Much Needs to Change Before We Celebrate Environment Days
Up against the greed-based paradigm is World Environment Day 2021, ironically devoted to “Ecosystem Restoration”. — Inder Shekhar Singh
A blanket of thorny green Babool trees drapes the stony red Aravalli landscape. A lone tarmac guarded by ageing hills runs into a pink evening sun. The old Ford open jeep touches 70 kmph, turns into a shaded bend, and then we saw murder: JCBs and heavy stone-cutters mining away at the Pushkar Aravallis in Rajasthan. The hills were dying.
Illegal mining eats into rivers, mountains, and the livelihoods of thousands of people every year. But mining enriches the mafia. Local communities and their right to clean water, air and life are collateral damage in the quest for profit. Pushkar is now extremely vulnerable to desertification due to illegal mining. Yet nothing seems to change.
Last year, the Supreme Court ordered Haryana, Rajasthan’s neighbour, to halt the construction of roads in the Aravalli zone. This was after reports revealed that a hill had been entirely flattened in the eco-sensitive zone. At least on paper, mining has been banned along the 700-odd kilometre stretch of the Aravallis for nearly two decades. Around 35-40% of the drinking water supply for Gurgaon comes from the underground aquifers that the Aravalli hills protect and nurture. Yet, few seem to care about the June 2017 warning from the Central Ground Water Board that this underground water had been “overexploited” in Gurgaon, not to mention polluted.
Not just Rajasthan. Be it Goa, Karnataka, Himachal or the banks of the river Belan south of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, the illegal mining mafia is making its fortunes across the country. Unenforced legislations, corruption, and callousness towards the environment allow the mafia to flourish at the cost of people and the survival of future generations. An umbrella of political neglect and protection envelopes their activities.
Recently, 41 coal blocks were given the go-ahead in ecologically sensitive forested no-go zones. Former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, who, too, had been criticised for environmentally unsound decisions during his tenure, opposed the decision. If previous governments were strong on framing legislations, they were weak on implementation/intent. However, the present government essentially wants to dispense with the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) procedures altogether. These rules help determine the environmental impact of proposed projects, including their impact on people. If the EIA procedures are relaxed and amended as per the wishes of the government, these coal blocks would get to operate with fewer checks and virtually no environmental oversight.
The Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prepared in 2020 is a unique violator/polluter-friendly document that undermines communities, the environment and kills the possibility of judicial review of dangerous projects. It aims to provide warp-speed approvals to corporations to mine and fell freely in the pristine forests. The problem with the draft is that it severs all connections between the rural economy and its ecology.
It even grants exemption from public consultations for projects. Public hearings are only to be required for Category A, Category B1 and expansion projects, with the capacity to increase by more than 50%. Prior notice for public hearings has been reduced to 20 days. Further, the EIA 2020 allows for regularisation of violations of this legal notification. The Assam oil fiasco at Baghjan is only a trailer of what could well come next.
All such practices—illegal mining and corporate-driven mines, relaxation of protective laws, ignoring green court verdicts—reflect how low our nation’s environmental consciousness has fallen. For many, the planet and its environment are nothing but sources of new raw material and resources, merely a collection of coal blocks, space for garbage dumps and timber mines. The western industrial vision seeks to command and commodify nature, not restore it. In the United States, Joe Biden’s policies, far from “restoration of ecosystems”, are poised to embolden Wall Street’s plans for environmental dacoity. Instead of increasing environmental protections, there appear to be commitments to the sale of ecosystems for top dollar.
Up against this greed-based paradigm is World Environment Day 2021, ironically devoted to “Ecosystem Restoration” this year. Whether East or West, governments are choosing money over the eco-system each time. For Twitter likes, they may talk sententiously about rivers and butterflies, but in reality, governments are careless. Take the Namami Ganga project. It has cost the public thousands of crores already, but what benefits have people seen since its launch seven years ago? All we have is more sewage and now even the bodies of COVID-19 victims.
Some say the lockdown imposed last year to control the spread of the Novel Coronavirus (which causes the COVID-19 disease) cleaned up our rivers. However, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) made it clear last autumn that it could observe “no significant improvement” in water quality in five of the 19 rivers it studied before and after the lockdown. This is because there were fewer upstream freshwater inflows and more discharge of wastewater in these major rivers. In another seven rivers, the quality of water did improve because of lesser effluent discharge into them, but not permanently. All we can say is that even this little improvement was more than the Namami Ganga project ever could achieve.
The world over, corporate giants are competing to wrest control over the environment and its resources, and not to restore it. Governments, too, are fighting over shrinking water resources, forgetting that this shortfall is a direct result of their flawed extraction-oriented policies. Even the United Nations seems maimed under pressure and has remained a fence-sitter while Arctic drilling began or when a dozen or more oil spills washed up with their effluents on pristine shores, polluting marine habitats along the way.
Today, countries constantly announce drives to plant trees and restore biodiversity. However, we should not be too optimistic, as most of these project is not to restore but re-engineer the environment and spread monocultures of non-native trees. Their intent is not to restore the environment to its former state, but to create a new environment with an anthropocentric goal. We need a new paradigm of accountability and awareness to counter this depressing scenario.
In India, every year, sapling-planting competitions between various political parties are held, only to fail. These enterprises have only one winner—the sapling supplier. Most of these saplings never make it past a year due to neglect. In the meantime, we fail to conserve our living forests. A report recently highlighted that India lost 14% of its tree cover during the pandemic year, and rainforest destruction increased by 12% in 2020.
Much needs to change before we celebrate an environment day. We need a new ethic, one that makes the environment “the measure of things”. We need progress and success to be linked to nature and not carbon credits or money. Without this reorientation, humanity’s journey will be a short one.
The author writes on agriculture and the environment and is the former director of Policy and Outreach, National Seed Association of India. The views are personal.