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Taking A Step Back From An Ecological Disaster

Context

  • Chipko. The Valley of Silence. Narmada. Koel-Karo. Many of us who were passionate about environmental issues as children in the 1970s and early 1980s were inspired by these and other movements.
  • As the government responded with a slew of forest, wildlife, and environmental laws and policies, there was hope that India would be able to strike a balance between its development needs and the preservation of its ecological foundations. Is that hope still alive as India celebrates 75 years of independence?

Relevance

GS Paper 3: Environment conservation

Mains Question

What exactly do you mean by Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)? What are the challenges and importance of EIA in India? (150 words)


An Earth in Peril

  • Today’s prospects appear far bleaker than they did in the 1980s. Four hundred and eighty million Indians live in the world’s most polluted areas.
  • “600 million people in India face high to extreme water stress… with nearly 70% of water being contaminated; India is ranked 120th out of 122 countries in the water quality index,” according to NITI Aayog.
  • According to the Indian Space Research Organization, land degradation and desertification affect more than 30% of our land.
  • Average levels of land productivity are one-fourth or one-fifth of what they could be; adding artificial fertilisers helps, but at the expense of pushing the soil further into death.
  • Pesticide residues in most cities are well above human safety levels. The World Bank, which has played a role in pushing India down unsustainable paths, reported in 2013 that India was losing 5.7% of its GDP due to environmental damage.
  • The most recent global environmental ranking by Yale and Columbia Universities places India at the bottom of 180 countries; while flawed in many ways, including how it exonerates rich countries, it is nonetheless reflective of what is happening on the ground.

The Importance of EIA

  • Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are an important part of India’s environmental decision-making process. The Environment Ministry or other relevant regulatory bodies may or may not approve a project based on these reports.
  • The EIA reports are also useful in defining measures that the project could take to limit or offset project impacts.
  • To ensure objectivity and transparency in scientific assessment, the law requires the study to be conducted by an accredited independent EIA consultant.
  • The public hearing stage allows locals to express their concerns, which aids in grassroots governance.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Fundamental Principles:

  • Participation: The process should provide appropriate opportunities for informing and involving the interested and affected publics, and their inputs and concerns should be explicitly addressed in the documentation and decision making. It is critical that interested parties have appropriate/timely access.
  • Transparency: The process should have clear, easy-to-understand requirements for EIA content, ensure public access to information, identify the factors considered in decision making, and acknowledge limitations and difficulties. EIA assessment decisions must be open and accessible.
  • Efficient: The Process should impose the least amount of financial and time burden on proponents and participants while meeting accepted EIA requirements and objectives.
  • Accountability: Decisions should be informed by the decision maker and result in adequate levels of environmental protection and community well-being. Decision-makers must accept accountability for their actions and decisions.
  • Credibility requires that the process be conducted with professionalism, rigour, fairness, objectivity, impartiality, and balance, and that it be subject to independent checks and verification.
  • Cost-effectiveness: The process should achieve the EIA objectives within the constraints of available information, time, resources, and methodology.
  • Integrated: The process should consider the interdependence of social, economic, and biophysical factors.
  • Practicality: The process should produce information and outputs that aid in problem solving and are acceptable to and implementable by proponents. It is critical to have information/outputs that can be used for decision making and planning.

Preferring corporate access

  • All of this evidence has yet to permeate the minds of politicians and economists who set development priorities.
  • Despite mounting evidence that GDP is a poor predictor of human well-being, the obsession with economic growth treats the natural environment (and related livelihoods) as fodder for exploitation.
  • Despite public rhetoric about the SDGs, the natural elements without which we would all perish — land, water, biodiversity, and air — continue to be ignored or abused.
  • Indeed, it is frequently claimed that the government is attempting to dismantle environmental and social security policies in order to favour corporate access to land and natural resources, as evidenced by the most recent proposals to amend forest and environment laws, as well as the Environment Impact Assessment notification.
  • Its priority programmes include the construction of massive physical infrastructure, which only serves to disrupt the natural infrastructure that we desperately need to protect.
  • For example, the allocation for highways in the 2022-23 Budget is 40 times that of the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change. What good is faster and faster mobility if at the end of the journey we still have poisonous air, water, and food?
  • With greater integration into the global economy, the entry of multinational (and large Indian) corporations into every sector, and rising exports of natural resources and imports of toxic waste, the issue of environmental sustainability has been pushed to the margins.
  • Mining projects infiltrated previously safe areas such as wildlife protected areas and Adivasi territories, the oceans became a target for major commercial extraction (and will become even more so with the new Deep Ocean Mission), and big infrastructure became a sacred mantra.
  • While wildlife and biodiversity have suffered greatly, there are also significant socio-cultural costs. Over 60 million people have been physically displaced by ‘development’ projects in the last few decades, with very poor (if any) rehabilitation, and a disproportionately high percentage of these are Adivasis and Dalits, according to the former Planning Commission.
  • Ironically, new coal mining in central India is a component of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliance India), displacing already self-sufficient Adivasi communities and making them dependent on government and corporations.

