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Smokescreen of the official kind: PM Modi's speech on environment

His call to India to become a global leader in the fight against climate change amounts to grandstanding. His government wants to water down the country's most crucial green laws.

ht-view Updated: Jun 04, 2015 12:38 IST
Darryl D'Monte
Darryl D'Monte

Like the pall of dust that recently enveloped parts of western India, having wafted its way from the Arabian Gulf, the rhetoric that the Prime Minister indulged in at the state environment and forest ministers meet on Monday obscured the real purpose of the conclave: to announce how green laws are being diluted.

It is no secret that the NDA regime wants to water down the six most crucial environmental laws, following the recommendations of the TSR Subramanian committee.

The catchphrase, as Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar announced, is to facilitate "the ease of business". Already, as many as a hundred modifications have been made by executive orders.

Modi released the standard terms of reference for green appraisal of projects. The time taken for granting sanctions is expected to decline from six-12 months to just 30 days now.

Among many of the dilutions, there is a worrying tilt towards the builders lobby. In the National Capital Region, forests which have not been officially classified will be open for development.

The Environment Ministry is also allowing the private sector to plant trees on government forests, which can hurt the rural poor who depend on forest produce for their sustenance.

Another law that is up for scrutiny is the coastal regulation zone. A high level committee has already submitted its recommendations to dilute these, following pressure from coastal states like Maharashtra and Kerala.

In Mumbai, the Mahim coast has already been redefined as a "bay", providing a bonanza to builders who can now build just 100 metres from the high tide line as against 500 metres previously.

This has paved the way for the construction of two 55-storey towers, all sea-facing, in some of the country's highest priced real estate.

For the coastal road, from Nariman Point at the southern tip of Mumbai to Kandivali in the north, some 170-odd hectares are being reclaimed, which will cause havoc to the city's ecology.

Modi's eulogy of India's traditional preservation of nature might appear harmless, if somewhat misplaced, except that it should not be read with his previous endorsement of ancient methods of plastic surgery and in vitro fertilisation.

His call to India to become a global leader in the fight against climate change amounts to grandstanding. While he was correct in pointing out to the double standards adopted by the global North in not sufficiently reducing its carbon emissions, India is hardly doing anything that would curb its own pollution.

The irony that the ministers' meet was taking place in a city which the WHO has declared the most polluted in the world didn't escape anybody.

As many as 13 out of the 20 most polluted cities globally are in India. Recent media reports show how there has been official apathy about this crisis.

Will India harbour "the world's dirtiest cities", which will be shunned by foreigners and well-to-do Indians alike?

Ahead of President Obama's visit to Delhi this January, his aides installed 1,800 air purifiers to insulate him and his entourage.

The US, German and Japanese embassies have started issuing air quality warnings and contemplate reducing the terms of their staff stationed in the nation's capital from three to two years. This is hardly a situation which the NDA government can countenance.

The National Air Quality Index that the PM launched is a long-overdue first step but it needs to be followed up with many more. Liberalising green laws is exactly setting the clock back. Polluters won't pay any more.

To cite one instance, Mumbai's toll-free coastal road, being pushed by the CM and Javadekar, will add considerably to the air pollution, not to mention further congesting the metropolis.

(Darryl D'Monte is chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

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