by Lee Brann
India is home to 1.3 billion people and 8% of the world’s most biodiversity, placing it among the most mega-populated and megadiverse countries. For these reasons alone, advancing protection for nature in India is as necessary as it is challenging. India’s human population is dependent upon this region’s rich biological diversity, and both the human and natural environment will accrue substantial benefits from the expansion of interconnected protected areas.
A record of remarkable conversation achievements, impressive institutional frameworks, and strong cultural appreciation for nature are compelling reasons to invest in this region, promising that with time and effort ambitious conservation objectives are achievable.
India possesses a commendable environmental problem-solving legacy, solutions that were only possible because of India’s monumental conservation laws, statutes, policies, and institutions. India’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, recognized as one of the most powerful conservation statutes in the world, created a pathway for a world-class system of protected areas and reserves. The Forest Act of 1980 played a significant role in curbing the deforestation that had been steadily rising as forests were, in preceding years, released by states for agriculture and other development. India’s Environmental Protection Act of 1986 has installed vital controls on environmental pollutants and laid the groundwork for protecting Eco-Sensitive Zones. These achievements are even more impressive in the light of the outsized challenges India confronts, including crushing poverty, underdevelopment, and the world’s second largest population.
Collectively, these and other measures have produced some remarkable conservation achievements. India now has a network of 764 protected areas, including 103 national parks, 543 wildlife sanctuaries, 73 conservation reserves, and 45 community reserves. Project Tiger, a pioneering national project launched in 1973, and the National Tiger Conservation Authority, a statutory authority erected in 2005, have helped to propel an inspiring rebound in tiger numbers to a current estimate of 2500-3000.
One of India’s most unique gifts to the world of conservation is the exalted status that nature holds in Indian tradition, culture, mythology, art, religion, and history. Species like the tiger that exude a spiritual significance are, according to Indian tradition, absolutely worthy of the utmost care, protection, and respect, not to mention a vast domain over which to roam. In fact, some Indian’s still refer to the tiger as the “striped water god” in the intuitive recognition of the benefits conferred on the entire landscape by tigers. This privileged position awarded to nature reflects a longstanding, deep-rooted understanding of nature’s value as well as a compassion for living beings that is perhaps not seen in any other cultures on Earth. Movement toward a vast network of protected areas is certain to be gradual and tedious given the inertia created by other policy challenges. Nevertheless, India’s cultural values are a promising indicator for the success of Nature Needs Half in India.
The country’s lands and waters support several iconic imperiled species, including the Bengal Tiger, Ganges River Dolphin, Asian Elephant, Indian Rhinoceros, Snow Leopard, and Asiatic Lion. Many of these species are valued as keystone species due to their exceptional contributions to ecosystem function. They are essential components and protectors of India’s diverse natural splendor – its forest, grassland, desert, wetland, and coastal ecosystems, not to mention the significant portion of the world’s largest mangrove forest that lies within India’s borders.
While spanning 2.4% of the world’s total land area, India accounts for 7-8% of the world’s identified species, which places it among the planet’s 17 megadiverse countries. Of 34 globally recognized biodiversity hotspots, 4 – the Western Ghats, Indo-Burma Region, Himalaya, and Sundaland – are found in India. Portions of these areas indeed present some exciting opportunities for bringing larger, connected areas under protection.
Not surprisingly, the chief hurdles surrounding a Nature Needs Half strategy in India include escalating development, the subsequent demand for land, and the country’s dense and growing population. These problems are compounded implementation of conservation policy is not backed by strong societal support and can culminate in a waning political will to bring further lands under protection. This places the 20% of India’s land that remains under forest cover at high risk of loss to industrial, agricultural, and other development.
India’s government, and even its predominant environmental ministries, seem to be placing highest priority on the country’s development interests. There has been a discernable effort to fast-track industrial projects on environmentally sensitive lands by granting environmental clearances – those required by environmental law – at breakneck speed with seemingly limited consideration of environmental repercussions. Faster approval of a larger number of industrial projects is currently touted as a key indicator of administrative success, efficiency, and friendliness toward business ventures.
Coal development and other extractive industry pose particular threats to India’s forests and biodiversity. The country’s central and eastern regions are rich in coal deposits, inevitably tempting the diversion of forest lands for coal mining as India leans on coal as its principal energy source. The immense scale of coal’s impact on landscapes is perhaps evident in the fact that India’s state-operated coal company is the largest coal-producing firm in the world. More than ever, India could benefit from increased social and political will for increased protections brought about by the Nature Needs Half strategy.
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