by Madhurima Bakshi
The past nine years of BJP government led by Narendra Modi has witnessed outrageous attacks on environment laying the way for more and more corporate takeover of natural resources disregarding people’s rights. Environment regulations and guidelines have been diluted; tribunals and adjudicatory bodies made weakened while clearances are given recklessly to mining and other projects. BJP’s manifesto in 2019 stated ‘speed and effectiveness in issuing forest and environmental clearances’ showing their clear priority of corporate interest over ecology and biodiversity. Meanwhile, in the Environmental Performance Index 2022, India ranked the lowest in the world out of 180 countries last year. Nine years ago, India was ranked 155th.
Rampant clearance to projects and attack on decision making bodies causing environmental devastation
After coming in the power in 2014 BJP was determined to eliminate the hurdles in front of ‘ease of doing business’. They started with removal of the ban on setting up and expansion of polluting factories in eight ‘critically polluted’ industrial belts using a bureaucratic loophole. There was also an attempt to allow polluting industries to operate within 5 km of eco-sensitive areas, as opposed to the earlier limit of 10 km. The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), an apex body created to promote conservation and development of wildlife and forests has become a platform for giving clearances for diversion of forest land in protected areas. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) gave clearances to 2,256 projects (87%) out of 2592 proposals, with 270 of them lying near biodiversity hotspots from July 2014-April 2020 as per a report published by Centre for Financial Accountability in November 2022. Between August 2014 and February 2019, NBWL had cleared 682 of the 687 projects, with an unforeseen clearance rate of 99.82%. The number of independent members in the NBWL committee had been heavily reduced while the 47 member NBWL committee hardly met in past years. Most of these important policy level approvals are passed by the Standing Committee, a much smaller body acting as a mere rubber stamp which itself shows how the institution is being subverted. The autonomy of National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been systematically manipulated and with only 6 members led by a Chairperson out of the sanctioned 21 members and partially functional benches, it has resulted in massive non-compliance or partial compliance with the rules. The Finance Bill of 2016 significantly changed the provisions for appointment of NGT members. NGT is now mostly working from the national capital, which disregards the whole purpose of having regional benches making it considerably weakened and powerless.\Hasdeo Arand in Chhattisgarh, one of the most pristine and dense forests of India spreading across more than 1500 sq km with many rare endangered species has made open for coal mining project bagged by the Adani Group. The approval of 3097 megawatt Etalin hydro-electricity project in Arunachal Pradesh located in the ecologically rich Dibang valley was another bizarre violation, which has been recently rejected in its present form by the Forest Advisory Committee who called for a fresh proposal in the face of outpouring opposition from people. NBWL has allowed North-Eastern Coal Fields to conduct opencast mining in 98.59 hectares of Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary which is home to numerous endemic species and known as the ‘Amazon of the East’.
An analysis by the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) shows that from January to June 2019, a key panel overseeing wildlife sanctuaries and national parks approved 63 of 70 development proposals, resulting in reduced protection for 216 ha of land. Millions of trees have been cut in last decade, among which about 25000 trees were cut in ecologically sensitive areas in Uttarakhand, to build highways to pilgrimage sites. Cutting of 22 thousands mangrove trees got green signal in Maharashtra too for the famous bullet train project. The ecosensitive saltpans had been declassified as wetlands and became easily accessible to corporate construction lobbies. The recent proposal to pursue a massive ‘development’ project involving a container terminal, airport, township, and a power plant in the high-risk seismic zone of Andaman and Nicobar Islands region would result in irreversible damage to the pristine rainforests, indigenous tribal groups and wildlife. Change in land ownership and regulation has been introduced in Lakshadweep which is very much vulnerable to coastal erosion, with additional power to the administrator in terms of land acquisition and development.
