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Thread: Natures' Price Tag

  1. #1
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    Default Natures' Price Tag

    Oil spills are back in vogue. Spills from offshore oil drills, ships running aground into pristine coral reefs have become daily news fodder. With the explosion of digital media (news channels), you can expect start-to-end coverage of environmental disasters anytime of the day. I guess environmental disaster grab eye balls – meaning higher TRP; higher TRP translates to strong advertisement which in turn equates to big money for news channels. Alfred Hitchcock once quipped that there was no business like show business; I bet in today’s world you might say there would be no business like news business!

    News channels in their attempt to be dramatic often show stark images – of oil slick covered sea birds, dead bloated aquatic life washed ashore, etc. The other day, the Indian Minister for Environment, Jairam Ramesh demanded that perpetrators of the recent Mumbai oil spill pay for the environmental disaster they wrecked. On the other side of the world, the Government of US extracted a multi-billion dollar disaster fund from the beleaguered BP. That made me think; how did Jairam Ramesh or the Obama administration arrive upon that particular value? What all got included in the price tag?

    For example, what is the price of a cormorant? A zoo manager could give an answer to the nearest paisa – it’s probably the cost incurred to maintain the habitat, procure food plus the salaries of the zoo keepers, vets etc. What about the cormorants those come to Pulicat Lake or Neelapattu bird sanctuary? You might have to factor in the opportunity cost to derive their price. What if Pulicat Lake was transformed into a real estate haven (marshlands, mangroves have historically been reclaimed for settlement)? So the price of each cormorant would be the aggregate total of all apartments divided by total number of cormorants. Now let’s think of the price of the cormorants that we see on the news – the black, oil slick covered cormorants. It’s difficult to put a price tag to them; they come from nowhere and don’t seem to encroach on human settlements. The media moguls though might think otherwise – after all those greasy black birds are worth a fortune in terms of TRP!

    We can do the same mathematics for other species – the leopard, eagle, vulture; the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger. Putting a price tag on the tiger can get complicated. For instance, the Chinese farm bred tigers would have a different price tag as compared to the price of a tiger in Bandipur National Park.

    Today, inadvertently, economics is winning over. Extracting the economic worth of our wilderness has become important. Commercialization and profit booking have become the top priorities. International hotel chains, entrepreneurs, rich people are heading towards the jungle to make a quick buck. Eco tourism is the new “it” business. It’s fashionable, politically correct and profitable. I always thought ecotourism could not expand its base; at best it would be a no profit no gain business model; that ecotourism would have a peak carrying capacity. Alas; today volume seems to be the new mantra for the green entrepreneurs.

    Man always thinks he can put a value to anything that is tangible or is empirical. A good economist is good because he knows how to assess the true value of a product / service. But the world is not all that we see. The impact of each tiny, large, static, moving living being is deeper than our current collective scientific wisdom. We still aren't there yet. With our limited knowledge, perhaps putting a price tag on the priceless is truly futile. I guess my exercise of putting a price tag to the wild was fatally flawed.
    Last edited by Ranbir Mahapatra; 19-08-2010 at 11:35 AM.

  2. #2
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    An apt title. Putting a price tag is not only impossible but as it is said, we will have to pay a huge price later. In the coming years we will see the effect of all the seeds we are sowing now. No amount of money will be able to save us then.

    You have addressed a burning issue. Thanks for bringing it to our notice.
    Mrudul Godbole

  3. #3
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    New Delhi


    Our traditional economics has failed to take into account the enormous wealth that we possess by virtue of our biodiversity. The reason is due to the poor understanding of the intricate relationship that each creature has with its surroundings. Some of those mysteries are slowly being unravelled.

    We have to understand how nature works. Today scientists are trying to find out how certain animals, reptiles and organisms work. The engineering by nature is much more advanced than what we know today. For example: when a kingfisher dives into water, the membrane infront of its eye acts like a polarising filter. Else, it would have missed the fish. Similarly lot can be learnt from nature, like the antireflective coating found in the eyes of moths, iridescence in fireflies.... There is a type of beetle (Melanophilia) which lays eggs in freshly burned wood. These beetle can sense fire through infrared radiation from hundred kilometers. Today nobody knows how much of knowledge is there to be discovered from various animals, birds and other organisms. The opportunity cost of not discovering them or losing them is much more than the collective GDPs of all the countries by several times. How many times is the question that future generations may be in a better position to answer.

    Our failure to tap the enormous sources of energy available has reduced us to our continual dependence on fossil fuels. With fossil fuels comes the oil spills that goes on for months. No body knows the actual extent of the impact. As rightly said, the media gets its TRPs, the politicians get their soundbites and the problem remains. The marine ecosystem in the oil spill area gets devastated and we depend upon the healing mechanism of nature.

    The question is for how long can nature retain its healing mechanism? For how long can Ganga retain the special qualities in its water.

    I think the correct thing to do is to evaluate the risks. And if it is known that there is a chance of spillage, however small it might be, then it should be avoided. More effort has to be focussed on harnessing renewable energy.


  4. #4
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    Great point. Though I agree to the comments overall; I have a slightly divergent view. Would highly appreciate if readers could pitch in with their views as well.

    India has the second largest population in the world. It has one of the largest middle class, youth population. Of the billion plus population, close to 70% are dependent on agriculture. The per hectare yeild of India is amongst the lowest. Hence 70% of India's populance is engaged in inefficient work. We can also conculde that the roughly 50% of total land mass in India which is used to agriculture is used least optimally.

    With Indians aspiring for better standard of living, we can expect the current strain on resources to grow. In midst of all these push and pull, how rational thinking / conservation friendly can we be? Is it really possible (tactically) to stop developmental work even if it has the slightest impact on the environment? This brings forth a bitter choice - whom would you save? the roughly 5.6 million children who die due to malnutrition in India or the tracks of forest which are home to Indias' wildlife? Infact, why do we have to make that choice?

    Its my personal opinion that the continuing rut in environment will continue till we reach some kind of an equilibrium in terms of quality of living - here I am talking abt the 70% who do not access to basic amenities that we take for granted. As Sabyasachi mentioned, the focus has to be on renewable source of energy and "greener" vocations. But the effort has to start yesterday. We got to make it affordable on a mass scale.

    Today we have enough programs to save / protect India's natural treasures. But these good intentions are crumbling in front of forces of "human development". Efficiency and good intentions are missing. I am wondering if the furture of conservation - especially the next 10yrs - ought to be focused on a more manageable scale. And lastly as Sabyasachi suggested a high degree of risk assessment and mitigation got to be done for Indian forestry.
    Last edited by Ranbir Mahapatra; 25-08-2010 at 03:52 PM.

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