Effects of climate change in Bhutan

Jainism and environmental conservation

Author: Devanshi Khokhani

First published: Biodiversity of India

Jainism ( जैनधर्म – Jainadharma) is one of the most environmentally conscious religions in the world. The religion is based on the principal of non-violence towards all living beings. The religion is thought to have its roots in the Indus Valley Civilization and the later Vedic Civilization, a period of intense philosophical deliberations on the Indian subcontinent. Jainism was firmly established in India between 9th and 6th century BC. Today, there are over 4 million followers of Jainism in India and around the world.

Vardhaman Mahavir
Vardhaman Mahavir

Vardhaman Mahavir

The most important religious holiday for Jains worldwide is Mahavir Jayanti, the birthday of Lord Mahavir. Lord Mahavir was the 24th and the last Tirthankar in Jainism who played an important role in defining the Jain religion as it exists today.

Bhagwaan Mahavir, who is also known as Vardhaman Mahavir, was born in 599 BC in Kundgram near Vaishali of Bihar in India in the royal family of King Siddartha and Queen Trishala . After 30 years as a householder, he abandoned his family and went to the forests to perform a penance. After about 12 and half years of severe penance he attained “Keval Gyan” (Omniscience). Since then he preached non violence to people and insisted to inculcate the feeling of compassion towards all forms of living beings. He, himself set as an excellent example by remaining calm and forgiving all the creatures who imposed severe austerities on him.  He is the last tirthankar of the 24 tirthankaras , who attained salvation on New Moon Day of Kartik, 527 B.C.E at Pavapuri in state of Bihar in India.

Non violence – the basis of Jainism

Hierarchy of beings in Jainism

”Ahimsa-paramo-dharmah” (non-injury to living beings) is one of the basic virtues of Jainism. To kill a living being is considered to be the greatest of sins. Practice of non violence is not just limited to humans or animals but is extended to all forms of life. All living beings are regarded as equal. Jainism also stresses on the moral responsibility of the humans in their mutual dealings and relationships with the rest of the universe and hence it is a religion of compassion – it aims at the welfare of all living beings. An important principle of Jainism is expressed in Sutrakrta-anga (1.11.33) as follows:

A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated.

Apart from preventing oneself from act of injury or killing, Jainism also considers controlling emotions like aggression, possession, and consumption that are usually the root causes of violence in today’s world.

The core beliefs of Jainism demonstrate how close the beliefs are to the ethos of environmental sustainability.

Nature and Jainism

Jain Agams depict nature in a very unique way as it says that five main elements of nature; ”Prithvi” (land, soil, stones, etc), ”Jal” (Water resources including cloud), ”Agni” (Fire), ”Vayu” (Air) and ”Aakash” (Sky) are living creatures and must be treated as living beings. These five types of elements go on to form five classes of beings (as shown alongside) such as vegetation, trees and plants, fungi and animals. This unique concept of Jainism restricts its followers to harm any creature and eventually leads to limited consumption as well as help in protecting environment.

Lord Mahavira, who lived in forests and jungles most of the times during his asceticism, attained Keval gyan (omniscience) on the bank of river Rijuvalika below a shal tree. It is noteworthy that Mahavira is the 24th and last Tirthankar of Jain and all others also lived their ascetic life in similar manner. They preached sitting in Samavasharana after enlightenment. The Samavasharana itself is a complete ecosystem. Lord Mahavira has clearly warned in Acharanga Sutra, first Jain Anga Sutra, that contamination of any natural resources is not desirable in any case. He has gone in to details of contamination. Jainism considers these as weapons to creatures (natural resources).

One of the ways Jain monks or the followers of Jainism, observe non violence is by restraining themselves from eating the roots like potato, radish, carrots, ginger etc, especially during the 4 months of rainy season. The reason behind this is they think that during harvest of these vegetables, earth is dug out and the soil organisms are killed more during rainy season. Jains called this period as “Chaumasu” or “Chaturmas”. In this period, even the monks do not wander from one place to another in order to avoid any unintentional killing of any form of life. For example, on a rainy day, they would observe fasts as they cannot walk on the wet streets to get “Gochari” (get food for themselves).

Jain scriptures motivate people for minimal consumption. They emphasize on ”Tyaga” (Sacrifice). Jain ‘‘Sharavaka” / ”Shravikas” (Laymen and women) are preached to minimize their ”Bhoga” (Consumables). The seventh vow for Jain households is ”Bhogopbhog Pariman Vrata” (Vow). This vow restricts them from unlimited consuming of natural resources. Moreover, this vow is a ”Shiksha Vrata” (Educational vow). It preaches its observers to learn and educate themselves towards limiting their consumables.

