Uncomfortable situations of having to take tough calls for the environment, will unfortunately, but entirely of our own doing, become a regular part of our lives.
The scorching heatwave that India has endured over the past few weeks and the massive floods in the eastern part of the country are just another example of the worsening situation, of more frequent and severe weather events. A climate crisis in every sense of the word, it is not an alarmist belief to think that the kinds of challenges it is and will be throwing up in the future will challenge all conventional notions of governance and management. And, in situations that are only bound to increase in number, there will not be any easy solutions, able to redress adequately the concerns and needs of both sides to an equation. After all, stopgap methods can only go so far.
A recent example makes a near perfect case for such a scenario. The Supreme Court, while adjudicating a Public Interest Litigation, ordered the creation of eco-sensitive zones of one kilometer around wildlife sanctuaries. Human activities are either totally prohibited or may continue with the permission of Principal Chief Conservator of Forests in accordance with guidelines issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on 9th February, 2011, which detail various activities under certain classes that may or may not be carried out around these establishments. The court has also stated that in case there is any law which holds a wider area to be an ESZ, the same shall continue and equally, that the minimum limit of one kilometre may be diluted in “overwhelming public interest.”
Controversy has erupted against this order on the grounds that it has adversely affected the livelihood of many farmers. Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi has written to the Prime Minister to address the concerns of the people.
Another example is the opposition to the Draft Rules for declaring the Western Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Area. The Western Ghats have been termed as the ‘hottest hotspot’ for biodiversity, housing over 5000 kinds of plants and 325 globally endangered species, and therefore, the importance they hold cannot be overstated. The Karnataka Government, however, has resolved to oppose this notification, on the same grounds expressed by politicians in Kerala, that it would disrupt the lives of many people. On the other hand, keeping in view the nature of the ghats, many have emphasised the importance and vitality of its protection.
An age old saying comes to mind: “there is a flip side to every coin”. In other words, to which side ambiguous phrases like overwhelming public interest would tilt is decided by the lens through which the situation is viewed. In political context and therefore by default through an economic lens, this verdict is a fundamentally life-altering one for those involved. Some others believe that in some of these areas, which are urbanised, it gives the right to the forest department to harass people.
On the other end there is a necessity to protect wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. With the citizenry living in an ever densifying concrete jungle, these pockets of dense flora and fauna play a crucial role. To state the obvious, with these demarcated areas, protection of biodiversity, tree cover, wildlife and also the consequential reduction in CO2, all are essential to the fight against the climate crisis. One must also not forget, that forests and their impact is not cut off by political boundaries – it extends in proportion to the whole of the earth. So, in compromising these sanctuaries/parks, it is also the world on the whole that is being affected. This is why, for example, some people contend that the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest, 27% of which will be treeless at today’s pace, is a crime against humanity.
Where does India stand: the rejection of EPI
When one speaks of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, India has been ranked, generally, 179th of 180 in Biodiversity, 175th and 170th out of 180 in the Biodiversity Habitat Index which estimates the effects of habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation on the expected retention of terrestrial biodiversity, and forms part of the Yale/Columbia Environmental Performance Index (EPI).
Even though India has rejected the EPI, calling it based on “surmises and unscientific methods”, and while there may be some truth to that, one cannot help but notice that a repudiation came only when a country has been placed last, as opposed to ever before, ever since its assessment began (apart from once when India blamed its low ranking on high population, not on methods/calculation.) It sends a dangerous message of selective disagreement, missing out completely the opportunity for introspection and implementation of course-correction, to whatsoever extent possible.
The crossroads that India is on today is one with immense ramifications, the world over. On one path is the oft-tread path of development and on the other is the uncomfortable realisation of the gravity of the situation at hand and the accompanying tough calls that come with it.
Wind bloweth where?
With the EPI rejected, protests against the ESZs are taking place along with a review of the judgement being sought, and other recent judgements of the Supreme Court where non-obtaining of environmental clearances has been termed a “technical irregularity” – in one case (Electrosteel Steels Ltd.), the company had shifted its site of operation by more than five kilometers without obtaining clearance for the new site and in the other (Pahwa Plastics Pvt. Ltd.), a chemical manufacturing unit had received other permits and was functioning without environmental clearances. In both cases economic factors were clearly given primacy, although lip service was paid by saying that these clearances, ex post facto, should not be granted. The judges also said that the same cannot be declined with “pedantic rigidity”; the direction in which the wind blows is clear.
Embrace and combat the challenges
It has to be acknowledged that the people whose interests of ‘development’ are going to be affected by the ESZs, their rehabilitation is going to be a difficult task, but then there shall come a time, not too far away, where this will not matter. Key infrastructure, for example in Mumbai (998 buildings), Kochi (349 buildings) will be affected just by a rise in sea levels. Delhi has already touched 49C, and so it is safe to assume it will get worse. Who will be protesting against at that time? Where will these people go?
These uncomfortable situations of having to take tough calls for the environment, will unfortunately, but entirely of our own doing, become a regular part of our lives. Constructive steps must be taken on planning for such eventualities, because at the current rate of emissions and full-steam nature of general human activity, climate related displacement only rises from this point forward. Not only planning, but also eschewing of carefully chosen neutral language with respect to the situation at hand, with changes in the education system, necessarily reflecting the true nature of the issue at hand. The discomfort has to be embraced, not only for it to spur widespread action, but also to be aware of the possible future – a result of indifference and inaction.
The writer is an independent researcher. [email protected]