Selling the Family Silver?

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 38 No. 8, August 2018

By Neha Sinha

Until the lion learns how to write, each story will glorify the hunter, says an African proverb. To this, we should add that if it is only the government that gets to decide what development means, tree-felling, wetland-filling, and coastal destruction will inevitably be glorified as ‘development’. This is fast eroding India’s ecological base, upon which the water, food, social and climatic security of 1.3 billion souls is dependent.

Over the past four years, our Government has assured us of a climate change mitigation plan and promised a Clean and Green India. Simultaneously, however it has injected legislations and policies that have seriously undercut, often completely dismantled, environmental and wildlife safeguards. 

Given the evidence before us of failing agricultural yields, deteriorating health on account of polluted air and water and increasingly unreliable climate patterns, reckless growth is no longer an option – development just has to have ecological literacy.

Watering Down Existing Rules

India was admired in the 1980s for possessing some of the world’s most visionary environmental laws. But all that is changing.

One of the seven wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal, sits in an embarassing contrast next to the highly-polluted Yamuna river, one of India’s natural wonders that lies in a pathetic state caused by the very people it feeds. Photo Courtesy: Dhritiman Mukherjee

The Wetland Rules of 2010, a hard-fought legislation, which placed identification and protection of wetlands at its heart, has been replaced with the much weaker Wetland Rules 2017. While we got ourselves a Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, a concomitant legislation, to dredge the very rivers the Ministry is mandated to protect, was also passed. The National Waterways Act, 2016, will straighten and dredge over 100 rivers to convert them into water highways. Digging has already started. In the coasts, hazardous construction, and careless planning is coming our way like an approaching storm.

Recently, the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification of 2011 was amended to allow construction near the coastal Hazard Line. As if this were not bad enough a new draft Forest Policy, 2018 – that facilitates forest diversion for non-forest purposes – has been mooted.

Looking at the larger picture, diverting forest land for infrastructure and real estate developments is being done through environment impact assessments that do not reveal biological diversity, and through law and policy change that favours new growth over old ecosystems. This development is bypassing the value of coasts, wetlands and other ecosystems that constitute India’s natural capital. This includes water-starved rivers and increasingly-fragmented forests. Tigers, elephants, dolphins, waterfowl, and a whole host of plants and animals are considered acceptable collateral damage. The warnings of the negative impacts of such steps on our economy and the well-being of our people from conservationists, social scientists and increasingly from economists and bankers are falling on deaf ears.

The chatter we hear at national and international conferences on wildlife and ecosystem conservation — which is intertwined with climate change action — is just window dressing.

Let’s talk about the water first. Several hydrology experts concur that freshwater should be looked at as a single unit. Wetlands nourish rivers, and flooding rivers replenish wetlands with aquatic vegetation, crustaceans and fish. Experts opine that efforts towards freshwater conservation should simultaneously offer protection for both biodiversity and the ecosystems that support biodiversity. But such perspectives are conspicuous by their absence in the new and proposed legislative changes. In the 2017 Wetland Rules, the criteria to define and identify wetlands has been diluted or done away with. Earlier, ecological sensitivity, genetic diversity, natural beauty, and heritage areas formed a part of the 2010 Rules. Man-made wetlands, including saltpans, which are crucial stopovers for migratory birds, are no longer defined as wetlands. States have almost complete power over which wetlands to notify — and which to omit — and to what land-use wetlands can be put. The recourse of approaching the National Green Tribunal no longer exists in the new Rules. Meanwhile, there are several examples of how states have neglected wetlands, or treated them as waste repositories.

Recently, birdwatchers from Delhi NCR, along with a team from the Haryana Forest Department, were on an unusual search in Haryana’s Basai wetland. Basai has been identified as an Important Bird Area and is one the capital’s most productive wetlands according to ornithologists. Ironically, it is described as a ‘sewage spill’ by Haryana. It is in precisely this ‘sewage spill’, that teams of birders recently began searching for a bird that is neither critically endangered nor high-profile — a Black-necked Stork. The search for the bird was triggered by an active social media campaign, and a lingering sense of guilt. The stork’s long bill was trapped in a piece of discarded rubber for several nail-biting days, thus preventing it from feeding. When the bird was finally captured in North India’s scorching June heat — the event turned into a strange sort of evidence that Basai was indeed a wetland, which was being overwhelmed by mounds of garbage. Rather than releasing the bird in Basai, the Forest Department took it to Sultanpur National Park, where it was released two days later amidst much ceremony. Had it been released in Basai wetland, presumably, the authorities would have had to acknowledge what birders already knew: that the area was a biodiverse wetland of great value. This our government is loathe to do as that would mean it deserved protection.

