Special Election Issue
India currently has the worst level of air pollution in the world. Seven of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in India . New Delhi holds the top rank for being the most polluted capital in the world. These cities boast an unnaturally high level of PM2.5 (suspended particulate matter of diameter less than 2.5 micrometer that cannot be trapped by nasal hair) in the air. In 2017 alone an estimated 1.2 million people lost their lives due to air pollution in India. In the urban areas the chief causes of air pollution are vehicular and industrial emissions. The BJP election manifesto for 2014 mentioned a move towards cleaner fuels. In most urban settings there has been an increase in the use of CNG-driven vehicles since before the NDA days but the number of private cars is increasing everyday. As a result there has not been a notable decrease in vehicular emissions. For reduction in vehicular emissions, the use of diesel needs to be checked. The required infrastructural changes have not yet been brought about. A new report titled “Political Leaders’ Position and Action on Air Quality in India” released by Climate Trends, a Delhi-based communications strategy initiative recently highlighted that the MP’s of fourteen of the most polluted cities in the world that are situated in India have failed to take any step towards curbing the levels of air pollution . Moreover, there is also a lack of discussion on this issue at the public level.
In January this year union environment minister Harsh Vardhan announced the ‘National Clean Air Programme’. The aim is to form a national framework for air quality management with a time-bound reduction target. It aims to reduce the concentration of PM2.5 and PM10 in the air within 2024 by 20-30%. Unfortunately this does not come with the legal back-up required for time-bound implementation in the urban areas. It has only been stated to be a “cooperative and participatory initiative”. Also a paltry budget of 300 crores has been set aside for this.
In the rural setting, use of solid fuels (e.g. – coal, biomass) in households is the chief source of emissions besides being a health hazard particularly for the women of the households. The ‘Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana’ was introduced in 2016 to address this issue. Under PMUY, the government provides a subsidy of Rs. 1,600 to government-owned oil manufacturing companies for every free LPG connection that they install in poor rural households without one. The beneficiary has to buy her own cooking stove. She is allowed to pay for the stove and first cylinder in monthly instalments. Herein lies the caveat- all subsequent refills are to be borne by the beneficiary herself. For the poor families it is difficult to go for refills due to high price of gas cylinders. For proper implementation of PMUY there has to be a reduction in the price of LPG cylinders. It can thus be concluded that PMUY has been a myopic initiative. Presently the exaggerated success story of this scheme is being used as election propaganda.
About 43% of the Indian population is dependent upon Ganga river system . Urban and Industrial pollution, flood plain encroachment, unsustainable sand mining, dams, diversions and hydropower projects, biodiversity loss, deforestation, loss of local water bodies, and failure of pollution control mechanism are the chief ailments suffered by Ganga and its tributaries. The programme titled ‘Namami Gange’ was launched in May, 2014 by Narendra Modi that aimed to cleanse the river Ganga within 2020. A separate ministry under the Union water resources ministry was created for the river rejuvenation programme with a budget of 20,000 crores. Reports from CAG (2017) as well as independent audits have actually shown that very little ground work (like the proposed sewage treatment plants) has been done. The chief reason being non-utilisation of the allocated funds. The report also stated that in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal the water is not even clean enough for “outdoor bathing”. The level of dissolved oxygen has gone down as compared to 2012-13. Total coliform bacteria present has increased many times above the permissible limit. A river can be self-cleansing only if there is substantial flow of water throughout the year. Unfortunately, construction of canals, barrages, hydroelectric power plants etc. (that are meant to serve the big corporates) in the upper course of the river has led to reduction of flow around the year. Such human interferences also destroy the ecological balance of those regions. All these taken together imply that the promise to clean Ganga has been used only for electoral gain by Modi as Ganga is synonymous with Hindu religious practices. G.D. Agarwal, an Indian environmental activist started an indefinite hunger strike on 22nd June, 2018 to bring attention towards government inaction over this issue. He died on the 111th day of hunger strike.