The National River linking Project including 30 identified links, numbers of dams, diversion weirs, canals with far-reaching adverse impact on natural river flow, monsoon cycles and biodiversity, posing serious socio-economic challenges and disastrous ecological damage has started taking its shape. Linking of the rivers Ken and Betwa, two tributaries of river Yamuna has received approval which will lead to the submergence of a major portion of the core area of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. The Par Tapi Narmada river linking project in Gujarat is also going to cause havoc for the tribal communities in Valsad, Dand and Tapi districts. This is an attempt to seize people’s access to river water and hijack it for corporate interests. Voracious approval to skewed ‘developmental’ projects of roads and buildings in the name of tourism, construction of dams, hydro power projects have increased disastrous landslides in the fragile Himalayan landscape especially in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. The underground excavation for Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project led to draining out of ground water and land subsidence is one of the major causes of Joshimath disaster. Despite of several threats from big dams, Narendra Modi proudly inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar Dam on Narmada River in 2017 ignoring decades of protest by adivasis, farmers and environmentalists.
According to the IQAir 2021 report, India is home to 12 out of the 15 most polluted cities in Central and South Asia. The 2019 NITI Aayog report suggests, India is suffering from the worst water crisis and almost 600 million of its population is water-deprived. 21 cities including Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai significantly exhausted their groundwater resources. Despite spending crores of public money for projects like Namami Gange and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, rivers are struggling with sewage and effluent contamination and several flow obstacles. Much hyped Jal Jeevan Mission could not ensure safe water supply and reports of Cholera outbreaks have surfaced again. Funds were drastically reduced for the Integrated Watershed Management Programme, crucial in fighting drought in the country by holistically conserving water, soil and forests.
Dilution in Environmental Regulations
To push their pro-business neoliberal agenda the Modi Government has been trying to legalize the systematic violation of environmental rules and legislations. In 2018, the environment ministry proposed major changes to the National Forest Policy. The Coastal Regulation Zone notification 2011 has been replaced with CRZ 2018 opening 7500 km coastline to corporate real estate and tourism sector at the stake of sensitive coastal ecology and local fishermen. The reforms on forest and mining laws were made likely to take heavy toll on ecosystem and rights of tribal communities. Amendments to the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 proposed omitting the distinction between captive and non-captive mines, and re-allocating blocks held by state-owned firms and opening the gates for private players via auction. The Government also tried to lease wasteland to the corporate sector in the name of ‘re-greening’. The proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act 1927 recommended more powers to the forest authorities, such as the power to shoot people without any liability and entry of private players in large scale afforestation for carbon sequestration.
Years of struggles had resulted in the enactment of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, which recognizes the individual and community rights of the forest dwelling traditional communities over forest resources. The new Forest (Conservation) Rules (FCR) 2022 blatantly violate the FRA and nullify the requisite to take consent from the tribals and forest dwellers before any ‘final’ clearance for any project in a forest area would be given. The FCR 2022 have various compensatory afforestation schemes which are literally incapable of replacing centuries-old forests that would have been cut, uprooted and burnt in the name of ‘development’.
We have also witnessed dilution of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification during Covid pandemic and multiple violations of FRA to avoid NOCs from Gram Sabhas for linear projects etc. The new EIA rules restricts the scope of prior environment clearance, permits regularisation of environment violation by paying fines and makes a travesty of EIA process. The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 has proposals to redefine forest, expand exemption list and amend the range of ‘non forest uses’. It would restrict scope of FCA and FRA and give access of forest land to the corporate by imposing centralized bureaucratic forest governance and suppressing legal rights of the forest communities. A Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha to amend the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972, which indirectly enabled trade of elephants.
Such legislations exempt a long list of ‘strategic’ or ‘linear’ projects from requiring public consultation, ignore post-clearance compliance and exclude many ecologically significant areas that were protected earlier. The entire design is to take away still existing powerful safeguards from the indigenous communities and streamline handover of forest lands to cronies to make profit out of the vast mineral and other natural resources. Destruction of forests and environment by disempowering communities, who have been living in sustainable relation with nature, shows the climate irresponsible policy regime of the present Indian government. While celebrating Environment Day 2023, Prime Minister glorified last 9 years as a period of ‘sustainable growth’! Increasing corporate footprint on the jal, jungle, jameen and legal impunity to the violations clearly expose such blatant lies and false claims made by the Modi Government.