May 5, 2016

Drought, forest fires and heat wave ... blame the government policies

Forests on fire in Uttarakhand --NDTV pic

At a time when 60 per cent of Maharashtra villages are grappling with a severe drought, quite a significant proportion of people living with drought for the third year in a row, news reports say Maharashtra has fast-tracked key infrastructure projects worth Rs 50,000-crore, most of them in rural areas. Much of the financial outlay is for Mumbai-Nagpur super communication expressway and expansion of the Mumbai-Goa national highway.
In another news report, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has served a notice to Punjab government for axing 96,000 trees for widening the 20-km stretch of Zirakpur-Bathinda highway. As many as 50 per cent of these trees belonging to the species – Sheesham, Neem, Arjuna, Brahma Drek, Melia, Keekar and Eucalyptus – were planted under a Rs 450-crore afforestation project about a decade ago.
These two examples illustrate the absence of environmental protection in the model of economic growth that is being overzealously pursued. I have never understood why policy makers should not be insisting on integrating environment with economic growth. After all, much of the environmental crisis that the country is faced with – a severe drought leading to an acute water shortage afflicting 54-crore people in 10 States, a devastating forest fire in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh and a record-breaking heat wave that is already leading to 6 to 8 degree higher temperature than the normal – is man made.
But still I don’t find the Ministry of Surface Transport for example and the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change showing any signs of coming together before planning an infrastructure project. If only the speed at which the roads are being dug is accompanied by environmental parameters that do not allow cutting down of a large number of trees beyond a limit probably a significant proportion of the 96,000 trees being axed in Punjab could have been saved. If only the highways and expressways were planned in such a manner that the natural drainage system was least impacted probably flash floods wouldn’t be so rampant.
I don't think the governments care. At a time when wetlands are under severe threat, and the MoEF will publicly convince the nation on the dire need to preserve the water bodies, privately the ministry will not spare any opportunity to dilute the provisions. Business Standard (May 6, 2016) has in a report stated: "In November 2015, the environment ministry drafted rules that would de-link the forest clearance process from the provisions of the Forest Rights Act. The ministry sought exemption from seeking tribal consent for underground mining as well. The tribal affairs ministry, the documents showed, again re-iterated in a meeting in December 2015 that clearance cannot not be given without tribal consent. It noted that in cases where the government had tried to de-link clearance from tribal consent, the projects had landed up in court."

This is happening across the board. Why only blame MoEF, look at how Maharashtra government is trying to usurp tribal's rights over forests. Business Standard (Mar 12, 2016) reports: "The Maharashtra government has finalised regulations to allow it to wrest from tribals the control of the forest trade in goods such as bamboo and tendu leaves, worth thousands of crore annually. This means the government will also manage potentially 80 per cent of community forestlands in the state. The regulations came after the Union tribal affairs ministry’s volte-face on interpreting the Forest Rights Act (FRA)." 

In other words, concerned citizens may go on saying what they want to say, the governments will not learn.   
The compartmentalization of the process of development, wherein the performance of a Ministry is judged by the speed with which it is able to exhaust its budgeted financial allocations with utter disregard for preserving the environment as well as to ensure that minimal damage is done to the ecology and eco-systems is what has primarily led to the present environment debacle. The fast track green clearance being provided by the MoEF for infrastructure projects for instance immediately needs a review. If the objective is to provide speedy clearances with processing for over 2,200 project proposal being done online, the underlying objective is to ignore environmental consequences. I wonder how is it possible for example to review online an infrastructure project proposal that is coming up in the higher reaches of Uttarakhand without having a detailed environmental study.
After the Himalayan Tsunami that struck Uttarakhand in July 2013, I had thought the nation would sit back and draw some lessons. If it were the flash floods of 2013 in Uttarakhand, it is now the forest fires in 2016. That Uttarakhand should be subjected to two harrowing disasters in a short period of time shows how unplanned the process of development has been. The moment you raise the issue of unplanned development, a chorus rises accusing you of being anti-development. Those who stand up to warn are blamed for holding India’s growth story. The MoEF is actually applauded for giving a go-bye to cumbersome environmental clearances. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has said when it comes to environmental clearances his Ministry’s green light is always on.
Coming back to the prevailing drought, the India growth story had simply eclipsed the harrowing build-up of drought conditions in Marathwada and Bundelkhand regions. If it were not for the Mumbai High Court’s decision on IPL, the national media wouldn’t have woken up to the tragedy in our own backyards. Unlike floods, drought does not happen suddenly. It has been building up over the years. And yet the media, except for a few honorable exceptions, ignored it. Parliamentarians, as well as the policy makers, only were jolted out of sleep when the Supreme Court came up with a strong indictment. But all this while, as drought had swelled up to epic proportions, India’s growth story had remained intact. It is as if the drought-affected areas were in Africa.
In Bundelkhand, it is the 13th drought year in the past 15 years. In Karnataka, 28 of the 30 districts are reeling under a severe drought. In Jharkhand, it is the fifth drought year in a row. In Marathwada too, several areas are languishing under drought for the fourth consecutive year. In other words, it has been building up over the years. But still, the economic growth story had remained exclusive. I don’t understand the economic logic of having a network of expressways in Maharashtra when more than 60 per cent of the villages are somehow struggling to survive. Why should infrastructure development only come to mean constructing highways and malls?
Rebuilding a network of traditional water sources, ponds and tanks is also infrastructure development. Recharging ground water in the parched Marathwada and Vidharbha regions is in fact sustainable development. Turning the 64,000 sq kms Marathwada region drought proof is perhaps the biggest infrastructure development that is possible. Changing the sugarcane-based cropping system in Maharashtra, knowing that the 4 per cent area under sugarcane guzzles 71.5 per cent groundwater, to crops which require less water is also development, perhaps more sustainable than what is perceived so far. All this may not immediately enhance raise the GDP numbers but would certainly add on to the well-being of the society at large without inflicting environmental damages. That in true sense is Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas. #

Part of this article appeared in my blog. May 6, 2016
Drought, forest fires, heat wave....need to integrate environment with economic growth.

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