Wild uncultivated edible plants of India

Part 9
(……after part 8)

Portulaca oleracea L.
Family: Portulacaceae

The plant, globally known as purslane, is an herb belonging to Portulacaceae. It is widely used across the world for its culinary and ornamental purposes. Locally known as kulfa or nunia or lunia, the herb is quite popular in urban and rural kitchens of India and is available even with vegetable vendors. Often frequented in moist and shady places, the plant is widely distributed in India as a common roadside weed. Due to its frequent medicinal use worldwide in different traditional medicines, it was named ‘Global Panacea’ by World Health Organization. The plant is loaded with high vitamin A, and also with vitamin C and B-complex (like riboflavin, niacin, and pyridoxine). It also provides highest dietary minerals such as potassium (494 mg/100 g) magnesium (68 mg/100 g), calcium (65 mg/100 g), phosphorus (44 mg/100 g), and iron (1.99 mg/100 g). Enriched with the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, it appears to be a superfood and very effective in treating cardiovascular disorders and allows protection to the mucous membranes. In India, it is widely used to make stir-fries and side dishes for rice when cooked with dhal. The blanched leaves can be pulsed and can be used as a base to cook paneer or eggs. The underlying reason for its popularity is perhaps for its taste similar to spinach and that has permanently placed it in many home gardens. However, in rural or peri-urban areas, it has been sporadically picked up by villagers as need be. Also, it is a very popular leafy green among many indigenous people.


Pyrus pashia Buch.-Ham. ex D.Don
Family : Rosaceae

The plant, a rosaceous member, is famous in many names, Himalayan Pear, Indian Wild pear, tangi, mahal mol, or passi. A small to medium tree, Pyrus pashia, is an inhabitant of cold temperatures but grows well in humid conditions. The fruit is very tasty and thus desired among hill communities; though grabbed from the wild it is extensively cultivated in the eastern Himalayan parts. Whereas leaves and shoots are processed differently and are the sources of many tribal or local delicacies. The leaves, though bitter, serve as fodder as well as made into butter tea by the Monpa community of Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh. Nutritionally, the fruits are rich in many key minerals like potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, and phosphorous as well as power-packed with antioxidants. The raw fruits are used by many tribal groups living amidst high altitude montane ecosystems, one of them is the ’Gaddis’ in the Western Himalayas. In the upper hills of Garhwal and Kumaon, the wild Himalayan pear is dried, crushed to powder, and mixed with wheat flour for making chapatis. Hakeems or medicine men in Kashmir also prescribe its crushed dry powder as a medicine to stop diarrhea. Though relatively less popular, drying and pickling are also practiced. Interestingly, apart from its use as food, the tree is also used as living fence in the Himalayan villages.


Rhus chinensis Mill.
Family: Anacardiaceae

A small deciduous tree with warty branches commonly known as Chinese sumac, heimang, subma or nagatenga. It belongs to the family of cashew and mango – Anacardiaceae and is widely distributed across higher altitudes throughout India. The ripe fruit is very sour, generally much eaten by many hill or foothill people, the Nepalese, Manipuris, and the others, and quite popular among the north-east Indian side.
The Chinese sumac or nutgall tree produces fruits which are globose drupes in the cluster.  They were found to be rich in proteins, fats, and crude fiber. The major nutritive organic acids present are maleic, citric, and ascorbic acid. The oil generated from this is rich in oleic acid and is a good source of antioxidants. It is also having non-negligible amounts of many amino acids, especially leucine, arginine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid, and proline. Owing to its high nutrient contents, nutgalls, hold promise for their use in human health, as a functional food or food supplement, an antimicrobial agent, an antioxidant, for diabetic therapy, in the pharmaceutical and dermatology industries. However, their use is still quite restricted in the hills not yet reached the palates of the plain folks.


Rhynchotechum ellipticum (Wall. ex D. Dietr.) A. DC.
Family: Gesneriaceae

An erect tiny shrub of family Gesneriaceae produces rose-purple flowers and juicy berries. It is quite abounding in the north-eastern part of India, primarily across the Assam region where it is locally known as Ja-Kharia or Japang esing or Mehek. The Ja-Kharia plants are seen in a dry climate as well as in moist wet evergreen areas. The leaves possess a very good amount of protein, carbohydrate, and various minerals. The plant is also rich in antioxidants and essential vitamins, sufficient amounts of essential minerals (such as copper, zinc, magnesium, iron). So the consumption of this vegetable seems to prevent anaemia, help nucleic acid metabolism, control the blood-glucose levels, and might have the potential to support a healthy immune system.
Owing to its abundance in the Assam and contiguous regions, it is extensively consumed by most indigenous communities and others alike; In the Kangchup hills of Senapati district in north-east India, the plant is called as Yembum or Cheklap by the local tribes who use raw or cooked leaves or the Rongmei tribes of Manipur also cook the leaves along with others wild edible plants in low flame with rice to make ‘ganhoi’ or rice porridge. To many of them, it is also a culturally important species such is the case of the Karbis of Assam whose lifeways are closely entwined with the tree. Mehek (Rhynchotechum ellipticum) is considered as an important plant in the traditional diets of the Karbis. The common method of consumption of mehek is cooking with pholo (alkaline water) and manthu (dried fish). For this, leaves are cut into pieces, washed with water, and cooked by adding pholo and manthus; while pholo softens the tissue manthu elevates its acceptance infusing rich aroma – together making a perfect combo to relish over a family chat.

