Who will save India’s environment from its prime minister?


The writer is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist and musician. The views expressed are his own.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has featured in an episode of showboat survival expert Bear Grylls’s Man vs Wild, waxed eloquent — to schoolchildren asking him about global warming — how the Earth has not changed but we humans have changed, and renamed the ministry of environment and forests to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

But his government’s policies are systemically destroying India’s environment.

In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the Modi government announced the auction of 41 coal blocks to corporations. Many of these areas are in pristine forested areas.

A few states have objected. The Jharkhand government approached India’s Supreme Court. The Chhattisgarh government has objected, citing plans to declare a large area — that the Modi government wanted auctioned off — as a wildlife sanctuary that is part of the elephant corridor. The Maharashtra government has objected, citing threat to a tiger reserve.

All these states are ruled by parties that are in the national Opposition. The Modi government, meanwhile, has extended the dates for submission of bids.

India’s prime minister is faced with hard choices. The country’s economy has caught Covid-19 and alarm bells are going off everywhere. That is because the Indian economy was plagued by comorbodities even before the coronavirus flew into the country.

Thanks to a disastrous and whimsical demonetisation — that sucked out 86 percent of cash out of a very large economy — to the flawed rollout of the Goods & Services Tax aka GST that had traders banging heads against walls, India’s economy was already in sick bay when Covid struck.

In fact, Covid has been a blessing in disguise in hiding the Modi government’s inept handling of an economy that was, not too long ago, one of the fastest growing in the world.

There is enough and more data out there to corroborate these claims, but here is a small nugget nonetheless. The services industry, a key driver of economic growth in India, has been shrinking in India much before Covid was even a known word.

Unemployment has touched record highs before Covid.

The Business Standard reported in February 2019 that India’s unemployment rate stood at a 45-year-high of 6.1 per cent in 2017-18 according to the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO’s) periodic labour force survey.

The government denied the report, suppressed the report, two economists quit, and then the government released the report with the same data saying it would not be right to compare earlier years because the “matrix” had changed.

Just like changing the GDP base-year trick that has raised doubts, including from the IMF, on India’s economic data. 

Now even dipstick surveys are revealing salary cuts and job losses across cities. The coronavirus lockdown — announced on TV at four-hour notice — sparked a migration of hundreds of thousands of interstate workers, an exodus of humanity not seen since the Partition of India.

All those people are without jobs, and all those low-paying jobs in the cities are without workers.

In April 2020, unemployment touched a record high of 23.5 percent, according the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. Last week, it was 7.76 percent. 

In order to slog-over it out of the economic low score, to use a cricket metaphor, the Modi government has sought to give industries a push — at the cost of the environment.

Its draft notification for Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) has been termed a recipe for disaster by economists and environmentalists alike.

In an attempt to woo investment, the draft EIA — which is again being pushed through amid one of the longest and most stringent lockdowns in the world — empowers the government to bulldoze and nix expert and public opinion on the environmental impact of a proposed industrial project.

It allows industries to get away with polluting vital life-support systems such as air, water, soil, forests.

It does away with the need of environmental impact assessment altogether for a long list of industries, including highly polluting ones such as coal, methane, oil.

The draft EIA is only one in a long list of assaults on India’s environment. If you want to be truly shocked, read up on the disastrous Ken-Betwa river-linking plan. Read up on how open-cast coal mining has been allowed in an elephant reserve in Assam. Read up on how the government ignored a government institute’s advice against widening a national highway that is part of the tiger corridor in Madhya Pradesh.

The Modi government has been highlighting an increase in forest cover as credential of its green intent, while ecologists are pointing out that commercial plantations are being passed off as forest cover.

The government’s red carpet for corporations to plunder India’s environment is matched by its crackdown on anyone who objects. Professors who work with tribal and at-risk populations are being framed in cases ranging from murder to that old colonial hangover, sedition. The ruling dispensation has invented a term for anyone who sympathizes with the oppressed — Urban Naxals, a reference to Maoist guerrillas. All the checks and balances that civil society provides are being systematically dismantled. Anyone who protests is an antinational. Anyone who questions is a traitor.

At this moment in time India needs a Greta Thunberg, who will tell India’s government headed by its popular prime minister: “Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”