Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi's tall claims that no one has served nature more than India, some of the steps taken by his government prove that the ground reality is the exact opposite, says Devanik Saha.
With the annual UN climate talks 'Conference of Parties (COP21)' scheduled to be held in Paris in November, each country is expected to submit its national action climate plan, ie, intended nationally determined contributions (INDC), which are post-2020 targets that each country will undertake to reduce global warming and fight climate change.
During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent tri-nation trip, he said, “The whole world is posing questions to us. Those who have destroyed the climate are asking questions to us. If anybody has served nature, it is Indians.” He further added, “India is the only country which has served nature the most as Indians even treat the river as their mother and worship trees, and we will set the agenda for the upcoming Conference of Parties (COP).”
Upon hearing such flowery statements, one may assume that Modi and his government are indeed champions of environmental issues and concerns. However, within the past one year, several decisions taken by the government prove otherwise. Some of them include:
Dam projects: A proposal to raise the height of the highly controversial Narmada Dam in Gujarat, was approved in June last year.
Additionally, India’s largest dam project, the 3000 MW Dibang hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh, was approved in September 2014 without any consultation or analysis of the possible effects on the ecologically sensitive region. Ironically, in its pre-election campaign, the Bharatiya Janata Party had promised not to go ahead with mega dams in the region.
Ban lifted on industries in heavily polluted belts: A ban on setting up new industries in critically polluted areas was imposed based on the performance of the clusters on a Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index developed by the Central Pollution Control Board and introduced by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2009.
As per the index, eight belts were quite critical: Vapi (Gujarat), Ghaziabad (Uttar Pradesh), Patancheru-Ballaram (Andhra Pradesh), Singrauli (Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh), Ludhiana (Punjab), Indore (Madhya Pradesh), Jharsuguda (Odisha), and Panipat (Haryana).
Even in these areas, the ban has been lifted and norms for coal tar processing, sand mining, paper pulp industries, etc have been eased.
Dilution of Forest Rights Act: The Forest Rights Act, which stressed on the need for consent from gram sabhas for prospecting in forests and diverting forest land for industrial activity, has been diluted.
The government specified that instead of tribal village councils certifying that their rights had been settled and they had consented to projects, the district administration would be empowered to do so in 60 days, regardless of the number of villages affected by the projects. Additionally, prospecting of minerals in forests won’t require the consent of tribals, and inspection of mining projects by ministry officials for plots less than 100 hectares has been removed.
No public hearing for coal mines: There will be no public hearing for coal mines below 16 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) wishing to expand output by up to 50 per cent. This has now been extended to mines above 16 mtpa, permitting them to mine up to five mtpa more without consulting affected people. Additionally, instead of seeking individual approvals, mines can seek approvals in clusters.
Cracking down on environmental NGOs: Ever since the BJP came to power, they have been involved in a tussle with environmental NGOs, especially Greenpeace. In June last year, the Intelligence Bureau released a report which claimed that these NGOs affected around two-three per cent of India’s GDP due to their “anti-national activities”. Recently, the ministry of home affairs cancelled the foreign funding licence of Greenpeace India, citing various reasons, which is in the process of being challenged by the NGO.
As witnessed, the Modi government’s decisions are the exact opposite to what he said recently from international platforms and going forward, these decisions are bound to attract severe criticism from all quarters. Furthermore, the extremely contentious land acquisition bill has still not been passed in the Rajya Sabha, and has been continually opposed by other parties.
The only silver lining seems to be the BJP’s interest in promoting renewable energy and it has secured pledges from 293 companies to set up renewable energy capacity of 266 gigawatts over the next five years.
However, India is still not very keen to reduce the consumption of coal, a major carbon emitter, as Modi has set a target to increase Coal India’s annual production to 1 billion tonnes by 2019, which is critical to his mission of providing 24x7 power to all homes by 2022. But providing power to urban areas at the cost of affecting several millions of lives in rural areas isn’t really the right proposition.
India is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change in the world. We are already witnessing the devastating effects of extreme weather conditions, which are expected to worsen in the coming years -- frequent floods, unseasonal rains and droughts have affected millions of farmers and destroyed lakhs of hectares of crops.
Furthermore, with the rising pollution levels in India, the situation is immensely worrying. New Delhi is the most polluted city in the world and 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India, according to the World Health Organization.
Therefore, if Modi and his government are indeed serious about preserving nature and setting the agenda at Paris, then India must take the lead in submitting its INDCs as to how it will respond to the growing impact of climate change. India’s geographically diverse landscape poses a huge challenge to establish solutions, but it is imperative that our government rises to the challenge.