Contributors: Avik Ray, Rajasri Ray, Sreevidya EA

Glimpses Of Nature And Culture

Hydro-Hegemony: The weaponization of water

Our introduction to water is as old as our existence. The human civilization started its journey in full swing once our ancestors settled along the riverside for the sake of agriculture. Since then, it was a long course of actions centering around water which redefined our economy, politics, culture, and society. Along with all its boon, water is also a powerful weapon for those who believe in hegemony irrespective of justice, logic, and humanity. Transboundary rivers are burning examples of the powerful tussle among the nations and often the problem tends to shape the regional geopolitics. Noted examples can be drawn from the middle east countries around the Tigris-Euphrates river basin, and South east Asian countries around Mekong river basin.

The Tigris-Euphrates basin spans across six countries including Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The river water is the backbone of the flourishing human settlement in the region. Along prosperity, water acted as key player to establish political supremacy in the region from historical past. It has both the use of weapon and target as and when required. Water related infrastructures like, pipelines, reservoir, pumping and distribution systems, sanitation are strategic targets for conflicting parties to suppress the opponents. Attacks on the Kuwait’s water supply and wastewater infrastructure (early 1990, first Persian Gulf war), capture of the Tishrin Dam on Euphrates river (November-December 2012, Syrian civil war), air attack on Raqqa city water plant and water supply system (November – December 2014) or destruction of desalination plant near Mocha, Yemen (January 2016) are few instances of targeting water for casualty. Similarly, intentional flood, disruption in agricultural and hydropower production and interruption in drinking water availability are few of the common war strategies rival groups follow to gain control over the area of interest.

The scenario is different in Mekong river basin in south-east Asia. Mekong, the 12th largest river on earth is originated from the Tibetan plateau of China and passes through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before reaching to the South China Sea. It is one of the richest biologically diverse river basins and life support for ~60 million people at the downstream countries. The conflict on sharing Mekong’s water started when China as an upstream country initiated mega dam projects on Mekong River for hydroelectricity generation, water storage and navigation. A total of 11 mega dams proposed on the Chinese side of the river already created a noticeable change in the availability of water in the downstream region during dry season. Apart from water, excessive dredging for navigation at the upstream region deprives the downstream areas of nutrient rich sediments essential for aquatic life and agriculture. These moves are alarming for the downstream countries as the hydro-hegemony over the Mekong seems to affect greatly the riverine ecosystem as well as livelihood of the people.

Image: https://transboundarywaters.science.oregonstate.edu/content/tigris-euphrates-river-basin (Tigris-Euphrates river basin), https://www.conservation.org/places/greater-mekong(Mekong river basin)

Collector: Rajasri Ray


A tale of two leaves

Think desert plant, the spectacular variety of Cacti and Euphorbias pops out. We know about their thorny leaves, green stem, deeper roots and even wonderful flowers, an all-out attempt to conquer environmental adversary. Well, Welwitschia mirabilis is a super adapter that deserves special mention. Named after Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch, the plant was discovered in 1859 at Namib desert near south-western coast of Africa. Welwitschia is too much simple in structure compared to its existence on the earth. The name ‘living fossil’ is well suited due to its long term existence on earth since 113 million years and exceptionally long lifespan (~1500-2000 yrs.). It is a plant of a dwarf stem, two leaves and reproductive cones.

Welwitschia is eye catching to onlookers for its leaves. They are unique due to their unlimited growth throughout the plant life, thanks to the basal meristem (growth tissue) present at their base. As the leaves grow in size (growth rate is 13.8 cm./year), the tip portion get old, and is torn apart into ribbon like pieces due to continuous abrasion against desert wind and sandy ground. All these strapped ribbon like portions coiled around the short trunk mimicking a messy green bush amidst the pretty hot desert landscape.

Despite the mere presence in numbers, the leaves play disproportionately large role in desert ecology. It is because of the length they are able to collect a good amount of dew from the morning fog and channel it towards the underground which eventually helps the plant to meet up the water demand partially. The long and thick coiled leaves create a perfect adobe for desert fauna especially during day time. They altogether create a shady and cooler environment for cape hares, snakes, agamas, geckos, skinks, spiders, scorpions and insects and a favorable spot for predators too. Moreover, desert bug, Odontopus angolensis gets its nutrition from the plant sap piercing it with its needle like beak. Similarly, Antelope and Rhinos also go for juicy leaves during food scarcity and humans are no less fortunate. Earlier, the core of the female plant was considered as a food for desert people, so the name ‘desert onion’. Considering the depauperate surroundings of the superarid Namib desert, a Welwitschia plant itself is a mini ecosystem surviving on its own.

Image : Rajasri Ray, www.info-namibia.com

Collector: Rajasri Ray


Amphibian Kharai Camels of Kutch

Domestication is a remarkable event that allowed humans to gain an unprecedented power to control their biological resources; the obvious outcome of which is reflected in the diversity of tamed animals and their numerous breeds. Some of these breeds are typically adapted to local harsh environmental conditions. Amphibian Camels aka Kharai Camels of Kutch are indeed a special group of animals which are powered with a unique ability to survive on both, dry land and in the sea. In the water, they are prolific swimmer unlike any other camel. It is also supported by their unmatched ability to feed on saline foliages of the luxuriant mangroves. In Gujarat’s Kutch district, primarily in four areas Abdasa, Bhachau, Lakhpat, and Mundra, these animals are painstakingly managed by the Jat community who are nomadic camel herders for many generations. These camels are their means of subsistence and share a close relation of dependence with the herders in a rugged landscape full of hardship. In the arid regions of Kutch, the herders have to cover a long distance to look for mangroves for managing these camel herds. Sometimes they have to survive on camel milk for a few days until they are back to their homes.

