Civil society outfits flag discrepancies in ecological policies under BJP-led NDA rule

Their report analyses the claims versus realities of environmental and climate-change policies of the NDA government over the past decade.

BySouth First Desk

Published May 18, 2024 | 7:40 PMUpdatedMay 18, 2024 | 7:43 PM

Civil society outfits flag discrepancies in ecological policies under BJP-led NDA rule

Prominent civil society organizations in Maharashtra and Karnataka have released an environmental balance sheet that says the Union government has acted in complete contradiction to the Prime Minister’s claims on international and domestic platforms on environmental issues.

The outfits, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) Maharashtra, Fridays for Future (FFF) Karnataka, and Bahutva Karnataka, have jointly produced and released a comprehensive report titled “Guarantee Check: State of India’s Environment Over the Last Decade – An Exacerbating Crisis”.

The report, unveiled during an online event, analysed the claims versus realities of the BJP-led NDA government’s environmental and climate change policies and actions over the past decade.

The report can be accessed here

Lara Jesani from PUCL Maharashtra presented the key findings of the report.

It was followed by a panel discussion featuring noted environmentalists such as Manshi Asher, Himachal-based environment justice activist and researcher; Henri Tiphagne, National Working Secretary, Human Rights Defenders Alert-India; Rohit Prajapati, noted Environmentalist and founding member of Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti and Disha Ravi, Youth Climate Activist with FridaysForFuture.

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Industrial pollution and water contamination

Rohit Prajapati highlighted the severe pollution of rivers in Gujarat, where Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) levels have reached as high as 2500 mg/l, significantly surpassing the permissible limit of 250 mg/l set by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

Prajapati said this alarming increase can be attributed to industrial effluents. This has resulted in extensive groundwater pollution, adversely affecting farmers and agricultural produce.

Environmental destruction in the Himalayas

Manshi Asher raised concerns about the environmental degradation in the Himalayan region. She pointed to the rapid change in land use driven by infrastructure development and mining, which has become rampant.

She said this has led to disasters such as the Joshimath land subsidence and the Char Dham Tunnel collapse.

Asher also criticized the Uttarakhand government for neglecting these environmental disasters while promoting polarization and creating a communal narrative in the state.

Threats to environmental activists

Henri Tiphagne discussed the dangers faced by environmental activists across India. He cited the killing of 16 activists in police firing in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, while protesting against the Vedanta plant.

Tiphagne pointed to the lack of protection for activists in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha, where they face illegal arrests, confiscation of their phones and devices and even custodial deaths.

He also condemned the National Human Rights Commission for closing cases prematurely and failing to safeguard activists.

Political manifestos, environmental promises

Disha Ravi analyzed the environmental commitments in political party manifestos, criticizing the BJP for causing large-scale deforestation and diluting laws affecting the rights of Adivasis.

She noted that the BJP manifesto ignored Forest Rights. While it mentioned a vague carbon sink target, it failed to address the forest rights of indigenous communities, coal, or heavy industry decarbonization.

She noted that, in contrast, the Congress manifesto pledged a national mission to protect their rights and combat deforestation.

While the BJP supports India’s automobile industry transition to electric vehicle manufacturing, Disha said it failed to provide comprehensive solutions for reducing carbon emissions beyond the existing Green Credit Programme.

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Key findings of the Report

The NDA government has fulfilled some of its manifesto promises. However, on environmental issues, the government has acted in complete contradiction to the Prime Minister’s claims on international and domestic platforms, said the report.

The BJP promised to protect coasts, forests, forest dwellers, the Himalayas, and all natural resources.

However, it further stated that under the present administration, environmental laws and policies have been diluted, leading to unprecedented exploitation of natural resources in India.

India’s rank in the Environmental Performance Index plummeted from 125th in 2012 to 180th in 2022, while its position in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report improved from 142nd in 2014 to 63rd in 2019.

According to the report, environmental degradation is directly linked to a development model that prioritizes private profit over public goods, destructive development, and sustainability.

Indiscriminate granting of clearances to projects

The report said that the total number of clearances granted by the Environment Ministry increased 21 times, from 577 in 2018 to 12,496 in 2022 (Environmental +Forest + Wildlife + Coastal Regulation Zone clearances), facilitating rapid infrastructure growth at the expense of environmental sustainability.

Soon after coming into power in 2014, the current government fulfilled its commitment to industrialists by approving at least 230 projects, it revealed.

