Tatsat Chronicle Magazine

#Election2024: Modi’s Contempt For Environment, Dismantling Protection Policy Hallmarks Since 2014

New environment guidelines have cast a long shadow over Modi’s decade-long environmental policy. Experts say it is the most serious and under-reported failure of the government
April 30, 2024
Representative image. Photo: Chris Leboutiller I Unsplash

The several achievements of the decade-long Modi rule, such as putting into place an efficient digital order and fine-tuning direct benefit transfer (DBT) in various sectors, has a giant gaping hole — the government’s environment policy.

Aghast environment policy observers have been quick to highlight it as the most significant as well as a severely under-reported failure of the Modi government. While the opposition and the media have, to a significant degree, focussed on issues such as unemployment and the unfolding economic slowdown, the impact of the Modi government’s policies on the environment has, oddly, escaped everyone’s radar.

That is tantamount to bad news.

While the 2004-14 Congress-led UPA regime was not much to write home about as far as its environmental policy was concerned, the past decade, beginning 2014, has set India back significantly.

The public at large and the media in particular have mostly glossed over issues that have a direct connection to their lives, but global concern has been far more realistic. Climate change and life-threatening atmospheric pollution are not subjects that can be brushed under the carpet.

This drastic fall in India’s ecological standing is best encapsulated in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), an international ranking system that measures the environmental health and sustainability of countries. According to EPI 2022, India ranked the lowest among 180 countries, after Vietnam (178), Bangladesh (177), and Pakistan (176). With an overall score of 18.9, India is at the bottom of all countries with low scores across a range of critical landmarks.


Clearly, balancing development with safeguarding the environment will be the biggest challenge before the Modi government if it returns to power in June this year. While the government’s emphasis on ease of doing business should be considered an economic imperative, experts believe that it should not come at the cost of rampant environmental degradation.

Seema Jayachandran wrote, as part of a paper series by the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER): “Reducing global poverty and halting climate change and environmental degradation are two of the most important challenges facing humankind today. These problems are intertwined. For example, climate change threatens economic prosperity, especially in low-income countries where it endangers the livelihoods and safety of vulnerable populations. Conversely, as average household income rises, more people can afford cars and bigger homes, and thus their carbon footprints expand. Just as environmental changes can have economic effects, economic changes can affect the environment.”

Perhaps the most damaging of all decisions taken by the Modi government are the proposed changes to the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process, which was originally designed to safeguard the country’s diverse ecology.

The Environmental Impact Assessment Notification was promulgated by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in 2006 as a measure to scrutinise all relevant information about a project or activity to assess its potential adverse impacts on the ecology of a region.

In March 2021, the MoEFCC issued a revised draft policy on evaluating the environmental impact of large projects. The draft EIA notification, which is meant to replace the 2006 regulations currently in use, will legally grant industrial, mining and infrastructure projects access to land, water, forests and other environmental resources or bar them based on environmental viability.

Among the many changes the draft proposes is a mechanism to legitimise some actions currently listed as violations, such as projects that start construction without a valid clearance. It also expands the list of projects exempted from public consultation, a crucial part of the EIA process.

Currently, the public has 30 days to peruse EIA reports, but the new draft reduces that to 20 days without any justification. “Making these reports available less than three weeks before the public hearing will make it very difficult for people to verify the contents of EIA reports. This is of great consequence since the quality of EIA reports in the country has been poor in the past and the consequences of that are felt by the public,” noted the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), the distinguished Delhi-based public policy body.

According to it, the changes allow potential violators to get their projects regularised by simply paying a penalty. “The proposed amnesty to be granted to illegal projects, as proposed by the draft notification, negates the very purpose of the EIA, which is to try and ascertain social and environmental risks of a project before it starts functioning,” argues the CPR report.

Researchers Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli say that the EIA, since its adoption in 1994, has been “a thorn in the flesh” of both corporates and environmentalists. While businesses see it as an instrument to hinder access to the country’s natural resources, environmentalists have felt that it legitimises environmentally degrading projects because the rejection rate has been nearly zero.

In 2023, the MoEFCC notified an amendment to the EIA Rules, exempting highway projects of strategic and defence importance, which are 100 km from the Line of Control, among other locations, from an environmental clearance before construction.

The EIA is the centrepiece of a flawed environmental policy, but also consider the following:

Within a few weeks of the Modi government taking over in 2014, with its promise of encouraging investment, the environment ministry used a bureaucratic shortcoming to lift the ban on setting up of factories in eight ‘critically-polluted’ industrial belts. Environment clearances were eased to allow mid-sized polluting industries to operate within 5 km of eco-sensitive areas, as against the earlier limit of 10 km.

In August 2014, the number of independent members in the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) was reduced from 15 to just three — making it a mere rubber stamp to acquiesce to what the government wanted. Result? By 2019, the NBWL approved just under 100% of all industrial projects, which were given environmental clearance. A total of 682 projects were allowed from the 687 it had to examine. In contrast, under UPA-2, only 80% of the projects secured clearance — 260 out of 328.

In December 2017, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) wrote to over 400 thermal power units in the country, allowing them to release pollutants in violation of the 2015 limits set by the government, which were to be followed for another five years. It also wanted newer thermal power plants to follow the new norms of clean technologies set by the government. No surprise then that by 2018, 15 of the world’s most polluted cities were in India.

In January, the Supreme Court stayed the implementation of two office memoranda issued by the MoEFCC in July 2021 and January 2022. The memoranda permitted ex post facto environmental clearance of projects. The notifications countermanded the EIA notification of 2006, which required prior approval of projects.

