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Ravi Chellam: 'There is a history of how project proponents constantly fudge, lie and cover up data' | Photo credit: Roshni Ravi

‘Green approvals given online are a mockery’

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: May. 28, 2020
Updated: Jun. 29, 2020

The future of the human race depends on the health of the planet. This is the lesson from the coronavirus pandemic. But even in the midst of lockdowns and deaths, the environment continues to get short shrift. 

In India, mere video-conferences have become enough for clearing projects, even in ecologically sensitive areas — jettisoned is the rigour of independent public hearings and detailed consultations among experts.

On April 7, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife had examined as many as 31 proposals online. The fate of 15 tiger reserves, notified eco-sensitive zones, deemed eco-sensitive zones on the fringes of protected areas and designated wildlife corridors is at stake here.

So great is the concern over the implications of such seemingly superficial decision-making that several environmentalists have jointly written a letter to Prakash Javadekar, Union minister of environment, forests and climate change.

The pandemic should not become an excuse for taking short-cuts in deciding the future of important natural assets, they have said in their letter. The approvals can wait, they feel, till the situation improves and the guidelines of the Supreme Court for clearing projects can be followed.

Among the signatories to the letter is Ravi Chellam, who has spent many years in wildlife protection. He is currently CEO, Metastring Foundation, and director of the Mission Secretariat, National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well Being.

“It’s not just about saving tigers,” says Chellam. “It’s about saving humanity. There are close links between the natural world and human well-being.”

Excerpts from Civil Society’s Zoom interview with Chellam in Bengaluru.


What are your concerns about the way environmental clearances are being handled during the coronavirus pandemic?

I think it is absolutely crucial that humanity learns the right lessons from this pandemic. It would be a huge mistake to revert to business as usual once the worst is over or a vaccine is developed. If we continue to destroy nature and pollute the environment without any compassion for our fellow human beings, such tragedies are bound to be repeated.

The past five to six decades have seen continual degradation and fragmentation of our natural ecosystems. We have reached a tipping point. Today loss of biodiversity, land degradation, pollution and climate change are acting synergistically. The pandemic is one of the many costs we will have to pay if we don’t learn to live with respect for nature.

There have to be limits to our consumption. You can’t have endless growth. First of all there is a problem with the way we define growth. We didn’t take SARS seriously or MERS. We were lucky to get away with those. Hopefully we will get over COVID-19. But the world has changed. This is a new normal and we better understand and learn to live with it. 


The letter states projects are being discussed and cleared on video and this is a completely inadequate way of assessing them…

Well, site visits are not possible and neither are public consultations. The time allotted for the meeting is very short compared to the usual day-long meeting. Maps can’t be properly examined. The online format doesn’t allow room for discussion by four or five people. You can mute other people. People involved feel cheated. Even those who attend these meetings tell us it’s not adequate.

What is the tearing hurry? We are still in a lockdown. The whole approach has been to dilute any kind of environmental control and make it easier for “developers”. Nature is seen by the government either as a resource to exploit or as an impediment for development and not as an asset, the essential foundation for human life to flourish.


What are these projects and what kind of impact would they have on the environment?

Typically these would be highways, pipelines, linear development projects or other infrastructure projects. Invariably, it would be something that requires natural habitats to be destroyed, degraded or fragmented. The reason such projects are placed before the National Board for Wildlife is that these habitats have already been identified as ecologically vital parts of India’s landscape.

We shouldn’t restrict our view to the value these landscapes and waterscapes bring only from a wildlife or an environment perspective. We should see their links to human livelihoods and human well-being. It is not about tigers facing a problem. It is carbon sequestration being undermined. It is about closer contact between potential disease-causing organisms. It is about extreme climate events not being buffered by nature when you destroy and degrade it. So there are a host of other things we need to consider.


And these areas are all eco-sensitive?

The only reason such projects come to the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife is because the government has recognized and notified all of these habitats and landscapes as ecologically valuable. There is national recognition of their ecological value.


So you would like the government to suspend all clearances?

The job of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is to fight till its last breath for the environment. It is not called the Ministry of Environmental Clearances. What is its mandate? Its mandate is not to say okay, we’ll destroy forests here and we’ll make it up there as we have the knowledge and ability to reconstruct. The fact is, we don’t and unfortunately our track record in restoration is not at all good.

There is a history of how project proponents constantly fudge, lie and cover up data. Project proponents are primarily interested in the fastest, cheapest way to obtain environmental clearances. Ninety-nine percent of project proponents really have no interest in the environment. Their job is to make profits and report their quarterly results to their board.

That being the fact the ministry really shouldn’t be saying it’s okay to allow a road or a railway line, we are a poor country, we need to develop.

