Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Olive Riddley troubles

One of the annoying things about working on something for children to read or to see is that it makes you frighteningly conscious about the future. We are working on a children’s book on India – researching, writing and illustrating it. While it pays so little it’s not funny, what we’ve gained in terms of knowledge and sheer awareness of this large and complex country is awesome. Researching for pictures and textual information means going through a set process: mild curiosity to begin with, and then as we read more and more, awe, shock, delight, wonder, and sometimes, anger and dismay.

Take the case of the highly endangered Olive Ridley turtles which come every winter to nest on the beaches of Gahirmatha, Devi and Rushikulya in Orissa (illustration by Amit for the book). Following an unerring instinct, they come from faraway Sri Lanka and even Australia. They come all along the coast – to Orissa, parts of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Khambat and Kerala.

Though numerous eggs are laid every winter by the Olive Ridleys, only one in a thousand hatchlings survives. Trawler nets, pollution and poaching kill many of the turtles, the eggs and the hatchlings. Once hatched, the baby turtles rush to the sea using stars, the sea’s luminescence and moonlight to help them navigate. Reaching the sea is absolutely crucial, and thanks to road lights, they often blunder in the wrong direction. Activists and villagers manage to turn them the right way sometimes.

To add to the mind-boggling dangers they face, a new menace has been approved by the state govt. – the Dhamra port at Gahirmatha beach, 15 kms from the nesting ground of these small sea turtles), gravely endangering an already fragile population. Though owned by the state, it is to be built by the Tatas, who frankly, should know better by now, I think. Apart from the many different kinds of ecological damage the Dhamra port will do, it will have artificial lights which will mislead the baby turtles much more than mere road lights. The port will also seriously harm the livelihood of fishing communities there. For specifics on all the kinds of ecological and human damage, read this.

While creating something for children to read, for the future to see, one realizes – with great shame – what it is that we are doing to the world. How foolishly we are squandering its few remaining treasures, instead of proudly protecting them. I think the world over, a place like this would be preserved, as a sign of human restraint and wisdom. It shames us to sense that only in India, perhaps, would we be ignorant and greedy enough to willfully destroy something so timeless and wonderful.

The Tatas – for all their bad record at Singur – are signatories to the U.N.’s Global Compact for Corporate Responsibility. Tata Steel, for one, is pledged to something called the Precautionary Principle, which, according to Wikipedia, is ‘a moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action. But in some legal systems, as the European Union Law, the precautionary principle is also a general principle of law. This means that it is compulsory. The principle aims to provide guidance for protecting public health and the environment in the face of uncertain risks, stating that the absence of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason to postpone measures where there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm to public health or the environment.’

So while the 'developed' world sees protecting the environment and rights of the poor as a sign of progress, only in India, peculiarly, do we see both of the above as signs of weakness and stagnation.

If this disturbs you as much as it did us, go here and add your voice to those of activists and environmentalists from the world over. It may not seem like much, but there's no point not trying, no?