Why environmental racism needs to have its moment

Tribal groups comprise 40-50% of the displaced population in India, and face the brunt of environment racism   

By Abhishek Chakravarty
Published: Monday 20 July 2020

Debates and discussions on racism splashed on social media and new channels following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man who died of police brutality in Minneapolis in May, 2020. The incident served as a springboard for conversations on other aspects of racism.

While it emboldened protests in the United States, the racism experienced by people in the North East India also came under scrutiny. But environmental racism did not get its moment.

The term originated in the US, but can be globally applicable in multi-racial / ethnic societies, wherein many indigenous and minority groups live. These groups are often under-represented in the political sphere and decision-making roles.

In Indian context, the term can be defined as the racial discrimination in environmental decision-making, policy-making and enforcement of environmental rules and laws, especially against tribal people living in the hinterlands and frontiers of the country.

Three recent environmental controversies in the North East, plans to auction off forests in central India for coal mining and the dilution of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) regime via the draft EIA notification 2020, makes the issue of environmental racism more important.

There is growing scepticism that the 3,097-megawatt Etalin Dam in Arunachal Pradesh, for example, would submerge over 300,000 trees and affect several thousand Mishimi people — an indigenous tribal group with a population of 13,000 in the state’s Dibang valley district.

The dam would also interfere with the right to access their primary site of pilgrimage, Athu Popu, which lies right north to the project site.

Another project was given clearance in the same region — the 2,880 MW Dibang Multipurpose Project. This dam, one of the largest planned in India, would affect and displace nearly 2,000 Idu Mishimi people.

Besides Dibang and Etalin, over 169 dams have been planned in Arunachal Pradesh, a state which is not only a biodiversity hotspot, but also a home to 26 major tribes and 100 sub-tribes, whose population does not exceed beyond a few thousand people.

The recent Baghjan oil blowout in Assam killed two people, displaced more than 7,000 and had a huge impact on the local biodiversity, but did not receive as much media coverage as Vizag Gas Leak case in Andhra Pradesh. In the same area, despite public protest, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, gave clearance to seven oil drilling sites inside Dibru Saikhowa National Park, a biosphere reserve.

This clearance was given bypassing public hearing and without consulting the local population.

Meanwhile, in the tribal belt of central India, the Union government announced auction of coal mines to private players in 41 blocks. Many of these mines are located in the Hasdeo Arand region of Chhattisgarh, which is considered to be one of the largest contiguous dense forest stretches in India.

These areas are also home to many tribal communities. They face not only a threat of displacement, but also loss of livelihood and impacts of air pollution from the mines.

The primary reason for such projects getting cleared without any hurdle is the lack of representation of tribal and indigenous communities in environmental policy- and decision-making. Arunachal Pradesh, being the largest and ethnically most diverse state in the North East, is represented by only three members of Parliament.

Assam, with almost the same population as Kerala, has 21 MPs compared to 30 from Kerala. This lack of representation in environmental governance has led to the long-standing perpetuation of environmental racism.

The EIA regime in the country has been one of the most powerful instruments to ensure environmental justice and participation of communities in environmental decision making.

In the Samarth Trust Case, the Delhi High Court clearly highlighted the importance of EIA and public participation. It stated:

A public hearing is a form of participatory justice giving a voice to the voiceless and a place and occasion to them to express their views with regard to a project. Such a public hearing gives an opportunity to the people to raise issues pertaining to the social impact and the health impact of a proposed project.

However, the recent 2020 EIA draft notification dilutes the existing rules by allowing several categories of projects to bypass the EIA process. It reduces time for public consultation from 30 to 20 days and allows post-facto approval of projects.

These changes have turned this instrument of ensuring environmental justice into an instrument of perpetuating environmental racism on the people who would be directly impacted by such projects.

The first step towards addressing this issue must begin with acknowledgement, followed up deliberations on it. This must be supported by a strong environmental justice programme by the government, wherein it needs to ensure that all people, regardless of race, region, ethnicity, or income, are protected from the disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards.

The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) in the US defines environmental justice and environmental justice communities and implements plans and programmes on it to address the issue of environmental racism.

Tribal groups comprise 40-50 per cent of the displaced population in India, although their population stands at 8 per cent. This lop-sided effect can only be addressed if the government accepts the situation and ensures their participation in environmental decision-making.

The Union government must also reconsider its plan to dilute the EIA regime in the country and redirect itself towards strengthening it.

In the end, we must remember that no person is expendable and the price of progress or development cannot be a person or a community.

Abhishek Chakravarty is an Assistant Professor of Law at Sai University and Faculty at Daksha Fellowship. He specialises in Environmental Law. Previously he worked in the public policy sector.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of  Down to Earth

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