The short answer is: No, We can’t.
Mr. Javadekar has donned the mantle of India’s Minister of Environment and Forests at a critical moment, when time is running out for the preservation of our once abundant natural assets, and environmental disaster is staring us in the face. His NDA government took over from the UPA, which, notwithstanding its many failings (and there were many of them) at least was sensitive towards the need for conserving the environment, and had taken many steps in that direction. We had expected that Mr. Javadekar would be equally responsive and would build on these initiatives to repair and reverse the degradation that mindless policies of the past had caused. A few facts about the current state of our environment and forests, as reported from time to time by the UN, WHO, IPCC and our own agencies, deserve mentioning as a context for assessing Mr. Javadekar’s performance in the last one year:
* 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India: Delhi heads the list.
* 76 of our 150 major rivers are polluted; the waters of 3/4th of them are not fit for drinking.
* Our groundwater reserves are in a critical state, thanks to the 21 million borewells dug in the last 50 years: 30% of them in western India alone have dried up. 50% of underground water sources in the Indo-Gangetic plain are polluted.
* Himalayan glaciers will disappear by 2050, effecting 400 million people.
* Climate change has arrived: it will eventually lead to a 36% decline in food production in South Asia, and a 5.8% loss in wheat production post 2030 in India.
* The IPCC report of April 2014 predicts a 4* C rise in temperature for India by 2100. A trailer of this was witnessed in peninsular India this summer, where average temperatures rose by 1.4* whereas the normative increase was only 0.8*C: more than 2000 people died in this ” heat wave”
* Environmental degradation costs 5.7% of our GDP, or US$ 120 billion every year.
* 620000 people die every year just from outdoor air pollution.
* 60 million people have been displaced by projects till 2000. These ” GDP refugees” are primarily from the most marginalised sections, including tribals and landless labour.
* The World Bank Environment Quality Index rates India at a terrible 155 out of 176 countries.
* We have now become the third largest emitter of carbon in the world.
* As per estimates of our own Zoological Survey of India the list of endangered species of animals has DOUBLED in the last two years- from 190 in 2010 to 443 in 2012: in other words, 253 more species of mammals, amphibians and reptiles are destined for extinction very soon. (I don’t for a minute believe the govt’s figures of a 30% increase in tiger population: this appears to have been contrived by a change in the earlier method of conducting the count. This doubt is lent credence by the govt’s own recently released figure of 23 tigers having been poached in just the last year.)
* 830, 244 hectares of forest land , or an area which is seven times the size of Delhi, has been diverted for projects in the thirty years from 1981 to 2011. The tempo of diversion has been increasing instead of slowing down: 210,000 ha. has been diverted in just the four years from 2007 to 2011. 12000 ha. of forest land has been sacrificed by the present NDA government in just THE LAST SIX MONTHS.
* 50% of the country’s wetlands have been lost to urbanisation.
* 67.3% of urban sewage flows directly into our rivers.
* Our cities generate 60 million tonnes of waste every year: only 30% of it is treated or re-cycled- the rest of it continues to contaminate our rivers and forests. This quantum of waste is predicted to go up by 243% by 2025, according to a World Bank study.
This is not the picture of a “developing” country, as our govt. would like to believe: this is an image of an Elliotsian wasteland. This is what Mr. Javadekar inherited, and with the kind of mandate which his govt. has, one expected him to get down to some hard policy making and ruthless implementation to reverse this slide to ecological perdition. We have seen little so far of this: yes, there is the Clean Ganga campaign, but it has not yet gone beyond the chest thumping stage and it is in any case doomed to failure if Mr. Jadavekar goes ahead with his plan to construct another 150 dams on the upstream Ganga and its tributaries. Yes, there is also the Swacch Bharat programme: its success can be gauged by the 20000 tonnes of garbage that had piled up on Delhi’s roads last week because Mr. Modi wished to tell Mr. Kejriwal who is Bossman in Delhi- evidently, garbage conveys a stronger message than votes.
