that were considered ecologically sound are being proven to have catastrophic outcomes. The Green Revolution, that was supposed to end our agricultural and nutritional woes, sidelined marginal farmers. A study that traced the lives of these farmers after three decades found most of them in the slums of Mumbai.

In this dismal picture, the Supreme Court is a ray of hope. The judiciary has included clean air and sustainable development as a fundamental right. It has also relaxed its procedural requirements for environmental issues, especially as seen in the case of Niyamgiri. However, in the absence of a comprehensive policy, piecemeal legislation is inefficient and may even be harmful.

An earth mover trapped in a raging river, the Bhagirathi

The problem is with the 'keeping up with the Jones' attitude, which is a vicious cycle of always wanting something that someone else has. This cycle is outstripping the planet's capacity to supply. The idea of a sustainable society is moot if we are not prepared to make hard decisions about how we manage our demand. All other discussions such as the search for new technologies need to take second place besides this, which is to merely consume less. The unsustainable nature of our current trajectory has been recognised since the Amsterdam declaration 1952.

Clearly, we need to build an alternative society but what will it be like?  How do we create a system that will let us live longer on this planet without destroying it all?

Post By: chicu