Hello and welcome to today’s special edition of Lights On, a newsletter that brings you the key stories and exclusive intel on energy and climate change in South Asia.
Today I am publishing an exclusive interview with Jairam Ramesh, the former environment minister and chairman of the parliamentary committee on Science, Technology and Environment, who made headlines this week for his stern criticism of the government’s environmental policies.
As the deadline for the final approval of a controversial piece of environmental legislation approaches, he explains while robust regulations are not at all a matter of red tape. They are key to the future of India’s biodiversity, to its public health after the Covid crisis and to the success of the Paris Agreement.
Jairam Ramesh - Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Jairam Ramesh believes that as forests and water bodies pay the price for the government’s ‘schizophrenic approach’ to nature protection, Indians will be the ultimate victims of a degraded environment. The Modi administration, he says, is systematically dismantling regulations at home while boasting climate leadership at the UN table.
Ramesh has been vocal against the flurry of environmental measures quietly passed by the government during the lockdown, from putting coal mines up for auction, which he says will affect the biodiversity of fragile environments, to relaxing oversight over proposed industrial developments.
In a forceful letter sent to the Minister of Environment Prakash Javadekar, he unpicks the faults in the draft update to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), which many consider a dilution of the previous 2006 version.
Dear @PrakashJavdekar I place on record my STRONGEST objections to #DraftEIA2020 notification on 5 grounds listed in my letter. Environmental regulation isn’t an unnecessary burden but is essential for health & welfare of our people & sustainable development. @MVenkaiahNaidu
710 Retweets1,804 Likes
He points out that the EIA 2020 (check this highlighted version) allows businesses to seek environmental approval *after* they violated existing norms, for the sake of mitigating further damages, a provision that “will routinely legitimise illegality”.
Under the new draft, which is currently open to public scrutiny until August 11, a growing number of industrial expansions won’t need environmental clearance at all, and the communities potentially affected by new plants, railways or roads won’t be as involved in the process as they used to be under the previous rules.
This systematic attempt to reduce environmental protection, “is part of a process that has been going on for a while,” he tells me. “Whether it's coastal zone regulations, whether it's forest clearance regulations or pollution standards, the reason for this is very clear: ease of doing business.”
The hasty response of the Environment Minister
Ramesh says that easing environmental checks and balances is the government’s way of attracting investments and propelling growth. But, he says, “I think it's wrong to see [regulations] as a burden. It’s an obligation if you claim to be committed to sustainable development.”
Particularly at this time, we can’t forget that the way we treat the environment has consequences on human health, he says. “Whether it's air pollution, water pollution, chemical contamination or land degradation, all these have environmental [and health] consequences.”
Think about the Covid pandemic, he says: “The other side of its spread is an environmental crisis. In many ways, the existence of wet markets, the way we have dealt with nature has accentuated the current crisis.” His words echo the mounting evidence that environmental stressors such as air pollution increase the risk of Covid death.
“To look at the current [Coronavirus] crisis only as a public health issue is myopic. To me, at the core of the current crisis is a dislocation of the environmental equilibrium, compounded by these concerted attempts to loosen the laws, whittle down standards and weaken environmental institutions,” Ramesh says, all in the name of making life easier for businesses.
It’s a momentous time for India. With the spread of Covid-19 still out of control and the economy expected to shrink by 10 percent this year as a result of the extended lockdown, a robust private sector will be essential to the recovery.
“On the one side, internationally, the Prime Minister is claiming leadership on climate and solar energy, saying that we are committed to the environment,” Ramesh says, “but domestically [his] track record doesn’t match the international rhetoric, there is a complete divergence between the two. It’s just hypocrisy.”
Currently, the architecture of the Paris Agreement doesn’t ensure transparency in the way countries measure and report their progress, which enables a disconnect between international promises and actions on the ground. The past two annual meetings of the UN framework for climate change have been dedicated to hammering out a common framework, known as a ‘rulebook’, for countries to review and report their progress against their climate targets. But its rules remain too vague.
Environmental policies in India, Ramesh says, “remain a domestic matter, but they come into conflict with the commitments that the government has made under the Paris Agreement”. For the past five years, there hasn’t been a system in place to monitor compliance, and “without a system for monitoring, reporting and verification, no country is accountable, including big polluters such as the US, China and India.” Until an international consensus on this can be achieved, Ramesh says, environmental regulations will remain “purely domestic issues, which we’ll have to fight domestically”.
This was a special edition of Lights On, I wanted to keep this interview timely so I am moving the news briefing to tomorrow. On Thursday, you’ll get a peek of what I am planning for the membership scheme and the chance to have a say!
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