By Rakesh Roshan*
In the land where people worship nature and treat plants, trees, animals, and rivers as Gods and Goddesses, India performs abysmally low on environmental indicators. India is the second most polluted country after China. Moreover, 21 out of 30 cities around the world with the worst air quality are in India (Regan, 2020). According to the IQAir quality index, Kolkata is the second most polluted city while Delhi is the fourth most polluted city in the world. The water quality index is also very similar, where India ranks 122th out of 122 countries worldwide. According to research by the World Research Institute, India has lost more than 1.6 million hectares of forest cover during the 2001-18 period, the lost area being equivalent to four times the size of Goa.
Ineffective Environmental Regulations
The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 was enacted to prohibit the discharge of wastes and pollutants beyond a standard limit into the water bodies. However, pollutant discharge has been rampant, and the implementation of the law has not been effective. Moreover, several river-specific programs like the Ganga Action plan, Namami Gange were launched, but the condition of the river still remains the same. Despite the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, India has lost its forest to around 23,716 industrial projects in the last 30 years ( (Ghosh, 2016). The lost forest has endangered various wildlife species, while some species have become critically endangered. Therefore, afforestation can compensate for the lost trees, but it cannot replace the ecosystem.
The government is diluting some laws to expedite the process of approval. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a tool to predict the environmental impacts at an early stage and minimize the adverse consequences that may arise in the future. The new rules which have been drafted for EIA would reduce the time to 90 days for public assessment and scrutiny. There are other issues with EIA, like public objections are not heard at an early stage, which leads to conflicts in the future. There is a lack of credibility in the EIA report because, many times, fraudulent data and facts are entered. For example, in the EIA report submitted for the construction of the Power Plant in Mirzapur, the site was declared as barren land.
However, the land was cultivable and fertile and very rich in bio-diversity. The companies also try to influence the government and bend the laws to favor their position. Another issue is that the government in India changes after every five years. Consequently, some environmental policies may sometimes be discontinued if the new government is of a different view from the previous government. The effectiveness of policies, therefore, declines and also creates implementation challenges for the bureaucrats.
If a project gets approved and if some community gets affected, then in such a scenario National Green Tribunal (NGT) may award compensation, which is routed through Environment Relief Fund (ERF). However, in most of the cases, it was found that the money was not disbursed to the project affected people.
‘Politicization’ of bureaucracy
Earlier bureaucrats were at least ‘perceived’ as neutral and apolitical. The recent trends suggest that there has been ‘politicization’ of bureaucracy as well, where the bureaucrats now openly disclose their support to a particular political party. They align themselves to that political party’s ideologies and often work on the orders of that political party. As a result, the common man suffers as their interests are considered second to the party’s interests, which the bureaucrats support. The issue of corruption is also a never-ending problem that India faces, which leads to the approval of projects which have a very detrimental impact on the environment and society.
Lack of Expertise and awareness
It has been observed that the awareness of judges about the ecosystem is low. The judges rely on articles and reports available in the public domain only. There are a few advocates who have deep technical knowledge about wildlife and the environment. Quite often, the team formed for conducting the EIA studies also lack expertise in these areas. The reason could be the curriculum followed in our education system. During a talk with one environmental activist, it was found that people are more aware of the wildlife species and environmental issues of foreign countries, but understanding our own nature and wildlife among Indian citizens is almost nil. The textbooks and even Indian movies talk about the wildlife species of foreign countries. In addition to these, people nowadays have lost connection with nature. In this fast-paced world, most people are either glued to the computer screen or mobile. Most of the time, either they are unaware of the things happening to the environment, or even if they know about the exploitation of natural resources, they accept the status quo.
Public apathy towards the environment
People are, in general, apathetic towards the environment. People generally throw wastes while traveling. Every year around eight million tons of plastics end up in oceans, which constitutes around 80% of the marine wastes. It is common in India that people throw away wastes directly from bus or car or train while traveling. Consequently, waste gets accumulated on the road or railway tracks, and affects the environment.
Stricter regulation of NGOs
The government has stopped giving grants to the Organisations like Centre for Environment Education (CEE) an organization carrying out environmental education in the country. The recent notification on the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act has made the matter worse, where NGOs are required to fulfill criteria like minimum existence of three years and Rs 15 lakh expenditure on activities for receiving foreign donations (Shankhyaneel Sarkar, 2020). Such rules would disincentive the organization from working for the betterment of the environment and society.
The way forward
There should be more sensitivity towards the environment while framing the laws, and the government should avoid diluting such laws. The implementation of laws still remains a challenge. The education curriculum needs to change with more focus on Indian wildlife and the environment. There should be a system of checks and balances where the project affected people are assured of compensation routed through ERF. People also need to change their ‘chalta hai’ attitude to ‘ab nhi chalega’ wherever they see any exploitation of natural resources. The protection of the environment is not the government’s responsibility alone but also a fundamental duty of every Indian citizen. Both government and citizens should work together to protect the environment.
*Second-year student, Class of 2021, IIM Ahmedabad