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Sustainable Management of Natural Resources


Natural resources are substances obtained from the planet that are used to sustain life and provide for human needs. A natural resource is something that comes from nature that humans use. Natural resources include things like forests, wildlife, coal and petroleum stone, sand, metals, oil and natural gas. Air, sunlight, soil, and water are other natural resources.

The wellbeing of people depends on natural resources. We cannot survive without the fresh water we drink, the plants we consume, or the pure air we breathe. To build roofs over our heads and heat our homes, we require natural resources.


A. Pollution in Ganga

  • The river Ganga (course 2500km) is used as a sewage dump for more than 100 cities stretching across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal.

  • Dumping of untreated sewage, excreta and chemicals from industries increases the toxicity of the water.

  • This makes it inhabitable for the flora and fauna in the river system.

  • In 1985 the GAP (Ganga Action Plan) project was initialized to curb the poor quality of the water of river Ganges.

  • Namami Ganga Programme is an Integrated Conservation Mission approved as a flagship programme by the Union Government in 2014. It was launched to accomplish twin objectives of effective abatement of pollution conservation and rejuvenation of River Ganga. The National Mission for Clean Ganga is the implementation wing setup in October, 2016.

B. Coliform is a group of bacteria, found in human intestines, whose presence in water indicates contamination by disease-causing microorganisms.

The five R’s to save the environment: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose and Recycle.

Refuse: This means to say No to things people offer you that you don’t need. Refuse to buy products that can harm you and the environment, say No to single-use plastic carry bags.

Reduce: This means that you use less. You save electricity by switching off unnecessary lights and fans. You save water by repairing leaky taps. Do not waste food.

Reuse: This is actually even better than recycling because the process of recycling uses some energy. In the ‘reuse’ strategy, you simply use things again and again. Instead of throwing away used envelopes, you can reverse it and use it again. The plastic bottles in which you buy various food-items like jam or pickle can be used for storing things in the kitchen.

Repurpose: This means when a product can no more be used for the original purpose, think carefully and use it for some other useful purpose. For example, cracked crockery, or cups with broken handles can be used to grow small plants and as feeding vessels for birds.

Recycle: This means that you collect plastic, paper, glass and metal items and recycle these materials to make required things instead of synthesizing or extracting fresh plastic, paper, glass or metal. In order to recycle, we first need to segregate our wastes so that the material that can be recycled is not dumped along with other wastes.

  • Even while making everyday choices, we can make environment friendly decisions. For doing this, we need to know more about how our choices affect the environment, these effects may be immediate or long-term or long-ranging.

  • The concept of sustainable development encourages forms of growth that meet current basic human needs, while preserving the resources for the needs of future generations. Economic development is linked to environmental conservation.

  • Thus, sustainable development implies a change in all aspects of life. It depends upon the willingness of the people to change their perceptions of the socio-economic and environmental conditions around them, and the readiness of each individual to alter their present use of natural resources.

Why do we need to Manage our Resources?

Not just roads and buildings, but all the things we use or consume–food, clothes, books, toys, furniture, tools and vehicles – are obtained from resources on this earth. The only thing we get from outside is energy which we receive from the Sun. Even this energy is processed by living organisms and various physical and chemical processes on the earth before we make use of it.

Why do we need to use our resources carefully?

Because these are not unlimited and with the human population increasing at a tremendous rate due to improvement in health-care, the demand for all resources is increasing at an exponential rate.

The management of natural resources requires a long-term perspective so that these will last for the generations to come and will not merely be exploited to the hilt for short-term gains.

This management should also ensure equitable distribution of resources so that all, and not just a handful of rich and powerful people, benefit from the development of these resources.

Another factor to be considered while we exploit these natural resources is the damage we cause to the environment while these resources are either extracted or used. For example, mining causes pollution because of the large amount of slag which is discarded for every tone of metal extracted. Hence, sustainable natural resource management demands that we plan for the safe disposal of these wastes too.

The present-day global concerns for sustainable development and conservation of natural resources are of recent origin as compared to the long tradition and culture of nature conservation in our country. Principles of conservation and sustainable management were well established in the pre-historic India. Our ancient literature is full of such examples where values and sensitivity of humans towards nature was glorified and the principle of sustainability was established at its best.

During the Vedic period, both productive as well as protective aspect of forest vegetation were emphasized. Agriculture emerged as a dominant economic activity during the later Vedic period. This was the time when the concept of cultural landscape such as sacred forests and groves, sacred corridors and a variety of ethno-forestry practices were evolved that continued to the post-Vedic period, besides a wide range of ethno-forestry practices were infused with the traditions, customs and rituals and followed as a means for protection of nature and natural resource.

