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India's environmental misadventures

State and Central governments of the nation must work hand in hand, sidelining their political differences to protect India’s environment
Last Updated : 25 May 2021, 03:00 IST
Last Updated : 25 May 2021, 03:00 IST
Last Updated : 25 May 2021, 03:00 IST
Last Updated : 25 May 2021, 03:00 IST

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Climate change impacts and impending environmental catastrophes are looming across the globe. Nations are beginning to take positive steps to limit greenhouse gas emissions and promoting programs to safeguard the planet. The Covid-19 pandemic has stalled India’s environmental protection projects.

The Jal Jeevan Mission was inaugurated in 2019 to manage socio-environmental issues, including waste management, Ganges pollution, deforestation and clean water supply. However, these projects have a limited impact on India’s environmental landscape, particularly on the nation’s role in addressing climate change-related issues.

India is ranked 177 amongst 180 nations with a low baseline score of 30.59 in the transnational environmental performance index (EPI). The anthropocentric policies of the centre seem to disregard environmental values totally. In 1994, the environmental impact assessment (EIA) notification was formulated under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. The government’s recent EIA amendment drive is to ease the clearances of industries even if such clearances destroy the fragile and already polluted environment.

The Centre has already diluted the environmental clearance process, giving more power to State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities (SEIAAs). Environmental approvals for polluting industries are now easier to get than under the EIA 2006 notification. Polluting industries can now operate within 5 kilometres of eco-sensitive zones, contrary to the 10-kilometre margin given in the 2006 notification. The environmental regulations for coal tar processing, sand mining and paper pulp industries are also eased. An earlier policy that banned the setting up of industries in eight ‘critically-polluted’ industrial belts was revoked in 2014.

The Bhopal disaster in 1984 that resulted in 3,784 deaths and impacted countless lives seems to have faded in the memories of policymakers. Last year a styrene gas leak at LG Polymers Company plant in Vizag resulted in 12 deaths. At the same time, 2,000 people fell sick from inhaling the toxic gas. Investigation revealed that this plant, operating between 1997 and 2019, did not have the required environmental clearance. We need to revisit the importance of a robust EIA framework instead of the central policy of diluting even the existing norms.
The number of independent members on the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) was recently reduced from 15 to just 3. This seems to reduce the board to a mere puppet in the hand of policymakers. The result of this policy level change is apparent within the last five year period. NBWL approved 99% of all industrial projects in contrast to 80% in the previous UPA-2 government.

The government has launched several schemes in the energy sector, including the National Action Plan on Climate change (NAPCC). These schemes talk about popularising renewable energies and distributing power to the remotest corner of the nation. However, the environmental reality is somewhat different. On 11th December 2017, the Central Pollution Control Board allowed over 400 thermal power stations to release pollutants that exceeded the 2015 limit set by the government. One report also suggested that 16 newer units that started operating in 2017 failed to install clean technology systems to limit pollution. In 2018, 15 Indian cities were listed amongst the world’s 20 most polluted cities.

In 2017, the Centre even tried to dilute the National Green Tribunal's (NGT) efficiency, one of the world’s most promising environmental tribunals. By manipulating the provisions of a money bill, a committee has been set up to select the chairperson of the NGT. In this five-member committee, four are governmental nominees. Previously, the NGT was headed by a former Supreme Court judge or the chief justice of a high court. Under the new policy, anyone with at least 25 years of experience in law can head the NGT. This evidently reduces the autonomy and effectiveness of the NGT.

There is a danger that environmentally degrading mining projects may creep into the pristine forests of the Western Ghats, the Himalayas and the northeast, which are all designated biodiversity hot spots. State and Central governments of the nation must work hand in hand, sidelining their political differences to protect India’s environment and not forsake it for short term monetary gain.

(The authors are associate professor and dean, respectively, at Jindal School of Environment & Sustainability, O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana, India)

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Published 24 May 2021, 20:45 IST

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