Mr. Javadekar’s Ministry has become a hand-maiden of Modi’s industrialisation vision. Its mandate is not to conserve the environment but to dismantle the checks and balances that had been put in place to maintain the equilibrium between GDP and natural assets. I cannot think of one single policy or decision by him in the last one year which has promoted the cause of sustaining the environment. To the contrary, however, there have been dozens which will cause long lasting and irreparable devastation to our natural resources and ravage the environment for ever. Here is an illustrative list:
* Under Mr. Javadekar’s prodding a truncated National Wildlife Board. at just one sitting in August 2014, cleared 130 projects related to mining, power, defence, all within 10 kms of protected wildlife areas( which had hitherto been a no-go zone). These PAs include Mukandra Hill Tiger Reserve (Rajasthan), Kanha Tiger Reserve (MP), Dudhwa Tiger Reserve (UP), Kapilash Wildlife Sanctuary (Odisha), and an Olive Ridley turtle nesting site in AP’s Krishna district. Diversion of forestland of the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala has been allowed to enable an increase in the height of the Kunnar Dam. And, most shocking of all, a four-lane National Highway has been approved over a 23 km. stretch of the Sariska Tiger Reserve (all of it in the core area) over the protests of the state forest department. It is clearly of no consequence to our Minister that more than 600 rivers and streams originate from tiger habitats, supplying water to the teeming millions in the cities. A case in point is the Ramganga river which flows from the Corbett National Park and provides Delhi with 190 million cubic feet of water. By chipping away at these habitats, therefore, we endanger not only the ecology but also the future of these cities.
* There is a strong move to replace the Expert panel on Ganga constituted in pursuance of Supreme Court orders to take a view on the number of dams that should be permitted in the upper reaches of the Alaknanda and the Mandakni, the major tributaries of the Ganga. The present panel, headed by Prof. Vinod Tare of IIT Kanpur, had recommended that only six of the two dozen odd hydel projects proposed on these rivers should be allowed, and that too after reducing their capacity by about 30%-40% to ensure minimum water flows to sustain aquatic life. A sensible recommendation, you would think. Not so Mr. Javadekar whose loyalty is to the power sector and not to his own Ministry. Unhappy with the paring down of projects, he has now proposed a new Committee headed by one BP Das, who is a known proponent of power projects, with the Joint Secretary of his Ministry as the convenor, and all the scientists being replaced by technocrats. Mr. Javadekar will get the report he wants, and the Ganga will not flow for much longer.
* There is also a proposal in the pipeline to trim the powers of the National Green Tribunal, the only body in the govt. today which is showing some interest in protecting the environment: precisely for this reason it has become a thorn in Mr. Javadekar’s ” make in India” flesh. The proposal is to emasculate the NGT by making it a recommendatory, rather than a judicial, body; and to take away its autonomous status by bringing it under the Ministry. This will make Mr. Javadekar lord of all he surveys, even if all he surveys is a barren waste.
* Mr. Javadekar is very thorough, if anything. He has also set in motion a review of the three pillars of our environmental regulatory edifice viz. The Indian Forest Act, The Wildlife Protection Act and the Forest Conservation Act. His objective is to extirpate from them all provisions which make it difficult to quickly implement Mr. Modi’s “Make in India” vision- in other words, environmental considerations, no matter how legitimate, will not be allowed to stand in the way of the GDP God. By the time Mr. Javadekar is through with his mission Veerappan will start looking like a saint, in comparison.
* In order to leave nothing to chance Mr. Javadekar has also proposed to dilute the Forests Right Act to takeaway the powers of gram sabhas to reject projects in their area. He has obviously been rattled by the Niyamgiri fiasco, where (pursuant to a Supreme Court order directing that the gram sabhas be allowed to have their say) 12 gram sabhas voted to disallow the mining of minerals in their forests by the Rupees 50,000 crore Lanjigarh aluminia plant of Vedanta. Once again, this erstwhile spokesman of the BJP cannot appreciate the fact that there are more than 200 million deprived Indians living in and around forests and dependent on their eco-systems for their livelihood, and that they MUST have a say on the use of these eco-systems for other purposes. With such blinkered visions, is there any wonder that the Naxalite problem just won’t go away ?