Extreme occurrences

  • All of this is exacerbated by the climate crisis.
  • Even if we haven’t learned from previous events of extreme temperatures, erratic rainfall, cloudbursts, and cyclones, this year’s super-hot summer should serve as a warning.
  • According to a Lancet Planetary Health journal article, extreme temperatures in India cause 7,40,000 extra deaths each year.
  • The majority of these people are likely to be labourers, farmers, and other vulnerable groups who must work, live, and commute in these temperatures without access to air conditioning, appropriate clothing, and so on.
  • And we are completely unprepared, with pitiful budgets for adaptation measures. The Climate Action Plan received only 30 crore in the 2022-23 Budget.

Enabling long-term viability

  • So, what is India’s greatest challenge? Can ecological sustainability be ensured while providing livelihood security and dignity to over a billion people? As documented in the Vikalp Sangam process, answers do exist in thousands of initiatives across the country. The Deccan Development Society’s 5,000 Dalit women farmers have demonstrated how organic, rainfed farming with traditional seed diversity can provide full food security and sovereignty.
  • Several hundred handloom weavers in Kachchh (Gujarat) have demonstrated how dignified, creative livelihoods based on organic Kala cotton and a mix of traditional and new skills can be revived.
  • Indeed, India’s crafts have historically supported hundreds of millions of people, and they can do so again if incredible traditional and new skills in textiles, footwear, cleaning agents, vessels, pottery, furniture, architecture and construction, water-related technologies, and a variety of household items are prioritised.
  • Homestays in Uttarakhand, Ladakh, and Sikkim, for example, have combined increased earnings with ecologically sensitive visitation.
  • Community conserved areas have demonstrated a democratic approach to wildlife protection that contrasts sharply with the top-down ‘protected area’ model.
  • Public transportation, organic farming, land and water regeneration, renewable energy, community health, eco-friendly construction, ecotourism, and small-scale manufacturing, as advocated by the United Nations Environment Programme, can significantly boost job creation.
  • Linking programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act with such activities, as some states are doing, has enormous potential.

A mobilisation is required

  • Such an orientation necessitates fundamental changes to the economy and governance.
  • It will imply a shift away from large infrastructure and industrialisation, replacing mega-corporations with producer cooperatives, ensuring community rights over the ‘commons’ (land, water, forest, coasts, knowledge), and transferring decision-making powers to gramme sabhas and urban area sabhas while addressing gender and caste inequities.
  • It will entail respect for both human and natural rights. But, because this will inevitably (and ideally) reduce the ultra-profits rich’s and consumerism, as well as the state’s centralised power, it will not happen through government action alone.
  • It requires the collective mobilisation of industrial workers, farmers, fishers, craftspeople, pastoralists, urban and rural youth, women in all sectors, the “disabled” and LGBTQ, and those advocating for wildlife, all of whom are marginalised by dominant elites.
  • Only then will India complete its century of independence as a nation that has achieved genuine well-being — a true ‘amrit kaal’ rather than the seductive but poisonous chimaera promised by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her Budget 2022-23 address.

Conclusion

There is a need to improve EIA implementation, and an independent EIA Authority is required for fair and objective decisions. There is also a need for a centralised data bank to store information, and transparency must be maintained in the dissemination of all project information to local communities and the general public, from notification to clearance.


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