Ecological destruction has always been a serious consequence of humankind’s push for development. Needless to say, the ecology versus development conundrum has been hotly debated.
In the post-liberalization era, it is said India lost over 14,000 sq km of pristine forest to industrial and infrastructural projects. Some may say it is a small price to pay to be on the right side of development.
More often than not, proponents of development want us to believe that the cost-benefit calculation of environmental devastation is reckoned correctly before such a call is made. But this is seldom the case.
Rich wildlife diversity:
India is uniquely placed in terms of wildlife diversity. It is considered to be a custodian of many species that are either extinct or found only in very low numbers elsewhere. Besides, having successfully implemented initiatives such as Project Tiger — the biggest such when launched in 1973 — India is looked upon as a global leader in conservation. India has one of the highest densities of carnivores — 58 to every sq km.
Arbitrary decisions are being made, mostly under pressure from unscrupulous politicians and greedy industrialists. Those who have been entrusted with the task of guarding our natural heritage have been surrendering themselves to these powers.
Any resistance to this rampant destruction of the environment is often stubbed either by withholding information from those fighting for the cause or by feeding them half-baked information.
Transformation and erosion:
- While the 1970s and 1980s saw the enactment of many progressive pieces of legislation such as the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, the subsequent decades, particularly the 1990s, were a dampener for conservation efforts in the country.
- The decade that witnessed a dramatic transformation in India’s political and economic situation, also saw an erosion in political support for the environment. During that period, many sanctuaries were dismembered to make way for industry and infrastructure.
- During the PV Narasimha Rao regime, the focus was completely on economic liberalisation. The ensuing climate of deregulation saw the loosening of environmental safeguards painstakingly built over the preceding two decades. During this period, laws concerning the environment were either manipulated or bypassed with quiescent, if not active political and bureaucratic support. The Indian Board of Wildlife, which was later rechristened as the NBWL, did not meet even once for eight years, between 1989 and 1997.
- In 2002, through an order, the Supreme Court ruled that all major projects — industrial or infrastructural — should be placed before the standing committee of the NBWL, before clearance was given. But on the ground, having such a checks and balances mechanism did nothing to improve environmental governance in the country. On the contrary, it became a convenient tool in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats in the ministry of environment and forests to issue environmental clearances with impunity. Whenever they faced a stumbling block, they unabashedly diluted the provisions of the law.
Collapsing environmental governance:
In India, it is rather rare that an industry or project has been turned down for possible environmental impact. The environment ministry turned down none of the 1,086 industrial and thermal power projects submitted between 2006 and 2008.
The MoEF has shed its fig leaf of a protection agenda, and positioned itself as a ministry tasked with the Government’s mission of ‘ease of doing business’, and in a series of measures diluted and dissolved regulatory regimes.
Case Study: The 3,000 MW Dibang multipurpose project in Arunachal Pradesh. The dam, which is twice the size of the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river, was denied forest clearance twice in 2013. But a year later, it received the green signal not because the project was modified consequently but because the constitution of the Forest Advisory Committee was tweaked suitably.
Monumental decisions which lay to waste our natural heritage, and destroys lives and livelihoods, are based on shoddy Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs).
Case Study: The EIA of the much-talked about Ken-Betwa river linking project is a case in point. It is factually inaccurate, inept, mala fide and misleading. The dam of the Ken-Betwa link, powerhouse and a large part of the reservoir will submerge nearly 90 sq km of the Panna National Park, an important tiger reserve. Out of this, over 58 sq km is in the core critical tiger habitat, deemed inviolate and sacrosanct according to the wildlife protection laws in the country. The initial EIA said 32,900 trees would go, and when independent experts pointed out the incongruity, the number was revised to a shocking 13.96 lakh, of which over 11 lakh are within the national park.
Thus, in the discourse of development and ecology, it can be said that its development which is being focused upon. The government needs to create a synergy between the two and adopt a balance approach. Steps like revamping process of EIA, strengthening environmental regulatory authorities etc. Should be taken on urgent basis.