“Maatu hamru, paani hamru, hamra hi chhan yi baun bhi… Pitron na lagai baun, hamunahi ta bachon bhi”
Soil ours, water ours, ours are these forests. Our forefathers raised them, it’s we who must protect them.
– Old Chipko Song (Garhwali language)
The relentless war between Industry and Environment began almost 300 years back in India, when 363 valiant Bishnoi villagers in Rajasthan, headed by a brave lady, Amrita Devi, laid down their lives striving to save forests threatened to be slashed down by the then Maharaja of Jodhpur. The movement inspired future protests such as the Chipko Movement of the 1970’s, headed by the renowned Garhwali environmentalist, Sunderlal Bahuguna. “Economy is Ecology”, was the slogan of the 1970’s Chipko movement.
Today all such movements are muffled in the rapid pace of India’s development. India is losing 135 hectares of forest land daily as per the data acquired through a recent RTI petition. The 2012 Red List reveals 132 species of Indian flora and fauna as critically endangered and thousands more lie precariously on the thin line between endangered and extinct. Forest area of India has plummeted to a meagre 24.01% of the total geographical area of the country. Compare this with the bursting human population, and a bleak picture of India’s ecological future is derived.
Currently, the Indian Government is set to amend 6 environmental laws of India, namely, the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, Environment (Protection) Act 1986, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981 and the Indian Forest Act 1927. The amendments will be made on the basis of the report submitted by the TSR Subramanian Panel, which was set up last year to review, and suggest amendments for these environmental laws. The amendments are likely to come into effect by October this year.
Last year, after the BJP Government rose to power in the Centre, 650 ‘green clearances’ were given to projects, worth thousands of crores, within a span of six months. Union Environment Minister, Sri Prakash Javadekar said in an interview: “We are giving clearances without even looking at the faces of project promoters”. He claimed the clearances were handed out ensuring there was no adverse impact on the environment. This new policy of the Government is in sharp contrast to that of the Congress-led UPA Government which faced criticism for long-term withholding of economically significant projects which needed ‘green clearance’ .
The new amendments to the six environmental laws have been initiated by Narendra Modi’s Government keeping the above policy in mind. Speedy clearances to new project proposals will follow under the new norms. The red-tape bottleneck of projects will be prevented. Earlier, several levels of reviewing were mandatory to clear a project as ‘clean’ for the environment. By implementing a single comprehensive clearance system, the present amendments will ensure such ‘time wasting’ procedures are eliminated. Public hearing and local involvement in the clearance system will be significantly diluted, so will the renewal policies of projects. Tribal consent for using forested lands will no longer be needed. This would definitely benefit industrialists as they will now have less to complain about.
The real-estate sector will also welcome the amendments as forested patches, not under Government records, will be available for initiating new projects. The definition of forests itself will be amended to make large patches of forested lands free of forest laws. Stringent forest regulations will be diluted to make forestry practices more feasible. Involvement of the private sector in afforestation projects is also being considered by the Government.
Thus, with the above reforms, the Central Government in India aims to achieve rapid industrial and economic growth.
However, most environmentalists are not pleased with the Government’s ambitious goals. They point out the following discrepancies in the proposed new policies:
• Less stringent project clearance norms coupled with diluted public involvement and renewal policies, may result in a permanent damage to India’s wild habitats. Aggressive exploitation of wild habitats may lead to species extinction.
• Speedy and easy clearance norms may result in irresponsible handling of pollution standards by industries. This may choke our already polluted water and air with more toxic matter.
• Tribals and other locals inhabiting forest lands would lose their say in matters of encroachment of their lands by the private sectors. Their livelihood may be severely affected.
• Many productive forested lands in India are not on Government records, due to conflicts between revenue and forest departments, and varying state laws. Now, those forests may become vulnerable to be chopped down by the private-sector and the flora and fauna of those regions will be lost.
Thus, in India ‘progress with tears’ seems inevitable if the Government is not cautious about the thin line between imminent development and destructive carnage. Penchant for progress should not digress into regression of ecology.
In this context, a quote by Gandhiji reminds us: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”