Is an environmental apocalypse approaching India?

The Union government scarcely conceals its contempt for the environment working assiduously to dismantle environment protection.

By Rajeev Suri
Published: Friday 01 May 2020

From the euphoric beginnings of the Stockholm Conference in 1972 to present day, India grows unsustainably, underwritten by the state that believes in ‘grow now, sustain later’. This balance of convenience is dangerously tilted against the environment.

A matter of grave concern to citizens’ movements working towards protection of the environment from rampant exploitation has been the promulgation Draft Notification on Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Rules, 2020 by the Union ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).

The draft rules are meant to supersede the existing 2006 EIA Rules that were the keystone of the environment governance architecture in India.

The draft rules do away with cardinal principles of prior environment clearance, permits regularisation of environment violation by paying fines as they were parking tickets and generally makes a mockery of EIA as a means to obtain environment clearance.

The draft notification was placed in the public domain for citizens to express their views through written suggestions or objections. The written objections are followed by a public hearing, but given Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar’s statement saying rules of public hearings will be amended soon, the fate of public hearing for the draft EIA rules remain unclear.

In the event of public hearings taking place, dopey-eyed MoEFCC officials will barely manage to sit through the ordeal of hearings with stony expressions, fully knowing that the monotonous motions are nothing but a charade.

The draft EIA rules mark a new low in environmental governance in India: The unravelling of environmental laws has been a work-in-progress since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister.

The new government believed they were voted into power on their development plank and made it the sine qua non of government policy.

The Prime Minister — driven by his craving to be seen as a reformist leader and statesman on the world theatre — took upon himself with evangelical zeal to raise India’s position in the World Bank ease of doing business index ranking to 63 out of 190 nations in 2019, from 142 in 2014.

If such progress is laudable, it has come with a very heavy price, with environmental safeguards being ruthless scaled down. A major gain in the ease of doing business index comes from building and construction projects where the inverse slide was from 181 to 52.

This happened on account of virtually freeing projects of up to 1,50,000 square metres from the rigours of EIAs.

Recently, in a free-wheeling ride, Hasdeo Arand, a 170,000 hectare-long, bio-diverse forest was diverted for coal mining.

Handing forest clearances for the Goa’s Mopa airport, the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train and metro sheds in Mumbai’s Aarey forest, casting aside voices of tribals, affected groups and civil society as mere iterations of mischief mongers.

Stockholm 1972: Birth of a world movement

Alarmed at the rapid deterioration of the environment, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment met at Stockholm in June 1972 to work on evolving common principles to guide the world in the preservation of the environment. What emerged was the Stockholm Declaration.

As the first International conference where the world community met on environmental concerns, the Stockholm conference must be recognised as the beginning of world action on the environment.

The Stockholm declaration — consisting of 26 principles — covered a wide array of issues. The United Nations Environment Programme was established as a result of the Stockholm conference, with the sole purpose of dealing with international environmental law issues.

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development — better known as the Brundtland Report — headed by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, came out with a publication called ‘Our Common Future’.

The report defined the concept of sustainable development: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This has become the hallmark definition of sustainable development.

The Brundtland Report highlights three fundamental components to sustainable development: Environmental protection, economic growth and social equity.

Earth Summit, Rio 1992

Five years after the Brundtland Report and twenty years after the Stockholm Conference, the Conference on Human Environment and Development was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Informally known as the Earth Summit, the conference drew its framework from the Brundtland Report. The Rio Conference concluded with a declaration of 27 principles intended to guide countries on the path of Sustainable Development.

A few principles — 1, 4, 10, 13, 15 and 17 — deserve special mention on account of their significance in moulding India’s environmental protection policies.

They elucidated that protecting the environment is integral to development and neither can be viewed in isolation, that citizens must be provided an opportunity to participate in decision-making processes, the polluter pays principle, the precautionary principle and EIA as a tool to assess impacts of a project on the environment.

Environmental crisis in India

The euphoric years after the Stockholm Conference, where India was represented by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the country saw an environment governance framework being constructed with the establishment of the Water Act 1974, Air Act 1981 and the Environment Protection Act 1986.

The backbone of India’s environmental governance emanates from the Environment Protection Act 1986, an enabling legislation that has been used extensively for all notifications by both, the Union and state governments.

The Objects and Reasons of the Act states that a significant outcome of the Rio declaration, of which India was a signatory, was the establishment of the National Green Tribunal.

The Tribunal established under Article 253 of the Constitution of India specifically meant to “foster respect for international law and treaty obligations” and incorporated the three principles of environmental justice: The precautionary principle, polluter pays and sustainable development.

Ironically, despite a robust legislative framework put in place after the Stockholm conference in 1972, India witnessed a rapid decline in its environment, indicating the poor application of laws and even poorer compliances.

Since the BJP came into power 2014, it put ‘operation dismantle’ into motion. The BJP scarcely conceals its contempt for the environment working assiduously to dismantle environment protection which is considered an impediment to development and a stumbling block in the path of ease of doing business.

While laws have and are continuously being diluted, tribunals and adjudicatory bodies carry the ignominy of dubious application laws and inimical judgements.

The irreverent self-destructive path of unsustainability that India has chosen to tread upon is manifesting itself in a cataclysmic backlash.

The craven Environment Minister in his abased effort to earn encomiums from the saffron leadership has reduced environment clearances to a compression of days for the ease of doing business syndrome and not for its impact to the environment.

Apocalypse now?

The country is hurtling down a path of no return: Sustainability is just a byword to mark an impression on the global stage. Duplicitousness is profound between spoken word abroad and action within the country.

Unless India does not rethink sustainability and place environment at the centre of all planning processes, an apocalypse beckons.

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