How environment was pushed to the brink of disaster in India

[Book extract] There is something even more troubling than the high rate of clearance, of decimation of protected wildlife habitats.

 |   Long-form |   16-06-2017
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Environmental governance — or what passed for it — had become highly political, and the 2014 parliamentary elections had the not unexpected impact of taking it to a new low. The ruling Congress-led UPA was floundering; it was mired in multi-crore-rupee scams, including in allocation of coal blocks.

It was under attack from industry for "stalling growth" and, in an effort to "appease" this lobby, a new environment minister Veerappa Moily — who, ironically, also held charge of petroleum — was appointed just five months before the election. He softened rules to facilitate industries and proclaimed he had cleared some seventy projects in the first 20 days of his tenure.

One of the most controversial projects that got the green nod included the South Korean steel giant POSCO’s $12 billion steel plant project in Orissa, which has faced long-standing and stiff on-the-ground opposition besides legal tussles related to environmental approvals.

In its ten-year reign, the Congress had well and truly shattered the green legacy bequeathed to it by its previous — and powerful — leaders like Indira and Rajiv Gandhi.

the-vanishing-front_061617054507.jpgThe Vanishing; Prerna Singh Bindra; Rs 599

Environment issues are rarely central to electoral dialogue in India, and in the 2014 election too, green issues were brushed aside, unless you were to consider their presence in the negative sense. The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, which came to power in May 2014, promised to frame environment laws to facilitate the speedy clearance of industrial proposals.

Central to their electoral campaign was the allegation that the UPA had ruined the economy, and the BJP promised to break the "policy paralysis". Its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, had served for over a decade as chief minister in Gujarat. Through his tenure Narendra Modi had carefully cultivated the image of being an economic miracle worker, a "Vikaspurush" (literally, "man of development").

He was the architect of the much-lauded "Gujarat model" of development. The highlights of this model: Gujarat was business and investment friendly, had excellent infrastructure, greater concentration of factories and manufacturing units, and a fast-growing GDP.

But Gujarat’s social index is poor, and it is an environmental disaster, point out critics: The state earned the dubious distinction of being the most polluted in the country, with the industrial town of Vapi on top of the toxic heap; it also had three of the most polluted river stretches (in the Sabarmati, Amlakhadi and Khari rivers) in the country. It is also pointed out that vital elements of the Gujarat model include easier, quicker permits, licences and environmental clearances.

prerna-ss_061617052824.jpgA road through the Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary threatens the only nesting site of both the greater and lesser flamingos in India, possibly dooming the birds to extinction. Photo credit: Dhritiman Mukherjee

When the BJP government came to power in the Centre in 2014, it made good on its promise of "ease of doing business". Unfortunately this mainly focused on dissolving the existing environment regulatory regimes, thus carrying forward far more aggressively the work started by the earlier government.

In August 2014, at the behest of industry, the PMO held a meeting with the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) authorities, and other stakeholder ministries such as coal, road transport, power, steel, et al.

The PMO laid out a sixty-point agenda, submitted to it by the Confederation of Indian Industry earlier in the month, to "streamline the process for environment, forest and wildlife clearances". Nripendra Misra, the PMO’s principal secretary, who led the meeting, noted that many projects were pending for a long time for want of clearances "due to cumbersome procedure and difficult mechanism".

Seven months later, the government had addressed at least 55 of those action points, according to a report in the financial daily Mint. Some of these included relaxation of rules for constructing roads in forests and conducting preliminary surveys for projects in wildlife sanctuaries and national parks without any mandatory regulatory regime.

This also raises a fundamental question as to who drives the agenda of the environment ministry; it is the government who is the custodian of forests and other natural resources like water, minerals, rivers; holding the country’s natural heritage, its wildlife in trust. What is good for industry is not necessarily so for the country, and its citizens.

Within the first few months of its coming to power, the Modi government sought to review the gamut of laws that protect India’s wildlife, forests and environment and appointed a high-powered committee for the purpose.

dead-tiger_021416082_061617054126.jpgOne among the tiger cubs killed in Dudhwa early 2016. 

Reviewing laws is the government’s prerogative, and perhaps this was called for, given that India’s environment governance is collapsing. But the need of the hour was to strengthen governance and the law and ensure its implementation.

Unfortunately, the recommendations of the committee "seemed to be tailored primarily towards introducing changes to environmental laws — essentially relaxing procedures and standards for projects — with the primary purpose of 'doing business easier in the country'".

The process of review was heavily criticized as being hasty, undemocratic and lacking transparency. Its terms of reference were vague. The committee did the mammoth task of reviewing six environment laws — from those regulating water pollution to protecting tigers — and submitted its report in less than three months. Bizarrely, comments from the public were restricted to 1,000 characters — about a tweet-and-a-half per law — reducing the vital exercise of "public participation" to lip service.

