EJ Matters Vol 3. Issue 12 : Regressive Amendments Proposed To Environmental Laws Of India Resisted

Regressive Amendments Proposed To Environmental Laws Of India Resisted

The report of “National Consultation On Proposed Amendments To Environmental Laws In India” organised by Environment Support Group in collaboration with Institute of Public Policy and Centre for Labour Studies of National Law School of India University (NLSIU) is out, and can be accessed here.  The unanimous conclusion of legal scholars, environmental and social justice activists, researchers, etc. is that all of the proposed Bills must be withdrawn immediately.

Upcoming Events: Creative Mornings with Leo Saldanha

Upcoming Webinar: 2022 Mapping 

ESG Opinion on Urban Flooding

Over the past several weeks, Bengaluru has witnessed unprecedented rainfall and severe flooding in several parts of the city, especially the ill-planned newly developed areas such as Bellandur Varthur corridor. The Bengaluru Mysore Highway, built by NHAI,  the 10 lane expressway due to be opened in October this year also witnessed flooding by torrential rains. In this section, we share ESG’s opinion on the state of the city, the cause of the urban flooding, the contrasting effect it has had on the different economic groups, the attribution of the problem to climate change, the relevance of the two decade struggle in protecting and rehabilitating water commons and finally the way forward.

In an interview with Frontline, Leo Saldanha shares his thoughts on the historical loss of lakes in Bengaluru and the shoddy system of development that has led to flooding in many parts of Bengaluru. “The corrupt gnawed into every open space … and somehow managed to get building permits’ he said. In another article, Saldanha shares his views on the shaping of the metropolis by caste and community influences, where feudal lords were at a clear advantage to form massive layouts of their farms around the city, which then led to the emergence of gated communities for villas and mega apartment complexes.

Bhargavi Rao attributes the urban flooding situation to the poor imagination of the local politicians, bureaucrats, real estate tycoons and foriegn consultants. She says that “The flooding that the city suffers now is the cumulative impact of these (development- apartment and commercial building) projects that were recklessly developed and their absolute exemption from environmental review. 

The flood has clearly shown that disasters strike the haves and have nots very differently. With little help from the local and state Governments, the people in the inundated slums and squatter settlements are left to fend for themselves.

As Bhargavi Rao puts it:

“As parts of the city crawl back to life, the rich will get by living in hotels, claim their insurance to get back into comfort zones, and perhaps slip back to raising noise about their lost comforts and well-being. It is the poor who have always been left out, and are worse off when such disaster strikes. They are left to fend for themselves, in whatever manner they can manage, scavenging what little is left of their homes. They have no insurance, get little support from local and state governments, and rebuilding lives leaves them in debt and despair. The renewal required now must particularly look at their needs and ensure they are quickly rehabilitated.” 

This has been further illustrated by Eshwarappa through field reporting of a slum settlement next to Bellandur lake. Here, children, women and cattle are suffering silently as high rise construction continues in their surroundings close to the lake. Eshwarappa finds that only NGOs and Trusts are providing relief through food packets to these inundated settlements while the Government is not seen in the picture.

Saldanha further highlights that wise rehabilitation of the lakes and rajakaluves has been in discussion in the Honourable High Court in two petitions since 2008. Despite being under judicial oversight, Subramanyapura Lake, South Bangalore, and its kaluves continue to suffer destruction. Saldanha also argues that the current desilting exercise in our lakes is contractor driven with little regard for the ecologically viable design of lakes as per the Justice NK Patil reports.  To sum it all up, Leo Saldanha says: “careless disregard for the role wetlands play in supporting and sustaining human settlements.” has resulted in this urban mess. He elaborates the history of ‘development’ of this metropolis, the various pressures and forces that shaped it to its present state.

In what appears to be a disaster impending, the flooding also affected the largest solar park in India. Several tanks and bunds in Pavagada, which was a drought prone area for several decades, were levelled off to give way for the mega solar project that was commissioned there. Unfortunately the heavy rainfalls led to the submergence of a large portion of the solar park which was said to have been built on a lake bed. 

