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New directions in environmental policy: Moving beyond the deadlock

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The issue of environmental protection has taken centre-stage at a time when India is facing both domestic and international pressures with regard to its policies on climate change and alternative energy sources. While the problem of climate change and rapid global warming dominates international environmental governance and India’s controversial engagement with it, in the domestic or national space the issue of environmental protection spans a variety of other areas too. These include challenges of degradation of quality faced in the areas of food and air, global warming, wildlife, land and forest degradation and water pollution.

Each of these areas and the issue of environment as a whole, has been determined both by the demands raised by the environmental movements in India and abroad and by the selective policy positions on this issue. At the same time, both have also been shaped by the global politics of the environment. While both the activist and policy positions may appear to be mutually contradictory, they are yet motivated by the same broad ideas, and have resulted in the current environmental deadlock.

The ‘cause’ of environment: Hijack through ideas:

Environmental activism has been gaining ground in India since the 1970s, with some of the globally influential movements such as the Chipko movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan creating powerful environmental lobbies in the country. Such radical social movements generally hold a respectable status in the public psyche since they are seen to be contesting governmental corruption and providing alternatives for the public. However, in the face of the current environmental policy deadlock, mounting environmental degradation and untransformed public attitudes towards environment, we need to question the ‘cause’ of environment that is currently being advanced. While these ecological movements and organizations have been embroiled in similar politics of patrimony and power in foreign and national spheres which have overtaken the NGO sector in general, it is also notable that this kind of vaunted ‘grassroots’ activism has advanced the cause of the environment in an extremely narrow manner, causing more harm than good to the cause of environmental protection. These campaigns of awareness have been influenced by three major factors:
First, these movements have been motivated more by the ideology of equitable access and less by the motivation of saving the environment as an intrinsic good.

Second, often the form taken by environmental activism is that of activism for the sake of itself. Just like any other movement, the emphasis is on community or group empowerment, rather than on the environment. When environmental activists speak of ‘access’ and ‘rights’ of human communities, in the context of environment, they are further affirming the existing culture of consumerism, as the essence of both is human self-interest.

Third, they have formed a part of the policy orthodoxy of sustainable development. Sustainable development refers to a mode of development which seeks to reconcile the objectives of economic growth and environmental protection. Drawn from the minimalistic language of survival, the term itself connotes contradiction and short-termism, which cannot go beyond ensuring mere sustainability.

The ‘cause’ of environment has been shaped by the overarching concern of how to maximize human benefits vis-à-vis environment. This is true for both the business and the environmentalist lobbies. The new technologies that have formed a part of lofty policy initiatives like sustainable development, ‘ecological modernization’ and market mechanisms for preserving the environment may form a part of the corporate interest of eco-friendly economic growth, but the same also apply to activists spearheading the cause of the environment. Both sides, through the language of justice, are motivated by the common consideration of maximizing their own benefits. Even when they speak of saving the planet for future generations, the justification and goal is that of the interest-based idea of ‘intergenerational equity’.

As a result, environmental policy debates have been shaped through the misleading logic of ensuring human justice and empowerment and ensuring the continuance of existing modes of greed and consumption through new technologies that can reconcile these objectives with those of the environment.

Need for revision in Indian policy:

The very first policy initiatives in the area of environment in India, during the 1970s, were realized through the twin concerns of the rising environmental movements in India and abroad and the subsequent international policy initiatives like the Stockholm Convention which highlighted the adverse environmental impacts of industrial activity. Indian policy deliberations on environment have, thus, been entangled in the West-imported ideological vocabulary, mirroring the global policy ideas, for a long time, creating confusion and lack of progress. The mutual policy contradictions in several issues of environment – pollution in the areas of air, food, water, forest, land use, waste management and noise pollution – exposes the weaknesses in the present policy approach, despite the passage of several laws and creation of environmental institutions/systems.

