( 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.
As Maharashtra faced the worst flood disaster of SW Monsoon 2021 in India, we see the phrases like “unprecedented rainfall”, “record breaking rainfall”, “frequent landslides” etc. with increasing frequency along with phrases like climate change floating around. While these are not entirely incorrect claims, these should not be used to escape the responsibility and accountability for failing to either accurately forecast the rainfall or to manage the proportions of disasters, including operation of dams, encroachments into water bodies and water path, not accurately marking locations vulnerable to landslides in landslide prone areas or taking up inappropriate “development” projects in vulnerable areas. All of these factors can be seen at play in disasters this monsoon in Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh among others.
Using such phrases, there is an attempt to escape the accountability or responsibility. This is a culture increasing being propagated by Central Water Commission as they did in Kerala in 2018 and Krishna basin floods in Maharashtra in 2019 as in numerous other occasions. It is known now to everyone that climate change is going to lead to more instances of heavy rainfall that can frequently fall in unprecedented category, but that only means we need to take measures to reduce the damage in such instances, predict them accurately and manage them effectively. That is what the Action Plans for Climate Change and Disaster Management apparatus needs to work on, but we have clearly failed there so far.
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.
In the last week, the Supreme Court of India used rather strong words against Union Ministry of Environment and Forests under the leadership of Prakash Javdekar. It said: “You must show it is a ministry for environment and not just ‘of environment’. You (ministry) have been constantly diluting the environmental standards. That’s all that has been happening”. While this was necessary and in fact it should have come several years earlier, one hopes the SC does not stop at using just strong words, but ensures that the MoEF is held accountable for its numerous unpardonable anti environment acts.
In another notable event, the Supreme Court also pulled up the NGT for not understanding even basic conflict of interest: “We are surprised by this order of the NGT. It is the OIL Ltd. which is responsible for the damage to the wetlands and its own Managing Director has been inducted into the committee? … We are very dissatisfied with the manner the NGT has pushed the matter off its hands. It is the National Green Tribunal, it must have some alacrity and concern for the environment. And after the report of the first committee, three committees have been set up separately! What is this?” This again is welcome and was long overdue. NGT had shown similar lack of understanding of conflict of interest in the Lower Subansiri case which also SC needs to open up for review. Conflict of Interest is a MAJOR dark spot in functioning of India’s governance and SC needs to do lot more to correct this.
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.
A new study by the researchers at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, the works undertaken under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme captured 102 Million Tonnes of Carbon Dioxide in 2017-18 through plantation and soil quality improvement works. The MGNREGS has proved remarkable for other reasons, including it being the World’s largest anti-poverty program and also helping improve the local livelihoods, food, employment and water security on a massive scale. If the program is taken up with necessary commitment, priority, planning and participatory governance, it can achieve lot more. Unfortunately the NDA government has not been showing such commitment, priority or financial allocation even for its regular functioning. The IISc Study says that by 2030, the MGNREGS can create annual carbon dioxide sink equal to 249 MtCO2. One hopes our governments would, rather than denigrating the scheme would allocate sufficient financial, human and institutional resources for MGNREGS, rather than false solutions like the destructive projects like big hydropower projects.
In a remarkable new report, the 50 top scientists of Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) have come together to deliver the first ever joint collaboration report with the message that Biodiversity crisis and climate change crisis are not independent of each other. The message from scientists is clear: The claimed Climate “solutions” that hurt biodiversity or their habitat are false solutions.
By protecting and restoring nature, the report said, we can safeguard biodiversity, help limit warming, improve human well being and even find protection from the consequences of climate change, like intensified flooding and storms.
It would be very useful and educative to look at the water storage levels of some of the major reservoirs of India even as India awaits the annual bounty of water from the South West Monsoon that normally officially starts on June 1, but this year may start on June 3 as the latest India Meteorological Department forecast yesterday, that is on May 30, 2021. While high storages at this point in time creates a possible Dam Flood hazard that India has been experiencing with increasing frequency with changing monsoon rainfall patterns and unaccountable reservoir operations, it also indicates the gross inefficiency of our use of water stored in these reservoirs if there is a lot of water there in the beginning of the annual filling period. It indicates that the storages created with such massive economic, social and environmental costs have not been optimally utilised in the just ending water year on May 31. Unfortunately, no agency is monitoring the water storages in these major reservoirs and asking as to why there is non optimal use of water and then addressing the reasons wherever they see such non optimal storages at the end of water year. SANDRP has been raising this issue for many years.
An active campaign has been going on for several months now to save the Pune Rivers from the so called “River Front Development” Project as can be seen the following stories of just last one month. The RFC supporters are also out to push multi crore project, as can be seen from the numerous stories being planted in the media on regular intervals. There is no doubt that the Pune Rivers will be destroyed and the city will face increasing flood disasters if the project goes ahead. One hopes the Civil Society campaign continues and judiciary steps in to stop this destruction at the earliest.