Forests and Wildlife

- Forests are ‘biodiversity hotspots’.

- One measure of the biodiversity of an area is the number of species found there. However, the range of different life forms (bacteria, fungi, ferns, flowering plants, nematodes, insects, birds, reptiles and so on) found, is also important.

- One of the main aims of conservation is to try and preserve the biodiversity we have inherited.

- Experiments and field studies suggest that loss of diversity may lead to loss of ecological stability.


We all use various forest produce. But our dependency on forest resources varies. Some of us have access to alternatives, some do not. When we consider the conservation of forests, we need to look at the stakeholders who are –

(i) the people who live in or around forests are dependent on forest produce for various aspects of their life (see figure – A view of a Forest life).

The local people need large quantities of firewood, small timber and thatch. Bamboo is used to make slats for huts, and baskets for collecting and storing food materials. Implements for agriculture, fishing and hunting are largely made of wood, also forests are sites for fishing and hunting. In addition to the people gathering fruits, nuts and medicines from the forests, their cattle also graze in forest areas or feed on the fodder which is collected from forests.

(ii) the Forest Department of the Government which owns the land and controls the resources from forests.

The Forest Department in independent India took over from the British but local knowledge and local needs continued to be ignored in the management practices. Thus vast tracts of forests have been converted to monocultures of pine, teak or eucalyptus. In order to plant these trees, huge areas are first cleared of all vegetation. This destroys a large amount of biodiversity in the area. Not only this, the varied needs of the local people – leaves for fodder, herbs for medicines, fruits and nuts for food – can no longer be met from such forests. Such plantations are useful for the industries to access specific products and are an important source of revenue for the Forest Department.

(iii) the industrialists – from those who use ‘tendu’ leaves to make bidis to the ones with paper mills – who use various forest produce, but are not dependent on the forests in any one area.

Do you know how many industries are based on forest produce? A short count reveals timber, paper, lac and sports equipment. Industries would consider the forest as merely a source of raw material for its factories. And huge interest-groups lobby the government for access to these raw materials at artificially low rates. Since these industries have a greater reach than the local people, they are not interested in the sustainability of the forest in one particular area. For example, after cutting down all the teak trees in one area, they will get their teak from a forest farther away. They do not have any stake in ensuring that one particular area should yield an optimal amount of some produce for all generations to come.

(iv) the wildlife and nature enthusiasts who want to conserve nature in its pristine form.

The nature and wildlife enthusiasts who are in no way dependent on the forests, but who may have considerable say in their management. The conservationists were initially taken up with large animals like lions, tigers, elephants and rhinoceros. They now recognise the need to preserve biodiversity as a whole.

But shouldn’t we recognise people as forming part of the forest system?

There have been enough instances of local people working traditionally for conservation of forests.

For example, the case of Bishnois community living in western Rajasthan on the border of the Thar desert. Conservation of forest and wildlife has been a religious tenet for them. These nature-loving people have for centuries, been conserving the flora and fauna to the extent of sacrificing their lives to protect the environment. They are living with the basic philosophy that all living things have a right to survive and share all resources.

The Government of India has recently instituted an ‘Amrita Devi Bishnoi National Award for Wildlife Conservation’ in the memory of Amrita Devi Bishnoi, who in 1731 sacrificed her life along with 363 others for the protection of ‘khejri’ trees (see figure) in Khejrali village near Jodhpur in Rajasthan.

Here is an example – the great Himalayan National Park contains, within its reserved area, alpine meadows which were grazed by sheep in summer. Nomadic shepherds drove their flock up from the valleys every summer. When this national park was formed, this practice was put to an end. Now it is seen that without the regular grazing by sheep the grass first grows very tall, and then falls over preventing fresh growth. Management of protected areas by keeping the local people out or by using force cannot possibly be successful in the long run.

In any case, the damage caused to forests cannot be attributed to only the local people – one cannot turn a blind eye to the deforestation caused by industrial needs or development projects like building roads or dams. The damage caused in these reserves by tourists or the arrangements made for their convenience is also to be considered. We need to accept that human intervention has been very much a part of the forest landscape.

Forest resources ought to be used in a manner that is both environmentally and developmentally sound – in other words, while the environment is preserved, the benefits of the controlled exploitation go to the local people, a process in which decentralized economic growth and ecological conservation go hand in hand. The kind of economic and social development we want will ultimately determine whether the environment will be conserved or further destroyed. The environment must not be regarded as a pristine collection of plants and animals. It is a vast and complex entity that offers a range of natural resources for our use. We need to use these resources with due caution for our economic and social growth, and to meet our material aspirations.

Management of Forest

If the goals of all the above stakeholders with regard to the management of the forests are the same. Forest resources are often made available for industrial use at rates far below the market value while these are denied to the local people.

