This year’s theme for World Environment Day is ‘Time for Nature’. The theme has been specially designed for creating public awareness in the run-up to the 15th meeting of the conference of parties to the convention on biodiversity (COP 15) which was officially scheduled to be held in October 2020 at Kunming, China. It has been postponed for 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Let us discuss what it means when we say it’s time for nature. It essentially implies that we protect nature in its purest form. This is fundamental because nature provides essential goods for human survival and supports all forms of life on earth. These thoughts are not new to Indian civilisation. The ancient Hindu texts talk about the environment being constituted by five elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth which are all interconnected and interdependent systems. These ancient thoughts also inform the motto of the ministry of environment, forests, and climate change in India—Prakrithi Rakshathi Rakshithaha—meaning nature protects us only when she is protected.

But what we find is a great mismatch between the ancient thoughts that have been passed on to us through generations and the reality. We are exploiting nature, day in and out, without any remorse. The roots of this could be found in the western capitalist developmental paradigm that we have imbibed and followed since the British Raj. Britishers followed the strategy of systematically draining the Indian economy by appropriating its vast natural wealth to feed the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

The western model of development was essentially based on capitalist understanding which centred around controlling nature. Indian civilisation, on the other hand, was based on understanding nature and flowing with it rather than trying to control it. This understanding led to building infrastructure which harnessed nature but did not control it. The difference of this understanding is clearly seen in large dams (control of nature) versus small reservoirs (going with the flow of nature). The tank systems of south India and Sri Lanka are a case in point. Developed roughly between the 8th century and 16th century, the practice of constructing and using tank systems started in the early centuries of the first millennium AD. Most of these tanks were artificial systems drawn using the topography in a honeycomb style to harness water maximally. They were interconnected systems which were a collectively owned multiple-use infrastructure. In the golden days of the Kakatiya Dynasty (13th century), the original owners of the Kohinoor diamond, around 98% of the surface run-off was harvested.

The Ahar-Pyne systems of Bihar, dated around 5000 years before, were developed and managed during the time of the Magadh kingdom. Ahars are artificial tanks while Pynes are diversion channels laid from the river or the catchment area for impounding water in the Ahars. The system was designed so beautifully that floodwaters in the rivers of Bihar was diverted using gravitation force that filled tanks which were used as reservoirs for irrigation and drinking purposes. The structure was designed to control floods as well as manage drought years. Similar work was done by the 10th century Chandela rulers in Bundelkhand. These large-scale but local water harvesting systems are still standing tall, though in decline.

The elaborate management of forests in India is another case which shows how local communities have been managing forests sustainably. History tells us that the Mughal rulers understood these systems and had allocated resources to maintain them. All these systems worked in a collective holding of the systems that were considered commons. In some places, differential rights were assigned to communities based on the need. For example, the fishing rights in these tanks had always gone to the fishing communities who were considered lower in the caste hierarchy. Tribal communities had first right over the use of forests.

These systems and structures declined during the British Raj when the local systems of governance were threatened and replaced with the new system. The new system was extractive as taxes were levied, alienating people from staying on as protectors of the environmental systems. In many cases, the same people destroyed the systems as its ownership was questioned. The British then introduced private property rights which further led to the individualised appropriation of nature than collective governance.

After independence, we have continued with most of the British systems. The model of controlling nature continued through the so-called educated class who benefitted from these systems through massive bureaucratic control. While there were some cases of revival, a complete overhaul has never been attempted.

When we are calling for time for nature, it is also a time for us to think about what it exactly means for India. Are we ready to give full ownership rights to tribals to govern forests rather than clearing forests to set up industries which will make the local inhabitants paupers?  Do we attempt a revival of interconnected tank systems in south India or fix the Ahar-Pyne system in north Bihar and redistribute irrigation rights for riparian communities? If yes, it is time for nature. If not, then it's just lip service!

Views are personal. The author is research director and adjunct associate professor, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business. He is also an IPCC author and works on climate change adaptation and resilience issues in South Asia.

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