While climate strikes, green parties and green manifestos are gripping the world, environmental concerns are still not an issue in the Indian elections. Two Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states – Haryana and Maharashtra go to polls on October 21. The battle for the 90-member Haryana Assembly and the 288-member Maharashtra Assembly is being fought amid serious environmental degradation in both the states. From the chopping over 2,000 trees in Aarey milk colony and the proposal for opening up of the Aravallis for construction, residents in both the states allege that the BJP governments have not done enough for the environment and have instead benefited corporate interests.
With elections around the corner, it is worth revisiting the issues which have guided the environment policy of the states.
The Devendra Fadnavis government faced serious flak from both urban crowds and tribals rallying together to stop the tree cutting exercise in Aarey Milk Colony. The tribals even organised a funeral of their beloved trees in the colony. In the last five years, the government has systemically taken steps which have led to adverse implications for the environment in Aarey and beyond. Explaining this, environmental lawyer Amrita Bhattacharjee said, "Through the environmental policy adopted in the last five years, it becomes evident that all the infrastructural projects are cutting through forest lands. This includes the bullet train project, the metro car shed project and even the new coastal road creation which is being proposed by the government."
Also read: Bombay HC Bars Tree Felling in Aarey by Metro Rail till Month-End
Ecologist Madhav Gadgil, who has worked extensively on the conservation policy in the state, has publicly stated that Maharashtra's environment is in an alarming state, with every facet under threat.
Maharashtra diverted 11.3 sq km of forest land, equivalent to 2,277 football fields, in 2018 for various development projects, according to central government data. The state also recorded most tiger parts seizures globally over 19 years. In the run up to the election, the BJP and Shiv Sena have remained silent in their manifestos on the issue of environment. Instead, the parties have adopted policies to benefit corporate interests.
In Aarey forest, which spans across 1,287 hectares and is adjoining the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the government has proposed at least six projects which are likely to open up the buffer zone and cause severe environmental damage. The forest is home to thousands of trees and animals including leopards which are listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The Tree Authority, which falls under the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) previously permitted Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) to cut 2,232 trees from the Aarey Colony and translocate 469 others to make way for the construction of the car service centre.
Following the proposal of the Metro car shed project, the state forest department and the civic body signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on June 5 (World Environment Day) for handing over around 100 acres at Aarey Colony in Goregaon to extend the Veermata Jijabai Bhosle Udyan (Byculla zoo). The MoU was signed in the presence of Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray. Shiv Sena and the BJP are also pushing for Thackeray's pet project in Mumbai—the Rs 12,000-crore coastal road project running from Marine Drive to Kandivali, which can cause environmental damage to the coast and result in flooding.
Also read: Commercialisation of the Coast: Modi Government Overhauls Coastal Regulation Zone
The Modi government has also approved an overhaul of the Coastal Zone Regulation (CRZ) rules. The protection and development of the coast was till now governed by the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification (2011) that defines what areas fall under the CRZ and what activities are permitted there. The new rules will allow “public utilities” like sewage treatment plants, link roads, coastal roads, and ecotourism projects in CRZ 1 or the most protected and the regulated zones. The government is trying its best to brand the move as one that will lead to significant employment generation and rejuvenate the coastal areas while reducing their vulnerabilities. However, speaking to NewsClick, Stalin Dayanand of Vanshakti said, "The CRZ policy is disastrous and is going to have direct implications on the coast and the fishing communities. With the ecology being severely threatened, policies like these can lead to the sinking of our city."
Activists allege that the government has not done enough for the ecology and livelihood of the farmers and tribals. With the elections nearing, the residents in Ratnagiri are also anxious over the Konkan refinery project, which had triggered fears of land acquisition. Even though the state government has withdrawn the notification to acquire land for the mega oil refinery at Nanar in Ratnagiri district, villagers fear the project could be revived after the election, with chief minister Devendra Fadnavis hinting at it recently. During the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Mahajanadesh Yatra in Rajapur taluka of Ratnagiri district, Fadnavis claimed many people were in favour of the project.
The Congress party is using these issues as an opportunity to reclaim some of its voter base and attract urban supporters. In April itself, the party had pledged to make air pollution and other such issues to be declared a public health emergency. The party had also suggested a comprehensive land and water use policy, ban on the import of waste and stopping of discharge of effluents in the rivers in its 18-point “environment manifesto”.
Following the climate strikes globally in September this year, Gurugram became the centre of climate action in the National Capital Region, cornering the government on the issue of Aravallis. The Aravalli Bachao Andolan spearheaded by women, students and urban residents of Haryana has gained momentum on the ground with both the Congress and BJP being compelled to make their stance on the issue of environment clear.
Speaking to NewsClick, Puneeta Chadha, an activist working with the movement said, "The government is hoping to bring an amendment to the land laws here and promote construction. This is being done as we choke and the green cover around us depreciates. Environment has not been on the agenda of political parties in India, which is the failure of us as citizens as we have not done enough to make them accountable and to put this on the agenda of our government."
Manohar Lal Khattar government, which is hoping for a sweeping victory in the state has taken a series of policy measures to benefit construction activity and corporates while the environment suffers. The government has proposed the plan of constructing a stretch of a six-lane bypass passing through Gurgaon's Aravalli Biodiversity Park, which will lead to the removal of thousands of trees, many residents allege that the green cover is already being eliminated with construction working kicking off.
Also read: 'Aravallis to Be Kept Out of National Conservation Zone to Further Corporate Interests'
Moreover, over a thousand acres of ecologically sensitive land in the Aravallis is likely to be left out of the National Conservation Zone (NCZ) by the Haryana government. Approximately, 1126.8 acres of this land—spread across the Aravallis—fall under the ambit of Faridabad's Kot village. Haryana government is likely to go by the 1992 notification of the Ministry of Environment that, while defining the Aravallis, limit them only to Gurugram in Haryana, and Alwar in Rajasthan. Going by the notification, Aravalli stretches in Faridabad or Jhajjar will not be considered as part of the NCZ.
Previously, Kumar Sambhav of Land Conflict Watch had told NewsClick, “There is a systematic dilution of the laws such as the Punjab Land Preservation Act (1990) which protects the common land from commercial activity. It has to be understood in the context of business interests. Otherwise, a noteworthy question to ask is why would a government be keen on amending this law? The Aravallis are the green lungs of the city and also a water conversation zone; therefore, they assume a huge environmental significance."
The government is gearing up for a re-election and on its poll agenda it has a massive push for the Punjab Land Preservation (Haryana Amendment) Act (PLPA) to be amended. In February this year, it had proposed opening up thousands of acres in the mountain ranges for real estate development and mining. The amendment still remains pending as the Supreme Court had sharply rebuked the Haryana government for trying to “destroy the forests".
Also read: Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Group Acquires Over 400 Acres Of Common Land in Aravallis
It is noteworthy that, Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali group acquired over 400 acres of land in Haryana’s Aravalli region in Faridabad district. The transactions for large scale forest land took place between 2014 and 2016, said a report, noting that the acquired land was “common land” or shamlat deh. The firm did so by floating dubious smaller firms which tricked the residents into selling their lands.
The legal benefit and the ignorance of the state towards illegal construction activities have helped companies like Patanjali expand their shares and land processions.