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Lip-service on World Environment Day vs 'watered-down' eco-safeguards

By Shankar Sharma* 

Just a few days ago, the world remembered the routinely forgotten global environment on the occasion of World Environment Day, briefly though, maybe just for the day. There were reports of a few high profile ceremonies in different parts of the country, including a few in New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly asked the people of our country to plant one tree per each person as a mark of respect/ gratitude for our mothers.
Whereas such emotive statements may help in planting a few thousand plant saplings here and there (may be even a few lakh saplings), what is to be noted with great concern is the fact that our country as a whole is losing on an average lakhs of trees, and thousands of hectares of forest lands every year under various pretexts.
"We are trustees and not owners of natural resources. Climate change is affecting lives and livelihoods, particularly in vulnerable communities. Let us make collective efforts for building a better and greener world based on sustainability," President Murmu is reported to have said on one such occasion.
The judge in a local court in Karnataka was even reported to have emphasised what has been enshrined in the Constitution of our country: As per the sections 48 (a) and 51 (a) (g) of our Constitution it is the duty of the State and every citizen to make honest efforts to protect and improve our environment by protecting and improving rivers, lakes, forests and living beings.
The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, is reported to have stated recently that "the battle to secure the planet's future will be won or lost in the next 18 months."
The news report that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hosted World Environment Day 2024 with a focus on land restoration, desertification and drought resilience, under the aegis of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), should clearly serve to highlight the critical importance of careful management of our land resources in preventing the extinction of life on this planet.
In this larger context, there is a need for our society to honestly introspect whether we are discharging even some of the simpler duties associated with the care for nature.
As per InterGovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- IV Assessment Report, “the emissions from deforestation are very significant -- they are estimated to represent more than 18% of global emissions”; “Curbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” Large conventional power projects are all major contributors for deforestation either through dams, buildings, mines, transmission lines and pollutants like coal dust, coal ash and acid rains. This harsh reality of the power sector seems to have been continuously ignored by our authorities since decades.
It is credibly reported that the legally protected areas (PAs) in the country constitute only about 14% of the forest area and just 4.6% of the total land mass. Even though there is reported to be an increase from six national parks and 59 wildlife sanctuaries in 1970, to 85 and 462 in 1998, respectively (Wildlife Institute of India, 1998), how these PAs are being protected should be a matter of concern. According to a survey carried out in the mid-1980s, over 65 percent of the PAs were characterized by human settlements and resource use (Kothari et al., 1989).
A year-long investigation a few years ago by "IndiaSpend", had reveals how India is opening up wildlife sanctuaries and national parks to roads, railways, mines and industries by weakening its own environmental laws and procedures. At risk are the country's last forests, natural resources and the health of its people. As detailed in the news story, India, over the six years since July 2014, had approved over 270 projects in and around its most protected areas, including biodiversity hotspots and national parks.
At the same time, the Centre has watered down environmental safeguards, prompting stakeholders to warn that such interference not only imperils habitat and ecosystems but also endangers public health. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has approved 87% (2,256 of 2,592) of proposals that it received for environment clearance (EC) between July 2014 and 24 April 2020, according to data on the ministry’s clearance monitoring website, Parivesh.
If this rate of environmental clearance for diverting natural forests and other resources is to continue, the country is likely to lose most of its original forests of enormous ecological significance within a few decades.
India is losing on an average lakhs of trees and thousands of hectares of forest lands every year under various pretexts
In view of the fact that the forest and tree cover in the country is officially reported to be only about 21% of the land area as against the national forest policy target of 33% of the land area, if our developmental paradigm does not ensure adequate protection of forest cover and biodiversity even in 4.6% of the land area, there can be no cause for celebration of the biodiversity day and environment day year after year, because such wanton abuse of nature has been going on continuously since decades with or without the approval of the government despite scores of credible scientific reports from around the world cautioning against such callous approach towards our natural resources.
There has been a growing concern of scientists over the issue of how we are treating the nature around us. One such concern is: "Humanity’s promiscuous treatment of nature” needs to change or there will be more deadly pandemics such as Covid-19, warn scientists who have analysed the link between viruses, wildlife and habitat destruction. Deforestation and other forms of land conversion are driving exotic species out of their evolutionary niches and into man-made environments, where they interact and breed new strains of disease, the experts say.
“According to the World Health Organization, the adverse health effects brought in by loss of biodiversity far exceeds dangers of implication of climate change to human health. Health professionals should advocate for the preservation of biodiversity as it has a powerful impact on frequency of disease transmission in the community. Scientists have said protecting ecosystems like wetlands and forests is crucial because they store planet-heating carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help address climate change.”
One scientific article has said: "The continuing loss of biodiversity will undermine our ability for poverty reduction, food and water security, human health and the overall goal of leaving nobody behind." “Natural ecosystems provide the foundations for economic growth, human health and prosperity. Our fate as a species is deeply connected to the fate of our natural environment. As ecosystems are increasingly threatened by human activity, acknowledging the benefits of biodiversity is the first step in ensuring that we look after it. We know biodiversity matters. Now, as a society, we should protect it – and in doing so, protect our own long-term interests.”
In the larger context of protecting our forests, if we consider just the policies/ practices of the power sector, it should become evidently obvious that a diligent approach to harness the vast potential of the renewable energy resources in a distributed mode, will be able to address most of the environmental, social, technical and economic challenges of the sector on a sustainable basis for the overall welfare of our society. Two recent news items, including the one from Australia, as in the news links below, should indicate the most suitable pathway for India.
Our power system planners should emulate multiple examples from around the world, especially from Australia, to make optimal application of battery energy storage system (BESS) to maximise the harnessing of the vast potential of renewable energy sources available to India, which in turn will minimise the ecological footprint of the power sector.
The Prime Minister should diligently consider all these issues, and provide the much needed focus for the upkeep of our environment/ ecology.
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*Power & Climate Policy Analyst, Karnataka. This article is based on the author's representation to the Prime Minister

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