Down in Jungleland: A thought on the environmental legacy we are burdening children with

Ranjit Lal
We are busy wrecking the nature with our toxic air, poisoned water and bad politicians. (Photo by Ranjit Lal)

Go, tidy up your room! You’re living in a pigsty!
Clean up your cupboard — it’s like a garbage dump!
Don’t leave the bathroom in such a mess after your bath!
Be tidy in your work — and habits!
Eat with your mouth closed!
No, we’re not buying crackers this Diwali — sorry!
How many millions of kids have been thus harangued by their parents and teachers day in and day out? And these days, additionally: “Put away that smartphone!”; “You spend far too many hours watching TV and on the internet.” And then the killer, which today must make even the most lead-brained parent, baulk a bit and swallow back. “Go out and play! Get some fresh air. Bond with nature!

Excuse me? Go out and play? Get some fresh air? Exactly where if you’re living anywhere in north India, and, especially, in places like Delhi? Sorry, that’s not available anymore and will be in short supply for, well, who knows how long. Mostly permanently.

All a child can do is look at you disbelievingly and nod, “Yeah, sure, gimme a break!” (And, hopefully add loud and clear, “You know, we’re 16 now. We’re going to be able to vote in two years. In fact, before the next general elections. See what we’re going to do to your Johnnies then!”)

Astonishing, isn’t it: How we can (crash) land a craft on the surface of the moon, fluff ourselves up like the Michelin man, but not clean up our act on earth. And there’s absolutely no rocket science involved that could go wrong and mess up things. All that politicians seem capable of — and this seems to be their job description now — is to whine and whinge shamelessly and point accusing fingers at one another. If it wasn’t such a serious issue, it would make kids burst out with derisive laughter — but now, now that would be being disrespectful to our right honourable leaders, wouldn’t it? And we sure don’t want our kids to follow their lead.

It’s a strange business, environment is. “Kattar (hardcore)” environmentalists would like everyone to live in caves or up treetops and go looking for lunch with spears and clubs or, preferably, browse on the leaves and berries of the nearest bushes. Survivalists will hold forth on how out there in the wild, Mother Nature and all her “critters” have only one purpose: to get you!

Troubled teenagers are often taken off to the “wild” — say a tropical island or the middle of the desert, or a rainforest — and left to manage themselves and their tantrums on their own or in teams. Up against what Mother Nature throws at them, their own problems recede and they learn to deal with immediate life and death and basic issues like hunger and thirst (Of course, adults are always at hand to intervene if things go wrong). It’s ironical, isn’t it, that we can’t offer our troubled teens the same options here?

But yes, Mother Nature does offer soothing balms for fevered brows. If you can find a clean hilltop or mountain ridge — there’s nothing quite like a walk in the woods to rejuvenate you. Watch a butterfly hatch or a dragonfly hunt — and it can quite make your day. Baby animals of any make and model will make you go goo-goo gaga and be very happily silly indeed. Watch a hawk hunt and it’ll take your breath away. Follow a murmuration of starlings and your jaw will drop to the floor. Or any of the pin-perfect mimics and devious deceptions Mother Nature has come up with — disguises that would floor and fool any face recognition software — let alone predators.

The wonders stocked in Mother Nature’s cupboard are mind-boggling and more imaginative than anything we could have dreamt of. Think of how a tiny seed can grow to be a majestic 100 ft-high tree that would live for 1,000 years.

All these and so much more are not just to please our aesthetic senses. It’s a massive life-giving and sustaining factory working 24x7, 365 days for the last 4 billion years to keep the planet alive, with hardly any strikes or lockouts. (The asteroid collision 65 million years ago was truly what one would call an act of god).

And now, we are busy wrecking all these with our toxic air, poisoned water and bad politicians. You can be sure if the wind picks up or a heavy downpour douses us and the skies clear, they will heave a sigh of relief and say, “Sab kuch theek hain ab (Everything’s all right now)”. And go back to business, hoping kids and everyone else, too, will forget this like a bad dream and move on.

They will not have factored in one thing. Next year, exactly the same thing will repeat itself, to an even more severe degree because they would have done nothing about it. Well, there’s one thing they should remember: Sixteen-year-olds today will be 17 next year, which will give the politicians just one more year to clean up their act.

Otherwise, hopefully, the children will know exactly what to do.

(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher)