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Indian policy makers 'not alive': Collapsing ecosystem has led to unprecedented heat wave

By Dr Gopal Krishna* 
Environmental health researchers, lawyers and activists are at their wits' end because an ideology of “development at any cost” is creating an impression that environmental regulations are a hurdle in the process of financial growth and development.
The threat to the integrity of the natural systems is a threat to human health, and such threats have become routine because of myopic industrial agriculture, blind urban development, regressive transport systems and criminal neglect of non-human species. 
While legislative safeguards for environmental protection do seem to exist on paper, homicidal ecological lawlessness has led to rampant industrial pollution, soil erosion, agricultural pollution, and genetic erosion of plant resources. This trend must be arrested in right earnest.
It is evident that the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA), which gives mandate to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, is not alive to the collapsing ecosystem which has enveloped the country in the unprecedented heat wave. 
The stark question is whether the CCEA will let anyone make the structural changes required in terms of reversing the current policies which have resulted in manifest adverse impact on environmental health or whether poisoning of our blood streams and amputation of river basin systems would continue to be deemed collateral damage.
Be it blood contamination, congenital disorders, preventable but incurable cancer or extinction of known and unknown living species on our planet, it creates a compelling logic to re-examine the premises of Industrial Revolution and design a new one. In the developed world the model of development is under interrogation because of environmental problems.
Between 1975 and 1995 the Indian economy grew 2.5 times, industrial pollution went up four-fold, and vehicular pollution went up eight-fold. This analysis seems factually correct but it has ended up internalising the pollution and externalising the human cost of pollution. 
In such a context, health indicators of the deteriorating environment is witnessed in terms of a double burden of disease but the political class seems to have been rendered spineless by the corporate empires.
Environmental health crisis merits more than rhetoric or cosmetic solutions. If one were to identify some key areas which deserve immediate and urgent remedial attention of the new government, it would be:
1. Publish a database of environmental criminals and fugitives with their photographs and profiles with the name of the companies which fall under the 64 heavily polluting industries under the Red category (highly polluting industries), 34 moderately polluting industries ('Orange' category) and 54 'marginally' polluting units ('Green' category). Also publish a list of India's Most Wanted Environmental Criminals with wanted posters.
2. The environment ministry must get enhanced budgetary allocation for rejuvenating the decaying institutional infrastructure including the Central Pollution Control Board. One parliamentary report too calls for saving the CPCB, the nodal body for regulating environmental norms. Currently, environment clearance, compliance and monitoring are in a very sorry state. It should be strengthened.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests said the CPCB is being 'reduced to a near-defunct body'. The 141-page report of the steering committee on the environment and forests sector for the eleventh five year plan prepared by Planning Commission deals with environment and development. It refers to 'the regulatory challenge' and states: 'In the past some years, intensive economic growth, which has increased economic wealth, has led to massive pollution and degradation of the natural environment. One of the main reasons for this is that the regulatory and institutional framework to control pollution and degradation of natural resources is unable to keep pace with the rapidly changing economic, social and environmental situation in the country.'
'The number of polluting activities -- and the quantum of pollution generated -- has increased in the last several years. Furthermore, newer and newer environmental challenges are thrown up -- from solid waste disposal, to disposal and recycling of hazardous waste, to toxins like mercury, dioxins and activities like ship-breaking to management of vehicular pollution.'
It is high time environmental regulation keeps pace with environmental crimes. Even Interpol has a Pollution & Environment Crime Working group; India too needs one.
3. Stopping transboundary movement of polluting technologies, hazardous wastes, creating an inventory of hazardous chemicals and wastes besides conducting an environmental health audit along with the ministry of health to ascertain the body burden through investigation of industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides in umbilical cord blood. In one such study in the US, of the 287 chemicals detected in umbilical cord blood, 180 were known to cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests. Absence of such studies in India does not mean that a similar situation does not exist in India. Until and unless we diagnose the current unacknowledged crisis, how will he regulatory bodies predict, prevent and provide remedy.
Currently, India is a victim of the unfolding Lawrence Summers Principle. Lawrence Summers, director of the White House's National Economic Council for US President Barack Obama as a World Bank chief economist, sent a memo to one of his subordinates justifying transfer of harmful chemicals from developed countries to developing countries. Indian position on the Basel Convention, Rotterdam Convention and the recently adopted IMO Convention reveals the same.
Our ecological space is a living entity but it is faced with the cannibalistic propensities of illegitimately totalitarian scientism which is married with political consensus. Its linear, piecemeal and closed technological thinking fails to acknowledge that no unlimited development is possible in the nature of things.