Protecting Water Commons:

Koppal workshop witnessed participation from Panchayat Development Officers, Police, Forest and Revenue officers, and a cross section of representatives from civil society and peoples movements.

As part of ongoing District Level Lake Protection Awareness workshops organised by ESG in collaboration with Karnataka State Legal Services Authority, in coordination with District Legal Services Authority and District Lake Protection Committee, a workshop was organised at Koppal on 27th September. Similarly, on 22nd October a workshop was organised at Kolar Zilla Panchayat office. These workshops drew participation of  officials from Local Governments (urban and rural), representatives of various government agencies (police, revenue, forest, irrigation, etc.), civil society, farmers movements, media, academia, etc. Both workshops witnessed participation of over 700,  and assisted their awareness building on implications of the Karnataka High Court orders in ESG Lakes PIL and also various laws and orders. See the Koppal report: Koppal workshop. (Kolar workshop report will be shared soon.) 

On a very positive note, following almost two decades of efforts from ESG and others,   Government of Karnataka decided not to renew the lease of East India Hotels (Oberoi Group) to privately control Hebbal Lake, including for commercial use. Leo Saldanha highlighted the importance of this decision by saying “ the danger of commercialisation, providing custody of lakes to private agencies is against the public trust doctrine. Public commons, from lakes to grazing lands, should remain in the hands of the people.” 

Climate change: Vicious cycles of heatwaves, droughts and floods

A Climate scientist chronicles the extreme weather events in the Northern Hemisphere from the record breaking heat waves and droughts in Western Europe, the United States and China, in Japan and South Korea, while massive rivers run dry in China and across North America. These extreme weather events are devastating entire countries, as is the case in Pakistan.   These  floods indicate India could similarly suffer in the coming years, especially due to the melting of glaciers across Himalayas. 

Floods across Pakistan is of staggering scale and severity and has affected a third of the country. As the country was reeling under a political crisis, half a million people were stranded, over a million homes destroyed and over 1000 died. These floods have tipped Pakistan into a food crisis, affecting about 78,000 sq km of farmland and 6,000 kms (3,728 miles) of roads and bridges, disrupting agricultural production and transport of food. 

Axios  reports on the climate injustice embedded in this calamity: “The estimated 1 million houses destroyed in the flooding were occupied by people who had a very low carbon footprint compared to the average American or European citizen.” These floods have been attributed to the combined effect of the record breaking meltdown of Himalayan glaciers and the  unprecedented monsoon season, and Nature explains how a combination of extreme weather events have contributed to this catastrophe. Global Warming Index reports human induced impacts have already warmed the planet by about 1.25℃, and thus we are precariously close to the 1.5℃ tipping point.

Meanwhile, across India, heat waves touched 50 degrees celsius and this was followed by flooding and intense rains in various parts of the country resulting in havoc.  Large metropolises like Bengaluru, Mumbai and even small towns such as Ramanagara suffered immense loss and damage. A study examining extreme heat data going back to the 1990s and comparing it to national economic data region-wise has found that wealthiest regions such as areas of Europe and North America faced an average 1.5% loss of GDP per capita per year in comparison to  low-income regions such as India and Indonesia where the per capita GDP loss yearly was 6.7%, yet again emphasising the injustice borne by the global south.

Supporting our brothers and sisters in Pakistan

Those keen on supporting our brothers and sisters in Pakistan in their time of distress can send their contributions to this list of agencies extending relief. This list has been put together by Ashoka Foundation and based on verification through its Fellows

Costs of ignoring ecological warnings: The Great Nicobar project

Environmentalists across the country are warning against the Rs. 75000 crores mega project proposed at the Great Nicobar islands which  will include an international airport, an international container terminal, a township, and a power plant. It is highly likely that such projects will put the island’s endemic species at high risk of extinction. The protected status of portions of the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve and Galathea Bay, which was stripped away to make way for this project, will be catastrophic for the leatherback sea turtles that nest here.  A detailed expose of the project by Kalpavriksh can be read here

