As I sat to write my wish list for World Environment Day, I wondered if it’s appropriate to be asking for blue skies and nature rebounding when the world is in the midst of a global health crisis, hundreds of people have lost their jobs, and thousands of migrant workers are on a long walk home on foot. I know the world and our country is facing a crisis of seismic proportions.
But at the precise moment of writing this piece, the people of Maharashtra have just escaped from the damages of a super cyclone, the city of Kolkata is still recovering from the one that hit its coast, and leading scientists have gone on record to state that increased frequency of such events are triggered by human-induced climate change.
This, as India and Pakistan exchanged conspiracy theories on who let swarms of locusts in, precipitating a near agrarian crisis. And a gas leak from a chemical plant in the coastal city of Vizag choked thousands of people in their sleep. All these environmental catastrophes in the span of just six weeks. And just a day before the world gets ready to celebrate World Environment Day, news has come in that an elephant succumbed to its injuries when reportedly ‘fed with a fruit laced with firecrackers’.
As We Rush to ‘Unlock’, No Vision On How to Do Things Differently
Environmental crises don’t wait for a pandemic. And they have continued even as rescue and relief agencies have had to perform their duties in the midst of lockdown rules, containment zones and social distancing norms. They have reminded us that in addition to the health crisis, the planet too is reeling from sickness.
And now as we rush to open up our cities and our economy, there is no vision on how to do things differently.
It’s as if the world was a wonderful place, pre-lockdown, and we must – at a frenetic pace – get back to that ‘Utopia’. The reality we know is far from it. The world had been moving from one environmental catastrophe to another, costing lives and livelihoods, as we continued with business as usual.
This World Environment Day, I made a wish for a new order of development that isn’t based on how many roads we have tarred through our forests or how many coal plants we set up on fertile agricultural land.
How about we introduce a new normal, a new concept of development that builds in a green economy not as an adjunct but as central to our policies.
- Environmental crises don’t wait for a pandemic.
- And they have continued even as rescue and relief agencies have had to perform their duties in the midst of lockdown rules, containment zones and social distancing norms.
- How about kickstarting our economy, in a way that doesn’t rely on the big push given to the coal sector but instead focuses on restocking forests, wetlands, mangroves.
- How about re-evaluating the 3097 MW Etalin hydropower project coming up in Arunachal Pradesh’s ecologically sensitive Dibang basin.
- A green economy is not a hippy dream (not that I have anything against hippies incidentally) conceptualised on an avocado farm. It is real and it is possible.
Rebooting Our Cities, Re-Evaluating Environmentally Disastrous Plans Like ‘3097 MW Etalin’
But wait, this isn’t meant to be a flight of fancy. Lets get into specifics. Here are my six recommendations for a new paradigm of what should be the ‘new normal’:
- How about kickstarting our economy, in a way that doesn’t rely on the big push given to the coal sector as announced by the prime minister, but instead focuses on restocking our forests, wetlands and mangroves, announcing a green livelihoods programme that would empower the migrants taking the long walk home. Or by incentivising companies pursuing a low carbon pathway to development.
- How about rebooting our collective vision for cities and redesigning them for the pedestrians and cyclists? How about revisiting the plan to spend Rs 20,000-crore on the Central Vista project and using those funds for investment in public health infrastructure instead?
- How about re-evaluating the 3097 MW Etalin hydropower project coming up in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang basin, that will lead to a loss of thousands of hectares of old growth tropical forest, a vital habitat for rare and endangered species? Or the 16 other projects being planned in the Dibang basin (of course, this could be applied to hundreds of other projects coming up on prime forests in the rest of the country that have been approved on a fait accompli basis)?
Why Not Train Group of Lawyers to Replace Those Defending Polluting Big Companies?
- How about reimagining the draft Environment Impact Assessment 2020 Rules currently being considered by the Environment Ministry, so that it empowers communities to speak out against the polluters instead of permitting violators to go on breaking the rules?
- How about training a band of lawyers to replace the heavyweight politician/lawyers who show up in the National Green Tribunal to defend some of the most polluting companies in the world – and use this band of lawyers to stand up for communities impacted by pollution?
- Lastly, what if we could announce a protection plan for the journalists trying to expose polluting companies and corrupt politicians instead of threatening them with layoffs or unpaid op-ed pieces, so that they can do their job – of questioning those in power for pollution, deforestation or the many environmental ills that plague our country?
A Green Economy Is Not a ‘Hippy Dream’ On An Avocado Farm
A green economy is not a hippy dream (not that I have anything against hippies incidentally) conceptualised on an avocado farm. It is real and it is possible. Other countries are showing the way. Parisian Mayor Anne Hidalgo has announced that returning to a city dominated by cars post-pandemic is “out of the question”. The UK government has announced “a £2 billion investment (€2.25 billion) to encourage people to continue to cycle or walk once the lockdown is over”.
Efforts are on to re-imagine cities with permanent bike lanes and bus corridors, and Germany is giving a financial stimulus to its economy keeping a close eye on climate protection.
As the world takes giant strides to unlock, I wish this World Environment Day 2020 to give us policy-makers who are ready to embrace a bold new definition of development.
(Bahar Dutt is an environment journalist, a species as threatened as the one she covers. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)