4. Adopt mandatory emission cuts as a national, domestic and enforceable objective even as we affirm the validity of the 'principle of historical responsibility' which is indisputable and incontrovertible. The current stance which states, 'subjecting national aspirational efforts to an international compliance regime may result in lower ambitions' is fine but our ability to reach a certain emission reduction target under a national plan as a national legal obligation would enhance India's negotiating position. In fact the National Action Plan for Climate Change should be revisited to ensure visible and truly 'credible actions' within our own framework.
It is inconsequential for citizens whether some post-dated international humanitarian law is being followed in letter or not, what is of consequence is whether or not its governmental actions factor in the spirit behind a law that will have ramifications not only for the present generation but also for the future generations. Disassociation with carbon trade is also a must because benefits from it are suspect.
5. Get the National Water Policy, National Environment Policy and the industrial policy rewritten for adoption of a river basin approach to undo the unhealthy legacy of bulldozing rivers, flood plains, forests, biodiversity, natural drainage etc in manner as if citizens and natural processes are irrelevant.
The National Council for Applied Economic Research has also made recommendations for the setting up the National Commission for Basin Management. This is required also as a response to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's assessment report that states, 'Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate'.
The River Basin Authority must be fashioned in manner that it does not remain a rubber stamp or a paper tiger because if all industrial projects are cleared by Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, what role can an effete body of the environment ministry do to undo the wrongs committed by the CCEA? 
In fact, if one undertakes an investigation of institutional accountability for Bhopal gas leak disaster, it is quite likely that the buck would stop at the CCEA. The environment ministry must be empowered enough to save itself from its regressive influence.
6. Get a District wise state of environmental health report prepared in order to assess the current state of the local ecosystems.
7. Restore Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification of 2006, make it stringent by ensuring preparation of EIA reports by independent institutions and abandon the proposed Environment Supplement Plan (ESP).
8. Initiate process of setting up of functional environmental courts in each district by introducing a Bill in the Parliament on the lines of Human Rights Courts provided for in the Protection of Human Rights Act.
9. Undo the amendment done in the Biological Diversity Act in the supreme interest of present and future generations and top safeguard our biodiversity which faces grave threats from vested interests.
10. Stop giving environmental clearances to asbestos based factories and projects in keeping with the 19 page long Vision Statement on Environment and Human Health of your ministry which states, “Environmental epidemiological studies are required to be carried out near to industrial estates and hazardous waste disposal sites to estimate the extent of health risks including from asbestos. Alternatives to asbestos may be used to the extent possible and use of asbestos may be phased out.” 
As a first step get a Register of asbestos laden buildings prepared so that a road map can be prepared for their decontamination. The state ought to prepare a Register of those workers who handle asbestos and the victims of primary and secondary exposure from asbestos fibers.
The Concept Paper dated September 2011 of Union Ministry of Labour, Government of India presented at the EU-India Seminar that reveals that the Central Government is planning to eliminate asbestos from the country due to health reasons.
Supreme Court's order dated January 27, 1995 and World Health Organisation (WHO)'s outline for the Development of National Programmes for elimination of asbestos related diseases' make a case for stopping all asbestos based products to prevent the imminent public health crisis as a consequence of which more than 55 countries have banned all forms of asbestos.
It will be great if the new government can pursue remedial measures for present and future generations before children get engulfed in the epidemic of incurable but preventable asbestos related diseases. This is of seminal importance to prevent preventable diseases and deaths.
11. Make sure that each union ministry has an environment department which submits a report on the ecological footprint of their actions and decisions.
12. Undo the amendment to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, which has changed the definition of forests, amendment to the rules under the Environment Protection Act and the voluntary Green Credit Programme. 
Some amendments delegated environmental regulation to state level institutions who do not have the technical competence and laboratories to undertake regulation. India has lost 2.33 million hectares of tree cover since 2000, according to the latest data from the Global Forest Watch monitoring project, which is equivalent to a six percent reduction in tree cover during this period. The data revealed that 95 percent of the loss has occurred within natural forests between 2023-2023. According to research published in The Lancet last year, the country saw a 55% increase in heat-related deaths between 2000-04 and 2017-21. Fatal Indian incidents reveal eroded regulations. A Committee should be set up to examine the dilutions of the norms, delegations and programmes.
13. Stop biomass burning and waste incineration based energy projects to combat air pollution.
14. Stop dumping of hazardous wastes/end-of-lfe ships in Indian waters. Between 2014-2023 some 1200 toxic end-of-lfe ships have been transferred to Alang beach, Bhavnagar, Gujarat by foreign shipping companies/countries to escape decontamination cost in their own country. Workers and local communities are routinely exposed to carcinogens including radioactive materials, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polyvinyl chloride, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), tributyltin compounds, mercury, lead, isocyanates and sulfuric acid besides asbestos.
