How India lost its global steward leadership in environment conservation

From the centre stage of global environmental stewardship in the 1970s and 1980s, India is now the worst performing nation in the world. A critical look at 75 years of India’s performance on environment policy and action.
Indira Gandhi played a key role in shaping India's environment consciousness but policies of Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi took us back by several years.
Indira Gandhi played a key role in shaping India's environment consciousness but policies of Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi took us back by several years.

This year India is celebrating Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav75 years of the country attaining independence. The Prime Minister himself is leading the celebrations with an amour-propre never seen before. The nation is a dressed-up parade of its achievements. An appetite to be on the top of the world is evident in this country, in the streets as much as in the board rooms. The new amrit is nationalism. Politically, the far right, in the heartland of India and the not-so-far left, down south, are all clamouring to taste a share of this amrit!

But beyond the bragging, the nation faces some fundamental questions and one of them is survival Is it possible to live a clean, healthy and safe life in this country today? How good is the quality of air, food, water, environment and livelihoods? Are we doing enough to mitigate the climate crisis and manage disasters? How healthy and resilient are our forests, wetlands, and mountains? How are our toxic pesticides, industrial wastes and heavy metals dealt with? Honest answers to these questions unmask the hypocrisy of "Amrit Mahotsav''.

With a population of 1.41 billion, India will become the most populous country in the world by 2023. This large population literally survives because of our topography, environment, climate and culture. It is the foundation of our fundamental needs food, air, water, clothing, shelter, natural resources and knowledge evolved over centuries, especially in our villages. 

As Gandhiji pointed out, the soul of India still resides in our villages, where more than 70% of its population lives. Eighty percent of them are dependent on agriculture and allied activities. Indian cities are only swollen forms of villages. But even so, the heart of this country is still agrarian. We saw India's bond with farmers when farmers occupied the streets of the capital for a year and a half in 2020-21 to protest against the agricultural laws that would have cut off India's deep ties with farmers. This is India that depends on the environment for its survival.

India is one among the top 10 biodiverse countries in the world. India is also a ‘megadiverse' country, one of the 17 countries in the world, out of 193, that is home to 70% of the biodiversity. Eight percent of the world's species91,000 animal species and 45,500 plant species have been documented in ten biogeographic regions of India. Many of them are endemic and hence do not exist anywhere else in the world. Estimates suggest that at least 4 lakh more species are likely to be discovered.

Of the world's 36 biodiversity hotspots, three are in Indiathe Himalayas, the Western Ghats and the Indo-Burma region. India is also part of the Sundalands biodiversity hotspot. Two other biodiversity hotspots – the Sundarbans and the Terai-Duar savanna grasslands – can be added to these for their unique flora and fauna. Renowned Russian geneticist and plant breeder Nikolai Vavilov identified India as one of the eight centres of global crop diversity. Our country is a Vavilovian centre for many crops like Rice, Chickpea, Moth Bean, Rice bean, Horsegram, Brinjal, Cucumber, Tree Cotton, Jute, Pepper, African Millet and Indigo. Most of the loss can be attributed to development demands.

The British and the Forests

The British exploited the country's most valuable natural resources, especially forests, for commercial interests. At the same time they realised the need to protect the forests and as a result the Indian Forest Act of 1865 was enacted. Later, in 1878 and 1927, the Act was replaced by revised Acts. But these laws were used to commercially exploit forest resources, secure the control over the land, and prevent local communities from gathering their traditional resources. It was only with the Indian Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 and the formulation of the Indian Forest Policy in 1988 that these objectives changed and forest dwellers were recognised. The Act however still is exclusionary and does not have a community-centric approach. 

“Industrialise or perish”

After independence, with Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister, India embarked on rapid industrialization and indigenous manufacturing. His policies not only led to the production of Indian-made materials, but also reduced the need to import them. His call to "Industrialise or perish" led to economic progress in the country and perhaps the beginning of the now vaunted "Atma Nirbhar Bharat". Nehru's way was quite contrary to the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, who believed that development of India should be possible through village development and Gram Swaraj. Gandhi envisioned a way of respecting the environment. An industrialised nation led to air and water pollution, deforestation and destruction of India's environment. Communities dependent on water, forest and land were further marginalised from their natural resources. Marginalised communities, supported by rights-based groups and the Left, gradually started fighting for their Jal-Jangal-Zameen (Water, forest, land). These were early struggles by people to protect the environment, culture, life and livelihood. Such communities  were the rightful  custodians of ecosystems. Environmental damage caused by the policy of pursuing development at any cost led to the formation of environmental regulations over time. But that had to wait till Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister of India.

The Stockholm Conference and “The Green decades”

Jairam Ramesh, who later became India’s Minister for Environment and Forests, wrote, what he calls, an unconventional biography of Indira Gandhi. “A naturalist is who Indira Gandhi really was, who she thought she was,” he wrote. According to him, she “got sucked into the whirlpool of politics”, but the real Indira Gandhi was “the person who loved the mountains, cared deeply for wildlife, was passionate about birds, stones, trees and forests, and was deeply worried about the environmental consequences of urbanisation and industrialisation”. 

