Celebrating World Environment Day in the time of an ongoing horrific health pandemic is difficult to contemplate. In this time of immense human grief and loss, what does the environment even count for? But take a moment to reflect.
The most important element that we gasped for in the past month was oxygen. Think of the hours and days we spent finding oxygen for our loved ones; how we saw patients collapse and die because hospitals did not have oxygen in the tanks; how the courts stepped in to regulate the transportation of oxygen from industries across the country; how we learnt about the business of oxygen concentrator — a machine that sucks in air and gives us oxygen on demand.
Our desperation cannot be recounted without pain. We saw the gasp for each breath — and just how precious it is. This then is what we must remember this World Environment Day. The oxygen that we get from nature is about increasing green cover and ensuring that our air — our every breath — is not polluted. Something we talk glibly about and yet discount with our next move.
WHAT IS WORLD ENVIRONMENT DAY?
Established as an annual event by the United Nations (UN) in 1972, World Environment Day is the largest global celebration of its kind, being recognised by millions of people in over 100 countries. The day aims to encourage worldwide environmental awareness and on-the-ground action in the form of events such as clean-up campaigns, tree-planting drives, recycling initiatives, social media campaigns and contests.
The theme of this year’s World Environment Day, celebrated every year on June 5, is ecosystem restoration. Increasing the tree density and repairing the ecosystem health means the world will sequester carbon dioxide — that is filling up our atmosphere and leading the world to an inexorable downward spiral of climate change impacts — and release oxygen. It’s a win-win. But what we need to understand is that planting trees or restoring ecosystems will require us to first restore our relationship with nature and society.
The fact is trees are about land — who owns it; who protects and regenerates it, and who has the rights over the produce. In India, the forest department has the “ownership” of vast areas of common forest land. But countries like India do not have “wilderness”. Instead, we have habitats where people coexist with wild animals in forests.
These are the same forest districts classified as the most backward and poorest. It is also a fact that using all the legal and administrative, and sometimes, muscle power, the country’s forest department has kept the tree cover somewhat intact. It works hard every day to keep people and their animals out. It shuffles files between the bottom rung of guards and the top bureaucrats to minimise the cutting of trees for “development” projects — from mining to dams.