Critiquing the committee’s recommendations is a lengthy affair; suffice it to say that if implemented, they would have dismantled the foundation of environment protection and justice in India.

Fortunately, the recommendations were struck down unanimously by a Parliamentary Committee which clearly stated that these should not be acted upon, as it "would result in an unacceptable dilution of the existing legal and policy architecture established to protect our environment".

However, the idea to overhaul environment laws has not slipped from the agenda but is merely biding its time.

The environment ministry also announced a policy-based regime for a range of industries and infrastructure, including roads, railways, mining and renewable energy. This ensured that once the government announces a policy — say, regarding developing ports along India’s coast, interested project developers will be assured of a smooth run, without any legal and technical issues.

Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta terms this approach most problematic as it puts policy above laws, and undermines people’s voice in a democracy.

Meanwhile, the government enacted a new law in March 2016 — the National Waterways Act, which marks over 100 of India’s rivers as National Waterways — aquatic highways to carry cargo (never mind that most have little water left, and are more drains, not rivers). It is reasoned that such navigation is fuel-efficient, hence cost-effective and eco-friendly.

Its green credentials are highly questionable, since channelling rivers into navigable water canals involves building barrages, embankments for port terminals and dredging along channels to allow ships to sail through.

Such activity will reduce a river to a canal, and a noisy, filthy thoroughfare, ruining its ecology. For the Gangetic dolphin such a waterway could be a fatal blow. Our flagship dolphin species is virtually blind; it survives by echolocation, that helps the creature "see", detect and navigate.

It fishes, finds a mate, breeds, raises calves, senses danger and averts risks by echolocation. But this remarkable evolutionary adaptation to survive in a murky, silt-carrying river where sight will not penetrate may not save the dolphin now.

photo_061617053146.jpgOne of the six elephants crushed by a train on the Siliguri to Alipurduar track in North Bengal in November 2013. More than 1,200 trains cut through Protected Areas, taking a huge toll on wildlife. Photo: Reuters

With over 90 per cent of the Gangetic dolphin distribution overlapping the proposed waterways, its world is set to become infinitely more noisy, with the dredging and din of vessel engines and traffic. It was such mass shipping and pollution that was to eventually see the end of the Yangtze river dolphin, declared extinct in 2007.

India’s freshwater sources are further endangered with the government ignoring the vital hydrological component in defining an inviolate forest to enable its smooth and easy diversion for mining, industry and other uses.

An important factor to define forests as "inviolate", and thus protect them from coal mining, was their hydrological value—whether they served as catchments to perennial streams, irrigation projects, or water supply schemes, or their proximity to rivers and streams.

But the government decided to prune parameters related to water, citing that "the required data doesn’t exist". For one, to claim that the country does not have basic hydrological data on rivers, streams, catchments and reservoirs is doubtful — and unacceptable.

Equally distressing, is to disregard such a vital parameter, even as the country reels under drought and severe water crisis. A pressing example of this is the volatile agitations between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over the distribution of water of the Cauvery river.

Extensive deforestation along the Cauvery basin has led to an ecological imbalance in the region. Prime rainforests have been felled to make way for urbanization, plantations, agriculture, infrastructure and industry; this has contributed to decline in rainfall, flooding, soil erosion and falling water tables. Yet, even as the water wars escalate, no lessons have been learnt.

A railway line and high-tension power transmission lines through the dense evergreen forests of the Western Ghats, that require the clear felling of thousands of trees have been allowed, much to the consternation of the locals who have petitioned to save the forests of Kodagu, "the water tank of Bangalore", as these cradle the principal catchment area of the Cauvery river.

The other big problem with environment governance currently is that the central government is abdicating its role and responsibility in conservation. One indication is its view to wash its hands of wetlands — an important ecosystem that hosts waterfowl and rare mammals like fishing cats, recharges groundwater, helps in floodwater retention and supports livelihoods.

The draft Wetland Rules, 2016 proposes to do away with the Central Wetland Regulatory Authority at the central government level and replace it with a State Wetland Regulatory Authority. To justify the move in the name of "decentralisation" is to put a spurious positive spin on it, as it allows for no involvement of local stakeholders like fishermen, farmers who are directly dependent on wetlands, or independent experts.

As compared to the earlier Wetland Rules of 2010, it watered down the definition of wetland, the activities prohibited in it and did away with the requirement of an EIA for regulated activities.

The government is doing the same with its national animal, the tiger, as well as other wildlife. In April 2016, Prime Minister Modi announced a whopping 80 per cent increase in the Project Tiger budget.

