- If there was a single development that marks out 2020, it is the COVID-19 pandemic. The coverage on the science of the pandemic and its linkages to environment and biodiversity was a significant part of Mongabay-India’s reporting in the year.
- The launch in Hindi this year started the process of reaching MI’s stories to hitherto unreached audiences.
- In addition to covering India’s diverse landscapes and species, MI looked at just transitions and wildlife outside protected areas.
- MI focussed attention on the otherwise neglected wetland ecosystems, and celebrated individuals and communities that are working to protect their neighbourhood water bodies.
The first case of COVID-19 infection was officially reported in India in January 2020 from Thrissur in Kerala. In December 2020, a 90-year-old Britisher became the world’s first person to be vaccinated against the infection. The year 2020 stretched in between, packed with uncertainty, apprehension, masks and sanitisers. It was also a year of controversies, transitions, human-wildlife conflicts and environmental heroes.
Like the other parts of the world, the impacts were severe in India, and still continues to be felt even as we are at the threshold of 2021. And like other publications across the world, the COVID-19 coverage was a significant part of Mongabay-India’s coverage in 2020.
This year we extended our coverage into Hindi, reaching deeper into the Hindi-speaking states. Even while the Hindi edition carries some stories from the English edition, we are also reporting new stories that are of special interest for a Hindi readership.
On COVID-19 our initial focus was on zoonosis, or the transmission of diseases from animals to humans, since it was clear that COVID-19 had an animal transition, though the how, when and from what were not conclusively proved. We looked at the wet markets, one health approach to zoonoses and railed against targeting ethnic communities. Further, we examined the linkage between deforestation and zoonosis, biodiversity health and disease spread, livestock and bats vis-a-vis the pandemic, and the importance of a robust wildlife veterinary system.
When the nation-wide lockdown was announced in March, the adverse impact of the economic and policy implications of the pandemic became even more pronounced. We had the eminent agricultural scientist and World Food Prize winner M.S. Swaminathan and Nitya Rao explaining the impact of COVID-19 on India’s food security. Virologist Shahid Jameel argued that health security is national security. We also examined the linkages between the disease, environment and the economy.
The lockdown locked farmers’ income down. The government announced an economic package. However, the package missed farmers’immediate concerns. In spite of an above normal southwest monsoon and a good kharif harvest, the agrarian crisis deepened during the pandemic and is now making international headlines as the farmers are protesting.
There were day-to-day issues. Was there enough water available to wash hands? Was accumulation of biomedical wastes being dealt with and were there guidelines and ways to handle them? We checked how the forest departments were balancing field work and disease prevention. Long-term scientific research came to a standstill due to the lockdown. We wrote about India’s polar research from the Antarctic. However, undaunted by the pandemic, boat clinics on the Brahmaputra in Assam continued to provide medical service to the remote river islands.
In the initial months of the pandemic, Kerala received international attention on how it managed to isolate and prevent the spread of the infection. However, later the numbers swelled and Kerala stumbled.
Are the transitions just?
The lockdown had positive impacts on the environment too. In addition to the pollution load abating temporarily, power consumption in the country had reduced. It was an opportunity to make recovery equitable. We quoted experts in April stating that the energy policy in the country could be reset.
However, that was not to be. As early as in March, the government was considering diluting the environment impact assessment (EIA) rules. While the country stayed locked in, the environment ministry unlocked many protected areas for development, and there was a race to clear projects. The government was proposing to create land banks to attract investment. Mega hydel power project proposals returned.
The economic recovery package had a strong component for boosting the mining sector and increasing the mining of fossil fuels such as coal, even while the country’s vision on sustainability in mining was faltering.
Through our series of stories checking whether transitions in and out of the mining sector are socially and environmentally just, we wrote about locations such as the Kolar Gold Fields that has become a ghost town, and Jaduguda region of Jharkhand that suffers to power India’s nuclear dreams.
We looked at the environmental impacts of iron ore mining in Goa and Ballari in Karnataka; phosphate mining in Udaipur district of Rajasthan; soapstone mining in Bageshwar district of Uttarakhand; and mica mining in Giridih district of Jharkhand.
There is less romance and more hard-nosed environmental choices in policy making. While supporting India’s ambition in expanding the renewable energy sector, we analysed some of the issues that the transition is raising. For instance, to transition all those involved with the coal sector to renewables, 30 times more solar power is needed. Similarly, like any other development project, the renewables could also lead to land conflicts. And, will there be social security in the renewable sector?
Environmental controversies and accidents
With the government using the lockdown to push for economic growth, there was strong attention on reducing the hindrances. One such was the government’s attempt at diluting the EIA notification – which mandates environmental and social scrutiny before a project is implemented. Our explainer video looked into the fine print. We also analysed the new emerging terminology on corporate environmental, social and governance responsibility.
