Environment: A non-negotiable agenda



Ritwick Dutta
The belief that every environmental problem has a technological solution undermines the need to protect ecology in its pristine condition
The next 10 years are going to be the most challenging time for India’s environment. Our developmental model remains focused on using nature as a fuel for its growth engine. Climate change is going to dominate environmental discourse at the national and international levels. Environmental debates will focus on climate change and its impact on vulnerable communities as well as the right of India to its fair share of the global carbon space. At the local level, however, environmental struggles will be focused on access to water, clean air, forests, protection of wetlands, grasslands and coasts. The increased fragmentation and destruction of the ecosystem will see a rise in conflicts between those who regard the ecosystem as a tradable and replaceable commodity and those who regard it as the basis of their existence, identity and culture.
Science, Technology and Law
The role of science, technology and law in dealing with environmental challenges in the next decade is going to be critical. Science and technology can be both an asset and a liability. The belief that every environmental problem has a technological solution undermines the need to protect ecology in its pristine condition.
When it comes to law, the constitutional provisions as well as statutory laws are being subordinated increasingly to governmental policy such as “Make in India” and “Ease of Doing Business”. The courts have to move beyond their traditional and conservative “hands-off approach” where government policy decisions are concerned, and restore faith in the rule of law and constitutional safeguards.
Free Speech and Democracy
Environmental protection will continue to be driven in the next decade by community and citizen-led action. The right to voice concerns on environmental degradation or threats to the environment is not only a fundamental right but forms the edifice of democratic society. The maturity with which the political leadership deals with dissenting voices that question the dominant economic growth model will be a crucial test for Indian democracy.
Environmental conflict is bound to get aggravated in the coming decade. Over the next decade, India aims to implement ambitious and controversial plans such as the interlinking of rivers, port development through the Sagarmala project, conversion of rivers into waterways, smart cities, and dedicated industrial freight corridors.
Beyond the rhetoric of future generation
If India’s environmental quality is to improve, we need to move beyond cosmetic campaigns and programmes such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Green India Mission to comprehensive, realistic and implementable plans to clean up the air, water and land. We must focus on the protection of the last remaining forests, grasslands and wetlands, together with the flora and fauna that depend on it. We must empower individuals, communities and civil society groups to appraise, question and challenge faulty decisions of the government and the actions of corporate entities. We must recognize that jargon and rhetorical statements like “environment and development must go hand in hand” and “sustainable development” no longer carry meaning, unless they are backed by concrete and decisive action. The reason being that we have destroyed the natural environment to such an extent that we can no longer say that environmental protection and industrial development must go hand in hand. Environmental protection must take precedence over economic and industrial interest. This is essential not only for the conservation and protection of the natural environment, but also in recognition of the fact that environmental degradation itself affects economic growth and human welfare.
The Gas Authority of India Ltd (GAIL), a body under the Union ministry of petroleum and natural gas, has hoardings across New Delhi stating why people should move to natural gas as fuel: One person dies every 23 seconds in India as a result of air pollution. This is based on figures arrived at by the World Heath Organization. It’s a wake-up call for all those who keep repeating that we must protect the environment for the future generation; it is the present generation and not just the future generation whose survival is at stake. And that in itself should be a good enough reason to take proactive steps to make environmental quality a significant parameter to judge how developed a country is, and not go by just the number of super highways, bullet trains, mega malls, luxury cars and SUVs.
Ritwick Dutta is aNew Delhi-based environmental lawyer, co-founded the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment and set up the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Resources and Response Centre
This is part of a series of articles in Mint’s 10th anniversary special issue that look at India 10 years from now. The entire list of articles can be found

Supreme Court directs Centre to preserve over 2 lakh wetlands


Amit Anand Choudhary| TNN | Updated: Feb 9, 2017, 03.32 AM IST

NEW DELHI: In a major direction to preserve ecologically crucial wetlandsthreatened by encroachment in many parts of the country, the Supreme Courtdirected the Centre on Wednesday to frame a policy to protect wetlands by June 30.

The court's direction will cover over 2 lakh wetlands across India which were identified through satellite imagery by ISRO and the Centre has been asked to draw up a phased plan of action to conserve the water bodies.

Emphasising the important role of wetlands in maintaining ecological balance, a bench of Justices Madan B Lokur and Prafulla C Pant directed the Centre to notify all 2,01,503 wetlands and asked the states to provide details too.

The bench set a deadline of June 30 to frame policy for preservation of wetlands that are seen as effective carbon sinks to mitigate climate change and support a wide variety of arial, land and acquatic wildlife and fauna.

Wetlands are defined as areas of land either temporarily or permanently covered by water and play a key role in the hydrological cycle in storm and flood control, water supply, providing food, fibre and raw materials. They support lakhs of migratory birds from colder regions of the world in summers, apart from mangroves that protect coastlines and filter pollutants.

