The extinction of āraṇyasanskriti?
By Aseem Shrivastava and Ishan Chauhan
India was once a land that worshipped trees. It was an āraṇyasanskriti, a civilisation rooted in a culture of the forest. The living, sacred forest — the tapovan — constituted the context which inspired the imagination of the rishis to contemplate the cosmos. Their minds could soar into the heavens and they could exclaim with delight, Prāno Virāt! Life is immense. It was in the vast grandeur of nature that they experienced the Infinite. When they transcended all fear and found their own deepest consciousness in resonance with the consciousness of the vast creation around them, it brought mukti, the freedom of the human soul in the truest sense of the word.
Many of the Upaniṣhads were composed in the awesome invigorating darkness of the āraṇya. They were sometimes referred to as āranyakas. It is the Brhadāranyaka Upanishad which declaims the shloka that so many still draw strength from today:
asatō mā sadgamaya
tamasō mā jyōtirgamaya
mrtyōrmā amrtam gamaya
Lead me from the untruth to the Truth
Lead me from darkness to Light
Lead me from death to Immortality
Thus, the wilderness of the ancient forest had a mysterious lure for the sadhaka (devotee) who wished to liberate himself from the inevitable boundaries of the finite, physical self in the context of which life was lived by most humanity.
Many of the Upaniṣhads were composed in the awesome invigorating darkness of the āraṇya.
All this was a long, long time ago. Though, among many adivasi communities, the experience of resonance with the natural world is part of living memory. There still are some 14,000 sacred groves in the country, and not just in tribal areas.
We may wonder what has transpired in history and in our own lives that we have moved so far away from this relatively harmonious co-existence with the gifts of Creation. All the rhetoric about breaking free from the shackles of the colonial past and rediscovering our lost identity notwithstanding, India has followed its colonisers by way of rapid, inconsiderate industrialisation and urbanisation. The predatory processes of development have uprooted rural communities and precipitated ecological mayhem in the countryside through deforestation and the contamination and depletion of air, water, and soil. The focus of the policymaking elites in metropolitan India has been on the centres of government, business and wealth generation. This has now led us to a point where we have ultimately imperiled our own existence as a civilisation.
The predatory processes of development have uprooted rural communities and precipitated ecological mayhem in the countryside through deforestation and the contamination and depletion of air, water, and soil.
In general, Indian environmental policy has been slipshod, consistently superseded by business interests, especially in the reform era. Consider the latest instances. The Char Dham Highway Project in the Uttarakhand Himalayas was cleared by the Supreme Court a year ago. Its aim is to broaden the highway to four lanes. There is blatant disregard for the environment, if the report of the (divided) Expert Committee is gone by. One member describes the project as a “Himalayan blunder”. In one section of the highway, 102 out of 174 slopes cut are prone to land-slides. Many water springs, which contribute to the recharging of rivers, are likely to get blocked due to improper dumping of construction waste. Wildlife will be affected because of speeding traffic and resulting accidents. It is pertinent to mention that the project was divided into 53 segments in such a way that would enable it to bypass the regular processes of securing the environmental clearance mandatory for any road construction beyond 100km (this project is 900km in length).
A simple question remains unasked. Is there a need for road-widening in a region prone to landslides? The Himalayas are very fragile. The project is ecologically disruptive and a threat to life. Planting a few saplings, which will take years to become full-grown trees (provided they are tended to) cannot possibly offset the damage the highway will cause.
Is there a need for road-widening in a region prone to landslides? The Himalayas are very fragile.
Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand area offers another instance of government indifference to forests. It is an ancient, sacred forest. A huge area of 170,000 hectares of ancient forest is marked for open-cast coal mining. The sarpanchs of the region wrote to the Prime Minister recently that the self-reliant villagers stood to lose their lives and livelihoods due to the coal mining. The letter added, “It is unfortunate that when the communities are already grappling with the COVID-19 crisis, they are faced with this uncertainty and threat of displacement.”
Linking coal to self-reliance, as the government is doing, is brutally ironical when State policies are rendering homeless and unemployed precisely the most self-reliant communities in the land. Besides, as the world’s second-most populous country, India’s responsibility in controlling emissions and improving climate parameters is proportionately greater. It doesn’t help to hide behind our ‘developing country’ status.
Linking coal to self-reliance, as the government is doing, is brutally ironical when State policies are rendering homeless and unemployed precisely the most self-reliant communities in the land.
It was widely reported that India has become the world’s cheapest producer of solar power. What is the great merit in this achievement if the country will deepen its dependence on coal in order to pander to a few billionaire industrialists for whom coal privatisation has been set in motion?
The disregard for environmental policy has come to such a point that the government, in introducing the proposed EIA, 2020, has openly gone against orders of the Apex Court that disallowed ex–post facto clearance. Out of the many examples of glaring disregard are the non-requirement of clearance for projects such as highways, power plants and the like. This amendment has caused widespread outrage. It is a follow-up to the 2016 amendment, which was called into question by the National Green Tribunal itself. This year’s proposed rules go a step further and erode the importance of public participation. The right of the public to file complaints has also been taken away in many cases. It also opens the gates to attacking the rich biodiversity of North-eastern States by introducing the Line of Control clause which exempts from public hearing any activity done within 100 km aerial distance of the LOC.
Such is the dire state today of what was once an āraṇyasanskriti.
This diary was published in the online editions of The Hindu newspaper. Read The extinction of āraṇyasanskriti?