With lower air pollution levels in cities, the COVID lockdown in India gave rise to popular narratives of ‘nature healing itself’ and ‘reclaiming’ space. But at the same time, the Indian environment ministry proposed a new set of green protection rules that would considerably ease the process for major industrial projects to be set up.
This draft Environmental Impact Assessment 2020 was met with widespread public outrage, as the government received more than two million emails opposing the dilution of the law.
The Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development hosted a webinar on July 30, 2020, to better understand India’s domestic environmental politics and policy, particularly during the pandemic.
Nitin Sethi, senior journalist at The Reporter’s Collective, drew links between economic developments in India and the emergence and trajectory of Indian environmentalism. As a country’s manufacturing sector and economy expands, he said, society also demands better environmental governance to control the fallout of this expansion. In India, this awareness came at a time when there was a greater tendency to centralize governance, and as a result, the state has mostly ignored civic demands on this front, he said.
This has been evident in the recent changes in environmental law proposed during the pandemic. The state used this time as a opportunity to dilute the Environmental Impact Assessment, a process to assess the effects of an industrial project on the environment. One of the dilutions involved doing away with the mandate to hold public consultations for certain types of projects. Kanchi Kohli, senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, said that while activities like mining were considered ‘essential services’ by the state during the pandemic lockdown, environmental regulation and public participation in governance were not the state’s priority.
Mr Sethi added that many of the proposed changes and dilutions to the EIA were not new, and existed as an idea prior to 2014. “COVID has exacerbated all of the dilutions that were anyway happening,” he said. “What perhaps COVID has done is given distance for the state from its citizens for this to happen at a faster pace.”
The opening statements by the speakers were followed by a rich discussion on the impact of the erosion of public participation mechanisms and other environmental safeguards on vulnerable communities. There was also a discussion on how environmental and climate change discourses in India need to highlight the social and political struggles of communities to access commons and natural resources, and deal with the fallout of weak environmental policy.
The session was moderated by environmental journalist Aruna Chandrasekhar. Watch here.