How Much Has The Modi Govt. Been Able To Protect The Environment?

Just days ahead of World Environment Day 2017 came news of America’s dramatic withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. The decision by US President Donald Trump drew much criticism from a long list of world leaders, as well as multiple Silicon Valley CEOs like Elon Musk (Tesla Inc, SpaceX). Trump’s argument? The Agreement lays an unfair burden on highly developed nations like the US, while countries like India are simply cruising along on foreign aid, without really fighting climate threats.

Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, India has backed the idea of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, recognising the inequalities between the Global North and South in causing and being able to mitigate climate change. And, fortunately, we’ve stuck to our guns this long. And even as Trump prepares for the four-year-long exit process, India marks this World Environment Day by renewing its pledge to the Paris Agreement.

But Trump’s remarks do prompt a discussion about how well (or badly) India has managed its environment. The past three years under the Narendra Modi government have indeed seen a number of striking developments in this respect.

One Step Forward But Way Too Many Steps Back

The Centre for Science and Environment calls Modi’s policy a “mixed bag.” This is because there appears to be a lot of promising stuff in there. For example, the UJALA Scheme, under which 238 million energy-efficient LED bulbs were reportedly distributed nationwide. With Upendra Tripathy heading the International Solar Alliance, India is taking a big lead on strengthening renewable energy. In fact, 2014 saw a 91% increase in grid-connected renewable energy, when compared with 1991. And under our UN Climate Pledge, we intend to source 40% of our electricity from non-fossil sources. But there are plenty of spanners in the works. LEDs will be of little use to 92% of rural households that aren’t even connected to the grid. We are still largely dependent on coal and thermal power, so really it’s no surprise that, last year, pollution in big cities like Delhi, Lucknow and Patna were nothing short of deadly.

Laws Are Flimsier Than Ever

The revision the E-Waste Management Rules of 2011, and the introduction of the Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules of 2016 were two positive reforms in the law, but others betray the government’s bias for profit over people. For example, green clearances: rather than staggering these, the NDA-led government has in fact accelerated them. They’ve become easier to do too, since online forms for environmental clearance became operational in July 2014. A report by Hindustan Times last year said that “[w]hile the UPA rejected 11.9% projects due to wildlife concerns, the rejection rate during NDA rule has been less than 0.01%.”

Yet another example of callousness when it comes to forests has been the ‘incentivising’ of forests for industrial use! The government has directed state forest departments to give over 5,000 to 10,000 hectares of ‘degraded’ forest areas to private sector entities. Of this land, only 10-15% will be made available to local communities.

But perhaps the most blatant example has been the utter destruction of the Yamuna riverbed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s ‘World Cultural Festival’ this March. Damage control will cost over ₹42 crore, and take 10 whole years. The National Green Tribunal and Centre both permitted this after a compensation fee of ₹5 crore was paid. Even then, the government failed to pull up those involved.

Major Projects Moving At A Sluggish Pace

The Clean Ganga Mission was an important initiative by the Modi government, for which 20,000 crore was set aside until 2019. But unlike its vehement cousin, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, it has all but fizzled out. Not only has spending on the Mission been negligible, but all 21 proposals under it are yet to be implemented. It had a 13-point agenda, of which only three have been achieved – surface cleaning; setting up Ganga Grams (model villages); and creating the Ganga Task Force. And it was today that union water minister Uma Bharti admitted it would take another decade to actually clean the Ganga.

Transparency And Participation Missing

A placard reading "Go Back Monsanto" next to baskets of vegetables
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A report by Business Standard reveals how government permission for genetically modified (GM) crops has been under wraps, not just limited but obliterating any chance of public engagement on the issue of food security and health. But even when it’s not in secret, things look daunting. GMO giant Monsanto made a deal with the Maharasthra government during a Make In India program, which has been a defining initiative by our current government. Despite the company’s dubious history, as well as several warnings from scientists and activists both, there appears to be a push for GMOs in India, without so much as a chance for ordinary citizens to react.

Where Are We At, In The Fight Against Climate Change?

India is among the 147 countries that have signed the Paris Agreement. And it it has been suggested that Modi himself has taken a personal interest in combatting climate change. After all, he did approach a surprised R. K. Pachauri in 2009 or a two-day seminar on the matter. Add to that, he made ‘energy and climate’ one of the five pillars of the India-US Strategic Dialogue in 2014.

But at the end of the day, here’s a few things we have to remember about our country: We are one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, globally. No matter how many new standards are put in place, “regular non-compliance” persists in the coal industry. It is time for our government, or any government in the world, to get much tougher on environment malpractices.