The Chipko Andolan (‘Hug the Trees Movement’) was the result of a grassroot level effort to end the alienation of people from their forests. The movement originated from an incident in a remote village called Reni in Garhwal, high-up in the Himalayas during the early 1970s. There was a dispute between the local villagers and a logging contractor who had been allowed to fell trees in a forest close to the village.

On a particular day, the contractor’s workers appeared in the forest to cut the trees while the men folk were absent. Undeterred, the women of the village reached the forest quickly and

clasped the tree trunks thus preventing the workers from felling the trees. Thus thwarted, the contractor had to withdraw. The contractor would have felled the trees, destroying them forever. The communities traditionally lop the branches and pluck the leaves, allowing the resource to replenish over time. The Chipko movement quickly spread across communities and media, and forced the government, to whom the forest belongs, to rethink their priorities in the use of forest produce.

The destruction of forests affected not just the availability of forest products, but also the quality of soil and the sources of water.

Participation of the local people can indeed lead to the efficient management of forests. An Example of People’s Participation in the Management of Forests In 1972, the West Bengal Forest Department recognized its failures in reviving the degraded Sal forests in the south-western districts of the state. Traditional methods of surveillance and policing had led to a ‘complete alienation of the people from the administration’, resulting in frequent clashes between forest officials and villagers. Forest and land related conflicts in the region were also a major factor in fueling the militant peasant movements led by the Naxalites. Accordingly, the Department changed its strategy, making a beginning in the Arabari forest range of Midnapore district. Here, at the insistence of a far-seeing forest officer, A.K. Banerjee, villagers were involved in the protection of 1,272 hectares of badly degraded Sal Forest. In return for help in protection, villagers were given employment in both silviculture and harvesting operations, 25 per cent of the final harvest, and allowed fuelwood and fodder collection on payment of a nominal fee. With the active and willing participation of the local community, the Sal forests of Arabari underwent a remarkable recovery – by 1983, a previously worthless forest was valued Rs 12.5 crores.

Water for All

Water is a basic necessity for all terrestrial forms of life.

- A study of rainfall patterns does not reveal the whole truth behind the water availability in various regions in India. Rains in India are largely due to the monsoons. This means that most of the rain falls in a few months of the year.

- Despite nature’s monsoon bounty, failure to sustain water availability underground has resulted largely from the loss of vegetation cover, diversion for high water demanding crops, and pollution from industrial effluents and urban wastes.

- Irrigation methods like dams, tanks and canals have been used in various parts of India since ancient times. These were generally local interventions managed by local people and assured that the basic minimum requirements for both agriculture and daily needs were met throughout the year.

- The use of this stored water was strictly regulated and the optimum cropping patterns based on the water availability were arrived at on the basis of decades/centuries of experience, the maintenance of these irrigation systems was also a local affair.

- The arrival of the British changed these systems, the conception of large-scale projects – large dams and canals traversing large distances were first conceived and implemented by the British and carried on with no less gusto by our newly formed independent government. These mega-projects led to the neglect of the local irrigation methods, and the government also increasingly took over the administration of these systems leading to the loss of control over the local water sources by the local people.


Why do we seek to build dams?

- Large dams can ensure the storage of adequate water not just for irrigation, but also for generating electricity. Canal systems leading from these dams can transfer large amounts of water over great distances. For example, the Indira Gandhi Canal has brought greenery to considerable areas of Rajasthan.

- However, mismanagement of the water has largely led to the benefits being cornered by a few people.

- There is no equitable distribution of water, thus people close to the source grow water intensive crops like sugarcane and rice while people farther downstream do not get any water.

- The woes of these people who have been promised benefits which never arrived are added to the discontentment among the people who have been displaced by the building of the dam and its canal network. These are the reasons for opposition to the construction of large dams, such as the Tehri Dam on the river Ganga.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (‘Save the Narmada Movement’) about raising the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the river Narmada.

Criticisms about large dams address three problems in particular –

(i) Social problems because they displace large number of peasants and tribals without adequate compensation or rehabilitation,

(ii) Economic problems because they swallow up huge amounts of public money without the generation of proportionate benefits,

(iii) Environmental problems because they contribute enormously to deforestation and the loss of biological diversity. The people who have been displaced by various development projects are largely poor tribals who do not get any benefits from these projects and are alienated from their lands and forests without adequate compensation. The oustees of the Tawa Dam built in the 1970s are still fighting for the benefits they were promised.

Water Harvesting

  • Watershed management emphasises scientific soil and water conservation in order to increase the biomass production.

  • The aim is to develop primary resources of land and water, to produce secondary resources of plants and animals for use in a manner which will not cause ecological imbalance.

