The pandemic has provided us — governments, corporates, and individuals — the opportunity to slow down and reflect upon where we lost our way. I hope that each of us seizes this moment to make changes in how we live and consume, so we are true to our traditional beliefs — that all life on earth is one single family.
Today, I can see the forests of the Aravali Biodiversity Park at the far end, under a light blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. The air is crisp and clear, and close to around 20 yellow-footed green pigeons locally known as hariyal, a rare sighting for Gurugram, are feasting on the fruits of the shehtut (Mulberry) tree in front of me. The sound of traffic is replaced by the chirping of birds and the tinkling of wind chimes as they sway in the light breeze. For a nature lover and environmentalist, this is as good as it gets in a metropolitan city in India.
I can't help but think, while the world is going through a humanitarian crisis and the worst economic slowdown since World War II, nature is getting the much-needed break it deserved! As hundreds of countries impose various degrees of lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, industrial and human activity is at its lowest in more than a century, and nature is taking full advantage! Many global cities are reporting improved Air Quality Index for several days in a row, and experiencing cooler weathers due to reduced carbon emissions that would otherwise raise temperatures. Some news channels even reported that the ozone layer is slowly repairing, and the rate of melting of the Arctic ice has reduced for the first time in the last 50 years.
Closer to home, reports suggest that some parts of the Ganga River are so clean that the water is fit for drinking! When nature was left to itself, it achieved in just three weeks, what human interventions and national government programmes could not in decades. With no pollution from sewage, industrial waste and plastic entering the river system, it revived itself and its aquatic biodiversity. The Yamuna too is showing improved water quality and quantity. For the first time in years, its surface is not covered in plastic and froth, but reflects the sky and scenic beauty around.
Wildlife everywhere is enjoying this sudden change in the pace of human life. Last night, I spotted a dusky eagle owl—a relatively shy woodland bird seldom seen in cities—sitting peacefully on my air conditioner unit and pruning its feathers. Some days ago, a friend from Coimbatore city next to the Western Ghats, shared a video of an elephant herd nonchalantly walking through a residential colony. In Navi Mumbai, lakes and wetlands are covered in pink, as a record number of flamingoes flock them, undisturbed by urban life. WhatsApp is abuzz with videos of a common leopard entering a farmhouse in Chandigarh, spotted deer roaming freely on the streets of Haridwar, rhinos trotting along with residential colonies in Assam, and dolphins jumping out of the water on the Mumbai coast. In other times, this close proximity of wildlife with human settlements would have been a cause for concern as it would result in conflict. But with slowed human activity, wildlife is getting a chance to reclaim their land, albeit for a brief period. With national parks shut in India and other parts of the world, our endangered wildlife is experiencing lesser stresses. Marine life, too, is benefitting from little to no fishing and other industrial activities, therefore not dying from being caught in fishing nets.
There is no arguing that these are short-term improvements and would not have a lasting impact once we go back to business-as-usual. But what the lockdown has shown us, is how quickly nature can bounce back if it is given a chance. The anecdotal evidence of thriving nature coming from different parts of the world can be a huge learning for world leaders, politicians, and conservationists. It shows us what can be achieved if all the climate and environment negotiations being discussed for so many years are actually implemented.
The year 2020 had a busy calendar of global meetings and conferences to address biodiversity loss world over. These included the World Conservation Congress, World Ocean Conference, and a World Nature Summit, all culminating in the agreement of a decade long Post2020 Biodiversity Framework. With the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight, these conferences are also currently on hold. But when the time comes to resume these negotiations, I hope that our world leaders remember what nature achieved for itself when humans stopped interfering for just four weeks. The lesson to draw from this experience is that nature has tremendous capacity to heal itself. All that we humans have to do is find ways of using its resources sustainably and live in harmony with it.
In India, nature has always been an intrinsic part of human civilization. The Sanskrit phrase, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, is the essence of Indian culture and philosophy of life. Literally translated, it means ‘the Earth is family'. But somewhere along the path of industrialization and urbanization, we lost touch with our roots. This pandemic has provided us — governments, corporates, and individuals— the opportunity to slow down and reflect upon where we lost our way. I hope that each of us seizes this moment to make changes in how we live and consume, so we are true to our traditional beliefs —that all life on earth is one single family.
(The article was published in the May issue of TerraGreen)