Incidentally, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of India occupying the global centre stage in addressing environmental concerns, when Indira Gandhi delivered a memorable and globally influential speech at the first-ever United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm in June 1972. 

She was the only head of state invited to attend that conference. The other was Olof Palme, the Prime Minister of the host nation, Sweden. These two leaders shared concerns and common political positions such as non-alignment. The speech was immortalised for sensitively linking poverty to pollution. Indira Gandhi asked, “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” But there was more to the speech than this. It literally covered every topic of concern on the environment, everything that is relevant even today. No student of environment or politics should miss this speech. As this article unfolds, you will perhaps understand why India prefers to forget the anniversary of this historic event . 

Since then during the tumultuous decade that followed in her political career until her untimely and gruesome death in 1984, she was instrumental in almost all the legislations related to environment, forests and wildlife, including the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 and the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980. She was also instrumental in establishing the Department of Environment in 1980 which later upgraded to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, soon after her time. She was responsible for various conservation measures, including the well acclaimed Project Tiger, and many other initiatives for protection of other less-profiled species as well. Both the acts for preventing pollution — the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981 and Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974 were during her time. The Central Pollution Control Board was established in 1974 through the Water Act.  The 1970s and 1980s need to be marked as the Green Decades in the environmental history of India. 

Then came the neoliberals

While Indira Gandhi and the Green Decades put India on the environmental centre stage and a global stewardship role, it unfortunately did not last long. Her son Rajiv Gandhi, who was the Prime Minister from 1984 to 1989, tried to carry forward her legacy to some extent. The era of India as a leader in the global environmental order ended with the beginning of the liberalisation era in 1991, led by the then Prime Minister, PV Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh. This government continued for five years. Successive governments, except the one led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, attempted to reinstate the socialist paradigm but did not succeed for lack of enough time and stable political mandate. Later in 2004, Dr Manmohan Singh came to power as the Prime Minister. His government which ruled till 2014 concretised the liberalisation process, and in the bargain dealt a heavy blow to the environment. Ramachandra Guha in an article in 2013 for The Hindu observes that “Dr Manmohan Singh has been the most actively hostile on matters of environmental sustainability....both as Finance Minister, and now as Prime Minister, Dr Singh has argued that economic growth must always take precedence over questions of environmental sustainability.” Barring a two year period between 2009-2011, when Jairam Ramesh was environment minister, we largely had a government that had no priority for ecological matters. A staunch follower of Indira Gandhi, Jairam Ramesh tried his best to balance the demands of development and growth with environmental protection. This expectedly led to many controversial decisions. Nevertheless, he brought a fresh whiff of democratic standards and scientific rigour to environmental regulations and management. He held public consultations, raised well studied science-based questions, cancelled projects, set up a landmark National Green Tribunal and worked on the most neglected issues of forest dwellers' rights. In 2010, he imposed a moratorium on genetically modified brinjal and disapproved of the shabbily done report of Indian science academies on this matter. Those two years were an oasis in the desert of the eco destructive liberalisation process of the economist PM and his cabinet. 

In 2014, the right-wing BJP government led by Narendra Modi came to power. It marked the beginning of an era in which the environment became the least priority. The Union government has claimed it launched several environmental initiatives, such as the National Clean Air Programme, Namami Ganga Programme, the much hyped Swachh Bharat Mission, and recently the National Hydrogen Mission. But we also saw the government tactfully and meticulously weaken all the laws that prevent exploitation of the environment. 

One of the first decisions of the Modi government in 2014 was to remove all hurdles to investment in the name of ease of doing business. A ban on setting up more factories in industrial belts classified as “critically polluted” was lifted. Even the norms for the classification were eased to allow more such industries to operate. The powerful National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), which has 47 members, never met even once at least until 2020. All approvals, which till date comes to an unprecedented 99% of the applications, were given by a down sized Standing Committee of the NBWL. In July 2017, the government through a finance bill tried to literally strip away the autonomy of the National Green Tribunal, a legally empowered watchdog of the environment, but the Supreme Court intervened in 2019 and struck it down.

Although environmentally violative activities across India continue unabated, most of them face challenges, both popularly and in the courts. This includes the threat on the Aravali in Gurgaon, the Aarey in Mumbai, the Kachhua sanctuary for turtles in Varanasi, which is critical for the success of the Namami Ganga project. In Madhya Pradesh, the proposed Ken-Betwa river linking project threatens to destroy 6,000 hectares of Panna tiger reserve and the chopping down of an estimated 46 lakh trees. The Bullet Train project in Maharashtra threatens tens of thousands of mangroves. Repeated flash floods and landslides occur in Uttarakhand every year. Hundreds of people are killed and property destroyed. But dams and other development projects continue to get patronage from the government leading to massive cutting down of trees and destruction of the fragile ecosystems. Coal mining clearance in virgin forest areas continues, as in Chattisgarh Hasdeo Arand region in Sarguja, one of the largest forest patches in Central India. This was declared a no-mining zone in 2010 by the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests, but this has hence been revoked. 

