25 Years Advancing Environmental and Social Justice!
A brief report of ESG’s Silver Jubilee Commemoration
by Hilton Simmet
(Ph.D. candidate at Harvard Kennedy School who is associated with ESG in several research projects)
Earth, water, air and fire. For the ESG, which celebrated its 25th anniversary on April 27th and 28, these ancient elements form part of the new logo representing the organization.
Though drawn from Aristotle’s ancient lectures on Physics, these elements represent more than just physical entities. They symbolize the ESG insight—from 25 years of legal advocacy, activism and pedagogy—that environmental crises are also crises in the values and aspirations by which modern societies govern themselves.
Such a paradigm shift in environmental thinking, from the elements of matter to societal values, was reflected in the presentations by the numerous speakers and luminaries invited to celebrate ESG at 25.
The keynote, delivered by Professor Sheila Jasanoff of Harvard University, was titled “Imagining Futures: Finding Common Ground across Ideological and Political Minefields.” She addressed the importance of shared purposes above claims to scientific mastery over nature. Drawing on environmental movements from Chipko to Narmada Bachao Andolan and Fridays for Future she called for an “aspirational universalism” by which societies might build on their shared experiences to “stop feeling disenfranchised and actually learn to recover our lost sovereignty.”
The Silver Jubilee celebration also highlighted ESG’s engagement with the systems of often unquestioned expertise and legal authority by which modern societies operate. An approach of “compassionate resistance”, as attendees termed it, attracted some of those current and former authorities, and former adversaries, to come together to celebrate ESG. This included Hon’ble Mr. Justice P. Krishna Bhat, former Judge of the High Court of Karnataka, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, former Minister of Environment and Forests, and Prof. M V Rajeev Gowda, former Member of Parliament. The trademark of ESG, as activist Ms. Madhu Bhushan expressed it, is in how it challenges the system while promoting dialogue with it.
This sentiment continued into the second day when Justice Mr. Sunil Dutt Yadav, Judge of the Karnataka High Court, said ESG has led the environmental movement to engage with formal justice as a way to make the world a better place. He was delivering the inaugural address of the Day 2 conversation on “New Imaginaries of Environmental Justice.”
Leading activists, campaigners and scientists shared perspectives on ecological transformations, agroecological promises and public health imperatives. They talked about physical limits while giving primacy to the governance challenges in making a new world, from addressing rising inequality to supporting the threatened livelihoods of farmers and fishers.
Participants also emphasized the importance of our shared responsibilities to the natural world and to one another. As architect and urbanist Prem Chandavarkar put it “we may achieve more by recognising human limits to environmental endeavours, adopt the non-linear logic of the natural world we are a part of, and embrace complexity and emergence”. Which Dr. Vandana Shiva in her valedictory address said can be achieved through the elements of love, freedom, and friendship, and this way we can achieve justice for mother earth and for humanity.
The new logo represents an organization that for 25 years has pushed for the importance of the environment and the social values needed to support such values. ESG has called these the four fundamental values of its decades-long work toward action, openness, justice and inclusivity.
The 25th anniversary conference was hosted at the Infosys Science Foundation. More information about the organization can be found here, including ways of supporting ESG in its mission to support “environmental and social justice initiatives across India and the world.”
Dr. Shirdi Prasad Tekur Memorial Environmental Health Fellowship
Dr. Shirdi Prasad Tekur, when he served as Captain in the Indian Army, was selected to be one of the three contenders to be India’s first person in space. A training injury put him out of contention, and he had to leave the Army too. His true calling was in serving the holistic health needs of the wide public, particularly that of the poor and working classes, which he did through his small clinic, New City Clinic in Jayanagar, a southern suburb of Bangalore.
Tekur has been a long term friend and supporter of ESG, and helped us think through various environmental and social justice issues and concerns that we addressed. He was a quintessential part of every environmental health initiative ESG took over the decades.