A dumping ground for foreign hazardous waste, 1200 end-of-life ships were dumped in Indian waters during 2013-23
15. Bring out a White Paper on status of radioactive waste management and enviro-occupational diseases of workers in atomic power plants and laboratories. Pay heed to the recommendations of the paper entitled Radioactive waste management in India: present status and future perspectives
16. Stop world's biggest and most ecologically disastrous project diverting rivers for interlinking them rivers and desist from pursuing the Ganga waterway project. Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) project can lead to Ara Sea kind of disaster.
The terms of reference of the constituted ‘Task Force’ on Interlinking of Rivers’ chaired by B.N. Navalawala has revealed that Supreme Court’s order dated February 27, 2012 in petitioner-less Writ Petition (Civil) No. 512 of 2002 is based on a flawed assumption that there is consensus and unanimity among the states in the matter of Interlinking of Rivers concept/project. The release of the Union Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation issued by Press Information Bureau stated that the Task Force “would also device suitable mechanisms for bringing about speedy consensus amongst the states and also propose suitable organizational structure for implementing the Interlinking of Rivers. The Task Force would also try to forge a consensus amongst the states in order to take forward the speedy implementation of the Interlinking of Rivers Program.”
It is noteworthy that the terms of reference of the earlier Task Force on Inter-Linking of Rivers under the Chairmanship of Suresh P. Prabhu that was constituted on December 13, 2002 was also tasked to “Devise suitable mechanism for bringing about speedy consensus amongst the States” revealing absence of unanimity on the implementation of ILR project.
The judgment in the petitioner-less “Networking of Rivers” case inconsistently admitted absence of consensus and unanimity among the states in the matter of Interlinking of Rivers concept/project and still erroneously went on to conclude that there is unanimity and consensus.
The judgment dated February 27, 2012 in the “Networking of Rivers” case was authored by Justice Swatanter Kumar on merits rigorous scrutiny because it seems to establish a disturbing precedent by assuming “consensus” and “unanimity” although 18 States chose not respond to the notice of Supreme Court of India “despite the grant of repeated opportunities to do so.”
The Supreme Court had come to the rescue of a river in the Kamalnath motel case where a hotel company which had stakes of Kamalnath, the then Union Environment Minister who had unilaterally taken a number of measures to divert the course of Beas River near Kulu-Manali in Himachal Pradesh (for instance, earthmovers and bulldozers were used to create a new channel) when floods threatened land in its possession. The court used the Public Trust Doctrine to define the state as a trustee of natural resources.
Government’s National Environmental Policy refers to Public Trust Doctrine saying, “The State is not an absolute owner, but merely a trustee of all natural resources, which are by nature meant for public use and enjoyment, subject to reasonable conditions, necessary to protect the legitimate interest of a large number of people, or for matters of strategic national interest.”
The NEP says, “The broad direct causes of rivers degradation are, in turn, linked to several policies and regulatory regimes. The result is excessive cultivation of water intensive crops near the headwork’s, which is otherwise inefficient, waterlogging, and alkali-salinization of soil.” It also refers to factors causing reduced flows in the rivers and seeks to ensure maintenance of adequate flows. As an action plan for river systems, the NEP expresses its intent to…“mitigate the impacts on river flora and fauna, and the resulting change in the resource base for livelihoods, of multipurpose river valley projects, power plants, and industries.”
The success of a democracy, especially one based on a federal system, depends largely on an impartial and independent judiciary endowed with sufficient powers to administer justice. Judges can import their personal views in interpreting a statute but they must not assume the role of guardians of public policy and should not play god. A distinction must be drawn between personal idiosyncrasy and incorporation of new economic and social policies in the interpretation of law.
The proposal of networking peninsular and Himalayan rivers emerges from a lack of rigorous evaluation of the ecological impacts which would prove disastrous not only to the fishery, but also to the biodiversity and biotic processes that have evolved over the past hundred of millions of years. One cannot expect the judges and legislators to understand but venturing into an area of their ignorance is against all canons of wisdom.
In the case in question the judges went on to advise the government that in case consent was not forthcoming from the states, the government should consider passing a legislation to obviate consent of the states for this project. Since criticizing the judges is a criminal offense, the advocates of resistance who are not shackled by their funding sources from among the citizenry and civil society need to keep a watch on the impeachable antecedents and future activities of the judges and legislators because it is quite possible that legislation for ILR or nationalization of rivers may get introduced in the Parliament under the influence of corporate donations to ruling parties. 
The rampant violation of the statutory principles and natural justice requires a vigilant citizens’ network as opposed to funding agency driven initiatives to investigate as to why the judges and legislators appear to have sold themselves to the ideology of the free market undermining ecosystem beyond repair and democratic rights of its citizens to bring the truth about it public domain.
The networking rivers does not mean drawing some mega litres from one river and pouring it into another like one does with static containers, or even with canals. The ramifications are much wider because a river is not only the water that flows or the channel, which holds the flow rather its much more. The river is the dynamic face of the landscape. “In the drama of history, the ecosystem is not the stage setting; it is the cast”.
