The election delirium is upon us again, and political parties are busy churning out 100 page manifestos, recycling the same trash they regurgitate every five years: reservations, subsidies, loan waivers, free power and so on. This time we also have the complimentary adds on- temples and statues, rising higher and higher in inverse proportion to the plummeting standards of public discourse. And as usual, nobody is even talking about the elephant in the room. already in “masth” mode: climate change and the environment. The manifestos are completely silent about them, and the nearest the candidates come to them are when they talk of building toilets (to be subsequently used for storing fodder, naturally).
Which is a pity and a mad made tragedy in itself, because we as a country are staring natural disaster in the face but continue to grin like idiots. We have the third worst ecological footprint on the planet, after the USA and China. The effects of climate change are already upon us- record temperatures, floods, droughts, extreme weather events, the old templates no longer relevant. It has been predicted that countries in South Asia will lose 30-40% of their agricultural output by 2050. The govt’s own Economic Survey 2017 has estimated that the loss in agriculture production every year due to climate change is US$ 10 billion, or Rs. 70,000 crore at current exchange rates. According to the Lancet Countdown 2018 report on Health and Climate Change released last week India lost 75000 million man hours of labour in 2017, equivalent to one year’s work for 7% of the working population ( the figure was 40000 million in 2000). 80% of this was in the agriculture sector, and we still wonder why the farmers are protesting ? Pollution related deaths (already at 0.50 million per annum for India) will rise exponentially, heat waves have killed 9000 people in the last three years, migration of environmental/ climate refugees will overwhelm our cities. 24% of our lands are already degraded and headed for desertification, all major rivers are heavily polluted, ground water levels are depleting alarmingly with 60% of the blocks classified as water stressed, we have lost 10.60 million hectares of original forests in the last 14 years, we have been eradicating other living life forms at a galloping rate- in just the last two years the list of endangered species has gone up from 190 to 443 (IUCN figures) Apocalypse is round the corner, and all our politicians can ask is who was Mr. Modi’s father or whether a mosque is a place of worship?
We as a nation have always had a dismal record of protecting our natural environment or of respecting the rights of other species to live, notwithstanding our ancient Vedic philosophy. But the track record of the present BJP govt. at the centre is particularly appalling. In its pyrrhic and single minded quest for a top slot in the Ease of Doing Business ranking it is decimating the environment on a scale not seen before, and destroying the livelihoods of those most dependent on it: tribals and poor farmers. The Forest Policy and various enactments are being re-written to enable diversion of more forest land for industrial projects, a prime example being the Inland Waterway project on the Ganga which is being exempted from preparing either an EIA or an EMP, and for which the rare Turtle (Kachua) Wildlife Sanctuary on the river near Varanasi is being denotified, the first time since 1972 that a Sanctuary is being denotified. EIA and EMPs are being exempted for linear projects( highways and railway lines) and real estate developments upto 50000 sq. feet. The Coastal Regulation Zone Rules are being liberalised to permit big capital projects such as ports (the Sagarmala project), impacting in particular huge swathes of mangrove forests that are a buffer to storm surges. River linking schemes are being pushed through without any thought given to their environmental impacts on the river basins, there are 31 such projects on the anvil. The disastrous 900 km. Char Dham highway linking Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri and Badrinath has been given the go ahead, even though it will involve the felling of more than 40000 trees and result in an unimaginably huge footprint in these highly fragile zones; the Kedarnath tragedy of 2013 has been forgotten. Protected Areas and Tiger Reserves are slowly being whittled away with the blessings of both the Forest Advisory Committee in the MOEF and the Wildlife Board, now reduced to compliant flag bearers and packed with bureaucrats instead of scientists and specialists. In just one PA, the Panna Tiger Reserve, more than 5000 hectares of prime tiger habitat is being diverted for the Ken-Betwa river inter linking project for which 1800000 trees will face the axe. An astonishing 519 “relaxations” have been given for projects in Protected Areas since 2014. The National Green Tribunal is being systematically weakened so that it can be brought to heel. NGOs who work for the environment are being harassed and their fund flows squeezed. More and more people are being displaced to join the 60 million already displaced since Independence.
Mr. Modi’s government appears to be mesmerised by big ticket projects and ventures, and will not let any concerns about the environment stand in its way. All warnings are dismissed as the rantings of “urban naxals” or interference by foreign entities who have no idea of India. But the danger and the threats are very real. Unfortunately, the victims of natural disasters and climate change will be the most vulnerable sections of society: farmers, tribals, fishermen, migrant labour and the tens of millions in urban slums. They do not have the wherewithal to protect themselves against the climatic and economic hardships that are inevitable as nature withdraws into its shell and strikes back.
And here is what puzzles me no end: I can understand that the govt., in its hubris and arrogance, will do what it wants to do; what I cannot comprehend is why the opposition is silent on these issues too, why civil society (which gets its danders up at even a whiff of a MeToo story) and the media don’t articulate them to create more awareness during election times. Surely, someone should be telling the unsuspecting voter what awaits him in less than a generation ? Everyone wants the tribal vote, but no one tells them what will happen to them once the forests have gone, or the farmer once the aquifers dry up and the glaciers disappear, or the orchardists about the consequences of the bees and butterflies becoming extinct, or the slum dweller on how to cope when wet-bulb temperatures reach 35 degree celsius. No, we don’t tell them because we have our air-conditioners and ROs and air purifiers, we buy our food from malls and Big Basket and don’t give a damn whether it comes from a farm or a lab, we drink bottled mineral water anyway. We have a surfeit of politicians but not a single leader who can LEAD, rather than be led by the populist nose. For a time we deluded ourselves that we had finally discovered one in Mr. Modi but he has turned out be an ad. campaign with little substance. His renewable energy target (for which he ironically got that UN award for the Solar Alliance) – 100 GW of solar energy by 2022- is floundering, and the best estimate is that it will not exceed 67 MW. The Ganga is dirtier today than it was five years ago, inspite of more than Rs. 4000 crores having been spent on it, which is not surprising, for a govt. which cannot clean 18 kms of the Yamuna in Delhi can hardly do any better for the 3000 km. of this once splendid lifeline. And so, while we may be the world’s fifth largest economy we feature at the 177th spot out of 180 countries in the World Environment Performance Index. We were at 141 in 2016. How’s that for a reality check while we line up to get our fingers inked at the nearest polling booth?