In the wake of new industrialism, India’s ecological refugees are being left out of the development process.
India is ushering in a new era of industrial growth, and somewhere in this ambitious agenda lies a battered environmental policy. Today, the country stands as the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the United States and China. The vulnerabilities and risks associated with rising sea levels and air pollution will affect the country as a whole but the greatest threats are faced by small and marginal farmers, indigenous communities and the Urban poor who still form a vast majority of India’s population.
India’s newly elected government came with a set of promises for sustainable development and renewable energy. While this has attracted some positive response, environmentalists and social activists have criticised the impetuous approach to industrial expansion and coal production that has been given priority on the other side.
One regime prior, lax environmental standards gave rise to a host of mining scams in the iron ores of Karnataka State and in the river beds of the Ganges. There was also a failure to respond to decade old industrial disasters such as the Bhopal gas tragedy — a matter still unsettled. Now, the new regime has jumbled the wires even more. Environmental regulatory mechanisms, governing bodies and the new, “Make in India,” agenda seems to be going the way of easy environmental clearances. Namely, throwing exceptions if the payout seems substantial for the Indian economic sector. This is especially reflected in a report released by a High level committee set up by the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests which has stressed on ‘speedy approval’ of projects’ and curtailing the level of public participation in projects of ‘strategic importance’. Nearly 92 projects have been granted forest clearance in a span of two months and smaller coal mines have been given permission to expand twice their current capacity without public discussions or meetings. This undermines the importance of environmental impact assessments and calls for a more efficient, transparent regulatory mechanism.
The rift between development and environment has increased under these circumstances and one is pitted against the other. For example, an Information Bureau report identified some major NGOs and popular environmental struggles as an impediment to development last year. On the other hand, no mention was made of organisations like Vedanta, a mining company or Coca Cola, who have been at the midst of important environmental legal battles in India. The question remains – development for whom? And at whose cost?
India needs to revisit the changes made in its regulatory bodies to check the adverse side effects of private lobbyists and a one dimensional view of development.
There is an urgent need to embrace alternatives to ‘business as usual’ and direct investments towards green technologies.
It may be granted that India still has a few years of growth ahead of her, in order to ameliorate the masses trapped in poverty but the manufacture-consume model of creating wealth will only deepen the gaps in inequality. Thus, there is also a need for us to re-evaluate the limits to both old school factories as well as the limits to decoupling with respect to ‘green growth’ in our finite circumstances.
A remarkable spurt of inventiveness can be witnessed in the form of local initiatives and organisations across the country. These include decentralised water harvesting, organic farming collectives, collective management of forest resources and several others. In order for these to gain momentum, the State and its administrative bodies need to acknowledge the needs of the people and revisit its short-sighted economic models for prosperity.
Reporting: Shwetha Govindan, an undergraduate student in Social Sciences from Hyderabad, India. She reports on the changing environmental regulations in India and how it is affecting ecological refugees within the country.