This week brings a heartening development: Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment (LIFE), headed by lawyers Ritwick Dutta and Rahul Choudhary, are recipients of the Right Livelihood Award 2021, also known as Alternative Nobel Prize for their amazing work on empowerment of the communities through environment defense. This is much deserved recognition for the exemplary work of this group for over 16 years not only through the legal cases in National Green Tribunal (& its predecessor NEAA etc.), High Courts and Supreme Court, but also influencing the government policy and project decisions and also effective training of government officials in environmental matters.
LIFE is one of four organisation to get this award this year. The Swedish Right Livelihood Foundation, which awards the prize, said that in the face of the worsening climate crisis, powerful governmental and corporate interests, and even a terrorist threat, the 2021 Laureates prove that solidarity is key to a better future for all. The 2021 Right Livelihood Laureates are leaders in advancing the rights of women and girls, environmental protection and reclaiming Indigenous rights through mobilising communities and empowering grassroots initiatives. “Hailing from Cameroon, Russia, Canada and India, this year’s change-makers show that lasting change is built on communities banding together,” it said.
Data published this week (see below) shows that disasters are going up almost five fold in the Himalayas (data from Uttarakhand, HP below, but this is not different in rest of Himalayas), nationally and even globally. The data from UN report this week shows that the disasters are up five fold in recent years. Damage is up even more. As the data of landslides due to Char Dham High way and hydropower projects show, the contribution from these projects to the disaster is clear. So much so that even the editorial in The Hindustan Times this week asked to stop these disastrous projects. While it is unlikely that the governments or politicians would wake up to this reality anytime soon, one expects the judiciary, media, civil society and academics to take up this issue on urgent basis.
This week (23-28 Aug 2021) it is Stockholm World Water Week (SWWW) with a 30 year history. The organisers say: “World Water Week 2021 is unlike any other week in our 30-year-old history.” But provide no clear reasons why they are saying that. Their possible explanation: “In 2021 people across the world are really beginning to understand the gravity of the situation we are facing – within a decade we must halve carbon emissions, restore the degraded natural world, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This will require massive transformations of all sectors of society. World Water Week 2021 is entirely focused on the role of water for these transformations and on developing real solutions.” https://www.worldwaterweek.org/news/join-the-most-important-world-water-week-ever
The numerous landslides this monsoon in Kinnaur and other districts of Himachal Pradesh and other Himalayan states have been literally deadly, killing hundreds of people this monsoon. Mindless “development” projects including Hydropower projects, indiscriminate building of roads in mountains, blasting, tunnelling, mining, dumping of waste into the rivers and valleys, deforestation, building townships, all without any credible impact assessment, public consultations, appraisal, monitoring or compliance. While climate change (another anthropogenic factor) leading to more frequent events of high intensity rainfall is worsening the landslide potential of the area, what we are doing in the name of developments is multiplying the disaster potential several fold. The governments at centre and states and judiciary can continue to be blind to this realities, but local people cannot. The local communities in Kinnaur, Lahaul-Spiti have been opposing such projects strongly and such protests are bound to increase and spread. One hopes this pushes the governments and judiciary to act urgently.
( Feature image:- Women members of Raini village’s gram sabha, Source: Atul Sati/ Facebook/The Quint)
The July 14, 2021 order of Uttarakhand HC, dismissing the petition of those affected by the Chamoli disaster of Feb 2021 and asking that NTPC, developer of the Tapovan Vishnugad project be accountable, is most distressing. While Indian judiciary is rightly credited with doing a lot for the cause of environment and people in general, in the unequal battle of the communities and activists against injustice and negligence of giant projects and their developers, the judiciary has more often failed to ensure that the developers are held accountable and are not allowed to bulldoze ahead using their might, supported by the state, to crush attempts to achieve just and democratic results. In the Chamoli disaster, there are many many questions that remained unanswered and one expected the HC to use the petition to seek those answers. But in stead, the HC has chose to question and fine the petitioners. One hopes the higher judiciary will correct this and stay the order and in stead seek answers from the developers of the hydro projects in such fragile, disaster prone areas and those that sanctioned such projects, including the environment ministry, the state government, the CWC, the CEA, the Geological Survey of India and also the project developers.
The Europe floods this last week are unprecedented in so many respects. It has lead to close to 200 confirmed deaths so far, affected the Rhine basin areas of Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg. It is the result of worst recorded rainfall in a century, leading to unprecedented water levels that rose so suddenly that otherwise super alert and smart disaster management system could not neither accurately and in time predict the catastrophe nor remove these people from the path of the destruction. The climate scientists are seeing clear signature of climate change, though more studies are called for. The call for urgent and much more action to reverse the global warming are getting louder in a continent where possibly the climate action is most advanced.
As The New York Times reported on July 19, 2021 (Monday),
The authorities ordered new evacuations on Saturday, and heavy rains in the southern German region of Bavaria caused still more flooding on Sunday.