Yet, Ignoring expert opinion, and despite a flaky and incomplete Environment Impact Assessment, the Union environment ministry’s, Expert Appraisal Committee has nodded in approval of the proposed mega development. The project will involve felling over 8.5 lakh trees in pristine rainforests, loss of 12 to 20 hectares of mangrove cover, considerable loss of corals and claiming of over 298 hectares of sea bed. The project will be potentially detrimental for the populations of the endemic Nicobar megapode, Nicobar Macaque and saltwater crocodiles which inhabit these islands. The water requirement estimated for the project is about 86,600 kilolitres of water per day (KLD), of which 45,000 KLD will be freshwater drawn from surface reservoirs which are yet to be constructed. 

Prime Minister’s Stark Warnings against the Right of Expression

The Indian Prime Minister Mr  Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech delivered a message which is in stark variance to the values of liberal democracy on which India has been built over decades,  Foreign Policy argues.  New York Times, meanwhile, published an opinion suggesting “Modi’s India is Where Global Democracy Dies”. 

In the constitutional role Mr. Modi performs, clarity is expected.  Instead, there is a consistent trend in how he has mocked at, even actively attacked, the full enjoyment of  fundamental freedoms of expression, which contains the right to dissent.  Modi addressing the National Conference of Environment Ministers in September held those questioning/critiquing projects promoted by his administration and private Corporations that are promoted, even by utilising due process of law, are ‘urban naxals’.  More recently addressing Home Ministers and Director Generals of Police of all states, Modi held: “Every form of Naxalism, be it the one with guns or the one with pens, have to be uprooted to prevent them from misleading the youth of the country.” 

In the process, the Constitutional duty of the State to protect Fundamental Rights of those who express and dissent is expressly sought to be morphed with a deliberately and actively cultivated opinion that this amounts to being ‘anti national’. Does this put everyone who has a different point of view at risk? Does this mean that apart from civil society, academia, trade unions and media which dissent who are targeted, this abuse of power will increasingly be employed to target elected representatives, members of the executive or even those from the judiciary who disagree with the Union government’s  views?

Contradictory messages about direction for India’s Agriculture 

Mr. Modi has issued contradictory messages on the direction India’s agriculture should take, at once advocating chemical free agriculture while promoting the ‘One nation One fertiliser’ scheme called ‘Bharath’.  The experience of Sri Lanka’s miserably failed experiment drastically promoting organic farming has been held out, warning of caution essential and critical need of taking the farming community, which constitutes over 60% of India’s population, into confidence. As Vandana Shiva has reiterated “sustainable farming that works with nature, rather than depleting nature — is the solution to global hunger, poverty and climate change”. She also said that people will have to stand up to asset management companies that are looking to monetise nature. “Nature is not for sale” she asserts.

Meanwhile, farmers gathered at New Delhi seeking representation in policy framing and inclusion in the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) that sets the Minimum Support Price (MSP) prices. They demanded that MSP be provided based on a district wise area production plan that is based on PDS needs and the local ecology of each region. While MSP was the theme for discussion in New Delhi, experts highlight the need for a similar mechanism to secure fodder needs of the country. The skyrocketing prices of fodder have put dairy and livestock farming at risk. The steady destruction of grasslands is to blame for the unavailability of once easily accessible fodder.

Sharing a contrasting view, George Monbiot, writer and environmental activist expresses strong views on farming holding it as a very damaging human activity resulting in extensive ecosystem degradation and deeply threatening earth systems. “Forms of food production which are low impact and high yield – is desperately what we should be looking for.” he says. “Large scale rewilding is only our last hope – quickest cheapest and most benign way of absorbing large quantities of CO2”. Listen to the entire podcast where Stephen Sackur of BBC Hardtalk interviews George Monbiot in an episode entitled: Surrounded by fear

Weakening of Biodiversity Protection in India and Approval of food GMOs

GEAC clears B.t. Mustard: The clearance for environmental release of a genetically modified variety of mustard by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in its 147th meeting held on October 18, 2022 has stirred heated discussions on its potential negative impact on crop diversity, food security, pesticide tolerance and public health.  GM Free India has held that  the second clearance by the GEAC is unscientific and irresponsible, and had no additional basis to change the decision taken in 2017.  

