Home >Politics >Policy >Environment: A non-negotiable agenda

The next 10 years are going to be the most challenging time for India’s environment. Our developmental model remains focused on using nature as a fuel for its growth engine. Climate change is going to dominate environmental discourse at the national and international levels. Environmental debates will focus on climate change and its impact on vulnerable communities as well as the right of India to its fair share of the global carbon space. At the local level, however, environmental struggles will be focused on access to water, clean air, forests, protection of wetlands, grasslands and coasts. The increased fragmentation and destruction of the ecosystem will see a rise in conflicts between those who regard the ecosystem as a tradable and replaceable commodity and those who regard it as the basis of their existence, identity and culture.

Science, Technology and Law

The role of science, technology and law in dealing with environmental challenges in the next decade is going to be critical. Science and technology can be both an asset and a liability. The belief that every environmental problem has a technological solution undermines the need to protect ecology in its pristine condition.

When it comes to law, the constitutional provisions as well as statutory laws are being subordinated increasingly to governmental policy such as “Make in India" and “Ease of Doing Business". The courts have to move beyond their traditional and conservative “hands-off approach" where government policy decisions are concerned, and restore faith in the rule of law and constitutional safeguards.

Free Speech and Democracy

Environmental protection will continue to be driven in the next decade by community and citizen-led action. The right to voice concerns on environmental degradation or threats to the environment is not only a fundamental right but forms the edifice of democratic society. The maturity with which the political leadership deals with dissenting voices that question the dominant economic growth model will be a crucial test for Indian democracy.

Environmental conflict is bound to get aggravated in the coming decade. Over the next decade, India aims to implement ambitious and controversial plans such as the interlinking of rivers, port development through the Sagarmala project, conversion of rivers into waterways, smart cities, and dedicated industrial freight corridors.

Beyond the rhetoric of future generation

If India’s environmental quality is to improve, we need to move beyond cosmetic campaigns and programmes such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Green India Mission to comprehensive, realistic and implementable plans to clean up the air, water and land. We must focus on the protection of the last remaining forests, grasslands and wetlands, together with the flora and fauna that depend on it. We must empower individuals, communities and civil society groups to appraise, question and challenge faulty decisions of the government and the actions of corporate entities. We must recognize that jargon and rhetorical statements like “environment and development must go hand in hand" and “sustainable development" no longer carry meaning, unless they are backed by concrete and decisive action. The reason being that we have destroyed the natural environment to such an extent that we can no longer say that environmental protection and industrial development must go hand in hand. Environmental protection must take precedence over economic and industrial interest. This is essential not only for the conservation and protection of the natural environment, but also in recognition of the fact that environmental degradation itself affects economic growth and human welfare.

The Gas Authority of India Ltd (GAIL), a body under the Union ministry of petroleum and natural gas, has hoardings across New Delhi stating why people should move to natural gas as fuel: One person dies every 23 seconds in India as a result of air pollution. This is based on figures arrived at by the World Heath Organization. It’s a wake-up call for all those who keep repeating that we must protect the environment for the future generation; it is the present generation and not just the future generation whose survival is at stake. And that in itself should be a good enough reason to take proactive steps to make environmental quality a significant parameter to judge how developed a country is, and not go by just the number of super highways, bullet trains, mega malls, luxury cars and SUVs.

Ritwick Dutta is aNew Delhi-based environmental lawyer, co-founded the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment and set up the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Resources and Response Centre

This is part of a series of articles in Mint’s 10th anniversary special issue that look at India 10 years from now. The entire list of articles can be found here

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