In March, 2016 the Art of Living foundation of Sri Sri Ravishankar held a three-day festival on the Yamuna floodplains completely destroying large portions of it in the process. In 2017 the National Green Tribunal assessed that it would take a decade to restore ecological balance. A fine was imposed on AoL foundation as compensation that they denied to pay . The Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary(TWS) in Varanasi, UP has been a major hindrance to a government plan that would dredge Ganga for an inland waterways project which will pass through Varanasi and end at Haldia in West Bengal. The consequent changes in riverine relief would be detrimental for the ecology of the freshwater turtle sanctuary. To circumvent the trouble in getting clearance for this project, the government is actually trying to remove the sanctuary status of TWS .
In February this year the union environment ministry gave a clearance to the Adani groups for open cast coal mining over 1,70,000 hectares of land in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand forests . It is one of the most dense and contiguous stretches of forestland in Central India. The environmental clearance will pave the way for plunder of coal reserves as well as large scale deforestation. According to the Forest Rights Act, such clearances require the consent of local Gram Sabhas, in this case such consents were allegedly forged. On the other hand, post-2014, the Forest Rights Act was diluted such that district administrations were given the power of consent in place of the Gram Sabhas. Around the same time the Supreme Court ordered the forced eviction of more than 1,000,000 tribal and other forest-dwelling households from forestlands across 16 states after the government failed to present lawyers for defending the Forest Rights Act . The petitioners argued that the Forest Rights Act goes against the constitution and would lead to deforestation. On the contrary deforestations are caused by large scale industrial projects, not by the tribal people who share a symbiotic relation with the forests. In different parts of the world it has also been studied that forest dwellers are the best protectors of the environment. The Supreme Court order goes on to show whose interest is actually being served by the state.
The Maharashtra government handed over 467 hectares of forest land in the Yavatmal district of Maharashtra to the Reliance group in January, 2018 . The subsequent killing of the tigress Avni and clearing of forest lands were steps to help land acquisition by the Ambanis. In October, 2018 the Maharashtra government agreed to divert 88 hectare of tiger-bearing forest to explosives company Solar Industries India Ltd (SIIL) in Chakdoh. Niyamgiri hills (Eastern Ghats) of Odisha contain huge reserves of Bauxite. The Vedanta groups own aluminium refineries at Lanjigarh near the Niyamgiri. This has had adverse impacts on the ecological balance of the Niyamgiri hills that the indigenous Kondh people treat as sacred. The ‘red mud’ produced as by-product at these refineries seep into the soils, streams etc. and cause far-reaching health problems. Due to severe protests that led to stoppage of construction of a second refinery by Vedanta at Niyamgiri, the central forces work hand-in-glove with the Vedanta group and continue to traumatise the locals. In Rajasthan 31 hillocks belonging to the Aravallis have been razed to the ground due to illegal mining . The disappearance of these hillocks has also been linked to the rising air pollution levels in Delhi. This matter came to the forefront after the Supreme Court ordered the Rajasthan state government to stop such illegal mining.
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) helmed by Narendra Modi has done little when it comes to protecting the environment. This initiative has speeded up waste collection but proper disposal systems have not been devised. In the cities the waste is being dumped in landfill sites adversely affecting water and soil. A recent RTI application has also revealed that from 2014-17 about 530 crores was spent on advertising SBA through electronic and print media . It has also failed when it comes to proper treatment of sewage in the big cities.
With passing days, India is getting more prone to environmental disasters, particularly floods. Large scale deforestation, soil erosion, indiscriminate construction and torrential downpour have all contributed to frequent floods.
At the public level the Prime Minister has gone on to make statements denying climate change saying that the perceptions of people have changed, the climate has not. At the first meeting of the ‘International Solar Alliance’ he went so far as to say that the Vedas contain the key to tackling climate change. Away from the public eye the state and the big corporations are joined in an unholy entente to loot natural resources. Oppressed people (depending on Jal-Jangal-Zameen) belonging to various parts of India are resisting, on being denied the basic rights of habitats and livelihoods. Trophy projects introduced by this government (like PMUY, Namami Gange etc.) are meant to project themselves as saviours of the environment while their true commitment lies in appeasing their corporate masters through all Fascist means possible.