With wetlands endangered by land grabbing activities, including by initiatives by state and central governments that include releasing lands for commercial development, environmentalists approached the Supreme Court seeking measures to protect the ecosystems. The SC has been examining the issue since 2001 and passed various orders.

The Centre informed the court it had formed a comprehensive scheme of National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Eco-systems (NPCA) for conservation and restoration of lakes and wetlands. "The ministry has so far identifies 115 wetlands and 63 lakes in 24 states and 2 union territories for conservation and management under the scheme. So far, since 1987-88 an amount of Rs 780 crore has been released for undertaking various conservation activities," the government said.

Advocate Gopal Shankarnarayanan, appearing for the petitioner, told the bench that steps taken by the government were not sufficient and many wetlands had been encroached upon over the years that this poses a grave threat to local floura and fauna. He said the Centre must take a holistic approach to preserve all water bodies.
The bench, thereafter, asked the government to notify all wetlands under Wetlands (Conservation and Management ) Rules so that they could be preserved.


ISRO had in 2011 prepared a national wetlands atlas on the basis of satellite image and 201503 wetlands were mapped. Total wetland area estimated is 15.26 Mha, which is around 4.63 per cent of the geographic area of the country. Area under inland wetlands is 10.56 million hectare and area under coastal wetlands is 4.14 Mha.
State-wise distribution of wetlands showed that Lakshadweep has 96.12% of geographic area under wetlands followed by Andaman & Nicobar Islands (18.52%), Daman & Diu(18.46%) and Gujarat (17.56%). Puducherry (12.88%), West Bengal (12.48%), Assam (9.74%), Tamil Nadu (6.92%), Goa (5.76%), Andhra Pradesh (5.26%), and Uttar Pradesh (5.16%) are wetland rich states. The least extents have been observed in Mizoram (0.66%) followed by Haryana (0.86%), Delhi (0.93%), Sikkim (1.05%), Nagaland (1.30%), and Meghalaya (1.34%).

Green norms unmet, thermal plants get more time — and lower standards

“Completely meeting requirements of revised environmental norms by December 2017 may not be feasible,” admits the office of Ravindra Kumar Verma, chief of CEA.

Faced with the fact that almost none of the over 400 thermal power plants across the country has complied with new emission norms notified more than a year ago, the Government is learnt to have decided to relax the December 2017 deadline — and even dilute the standards it had set.

It was in December 2015 that the Environment Ministry laid down, for the first time, emission norms for Nitrogen and Sulphur oxides (NOx and SOx) for thermal plants. It also fixed stricter limits for particulate matter (PM) emission and consumption of water.

Short of a year to the deadline, none of the units has fully complied.

“Completely meeting requirements of revised environmental norms by December 2017 may not be feasible,” admits the office of Ravindra Kumar Verma, chief of the Central Electricity Authority (CEA).

Asked why, it said that the power utilities have demanded “relaxation of standards” due to technological issues, huge civil work, very high capital cost and non-availability of space in existing plants to accommodate green technologies.

This non-compliance flies in the face of the Clean Coal Policy declared in India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution towards climate justice in October 2015 and the claims made in last week’s Budget to promote clean energy by adding 20 GW of solar power capacity.

The non-compliance shouldn’t come as a surprise.

For, right from the draft stage to the post-notification phase, the move to raise the bar faced stiff resistance from within the government and the industry.

In June 2015, the biggest player in the sector, National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), in its comment to the Environment ministry wrote that the proposed norms were “much more stringent than (those) prescribed by World Bank and even. China in some parameters.”

The same month, in a separate response to the said draft, the Union Power Ministry attached a table listing emission norms for thermal plants in China to argue that India’s were tougher.

On paper, the Chinese standards attached with the Power Ministry’s response were indeed a lot more generous than those proposed for India. The catch: this was data from four years earlier and China had long revised and upgraded these standards to levels far more stringent than those notified by India in 2015.

Three months after the Environment Ministry notified the standards in December 2015, NTPC sought relaxation despite the fact that its objections to the draft emission standards were set aside by the Environment Ministry before notification. But the maharatna company refused to give in.

When asked to explain the non-compliance, an NTPC spokesperson said that the “CEA is preparing a phasing plan for implementation of new environmental plan. (which) is expected by March 2017” and that “NTPC shall formalise the action plan. subsequent to phasing plan by CEA and revision in the new norms” (as applicable).”

The Environment Ministry itself is to blame as well.

It did not specify the new standards on a number of occasions while appraising or issuing clearances to thermal plants post-notification.

For example, environmental clearances given to NTPC’s Ramagundam plant in January 2016 and to KU Thermal Power Private Ltd’s super critical project in Tamil Nadu in March 2016 said emissions standards for particulate matter should not exceed 50 mg/Nm3 (normal cubic metre) even though the plants were to be commissioned in 2018 and were required to limit emission to 30 mg/Nm3.