Identifying their unique features, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) distinguished the Kharai Camel as a separate breed in 2015. Moreover, FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) and AMUL (a milk operative) have recognized camel milk as nutritious and branded for its therapeutic properties in diseases like autism, TB, diabetes and even in cancers.

On the flip side, recent enumeration says the number of camels has been dwindling fast and only a few thousands exist. Thinning of supporting mangroves due to heavy industrialization and thus concomitant rise of maintenance cost are the primary causes of concern. Hence, the traditional herders find it really hard to make ends meet. The Kharai Camels have been declared as highly threatened by Government of India and conservations programs are in full swing to increase their population. Unfortunately, the efforts may be only a drop in the ocean. Unless the lifeline of the area – the lush green mangroves – are saved from imminent threats and managed healthily, the fate of Kharai Camels will be sealed along with the several other of inhabitants.

Representational Image, courtesy: By Jjron – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2831408

Collector – Avik Ray


Gundruk or fermented leafy greens

Fermented food stuffs of umpteen numbers have been quite popular across various parts of the world and commonly practised to balance resource crunch in lean season. Or put differently, these you can save wisely at the time of plenty for later when there is not much in hand. Fermented leafy greens of India do not have many in their reserve. But the Nepali and Gorkha community of northern part of West Bengal and elsewhere evolved and fine-tuned their unique way of saving juicy and leafy foliage for off-season. Mustard greens or rayo or rai shaag are the main element, that could be accompanied by others, such as radish or cauliflower leaves or even fleshy underground roots. From which they prepare their signature fermented foliage or adorably called as ‘Gundruk’.

Mustard greens or Brassica juncea is one of their favourite crops which grows in abundance along with many others in sunny winter or pleasant summer of this region. Almost every household of the montane villages or foothills even with a small patch of land cultivate greens and the harvest is often far more than that can be consumed at a time. So, an elaborate process of processing through fermenting, drying and storing for leaner seasons has been evolved and perfected: the leaves are allowed to sundry for a couple of days followed by smashing, squeezing and tightly packing in closed glass jars for days for fermentation to takes place in warm place. Lastly, slightly acidic fermented leaves are taken out and again dried under the sun. Although there are local variations suiting one’s taste the recipe remains more-or-less the same. And if moisture is prevented, Gundruk can be used for months so one can enjoy them during incessant rains as well as in chilly and foggy winter. Pediococcus and Lactobacillus species remain fully functional during the fermentation process – so says the underlying science.

However, Gundruk is not merely a fermented food that supplements nutrition in hard times, it does have another spicier story. Mixed with heavy flavouring and seasoning agents, its tangy taste often lures taste buds and elevates one’s mood in soggy weather. Some even says it acts like magic when appetite dies after days of continuous fog or rains common in hills. A hot and peppy soup of mouthful of Gundruk (Gundruk jhol) aids in digestion and stimulates bowel movement. There is another avatar which is also a sought-after, i.e., its pickle called as Gundruk achaar, favourite among Nepali or Gorkhali diaspora.

Photo courtesy: By Krish Dulal – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Collector – Avik Ray

Rural settlement: The epicenter of sustainability in environmentally challenged India

A countryside…a village….a place of tranquility for many of the urban dwellers. Certainly, the greenery, cultivated field, openness, and mosaic of land parcels tend to mesmerize us. The scenery is even digitally eye-catching in Google earth if you zoom in on the human inhabited areas in India except for the big cities. The settlement studded traditional landscape in rural India often resembles “Starry Night” and is a real-life example of how entangled we are with our environment. The mosaic landscape with vast agricultural fields, water bodies, settlements, road networks along with the sporadic presence of natural forests represents diverse activities, interaction, development as well as destruction.

For any heterogeneous landscape, villages are the key components of the habitat and settlement network sitting at the core of multiple functions like agricultural activities, natural resource extraction, ecological functions, and socio-cultural practices closely tied with the landscape. In tropical countries, Like India, nearly 68.8% of people (Census of India, 2011) are living in villages and are directly connected with the multifaceted dynamics of human-nature interaction

                   The settlement studded landscape of northern India  
                                                                                 (Image source: Google Earth, eye altitude 100miles.)

in a low-key mode often not visually discernible but strongly felt. Till the onset of the industrial era, village life was truly revolving around natural dynamics. Industrial advancement completely maneuvered human society towards never-ending demand for earthly possessions and a new level of comfort which subsequently channeled towards uncontrolled natural resource extraction as well as intense landscape modification. Globally, a large volume of the literature suggests how commerce and consumerist economy stimulate deforestation, agricultural intensification, uncontrolled resource extraction, and change in socio-cultural perspective towards nature (Tscharntke et al. 2012; Cuaresma et al. 2017; Rasmussen et al. 2018).

