Polarisation and anarchy

Environmental challenges have grown manifold in past five years, but capacity of institutions to deal with them has decreased in same proportion

Environmental challenges have grown manifold in past five years, but capacity of institutions to deal with them has decreased in same proportion

Environment has always been a contentious issue—simply because it affects our lives and livelihoods. But the state of environment and the debate around it today is more contentious then ever before. Society today has got completely divided into strident ‘pro-environment’ and ‘pro-development’ groups. There is no scope for a discussion or debate or for finding a solution.

Take the debate around the hydro power plants (HPPs) in the upper reaches of the Ganga. The pro-development lobby wants no less than 70 HPPs to be constructed on the basins of Bhagirathi and Alaknanda. This will leave a significant portion of both these tributaries either inside a tunnel or as a reservoir. Without any provision for ecological flow, which is the case as of today, both these rivers will be dead before they join to become the mighty Ganga.

The pro-environment lobby (I too consider myself an environmentalist, but not in the same category that I am referring to here), on the other hand wants no HPPs. Their proposal is that 50-70 per cent of the flow of the river should be allowed to be discharged uninterrupted. This will make all HPPs economically unviable.

In this stridently shrill debate, anyone proposing a middle ground is termed heretic and fit for lynching.

In the past five years, the very edifice of environmental governance in the country has been shaken. Never before have institutions been so weak and toothless. We are slowly destroying all that we created in the past 20 years.

Take the case of environment and forest clearances. In the past five years, environmental clearances have been given to more projects than what we have installed in the past 65 years. Since 2007, the environment ministry has given clearances to more than 200,000 MW worth of thermal power plants, more than 500 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) of coal mining, 100 MTPA of steel and more than 200 MTPA of cement plants. It will take years before these projects are constructed, if they will be. There is ample evidence to show that companies are sitting on natural resources and clearances and dealing in speculation.

On one hand, clearances are being awarded as if there was no tomorrow; on the other, most projects are being opposed by communities and NGOs. The worst part is there is no capacity within the institutions to resolve the disputes. The ultimate result is most projects are being constructed with the help of bayonets and walls.

On the forest clearance side, the last one year has been the worst. The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) is working with only two independent members (one resigned because he represented mining interests). On an average, every day, about 150 ha of forests are being diverted for mining, roads, power and industrial projects without any public scrutiny or accountability. Forest land has become the easiest to acquire by companies. Here, there is no land acquisition or rehabilitation or resettlement—it is the forest department all the way.   

Proposals have been put forward for reforming the process of clearances but there is no political will to take them forward. The performance of the government can be judged by the fact that the premier pollution control agency—the Central Pollution Control Board—i s operating without a chairperson and with a member secretary on monthly extension.

The environmental challenges have grown manifold in the past five years and capacity of the institutions has decreased in the same proportion. This is unsustainable. This will lead to anarchy. This is the challenge before us.

Chandra Bhushan is deputy director general of non-profit Centre for Science and Environment



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