Asked to explain this, the Ministry told the National Green Tribunal that the terms were “inadvertently not amended” while issuing the approved clearance.



Goa's Myopic Regional Plan lacks solutions to tackle climate change

Myopic RP lacks solutions to tackle climate change

| TNN | Updated: Jan 24, 2017, 03.01 PM IST

PANAJI: Although the warning signs of climate change and rising sea levels are already being seen and felt, activists claim the Regional Plan (RP) 2021 is far from proactive when it comes to measures to tackle these phenomena.

Goa, like other coastal states, will be vulnerable to the impact of sea level rise and other future events in the sensitive Indonesian region. The state's coast was affected by cyclonic storms in Arabian sea in the past, with cyclone Phyan in November 2009 being one of them.

The rapid urbanization and decrease in green cover due to construction and other activities are worrying environmentalists and others. "More tall buildings, increasing concretization and paving of open spaces, felling of trees and other factors will affect the state," Goa Bachao Abhiyan (GBA) convener, Sabina Martins, says.

Scientists from the National Institute of Oceanographcy (NIO) have noticed impacts of a sudden surge of sea levels at high tidethough some were localized phenomenonin the recent past. "Rising sea levels affect areas near the sea and rivers the most. The government should carry out studies to assess this threat," Siddharth Karapurkar, a member of the NGO Federation of Rainbow Warriors (FoRW), says.

While providing inputs for a suitable RP to counter the destructive impacts of climate change, activists have called for preventive measures, too. "As per Regional Plan 2001, areas with natural cover may be retained and entities such as industries may be set up within or near the area, like in the no development zone (NDZ) slopes in land bearing survey number 251 at Poinguinim," Terence Jorge of the EIA Resource and Response Centre (ERC), Goa, suggests.

The town and country planning (TCP) department's chief town planner, S T Puttaraju, says the government has identified 60 areas as disaster management sites in extreme events and natural disasters, like rising sea levels. "We have two levels of approach: the planning level and the disaster management level," he says.
As the administration is usually unable to reach such sites immediately, the onus is on the people affected to move swiftly to these elevated spots. "These will be provided with water supply till the NGOs concerned can provide help to them and the administration steps in," Puttaraju explains, adding that the water resources department has done a study of submergible areas following the flooding disaster at Canacona a few years ago.


But, activists question why eco-sensitive zones, sand dunes, low-lying paddy fields and water bodies in CRZ are shown as settlement zones. "The type of construction activity proposed in outline development plans (ODPs) by planning and development authorities will be adverse for the environment," Karapurkar says.
Puttaraju says that while the TCP department will not release low-lying areas for settlement, "problems of illegal construction and reclamation in these zones are difficult to control".


After massive tree felling along highways, Martins says the central government has assured that more trees will be planted, while planning institutions are incorporating certain principles in construction to mitigate climate change

New experts’ panels fast track dirty energy projects

| TNN | Updated: Jan 21, 2017, 10.16 AM IST


NAGPUR: The new Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC) on coal mining & thermal power, which was constituted recently, is on a clearance spree of projects for dirty energy.

New EACs under the Union Ministry for Environment Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) were constituted in December 2016 under the chairmanship of Dr Navin Chandra, former director of CSIR-Advanced Materials and Processes Research Institute (AMPRI). As soon as they were constituted, EAC (coal) met on December 27, and EAC (thermal) on December 28. Without sharing agenda with members 15 days before the meeting, the environment ministry seems to be rushing to clear projects.

For example, EAC for thermal power projects in its first meeting okayed 15 of 18 proposals it considered. Only two projects got deferred, one of which was due to the absence of project proponent. The new EAC for coal mining and coal washery projects considered 10 proposals, of which seven were cleared and only three got deferred.

Of the seven cleared proposals, two are from Maharashtra for expansion of coal mining. These include expansion of Western Coalfields Limited (WCL) Gokul open cast mine project from 1.0 MTPA to 1.875 MTPA on an area of 756.92 hectares in Piraya village in Umrer near Nagpur. Another WCL project is expansion of New Majri underground to open cast mine from 0.8 MTPA to 1.2 MTPA on an area of 479.16 hectares in Chandrapur district, which is already critically polluted.

Delhi-based EIA Resource & Response Centre (ERC), which keeps track of EIA processes, did a rapid analysis of last three meetings by earlier EAC (coal mining & thermal power) and found that 25 projects were appraised, of which 17 projects were deferred or rejected due to various reasons like poor quality of public hearing conducted, absence of public hearing, absence of adequate and authentic information on the ground of ecological consideration like presence of elephant corridor within 10km radius and in some cases due to involvement of forest land conversions. One project was cancelled due to an NGT order against it.