Urban Drive Columns

The curious case of India’s environment ministry

A 2019 file photo of environment activists protesting at Azad Maidan in South Mumbai to save the Aarey forest

A 2019 file photo of environment activists protesting at Azad Maidan in South Mumbai to save the Aarey forest   | Photo Credit: vivek Bendre

Instead of concentrating on vaccines or PPE or migrant relief, the government has quietly been making inroads into the forests. Clearly, humans are a threat to the planet and not vice-versa

We’re all thrilled to see Gangetic dolphins emerge again in Bihar’s Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary. Birding enthusiasts are recording rare sightings, and wild elephants are apparently strutting about in Kerala’s towns. Many of these clips are fake, but some are true, and we believe all is well with our wildlife. But think again.

Also read: Is nature ‘reclaiming’ the earth in this time of COVID-19? Well... Yes and no

If the global pandemic raging today should teach us anything, it is to treat the Earth with care and realise human actions are to blame for the ongoing crisis. Perhaps it is something only a handful of us have realised. And the agency that should have woken up first, the government, has stayed wilfully asleep. Instead of concentrating on vaccines or PPE or migrant relief, the government has quietly been making inroads into the forests.

The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has approved a slew of wildlife clearances for ‘developmental’ projects across the country even as the country is in lockdown mode.

 

Mind you, the NBWL has not met for the last six years. According to a report in downtoearth.org, it has a Standing Committee that issues policy decisions and clearances. Then, in early April, the said Standing Committee decided to host its first-ever video-conference meet – chaired by Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar. And the meet was held expressly to grant these clearances. Why during a health emergency? Your guess is as good as mine.

An earlier report in The Hindu quotes an expert who was privy to the process saying, on condition of anonymity, that it is difficult to scrutinise maps on a video call that will show the exact location of the proposed projects. “There was also no occasion to ask questions of officials for clarifications,” the expert adds. The cleared projects include, among others, a highway construction in Goa (which passes through the Mollem Wildlife Sanctuary), the Nagpur-Mumbai superhighway (over 32,000 trees will be felled and the proposed design passes through 48 villages), and a railway bridge in Madhya Pradesh and Telangana (through the Kawal tiger corridor).

A 2019 file photo showcasing a protest march in the capital - from Lodi Gardens to the Environment Ministry - to highlight the issue of climate change and pollution

A 2019 file photo showcasing a protest march in the capital - from Lodi Gardens to the Environment Ministry - to highlight the issue of climate change and pollution   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

And now, all eyes are on the Etalin hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley. Yet to be cleared by the environment ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), the project will require the felling of over 250,000 trees. Ever since the project’s foundation stone was laid by Manmohan Singh in 2008, reports have highlighted that it will do the region more harm than good.

And as a 2014 report in The Guardian rightly states: ‘A project that claims to control flooding in Assam has not conducted one public meeting in that State nor was the chief minister’s demand for consultation acknowledged. The ministry’s own concerns about the impact on the Dibru-Saikhowa national park remain unaddressed. This is the latest in a series of moves made by the government to push large projects at the cost of the environment.’

It is now evident that apart from clearing vast tracts of land and endangering critically endangered wildlife species, the dam is slated to submerge several thousand hectares of forest land.

The icing on the messy cake that is India’s environmental laws is the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 (set to replace the EIA notification 2006). Released by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) this month, it requires the public to respond within 60 days of being issued. Absurdly released during a nationwide lockdown, it has several dangerous loopholes: public hearings are no longer mandatory for several projects, project expansion rules have been eased, the public consultation process is weaker, and it legitimises the wrongdoings by industries.

In March 2017, the MoEFCC issued a notification to appraise projects which have started work on-site without taking prior environmental clearance in terms of the provisions of the 2006 EIA notification. It was supposed to be an exception, but has since become a norm. Taking it a step further, the 2020 notification states that ‘Such violations being recurring in nature may come to the notice in future during the process of appraisal or monitoring or inspection by Regulatory Authorities. Therefore, the Ministry deems it necessary to lay down the procedure to bring such violation projects under the regulations in the interest of the environment... rather than leaving them unregulated and unchecked, which will be more damaging to the environment’.

Clearly, the government isn’t able to connect the dots. Or worse, it is choosing to ignore the links between environmental disasters and letting go of natural resources in the name of development. As the lockdown’s deadline approaches, people the world over await information on government plans to restore a sense of normalcy. But what we don’t realise is that normal was the problem: taking nature for granted led to choking cities due to polluted air and water, new diseases and disappearing wildlife. This will go on unless our leaders step up. If such decisions continue to be taken by the MoEFCC and NBWL, will India actually wake up to a healthy post-Covid scenario?

We observed the 50th anniversary of Earth Day last week – with online events and campaigns – but I think we need to start with developing a sense of respect for our environment and hone a personal connection with everything around us. Only then can we rightfully celebrate the Earth and all that it has given us.

A fortnightly column on environmental sustainability and urban issues

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Printable version | Jul 10, 2020 11:36:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/how-the-ministry-of-environment-forest-and-climate-change-has-been-making-inroads-into-indias-forests/article31454680.ece

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