Human Settlement: a part of biodiversity

In tropical countries like India, the rural landscape holds the key to biodiversity apart from the apparent grandeur of mountains, rivers, forests, and deserts, the physical components of the ecosystem. Rural landscape with different land-use practices viz., agricultural land with varieties of crops, agroforestry plantations, water bodies, grazing lands with all kinds of human activities (livelihood maintenance, social-religious-cultural practices, etc.) offers sufficient space for multiple organisms to survive and interact. Look around the agricultural field, it is the farmers’ choice to allow other plants to grow or faunal members to stay along with crops depending on the availability of the soil nutrients and water, benefits in pest control, and space requirement. Similarly, a plantation drive cannot afford to allow other species to grow other than the desired one due to a high stake in terms of economic return. In this background, the settlement stands apart from our attention. Here settlement means a typical representation of rural houses (ranging from 10 – 60) with varied spatial extent and accessories (viz, home garden, cattle sheds, common lands like worship places, water bodies, fallow land, village road, etc.). All these accessory places are usually with some basic vegetation like common fruit trees

Functionality at the village life. It has different forms, (a) – (c) supporting diversity; (d) – (f) multiple land use forms; (g) – (i) livelihood options and (j) – (k) religious-cultural legacy                                                                                                                                           Image: Rajasri Ray

(mango, jamun, litchi, sapota, banana), shade trees (banyan, pipal, neem, gulmohar), aquatic plants (lotus, lilies, water hyacinth, Azolla), roadside and fallow land trees (tal, date palm, eucalyptus, acacia, bamboo) and common herbs and shrubs depending on area and climate.
This basic plant assemblage in the settlement area provides support for local fauna viz, insect and bird populations, rodents, fishes and other life forms visible and invisible both. Moreover, a good number of household and professional items used to be extracted from natural resources, namely, house building materials (wood, soil, straw), daily needs (containers, furniture, cooking utensils), agricultural implements, medicinal plants, which in a way determine resource availability in the landscape. The list will be extended if we consider household (food habits, clothing, medicine, cleaning, and sanitation) and community practices (social, cultural, and religious rituals, traditional and local artistry, architecture) altogether.

Settlement influences a plethora of ecosystem services combining both tangible and non-tangible ones. However, it is difficult to assess this operating mechanism separately from rural livelihood as every nuance changes, evolution even destruction is attached with day-to-day decision making.

Ecosystem services provided by rural settlement  
                                                                                                                             Image: Rajasri Ray

Human intervention and ecological functionality in rural landscape

Anthropogenic intervention shaping the landscape in multiple ways from the early phases of the evolution of the human race, and landscape modification intensified with the origin of agriculture (Ray and Ray 2018). In India, green revolutions in the 60s’-70s’ not only emphasized the enhanced crop production but also replaced the inherent traditional sustainable practices. As a result, agriculture with its’ current practices like eradication of weeds, application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, heavy use of machinery, and unregulated use of irrigated water is oriented towards maximization of productivity but at the cost of surrounding ecosystems’ health. Similarly, other human mediated spatially explicit areas are waterbodies, plantation plots, etc. which offer less room for multiple life assemblages once anthropocentric demand intensifies.

Landscape homogenization at different level. (a) – (d) agricultural land in seasons and its preparation; (e) – (f) plantation and (g) – (h) aquaculture                                                            Image: Rajasri Ray  

In terms of biodiversity, the existence of diverse life forms and the plethora of services in a rural landscape is strongly related to how well they interact with each other and with nature. The different life-sustaining functions performed by organisms are the basis of functional diversity in the landscape. A functionally diverse landscape means multiple types of functions viz., self-and cross-pollinations, wind, animal, and mechanical mode of seed dispersals, different nutrient acquisition strategies, diverse growth patterns even competition, cohabitation, adaptation, and destruction at different scales. The web of activities makes a landscape stable, resilient, and productive simultaneously, exemplary of a sustainable system. Human is an integral part of this web not only as a viewer but actively involved as modifiers, creators and destructors. Be it agricultural modification, plantation establishment, settlement establishment or expansion, and development of amenities, the landscape is under continuous modification along with human civilization.

Globally, it is an accepted fact that a functionally diverse system is the prerequisite for the productive landscape (Diaz et al. 2007, Wood et al. 2015). Both consumerist and sustainable viewpoints are supported by the idea as it ensures diverse products as well as instills stability to the system. Human intervention in functional diversity is an active area of research and studies have been conducted in varieties of landscape structures (viz. grassland, agricultural land, sacred groves, plantation, etc.). These studies have pointed out how human activities make functional systems rich, sometimes redundant (the assemblage of members with similar working style) or homogeneous (wider presence of few selected members).

An uprooted tree means many homeless lives (image not in scale)                               Image: Rajasri Ray

Thinking of the “starry night” like rural landscape in India, where settlement dotted the plains, each of them seems like a functional unit in the background of vast agricultural lands. Moreover, a cluster of settlements in an area collectively contributes to maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services. The rationale behind the statement lies in the fact that the majority of the rural landscape is under homogenization at different magnitudes. The homogenization process stems from the monoculture of crops (vast paddy/wheat/maize field, fruit orchards, vegetable farms) and plantation drive, both commercial and social (eucalyptus, acacia, or roadside leguminous members), removal of unwanted plants, bushes, and extreme modification of soil ecosystems. The scenario is no different for water bodies or wetlands due to their commercial potential for fisheries and other economic products which prompt stakeholders to create an artificial conducive environment for selected species. Apart from stakeholders’ conscious choice, different operating mechanisms, like application of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, weedicide, external food resources (for fish), etc., also contribute towards homogenization. These activities also act as a selection pressure for floral and faunal assemblage, sieving the members for survival in the landscape. In this nearly homogenized backdrop, settlement acts as a relief where the consequences of the homogenizing activities are felt less severe. A small but significant portion of biodiversity exists in the home garden, community meeting place, sacred groves, village ponds, non-perennial water bodies, pasture lands, even in the surroundings of the deserted house. This small but important part of the natural world offers heterogeneity in species composition and functional traits which becomes an integral part of the functionality in the rural landscape.

