Green-lighting ecological decimation amidst a pandemic

Projects in critical forest habitats are being considered or have been given clearance by the Environment Ministry

Updated - July 09, 2020 01:59 pm IST

Published - July 09, 2020 12:10 am IST

Photo: Twitter/@moefcc

Photo: Twitter/@moefcc

Few countries are witnessing such severe direct and indirect devastation on account of the COVID-19 pandemic as India. Yet, there is little attention on the roots of our vulnerability. Our challenge is hardly limited to escaping a virus with lockdowns and masks in the short term, and vaccination in the long term.

It would be a mistake to approach the pandemic as a bolt from the blue, or an aberration that will eventually pass for ‘normalcy’ to return. Our vulnerabilities lie not just in the absence of equitable access to food, healthcare and housing but go to the heart of global development models that sacrifice environmental resilience for limitless economic growth and wealth accumulation.

The 21st century has seen multiple lethal epidemics. Two were serious enough for the World Health Organization to designate as pandemics. The accelerating destruction of wild habitats, forests and diversified food systems for urbanisation, mining, and industry means pathogens which were once largely confined to animals and plants in the wild are now better positioned to infect humans. The expansion of monoculture cropping and livestock farming systems, coupled with dense human settlements dependent on narrow diets of global commodity crops and meat, are eliminating the biodiversity and distance barriers that lent resilience to the human species and domesticated plants and animals. A virulent pathogen can then trigger an epidemic that much more easily. As long as we do not address this march to unsustainability, we will remain vulnerable to pandemic outbreaks.

Also read | New environment impact norm cuts time for public hearing

Drawing the wrong lesson

It is troubling then that our governments are drawing the opposite lesson from the COVID-19 challenge. Through the lockdown, ‘expert’ bodies of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) have considered, and in many cases cleared , multiple industrial, mining and infrastructure proposals in critical wildlife habitats, and life and livelihood-sustaining forests. These include the Etalin Hydropower Project in the biodiversity-rich Dibang valley of Arunachal Pradesh; a coal mine in Assam’s Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve; diamond mining in the Panna forested belt; a coal mine to be operated by Adani Enterprises with a coal-fired power plant in Odisha’s Talabira forests; a limestone mine in the Gir National Park; and a geo-technical investigation in the Sharavathi Lion-Tailed Macaque Sanctuary in Karnataka. As the environment site Mongabay reported in May, authorities considered these projects via video-conferencing in contravention of environmental laws, and without all necessary documents or site inspections, in many cases spending just 10 minutes on a proposal.

Draft Environment Impact Assessment

No meaningful public consultation can take place amidst a pandemic and repeated lockdowns. Yet, ignoring petitions ranging from environmentalists to students groups, the MoEFCC pressed ahead with a June 30 deadline for feedback on its draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification. It took a Delhi High Court ruling to extend the deadline to August 11.

Also read | The curious case of India’s Environment Ministry

As several groups have pointed out to the government, its draft will undermine environmental protection. As per the draft, starting a project before obtaining environmental approvals will no longer be a violation, and it can be regularised post-facto. Public hearings are riddled with problems and their content routinely ignored while awarding clearances, but they remain the only opportunity of voice for project-affected peoples and environmental and social experts. Instead of strengthening them, the notification proposes to exempt a wider range of projects from hearings, including those which authorities can arbitrarily designate as ‘strategic’. The draft even allows for a class of projects to secure clearance without putting out any information in the public domain.

Despite demands from environmentalists, the draft notification says virtually nothing on improving monitoring, and compliance with clearance conditions and safeguards. This when the lockdown period itself has seen a horrific gas leak in Visakhapatnam , and a blowout of an oil well in Baghjan . In both instances, incalculable damage was caused to human and non-human lives by violating environmental laws.

Safeguarding the environment and front-line communities seems nowhere on the government’s agenda. Rather, its priorities are “unleashing coal”, as tweeted by the Coal Minister, and green clearances for “seamless economic growth”, as tweeted by the Environment Ministry in the lockdown weeks.

The sum effect of all the above moves will be further environmental degradation. India already has an abysmal record of environmental destruction and development-induced displacement. The effects of these are overwhelmingly borne by Adivasi and other marginalised groups, as village heads from Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand forests reminded Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a recent letter, while opposing his government’s plan to auction their ancestral forests as coal blocks. Jharkhand’s Chief Minister Hemant Soren, who has moved the Supreme Court against the auctions amidst a pandemic, is a rare political leader flagging some environmental and equity questions. More typical is the Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, whose retort to anyone raising environmental concerns over the past years is a sanguine ‘All is well’.

Also read | ‘Draft EIA notification fosters non-transparency, encourages environmental violations’


It takes a steadfast commitment to ecological illiteracy to argue that wanton environmental destruction will deliver never-ending, seamless growth. These giant leaps backward will not make us atmanirbhar (self-reliant). Rather, they will further endanger habitats and lives, and intensify our vulnerability to infectious diseases and related socio-economic shocks.

Chitrangada Choudhury is an independent journalist working on issues of the environment; Aniket Aga teaches Environmental Studies at Ashoka University

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