Green Erosion

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Various policies of the government show that in the pursuit of economic growth, environmental concerns and democratic decision-making are given the go-by

By Kanchi Kohli

In the last few months, there have been three important debates that have dominated the discourse on environmental decision-making in India. The first is about the Ken-Betwa interlinking project (which will send surplus water from Ken river in UP to Betwa river in MP); the second is changing laws to make spaces like forests more productive and the third is whether community level consent is feasible. These issues give us a peek into how the government views both environmental risk and democratic decision-making.

A communiqué by environment minister Anil Dave revealed how much risk the government is willing to take on environmental matters. In August 2016, it was reported that the minister was looking to allow a project on river interlinking, study the impact and only then take a decision on other projects. The risks and challenges of river interlinking have been debated for decades and the precautionary approach has meant that none of these proposed projects go through. But with the current government, we are ready to roll out the impact as if it was a contained experiment with no implications on humans or wildlife. So if the Ken-Betwa interlinking project goes through, 100 square kms of Panna Tiger Reserve may be submerged and questions around an inadequate Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), raised since 2014, will remain unresolved.

The Ken-Betwa interlinking will submerge 100 sq kms of the Panna Tiger Reserve. Map: Amitava Sen
The Ken-Betwa interlinking will submerge 100 sq kms of the Panna Tiger Reserve. Graphic: Amitava Sen

FOREST LAWS

The second push has been to change environment and forest laws for more “productive” uses. So policies are being pushed that allow tree plantations that can be harvested for revenue or laws are being reframed so that mineral deposits can be tapped, power plants can be built and ports constructed. Is this because a forest or coastal ecosystem is of no value unless it is put to a use in such a way that there are monetary returns? So large tracts of inter-tidal areas will be important only if there are wind turbines or transmission lines running through them. If there is ore under the forests, do the trees become less valuable because the price of ore might trump the market price of trees? Grasslands have of course already been marginalized so that solar parks or real estate projects which are more lucrative come up.

Grasslands have already been marginalized so that solar parks or real estate projects which are more lucrative come up.

Third is the debate over consent-based decision-making. Diversion of forest land is not to be allowed without taking the consent of gram sabhas whose rights are likely to be affected. Ever since the forest rights act legislation came up in 2006 and the environment ministry issued clarifications in 2009, this aspect was to be non-negotiable. But for the last two years, the requirement has been chipped away to allow for linear projects like railways, transmission lines and so on. More recently, Dave has also made a statement that it is not practical to take the consent of gram sabhas. How does this augur for a constitutional democracy like India? Are these not retrograde strides away from participatory decision-making or progressive decisions of an economically decisive government?

The trend of swift changes to the EIA notification or forest diversion procedures, which dominated the functioning of the environment ministry since mid-2014, might have slowed down. The ministry is no longer giving signals for setting up high-profile committees for reforming environmental laws. The experience of the TSR Subramanian committee on reviewing key laws and the Shailesh Nayak committee on coastal regulation challenges are complete. But there is ample evidence to show that while the ministry has not formally accepted or rejected these committees, some of their recommendations have been implemented despite popular discontent and questions on transparency. But does that mean there is a change or focus or strategy within the environment ministry?

A tiger at the Panna Reserve
A tiger at the Panna Reserve

MANY RISKS

Some other big decisions are pending too. Allowing Genetically Modified (GM) Mustard to enter India’s farmlands is one. All the questions raised around poor assessments and inadequate EIA reports exist here too. Risks on health and soil and strengthening private seed company control over agriculture remain unaddressed.

Policies are being pushed that allow tree plantations that can be harvested for revenue or laws are being reframed so that mineral deposits can be tapped.

Researcher Aniket Aga’s article in The Hindu highlights that even though the environment ministry has uploaded the “Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety” report for GM mustard on its website, the primary data on which the assessment was carried out was available only to those who can visit the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee secretariat in Delhi and that too only with prior appointment.

Even though high levels of environmental approvals and lower rejection rates have become common speak now, some environmentalists have called this collateral damage in the pursuit for economic growth.

Lead Picture: A social activist shows the green stump of a pine tree cut illegally in Siraj range of Doda in Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: UNI