  • Watershed management not only increases the production and income of the watershed community, but also mitigates droughts and floods and increases the life of the downstream dam and reservoirs.

  • Various organisations have been working on rejuvenating ancient systems of water harvesting as an alternative to the ‘megaprojects’ like dams. These communities have used hundreds of indigenous waters saving methods to capture every trickle of water that had fallen on their land; dug small pits and lakes, put in place simple watershed systems, built small earthen dams, constructed dykes, sand and limestone reservoirs, set up rooftop water-collecting units. This has recharged groundwater levels and even brought rivers back to life. Water harvesting is an age-old concept in India.

- Khadins, tanks and nadis in Rajasthan,

- Bandharas and tals in Maharashtra,

- Bundhis in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh,

- Ahars and pynes in Bihar,

- Kulhs in Himachal Pradesh,

- ponds in the Kandi belt of Jammu region, and

- Eris (tanks) in Tamil Nadu,

- Surangams in Kerala, and

- kattas in Karnataka

These are some of the ancient water harvestings, including water conveyance, structures still in use today (see figure for an example).

Water harvesting techniques are highly locale specific and the benefits are also localized. Giving people control over their local water resources ensures that mismanagement and over-exploitation of these resources is reduced/removed.

In largely level terrain, the water harvesting structures are mainly crescent shaped earthen embankments or low, straight concrete-and-rubble “check dams” built across seasonally flooded gullies.

Monsoon rains fill ponds behind the structures. Only the largest structures hold water year-round; most dry up six months or less after the monsoons. Their main purpose, however, is not to hold surface water but to recharge the ground water beneath. The advantages of water stored in the ground are many. It does not evaporate, but spreads out to recharge wells and provides moisture for vegetation over a wide area. In addition, it does not provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes like stagnant water collected in ponds or artificial lakes. The groundwater is also relatively protected from contamination by human and animal waste.

The following are the advantages of a rainwater harvesting system.

  • Decreases the demand for water imports.

  • Encourages energy and water conservation.

  • Increases groundwater availability and quality.

  • Does not need a filtering system for irrigation in gardens.

  • This technology is comparatively straightforward and simple to install and use.

Management of Natural resources - Water

Coal and Petroleum

- Another important resource – fossil fuels, that is, coal and petroleum, which are important sources of energy for us.

- Since the industrial revolution, we have been using increasing amounts of energy to meet our basic needs and for the manufacture of a large number of goods upon which our lives depend.

- These energy needs have been largely met by the reserves of coal and petroleum. The management of these energy sources involves slightly different perspectives from those resources discussed earlier.

- Coal and petroleum were formed from the degradation of bio-mass millions of years ago and hence these are resources that will be exhausted in the future no matter how carefully we use them so, need to look for alternative sources of energy.

- It is estimated that our known petroleum resources will last us for about forty years and the coal resources will last for another two hundred years.

- Since coal and petroleum have been formed from bio-mass, in addition to carbon, these contain hydrogen, nitrogen and sulphur.

- When these are burnt, the products are carbon dioxide, water, oxides of nitrogen and oxides of sulphur. When combustion takes place in insufficient air (oxygen), then carbon monoxide is formed instead of carbon dioxide. Of these products, the oxides of sulphur and nitrogen and carbon monoxide are poisonous at high concentrations and carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.

- Coal and petroleum are that they are huge reservoirs of carbon and if all of this carbon is converted to carbon dioxide, then the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is going to increase, leading to intense global warming. Thus, we need to use these resources judiciously.

- Some simple choices can make a difference in our energy consumption patterns. Think over the relative advantages, disadvantages and environment-friendliness of the following –

(i) Taking a bus, using your personal vehicle or walking/cycling.

(ii) Using LED bulbs or fluorescent tubes in your homes.

(iii) Using the lift or taking the stairs.

(iv) Wearing an extra sweater or using a heating device (heater or ‘sigri’) on cold days.

The management of coal and petroleum also addresses the efficiency of our machines.

Fuel is most commonly used in internal combustion engines for transportation and recent research in this field concentrates on ensuring complete combustion in these engines in order to increase efficiency and also reduce air pollution.

An overview of Natural Resource management

  • Our resources like forests, wildlife, water, coal and petroleum need to be used in a sustainable manner. Sustainable management of natural resources is a difficult task.

  • In addressing this issue, we need to keep in mind the interests of various stakeholders. We need to accept that people will act with their own best interests as the priority.

  • Going beyond laws, rules and regulations, we need to tailor our requirements, individually and collectively, so that the benefits of development reach everyone now and for all generations to come.

Saving the Earth's Resources - Why conserving natural resources matters?


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