Who is developing? The pandemic has exposed the fact that millions of our people derive no benefit from this development. And I don’t think we can divorce ourselves from the plight of our fellow citizens and our environment. The environment offers enormous support, even if it just means accessing fuelwood and water for millions of people. Nobody has any business to undermine nature’s productivity. 


But we have made some gains in conservation over the years.

I wouldn’t call them gains. Our metrics, the way we measure performance, is very limited. We primarily use populations of animals as the metric of performance. But that means you have to be transparent and accountable about the process of animal population estimation. You need to share the method, the data and the analysis. These exercises are done solely by the government, sometimes in cooperation with scientists and NGOs. These are never open for public audit. Why not? After all, such estimates are done with public money.

India’s population, its poor people and the bulk of its economy are still land-based, bio-based and agriculture-based. Which means it’s almost in direct competition with other forms of life. Life needs space. We can build multistoried buildings for people. For birds and animals the only multistoried structures they see are in forests.

They cannot live beyond a certain density. Between 10 to 20 tigers or lions could live in 100 sq. km. If their population grows to 22 or 30 the extra animals cannot live in the 100 sq. km. They will have to find some other space. So, in the limited context of increased population numbers even if we were to believe official numbers — over which I have a healthy scepticism — large mammals in general have grown in number.

Rhinos, which nearly went extinct, came back. So have lions, tigers and crocodiles. The only large animal we have lost in the past 120 years is the cheetah in the 1950s.

So that way we have done very well. We know very little about smaller creatures, for example, insects. Not so long ago when we drove out at night a myriad of insects would hit our windscreens. Nowadays it’s a rarity. That tells me that the overall density and possibly diversity of insects has gone down. And that is something very few people are noticing. Insects drive our world. They pollinate, help break down organic matter, are predators of our plant pests and much else. 


What can be done to ensure we don't destroy our ecologically sensitive habitats?

Our success needs very strong management because our protected areas on an average are very small. They can’t hold our growing large mammal populations. Especially in the last 20 to 30 years, since our conservation policy began separating people from all our protected areas, especially tiger reserves, this creates a new challenge. Now, if a tiger walks into human-dominated areas the local people ask, why is it coming here, you have a tiger reserve, take it back.

This is not what I heard in the 1980s and 1990s. In the past 20 to 30 years there has been a strong pushback from people because they definitely feel alienated from forests and let down by the government.

The other problem is we are constantly fragmenting habitats and denotifying protected habitats. So, where is there room for wildlife?

And we are not totally honest with our data as raw data and the analysis are seldom shared with independent scientists. We claim plantations are forests. Strips of plantations along roads and railway lines and canals are classified as forests. Those are not functioning natural ecosystems. There is a huge difference.


How should the environment ministry be strengthened to take on these challenges?

That’s not an easy question to answer. I have been involved in the past couple of years with people looking at these questions. It’s not only about biodiversity conservation but its links with human well-being, education, health and much more.

This is a knowledge-based economy. We cannot any more use the narrow lens of the GDP to measure growth. It has failed us. What do we do when that system breaks? We somehow remove every rule which kept a check on how that old system operated.

In a free market why are we supporting failed businesses? We did that in 2008, and now that’s what is coming home to roost. Market forces are saying these businesses are not viable. Airlines probably need to drastically reduce their services.

 If for most people it will take two days to travel from Delhi to Chennai then that’s what it takes. Why do we need to ensure flights which take only a couple of hours between Chennai and Delhi? How does it contribute to the well-being of the planet or humans? We need to ask these questions.


If current trends are any indicator the EIA is going to get weaker. What do you recommend?

I think more people should recognize the cost of what is happening and demand higher levels of transparency and accountability. I believe we are still living in a responsible democracy and it is going to require active citizenship.

The time for silence is over. We need to speak up now. Five years down the line if this is the rate of destruction and the model of development, it will be too late. Growth numbers will be thrown at us but when we step out of our homes we will see how the urban and rural environments have been degraded. And environments, once degraded, are very difficult to restore.

Don’t get taken in by how the Yamuna is cleaner and fish have come back. Most of it is bunkum. The gains of conservation take a long time to acquire but with just one government decision, 20 years of sincere work in conservation  can disappear in a few months.

The current model of growth is based on consumption, as if there is no tomorrow. Invariably project proponents hike up the benefits of their projects and lower the costs so that the rate of investment to returns ratio is far better than it actually is.

I don’t know of a single project where the environmental clearance conditions have been complied with sincerely. That is the job of the environment ministry — not to turn a blind eye but to hold these developers accountable. Our job as citizens is to be vigilant, ask questions, file RTIs and be active soldiers for our environment. 




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