Weakening India’s Biodiversity Protection for Trade Gains?

 The Indian Cabinet took the decision to widen access to the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), a digitalised repository of bioresources, health practices and associated traditional knowledge of India established decades ago post the Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992.  TKDL has scanned, transcribed and archived at least 360,000 traditional Indian formulations and practices, and is considered a major defence to protect India’s traditional health systems and agroecological knowledge associated with India’s biodiversity and  bioresources, from biopiracy, bioloot, bioextraction, etc.  The new decision to widen access lays emphasis on integrating and co-opting traditional knowledge with current practices towards enhancing innovation and trade.  This is deeply worrying given how the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate CHange has proposed massive weakening of India’s biodiversity laws. Will the Cabinet’s decision result in overburdening of the already weak and overburdened biodiversity protection regulatory systems, and result in intensification of bioextraction, even bioloot, possibly also biopiracy?    

Meanwhile, the finalisation of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has been riddled with the challenge on a just regulation of the use of digital sequence information (DSI) of genetic resources. When DSI is available online, it can circumvent the CBD, thereby not providing the benefits promised to local communities. Besides, there are fears that this system might widen prevailing gaps in accessing such information for those  who actually conserve biodiversity, as they do not have the means and resources to utilise such documentation.  

Pollution

According to a recent study of two most harmful pollutants, PM 2.5 and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), Delhi and Hyderabad ranked first and second as worst locations for PM 2.5 pollution.  Another recently published study shows presence of polyfluoroalkyl substances, a man made chemical used to make nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing etc, in rainwater samples collected from several parts of the globe. These are called ‘forever chemicals’ due to its nature of remaining in the environment for long periods of time.  According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to PFA’s can cause decreased fertility, developmental issues in children, disrupts balance in body hormones and recent reports have even shown that these could prevent production of antibodies in our bodies after vaccinations. Studies show that certain PFA’s could last for about 8 years in the human body. 

Despite the ban on production, storage, sale and use of  firecrackers in Delhi (a decision of the Supreme Court), people continued to burst them in violation of this ban on Diwali night, and this resulted in a spike in pollution and the plummeting of  the Air Quality Index (AQI) of Delhi to 323 by next morning, categorised as ‘very poor’, and effectively resulted in increasing PM 2.5 by five to six times the national standard. In an interview with Anusha Soni of CNN News18, Leo Saldanha suggests a durable solution to this persisting problem can only be achieved adopting a bottom-up approach, i.e. including urban and rural communities in conversations and decisions about changing their behaviour to adopt climate friendly practices, rather than merely relying on failed centralised  strategies such as bans imposed by Supreme Court, Central and State governments.

Renewable Energy

India is to build battery storage facilities of 145GWh to boost the Electric Vehicle(EV) industry. Currently, China exports almost 80% of the batteries required for EVs. India boosting its battery manufacturing capacity would result in reduction in costs of EV’s by almost half, as batteries account for 40-60% of the vehicle’s cost.

Investments of about 1.2 trillion rupees are required for this and it is likely to come from companies eligible for the production linked investments scheme and other private companies. But the problem lies in the extraction processes of the raw materials, such as Cobalt and Lithium etc, which are critical to manufacture of batteries.  Their extraction has serious environmental and human rights impacts, suffered particularly by communities in the vicinity of mines. 

The most environmentally friendly method of capturing solar power – roof top solar – is witnessing a serious decline in installations (25% down in 2022 compared with 2021 installations), Mercom reports.

At a time when greenfield solar park development is reporting a variety of serious environmental impacts such as loss of productive farming land, and also commons and forests, besides creating hazardous zones to critically endangered Great Indian Bustards that are being caught in transmission wires and killed, the lack of serious attention to compel solar developers to adopt rooftop generation is worrying.   