Why India needs better public health?

They say that change always involves a pivotal event that can drastically change the course of things in a new direction. Change is often necessary be it in the way we think or in major things e.g. the way we deal with things of national importance. Revolutions in science and technology often change the course of human life and one such change deemed to happen is in global public health. We are currently on the verge of experiencing a third wave of revolution in science.

Life expectancy in many parts of India is still less than 60 years (yellow). These regions are some of the most densely populated regions of the country.

The first happened about two decades ago when scientists began understanding that DNA was the basis of genetic transmission and the first animal Dolly was cloned. The second revolution happened around the early 1990s when scientists started understanding the molecular and cellular basis of genetic events. According to the latest report by UNFPA, the human population on this planet is 7 billion and this huge population certainly poses numerous challenges and at the same time several opportunities to tackle the problems at hand. India is currently the second most populated country in the world and by 2015, the population is predicted to rise making India one of the most populated countries in the world. If we fast forward and extrapolate to 2020, India will still remain one of the most populated countries in the world, though world population would seem to plateau at that time. These numbers for population of India are not unexpected. China has taken drastic measures to control their population by implementing several policies where India has obviously failed. But these increasing population numbers mean huge impacts on public health and since Indians will constitute about 17% of the world population they will have a significant impact on global public health too.

The need for better public health cannot be overstated here. What we fail to understand is the health of a nation is pivotal to its economic growth. Currently, the population of US is increasing steadily but this increase is due to migration of the youth and due to the high standard of living and good public health practices and strict environmental regulation, issues of public health are seemingly less of a concern as compared to a country of 1.2 billion people like India.

Another issue particularly relevant to India is of environmental injustice which arises as an offshoot of having huge populations reside in a small square kilometer areas surrounding major cities. Most people residing in such areas belong to low-income households who can barely afford 2 meals a day let alone feel or even bother about environmental pollution surrounding them. Good health facilities are available mostly to the higher income households who can afford to eat and live better.

How can find a solution to these issues? In my opinion, what we really need is an institute analogous to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that monitors on-going environmental degradation, puts legislation on emissions, hazardous waste emitting industries, and designs ways to controls epidemics arising in the affected areas. Large scale programs such as National health and nutrition examination survey (NHANES) assess health and nutritional status of people in the United States. These models or systems may not exactly be applicable to India. The job at hand is large. But we can atleast build models similar to those in developed countries   Several agencies such as Center for Science and Environment (CSE-India) and other NGOs are trying to alleviate the problem at hand by generating awareness among the masses. But this just seems like a drop of in the vast ocean of environmental degradation. We need to develop a long range vision for toxicity testing along with public health measures which could involve:

  1. Establishing institutions that will solely govern the status of public health. Primary health clinics in these areas can work with regional hospitals documenting cases of diseases such as tuberculosis, Hepatitis B, HIV to cancers of the cervix, lung etc.
  2. Give grants to small institutions to conduct research on nearby-areas simply documenting preliminary studies of effect of chemical contamination on human cells.
  3. Create awareness at the grass root levels e.g. Schools, primary health centers, NGOs can talk with people about the industries nearby, talk with parents regarding their child’s health, provide free medicines at the beginning of each season, free vaccination camps etc.
  4. Reduce the use of plastics drastically. Take measures to properly recycle metal tins, nickel containing batteries, wires, e-waste, electronics especially in ship breaking areas ,junkyards or places where salvage workers come in direct contact with toxic metals and chemicals.
  5. Proper identification and documentation of hazardous waste sites across the country. Each site should then be studied systematically encouraging collaboration between scientists, public health doctors, local NGOs and citizens or village folk.

These methods are not guaranteed ways of achieving success over the perils of environmental degradation and public health problems affecting India today but hopefully a few steps in the right direction can make a lasting impact.

If you are interested please see the link below that points towards a series of articles published in the medical journal –The Lancet, focusing on the state of Indian public health.

Indian health: the path from crisis to progress

Official state symbols of India – plants and animals

Red Panda, the state symbol of Sikkim, is currently classified as Vulnerable due to excessive poaching. Conservation efforts in each state could be focused around the wildlife symbols of that state for maximum effect.

It is quite possible that you know the national symbols of India. You may know that the National Animal is the Tiger, the national tree is the Banyan Tree, the national bird is the Peacock and the national flower is Lotus. You may, perhaps, also be aware that the Gangetic Dolphin was recently declared the national Aquatic Mammal of India.  However, you may not be aware of the symbols of the different states of India. I wasn’t too, and the information available online was not properly referenced. So, I decided to take advantage of the wiki setup we had with the Biodiversity of India website and compiled an exhaustive, well-referenced list of various state symbols.

