India is grappling with a spike in COVID-19 cases—even by the current earliest estimates, the peak is anywhere but close. Amidst the escalating tensions with neighbours Nepal and China, it has set the ball rolling for what is the most difficult test of governance for the incumbent Prime Minister.
However, what still remains obscure amidst this pandemonium is India’s interminable tryst with sustainable development—maintaining an equipoise of biodiversity and urbanisation. As the country went through phases of lockdowns, the Indian Environment Ministry, led by Prakash Javedkar, uploaded the reformed version of the EIA, which was last amended in 2006.
The new legislation has led to a huge outcry among environmentalists, for it dilutes the ‘green law’—which compelled infrastructure projects to clear the scrutiny of its impact on the environment, and also involved the public. This update was approved by Javedkar and his predecessor, Dr Harsh Vardhan, after being drafted and updated within two years.
The Prime Minister, who spoke parables and platitudes pertaining to self-reliance, exhorted people to support indigenous brands and products. The growing Sinophobia has culminated with multinational brands such as Apple announcing shift of its manufacturing facilities to India, much to the delight of the average Indian, thumping to celebrate it as an embellishment to the nationalistic pride.
Unfortunately, what most Indians fail to notice, or passively take cognizance of, is the toll such ambitious manufacturing would take on the environment. This sets a dangerous premise, especially when India’s track record in sustainable development has been mediocre, to be modest, it dates back to the Nehru days. Jawaharlal Nehru famously said to the villagers displaced by the Hirakud Dam in 1948, “If you must suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country”.
India’s obsession with building dams, despite most studies highlighting their futility, continues to haunt the tribal people living in the hinterlands. The Sardar Sarovar Dam is the country’s prime example of the environmental racism that continues to elude the front pages of the newspapers. Harrowing tales narrated by Man Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy exposes the deepest trenches of social and economic oppression that the tribal landowners are subjected to after being deprived of the very land that is paramount to their survival.
Unaware of how money works in urban dwellings, the displaced people are often stuffed into slum-like residences, sardonically quoted as urban ghettos. Not only are the displaced people forced to work as labourers, the conditions in which they live, far away from their homeland, raise concerns, especially with the country neck-deep in the contagion.
To salvage themselves from the perils of a recession looming large at the economy, the government also decided to auction off 41 of its coal mines, many of which are located in the Hasdeo Arand region of Chhattisgarh—which is home to many tribal communities, for it is one of the largest contiguous dense forest areas in India. Privatisation would definitely place them under the threat of being displaced as well as the perils of pollution.
Arunachal Pradesh, which is one of the most diverse regions in the country with 26 tribal groups and 100 sub-tribal groups, is home to a 3,097-megawatt Etalin Dam. It is expected to submerge over 300,000 trees and affect Idu Mishmi, an indigenous tribe with a population of over 13,000. Additionally, the 2,880-megawatt Dibang Multipurpose Project, one of the largest planned projects in India, is set to displace nearly 2,000 Mishmi people.
With the dilution of the EIA, new biodiversity hotspots like Arunachal Pradesh would be set up, especially after the aforementioned projects having been approved without a dialogue with the major stakeholders - the displaced tribal groups. With only 3 Members of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh, this minuscule representation has also been attributed to environmental racism.
EIA is essential for India, especially when the country has projects operational without proper environmental clearance. It was found out that the LG Polymer Plant in Vishakapatnam, from which styrene gas was leaked on May 7, was functional for over 20 years without any clearance. A similar incident was reported in Assam where the natural gas of Oil India Limited in the Tinsukia district was incinerated, causing severe damage to local biodiversity. The local environmental authority later released a statement accusing that the plant was running without their approval for the past 15 years.
Conflagrating a movement for the environment with a law meant for seditious and extremism activities is alarming. A shallow EIA favouring builders with easy environmental clearances can increase incidents in Assam and Andhra Pradesh. It would further push a hitherto obscure yet an important section of the population residing for generations into oblivion. Meanwhile, an EIA report has recently stated that an estimated 33,000 trees would be cut to make way for the proposed Peripheral Ring Road in Bengaluru, from the proposed 200 trees in 2005.
An unchecked environmental legislation could not only be the final blow to an already bludgeoning biodiversity but can also fan the flames of a humanitarian crisis, for fulfilling the fetishes of the rich.
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