In the past the court has rightly and consistently held that large infrastructure projects invariably raise technical and policy issues which the courts are not equipped to handle. In view of the reasons cited above and especially an evolving international law on transboundary rivers there is a clear case for the apex court to review its order on “networking rivers”.
As per National Water Policy, “Water resources development and management will have to be planned for a hydrological unit such as drainage basin as a whole or for a sub-basin, multi-sectorally, taking into account surface and ground water for sustainable use incorporating quantity and quality aspects as well as environmental considerations.” Outlining India’s National Water Policy, the then Prime Minister said that the policy should be people-centered and those communities ought to be recognized as the “rightful custodians of water.”This clearly shows that networking of river is contrary to the Government’s stated policy which means vested interests are so powerful that they can subvert both executive’s and judiciary’s role.
Given such a background the judgment in the Writ Petition (Civil) No. 512/2002 is very crucial. In the days, months and years ahead it is likely to reveal Indian Government’s exact policy vis-à-vis networking of rivers and court’s considered response while dealing with contempt applications in the face of sub continental protest. 
This case is likely to give birth to a new international legal order to safeguard the legitimate regime of river basins from the obsolete notions of ‘conquest over nature’, ‘surplus’ rivers and taming rivers. If the environmental movement in the Indian sub-continent fails to stop this mega project, it would mean nothing short of a premature death of the movement itself and acceptance of the proposed rewriting of sub-continent’s geography with painful consequences as fait accompli.
Recalling the pearls of wisdom from Mahabharata that describes the Divine Being saying, “The mountains are his bones. The earth is his fat and flesh. The oceans are his blood. Space is his stomach. The Wind is his breath. Fire is his energy. The rivers are his arteries and veins. Agni and Soma, otherwise called the Sun and the Moon, are called his eyes. The firmament above is his head. The earth is his two feet. The cardinal and subsidiary points of the horizon are his arms,” the new government should reject the idea of “inter-linking of rivers based on feasibility”. 
This is narrated by Bhishma in conversation with Yudhishthira while referring to the reply of sage Bhrigu to sage Bharadwaja. This verse occurs in the Shanti Parva of Mahabharata.
Interlinking of rivers entails mutilation of the veins and arteries of the divine nature. Rivers shape the terrain and lives of people by its waters which are always in a dynamic state. Breaking this dynamic would unleash forces of uncontrolled change and invite the ‘law of unintended consequences’. 
Let us remember the terrible Aral Sea disaster caused by the mistakes of Soviet Union in which two Siberian rivers were diverted. If water scarcity is the perennial question, there better answers like the groundwater recharge master plan available with the government. Water can be made to “Reach to All Homes, Farms and Factories” by adopting this plan as well at a minimal cost.
Whenever there is conflict between financial gains and rivers, the latter must get priority over monetary benefits because by any yard stick economic value of a free flowing river is bigger than dammed and mutilated rivers. The capitalist, communist and colonial legacy of treating rivers as material flow that flow through pipelines must be abandoned and rivers must be treated as living beings that nourished our civilization for centuries and can nourish all the coming generations if cannibalistic tendency of diverting waters in bottles, dams and banks is stopped.
With regard to pollution in rivers, if the new government can demonstrate the political will to stop all the effluents and sewage from entering into river streams through a single executive decision, he would have done an exemplary act of arresting ecological collapse and for safeguarding the quality of blood flowing in veins and arteries of the present and future generations. Notably, one of the aims of the ILR project was dilution of pollution, disregarding its implications for the clean rivers. National Water Development Agency (NWDA) is under structural compulsion to push these ecologically destructive projects envisaged in 1970s to justify their continued existence. 
NCAER, NWDA and their promoters remain trapped in pre-climate crisis era wherein “taming of rivers”, dams were temples and not outcome of disease of gigantism and conquest over nature was considered part of scientific temper with which rivers could be murdered with impunity. The ToRs of the Task Force of 2002 and 2015 and court orders of 2002 and 2012 reveal that proponents of ILR project are frozen in a time warp.
The implementation of the Ken-Betwa river linking project in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh because it is likely to submerge over 9,000 hectares of land, including the tiger and vulture habitat of Panna Tiger Reserve.
In view of the collective wisdom of the past and the present and responsibility towards coming generations besides concerns for non-human species there is a compelling reason to abandon ILR project for the sake of sanity and humanity.
While a beginning can be made with these steps, it must be realised that the economic ideology that has led to the global financial crisis is the same ideology that is accountable for the ongoing ecological disorder of the lunatic ilk.
Therefore, nothing short of the death of the old industrial policies of the pre-climate crisis era and the rebirth of an enlightened policy-making that takes into account inter-generational equity with regard to natural resources would be sufficient. New government must undo the regressive legacy of past years.
*Source: Toxics Watch



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