Experts say that the narrative that a country must choose between environment and development itself is wrong.

ITBP personnel coordinating a rescue operation at Tapovan tunnel in Joshimath Chamoli district in Uttarakhand PTI
Delve Environment Thursday, February 11, 2021 - 13:19

Merely days after the fatal landslide in Kerala’s Pettimudi in Idukki district in August last year, the spotlight was back on the Gadgil report on the Western Ghats. The report, submitted to the government of India in 2011, had designated the Pettimudi region among the most sensitive ecological zones in the Western Ghats and recommended avoiding construction of any roads, buildings or flattening of land using heavy machinery.

It is an oft-noticed pattern that in the immediate aftermath of any disaster in ecologically sensitive regions, the attention first goes to an earlier report on the region, if any. For example, after the Kerala landslide of 2019, several media articles pointed to the three important reports that called for the expeditious conservation of the Western Ghats – the Gadgil report, Kasturirangan report and Oommen V Oommen report – none of which was implemented in Kerala. More recently, after the flash floods in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, attention has been drawn to a 2019 study that spoke in-depth about the rapidly melting glaciers in the Himalayan region based on data spanning 40 years. These reports usually indicate how sensitive that particular region is and have recommendations about being extremely cautious in opening up the region for developmental activities like construction of roads, buildings, dams, etc. However, it is also normal that any and all noise around these reports exists only for a few days and things go back to square one soon with no action taken.

Over the years, governments – both at the central and state levels – have gone above and beyond to paint environmentalists and activists who prop up such reports and call out the governments’ neglect of the environment as ‘anti-development’. In fact, recently the Karnataka High Court slammed the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) for labelling NGOs that protested against a road project as ‘anti-national’.

“This is nothing new. We’ve been painted this way since the BT Brinjal, Koodankulam agitation, etc. I think the voices of people like environmental activists and the problems that citizens face due to such issues are now starting to get substantiated by natural disasters,” says G Sundarrajan from Poovulagu, a Chennai-based environmental group. Sundarrajan and his team were at the forefront of the protests against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant in Tirunelveli district years ago.

Understanding ‘development’

Speaking to TNM, Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer and founder of the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), says that the narrative that a country must choose between environment and development itself is wrong. “There is a problem with the word ‘development’. An essential component of development is environmental protection. These are not two different things because development itself is defined as the comprehensive well-being of a person and society. This includes clean air, clean water, balanced ecosystem and human safety. Hence, it’s not either or,” he explains.

Adding that what people largely understand as ‘development’ and thereby justify heavy infrastructure work in ecologically sensitive areas is, in fact, ‘economic growth’, Ritwick says that economic growth cannot be called development since it does not focus on the well-being of a human being and, by extension, our society.

Agreeing with Ritwick is Dr Abi Tamim Vanak, a scientist with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), who says that it is imperative to view development as a holistic concept. “The improvement of the environment must be an indicator of development as it is of infrastructure building. When we think that the outcome of development is cleaner air and water, better environment, then we suddenly start viewing ‘development’ in a different light. Why is the outcome of development always the destruction of natural resources on which our lives are critically dependent?” he asks.

Environmental reports must be given serious consideration

Highlighting the need to consider environmental reports seriously and implement them with dedication, Ritwick says that the reports usually protect the people living in the regions. “When environmental reports recommend a ban on river sand mining, it’s not to protect the sand, it is to regulate the flow of the river, which otherwise will end up killing people. We’re fighting for the right of the people to be safe. Similar is the case with supporting mangroves. It’s not advocating for the rights of the mangroves. It’s for the protection of the people who live there, when a cyclone hits,” he points out.

In fact, immediately after the 2020 landslide in Pettimudi, Madhav Gadgil, the head of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) that submitted a report on the eco-sensitive zones in the region, told Wire Science that had the recommendations mentioned in his panel’s report been followed by the governments, these landslides may have been less intense. Recalling that the report had strongly opposed heavy construction work in the region such as buildings, roads, quarrying or mining, Madhav Gadgil said that such disturbance to the region’s topography would mean ‘greater danger of landslides’.

“Unfortunately, not only have our recommendations to bring such disturbing activities to a halt been ignored – the pace at which these disturbances are taking place has increased over the last nine years,” he told the website.

Pointing out that ignoring the recommendations of such scientific studies can mean heavy damage to the ecology and the people who live in the regions, Dr Vanak says, “None of these disasters are ‘natural’. These are all related in some way or the other to the way humans are managing the environment. We environmentalists have been shouting for so many years now that the metric of development as of now is destructive and not constructive. And the people who bear the brunt of the destruction are almost always people from the weaker sections of society. Often, they are the people who might have contributed the least to this ‘development’ and the ones who will benefit the least from the ‘development’.”

Government will essential

If there is one thing that is integral to protecting the environment from destruction, it is the will of the governments concerned to do so. It is now known that the recommendations made in the Gadgil report were not accepted by the Union and the concerned state governments, which led to the setting up of another committee headed by K Kasturirangan. The Kasturirangan report was also not completely accepted nor implemented in the Western Ghats region, thus making the region more and more unstable over the years. Environmentalists have pointed out that though governments have been prompt to commission teams to conduct extensive studies and set up dedicated authorities for environmental causes, the action on recommendations has been negligible.

“The fact is that India has had robust environmental legislation all this time. While the government says that environment is a priority area, what they do ultimately does not match what they say. For example, the National Board for Wildlife has not met even once since 2014 and it’s supposed to be chaired by the Prime Minister. Such things call into question the government’s actual commitment to environmental causes,” Dr Vanak says.

Sundarrajan says that the next 10 years is crucial for mankind as far as climate change and biodiversity is concerned. “The kind of disasters happening around us is making people feel that there is something wrong with the existing policies around the environment and that is why political parties have started to appoint environmental wings and all. People have started to take environmental manifestos seriously,” he points out.

Adding that people have overall started caring more about the impact of ‘developmental’ activities on the environment, he recalls the instance when the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister declared the Cauvery delta region as a ‘protected agricultural zone’. The delta districts have been a hub of strong opposition to hydrocarbon exploration projects commissioned by the Union government over the years.

The experts are also quick to point out that development need not mean mining and quarrying alone and that there are several other activities that can provide good livelihood to the people living in these regions. “Nowhere are these reports saying that eco-sensitive districts must not be developed. They are saying that in these areas the focus must be on activities that have low ecological footprint like agro-forestry, handicrafts manufacturing, etc. Why is it presumed that mining is synonymous with development?” asks Ritwick.

Talking about environmentalists being painted as ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-development’, Dr Vanak says that it is regrettable that the world has come to this. “The narrative of ‘if you’re not with me, you’re against me’ is unfortunate. How can I be an anti-national if I question your model of development? It is my constitutional duty to care for the environment, so how can I be an anti-national if I am abiding by the Constitution?” he says.

However, Sundarrajan expresses faint hope when it comes to governments’ reactions to environmental issues in the future. “The situation has changed now with regard to how people see environmental issues. It is taking centre stage in Tamil Nadu politics. Any political party that wants to survive in TN should put the environment, climate change, etc. first. Rest everything can wait. Apart from the environment, most other issues can be resolved if governments change. But when it comes to environmental issues, there cannot be any lethargy in addressing them. I think, the next 2-3 elections in TN will be fought majorly on environmental issues,” he signs off.

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