Challenges related to settlement and landscape functionality

Though it sounds exciting, there are multiple challenges while implementing the concept of the functionality of the settlement. Apart from agriculture, settlement dwellers have multiple other interactions with the environment, the magnitude of which often fluctuates with the season, socio-cultural calendar, and demographic profile. Examples can be drawn from the seasonal fruit harvesting, festival, and household requirements which are mostly low to moderate level demands and replenished in course of time. The scenario becomes complex when larger plans are implemented with conspicuous spatial extent namely, road development, construction of public amenities, renovation of religious places. These works employ a bigger workforce, demands a longer span of activities, generates debris, and near-permanent changes in the environment. Often the toll is on the environment and ecosystem which looks negligible but collectively irreplaceable. Cutting a huge old banyan or pipal tree for road extension or construction of public amenities, may not have much impact on human life but it is unbearable damage to countless other life forms who are directly or indirectly attached to it. Uncontrolled and unplanned weeding along the roadways and other places in the name of cleanliness destroying the probable shelters for insects, butterflies, soil micro-organisms, and increasing soil erosion potential. Similarly, renovation of the old places often emphasizes architectural details barring environmental compatibility, which results in a big temple/mosque/church at the cost of existing open land/grove. Apart from these visually identifiable structures, changes are also evident in ecosystem components like soil and water due to poor waste management practices and unplanned sanitation systems. Waste generation in the rural settlement is undoubtedly lesser in quantity and variation than its urban counterpart but quite alarming when pulled together. Common practices like unplanned dumping of the household waste in open place and water bodies, mixing of organic and inorganic waste, excessive plastic disposal is widely observed irrespective of geographic locations. On a similar note, sanitation is a grave concern although countrywide program like Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan has been introduced in a full swing to abolish the open defecation practices. However, environmentally suitable treatment of liquid and solid waste at home and village level is still a distant goal in many parts of the country (Sengupta and Bhatia 2021).

The magnitude of the physical changes as mentioned above is deeply entrenched in stakeholders’ perception of their surroundings. Growing up amidst the environment, the rural stakeholders are aware of its existence value but contemporary lifestyle patterns and consumerist economy eclipsed that awareness. As a result, products from ecosystem services supporting livelihood get relatively more attention than non-tangible benefits which are ignored due to their apparent invisibility or spontaneous availability. The expansion of road networks and telecommunication systems revolutionized rural life throughout India. The constant interaction with the urban centers, out-migration for work, infiltration of urban lifestyle concept and exposure to diverse livelihood options tend to shift rural society from its locally activated modus operandi to be a part of the national or global network, consequently, the innate sustainability of the rural landscape is heavily compromised. The gross negligence towards active natural dynamics in the rural landscape slowly disintegrates the strength of the ecosystem to replenish and stabilize the natural world.

Reviving the sustainability in the rural landscape

India mostly lives in rural landscape. The rural area occupies ~75% of the country (with 6 lakhs villages, Census of India 2011), in comparison to 0.2% of the urbanscape (Cities with population over 1 million) (Revi et al. 2011) and 21.54% of forest area including 5.02% of the protected areas (WII database 2019). Therefore, to maintain the environmental and ecosystem health of the country the sustainability practices in rural livelihood must be encouraged. Rural settlements are more challenging than the other land use forms as human involvement is direct and action is stochastic. Multiple stakeholders imply multiple and variable challenges at different scales ranging from local to regional. In this context, village development plans play a major role. Schemes like Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY), Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), National Rural Drinking Water Program (NRDWP) have recommended sustainable eco-friendly practices in housing, sanitation, and drinking water provisions to efficiently deal with environmental degradation and judicious use of natural resources in the rural settlement area (Table 1) (UNDP 2012).

In addition to these efforts, there are countless local traditional practices still prevalent across communities which need to be encouraged or revitalized (e.g. Garsadi tradition among Santhal community, Dongs in Assam among the Bodos, Virdha in Gujarat by the Maldhari for safe drinking water; house construction practices among Santhal, Oraon, Gond, Toda, Gujjar and Bakharwal communities) (Priyadarshini and Abhilash 2019). In general, the effort deserves participation at the grass-root level, strong community bonding, careful planning for adopting newer technology or facilities for household or community improvement, maintenance of green cover with sufficient diversity, promoting further research towards human-nature interaction by integrated disciplines like anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, environment, and ecology.

Settlement is an integral part of the rural landscape, therefore, an important component of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Both morphologically and characteristically it is different from typical land use land cover perception of the rural landscape so is in function. The contribution of the settlement to landscape functionality is often disproportionately high in comparison to major land-use formats, although quantitative data is very sketchy. The changes in the settlement are faster than the surrounding landscape, therefore, influence functionality at a pace that may doom the future of biodiversity further. To avoid the unavoidable, we have to aggressively promote sustainable lifestyle concepts with a priority on environmental health. Scenic greenery would be futile unless there is ‘true green’ embedded in its daily activities and advancement.