When there should be more push for Solar rooftop installations to keep up with India’s target of achieving the Net zero targets, the number has fallen by 25% to about 389 MW in the period of April – June 2022. Higher costs, supply chain issues and recently imposed 40% basic custom duty on solar modules and 25% on solar cells are some of the reasons cited for the fall in rooftop solar installations in the past few months. 

Meanwhile, a recent study on the analysis of the potential of solar and wind power across India by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune reveals there will be a decrease in energy harvested from such renewables across the country due to climate change. A decrease in solar radiations across the Indian landmass and also a decrease in wind speeds across North India, with increase in winds speeds across Southern India, is expected.  

Environmental Justice

Before stepping down as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet had said that “Every person, everywhere, has the right to eat, breathe and drink without poisoning their bodies”, referring to the 28th July UN General Assembly Declaration affirming everyone has an equal Right to Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment as part of Universal Rights. 

However, when it comes to the people of Loktak Wetland Region in Manipur, it appears that such rights are non-existent given how Chief Minister Biren Singh has circulated a decision of Loktak Development Authority (from about the same time the Declaration was made) to  systematically remove athaphums, signature fishing rings that lake fishers utilise to fish sustainably, as also the floating huts or the houses built on phumdis. The Government claims this is to ecologically protect the Loktak lake. But local fishers are aware that all of this devastation and dislocation is to make space for a massive-ecotourism project in the lake. The order has been passed under the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006 which people of Loktak consider as draconian and anti-community, on the basis of which violent attacks on local communities have been organised over time, including burning their huts throwing women, children and elders into the waters.  

Meanwhile, National Green Tribunal orders removal of temple structure from government land meant for ‘open space’ at Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh, Upholding the importance of open spaces in the context of urbanization. The Court held that “protection of environment and such spaces reduce the ill-effects of urbanisation”. In a similar decision, the Supreme Court’s three Judges Bench ordered maintenance of status quo  Idgah Maidan in Bangalore, thereby disallowing Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations there. 

The 5000 acres Hesaraghatta grasslands in north Bengaluru continues to be in focus as ecologists and environmentalists remind the Government that the Karnataka High Court had sent back to the State Wildlife Board its decision to not declare the ecologically sensitive areas as a conservation zone.  The next Wildlife Board meeting is impending.

In Memoriam

Mrs. Sathyavathi S N, mother of Bhargavi Rao of ESG, passed away on 25th October 2022, aged 82 years. We fondly remember her consistent support and contribution to various public causes ESG took up.  In remembrance, we share here an article of her participation in a campaign against privatisation of Bangalore’s lakes, from 2007.  We remain inspired by the courage and compassion with which she has led her life.

Sujit Patwardhan, founder of Parisar, Pune, and a major advocate of sustainable and accessible transport, passed away on 22 October at the age of 77. He had been convalescing for a while. However, he did not allow that to come in the way of his passion for transformation, working on multiple public causes to the very end of this mortal days.  Sujit has been a dear friend to all of us at ESG, and is ESG Trustee Joe Athialy’s father in law.  Tributes to a life lived for public welfare are pouring in from around the world. We invite you to read tributes from Ranjit Gadgil, an associate of Sujit at Parisar, and from Down To Earth and Times of India.  Sujit’s effervescent enthusiasm, warmth and enterprising energy will be sorely missed by everyone who knew him. 

ESG in the News

Leo Saldanha features in a special story by leading Finnish journalist Jessica Stolzman which exposes corporate claims, in this case of Finn Air, of how the donations made by customers does not really reach intended climate change fixing measures which are claimed as successful under carbon trading and CDM approaches. 

Leo also featured in a special edition of Quint Special on Climate Change and its impact, featuring UN Ambassador and actress Dia Mirza:  Watch also a special on CNN News18 on the very serious air pollution levels in the Delhi region, and what can be done to sustainably and fundamentally resolve the alarming situation.

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