What can this list be used for? Well, for starters, it is an educational resource. Teachers can quiz their children on various state symbols and ask them to describe each one of them, draw their pictures and research deeper on where they are found in their state. This list can be used by amateur conservationists, to generate awareness among the common man for conservation of these species. Conservation efforts over the past several decades have shown that if we project a certain flagship species – Tiger in India, Elephant in Africa, Orangutans in Indonesia – and create a movement for their conservation, countless other species also get saved in the process. The same strategy can be used in each state in India, by creating a movement around the state symbol.

The entire list of the official state symbols of India can be accessed here: Official flora and fauna of Indian states.

Climate change and the end of the Indus Valley Civilization

Pashupati, the Lord of Living Creatures, is depicted in many seals found in IVC. It is believed that Pashupati later evolved into Lord Shiva in the Vedic civilization.

First published: Biodiversity of India

The states of Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan and Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat in India had a great river named Saraswati (now the Ghagra Hakra river) flowing through their lands, four thousand years ago. The world’s first large civilization – the Indus Valley Civilization – arose on the banks of the Saraswati and the Indus rivers. At its peak in 2000BC, cities of the IVC such as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro housed over two hundred thousand people. The civilization was thriving – it had culture, a symbolic language, trade, city planning and a central rule of law. However, the civilization mysteriously vanished around 1500 BC. Hundreds of thousands of people disappeared, cities were lade bare and large swathes of land turned into deserts. Very few traces of this civilization are to be found in the next stage of India’s history – the Vedic civilization. What happened to all the people of the IVC? Why did such huge cities crumble to dust? Although several hypotheses have been proposed to address one of the biggest historical mysteries of all times, one leading explanation involves the role of climate change.

Many experts today believe that the IVC disintegrated after the Saraswati river started turning dry. Satellite imagery of the region along the Indo-Pakistan border clearly shows existence of vast underground channels where the mighty Saraswati once flowed. Most currently known sites of the IVC line perfectly along these channels, suggesting that these massive cities propped up along the banks of Saraswati. It is also believed that there was a general weakening of the monsoon system around 1500BC. It is believed that hordes of people migrated from the IVC and went towards the Gangetic plains or to Central Asia. Research has also shown that the new centers of activity arose east of the Saraswati a few hundred years after the Saraswati dried up.

Species such as the Great Hornbill in Arunachal Pradesh are threatened today.

Human civilization has existed in India for the past fifty thousand years – ever since the first pre-humans migrated out of Africa and proceeded towards the southern coastline of India. Millions of migrants and conquistadors have since entered India through the northwestern frontier. Most decided to stay here – the country had plentiful rivers, a beautiful landscape, fertile soil and an amazing biodiversity. The cultural evolution over the past two thousand years saw much of this nature get integrated into the lifestyle of the people. Right from having gods bearing pythons and elephant heads to finding medicinal uses of leaves and roots, from worshiping the rivers as deities to considering the earth as the Mother (Dharti Mataa), India’s nature got richly integrated into its culture. India, not just the country, but also the concept, exists because of its nature. As the example of the IVC shows, you destroy India’s nature and you’d have disintegrated its civilization.

This scenario is no longer a historical, or for that matter, a futuristic one. It is very much a problem this generation and the generations to come have to deal with. Climate change today is a reality. According to several scientific reports, India and its 1.5 billion people and countless species will be among the worst affected by climate change. Himalayan glaciers, for example, provide water to one third of the world’s population. These glaciers are the sources of our rivers like the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra. What happens when the water starts running low? On the other side of the country lie the mighty Western Ghats. Rivers like the Cauvery and Krishna have their sources in the Western Ghats. These megadiverse ranges are the most human-inhabited biodiversity hotspots in the world. Predictions suggest that changing patterns of the monsoon winds will significantly change water availability and the ground water table in these regions. What will that mean for the people living in these areas? How will it affect the rich flora and fauna?

Questions like these are no longer hypothetical but very much a reality. This is no longer a time to take petty, superficial actions and put a plaster over the developing cracks. We are no longer dealing with petty issues like bringing CO2 emissions down to pre-1990 levels or signing nominal accords with foreign countries. We are certainly not dealing with petty divisions of language, caste and religion. We are at one of the biggest crossroads of the Indian civilization today. The scenario is much the same as what the people of the IVC faced four thousand years ago. We can either let the India of today degenerate into chaos or we can take bold actions with a sense of urgency. The kind of India our children inherit tomorrow is very much dependent on what action we take today. That is what we must all realize.

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