Prime Minister Narendra Modi was at his charismatic best as he addressed the leaders of 63 countries at the United Nations Climate Action Summit earlier this week. He accepted that not enough was being done to combat climate change across the world, and that the time for talk was over, and it was time for action. 

“Need, not greed, has been our guiding principle,” He said of India’s environmental efforts. But several actions under the Modi government stand witness to the fact that this is not quite the case. Time after time, this government has prioritised economic development over environmental conservation, either by turning a blind eye to the violation of environment laws, or by actively working to water down said laws to enable ‘development’ projects to go ahead. 

If need, not greed, had indeed been India’s guiding principle, then India would not rank 177th out of 180 countries in the 2018 Environmental Performance Index. The need is for clean air and water, food security, low carbon emissions, and biodiversity protection in order to right the skewed ecosystem balance. 

What, instead, did the Modi government do? An article published in HuffPost India quotes documents obtained via the RTI Act to suggest that the government’s obsession with bettering India’s rank in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index led to the dilution of environmental protection laws in the form of executive memoranda and notifications. This means that none of these amendments were debated in Parliament before being enacted into law. They came into being directly from the Executive. 

As Greta Thunberg said back in February: This is not a problem that can be solved through diplomacy or even technological innovation. Little though we’d like to hear it, cutting greenhouse gas emissions will come at a price that most governments are reluctant to pay. That price is a wholesale shift in economic policy- shifting the goal from balance of payments to balance of ecosystems. 

India’s construction sector is responsible for 22% of the country’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, according to a National Green Tribunal order. In 2016, the Environment Ministry relinquished its powers to issue environmental clearances for large construction projects such as malls, offices, apartment complexes etc, to municipal bodies which lack the expertise to issue such clearances, as well as the funds or power to employ experts to collect the relevant data (through rigorous, long-term studies) that would empower them to do so. 

The NGT order was in response to several civil societies filing for a stay on the Environment Ministry’s notification, since it was in conflict with the 2006 Environmental Impact Notification.

Did the government believe that municipal bodies have the resources and expertise to make these crucial decisions, decisions that directly, adversely impact the quality of the natural resources in the concerned areas? 

In addition, part of Modi’s ‘12 Deepawali gifts’ to India’s MSME sector in 2018 was this:

Friends, you all know that to set up an enterprise till now, it is necessary to cross the two stages of Environmental Clearance and Consent to Establish. The government has decided that by consolidating both these for MSMEs under air pollution and water pollution laws, only one Consent will be mandatory now.

Narendra Modi

They call it ‘streamlining’, a more progressive-friendly word for ‘weakening’. The 2006 Environmental Impact Notification imposed compliance standards that all development projects, regardless of sector, must meet in order to receive the green light. But by their ‘streamlining’, the Modi government is systematically, deliberately weakening it. 

In the wake of Greta Thunberg’s stinging criticism of world leaders’ apathy to the reality of climate change, perhaps the government should take a long, hard look at the world – the environment – they are leaving behind for future generations. 

Maybe it’s time, India takes a long, hard look at the real impact of their chosen government’s decisions – an impact that goes beyond rhetoric and future promises. 

Image courtesy NDTV

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