On world environment day in June 5, as India grappled with the challenges of containing both the climate and the COVID-19 crises, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the nation as an emerging leader in climate justice.
Meanwhile, India has become the world’s seventh most affected country by climate change along with the fourth-worst climate-induced disaster hit country. India’s top environment and science body has termed the nation as one inching towards ecological disaster.
This year, the Modi government has formulated plans to dilute safeguards to various environmental laws, given a go ahead to mining reforms in the country as indigenous activists and protesters continue to languish in jail for raising their voices.
Dilution of Environmental Safeguards
Even as the country “celebrates” environment day, the Union Environment ministry is working on introducing radical change to the country’s environmental law regime, including changes in the important Wildlife Protection Act 1972. According to the Hindustan Times, the move comes amidst concerns among activists and environment groups that the changes are being made to make it easier to develop infrastructure and industrial projects, even in environmentally sensitive areas.
Moreover, this year India paved the way for easing out of several such norms, including a change in forest conservation laws. Even as India witnessed enormous forest fires and 20% forest degradation in the past years, according to the Global Forests Watch, the central government is aiming to dilute the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and limit the role of the state in forest matters.
Earlier in March this year, the Environment Ministry stated, “A state government/UT administration will not impose any additional condition after in-principle approval has been accorded.” The “approval” here relates to construction projects and development initiatives among other key projects to be undertaken by private players on forest lands. The direct impact of this move is likely to be on tribal communities and land rights as well. More than 60% of the forest area in the country falls within 187 tribal districts. The modifications to the laws made unilaterally may also pave way for renewed conflicts as they were done without consultations with the local communities.
Another notable reform was the country’s decision to approve a slew of big ticket changes in the mining sector, including amendments to the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 (MMDR Act. The draft Bill will be tabled in Parliament in its upcoming session.
The proposed ‘reforms’ in the mining sector have drawn extensive criticism from environmental activists and others for being rushed and pushed through to benefit industries. The ‘reforms’ propose doing away with the distinction between captive and non-captive mines, and re-allocating blocks held by state-owned firms, which means opening the gates for private players via the auction route.
The other ‘reforms’ include rationalising stamp duty computation across states, to base it on the extent of mining area and the underlying land without any reference to the value of the mineral. Not just this, rules on ash content of coal have been waived off. This will flood the market with dirtier and cheaper coal leading to more vulnerabilities for the indigenous populations as well as natural resources.
In another shocking move, the Modi government is aiming to “develop” Andaman and Nicobar islands and the Lakshadweep islands. Amid the raging pandemic, NITI Aayog -- the public policy think-tank of the central government— has brought in a proposal, termed ‘shocking’ by environmentalists, for the development of India’s southernmost and largest islands--the great Nicobar region.
On the government agenda is the creation of a mega transhipment terminal, an airport, a township and large-scale development of gas and solar-based power.
While the government claims that the project will lead to promotion of tourism, resulting in economic development of the region, concerns over the scale and the speed of expansion of the project have come forth since its initial announcement in March this year. While in Lakshadweep, the government is aiming for extensive changes to the land ownership and regulation in the island, with the administrator taking complete charge over the grant of permission to develop land and for other powers of control over the use of land. Further, “these rules will also confer additional powers to the administrator with respect to the acquisition and development of land for planning”.
Lakshadweep is already suffering from severe coastal erosion, and experts predict that some islands may become uninhabitable due to sea level rise related to climate change. Various other negative ecological impacts are also predicted by experts, such as coral reefs bleaching, damage to fish habitat and breeding grounds.
As India’s ecology and natural resources face an existential crisis of survival in the face of a capitalist pro-corporate government. Those fighting for environmental justice find their voices muzzled. While the theme for this year’s World Environment Day remains to be Ecosystem restoration with a focus on reviving old water bodies, building natural forests, indegenous communities find themselves marginalised and threatened.
In yet another attempt aimed at benefiting the corporates, the Modi government had 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 Coastal Road Project planned and implemented by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai [MCGM] is a road being constructed along the western coast of the island city. This project is part of a larger plan to construct a ‘ring road’ all around Mumbai and is estimated to cost around Rs 14,000 crore.
The project has faced sharp criticism from city planners and urban conservationists for giving a complete go-by to sensible transport planning and placing a premium on private transport and, effectively, discouraging public transport.
A large part of the road is being built on the land reclaimed from the Arabian Sea in the intertidal area that hosts a vast diversity of marine flora and fauna and serves as a breeding ground for fishes. This intertidal area is also crucial to the livelihood of the Kolis, the indigenous coastal community of Mumbai. The go-ahead given by the office of the Prime Minister therefore ignored over 90% of representations objecting to the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 2019. Not just public inputs, once the process of accepting suggestions was over, the final draft of the CRZ approved by the Modi government had changes, which were not put out in the public domain.
The policies and big ticket projects are oriented towards a shift in the paradigm in the cities and their outlook. While the government claims that they are a step forward in the development agenda, these projects are towered on large scale environmental destruction, setting aside any public criticism.