DEEPSHIKHA DOLEY on the need to give due importance to local conservators in environmental matters.

When Padma Shri awardee Jadav Payeng, known as the ‘Forest Man of India’, recently signed an agreement with Fundación Azteca to regrow forests in Mexico, how many of us noted that such a step is yet to be taken in India? It is indeed surprising that we are yet to tap the potential of the valuable experiences of fellow Indians, while other countries are learning from traditional Indian experiences. While we ponder over how to engage with people in the grassroots who may not be able to grasp the intent behind a policy, why do we not think about involving people like Payeng and Saalumarada Thimmakka to whom people will be able to connect better in order to stir a ripple of change in the nation’s environmental outlook?

That is what we will call the lacuna between expertise and experience in the country. Jadav Payeng, who started off by growing bamboo trees at the age of 16 and later singlehandedly grew the famed Molai forests of 550 hectares on a barren sandbar in Majuli, has often reiterated the role that coconut trees can play in drought-stricken areas. But, we hardly see this being taken seriously. This is because we are conditioned into believing only in what expertise has to offer, thus putting the ideas of people who have “experience” in the backburner. The reality is that combining the two is crucial if we are to achieve sustainable development.

Payeng’s home State, Assam, helplessly awaits deluge every year that leaves many homeless. While Mexico is using the knowledge of this Indian to start afforestation drives, we are far away from that. If we start similar afforestation drives in neighbouring states like Meghalaya, we can substantially minimise, if not completely, the problem of floods in Assam accruing from threats like deforestation and illegal mining in Meghalaya.

Today, the indigenous population is at the receiving end of environmental apathy for which they are the least responsible, be it through forced displacement, loss of culture, livelihood, homes, biodiversity, etc. On top of that, they are totally devoid of the ability to influence decisions. This approach is a blunder in developing countries where we see a clear ‘paradox’, as these countries have more common natural resources than others in the world but stand least benefitted from such an advantageous position.

Realising the importance of teaching the importance of ecology early, American schools have started teaching students about Indian conservators like Jadav Payeng. However, it is disheartening that there is lack of awareness about such environmental activists amidst Indian students. Thus, our education system needs reforms to develop in young budding minds a sensitive approach towards the environment and the will to contribute early on. Students should be taught beyond classrooms, through field expeditions, visits to national parks, bird sanctuaries, etc. Environmental societies in schools and colleges are helpful too.

The administration and local bodies need to start  this “desegregation” between expertise and experience by including indigenous people, who are known as the best Nature conservators, before making decisions about dams, mining, forests, etc. While traditional knowledge is rendered invaluable in Indian culture, we hardly see the same logic being applied to environmental matters. If this can be corrected, we can easily succeed in overcoming many of our environmental issues.

A triangular cooperation between the media, youth and civil society, too, can facilitate such an approach. With information and awareness aided by the media, civil society agents like NGOs and environmental policy think tanks can work with environmental activists for inputs and start awareness and ecological drives. With the help of youth, such initiatives can reach a larger audience and we can be assured that future duties will fall on more responsible shoulders.

As much as knowledge is a prerequisite for prescription, it is incomplete if not supplemented with experience. We need the environment way more than it needs us. It is high time we mark a new chapter in our approach towards solving environmental problems, for innovative goals like the UN Sustainable Development Goals need innovative approaches.