The Indian government seeks to dilute environmental safeguards, opens up protected areas, “unleashes” coal.

In the past months, as the Covid-19 virus has taken over 650,000 lives around the world, affecting over 16 million people, bodies like the United Nations Environmental Program and the WWF and biodiversity experts have issued heightened warnings that human destruction of nature is making the globe more vulnerable to pandemic outbreaks. The Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, is walking a different path. 

From March 23—when the government announced the world’s harshest Covid-19 lockdown, keeping a billion-plus people confined to their homes with only a four-hour notice—it has taken a series of decisions which have sparked widespread environmental concerns, as well as online and offline protests across the country. The country has seen floods, gas blowouts and industrial accidents in past weeks, while its cities are among the world’s most polluted. It is also rapidly stripping forests in the name of economic growth.

In the past weeks, the government has pushed clearances for infrastructure and mining projects in dense forests, national parks and protected areas. These included the Etalin Hydropower Project in the biodiversity-rich Dibang valley of Arunachal Pradesh, a coal mine in Assam’s Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, diamond mining in the Panna forested belt, a highway through Goa’s Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary, a limestone mine in the Gir National Park, which is home to the Asiatic lion, and uranium exploration in Telangana’s Amrabad Tiger Reserve. Authorities considered these proposals over video conferencing.

The government has also announced an ambitious plan to  “unleash coal” by auctioning large tracts of coal-rich lands and dense forests in multiple states across central and eastern India. Several of the 41 coal blocks on the list are on lands which are also home to marginalised Adivasi (indigenous) and forest-dependent communities. 

While the Prime Minister launched the auctions saying they would make India “self-reliant” and an exporter of coal, his proposal has led to opposition from environmentalists and local residents on the ground. Multiple village leaders from the coal-rich Hasdeo Arand forests, one of the country's largest tracts of forest in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, wrote to the Prime Minister opposing the auctions saying they would cause their displacement as well as destruction of their forests.

Most controversially, the very day the government announced the lockdown in March, it also released an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Draft Proposal which experts say severely dilutes India’s existing, weak environmental impact assessment regime. Among other things, the policy proposes to allow post-facto environmental clearances for projects, reduce the time for public feedback on proposed projects, exempt a large number of projects from requiring any environmental clearance, and entrust the task of reporting violations to the project developer itself. 

The push back

The EIA draft has drawn widespread condemnation from  environmental groups, and former bureaucrats, as well as challenges in court. In response to a petition by an environmental group, the Delhi High Court asked the government on June 30 to publish the EIA draft in India’s 22 official languages within ten days (the government had only released English and Hindi versions for public feedback, thus limiting who could read and respond to it). The court also asked the government to circulate the proposal widely and extended the deadline from public feedback from June 30 to August 11. The High Court in the southern Indian state of Karnataka also censured the government for trying to push through such a far-reaching policy without adequately ensuring that citizens could access it and respond. 

However, the government is yet to comply with the ruling to release translations, and has instead moved India’s Supreme Court against it this week. “For a fraction of the money that will be spent on lawyers for this appeal, the Ministry could have had the document translated in regional languages,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental defender and educator based in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which has seen multiple protests against the proposal. “Its refusal to translate seems a matter of opposition to enabling public participation.”

The government has also come under criticism for  censoring the websites of environmental collectives—many of them run by young Indians—who took to social media against the EIA draft in the face of the lockdown and restrictions on public assembly and movement. Their efforts to help a large number of people  write emails to the Environment Ministry in response to the draft, angered the government.

Days ago, the Environment Minister  complained to the Delhi Police about “getting multiple emails on his email address with the subject name similar to ‘EIA 2020’." The police responded by asking the domain service providers to block three websites. These included the India chapter of #FridaysforFuture, a worldwide group founded by Greta Thunberg, and other youth in 2018 to draw attention to the climate crisis. The chapter had hosted a text-template on its website, which concerned citizens could use to provide feedback to the Environment Ministry. 

The chapter’s website was blocked, and it received a notice from the Cyber Crimes cell of the Delhi Police, which cited the stringent and arbitrary Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The police alleged that the website displayed “objectionable contents and unlawful activities or terrorist act (sic), which are dangerous for the peace, tranquility and sovereignty of the India (sic)” and contains “religious hatred content/material.”

Following severe condemnation on social media, the police withdrew the notice telling journalists  it was sent “inadvertently.” 

The government’s actions on the environment are being opposed not just by indigenous communities, environmental groups and student activists but also senior political leaders. The state government of Jharkhand, a forested coal-rich state, has moved India’s Supreme Court against the government’s plan to auction coal blocks, citing adverse impacts on the state’s indigenous communities and environment. 

Its Chief Minister, Hemant Soren, said, “In this time of climate crisis and coronavirus, and air and water pollution, we have to think about how we are treating our natural resources and forests. If you go against nature, you will have to pay the price, which is what we are seeing with this coronavirus.” Soren added, “And without forests, our Adivasi (indigenous) communities cannot live. The land and forests are their bank account, their ATM, their primary asset.”

India’s former Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, also lashed out at the government’s push to mine more coal, as well as the EIA proposal, saying, “Environmental regulation isn’t an unnecessary burden but is essential for health & welfare of our people & sustainable development.” His letters to India’s current minister, Prakash Javdekar, on Twitter sparked some sparring between the two leaders. 

“Giving one’s opinion on such an important policy or protesting against it is not a crime. It is part of democracy,” said Dinesh Nadar, an 18-year-old engineering student based in Mumbai, who is with the Indian chapter of FridaysForFuture, one of the websites that were blocked. 

“Then why is the government calling us terrorists?” 

Source: TRT World