German meteorologists called the flooding the worst in 500 years, if not a millennium. The disaster thrust the issue of climate change to the center of pivotal elections this fall.
Belguim: Street pavements burst open, houses flattened, and entire villages were destroyed in what’s being described as one of the worst flooding disasters to hit Western Europe in more than two centuries. In Liège, Belgium’s third-largest city, water from the Meuse river overflowed Thursday evening into parts of the city center, prompting city officials to call for residents to evacuate the area or seek higher ground.
Countries like India should see this as a major and yet another wake up call to start taking action to reverse the global warming emissions. Much more can and should be done urgently.
It’s rather rare when some of the most well-known environmentalists of India, including Ritwick Dutta and Manoj Misra welcome the arrival of Bhupender Yadav as India’s new Environment Minister. The state of the environment governance under the outgoing minister, Prakash Javadekar has worsened so much, both in perception and substance, that possibly any change would look better. In fact Javadekar may be front runner for the label of India’s worst ever environment minister according to some analysts.
The environment appraisals, the constitution of committees including the various Expert Appraisal Committees, the Forest Advisory Committee and the Standing committee of National Board of Wildlife, the public hearings and consultation processes, the state of pollution and rivers, biodiversity, wetlands, floodplains, sand mining, to name just a few areas, were all seen going downhill on a steep slope during the Javadeker period. The monitoring and compliance remained non existent. Some would argue that was it much different before Javadekar. The point is Javadekar had no pretentions of trying to improve the environment governance. He was out to dilute every available norm and he seemed to have succeded significantly.
Even if Yadav were to genuinely wish to improve matters, how much will he be allowed to do, by the perceived imperatives of the economic fundamentalist agenda, the well-entrenched vested interests and the bureaucracy is a question that only time will tell, but there is little doubt that a lot can and needs to be done rather urgently and none of these perceived obstacles should come in the way if there is will. The climate change is making the improvement in environmental governance rather urgent.
When the Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi Mentioned some exemplary water conservation efforts in his Mann ki Baat on June 27, 2021, it was not for the first time he was doing it. These are certainly most welcome.
However, these mentions raise a number of questions. If the Prime Minister considers these local water options as exemplary, which they indeed are, where do we see the reflection of the lessons from such efforts in government programs and policies? In fact why there is no reflection of such lessons in what the government does in water sector? How can the government justify the destruction of Panna Tiger Reserve, over 9000 ha of forests, some 46 lakh trees, the catchment of Ken river and large part of Bundelkhand in the name of Ken Betwa Link Project, in the same Bundelkhand. How can his government justify the destructive projects like the Char Dham Highway, the big hydro projects and so on in the same Uttarakhand where Sachidanand Bharati (who was incidentally recipient of the Bhagirath Prayas Samman of India Rivers Week) works, whose efforts the PM praised? One hope the PM and his government will be awake to the implications and lessons of the works that PM praises.
This is time of immense grief and loss for me. Unable to face the harsh reality of my mother gasping for each breath in the ICU, I was drowning myself in work. Co-incidentally or so I think, I was working on a report analysing asphyxiation of Vrishabhavathi, Arkavathi and Cauvery rivers and suffocation of aquatic lifeforms the rivers supported. As the dissolved oxygen graph took shape, I realized : The million times I had held the dissolved oxygen meter under water to measure oxygen saturation levels across rivers was no different from the million times we plugged the oximeter to my mother’s forefinger to check for oxygen saturation levels. The realization that the very element my mother was gasping for, is the very element the rivers have long been gasping for – Oxygen and this pushed me deeper into a state of despair.
The outgoing year 2020 is likely to be remembered as Corona year as Covid 19 pandemic has been the most influential aspect of the year. However, there have been many positives of the outgoing year. We identify five biggest positives as we see them.
Firstly, the complete lockdown that we experienced during March-April 2020, to slow down the spread of the Covid 19 infection showed, among many other things that it is indeed possible to clean up our rivers and also indicated the way forward: tackle industrial pollution. Unfortunately, those clear lessons have not been learnt by the government, its been busy in ease of doing business, not even understanding that in changing climate, clean rivers are going to be a major resource that will help people adapt.
The second notable positive was the major across the country protests, particularly from the younger generation against the government’s attempt to bulldoze the completely anti- environment amendment to the EIA notification. The protests along with the judicial orders have so far stopped the amendment from getting implementation. The government will do well to abandon any attempt to push them.
Similar to the protests against amendments to EIA notification were the protests against trying to bulldoze the massive Etalin Hydropower project in Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, at the cost of lakhs of trees and biodiversity rich forest and river and against the wishes of the people of Arunachal Pradesh and North East India. Here again it was good to see that the campaign has so far been successful.
India Rivers Week 2020 organised Zonal and National dialogues on river sand mining in India, in which large number of groups and stakeholders from across the country participated and has created a new wave of awareness and energy on this very important but so far largely ignored issue. We are hopeful that this energy will lead to change in governance of river sand mining in India.