Out of Sacred Groves, the Sahara

By Wolmar, Christian | New Statesman (1996), February 13, 1998 | Go to article overview

Out of Sacred Groves, the Sahara


Wolmar, Christian, New Statesman (1996)


In India's Western Ghats, Christian Wolmar found a luxury tourist development that threatens to turn a wilderness into a wasteland

The security guard came running towards us, brandishing a gun with a long, thin barrel that looked as if it could fell an elephant at half a mile. "Put it away! Go away!" his boss shouted in Mahrati, the local language. The guard promptly disappeared, though a truckful of heavies loitered menacingly in the background.

Evidently the manager found the idea of shooting us a bit over the top as a way of dissuading us from taking photographs of his heavily fenced tourist complex - much as he wanted to get rid of us.

We had come to the mountains of the Western Ghats above Bombay to see the Sahara, a massive new development 15 miles down a winding and at times unmade road from Lonavla in Maharashtra. Our guide was Erach Bharucha, a local surgeon and a widely respected ecologist.

"You have no right to stop us taking pictures from a public highway," shouted Bharucha, a tiny Parsee with a huge white beard and pale skin. The manager knew he was on rocky ground but dissembled in that characteristic Indian way: "It's our marketing strategy. We do not want any publicity until we are ready."

"You are sending people out with guns when all we want to do is to look at your development," Bharucha argued. "That is not right. I want an apology."

He didn't get it, but we did get all the photographs we needed - because we were a bunch of white people. Bharucha's fellow local environmentalists have been thrown off the site several times at gunpoint.

The group of Europeans had come to Lonavla for a conference on environmentalism and development, sponsored by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council. For two days we had sat in the pleasant surroundings of a lakeside holiday home owned by the Tata electric company, part of India's biggest conglomerate, discussing - at times loftily - whether environmentalists were trying unfairly to restrict the growth of third-world economies by claiming that development schemes are often "unsustainable". This is the most common criticism of environmentalists, and one that has not only attracted support from some academics but has also been seized upon by big business.

The Indian academics and environmentalists at the conference had not been impressed with this anti-development line. They argued that it was not the fact of development but the type of development that mattered: both sustainable and non-sustainable approaches were possible. We had gone to see the Sahara as an epitome of a non-sustainable scheme that would wreak havoc over a 15-mile radius.

Bharucha studies the local environment in a holistic way. A talented photographer, his life's aim is to produce a book on the whole of India's ecology, a task he has been working on for much of the past 30 years. So his carefully elaborated argument about why developments such as the Sahara are "an environmental disaster" are both well rooted and compelling.

The road from Lonavla, on the crests of the Ghats, is an area of outstanding beauty, dotted with "sacred groves", small forests which for religious reasons the locals have left untouched for centuries - and therefore wonderful wildlife sanctuaries. All will be destroyed by the Sahara development, Bharucha believes: "Once you get five-star development, you will get three-star schemes and then one-star."

Within 15 years, he reckons, there will be a huge town surrounding the whole area, with throngs of people wrecking the ecological balance and destroying the habitat. "It is an apt name, Sahara," he says, because the scheme will drain water and resources from the local area, creating a desert.

But wouldn't it create jobs and wealth for the villagers? "A few will have the most menial jobs, such as gardeners and cleaners; but most of the labour will have to be imported. …

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