I f one were to look at the environmental implications of the coronavirus pandemic, the list is rather exhausting. It first started with everyone celebrating lowered pollution levels and wildlife thriving sans humans interfering in their habitats. Then came the masks and PPE suits bringing with them a snowballing plastic and medical waste crisis.
A year into the pandemic, and what we are now learning is that the crisis has significantly impacted not just humans but also nature conservation efforts across the globe. A collection of new research papers published by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in a special issue of PARKS, the journal of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, states that COVID-19 has negatively affected not just laws, but has given rise to job losses among protected area rangers, and reduced anti-poaching patrols and environmental protection rollbacks.
The paper finds that conservation efforts in Africa and Asia were most severely affected, which comes as no surprise at least for India, where 2020 saw a number of laws and policies — that adversely impacted the environment — come into play. Projects, including and not limited to a highway construction through Goa’s Mollem Wildlife Sanctuary, a Nagpur-Mumbai superhighway that will need over 32,000 trees to be felled for the proposed design, and a slew of mining projects were cleared via video conferencing by April 2020. These were followed by the much-discussed draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 (set to replace the EIA notification 2006) that doesn’t require public hearings for certain projects, eases project expansion, and makes way for legal loopholes, among many other drawbacks. The paper (for India) cited 31 infrastructure proposals for national parks and sanctuaries, extraction and development projects, including coal mining.
As for Africa, more than half of the protected areas reported that they were forced to halt or reduce field patrols and anti-poaching operations as well as conservation education and outreach. A quarter of protected areas in Asia also reported that conservation activities had been reduced. In Latin and North America, Europe and Oceania most protected areas were able to maintain core operations despite closures and loss of tourism revenue (iucn.org). Other reports also address how industries such as fossil fuels, plastics, airlines, and automobiles have been getting governments to address their pleas for cash, regulatory rollbacks, and other special favours.
Given these facts, are we heading towards a rather ‘dirty’ recovery rather than the ‘clean Covid-19 recovery’ that was spoken of a year ago? I think, yes. To make matters worse, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has recently proposed a new environmental management law, an umbrella law of sorts, to replace the Air Act 1981, Water Act 1974, and the Environment (Protection) Act 1986, as a single all-encompassing law to regulate environmental issues in India. A report in Hindustan Times looks at how this ruling is similar to 2014, when the Union environment ministry’s high-level committee had recommended the creation of a new ‘umbrella’ law — Environmental laws (Management) Act (ELMA). Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta says that the biggest problem with ELMA was that it was in complete violation of the ‘precautionary principle’. “The act wanted to bring in management and supplementary plans to regularise violations as opposed to preventing environmental violations.” In the story, he goes on to say that while the act was not notified, these changes were introduced by the ministry through a number of office memorandums and circulars over the past few years.
2020 was a year that we all hoped would usher in sensitivity towards the climate and force governments to pull up their socks. Instead, we are seeing a rather bleak future unfold. The thought of a vaccine for the deadly virus is no doubt reassuring, and we can only hope that our leaders and policy makers aren’t awaiting a magic vaccine to cure earth of all the destruction we’re causing now.
A fortnightly column on environmental sustainability and urban issues