Is it frustrating or simply boring to see newspapers filled with ‘Let’s plant a tree’ and ‘Save the environment’ ads by the government to mark World Environment Day? Once again, on 5 June this year the messaging was as simplistic as in past years. Sure, saying no to plastic, encouraging green spaces, and conserving energy and water, are crucial for the protection and preservation of nature. The ads also reach out to all those who want to do something about the environment but do not quite know where to start.
At the same time, don’t we need to think beyond slogans and catchy lines so that nature itself and nature-based livelihoods are actually protected for the long term?
By the time you read this, almost a month would have passed since the world’s celebration of Environment Day. The morning after, we would perhaps have all gone back to doing what we do. For those thinking of or doing their bit for the environment every day, a date like this one would just whizz past. For others, we might have done our bit for the year on that day or perhaps even that might have missed our attention.
Environmentalism is not just about individual choice. It is also about engaging in the larger politics of decision-making. It is about digging deeper into claims, and not taking at face value information that is presented.
For instance, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests did several things on World Environment Day. Social media was abuzz with not buying products that contain wild animal parts, there were photographs of tree plantation drives and a book was released on vulture conservation. There was also a special initiative titled: “The MoEFCC invites a selfie on the theme ‘Plant a tree and create your own Oxygen Bank’.” Sounds like the ministry was in overdrive and we need not worry.
Now juxtapose this with the ministry’s announcements over the preceding month —speedy approvals and creation of new jobs. The ministry has also for a while been speaking about the need for streamlining environmental laws to ensure ease of business.
The report on the ministry’s achievements over 2014-16 has a dedicated section on the efforts taken to ensure businesses don’t suffer delays. This document, which seeks to highlight the new initiatives of the ministry under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, showcases that it has granted “2,000 approvals” which “have unlocked `10 lakh crore of investment and 10 lakh job potential”. It does not even try and say what environmental impact these projects would have and how many local livelihoods would be affected to create another set of proposed jobs.
Such claims do not reassure us that speedy approvals are not based on poor assessments and rushed decisions. A few of these might land up in court but many will go unquestioned. This is not because the rest will favour conservation and local livelihoods, but because of the sheer limitation of civil society groups to track the hundreds of approvals granted each month in New Delhi and in state capitals.
The highlights also include “increased forest cover” without a clearly defined figure on what that increase is. Ironically, one of the initiatives for forests in the same section states that the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) has issued 400 approvals for use of wildlife areas and corridors for public infrastructure like “roads, transmission lines etc”.
Now read it with a quick analysis by the New Delhi-based EIA Resource and Response Centre (ERC). Looking at the minutes of the meeting of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) which reviews proposals for diversion of forest land for non-forest use, we learn that at a meeting on 3 May 2016, the FAC recommended 2,682 hectares of forests be made available for irrigation (1,315 ha) and other activities. No proposal placed before the committee was rejected.
How has the ministry compared the existing forests’ diversion with the figures that claim that forest area has actually increased? If the latter is indeed true, why can’t a comparison be released in the same manner in which all citizens are asked to file their income tax returns or companies their balance sheets? It is the crudest way of assessing forest loss, as it might never give an account of all that is lost (livelihoods, non-human species, water sources) when the FAC gives the green signal for deforestation. But for a ministry that understands ease of business and investments, this should not be a difficult task.
The upside of loving the environment is that it is never too late to begin. The downside is, and this causes deep anxiety, that perhaps it is too late.
I have no clue where we are in our understanding of the elusive environmental balance. But I know that if we are to believe in truly protecting the environment, it cannot be subservient to ambitions of economic supremacy. Each year, 5 June need not be declared Environment Day, 22 May need not be dedicated to functions commemorating biodiversity, and we need not count our forest cover every 21 March. If we decide that our mantra is ‘breathe for environment’ and not ‘ease of business’ the world will look up and take notice.
The author is a researcher and writer. Email: email@example.com