Pope Francis cited St. Francis of Assisi as the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology. (Photo: AFP)
Etched in memory is a forest official beating an adivasi tied to a pillar by the side of a highway in southern Gujarat, which has better forest cover than the rest of this western Indian state where Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence, was born in 1869.
One man traveling with me told that such scenes are very common in this region where adivasis are thrashed for cutting trees, even for making their own thatched houses in the forest. Often these allegations are false and the non-adivasi kingpins who make them cut trees often remain behind the curtain.
“Authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person,” says Laudato Si', the encyclical by Pope Francis that has influenced all people of all nations. Where were the moral character and the respect for humans when this poor adivasi was thrashed by a forest official?
When Laudato Si' was officially published in nine languages on June 18, 2015, quite a few advocates of the Indian worldview were jubilant, saying finally we have an encyclical that perfectly fits the thinking of this land.
But the abysmal record of the forest cover that accounts for 21 percent of India's land area makes one wonder whether the cruelty meted out to the poor adivasi and the plunder of the forest by India’s elite class would go with this jubilation that Laudato Si' reflects India’s worldview. Remember, the mandatory forest cover India requires is 33 percent.
What, after all, is the Indian worldview? It is the understanding that nature is sacred and the rivers, mountains and the like are the abodes of deities. In fact, the Sanskritized sections of India owing staunch allegiance to the dominant religion propagates this worldview. Whether all Hindus all over India subscribe to it is debatable.
For the people who adhere to this worldview, the creation is in fact an extended body of the Ultimate Reality or God. But Laudato Si' does not present such a vision but sees nature as something that man is duty-bound to care for because God, after creating man in His own image, entrusted the Creation to him to take care of.
Pope Francis makes it clear in the encyclical: “I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology … He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast.”
The encyclical does not support that human beings have dominion over God’s Creation to plunder and destroy it, making fellow human beings the victims of this greedy devastation. “Do not destroy forests” is a stern commandment that emerges from this sole encyclical that deals with nature and environment.
Did the Biblical dictum of having dominion over the whole of Creation destroy the forest? Did the Indian worldview of making the whole nature unprofaned save the forest?
From the countries that more or less follow the Laudato Si' worldview or Christian worldview, we can understand that forest cover is rather commendable in comparison to India. Take, for example, Russia — the largest country with the largest area of forest cover. It is the same country where you will find 20 percent of the world’s untouched forests.
It is the same case with the nations of Europe or the Americas or Australia where people look at nature as a gift from God to take care of for the good of human beings. They have effective laws to preserve and enhance forest cover in spite of industrial development with a good legal framework for pollution control.
Small countries like Suriname, which has 98.3 percent woodland, rank above countries with the largest forest cover in proportion to the percentage of land area. They don’t regard nature as sacred.
Now come to India where nature is looked upon as sacrosanct. Since 1947 India has lost 4,696 million hectares of forest to non-forestry purposes. In 2010 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimated India’s forest cover at 68 million hectares or about 22 percent of the total area.
Whether it is there in 10 years is very much doubtful; in just 30 years India has lost large forests to 23,716 industrial projects, according to a recent estimate. Mining projects alone have swallowed 4,947 square kilometers of forest land in the last three decades.
This illustrates that looking at the environment as sacred does not guarantee its protection, perhaps for the simple reason that the worshiped is abandoned when mundane concerns along with greed propel people to engage in activities that take little heed of abstract religious ideals.
Otherwise, the Indian worldview that sees rivers as abodes of deities or as deities themselves like Ganga, Narmada and Yamuna must have been the cleanest water bodies in the world.
In the same way, if we go by Rajasthan’s Bishnoi community’s reverential attitude toward Khejri trees, then India would have had the best forest cover in the world. Even that moving scene of 1730 when Amrita Devi and her three daughters enfolded the Khejri tree when the axe of the King of Jodhpur cut them into pieces along with the tree must have been enough to save the forest land of this nation.
In all these we see the sacred is alienated from the human. Laudato Si' emphasizes that the earth and the environment are for the development of human beings, not by worshiping nature but by caring for it.
Even St. Francis of Assisi, who remains the inspirational wellspring of the encyclical, never wanted anyone to worship the earth or nature. He simply called the sun, moon and earth brothers and sisters so that we will look upon them with care and admiration.
If the Indian worldview was in any way really concerned about the protection of the environment for the wellbeing of human beings, as reflected in Laudato Si', then the numerous movements that emerged in this country would have been enough to bring up India’s forest cover to 33 percent.
But in the name of development and change, the environment of India became a devastated vineyard and the poor people a deprived lot. Here Laudato Si' poses a challenge: “Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.”
Just think of the much-debated Save Narmada, Chipko Andolan, Save Bhagirati and Silent Valley movements where sincere leaders like Medha Patkar, Sunderlal Bahuguna and others almost killed themselves to save the forest and the poor people most affected by them. Young adivasis and Dalits were at the forefront of these movements.
Such people Pope Francis specially remembers in Laudato Si': “Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest.”
By deifying the environment and the earth and by wrapping it with beautiful myths and legends, India has washed its hands of the main obligation of protecting the environment and enhancing forest cover through feasible laws and actions.
Perhaps Sunderlal Bahuguna’s book India’s Environment: Myth and Reality may expose the myth and mystification of the earth just like the depleted forest cover of India exposes the barren land.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.