Unfortunately, this jump is all smoke and mirrors. The central government simultaneously slashed its contribution to funding tiger reserves to 60 per cent, whereas it earlier provided for the entire nonrecurring expenditure.

The rest will have to be met by the states from their larger financial kitty. But with very few exceptions, states take their own sweet time to release money, with wildlife rarely perceived as a priority sector.

In fact, even funds transferred from the Centre for reserves are, more often than not, delayed. For example, when I visited Jharkhand’s Palamu Tiger Reserve in February 2011, funds had not yet been released even though the end of the financial year was just a month away.

The Simlipal (Odisha) director admitted that besides salaries, all other funding — for fuel to meet patrolling needs or monitoring tigers or strengthening forest roads — came from Project Tiger.

It was doubtful if the state would step in if the Centre withdrew its share.

When I visited the National Chambal Sanctuary, Rajasthan in March 2016, it had not received any funds at all for the previous financial year. How, then, are sanctuaries supposed to function, protect wildlife? There may be vehicles for patrolling, but no fuel to run them, or to pay the wages of contractual labour who perform the vital task of foot patrol, anti-poaching and tracking wildlife.

So, while the budget has been increased, whether the benefits will permeate to the ground is unlikely. What this also does is remove the Centre’s oversight, shrinking its active role in conserving the tiger.

Another blow is the undermining of boards that regulate crucial approvals for projects in eco-fragile areas including wildlife sanctuaries. Bodies such as the NBWL were established with a view to draw on the independent views of domain experts, bring in checks and balances and transparency in the decision-making process.

The reconstituted NBWL (formed in July 2014) lacked the mandatory number of independent experts and, going by its performance, has been reduced to a toothless body.

In its first meeting in August 2014, the board’s standing committee cleared 133 projects, inside, and in the immediate vicinity of national parks and sanctuaries.

A report from the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment noted that, in the two-year period between 2014 and 2016, the NBWL cleared 301 projects, deferred 105 and rejected only four inside parks and sanctuaries, and in their immediate area of influence. This gives a whole new connotation to the term "Protected Areas", which are supposedly sacrosanct, set aside as havens for wildlife.

There is something even more troubling than the high rate of clearance, of decimation of protected wildlife habitats. And this is the fact that the environment ministry crowed — there is really no word that says it better — about its high clearance rate.

The environment minister Prakash Javadekar was to note in a booklet highlighting the achievements of the MoEFCC in one year that "so far 650 Public and Private Projects worth several thousand crores and with an employment potential of over one million have been cleared".

There was nothing, though, to back claims of jobs generated or details about monetary values.

The report gushed about its achievements of fast-tracking various clearances, the expeditious disposal of projects, the easing of norms for roads and railways in forests, of governance for faster growth.

The chapter on "Protection of Wildlife" is most indicative of the ministry’s current priorities. It extols as its achievements projects cleared by the NBWL’s standing committee such as construction and expansion of roads through Protected Areas like the Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary, fences in tiger reserves and national parks, and the expansion of gas fields in elephant habitat.

We are at another turning point in the country’s conservation history. All these years, the environment ministry had kept up a facade of its mandate of environment protection, now even this fig leaf has been shed.

gibus-690_0109150201_061617052602.jpgSome clearances include relaxation of rules for constructing roads in forests and conducting preliminary surveys for projects in wildlife sanctuaries and national parks without any mandatory regulatory regime. Above: The Great Indian Bustard. Credit: India Today

It still makes a few noises of "development without destruction" but the MoEFCC has now officially declared its priority, and mandate, which appears to be to facilitate the clearance process, and be an enabler in India’s growth story.

Unfortunately, at a great, irrevocable cost to the environment. India’s environment governance does need a transformation, as the NDA-led BJP government rightly said. Green laws are not intended to be "roadblocks", or enable rent-seeking, but conserve a country’s scarce natural endowment, protect its wildlife, and ensure clean air and water for its citizens.

They need to be strengthened, and implemented effectively. The "ease of doing business" must have in its framework sustainability, as promised by the government, as well as a strengthening of environment safeguards.

Environment governance demands a far-reaching vision that is inclusive of intergenerational equity. That’s the trajectory that governance must take, with judicious decision-making, transparency and accountability.

More than growth of the economy, it is the health of the natural environment, on which the future of India, and its citizens, rests.

Protecting the environment is in our national interest.

(Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India.)

Also read - Modi: Clean India? What about Gujarat

Writer

Prerna Bindra Prerna Bindra @prernabindra

Though a city-dweller, Prerna Singh Bindra is at home in the forests she is committed to protect. Her book, The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis, was released in June 2017.

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