During the COVID pandemic, Tekur reached out to hundreds who were sick, in person and on the phone, and ensured they recovered. But during the brutal second wave Dr. Tekur got infected and ultimately lost his mortal battle to post COVID complications on 16th May 2021.
In memory of Dr. Tekur and to ensure the spirit with which he approached Environmental Health is sustained and made normative to public administration, ESG Trust has established the Dr. Shirdi Prasad Tekur Environmental Health Memorial Fellowship. This was launched during ESG’s 25th Anniversary Commemoration on 27th April 2023 by Ms. Arundhati Nag of Ranga Shankara in the presence of Tekur’s family.
The goal of this fellowship is to provide opportunities for early-career public health/social work /environmental health professionals/researchers/writers in addressing an environmental health risk/concern and thus contribute to deepening focus on environmental health in public administration.
More details about the fellowship can be found here.
The Battle for Biodiversity
Oceans are our largest commons and a rich repository of biodiversity. On 4th March, 2023, the United Nations member states secured the High Seas Treaty after about 20 years of negotiations. The treaty offers protection to the high seas by, inter alia, recognizing the high seas’ genetic resources as common property and thereby protecting it from biopiracy.
Meanwhile, in Paris, a historical hearing is set to take place on 1st June, 2023 in the Administrative Court of an appeal which is led by five NGOs against the State for its failure to implement risk assessment procedures and marketing authorisations for pesticides that are responsible for the collapse in biodiversity.
Pesticides have wreaked havoc on biodiversity across the globe and also affects public health irreversibly. An analytical report on PFAS Pesticide Testing finds that some of the United States’ most widely used food pesticides are contaminated with potentially dangerous levels of toxic PFAS (“forever chemicals”) which have severe health consequences and do not naturally degrade. Similar reports are also emerging from Canada.
In light of the shrinking biodiversity in the north-eastern region of India, ActionAid Association organised a two-day Biodiversity Conference on March 25-26, 2023, in Guwahati, Assam in collaboration with Gauhati University. Leo F Saldanha and Bhargavi Rao of ESG were invited as resource persons. Read the report by Action Aid here.
Research published in the Journal of Applied Ecology investigated the correlation between the proportion of fallow land and the number and abundance of farmland birds over a nine-year study period to conclude that areas of fallow land can contribute to an increase in biodiversity.
In a comprehensive survey of water bodies in India conducted by the Jal Shakti Ministry, it is found that only 3% of the 24 lakh water bodies are in cities, and that 78% of the water bodies are not in use due to either drying up, siltation, salinity, etc. It also reveals that 1.6% of the water bodies have been encroached. But there are serious problems with the methodologies adopted, the centralised manner in which the study was undertaken and also the contents of the report, according to a report from Down To Earth.
Another recent analysis by the CPCB on water quality of 620 water bodies across 28 states shows Bengaluru’s lakes at the top of the list of waterbodies with severe biological contamination. In an interview regarding the shrinkage of water bodies and green cover due to urbanisation, Bhargavi S Rao of ESG highlights the lack of implementations of the various orders of the Karnataka High Court in protecting lakes as a key reason.
When it comes to protection of the environment, the Karnataka Government’s performance has been abysmal resulting in securing it an ‘E’ grade in Report Cards prepared prior to the Karnataka Assembly Elections by Bahutva Karnataka – a coalition of progressive and reformist organisations.
Oceans vs. Plastics
Pollution in the Pacific Ocean is getting worse by the day, more so as the G7 nations have decided to support the Japanese government’s plans to discharge 1.3 million cubic tons of Fukushima radioactive waste water into the Pacific Ocean which is already plagued with plastic.
Scientists are finding surprising, and very disconcerting, formations in the 1.6 million sq. km. large Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Creatures from anemones to worms to little crustaceans are utilising the plastic patch to increase their populations phenomenally, and spreading across the ocean learning to survive, reproduce and thrive in the open sea clinging to plastic! This is likely to have a cataclysmic impact on ocean life and biodiversity, scientists warn.
