Protecting the environment entails cost and lost opportunities. In the long term these are good costs and opportunities that are worth losing. But success of these programs usually requires public participation and support. Unfortunately, while the government is trigger-happy when making green policies, it has proven to be quite a cherry picker* when it comes to implementation. This has created a double standard as the government picks and chooses what costs to bear and this does not set a conducive atmosphere for public support.
Consider the laws regarding protecting endangered animals. When a tiger walks off with a farmer’s cow or yak, it is still illegal to kill it. The only redress is monetary compensation. Why? Because tigers are endangered. The fact that it was the struggling farmer’s last yak is irrelevant. Now shift focus to the 35 white bellied herons of Punakha. They are a significant number of only 200 worldwide. Their nesting grounds unfortunately clash with the site of the new hydropower station, the government’s cashcow. With what can be described as only a token hearing given to environmentalists, the plant and its dam was promptly approved and the entire area will now fall underwater.
And speaking of dams, there wasn’t even a token acknowledgement of the threat to the mahseer fish that migrates from the Sunkosh up the Mo Chhu for breeding. With insurmountable dams placed in their way, now how the heck they gonna reproduce? The mahseer population of the rivers of Himachal Pradesh has already been depleted thanks to the distortion of the rivers through the construction of river projects and dams. A clear lesson that our decision makers were happy to cherry pick around.
Another very good example is the Thimphu Structure Plan formulated around 1999. Among dozens of values the new city was to uphold, Thimphu’s “Fragile Ecology and Environment” was an important pillar. Who wants to live in a dusty, polluted and grey urban setting? A lot of emphasis was placed on river protection, protection of flora and fauna and in particular avifauna, slope stabilization, watershed management to name a few. When translated into plans of actions it meant many things. Land falling within thirty metres from the river bank was declared development-free and scores of ‘green‘ areas were named to protect natural marshes and the endemic flora and fauna.
So when the Changjiji school football field was proposed in 2003 the Chief Urban Planner declared that due to these green sensitivities, even the football field, which is nothing if not a field of grass, was not allowed within the 30m zone. Pretty high standards, eh?
Sadly enough, when we look back at the past 7-8 odd years of the plan’s implementation, we realize how much cherry-picking has been going on. One green zone now boasts the YDF complex, another next door boasts of the Youth Centre, the so-called Nazhoen Pelri. Well at least the roofs are green.
Another green zone is, in fits and starts, being converted into the Supreme court complex (ironically through a contract awarded to the very same city planner responsible for the ‘green zones’ brainwave), one has become a public truck parking area and yes the Changjiji school football field has been built as proposed. The retaining wall of the expressway, far from being 30m from the river bank has in parts been built at least 8m inside the river.
The government also seems to be deeply confused by what it means by the term ‘river protection’. One meaning seems to be a ban on any ( strictly non-governmental) development near the river bank to protect the ‘fragile riparian eco-system’. The other seems to be to pour lots of concrete to protect just the bank.
With such a checkered record on the part of the government, it really raises the question of how obligated the public needs to feel to do its part for the environment. Someone I know has half of his 6000 sft plot falling into the green zone. The other half is too small to build on according to the rules. Thus by a simple stroke of the pen, his land currently worth at least Nu.3-6 million, has been rendered valueless. Should he accept his lot for the sake of the environment, or should jump on the cherry pickin’ wagon?
* “Choosing to make selective choices among competing evidence, so as to emphasize those results that support a given position, while ignoring or dismissing any findings that do not support it, is a practice known as “cherry picking” and is a hallmark of poor science or pseudo-science.” – Richard SomervilleThe Ecological Price of Progress (Kuensel, 14 October 2012) River Diversion Threatens Ancient Temple (Kuensel, 20 October 2012)