1. Census of India (2011). Government of India. https://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011census/PCA/PCA_Highlights/pca_highlights_file/India/4Executive_Summary.pdf (accessed on 20/03/2021)

2. Cuaresma JC, Danylo O, Fritz S et al. (2017) Economic Development and Forest Cover: Evidence from Satellite Data. Scientific Reports, 7:40678, DOI: 10.1038/srep40678

3. Dı´az S, Lavorel S, de Bello F et al. (2007) Incorporating plant functional diversity effects in ecosystem service assessments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(52):20684-89. DOI: 10.1073 pnas.0704716104

4. Priyadarshini P and Abhilash PC (2019) Promoting tribal communities and indigenous knowledge as potential solutions for the sustainable development of India. Environmental Development. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envdev.2019.100459

5. Rasmussen LV, Coolsaet B, Martin A et al. (2018) Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification. Nature Sustainability 1, 275–282 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-018-0070-8

6. Ray A and Ray R (2018) The Birth of Aus Agriculture in the South-eastern Highlands of India – an Exploratory Synthesis. Ancient Asia. 9, p.3. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/aa.146

7. Revi A, Idicheria CE, Jain G, Anand G et al. (2011) Urban India 2011: Evidence. URl: https://iihs.co.in/knowledge-gateway/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/IUC-Book_02-03-12-LOW-RES.pdf

8. Sengupta Susmita and Bhatia Swati (2021) Real works begin now. State of India’s Environment 2021. A Down to Earth Annual. Centre for Science and Environment, 41, Tughlakabad Industrial Area, New Delhi 110062. Pp 241-244.


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Rajasri Ray

Biodiversity conservation to sustainable consumption: Discerning the root causes of the environmental crisis

In the last few decades, environmental issues at different scales have become an integral part of our everyday lives. International relations and political discourses are increasingly shaped by various environmental challenges (Danish 2007; Stavins et al. 2016). It does not require any special mention that we are going to witness a multi-layered socio-environmental and humanitarian crisis in the form of climate change in the next few decades. The long-term impact will deeply affect the lives and livelihoods of the marginalized population living in fragile regions (Islam and Winkel 2017). Along with this, air pollution, particularly in the urban areas, is rising (Health Effects Institute 2019), severe water scarcity is surfacing in many water-rich parts of the world (World Economic Forum 2015), forests and biodiversity are getting destroyed at an unprecedented rate (Roe et al. 2019). For the last half a century, the ill effects of mindless development are captured through different measures indicating the rapidly degrading state of the natural environment. Reduction in biodiversity and wilderness became one such very popular measure of the degrading environment during the 1970s and 1980s, which is prevalent to date.

Following that problematization, conservation of biodiversity is often touted as one of the most effective ways to address the multifaceted environmental crisis. We witnessed the implementation of a wide range of projects across the world to conserve various critically endangered species as well as biodiversity hotspots. These projects mostly aim at reducing direct human impacts or scope of interventions on these sensitive landscapes so that rejuvenation of the biodiversity can happen. To ensure adequate both biological as well as physical space, most of these approaches severely restrict human access to such regions. Considering in places like in the Global South, most of such biodiversity hotspots had people living within them for centuries in a somewhat sustainable or balanced manner, conservation approaches impacted the daily life, livelihoods, and the wellbeing of those communities the most by restricting their access to these regions (West et al. 2006). In recent times, there is a change in the discourse towards acknowledging the historical presence of humans in so-called pristine regions and even adopting participatory approaches to conservation. While there is a need to conserve this rich biodiversity hotspot, the process of conservation raises questions or rather serious ethical concerns, particularly in the context of the Global South where people lived in such landscapes for generations and seem to have an innate understanding of living sustainably. I am not going to delve further into the ethical conundrums associated with such conservation efforts. Instead, let us understand how far these approaches could help us address the root causes of the multi-layered environmental crisis. Moreover, whether these approaches act counterproductively in giving a false sense of accomplishment at various levels and thus, disable us from critically approaching those root causes. Oftentimes, we see, the conservationist approach fails to enable the strong proponents (like the conservationists and ecologists endorsing the idea of conservations) of this approach to examine their ways of living or day-to-day consumption choices critically enough. With this premise, in the following, I systematically discuss why the rapid loss of biodiversity is just the tips of the iceberg of the multidimensional environmental/climate crisis that is and, more so, going to manifest itself through diverse pathways and fundamentally challenge the existence of life on earth (UNEP 2015). To tackle these multifaceted challenges concerning environmental sustainability and social justice, we must gain an in-depth understanding of the root causes of these environmental issues.

Early in the environmental debate, population growth (primarily in developing countries) was argued by some to be the most obvious and significant cause of environmental degradation (Chenoweth and Feitelson 2005)—what has been called a neo-Malthusian explanation. Critics of such neo-Malthusian thinking, however, pointed to the role of other factors, such as overconsumption in so-called developed countries, failures of science and technology, institutional failures, and so on. The IPAT framework[ IPAT is an equation that puts forth that environmental impact (I) is the product of three factors: population (P), affluence (A) and technology (T).] (Ehrlich and Holdren 1974), although criticized for its simplistic formulation and for being confirmed by definition, made it easier for scholars to highlight the role of consumerism or luxury consumption practices in influencing environmental degradation to a large extent (Wilk 2002). Indeed, Grabowski (2007, p. 1) poetically describes the current society as “a society consumed by consumerism”.