Additionally, new research published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances suggests that plastic recycling facilities could be releasing wastewater packed with billions of microplastics, contributing to the pollution of waterways and endangering human health.
Disproportionate Climate Impact
The final part of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report reveals disproportionate climate impact on vulnerable communities, including India’s oppressed caste groups. In Odisha’s Kendrapara district, when 16 villages were submerged due to rising seas and erosion, the government provided only one-room units per family under the Odisha Disaster Recovery Project which failed large families who constitute the majority.
In efforts to mitigate the impending consequences of climate change, the RBI’s Report on Currency and Finance prioritizes climate change, emphasizing fiscal policies for the transition to renewables, where a green taxonomy is crucial for sustainable investments. A development that invites deeper discussion and debate.
Right Track to Renewable Energy?
India has been pushing for a switch to renewable energy. However, the approach appears to be causing new problems. The Geological Survey of India undertaking exploration and surveys in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh for lithium.
Industry estimates indicate that for every tonne of lithium extracted, the process consumes 170 cubic meters of water and emits 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The geostrategic importance of lithium exploration and extraction makes it even more important that the exploration and extraction of resources should be based on sound and rigorous environmental impact assessment frameworks based on the Principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
Large-scale renewable energy projects, like the mega solar park at Pavagada in Karnataka, raise important concerns. An essay by Meera Subramanian published in the New Yorker explores the impact of this project on local communities and the environment, and enquires if this is the just pathway in causing transformations to sustainability. Leo Saldanha and Bhargavi Rao’s views feature in this essay.
Bhargavi Rao critically analyzes India’s top-down approach to renewable energy, which currently lacks proper planning and inclusivity. The renewable sector enjoys repeated environmental clearance exemptions, based on its proclaimed clean energy label. Yet, as the sector grows and exploits more resources, the need for regulations is becoming increasingly evident.
Wind World (India), a Mumbai-based company, was granted a lease of forest land to set up a windmill, which was rejected by the Maharashtra Government as work was undertaken withou forest clearance. However, the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT), which has no jurisdiction in the matter, directed the state to grant the company permission claiming the operation of the wind farms is essential to resolve insolvency of the company! This was later quashed by the High Court.
Germany has working on phasing out nuclear power since 2002. It finally shut down its three remaining nuclear plants on April 15, 2023. And this despite the energy crisis caused by the Ukraine war. Meanwhile,, India has approved installation of 10 new nuclear reactors in five states drawing serious attention to the country’s commitment to safe and sustainable energy production.
Mangroves: To be protected or not?
The Centre had announced Mangroves Initiative for Shoreline Habitats and Tangible Income (MISHTI) in this year’s budget, under which mangroves will be planted along India’s coastline and salt pans. Apart from the fact that mangroves absorb carbon dioxide with five times the efficiency of terrestrial trees, they can bring in money through the carbon credit policy, provided locally endemic species are chosen over merely ‘fast growing’ species.
The Maharashtra government, on the other hand, has sought to overturn a 2018 landmark Bombay high court judgement calling for a “total freeze” on the destruction of mangroves in the state. The Supreme Court has begun hearings on a special leave petition (SLP Diary No.13791 of 2020) on April 24th on the question of seeking permits to construct within 50 metres of mangroves (buffer zones), filed by the Maharashtra Maritime Board (MMB). But details of the proposal have not been made public.
Massive loss of forest cover in India
Further diluting the requirement of Eco-Sensitive Zones (ECZ) around protected areas, the Supreme Court modified its June 2022 order on 1-km ECZ stating that it would not apply to cases where: (1) A draft or final notification for development has already been issued (2) National parks and sanctuaries located on inter-state borders and/or sharing common boundaries.
This when India is said to have lost at least 668,400 hectares (ha) of forests between 2015 and 2020, according to a new report from Deforestation Watch. Infrastructure development and also increasing pressure from a growing population is attributed as key reasons for this irreversible loss.
