What we destroy in the name of development

Tushar Gandhi

September 15, 2020

The hymn Take thou a lesson from the trees is worth laying to one’s heart. The trees bear the fierce heat of the sun and yet provide cool shade to us. But what do  we do?

MK Gandhi, Bapu Ke Ashirvad, December 1, 1944

 Trees are living beings just like ourselves. They live and breathe, they feed and drink as we do; and, like us, they need sleep. It is a  wretched thing to go and tear the leaves off a tree at night when it is resting.

MK Gandhi, Young India, December 5, 1929

For too long, humans have lived a self-centred and selfish existence. Civilisation has given us airs, after all we are God’s best creation, so everything is for our consumption, for us to exploit, abuse, exterminate. We pride ourselves on being compassionate but our compassion is reserved only for our kind, our family, our, community, our race, our gender and, for Indians, our caste. No one or nothing else matters. We have convinced ourselves that the creator intended us to be the top consumer and provided everything for our consumption and pleasure.

For centuries, we have plundered our natural resources and what we haven’t consumed we have poisoned, dirtied, polluted mindlessly. The hole in the ozone layer we tore because of our insatiable greed.

Our concept of development is selfish. We have decided that only humankind deserves to develop and at the cost of all other life forms. Our metropolises were built by destroying natural topography and ecology, which took aeons to develop but was destroyed in a matter of years. We drained wetlands and filled swamps. We created land by filling up shallow seas, bays, backwaters and marshes. We dammed rivers so that we could provide water to monoculture farms to satisfy our hunger and our never-satisfied hunger for electricity. We drained subterranean aquifers, not to quench our thirst but to fill our two-gallon toilet flushes.

With the discovery of fossil fuels, we not only depleted our natural resources but destroyed landscapes, polluted water bodies and even the air. Every time we have taken a step for our development, it has been at the cost of nature and all the other life forms who have as much right to live as we do. But we couldn’t care less. We are the top dog, the creator’s best creation.

The cost of ‘progress’

The Western Ghats are home to a variety of species, yet we think nothing of planning to destroy them for a highway or refinery.

If we are to talk only of our nation and our city, we don’t have to look far. ‘Development’ has been such a popular catch phrase for the past few decades. Let’s pause and see what cost our lust for rapid development has extracted on mother nature and the price all other life has had to pay.

The Western Ghats have been recognised as a vital biosphere, home to many yet-to-be-identified life forms. They are vital for the water cycle, in other words vital for life, not just human but all life. But do we care? We want wide roads so that we can travel fast and far. We want more trains, so mountains must be blasted, levelled, bored through, flattened. It doesn’t matter if that mountain was for some life form its very existence. It doesn’t matter if by destroying that one mountain we obliterated a few species of flora and fauna. What matters is that travel time between Mumbai and Panaji was shortened by a few hours.

To, for the time being, sate our thirst for electricity, we want to build a nuclear power plant and an oil refinery bang in the midst of this imperilled biosphere. If oceans are poisoned, forests denuded and hundreds of life forms murdered, so be it. We need to charge our laptops, our smartphones, our new ‘responsible’ electric cars.

The urban dream that precedes the nightmare

The Metro system could involve cutting down ancient trees but it’s justified by the need for ‘progress’.

My city needs a Metro Rail system, so it’s fine to cut thousands of trees. That’s not genocide because I don’t recognise trees as living entities. It doesn’t matter if they were the residents of that land for centuries. Now I need it so that my people can enjoy fast transport. The microbes, the insects, the birds, the animals that called those trees and that forest home don’t matter. The shrubs don’t matter, the fungi, the algae, the grass don’t matter. I call them the lungs of my city, but my greed for land is more important than my need for oxygen.

Car owners in my city are plagued by congested roads that lengthen their commutes. So what if I have a suburban rail network and I am building a new Metro network! The upwardly mobile middle-class and the rich need to drive their cars. I need more and wider roads and I need a coastal freeway.

For centuries, my city was inhabited by fisherfolk  who earned their sustenance from harvesting the bounties of the surrounding ocean. Now I need large swathes of their traditional lands and parts of the sea for my fancy roads. So, more of the sea must be reclaimed, more wetlands drained, more mangroves  destroyed. It doesn’t matter that the mangroves are nurseries of many marine animals or that the loss of this vital ecology will annihilate many aquatic life forms. It doesn’t matter that the traditional residents of the coast will be displaced and lose their livelihoods.

It doesn’t matter that the mangrove forests help prevent the sea from eroding the coast. When that happens, I will dump ugly concrete tetrapods into the sea but the mangroves are dispensable. It doesn’t matter if a few species of aquatic life forms, a few coral reefs, a few thousand microbial life forms inhabiting the coastal waters become extinct. Only I matter. What matters is that my drive time from Borivali to Nariman Point is reduced by half an hour.


Gandhi would have never allowed the chopping of trees to make access to Sevagram Ashram (above) easier.

This is how selfish we have become. In our greed, we have forgotten the one critical law of nature: all life is interlinked, nothing is independent. Our evolution proves that we are dependent on factors to which many other life forms contribute. When they start dying, the domino effect of extinguishing all life will cause our own extinction. We don’t even know whether we will be the last tile of that domino chain or we’ll be somewhere in the middle.

Our arrogance has completely inured us to the reality that our continued existence is dependent on the well-being of all other life. All life matters because we matter.

We are the only life form that is bothered about our heritage. Yet, our life is all about the present. We take pride in our 5,000-year-old civilisation but we aren’t bothered about conserving our heritage.

There is news of more than 300 trees being cut so that the road leading from Wardha to Sevagram, where Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram is located, could be widened. The reason: to make travel for visitors to the ashram easier. It did not matter to the authorities that the trees they were cutting down were planted and nurtured by Gandhi and his associates so that visitors walking from Wardha to Sevagram would find shelter and shade, a place to sit and rest.

Gandhi said it was a crime and a sin to tear even a leaf from a tree, but now the trees he planted are being cut for the sake of development.


Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation. Reach him here: gandhitushar.a@gmail.com

Pictures: Wikimedia Commons, Pikist