Himalayan trouble

Yet, the most disturbing is the trajectory of development and growth in the Himalaya, which is already extracting a very high price. In 2016, just before the Uttarakhand assembly elections, Prime Minister Modi announced the Char Dham Yatra route, estimated to cost about ₹12,000 crore. The 1,607-km Char Dham road project is a prestigious two-lane expressway scheme being executed in the Himalayan state. The project proposes widening of roads up to 10 metres to improve accessibility to the Char Dham (shrines) of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath.

A significant portion of the project area falls under the deciduous bio zone along the dry slopes of the rivers. Ruthless harvesting or uprooting of vegetation during road widening can prove perilous for biodiversity and regional ecology.

The construction of this Yatra route has been in the news due to the disregard for environmental rules and the indiscriminate felling of forests. Experts estimate forest loss to be among the major impacts of the project — about 508.66 hectares of forested land will be diverted to non-forestry work and 33,000-43,000 trees will be cut down to construct roads.

Land subsidence in Joshimath portends a grim future for hill towns. Photos: Vivek Mukherji

Also Read: Autopsy Of An Unfolding Disaster

This pursuit of modernisation is going to turn this once spiritual oasis into a modern, glitzy holiday destination, which environment lovers say will destroy the pristine environment.

Environmentalist Mohan Joshi remarks: “If the yatra goes on slowly (as it once did) then travellers will stay and spend more time in these areas, i.e., local shopkeepers, dhaba owners, tea vendors, traders and goods-carrying people and many others will benefit. In contrast, helicopters, drones, and the highway benefit only select companies and travel agents, as tourists start from Dehradun in the morning and head back at night.”

Laws have been changed systematically across several states. In Madhya Pradesh, the proposed Ken-Betwa river linking project threatens to destroy more than 4,000 hectares of the Panna tiger reserve, home to the critically endangered gharial. In Maharashtra, 53,000 precious mangrove trees will be felled for the lauded bullet train project.

In Chhattisgarh, one of the greenest and densest patches of forest faces annihilation if the government permits coal mining. In March 2022, the Chhattisgarh government granted expansion approval for the project to open the Parsa Coal Block. Here, about two lakh trees have been marked for felling. The mines will expand into Fattepur and Ghatbarra.

While June 5 is celebrated as World Environment Day with much fanfare, the Environment Ministry is set to propose radical changes to the country’s environmental law regime, including changes in the crucial Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. According to the Hindustan Times, the move comes amidst concerns expressed by environment groups that the changes are being made to make it easier to develop infrastructure and industrial projects, even in environmentally sensitive areas.

Even as the country witnessed enormous forest fires and 20% forest degradation in the past years, according to Global Forests Watch, the Central government is aiming to dilute the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and limit the role of state governments in forest affairs.

In March 2022, the Environment Ministry stated, “A state government/UT administration will not impose any additional condition after in-principle approval has been accorded.” The “approval” here relates to construction projects and development initiatives, among other key projects to be undertaken by private players on forest lands. The move will directly impact the lives of tribal communities and infringe on their land rights.

More than 60% of the forest area in the country falls within 187 tribal districts. The modifications to the laws made unilaterally may also pave the way for renewed conflicts as they were done without consultations with the local communities.

The MMDR Act

Another reform of far-reaching magnitude is the government’s decision to approve a slew of big-ticket changes in the mining sector, including amendments to the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 (MMDR Act).

The proposed ‘reforms’ in the mining sector have drawn extensive criticism from ecologists, who say they are being “rushed and pushed through” to benefit industries. The ‘reforms’ propose doing away with the distinction between captive and non-captive mines, and re-allocating blocks held by state-owned firms, which means opening the gates for private players via the auction route.

Although the Modi government has publicly advocated clean power and committed to increasing India’s renewable energy target to 450 gigawatt (GW) as part of a stronger climate action plan, in January 2020 it passed an ordinance to amend the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act of 2015 to open up the coal sector for commercial mining to all local and global firms after easing restrictions.

Under the new provisions, Modi launched the auction of 41 coal blocks, many of which are in the dense forests of central India. Challenging this decision, the Jharkhand government has approached the Supreme Court to halt the auction. The Chhattisgarh government, too, has raised the red flag over blocks being in biodiversity-rich forests spanning an elephant reserve.

India is handing over more coal mines to the private sector for increasing production (Photo: Rehman Abubakr | Wiki Commons)

In the context of shrinking biodiversity, the ‘developing’ of the Andamans and Nicobar and the Lakshadweep islands must fall in a special category. At the height of the Covid pandemic, NITI Aayog — the public policy think tank of the Central government — brought in a proposal for the development of India’s southernmost and largest islands: the Great Nicobar region. The move has scandalised environmentalists.

On the table is the creation of a mega trans-shipment terminal, an airport, a township and large-scale development of gas and solar-based power. While ostensibly the move — according to the government — will promote tourism, resulting in economic development of the region, the scale and speed of expansion of the project since the initial announcement in March 2021 have been worrisome.

In Lakshadweep, the government is aiming for extensive changes to land ownership and regulation in the islands, with the administrator taking complete charge of grant of permission to develop land and regarding other powers of control over land use. Further, “these rules will also confer additional powers to the administrator with respect to the acquisition and development of land for planning”.

Rajeev Suri wrote in Down to Earth magazine: “Since the BJP came into power in 2014, it has put ‘operation dismantle’ into motion. The BJP scarcely conceals its contempt for the environment, working assiduously to dismantle environment protection, which is considered an impediment to development and a stumbling block in the path of ease of doing business.”

Clearly, there is an immediate need to reappraise the environment policy and introduce some semblance of order in directives hell-bent on uprooting everything that is old, ancient, and profound.

Ranjit Bhushan

Ranjit Bhushan is a senior journalist who has worked with leading newspapers and magazines in his career spanning more than three decades. He writes on current affairs, politics, and environmental issues.