Historically, when production, consumption, and disposal were largely localized, the environmental impacts of consumption were visible to consumers and producers. But in a highly globalized world, it is difficult for consumers to be aware of the ramifications of their consumption choices, both upstream and downstream (Princen et al. 2002). Upstream ramification indicates emissions that happen due to the accumulation of raw materials for production, for example, raw materials from Central Africa are converted into goods in China. The downstream ramification occurs in the post-production stage. For example, a product is manufactured in China, gets consumed in the US, and then sent off as toxic waste to West Africa. Both these ramifications put a huge toll on the global ‘commons’ (atmosphere or oceans), and consumers are increasingly ‘isolated’ from these environmental externalities. A response to this (IPAT is an equation that puts forth that environmental impact (I) is the product of three factors: population (P), affluence (A) and technology (T). ) distancing has been the development of various footprint indicators that try to capture the impact of individual consumption on the environment. Some indicators are all-encompassing, such as the ecological footprint (Wackernagel et al. 1999), while others are resource- or impact-specific, such as the water footprint (Hoekstra 2009). The emergence of climate change as a major environmental problem has led to the emergence of the ‘carbon footprint’ as an important indicator.

          The globalized supply chains of consumption and trade and its environmental impacts

So far, it becomes clear the ways in which production processes aid to the environmental issues and how the rising environmental footprints can mean that certain lines of production and consumption cannot continue the business as usual if we were to manage or lower the environmental impacts. One can say that production happens as a response to the existing consumption need and if we have identified the required course of action to handle the environmental issues, then let us understand the ways to reduce consumption and, in turn, production both macro as well as micro-economic point of views. For that, let us first trace the history of economic models or regimes as these evolved through changing socio-political needs and more importantly, technological innovations.

Economics emerged as a distinct field of study that branched out of moral philosophy in the late 18th century or early 19th century with the seminal work of Adam Smith (Common and Stagl 2005). That stream of economics is called classical economics. The basic postulate for this stream was that the means of production (primarily land or productivity of land) could increase linearly, but the human population grows exponentially, inducing an impending food shortage and social crisis (Common and Stagl 2005). This means that economics as a discipline needs to find a way to distribute a limiting resource among competing demands. Thus, the question of just distribution was at the very center of how economic models were designed. As just distribution was at the core of their formulation, the concern of justice was also an integral part of economic policy formulation. However, with the industrial revolution radically expanding the means of production (like industrially produced fertilizers increasing productivity) with the help of fossil fuels, the entire idea of natural limits fell apart. This provided a strong belief that technological innovation will take care of everything (be it natural limits like productivity or externalities like pollution or deterioration of environmental components).

With this firm belief taking root, we see around the early 20th century, the stream of neo-classical economics emerged (Common and Stagl 2005). In the core formulation of this stream, there was no idea of limits as technology or technologically produced human-made capital is considered to be good enough to deal with any concern related to limits. So this stream focused only on efficiency — producing more and more with less and less inputs became the de facto motto. With this excessive focus on efficiency, the focus on justice faded away (Daly and Farley 2011). It became implied that there is no need to worry about just distribution; rising technological efficiency will allow us to produce infinitely, and thus producing more is the solution to meet the ethical dilemma of giving enough to those who do not have enough to meet their basic needs. This understanding necessities that economies should always look to grow so that they provide enough to the people at the margins – which, unfortunately to date, are the majority in most countries. Now, as growth (that too almost perpetual) becomes an imperative that economies should achieve, neo-liberal economic policies (based on that neo-classical economic understanding) came as a rescue. In neoliberal economic policies, the biggest driver of economic growth is appropriately tapping into the supposedly insatiable wants of consumers. To elaborate further, this stream conceptualizes consumers (or the framing that economists like to categorize human beings as) as rational economic beings who maximize private utilities endlessly and completely aware of their (supposedly insatiable) wants. The goal, therefore, is to provide consumers enough choices to exercise their wants, and if that can be ensured adequately, then consumer demands for novel consumer products are always going to be on the rise. Rising consumer


demands will ensure a faster circulation of money through the economic system, increasing the size of an economy. So it is evident that consumer demands act as the primary driving force through which economies are growing all around the world. Without this driving force, we might go into a severe recession[ A tweet (https://twitter.com/theponzifactor/status/1244823729760112640) nicely captured this: “It’s funny how the economy is about to collapse because people are only buying what they need.” Another prominent example is when president GW Bush told US citizens to shop after the 9/11 terrorists attack on the World Trade Center. It was supposedly to counter the economic recession that was predicted after the attack. ], as seen in the recent experience with the COVID-19 pandemic (Bhar 2020). From the prevailing macro-economic point of view curbing consumer demands of environmentally impactful consumption patterns may have severe consequences to the current neoliberal model.