The attempt to amend and dilute the Environmental Impact Assessment(EIA) notification of 2006 with a diluted one in 2020 was opposed not only by experts but also by lakhs of students and youth. The government was taken aback by the unprecedented response and soon abandoned the effort. Later, on other pretexts, they did retaliatory crack down on activists, arresting them under sedition charges, an act that further brought shame to the government. Yet, this government has weakened the EIA 2006 notification more than a dozen times in the last four years through various orders. Recently, amendments were proposed for all the three major environmental Acts – the Water Act, the Air Act and the Environment Protection Act – to remove punitive provisions against violators, decriminalising them. In legal circles, this is seen as violating one of the most fundamental principles of environmental law, the principle of non-regression. 

It is no hidden fact that even with penalising provisions, India has one of the worst polluted rivers in the world. A study conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board in 2018 found that 351 out of more than 400 rivers in India are polluted. Of the 50 cities with the worst air quality, 35 are in India. According to the World Air Quality Report 2021 prepared by the Swiss organisation IQAir, New Delhi was the most polluted national capital in the world for the last four years. According to WaterAid Water Quality Index 2019, India is ranked 120 out of 122 countries.

 At the bottom of global Environmental Performance Index

The worst also happened this year of “Amrit Mahotsav”. India ranks at the bottom of 180 countries assessed by the Global Environmental Performance Index (EPI), established as a data-based summary of sustainability worldwide. Using 40 performance indicators across 11 issue categories, the EPI ranks countries on climate change performance, environmental health, and ecosystem vitality. Each country's performance is assessed based on air quality, waste management, water and sanitation, heavy metals, climate change mitigation, biodiversity and habitat, ecosystem services, fisheries, agriculture, acid rain and water resources. 

From the centre stage of global environmental stewardship in the 1970s and 1980s, India is now the worst performing nation in the world in just 30 years. This is primarily owing to two leaders and their world view. 

Is there hope?

There has always been hope. India has been a nation of active civil society engagements on all critical issues it faces. Such movements were mostly led by villagers, tribal communities, activists, enlightened and committed scientists and officials and in some cases even political leaders. Such efforts were also supported in many cases by a few journalists, advocates, writers and socio-cultural leaders.

There are hundreds of such movements and efforts that challenged the destructive policy and actions of governments and misbehaving corporations. Some of such legendary struggles need to be mentioned here.

The Chipko movement was born in 1973 when a group of farmers near Mandal village in the Himalayas stopped the cutting down of trees for a sports goods project. It later spread to other regions of the Himalayas. This was the birth of modern day Indian environmental protection activities. Later movements like the Apiko in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka were inspired by Chipko.

Chipko movement
Courtesy Wikipedia

In the same year, the Silent Valley movement was born as a protest against a hydroelectric project that could submerge a large part of an evergreen tropical forest in Palakkad district of Kerala. It was a science-based movement led by environmental scientists, art and culture activists and students. The Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad, a popular science movement, took up this struggle as a campaign. By 1983, the struggle was successful when the central government instructed the Kerala government to abandon the project and the Centre declared the Silent Valley forests as a national park.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan started in 1985, against the construction of a huge dam on the Narmada river. More than 250,000 people, including tribals, were threatened with displacement due to the dam. The movement had to wage a long struggle for the rehabilitation of the people. Although the dam eventually came up, the struggle led to global policy and action outcomes that was to set the framework for construction of dams and rehabilitation issues. Many ecologically destructive dam projects were challenged subsequently. 

The Jungle Bachao Andolan in Bihar, the fight to stop pesticide poisoning in Kerala, the agitations against industrial pollution in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Delhi, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh helped expand the environment consciousness. In 1984, the biggest chemical disaster in the world happened in Bhopal, India which led to the loss of 25,000 lives in 37 years. At least six lakh people are estimated to have been affected. The people of Bhopal keep the memory of this tragedy alive to remind this nation that there should not be another Bhopal. 

 There are thousands of scientists, activists and ordinary people who make every day efforts at all levels to contribute to the betterment of the environment. Planting trees, conserving water, protecting forests and wildlife, restoring ecosystems, rebuilding species stocks, protecting the oceans, developing eco-alternatives to toxic materials like plastics and pesticides, taking action to combat climate change, the list is endless. Some projects and missions like National Mission for Green India, National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture, National Action Plan on Climate Change, National Wildlife Action Plan, National Mission to Stabilise the Himalayan Ecosystem have come from the side of the government. An effort to protect the Western Ghats would certainly have been one such task, had some political parties in Kerala not sabotaged it. Kerala is currently facing the degradation of ecosystems across the state.

The question now is whether India will ever return to be the global leader in environmental stewardship. The possibilities are bleak. But the aspiration of the Indian government for an “Amrit Kaal” in the next 25 years, can only be achieved if we have a government that will drive an eco restorative transformation. A pro-active eco-literate government, to be more specific, one such Prime Minister, is what this nation needs desperately.

Sridhar Radhakrishnan is an engineer,  environmentalist and an observer on development and policy related to the environment, agriculture and climate.

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