The Basai wetland, despite being identified as an Important Bird Area where migratory species such as the Greater Flamingo thrive, hasn’t been afforded adequate protection as it is eyed by developers, with a construction and demolition waste plant coming up in the area. Photo Courtesy: Pramod C. L.

This is part of a larger political economy: Basai is eyed by developers, with a construction and demolition waste plant (which recycles or treats waste from construction or demolition sites) coming up in the area. Birdwatchers have approached the National Green Tribunal – not questioning the ‘why’ of the project but the ‘where’, requesting a shift of the location to avoid damage to the wetland. Some kind of myopia allows planners and developers to dismiss such concerns as unrealistic and emotional. In truth, what is at stake is the water security of megalopolis such as New Delhi whose water supply and storage is at risk on account of gross mismanagement and over-exploitation.

Everything is Fair Game 

If wetlands are poor cousins of our holy rivers, the rivers are hardly doing well either. Their graves are neatly being dug, quite literally. For the National Waterways Act has facilitated dredging in the Ganga, even though the Ministry looking after rivers – the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation – talks about rejuvenating the Ganga.

Ironically, while dredging operations began at Patna, Bhagalpur, near Sahibganj, and intervening stretches including Kahalgaon and Munger, the water levels in the Ganga were so low in the dry season at Bhagalpur this year, that even dredging became impossible. Yet the drive to exploit the river grows ever stronger than the imperative of conserve the living Ganga. Not surprisingly, the National Green Tribunal recently observed that hardly anything effective has been done by the current government to clean the Ganga river or rejuvenate it.

Researchers told this writer that Gangetic dolphins — recently minted as India’s National Aquatic animal — have already started showing signs of panic and avoidance behaviour in portions where dredging was ongoing. 

Our national inland waterways ambitions spell doom for the endangered Gangetic river dolphin unless better sense prevails and vital mitigation measures are taken. Photo Courtesy: Sanjay Das

What we are viewing is the systematic culmination of concerted efforts to make project clearances quicker, and without the ‘hindrance’ of environmental considerations. 

“In the last few years not a single legislation has been enacted aimed at protecting and conserving the environment. Every single legal change has been regressive in nature. Post facto approval has been legalised, concerted efforts have been made to remove various projects from the requirement of Environment Impact Assessments and public consultations,” rues environmental lawyer and writer Ritwick Dutta. 

The CRZ Notification’s amendments clearly demonstrate how the law is being weakened to favour industrial projects. A CRZ Rules amendment notified on July 2, 2018, says ‘the hazard line shall be used as a tool for disaster management plan for the coastal environment’. Before the amendment, intensive development was prohibited in the area between the High Tide Line and Hazard Line keeping in mind dangers from sea level rise and extreme weather events. Also, ‘strategic projects’ like Sagarmala ports are now permitted to come up in biodiverse marine breeding grounds within tidal wetlands such as creeks and mangroves.

Port infrastucture, roads, rail lines and power plants over the Ennore creek have devastated the local fishing economy, aggravated flooding and harmed agriculture in the region. Photo Courtesy: MusterKnabe97 (Public Domain)

Writer and social activist Nityanand Jayaraman warns: “The new changes basically open up the coast to industrialisation. This area will include portions between the Hazard and the High Tide Line. There is nothing to actually to regulate the danger. The earlier language was much stronger saying this portion was a no further development zone,” Apart from the potential danger inherent in constructing on Hazard Lines, the impacts of this change on coastal and marine wildlife — already wilting from habitat loss, diluted wetland definitions, and solid waste pollution — will be disastrous.

“The area between the High Tide Line and the Hazard Line,” Jayaraman explains, “usually comprises low-lying mud flats and tidal marshes, which have a strong influence of the sea. Such common lands sustain fisherfolk, farmers and salt workers, among others. These zones are extremely important for maintaining a hydrological gradient between fresh and sea water. We are set to lose these areas.”

Species seem to be enthusiastically accepted as collateral damage, to facilitate construction of thermal projects, highways, ports and airports along the Indian coast. The ‘Sagarmala’ project, for instance, envisages new ports along what the government calls ‘coastal employment zones’. Large projects being proposed include the 4000 Megawatt Cheyyur thermal plant in Tamil Nadu, and a large international transhipment port with a reported budget of Rs 27,000 crore at Enayam, Kanyakumari.

In the Pursuit of ‘Vikas’

Consider what we stand to lose. We do not know enough about coastal areas, though they hold restricted range species. Coastal plateaus in Ratnagiri and Ambolgadh for instance, have several critically-endangered plant species. A rapid survey in Cheyyur lagoon revealed habitat whose services planners are unable to grasp: sand dunes, which contain tropical dry evergreen forest species. The survey, conducted by D. Narasimhan and Devanathan Krishnamoorthy from the Madras Christian College, notes: “One of the important findings of this survey is the collection of Solena angulata, which was first described in 1952 and subsequently collected in 1967. It has never been collected since.”

