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Opinion

Time to re-establish India’s focus on the environment: analysis

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On Thursday, a gas leak from a polymer plant in Vizag killed 12 people. Hundreds were hospitalized; thousands exposed and evacuated. The company reportedly, by its own admission in May 2019, did not have a valid environmental authorization. On the same day, seven workers were hospitalized due to a gas leak at a paper mill in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh.

The question we ask after each disaster is: could it have been avoided? An even better question is: How can environmental damage be prevented before it occurs?

In March, the National Green Court (NGT) issued an elaborate ruling on illegal mining. In Dukalu Ram v. Union of India, the court found Jindal Power Limited and Coal India Limited guilty of illegal mining in Raigarh, imposing ~ 160 crore as a cost for environmental damage. Significantly, the court order establishes a template for what constitutes environmental damage, a concept worth exploring further.

India has said that protecting the environment is desirable and has led the organization of international meetings such as the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (2012), the United Nations Conference to Combat Desertification (2019) and the Convention on Migratory Species (2020). But we still have to decide what constitutes damage to the environment.

This assumes greater importance as the Government of India is rewriting its Environmental Impact Assessment Notification (EIA). These evaluations are carried out to discover the impact that a project has on the environment. Obtaining environmental authorizations depends on this evaluation. The EIA 2020 draft introduces a series of changes, introducing the concept of after the fact clearance. This means that projects that did not request EIA and environmental authorizations, and that subsequently started construction or are in operation, will be evaluated and can receive clean tokens. If found to be running in a “sustainable” manner, they will be allowed to apply for environmental clearances. If found to harm the environment, closure of the project or other actions will be recommended.

But what is environmental damage? The 2020 draft says that the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) must establish criteria for damage assessment and repair. The CPCB was created in 1974 under the Water Law (Pollution Prevention and Control); it also performs functions under the Air (Pollution Prevention and Control) Act of 1981. Therefore, the CPCB’s mandate relates to the maintenance of clean water and air and the prevention of their pollution.

However, although contamination or leakage is one of the most visible indicators of environmental damage, it is not the only one. In this sense, the NGT order is illustrative. The order determined that illegal mining is harmful to the environment due to landfill, proximity to residences, drying of ponds, air pollution through poor transportation of coal, loss of groundwater (this equates degradation), lack of health care provision and loss of ecological services.

Most significant in the case of long-term damage is the loss of ecological or ecosystem services. Ecosystem services refer to services provided by healthy nature, including things like pollination, quality of life, biological filtration, and more. In the Raigarh mines, in addition to the usual complaints of air and water pollution, villagers complained of “raging fires” at mining sites that caused turbidity and affected their health.

Some things should be kept in mind. First, the draft EIA notification must broaden the scope and understanding of environmental damage, beyond pollution. Environmental damage, including alleged long-term damage to ecological services, should be part of the EIA assessment and notification.

Second, the world after the coronavirus pandemic has shown us that various human-led activities create new interfaces that lead to consequences that we cannot control, such as viruses caused by disruption of wildlife. We are also seeing how pristine the environment is without our interventions. Images released by NASA reveal that the air over the northern Ganges plain is the cleanest in 20 years. This clear vision gives us the opportunity to plan projects in a way that actively protects the environment rather than “balancing it” with political objectives.

Finally, if we can lock India up and manage offices remotely, it means that we can do the impossible as long as there is political and social will to do so. A clean environment, immediately after an ongoing pandemic, is a social goal, as well as one mandated by international conventions.

This is the time to trust scientific and technical experience, and create a broader understanding of what environmental damage is. Once we fully map it, we can start to prevent it.

We tend to pray after environmental catastrophes. But we need more than thoughts and prayers to institutionalize the protection of the environment. This is the best time to understand how environmental damage impacts ecological services, and how this should be reflected in EIA processes. As we collect the remaining pieces of a virus, we must plan to avoid further environmental problems.

Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society

The opinions expressed are personal.

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