The approach being taken by the current government marks a break from the past policy on environment. It has become common knowledge that the current government has declared a ‘war on the environment’ by adopting plans which are clearly oriented towards maximizing economic growth. This is, however, a misconception rather than a reality, for two reasons:

First, even though the previous UPA-II government was well-known for its strong environmental laws and institutions, so much so that these laws often resulted in negative fallouts for the industry, it ended up creating more confusion than clarity. Failing to realize the true impact of environmental disasters, the previous government has treated laws as a mere formality to show that the area of environment is not being completely ignored. The policy of the previous governments was a half-way house trying to accommodate all kinds of global, domestic and grassroots lobbies and interests. Torn between the objectives of development and environment, it could not focus on either and often resulted in policy paralysis on both fronts and ample scope for corruption.

Second, the current government is attempting to take a balanced approach to the entangled questions of growth, environment, global power interests and efficiency/costs. By dismantling the old laws and favouring faster project clearances, the government may come across as being more inclined towards industry. In fact, however, the government is now engaging with the environment actively in two directions – uniform environmental legislation and campaigning.

Uniform environmental legislation – First, a major step taken by the government was the appointment of the TSR Subramanian Committee to review the existing key laws on environment. These included the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. In keeping with the Modi government’s objective of ensuring faster clearances and implementation and removing the multiplicity of inefficient laws, the Committee recommended the creation of an umbrella law, the Environmental Loss Management Act (ELMA) with two expert bodies at the centre and the states under it.

Second, in keeping with its commitment to bring transparency through technology, the government will start a new online system for monitoring industrial waste discharge into water bodies, from March next year.
Bringing legislation to the public – The current approach towards environment is likely to generate greater awareness than in the past. This is seen through the widespread mobilization organized by the government around the Clean Ganga Mission and the Clean India or Swachh Bharat campaign. While the Ganga Action Plan-I and Ganga Action Plan-II was inaugurated initially by the Rajiv Gandhi government and UPA-II government respectively, it has never generated the same spirit of cultural belonging and awareness as the present mission. There is now a move to substantiate this process through legal measures, after the recent Supreme Court ruling which sought to expand the role of the National Green Tribunal, and the central government’s decision to form 25 special teams to investigate the sources of pollution in Ganga. The Ganga plan is also an important part of the government’s cleanliness drive.

The Clean India Mission, rhetorical until now, is also being linked to substantial initiatives. Recently, the environment minister, while stressing the role of public participation, also announced the imposition of penalties running into several lakhs of rupees and other legal measures to deal with the threat of plastic waste. Recent reports show that the threat of waste is causing great vulnerability in the Himalayas. Heaps of uncollected non-biodegradable waste absorbs heat which causes global warming and melts glaciers, thereby making the mountain settlements more prone to, what has come to be termed as, an impending ‘water bomb’.

Both these breaks from the past policy are important intermediate steps in environmental protection. They are much more practical and efficient and, due to the increasing cultural involvement of people, more likely to be transparent and avoid corruption. This, however, is just the beginning. The opening provided through the involvement of the public needs to be widened further and needs to depart from the typical civic bourgeois mentality. The rise in awareness around environmental issues should not be based on the imported activist demands of human justice and rights and neither should it be based on the typical middle-class preoccupation with maintaining consumerist lifestyles, as is the basis of technologies that underlie policies like sustainable development.

There is also an urgent need of recognizing the limits of science in environment, which has given us a false sense of control and security and misrepresented both the problems and the solutions, resulting in the current confusion. With the ecological disasters in waiting, transparency and public participation comes a little too late, while laws will remain as toothless as ever. Even now global policy-makers are trapped in a short-term interest-maximizing mentality and fail to act upon the urgency of the situation. Recently, the Lima climate talks brought back into focus the nature of ineffective piecemeal ‘reforms’ that are still being debated – such as net zero carbon emissions and green climate fund. The whole rationale behind ‘net’ zero emissions instead of radical zero emissions and a fund for ‘adaptation’ to climate change shows that public policy continues to focus on innovating in ecosystem and natural environment to be able to maintain current social and economic patterns, rather than clipping the very roots of environmental harm. Unfortunately, India is supporting the position on adaptation and climate finance in order to maintain its resource-intensive model of development. However, in the time of increasing ecological fragility, India needs to realize that it cannot simply replicate the western model of development. Possessing only 2.4% land area in the world and more than a substantial share of the world’s human and non-human population, India is even more vulnerable to social conflicts arising over inevitable ecological disasters.
(To be continued…)

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