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World Environment Day has a religious mandate

Nature is a divine gift and should be held sacred

  • Ivan Fernandes, Hyderabad
  • India
  • June 4, 2014
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World Environment Day on June 5 is perhaps the most widely celebrated global day across nations, peoples and religions for positive environmental action.

It is the right thing to do, but to be more meaningful it should be in synch with local traditions so as to move past mere tokenism and be really productive.

A case in point is India, because what Indians do or don’t do will matter simply because a sizable chunk of the world’s population – 17 percent – is Indian.

Added to that, India adds more people each year than any other nation.

There is no denying that India has a big problem addressing environmental issues.

Indians all contribute to worldwide problems surrounding air and water pollution, garbage disposal and contamination of land and nature.

The World Health Organization recently noted that India has the worst air quality in the world, more than five times beyond the threshold where it becomes unsafe for people.

One can go on and on with lists and figures for each environmental facet but that will prove nothing other than to say how critical the problems are in India. The problems will persist. 

The reason is because economists, planners and politicians spend far too much energy on making them a debate on progress versus environment.

It’s a false belief that unless the problems are tackled like in the West, pollution will magically go away, so they ape foreign models of environmental and sustainable development.

It is commonly believed that foreign investors are not attracted to what they see as weak environmental regulations in developing countries and that they expect the environment to be preserved according to standards adopted by developed states.

That is why emphasis is on infrastructure, manufacturing, GDP and such issues, instead of health, education and social justice in the hope that that once Western standards are reached, problems relating to the environment will disappear.

India may be self-reliant in industry and agriculture, can launch satellites into space and conduct mega dam projects, but one only needs to take a walk in Indian cities to experience heaps of street garbage, people relieving themselves in public and black fumes belching from vehicles and factory chimneys.

Likewise, India may manufacture some of the best medicines but visiting a government hospital to gauge health care facilities is a horror story.

India should remember that 4,000 years ago the Indus basin, for example, was home to cities that were laid out in grids and had underground sewers.

India should also note that tribal societies do not need academic arguments on climate change and harmful effects of wastage because they have an ingrained sense which dictates that natural resources should be conserved simply because they are limited and can’t be replaced.

That is why many famous Indians such as Mahatma Gandhi advocated a “desi” or local form of environmental protection by linking it with religious considerations of resource distribution, climate change, disasters, economic growth models, conflicts, production, governance and laws. 

In keeping with his view that India needed its own solution, he popularized the “cleanliness is next to godliness” slogan as a practical step to a better environment by giving it a social, religious thrust.

Gandhi’s model, seen as too rustic for a modern society, even during his lifetime, drew inspiration from religions such as Hinduism, Islam and Christianity that have the environment as a common motif.

Respecting the environment was part of their tenants even before the human race could collectively begin to understand the scientific reasoning of valuing it.

Hinduism, one of the oldest religions, contains numerous references to the worship of the divine in nature in its Vedas, Upanishads and other sacred scriptures.

It remains a core religious element in the development of sustainable economies because Hindus believe how they treat nature will directly affect their karma.

Islam teaches that nature, land and natural resources are Allah’s work and should be seen as God’s gift to human kind -- not to squander but to protect from misuse.

That is why Muslims are taught to shun needless deforestation or killing God’s creatures and while making ablutions for prayer to use water moderately even if they have an entire river at their disposal.

Pope France too in his inaugural speech urged all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life “to be protectors of creation, protectors of God's plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment."

Theologically, this is important because how Catholics care for creation will affect "the least of these" -- namely the poor and other vulnerable people whose uplift is a main requirement of the Christian faith.

We have, according to the UN Environment Program, to be able to personalize environmental issues and enable everyone to realize that it is not only their responsibility, but also in their own interest to bring about sustainable and equitable development.

In other words we must be convinced of the need for making our environment a priority both in words and deeds to ensure that the world as we know it exists for future generations. That– to a large extent – can be done if Indians look back to the basics of their own traditions.

Ivan Fernandes is a journalist and commentator based in Hyderabad
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