To realize the importance vested on keeping up the consumer demands for running this growth-bandwagon that economies are on, one does not need to resort to any theory. This will become evident if one takes a moment to reflect on the number of messages one gets subjected to on different media platforms that try to ignite consumer demands or examine the prevalent definitions of our success, happiness, or the good life that move around consumer possessions. For example, it becomes evident how different advertisements selling beauty products basically sell a certain beauty standard (fairness is an important criterion in this regard in India) and the protagonists of the advertisements who initially fail to meet that standard are shown unsuccessful and thus unhappy, but that changes radically after the concerned product is used. This last point highlights how macro-economic policies percolate into individual priorities and give rise to feedback mechanisms, which will only augment this belief that infinite growth is what we all need and consumerism is the most effective way forward in that direction. I delve further into this percolation later in the essay, but let us now ask: does infinite growth in a finite planet at all possible? (A tweet (https://twitter.com/theponzifactor/status/1244823729760112640) nicely captured this: “It’s funny how the economy is about to collapse because people are only buying what they need.” Another prominent example is when president GW Bush told US citizens to shop after the 9/11 terrorists attack on the World Trade Center.  It was supposedly to counter the economic recession that was predicted after the attack. )


Ecological economics puts forth the argument that ‘one cannot have infinite growth in a finite planet’, and advocates for a better conceptual understanding of the economy as not being independent of the ecological system but entirely embedded in it (Farley and Malghan 2016). Ecological economics is distinctly different in its basic postulates, conceptualization, and proposed approaches from environmental economics — the sub-discipline of neo-classical economics that deals with questions of environmental resources and externalities (Daly and Farley 2011). Ecological economics highlights that conceptual understanding which vouches for embedding three relevant concepts: scale, sustainability, just distribution (Farley and Malghan 2016). The concept of scale captures that economy, as embedded within the socio-ecological systems, cannot simply keep growing infinitely. It inherently brings back the idea of limits that went missing the neo-classical economic framework discussed above (Farley and Malghan 2016). By incorporating the concept of scale, ecological economics manages to set in the discussion on just and equitable distribution of the available developmental space[ An example of a developmental space can be GHG space which indicates the amount of GHGs can be accommodated in the atmosphere has a limit before humans or other life forms seize to survive.] among different countries and also invoke the idea of sustainability so that we leave an inhabitable abode for the generations to come. This conceptual understanding eventually presents a potent critique of the current


growth-obsessed economic system, which, as discussed, heavily depends on the insatiable consumer desires as the driving force propelling its supposedly perpetual growth (Farley and Malghan 2016).

By now, we understand the prevailing consumerism that we see in every nook and corner of society is not an anomaly, rather it is the way the present economic model is designed. Here, let us ask whether we can bank on individual consumers to help us tackle the mounting (An example of a developmental space can be GHG space which indicates the amount of GHGs can be accommodated in the atmosphere has a limit before humans or other life forms seize to survive.) environmental impacts arising from the production of various goods and services. In other words, do we have any hope if we approach the problem micro-econometrically? Unfortunately, things in that regard are not great as well. Currently, the large sections of the Global South (which is home to 85% of the world’s population) still struggle their way through in abject poverty, or their basic needs remain unmet. In this context, the development studies’ discourses are, understandably, centered on how to lift the sections out of the vicious cycle of poverty to meet their basic needs. Even when there are some discussions on how to define a decent living consumption as a bundle of goods and services which is more than mere basic needs, and provides one enough to realize human flourishing, it is important to ask whether these (both basic needs as well as decent consumption approach) standards can ever become aspirational. Or whether achieving these standards would satisfy people to live happily. As consumerism is conceptualized as the indispensable driving force of the present neo-liberal economic model, the socio-political system ensures that the consumerist outlook percolates successfully to socio-cultural priorities and value system. In other words, what types of notion of good life are expected to be percolating in the society at large when a tiny, however influential, and often highly celebrated section of society is living a life of abundance and material comforts. For example, we see how with economic liberalization in India, the once celebrated outlook of simple living and high thinking promoted by Gandhi and practiced by a large section of the population got replaced by that of living life of all possible material comforts through exercising endless choices. It is no wonder that such a standard of living would become aspirational when promoted through all directions. The aspiration to become a global citizen drives people to let go of frugality. Moreover, the above discussed strong belief that ‘technology is going to take care of everything and there will be a time when everyone will have enough’ is clearly the underlying understanding that consumerism is based on and promotes. This makes people living at the margins believe that it is a matter of time when they are also going to enjoy material extravagances that a few are currently enjoying, without critically asking: does one really need that level of material opulence and whether that opulence translates into proportionate wellbeing.

Now, it is evident that this is not environmentally possible to meet the aspirations of world’s 90% population to enjoy the environmentally-unsustainable standard of life that the top 10% is enjoying at the moment. Therefore, along with the efforts to lift people out of abject poverty to a decent standard of living, it is equally important to bring those belonging in that 10% down to socio-environmentally accepted upper limits of decent living consumption. This can never be achieved only through hard or explicit measures of economic taxes and subsidies or by imposing government regulations. As discussed, these economic priorities have already percolated into socio-cultural values and priorities through political interventions. Thus, a sustained socio-cultural shift in valuing alternative definitions of the good life has to happen to realize a sustained change in this regard. For actualizing the above proposal along with changes in the systemic factors (like the way economies are organized, to the way the political system tends to favor the economic centers of power), individuals also need to play a critical role in ensuring those systemic shifts again start reflecting in socio-cultural values and priorities. Even a group of us upholding alternative conceptions of good life could set in a self-inducing process of reforms in socio-culturally held notions of a good life – eventually leading to a lasting impact.

Now coming back to the point, we began the essay with: is the excessive focus on biodiversity conservation, without acknowledging the way the consumption patterns of the privileged sections of society impact the environment, misplaced and counter-productive? The discussions establish that even though the loss of biodiversity is one of the manifestations of multifaceted environmental challenges that we are facing, the root cause of environmental degradation runs much deeper. We also discussed how the root cause is to do with how the economies are organized and how our day-to-day consumption choices and definitions of the good life we uphold socio-culturally.




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About Author


Soumyajit Bhar
Krea University and TERRA.DO