Notwithstanding events such as last year’s floods in Kerala, which were at least partly due to the mismanagement of reservoirs, and the anti-Sterlite protest in Thoothukudi in which thousands came out in the streets to demand the shutting of a copper smelting plant due to pollution concerns, the environment is by and large not a factor in India’s elections. Thus, apart from routine stocktaking that follows disasters, and some protests and public outbursts like the ones triggered by the plan to cut thousands of trees in New Delhi to redevelop government housing colonies, it is mostly business as usual. Extreme weather events have recurred, yet the urban sprawl has continued to swallow green spaces.
With the India Meteorological Department stating that the Kerala disaster was a consequence of climate change, there needs to be holistic policy focus on the management of water bodies, bringing down emissions, cleaning up the air across the country, and committing to stricter reforms to protect the environment in 2019 and beyond.
India is committed to cultivating a carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes by 2030 under the Paris Agreement, but is lagging far behind in its forestry targets. Anticipating that the target might not be met through forests alone, India was looking at the soil of catchment areas too, and the Ministry of Environment and Forests had proposed a “landscape-based catchment treatment plan” to bridge the gap. Such initiatives would, however, have to be institutionalised — for instance, through the Compensatory Afforestation Fund. In August last year, the Centre notified Rules on utilisation of the funds by states and Union Territories.
Quest for cleaner air
India’s severely polluted air is among its greatest challenges. The Centre has recently earmarked Rs 300 crore for a pan India clean air programme in 102 cities. It has targeted a reduction of air pollution levels by 20%-30% by 2024 using 2019 as base year. The initial focus is on putting in place monitoring facilities, identifying pollution sources and then determining health effects. The government has repeatedly said there is “no conclusive data available in the country” to link death or disease “exclusively” to air pollution. It has also brushed aside estimates of mortality and morbidity related to environmental pollution put out by the World Health Organization saying they were based on “models” and “extrapolations”.
Most important river
Efforts to clean and rejuvenate the Ganga, which was a major election promise in 2014, are currently focused on tapping drains in cities and towns, and diverting them into sewage treatment plants. Some of the infrastructure commissioned under the Namami Gange Project is likely to be ready this year, the government estimates. Missing from the conversation, however, is the large perspective on how the river system functions, including a broader focus on preserving its biodiversity and on pushing for deep and meaningful changes among the people who use, bathe in, pray to, and live off the Ganga.
Threat from sea-rise
The Environment Ministry has said that creating a more robust blue economy targeted at populations in the coastal areas is priority for this year. But the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification 2018, approved by the Union Cabinet in the last week of December, has triggered criticism and concern from environmentalists who fear the new rules may, in fact, dilute protection for the country’s 7,500-km coastline. While the Centre has said it will “lead to enhanced activities in coastal regions”, which will promote economic growth, critics argue that the opening up of fragile intertidal areas to construction and real estate activity would impact livelihoods of fishing communities.
Safety of large dams
The Kerala disaster reopened the debate on the advantages and risks of big structures for water storage. The Central Water Commission said after the floods that “dams cannot provide any relief” should such extreme rainfall recur. The Centre has set up a Dam Rehabilitation and Improvement Project with the assistance of the World Bank, which will rehabilitate 198 dam projects across 7 states, including 28 in Kerala. While the objective is to oversee dam safety activities and monitor safety procedures, better coordination between the Centre and states is crucial to its success.
Environment Secretary C K Mishra told The Indian Express that one of the focus areas for the Ministry would be to demystify environment regulations, which, he said, would help in their better implementation. Mishra recently spoke of solid waste management rules that govern urban local bodies in the country.