The decision to fast-track environmental clearances to industrial & infrastructure projects, without due scrutiny, by the Environment Ministry’s expert panels may have larger ramifications, including the outbreak of COVID-19-like zoonotic diseases.
On May 24, former Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh wrote to incumbent Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, requesting him to put a moratorium on environmental clearances to projects in biodiverse forests and eco-sensitive zones granted during the lockdown period. Earlier, on May 13, a letter signed by 291 eminent wildlife activists, scientists, and conservationists entreated Prakash Javadekar to “withhold forest and environmental clearances during the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Amidst the madness and mayhem of the Coronavirus pandemic, no one heard the ominous whispers about the disappearance of India’s last tracts of pristine nature.
The month of April saw the expert panels of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), and India’s highest advisory bodies on wildlife – standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), 10 Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC), and Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) – consider or clear more than 30 proposals through video conference meetings. The projects include a hydro-electric power project in Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, highway expansion through Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary, Goa, a limestone mine in Gir National Park, Gujarat, a geotechnical investigation in Sharavathi Lion-Tailed Macaque Sanctuary, Karnataka, uranium mining in Amrabad Tiger Reserve within the Nallamala forest, Telangana, and coal mining in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, Assam.
Environmentalists are dismayed. And for very good reasons.
More than One Dubious Distinction
In an episode of Man Vs Wild at the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, hosted by “survivalist” Bear Grylls – now infamous for having its shooting coincide with the Pulwama terror attack – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke affably of his love for nature, the importance of environmental conservation, and the lurking dangers of climate change, among other things.
But if one is to carefully examine the decisions taken under his government, in power since 2014, the nationalist Prime Minister’s statements would come across as little more than pretty platitudes.
According to an IndiaSpend analysis, India has approved more than 270 projects in and around protected environments including eco-sensitive zones and biodiversity hotspots in the last six years.
According to data available on the Environment Ministry’s clearance monitoring website, Parivesh, between July 2014 & April 24, 2020, the Ministry gave the green light to 2,256 of 2,592 proposals that it received for the environment clearance. That’s a clearance rate of 87 percent.
The MoEFCC also holds the dubious distinction of reducing the time taken to grant environment clearance to projects from 640 days prior to 2014 to merely 70-80 days in 2019. Moreover, environmental safeguards have been systematically chipped away at. For instance, polluting industries, such as coal, are no longer subject to routine inspections, and oil and gas companies do not need to seek green clearances for exploratory drilling.
Watch: The impact of India’s new forest policy with D Raghunandan, Delhi Science Forum
There is a bitter irony to the tragedy: the Environment Minister also holds charge of the Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises.
The recent clearances have raised hackles in conservation circles for numerous reasons. In the letter, wildlife professionals elaborated how site inspections or field visits – crucial to project evaluation – are nearly impossible to conduct during a nationwide lockdown, making the EACs rely solely on digital documentation and records uploaded by the project developers, with no means of verifying those. This is a deviation from the Supreme Court’s guidelines in the Lafarge Judgment of 2011.
Moreover, since public hearings are difficult to organize virtually, communities potentially affected by such projects – most of whom don’t have access to the internet – are unable to give their consent or send evidence and representations. Alarmingly, EAC meetings – which typically last through the day – were scheduled for merely two hours, allotting just 10 minutes to each project to squeeze 47 of them over three sittings.
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In truth, such reckless impropriety stems from a deeper problem. The standing committee of the NBWL – chaired by the Union Environment Minister – does not include independent environmentalists or conservationists. The committee itself is expected to work under the control of the National Board for Wildlife, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This National Board has not met even once in the last six years.
In response to Jairam Ramesh’s email, Prakash Javadekar assured him that due diligence had been followed for every decision taken, and that the minutes of the meeting evidenced that. Ramesh replied,
“…we all know that since 2014, minutes of such meetings are written beforehand elsewhere”.
Decisions that Spell Doom
Protected areas – comprising national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, conservation & community reserves – account for less than 5 percent of the country’s total geographic area. Under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, these areas are to be protected from any destructive activities that could trigger environmental degradation. Unfortunately, the model of development that the government seems keen on pushing may cause irreversible damage to India’s cherished natural heritage. Some of the calamitous effects of following such a trajectory are well-known – extreme weather events such as flooding, water degradation, increased air pollution, and depletion of wildlife due to habitat loss and fragmentation, among others. But there is yet another frightful consequence.
According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), 60% of human infectious diseases are transmitted to humans from animals. Examples include rabies, tuberculosis, and malaria. The name given to such diseases is “zoonoses” meaning “animal” and “sickness” in the Greek language. Recent years have seen a spurt in zoonotic diseases such as HIV, Ebola, Nipah, Zika, SARS, and most recently, COVID-19.
According to a UNEP report, the emergence of zoonotic diseases can be attributed to environmental disturbances, including human encroachment into forests and biodiversity hotspots.
Many scientists believe that the coronavirus jumped from bats to humans via a vector intermediary. Usually, it is human activity – deforestation causing habitat fragmentation and livestock farming on industrial scales – which creates an environment in which these viruses can jump to other animals before spilling over to humans. According to a study by American researchers, wildlife species that share the most viruses with humans are precisely those whose populations are declining due to habitat loss.
In 2002, India was already one of the world’s top hotspots for zoonoses.
With increased risk factors in 2020, not excluding the government’s pernicious approach to development, the likelihood of India becoming the next epicenter of a zoonotic outbreak is dangerously high.
The Burning of Khandava Prastha
In the ancient Indian epic of Mahabharata, the Khandava Prastha was a dense forest teeming with all kinds of birds and beasts. On Krishna’s advice, the Pandavas set the whole forest ablaze, slaughtering every living creature that sought to flee the inferno. It was on the ruins of this forest that the magnificent city of Indra Prastha was magically built by Maya – a demon or Rakshasa whose life the Pandavas had spared. Rendered homeless and orphaned by the burning of the forest and subsequent massacre, a large number of Nagas or talking serpents swore vengeance on Arjuna the Pandava or one of his descendants. Finally, retribution was exacted with the Naga Takshaka inflicting a fatal bite on Parikshit, the grandson of Arjuna.
To the ruling party, filled with staunch believers in the wisdom and veracity of ancient Indian scriptures, the message should be clear: decimating the last spots of biodiversity and siphoning off natural resources will cost India dearly.