For instance, the findings said that by boosting infrastructure and development companies, the government increased capital expenditure allocation for infrastructure projects to a remarkable 269.82% from FY 2018-19 to FY 2024-25.

Meanwhile, environmental laws were diluted to facilitate infrastructure projects and evade environmental impact assessment and public consultation processes.

Diluting, evading mandatory environmental impact assessment

The report said numerous amendments significantly weakened the protections under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006.

It further said these changes included removing clearance requirements for certain projects, exempting some from public consultation, and providing a window for regularising violating industries that had not obtained prior environmental clearance.

The report said that during the COVID-19 lockdown, the government introduced the Draft EIA Notification, further easing the impact assessment process and clearance grants despite restricted public participation.

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Rampant diversion of forests, deforestation

The 2023 amendment to the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 redefined forests and removed protections for many forested areas, according to the report, risking urbanization, mining, and infrastructure expansion for about 25% of India’s forests.

Between 2014 and 2020, less than one percent of forest clearance requests were rejected, resulting in the loss of nearly 1.5 lakh hectares of forest land between 2014 to 2023, the report stated.

Green washing

The Green Credits Program permits industries to destroy ancient forests, allowing them to do tree plantation in so-called ‘degraded’ land, harming natural forest cover, shrublands, and grasslands.

The report also said the government notified the Carbon Credit Trading Scheme in 2023, revised to include the voluntary market in 2024. This scheme prioritises business profits over genuine emission reductions.

Permitting destruction of coasts, coastal ecology

The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification of 2011 aimed to ensure livelihood security for coastal communities and conserve coastal stretches. However, several amendments significantly diluted it.

The report revealed that the 2019 CRZ Notification further ignored the overwhelming public objections from the fishing communities, weakening these safeguards and reducing the No Development Zone along the seacoast from 200 to 50 meters, thus opening coastal areas to commercial construction.

This relaxation endangers the stability of many of India’s 1,382 islands, threatened by development projects, rising sea levels, and cyclonic storms.

Notably, the government fast-tracked the ₹72,000 crore Great Nicobar Mega Project, diverting 130 square kilometres of forest area in the Nicobar Islands for infrastructure projects, including a township, transhipment terminal and an airport, it said.

Dangerous situation in the Himalayas

Last year witnessed severe disasters due to detrimental development decisions, such as land subsidence in Joshimath, tunnel collapse on the Char Dham Road, and glacial floods and dam bursts in Sikkim.

Despite this, the NDA government continued with the Char Dham project, involving extensive tunnelling, and approved numerous hydroelectric projects, the report said.

When Ladakhis recently raised their voices to protect their environment, the government suppressed them, it said.

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Unbridled mining

During the Covid-19 crisis, the government seized the opportunity to privatize coal mining, amending the Mines and Minerals Act in 2023 to ease mining clearances and licenses, paving the way for increased private sector involvement.

This led to widespread mining in eastern states like Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand. This, in turn, severely impacted the rights of local Adivasi communities and caused extensive deforestation, the report said.

Odisha alone accounted for 73.13 percent of the total bauxite output in 2021-22, while Chhattisgarh saw thousands of trees felled in Hasdeo’s ancient forests for coal mining, further displacing Adivasi livelihoods.

Uncontrolled pollution

An India Spend analysis from 2014 to 2017 revealed that the government has significantly weakened pollution control boards.

According to the report, State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs), under government direction, exempted 146 out of 206 classes of polluting industries from routine inspections during this period.

Consequently, industrial units in these categories can now self-certify compliance or obtain third-party certification.

As a result, India ranked third most polluted country in the 2023 World Air Quality Report by IQAir, with nine out of the ten most polluted cities located within the country.

Additionally, almost half of India’s 603 rivers remain polluted, according to the Central Pollution Control Board’s 2022 report, the report said.

No action on Climate Change

The government’s inaction on climate change exacerbates the issue, with increased deforestation, unregulated mining, pollution, and industrialization worsening the situation, it further said.

Moreover, it said that diverting common lands for compensatory afforestation and large-scale renewable energy projects, along with reducing coastal no-development zones, made it difficult for vulnerable communities to adapt to climate change.

Silencing of environmental activists

The report said the government also failed to promote sustainability and suppressed the voices of environmental activists. In the 2017 Defenders of the Earth report by Global Witness, India ranked as the fourth deadliest country for environmental activists.

The report attributed the worsening situation in India to the vilification of environmental activists, including Adivasi groups, as ‘anti-development’ criminals, increased police brutality and a clampdown on civil society using the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA).

(Edited by Shauqueen Mizaj)