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All critical elements in our lives have a currency. The currency for economic well-being is gross domestic product growth; the currency for capital markets is the sensex; the currency for pollution control for nations is carbon credits; the currency for Bollywood fame is a Filmfare award; the currency for happiness is a gross national happiness index (Bhutan has such an index). What we miss sorely is a single currency to measure the eventual ‘sustainability’ of a nation. What metric could be a strong lead indicator of the sustainability of a nation? That question could spur a debate that could last a lifetime — and the answer would differ from nation to nation. For India, in my mind, the strongest candidate for the ‘currency for eventual sustainability’ would be the tiger population. Here’s why:

1. History has proved that the most relevant indicator of the sustainability of a nation must have something to do with the environment and with nature. It could be a plant, an animal, the level of marine cover — or any such metric.

2. Among environmental factors in India, the tiger population is the most representative, the most critical and the most practical metric.

3. We have done precious little for the tiger (and hence for the environment and eventually for our nation’s sustainability) so far, and it is high time we raise the bar on ‘tiger currency’.

Let us look at each of these points one by one.

1. Lessons from history

Why environmental protection is the most critical factor for a nation is best illustrated through some lessons from history. Easter Island was a place which was home to the world’s largest palm tree (India is home to the world’s largest tiger population). During 900-1400 AD, Easter island suffered extreme deforestation and exploitation of animal life. The inhabitants then were satisfying their immediate needs. Easter Island, today, practically does not exist. Its entire population has been wiped out. The world’s largest palm tree is now extinct.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic are two nations near the Caribbean islands. They are situated next to each other, with very similar geographic locations, climatic conditions and natural resources (to start with). Originally they were a single nation, although in 1804 Haiti achieved independence and was separated from present-day Dominican Republic. Over the following century, Haiti suffered severe forest encroachment, while the Dominican Republic put in place stringent policies for environmental protection (for example, a ban on commercial logging). The Dominican Republic took several other measures to protect its natural resources but Haiti continued to neglect its own. Over a period of time, this fundamental difference in approach to protecting natural resources and the environment showed up in the form of a huge difference in the development of the two nations.

While it may never be possible to establish a clear mathematical correlation between environmental factors and sustainability of a nation, it is very difficult to ignore the indications. It is sufficiently clear that the currency for eventual sustainability has to be an environmental factor — not economic or financial.

2. Why is the tiger population best suited to be India’s currency for sustainability?

The tiger represents the whole of Indian biodiversity. It is present among the mangroves of the Sunderbans, in the Terai forests of the Northeast, in the desert ecosystem of Rajasthan, in the grasslands and deciduous forests of Madhya Pradesh and in the backwaters of Kerala.

The tiger is absolutely critical to the sustainability of the entire environmental chain. It balances the food chain directly and several other elements indirectly. What if there were no tigers? To start with, the population of antelope, buffalo, barasingha, wild pigs and so on would expand. This population expansion would consume a huge part (beyond sustainable limits) of natural vegetation. If the vegetation in the jungles was devastated, smaller animals and insects would not survive there. If the insects moved to the crops in the farmlands, vital food sources could be lost, and soil would become increasingly barren. If soil becomes infertile, the food system for humans will vanish. Moreover, if vegetation and forest cover are lost, floods will become more predominant (roots of trees act as natural waterflow control systems and as many as 300 rivers flow through all of India’s tiger reserves) and cyclones would become more frequent and devastating (for example, with erosion of forest cover in coastal Odisha during the 1970s, cyclones travelled as much as 100 kilometres further inland). So, we may end up with no food, contaminated water and no shelter (because the floods and cyclones would have washed them away).

The tiger population, unfortunately, consists of a small, finite number and hence it is very practical to use it as a measuring unit. Our systems have evolved better methodologies for measuring the tiger population. Moreover, historically, the trends of environmental ill- effects closely track the reduction in the tiger population. Again, while a mathematical correlation is difficult to establish, the following amply supports the above argument.

There has been a 51 per cent drop in the tiger population: there were 3,508 tigers in 1997, 1,411 in 2008 and 1,706 in 2010. Correspondingly, there has been a 50 per cent increase in CO2 emissions. The CO2 emissions in metric tonnes per capita increased from 1.0 in 2001 to 1.4 in 2007 to 1.5 in 2008, according to World Bank sources.

To summarize, the ‘tiger population’ as a currency for India’s sustainability is appropriate because it is (a) representative, (b) critical, and (c) practical.

3. So, how is our currency doing?

Not great. If we consider ‘tiger population’ as our lead indicator of the health of our environmental protection efforts, we will feel ashamed with what we have achieved on that metric. The tiger population has dropped from over 4,000 in the 1980s to 1,706 in 2010 — that too, after dropping to an all-time low of 1,411 in 2008. And more alarmingly, the drop has been consistent across the years. Remember the world’s largest palm tree in Easter Island? How different is our tiger?

Now let us look at some ‘second-order’ metrics of our environment (and hence eventual sustainability). Whether we look at the share of forest cover or the number of threatened species, we have a huge distance to cover.

India features low on several critical environmental factors — which is not a healthy sign for long-term sustainability. The following figures refer to forest area as percentage of total land area in some countries — Japan 68.5; Korea 64.5; Brazil 61.4; Russia 49.4; the United States of America 33.2; Germany 31.8; Sri Lanka 29.7; India 23; China 22.2.

The following data refer to the number of threatened species (mammals) in the same nations — Germany 6; Korea 9; Japan 28; Sri Lanka 29; Russia 32; the US 37; China 75; Brazil 81; India 94, according to World Development Indicators, 2011, World Bank.

Of course, there is a lot of noise and discussion around tiger protection. It is a good sign. But is it enough? Have we seen enough ‘real’ action being taken? Do we even recognize the magnitude of the problem we are leaving behind for our next generation? Do we realize that India’s tiger may not be too different from Easter Island’s palm tree? Do we see any parallels with Haiti? Tiger protection as a topic is well-known in India. But the point here is to make us all aware of the magnitude of the consequences if we cannot protect our tigers.

When inflation rises beyond 7 per cent we have protests. When the sensex jumps by 200 points we rejoice. When literacy rates increase, we congratulate the government. When Sariska sees the birth of a tiger cub how many of us celebrate? Or even notice it? ‘Tiger population’ needs to be a recognized currency. The tiger currency is depreciating. And we ought to be far more worried about it than we are about the depreciation of the rupee.