The Dibang valley in Arunachal Pradesh is located in a global biodiversity hotspot. The proposal to develop a hydroelectric project in this valley, submerging rare species caused serious protests. Similarly, in the Athirappilly river valley in Kerala, the state government again resurrected the proposal for constructing a hydroelectric project. In Goa, multiple infrastructure projects are eating into the green cover. The Sillahalla hydroelectric project in the upper Nilgiris plateau threatened the already disturbed montane ecosystem.
Ubiquitous but an ignored ecosystem
Wetlands are an ignored ecosystem, unlike the mountain, riverine and coastal ecosystems. They are there almost everywhere – in every village, town and city – but are usually encroached upon, reclaimed for development or used for dumping wastes.
In 2020 we launched a series, identifying individuals and/or communities that have understood the ecological significance of these wetlands and have conserved them against odds. These illustration-supported stories celebrate their wisdom, perseverance and the hard work.
These stories cover Kutch, Muthupet and Sindhudurg mangroves in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra; wetlands in Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir; a geologically interesting riverbed at Bori Budruk near Pune in Maharashtra; ponds in Dasanadoddi in Mandya district of Karnataka and Mawphlang sub-district of Meghalaya; a river in Pune; mudflats in Navi Mumbai; and lakes in Bhandara district of Maharashtra and Darbhanga in Bihar.
Wildlife outside protected areas
Another series that we launched was about human-wildlife interactions outside protected areas. Protected areas were carved out in areas that had a high concentration of wildlife, and that too mostly large mammals. It does not mean that the wildlife is limited only to this 5.2 percent of India’s land area. The wildlife outside often has conflict with human populations, or the two live in coexistence.
Our video story explained why wildlife knows no boundaries. We reported about many educational campuses where there are native wildlife populations. Then there are tigers that live in the campus of the Chandrapur thermal power plant, and golden jackals in Kolkata and Guwahati airports. We checked out compensation records to map human-elephant conflicts. We wrote about the elephant that became a collateral damage in Kerala, when it bit into a bomb placed to scare away crop-raiding wild boars.
We looked at transboundary movement of animals – gharials and elephants across the Indo-Nepal border, and compared the relative health of the Indus dolphins in India and Pakistan. We wrote about urban neighbourhood flying foxes; the rare Gunther’s toad in Anantpur farmlands in Andhra Pradesh; blue sheep and the langurs in the Himalayas; golden langurs in Assam; leopards across the country; otters in the Himalayan rivers; the elongated tortoise of the Terai landscape; the lesser florican in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan; and the ever-expanding footprint of the gaur in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.
We documented the work by communities in Manipur, Nagaland and Andhra Pradesh to conserve their habitats and thereby the population of wildlife and birds. We wondered how the free-roaming leopards of Bera in Rajasthan will take to increased population due to tourism in their ranges.
Landscapes and species
Our stories celebrated the diversity of India’s landscapes and species. Grasslands were of special interest. We looked at the bugyals, or the Himalayan Alpine meadows; the shola-grassland ecosystem and its significance for the Nilgiri pipit; the Himalayan grasslands of Uttarakhand; and the grasslands of southern Tamil Nadu.
In the remote Car Nicobar island, we found mangroves of the Rhizophora spp. were resilient to the sudden sea level rise caused by the subsidence of the coast during the Asian tsunami of 2004. The Lakshadweep islands announced a unique sea cucumber conservation reserve.
We looked with awe at the bioluminescent mushrooms in Meghalaya, and listened in wonder at the bat call library for the Himalayas. We discussed the relationship between music and environment with Rahul Ram of the Indian Ocean band, and unravelled the architectural secrets of termite mounds.
An opportunity missed?
Very rarely does the world pass through years when the entire global population goes through a crisis. At any given point in time there are natural disasters, epidemics, wars or any such event in some parts of the world, but rarely does a global event like the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 catch the world.
In development versus environment discussions there is always a mention of trade-offs. The year 2020 brought into stark focus the trade-offs. When the economy was at a standstill, the environment was at its best, and as the economy returned the environmental issues too returned.
Straddling from the tropics to the temperate latitudes, from sea level to the highest ridges in the world, India packs a rich landscape and species diversity. This diversity packs a perennial font of natural resources and ecosystem services that can not just fuel economic growth but also provide environmental stability.
The year 2020 was an opportunity for India to introspect and re-calibrate the environment to development matrix towards sustainability. The year is unlikely to be remembered for that introspection, considering the gusto with which policies are being implemented to push economic growth at the cost of the environment.