Clearly the current dispensation discounts scientific enquiry, and the precautionary principle, the latter being a pillar of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The pursuit of breathless vikas (growth) – as reckless as it is fast — is trumping both law and policy change. 

Life forms such as the painted keelback are the first to be displaced when waterbodies are filled under the garb of vikas (development) as seen here in Kolkata’s New Town. Photo Courtesy: Arkaprava Ghosh

In Dutta’s words: “In addition to legal changes, significant policy changes have taken place. The revised National Wildlife Action Plan and the Draft Forest Policy (Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 6, June 2018.) aims to open up forest and Protected Areas to destructive activities.” He also asks where the gatekeepers of sustainable development are, remarking that: “While the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has not met in the last four years, the standing committee meets regularly to willingly hand over the last-remaining wildlife areas to populist schemes. What is of concern is that members of every committee and authority on wildlife and forest – Forest Advisory Committee, NBWL, Expert Appraisal Committee – behave, to use the words of the high court of Himachal Pradesh, like ‘meek lambs being taken for slaughter’. Never before have statutory committees been so spineless.”

What do we have left, in the remains of the day? What we do have still, is environmental consciousness in the form of citizens. It is a failure of our governance that people have to do what elected officials or public servants should be doing: ensuring India develops sustainably, with effective environmental safeguards. In the last couple of years, hundreds of people have poured out to safeguard wildernesses.

And, the litany of environmental delinquencies is mounting.

People are protesting tree cutting in Mumbai’s Aarey forest and South Delhi government colonies. Fisherfolk have held protest after protest against the proposed container port in Enayam.Applications have queued up in the National Green Tribunal, Supreme Court and High Courts against widening the highway in the Kanha-Pench tiger corridor. In Northeast India, locals, supported by groups from across India, protested against a wall constructed by the Numaligarh Refinery in Kaziranga’s No Development Zone. Demolition of the wall has been ordered by the National Green Tribunal because it obstructs elephant passage. 

Should ordinary citizens have to work so hard to protect our country’s ecological security? Without waiting for any answers, an entire movement has emerged against the Nyamjang Chhu dam, which threatens to inundate Arunachal’s Zemithang Nelya Important Bird Area, which happens to be one of only two wintering sites of the Black-necked Crane in Northeast India. 

Politics and short-term economic gains seem to be blinding India’s leaders. Apart from the impact on New Delhi’s water security by way of the destruction of wetlands like Basai and the Najafgarh jheel, the economically and ecologically suicidal plan to link rivers by destroying the forests of the Panna Tiger Reserve, which feed the Ken river, (Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 6, December 2014) defies logic. 

A map showing the proposed route of the Ken-Betwa River Linking Project, which will involve diversion of a large part of the Panna Tiger Reserve. 

The multitude of dissent described above is a commentary unto itself. The enormity of the task for overworked, under-financed environmental and social groups is overwhelming. What is more, instead of being regarded as guardians of tomorrow, those who raise their voice for the tiger, the crane, the lion, the stork, the river and the coast are stigmatised as anti-national. 

Yet, despite such dark clouds looming large over us, it is heartening to see how young India has woken to the reality of the trap into which current planners are pushing generations yet to be born. Quite literally, millions have begun to act purposefully to secure their future. ‘In the national interest’ means different things to young India, than it does to those chasing double-digit economic growth at any and every cost.

Young India realises the vital importance of planning for our future. A future with secure coastlines, clean rivers and wetlands, and intact, non-fragmented, carbon-sequestering forests, and climate-change planning with ecosystem resilience. India’s wilderness and wildlife, our biodiversity in all its diversity, is our unique lifeline, our survival kit in an era of climate change. This genetic and cultural storehouse is our most valuable asset. 

Ministries, economists, bankers, politicians, bureaucrats and even businessmen overwhelmed by self-interest must be made to see that forests, grasslands, corals, coasts, wetlands and rivers are not ‘stock in trade’ that can be traded for short-term gains. That these infrastructures are the ones that enable our economy to survive and we need nature-based planning solutions. For young India this may well seem like a bridge too far given the irresponsibility and avarice on display by our elders, but we really have no choice but to grapple with those who imagine that building the largest ports, the broadest metre gauges, and maximum-laned roads will carve a place in history for themselves. But we must persevere. We must make our voices count. 

Because the time has come for the lion’s story to be told.

All views expressed in the article are personal.

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