Odisha, a state most prone to natural calamities, has diverted 62,016 hectares of forest land and cut down 19.50 lakh trees for non-forestry purposes till 2022. All this for executing industrial, mining and developmental projects. And damage to forests is being done just about everywhere, and in small ways as well: in Malur of Kolar district, about 3,000 trees in a deemed-to-be forest area have been cut down and taken away illegally, prompting the Forest Department to register a case against Public Works Department officials.
Urbanisation and loss of Greenery
A Land Use Land Cover (LULC) analysis of Bengaluru undertaken with the help of satellite imagery between 2003 and 2021, reveals that the city sacrificed over 59% of its green cover and has increased its built-up area by nearly 98%. Owing to such rapid urbanisation, Bengaluru experiences an bump in its minimum temperature from 16 °C in 2003 to 21 °C in 2021, due to ‘heat island’ effect.
The destruction of trees in the name of development has become a major concern in the city. As Bhargavi Rao told News Trail, “The whole replanting of these trees is an absolute scam. I am sure it is not effectively implemented. Even if it is, what is the point of destroying trees in the city and replanting them somewhere else?… The city planners have no regard for greenery in the city, and Bengaluru, which is called the garden city of India, has no garden or green left. People are investing in air purifiers when one tree can do the job of a few air purifiers.”
In January, ESG raised a complaint regarding the environmental and ecological risks of the 112-foot tall Adiyogi statue erected by Isha Yoga Centre in Chikkaballapur. The Centre has now forwarded ESG’s complaint to the State for appropriate legal action.
In the name of ‘development’ several projects with substantial environmental impact are being proposed, sanctioned and even granted environmental clearances, resulting in what can be ascribed as maldevelopment. In memory of the former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, the Kalaignar Pen Monument is proposed to be constructed in Tamil Nadu, in an area that falls in the CRZ IV(A), CRZ I(A) and CRZ II areas, posing a direct threat to coastal ecosystems. While the grant of EC for the project is being deliberated, concerns regarding a faulty and inaccurate EIA have been raised.
In Bada Village, Uttara Kannada (Karnataka), a 56 acre resort is coming up just 75 meters from the seashore, and has secured approvals within 8 months of applying. This when local communities struggle to get clearances for their small houses, which are typically denied on the ground that they lie within the Coastal Regulation Zone! So far, fishermen have lost 12 of the 13 major fishing beaches between Karwar and Ankola due to the Indian Navy’s Sea Bird, Asia’s largest naval base project, in Karwar. This project has displaced nearly 4,400 families and their livelihoods have been impacted as they can’t freely fish in open waters.
Challenges Regulating Development from Environmental Considerations:
Poorly conceived infrastructure development has resulted in potentially irreversible consequences all over the country. An example is the construction and expansion of the Bengaluru-Mysuru Expressway by National Highways Authority (undertaken largely during COVID lockdowns), which is flooding with every rain. It has also caused severe losses and hardships for the renowned toy traders of Channapatna, and thousands of other artisans, besides fragmenting hundreds of villages and exposing them to high risk of injury and dearth from road accidents.
That the 2006 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification would promote industrial development and infrastructure expansion at grave cost to human health, livelihoods, environment and ulitmately the economy was critically analysed in ESG’s publication Green Tapism. As was predicted, the Notification has failed to deliver to its objectives. Over a decade and half since the Notification was brought into effect, National Green Tribunal’s Southern Zone Bench has highlighted how State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities (SEIAA) tend to trust misleading information provided by the project proponents on their face value and end up categorising projects erroneously. The direction focuses on how this is resulting in insufficient EIAs and bypassing public hearings before granting the environment clearance, which the Tribunal considers is a situation that has arisen because SEIAAs function under the direct supervision of the State Governments. The Tribunal has recommended Indian Environment Ministry (MoEFCC) must examine possibility of bringing the SEIAAs under its direct administrative control. Bringing up the question if one can at all trust MoEF&CC which is extensively diluting all environmental laws, policies and regulatory standards.
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