A new way of environment protection

Tags: Op-ed
A new way of environment protection
ADVANCED APPROACH: ‘Do ecology’ involves finding scientific methods that checkmate potential damage to our environmental assets, without any adverse impact on the lives of rural families
I am writing this from Kerala, where there is controversy about the recommendations of Madhav Gadgil and K Kasturirangan on the steps needed to save the Western Ghats ecosystem from further damage caused by development programmes. Both the greed of the rich and the needs of the poor are leading to soil and genetic erosion and to the disruption of hydrological cycles. Consequently, ecological and livelihood security are under threat. Human-wildlife conflicts are also growing in all parts of the country, with even peacocks being considered as threat to crop production by farmers in the Delhi region. Our population is likely to reach 1.5 billion in another 20 to 25 years. How can we make development and ecological security mutually reinforcing and not antagonistic?

Delivering a lecture on “Agriculture in Spaceship Earth” in 1973, I referred to the need for a ‘do ecology’ approach in our country for environment protection. I quote what I then said:

“The environmental policy advocated in the richer nations is designed to protect the high standard of living resulting from the unprecedented growth in the exploitation of natural resources during the last century, from serious damage by the very processes of such growth. It is of necessity a policy based on a series of don’ts. This is inevitable since the aim is to undo some of the damage already done or to prevent further damage along the same lines.

The poorer nations, however, are faced with the desire and need to produce more food and income from hungry soils, more jobs, more clothing and more housing. They are aware that historically, a rising standard of living has depended on the ability of agriculture to release manpower to other more industrial pursuits. Hence, they naturally wish to develop more industries and to find productive and remunerative employment for their growing population. For them, conditions of poverty and inadequate arrangements for human and other waste disposal may be greater causes of water and air pollution than the effluents from factories or fertiliser from the fields. Since the causes of pollution are by and large different, the solutions will have to be different too and it would be a grave mistake to attempt to copy the policies now being propagated in the developed world.”

What we need is a culture of ‘do ecology’ that is, meeting the needs of the present and future generations without ecological harm. ‘Do ecology’ involves finding scientific methods that checkmate potential damage to our environmental assets, without any adverse impact on the lives and livelihoods of tribal and rural families. It involves placing faces before figures and thereby promoting concurrent attention to the livelihoods of local communities and to the conservation of biodiversity and other national resources.

Speaking at the UN conference on the human environment held in 1972 in Stockholm, Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, stressed the need for giving as much attention to improving the quality of life of the poor, as to saving the Panda and the Penguin. Most of the human-nature conflicts can be avoided if a holistic approach to development is adopted, with particular emphasis on safeguarding the job and income security of the human population. Achieving a win-win situation, both for nature and the human population, would be possible if we train a cadre of ‘do ecologists’.

During 2013, the farm sector had entered into a legal obligation, as a result of the legal right to food enshrined in the National Food Security Act. Therefore, let me cite one example of the role of ‘do ecology’ in food production. The rice-wheat rotation in the Punjab-Haryana region is frequently criticised for the associated problems of ground water depletion and soil health deterioration. At the same time, it has been reported in the media that the Punjab-Haryana farmers earned more than Rs 25,000 crore of additional income through the export of Pusa Basmati this year. Farmers’ economic health and the nation’s export earnings have both gained as a result of basmati rice cultivation. The challenge, therefore, lies in developing technologies that would help farmers to adopt the rice-wheat rotation in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Briefly stated, the ‘do ecology’ method of rice-wheat rotation would comprise the following steps. First, harvesting rainwater during the kharif season and storing it in farm ponds should become a way of life in rural areas. Second, high yielding, high value but short duration (116 days), basmati varieties should be grown, so that the land is ready in October for the timely sowing of wheat. Third, a three-year crop rotation should be followed involving two years of rice and one year of pigeon pea or high iron bajra hybrid. The introduction of a pulse crop in the rotation would help to fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil.

Similarly, a three-year rotation may be adopted in the cultivation of wheat during the rabi season. Short duration wheat varieties characterised by high per-day productivity may be sown in early November after rice harvest. The rainwater harvested during kharif should be used conjunctively with ground and river water. Once in three years, a fodder legume like berseem or a grain legume like chickpea may be grown instead of wheat. Such crop rotations based on considerations of both ecology and economics would help to promote an evergreen revolution leading to an increase in productivity in perpetuity without associated ecological harm.

The basic approach of ‘do ecology’ is to show how to do things right, rather than refraining from cultivating crops of importance to food and income security. Our agricultural universities, Krishi Vigyan Kendras and 10+2 courses in rural schools can help to spread the meaning and methods of ‘do ecology’. We can then avoid the growing human-nature conflicts. If farm ecology and economics go wrong, nothing else would have a chance go right in rural areas.

(M S Swaminathan is an agricultural scientist who led India’s green revolution)


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