The dubious record of the UN Champion of the Earth

Modi 1

On June 30 2021 Channel 4 broke the news of a senior Exxon Mobil lobbyist captured on camera explaining how US senators were roped into efforts to block climate change legislation. This should give us in India pause. Could such things be happening here too?

In 2018, PM Narendra Modi was awarded the United Nations ‘Champion of the Earth’ award. Readers who had been following news about the environment in India were puzzled.

Among the first things the Modi government set to work on after assuming office for the first time in 2014 was laws that protect the environment. A committee was set up to review six key environment laws – The Environment Protection Act, 1986, The Forest Conservation Act, 1980, The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution Act), 1981 and The Indian Forest Act, 1927.

“Fast-tracking clearances for industrial projects” was one goal of this committee, headed by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian. Down to Earth reported that about 100 changes in environment laws were suggested by the Prime Minister’s Office. The thrust was “ease of doing business”.

The Subramanian committee sought that “local consultation” should be dropped when roads and pipelines – ‘linear projects’ — were constructed to benefit larger communities. By January 2015, the Parliamentary Standing Committee rejected this report and asked the government to appoint a new committee to review environment laws.

Undeterred, the government then set about seeking consultants to aid this process. There was little transparency about who had been appointed, but by August 2015 news reports indicated that multinational firm Ernst and Young, with a history of problematic environment impact assessment work, was among the consultants. The other technical consultant, Amarchand and Mangaldas and Suresh A Shroff and Company (AMSS), was among India’s largest law firms. Its area of specialization was corporate law, with clients like Adani, Vedanta and Reliance.

By October 2015 a draft Environment Law Amendment Bill was announced on the website of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change – responses from the public could be received for 15 days. Commentators noted that it was less than ideal for the government to expect comments on legal documents released to the public “rather suddenly”.

This draft attempted to classify environmental damage as minor, substantial and non-substantial. T. Mohan, a lawyer who fought several cases of pollution in the Madras High Court, described the categorization as “delightfully vague”. The draft set about attempting to monetize environmental impacts of mining, port projects and industries.

Compensatory afforestation has existed as policy in India since 2006, and India has imposed a fee on companies that clear forests in order for trees to be planted to contain the environmental damage. Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act was passed in 2016, so money released to the forest department can be used for afforestation. This fund remained long under-utilized; local communities have suffered eviction, as their consent is not taken before their lands are taken over for afforestation. Land that is denuded of forest cover is far larger than lands over which trees are planted.

India is currently ranked 180 – right at the bottom — of the Environmental Performance Index 2020, a data-driven summary of the state of sustainability compiled by Yale University in the US. The sudden changes in law in the ecologically fragile Lakshadweep Islands are being resisted by islanders, who say their whole culture and survival are at risk – in islands so small that the maximum length of road possible is only 15 km, major construction is planned.

In March 2020, while the country was in lockdown to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus, the government issued a notification amending the Environment Impact Assessment norms for projects. That notification, amending the 2006 Act, did away with the need for public consultation ahead of several projects, and the websites of groups opposing the change were blocked by the government. There was no research or sound basis for the changes, and former Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh said they were based on the premise that environment regulation was an “unnecessary regulatory burden”.

So far, I have attempted to detail how lawmaking about the environment is divorced from democratic practice. I will now list some major turns in policy that will leave lasting adverse impact on environmental health.

As part of the Modi government’s self-reliance or Atmanirbhar plan, the government has declared that expensive coal imports would be reduced and new coal fields opened up. Forty new coal fields are to be opened up for commercial mining. By a quirk of nature, the coal fields exist in areas that are rich tiger habitat – tiger presence and coalfield layers have been mapped in parts of India.

The tiger is also an “umbrella” species – protection of the tiger also implies protection of a range of other species, and tiger population is also an indication of the health of the ecosystem. What is comforting, though, is that the animal is supremely adaptable – in Uttar Pradesh recently, an abandoned rubber factory that had re-wilded with time became the haunt of a tigress.

If habitat recovery allows the big cats to spring back, loss of forests also has huge impact on their survival. Among the new coal blocks opened up for mining are four large ones in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand, 4,20,000 acres of forest underneath which lie an estimated five billion tonnes of coal. This comprises India’s last remaining stretches of forest, and is home to elephants, leopards and bears, besides tigers.

The country has long had laws in place to spare river valleys and dense forests from destructive mining. Those laws are being overturned – only recently, nearly 400 hectares near the Bharatpur wildlife sanctuary was denotified as forest area so mining of the red sandstone needed for the construction of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya could occur there.

India is also set to begin deep sea mining, to exploit deep-ocean minerals. The International Seabed Authority, an autonomous international organization that helps carve up oceans and allot “areas” for mining, has given India 1.5 lakh square km in the Central Indian Ocean Basin for exploration. Under a contract in 2002, after a complete resource analysis of the seabed, India surrendered half this area and retained 75,000 sq km.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has warned that the damage caused by such mining has not been completely understood yet. “We lack scientific knowledge to understand and manage the impacts on deep pelagic ecosystems,” said oceanographer Jeffrey Drazen. The seas are deemed as the common heritage of all people, and its resources must be managed to benefit everyone, including future generations. The resources of the land and sea are not inexhaustible, and generations after us will be the poorer if these resources are not managed with care.

Massive infrastructure projects undertaken by the government in the name of development have caused enormous ecological damage, but this experience is still to influence policy making. The Rs12,000-crore, 900-km road project in the Himalayas connecting the four shrines of the Char Dham yatra have caused debris to slide into the valleys, reducing the width of the river and heightening the impact of floods. To bypass environment clearance norms, the whole project was divided into over 50 smaller projects to gain clearance. In September 2020, the Supreme Court gave clearance to the highway project but ordered that intermediate roads not be over 5.5 metres in width.

The National Green Tribunal, which had previously captured the world’s attention with some bold rulings, has failed to maintain its independence – new rules for appointment of members give more say to the executive. The cherry on the cake, though, is this – Prakash Javadekar, Union minister for Environment Forest and Climate Change, is also India’s minister of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises. So seeking permission for environment clearance and granting it are all done through a “single window”!

Rosamma Thomas is a freelance journalist



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