A message to Indian urban voters from forests, rivers and indigenous communities

It is high that the rural knowledge system on ecology reaches our urbanites for their own good.  We have just made a small beginning in this regard.

This is election season in India.  There have been many surveys by various agencies to gauge the voters’ mood.  In case of urban areas, while water supply and sanitation do figure in the list of priorities for voters; rivers, forests and ecological conservation don’t seem to be bothering them much. 

Air pollution and river pollution are concerns for a particular segment of people, but the lack of a deeper understanding on the interlinkages between forests, rivers and monsoon is a critical gap that has the potential to hamper urban growth in an ecologically sustainable manner. 

Interestingly, the rural masses have a much better understanding on these issues.  Time the rural knowledge system on ecology came to our urbanites for their own good.  We have just made a small beginning in this regard.

Forests, rivers and indigenous communities: A deep bond

On the World Water Day this March 22nd, I had the luck of visiting a village, on the bank of Budhabalanga river, in the periphery of Similipal biosphere reserve.  We were there to launch the Similipal River Festival, a special programme as part of the Third Odisha River Conference that was organised on 24-24 March at Baripada.  The forty odd villagers, coming from all ages – starting from children to the septuagenarians – were happy to welcome us as we walked down to the river with them.  There was joy in their faces as well as curiosity.  Joy, because we were there with them showing ‘love’ to their mother river, as they term it. It was an unprecedented act of urbanites, who are only seen as picnickers near the river during the winter season.  Thus the curiosity.  The river for these villagers, belonging to indigenous communities, is their friend, family and source of happiness.  Forests that they have been preserving for centuries are part of the same family. Forests, Rivers and local indigenous communities are one family, they told us as we celebrated the existence and serenity of the pristinely Budhabalanga river.

Understanding the river through the eyes of such villagers has always been an enlightening feeling.  I have benefited a lot from my previous visits to numerous such villages. The children play around with the river, catch fish there and enjoy the childhood in a way most of our urban kids miss.  In fact, the way our urban kids and youths are being groomed at the moment, they might miss the opportunity of playing with clean rivers, and get a pristinely touch of the rivers, this entire life time. 

Clean river is something our urbanites can only see to an extent when they go out for holidaying or picnic to remote forested locations.  In city limits, all rivers are highly polluted.  And when there is some stretch of the river cleaned in the name of a river front project or during a religious festival, the dirt-free water creates the impression of ‘clean water’ which actually may not be the case. 

In most such cases, one might not get the species diversity that real clean water supports.  Ask a rural folk related to a river in a forest, you will get a count of a five to seven fish varieties at the least. It can go up to 20 or 30 in many cases.

At Bhagirathipur, the village we visited on World Water Day, what struck me was the understanding, among the youths, of the intricate relationship the rivers have with forests and local ecology. When a young couple, married a few months ago, told me that the rivers and forests are one family and one of their sources of happiness, I was not surprised.  I have heard this from hundreds of people during my visits to forested areas.  Especially the indigenous communities, who have been championing the cause of local natural forest conservation across the country, have a special love for the rivers, forests and local natural systems.  Such a love affair is beyond comprehension of most of the urban dwellers.  The forested communities understand that their lives, livelihood, cultures and wellbeing is all dependent on the local natural resources.  They care for these resources, and protect them.  In return, the resources nurture them.

Rivers for the urban youths

I have been getting the opportunity to speak to and interact with youths from across the country on water, rivers, ecology, climate change and related issues.  Each time I am invited to a programme in a school, college or university, I ask certain questions to gauge the understanding of our children and youth on these vital support systems of our survival and well-being. 

To my question, “what would you want the politicians to do for our rivers?” many of the graduate and post graduate students – that I had a chance to interact in the last few months – had no specific answer.  “We need rivers” is a sure shot answer but when it comes to defining a river, they unanimously fall for the area where water flows, that shrinks and expands during summer and monsoon respectively.

To get them to talk a bit more about rivers, it takes a bit of interrogation so that they can recall about the relationship of rivers with forests, mountains and ecology. 

Similarly, when it comes to forests, many fall prey to the plants.  For most of the urban youths, a stem that has some leafs and some flowers is a tree.  The concept of groves, forests and most importantly local biodiversity rich forests seems to be escaping their horizon of conceptualisation. Most of them are not bothered about alien and invasive species, nor are they concerned about conservation of local biodiversity rich species.  They no more have the opportunity to go out of their studies – most often done to fetch a job only – to pluck a guava or mango.  It’s all bought from the market. 

Similarly, their vision of water is getting restricted to ‘tap’ water and ‘bottled’ water.  Unless deliberately prompted, they don’t ask questions about the sources of the water.  That’s dangerous and does not hold good for our plans for ensuring a water secured future to all in an ecologically sustainable manner.  This is also detrimental to our Paris climate commitments. 

Time to learn about rivers from indigenous forest protecting communities

During the River Conference, some urban students – both from general and technical education streams – got a first-hand idea of what are real forests and who are the real protectors of these forests.  They interacted with indigenous community leaders – both women and men – who have been preserving their local natural forests relentlessly and recharging the water level of the areas as well as the rivers, besides bringing many other benefits to their communities.  The villagers have taught them about how natural forests are the largest source of the water flow they see in their rivers, and that protecting the catchment forests is the most vital thing in river conservation efforts.  They have also told them the importance of local natural biodiversity-rich forests that give food, fodder, nutrition, income, prosperity and happiness to the rural folks and it is not at all a good idea to displace the indigenous communities from the forests in the name of conservation. 

Rivers will stay if forests stay and forests will survive as long as local communities are there to protect them.  The moment the local communities are out of the forests, the definition of these bio-reserves will be limited to woodlot and it would be easier to destroy them in the name of development with the argument that ‘planted trees can replace forests’. 

Villagers of Bhagirathipur told us, it’s disastrous to replace natural forests with plantation of alien species.  Majority of researchers and conservationists working on environmental issues have the same opinion. 

Rivers supply water to almost half of Indian cities.  If for nothing else, the urbanites should work with such communities to protect the forests and the rights of the local communities over forests, to ensure their own right to clean drinking water.  Forests are the best purifier of our water sources, and this purification is the healthiest technology available. 

So folks, next time when you visit a river, remember it is not just a channel of water flow but a lively ecosystem that nurtures a lot of species and gives numerous benefits to humans.  Similarly, a forest is not just a horde of plants but a natural bio-reserve that supports your rivers to flow besides giving us various benefits including ‘carbon sinks’ to neutralise our pollution and climate change impacts.  And most importantly, don’t forget that the local indigenous communities guarding our forests are doing a great service to humanity with this.  They are guardians of our rivers as well. 

This article was originally published in Urban Update

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