* Mr. Javadekar is also re-defining the word “forest” (currently the definition given by the Supreme Court in 1997-98 prevails): he finds that the present definition is not “user friendly” (guess who the ” user” is that he has in his mind ?). He is proposing that areas which do not have trees on the ground, even though they may be classified as forests; plantation areas; and areas which were not notified as forests before a particular date, even though they may have tree cover now- all these areas shall cease to be considered as forests and will not enjoy the protection of the FCA. Tens of thousands of sq. kms of forest land shall thus be made available to builders, industrialists and assorted cronies, and the people who are actually dependent on these forests shall join the millions of ecological refugees.
* Coastal Regulation Zone Rules, meant to protect vulnerable coastal areas, mangrove swamps, deltas and aquatic life in these zones, are also slated for large scale amendments to enable construction of real estate, ports and highways.
* Wherever possible, and under the garb of stimulating production, environmental and social impact assessments and public hearings are being done away with. For example, coal mines which extract less than 16 million tonnes per annum and want to increase production by 50%, are no longer required to hold public hearings. Dhanbad and Jharia are the historical results of such short-sighted policies earlier, and the reasons why such hearings were introduced in the first place. But history appears to have stopped for Mr. Javadekar with the Mahabharat and the Rig Vedas.
* The NDA govt. suffers from a Mohammad bin Tughlaq like megalomania: nothing else can explain its insistence on going ahead with the river-linking project despite warnings from scientists and enviromentalists. It is going full steam on the project without conducting any environmental or socio-economic impact assessment studies. It boggles the mind that any country can link 58 rivers through 12550 kms of canals, build 3000 dams and divert 173 billion cu.mtrs. of waters without carrying out these basic studies! The first phase of the project-linking of the Betwa and Ken rivers- has been formally announced yesterday.
* Having worked in both state and central governments for many years, one can say with confidence that the former are far more venal and subject to pressure; it is therefore necessary that the central govt. act a check on the states, and have the final say in environmental and forest clearances. But Mr. Javadekar, in his hurry to open the flood-gates, is empowering the states to give approvals at their level. This will create complete mayhem in a few years.
There is much that Mr. Javadekar could have done, and even more that is just crying out for policy initiatives and interventions. The Kasturirangan Committee report on the Western Ghats, that seeks to protect just 37% of its 164,280 sq.kms by declaring them as Ecologically Sensitive Areas, is awaiting approval since 2012. The Western Ghats are a priceless hot-spot that gives birth to 58 rivers and sequesters 10 million tonnes of carbon every year; it has already shrunk by 25% in the last two decades and is screaming for some protection. But our articulate Minister just won’t approve the report because the politician-builder nexus in six states is opposed to it. True to his style, he will probably keep appointing more Committees till he gets the report that he wants.
Nothing concrete is being done about reducing our carbon emissions. We are fond of quoting China as a model for industrial development but are learning nothing from its efforts in this field: China has reduced its its carbon intensity( emissions per unit of GDP) by 20% in the last five years and has set a target of 45% reduction by 2020. Mr. Javadekar continues nonchalantly in his oxygen deprived fog.
Urban waste, which is probably the biggest polluter of our rivers, is another area of concern that is just begging for some attention, but the MOEF is a silent spectator, leaving it to the cities to sort out the mess. China has already installed 180 high volume incinerators and is setting up 200 more with a target of incinerating 60% of the waste by 2020: this shall not only reduce the land required for land fills but also prevent leaching of chemicals into the soil and produce power. We have no comprehensive plan for this.
The NGT has taken the bold step of banning diesel vehicles older than ten years in Delhi, which has 14 lakh of them. This is commendable since 27% of carbon emissions are generated by the transport sector. One would have expected that the MOEF would, in conjunction with the Transport Ministry, have by now formulated a plan for the disposal of such vehicles, instead of merely allowing them to be sold in other towns, adding to their pollution. Many countries, including Mauritius, have evolved schemes whereby such car-owners are paid a sum of money for handing over these vehicles to the govt, which then breaks them down and recycles their various components. This is a programme that could be considered under the PPP mode if only Mr. Javadekar had the inclination to attend to this. But he is more involved in addressing press conferences where he can bad mouth the opposition.
The list is endless but the scenario is clear. Mr. Javadekar not only lacks the long term vision which an Environment Minister in today’s challenging context should possess but he also has no interest in preserving the environment. His only agenda is to undo the good work done in the last two decades. The country shall pay a heavy price in the years to come for his stewardship of this Ministry.